2015 Midseason Crystal Ball: SI.com's team of college football writers makes its picks for the playoff, the Heisman Trophy and much more.
After an unpredictable first half to the 2015 season, SI’s team of college football writers and editors has set out to bring some order to the chaos. With the race for College Football Playoff berths still yet to take shape, who are the favorites to make the field? Which teams will flop in the coming weeks?
It’s shaping up to be a wild second half, and predictions varied across the board. Read below to check out picks from Andy Staples, Pete Thamel, Brian Hamilton, Lindsay Schnell, Zac Ellis, Joan Niesen, Ben Glicksman, Colin Becht, Gabriel Baumgaertner, Chris Johnson and Ben Estes.
For more analysis of the college football season at its midpoint, check out our Halfway Heisman Watch, Midseason Bowl Projections, Midseason All-America Team, Midseason Power Rankings and Midseason Awards. Also, read Staples's essay on what we know—and don't—through the first seven weeks.
Staples: Utah. The Utes are strong on both lines of scrimmage, and they have a dominant back (Devontae Booker) and versatile quarterback (Travis Wilson). But after this past weekend, I’m more apt to favor the team with the reliable kicker (Andy Phillips) and a punter (Tom Hackett) who can corral a bad snap and make magic.
Thamel: Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the favorites until they lose.
Hamilton: Baylor. This was my gloriously against-the-grain preseason pick before the season, and I'm sticking to it. The Bears feel like a team that will always have just enough offense and just enough defense for anyone in any situation.
Schnell: Baylor. The Bears are doing exactly what they're supposed to do against inferior competition: Leave no doubt about who is better. (Ohio State should really consider adopting this philosophy.) It’s a slow build to November for Baylor, which can still get better defensively and which has the best playmaker (Corey Coleman) on the best offense in college football.
Ellis: Alabama. I’ve seen enough of the Crimson Tide to buy back into Nick Saban’s program. The defense has turned around since losing to Ole Miss—it had three pick-sixes against Texas A&M last week. Plus, the schedule sets up well: Alabama gets LSU at home on Nov. 7, and it’ll be heavily favored over the SEC East’s champ in the conference title game. The combination of tailback Derrick Henry and a ball-hawking defense will win the day come playoff time.
Niesen: TCU. Despite the Horned Frogs' penchant for too-close road wins against inferior opponents this season, I think they'll cruise to an undefeated record in the regular season, land at the Cotton Bowl and, with a home crowd behind them and their brand of unstoppable offense, advance to the title game. Matched up against LSU, I'd envision a shootout, and even if TCU can't stop Leonard Fournette, it has enough offense to at least match his production on the scoreboard.
Glicksman: Alabama. Despite taking an early loss, the Crimson Tide have all the pieces to bring home the title. Stifling defense? Check. A 6’3”, 242-pound beast of a tailback (with the nickname “El Tractorcito”)? Check. Barring unforeseen special teams catastrophe—something that has haunted the Tide under Saban—look for the most consistent program in America to reign supreme at season’s end.
Becht: Alabama. Saban will get his revenge on Urban Meyer for last year's Sugar Bowl defeat by robbing Ohio State of a second straight national championship. Until Hugh Freeze's Rebels did it earlier this year, no team had beaten Alabama twice in row since LSU topped the Crimson Tide in 2010 and ’11. As it showed in its trouncing of Texas A&M, Alabama appears to have fixed the flaws in its secondary that contributed to Ole Miss's upset. Don't overlook how caught off guard the Tide were last year by Cardale Jones's incredible late rise. Better prepared and without any clear vulnerabilities, Alabama will get back on top.
Baumgaertner: Ohio State. I’m not ready to flee the barn just yet. The offense has experienced its hitches and the team has played too many close games given the quality of its schedule. Still, with quarterback J.T. Barrett assuming the reins of the offense for good and with two outstanding weapons in tailback Ezekiel Elliott and receiver Mike Thomas, the Buckeyes should start resembling the juggernaut that rocked college football at the end of the last season.
Johnson: Ohio State. The Buckeyes have underwhelmed so far, and they’ve yet to play the best teams on their schedule. There’s no denying this group is giving off a 2014 Florida State vibe. Still, I picked Ohio State before the season, and I’m not changing my mind because it has looked shaky in a few games. The Buckeyes will get their act together before the playoff. Saturday’s 28-point win over Penn State was encouraging.
Estes: Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven’t looked like the nation’s No. 1 team most weeks, and their quarterback situation remains unsettled. But Meyer will figure out a way to get the most talented roster in the country to play up to its potential and repeat as national champs.
Second-half surprise team
Staples: Texas. If the Longhorns can replicate the attitude that helped them shock Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, they can beat everyone left on their schedule except Baylor. And who knows? By Dec. 5, maybe they can do that, too.
Thamel: Arkansas. The Razorbacks will find themselves down the stretch and play the role of spoiler in the SEC West.
Hamilton: Pittsburgh. The schedule is arduous but rife with opportunity (North Carolina, Notre Dame, Louisville and Miami all at home). Look for Pat Narduzzi's ascendant crew to scare Clemson in the ACC title game.
Schnell: Oregon. The Ducks are dramatically different—as in, better—when quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. is healthy. They’ll make a run in the Pac-12 North, and then everyone can stop this nonsense about Mark Helfrich being on the hot seat and/or needing to fire his defensive coordinator.
Ellis: Duke. Maybe it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the Blue Devils to sustain the country’s No. 1 scoring defense, which allows just 9.3 points per game. But Duke (5–1) doesn’t play Florida State or Clemson this season and gets current Coastal Division leader Pittsburgh at home on Nov. 14. Coach David Cutcliffe could quietly make it back to the ACC title game.
Niesen: Pittsburgh. The Panthers have already pushed their way on to the national radar—they're ranked 25th this week at 5–1—but with a late-season schedule that includes matchups against Notre Dame, Duke, Louisville and Miami, staying there won't be a cakewalk. That said, Pitt has enough to finish with just one or two losses and a division title, an outcome few predicted last summer.
Glicksman: Oregon. The Ducks turned in a first half to forget—they had the most disappointing opening to this year of any team not named Auburn—but discussion about their downfall has been greatly exaggerated. With Adams back under center, look for Oregon to finish 8–4 and, if not silence doom-and-gloom chatter entirely, at least restore some semblance of normalcy to the Pac-12’s flashiest power.
Becht: Wisconsin. The Badgers lost an ugly 10–6 game to Iowa due to four turnovers. That, plus a Week 1 defeat to Alabama, has driven them from the national radar. But don't be surprised to see Wisconsin return to the Big Ten title game, as a 10–2 season is still possible, if not likely. The Badgers' schedule the rest of the way is quite manageable because they miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in their interdivision crossover games. Corey Clement, who was poised to become the next start running back out of Madison before he got injured, could return as early as this week. He should spark a ground game that has averaged an uncharacteristically mediocre 4.2 yards per carry this season.
Baumgaertner: Oklahoma. The Sooners are going to rue the day they lost to Texas. With three consecutive thrilling games to end the season (Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State), Oklahoma could be the unlikeliest team to crack the playoff.
Johnson: Texas. The Longhorns were never in the playoff conversation and won’t compete for the Big 12 title. Yet this team, which sits at 2–4 following a win over Oklahoma earlier this month, should perform far better in the second half of the season. Texas can beat Kansas State, Kansas and Texas Tech at home, and two of its three road games are against unranked foes Iowa State and West Virginia.
Estes: North Carolina. Largely forgotten about after its opening loss to a mediocre South Carolina team, North Carolina continues to improve and will emerge as the best of a weak ACC Coastal Division. The Tar Heels will win the division before falling to Florida State in the conference title game.
Second-half flop team
Staples: TCU. With the exception of a visit from Kansas on Nov. 14, the Frogs’ November schedule is brutal. They’re so banged up on defense, and it will be tough to outscore Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor so close together.
Thamel: Baylor. We know so little about the Bears, and there are so many difficult games remaining. Coach Art Briles's team seems destined for a wake-up call.
Hamilton: TCU. "Flop" is probably too strong a word, but the defensive limitations will catch up to TCU with Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Baylor still to play.
Schnell: Michigan. I think the end against Michigan State was just the beginning, and the Wolverines are about to come back to earth. Everyone hold up before booking tickets to the College Football Playoff.
Ellis: Cal. We got a good look at the Bears’ potential against a strong defense in their loss to Utah, when they committed six turnovers. Cal’s Pac-12 schedule is backloaded, as well, with games remaining against UCLA, USC and Stanford.
Niesen: Ole Miss. Florida and Memphis certainly aren't embarrassing losses—the Gators are legitimate, and if you haven't caught on yet, I think the Tigers are good—but Ole Miss has lost some of the luster it had coming off of its win in Tuscaloosa. With Texas A&M and LSU still looming, the Rebels could easily finish 2015 with four losses.
Glicksman: Notre Dame. Despite enduring a rash of injuries, the Fighting Irish have proved resilient, and tailback C.J. Prosise may be the most underrated runner in the FBS. Still, a second-half slate that once looked easy now seems difficult, with games at Temple (6–0), Pittsburgh (5–1) and Stanford (5–1) looming as potential trouble spots. Expect Notre Dame to suffer a pair of losses and fall out of the playoff mix.
Becht: TCU. The Horned Frogs were my preseason selection for this category, and I haven't been swayed. Led by Boykin, receiver Josh Doctson and tailback Aaron Green, TCU's offense is among the best in the country. But its porous defense has already put it in several shaky positions. The Frogs were fortunate to survive shootouts with Texas Tech and Kansas State, and have yet to confront the tougher challenges on their slate. I expect TCU to fall twice in the second half.
Baumgaertner: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have had a commendable run thus far (and should be getting more attention as one of the nation’s remaining undefeated teams), but they will be fortunate to finish the season with nine wins. That said, they should be 8–0 before they play TCU on Nov. 7.
Johnson: UCLA. The Bruins were considered playoff contenders after jumping out to a 4–0 start with victories over Virginia, UNLV, BYU and Arizona. Yet they’ve dropped their last two games—home to Arizona State and at Stanford—and have yet to face Utah and USC on the road and Cal at home. Making matters worse for UCLA is the loss of several key defensive players (lineman Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Myles Jack, cornerback Fabian Moreau) to injury.
Estes: Cal. The Golden Bears gave Utah its stiffest challenge yet, but they’ll get slightly exposed by a tough Pac-12 schedule, falling to UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State to finish 8–4. It’ll still be an improvement over last season, but nonetheless disappointing after their impressive start.
Heisman Trophy winner
Staples: Deshaun Watson, Clemson. I’m still hanging with my preseason pick because voters have favored quarterbacks so much during this century. But after seeing Leonard Fournette in person last Saturday, I can definitely understand how he could break that trend.
Thamel: Leonard Fournette, LSU. It won’t be close.
Hamilton: Fournette. Too many yards, too many skull-crushing highlight runs to ignore in the end, whether the Tigers are in the playoff or not.
Schnell: Fournette. You’ve seen him play, right?
Ellis: Derrick Henry, Alabama. If anything can derail the Fournette freight train, it’s Alabama’s front seven. The Tide rank third nationally in rushing defense (2.44 yards allowed per carry), which is why Fournette’s campaign will end in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 7. Henry, who went for a career-high 236 rushing yards at Texas A&M last week, will use that game as a springboard and go on to become the first running back to win the Heisman since 2009.
Niesen: Fournette. This is the least exciting pick I've ever made, in the sense that nearly every single other human on the planet would also pick Fournette. He's the best player in college football by a comfortable margin, and barring injury, he already has the Heisman in the bag.
Glicksman: Fournette. He has reached the point where the amazing has become routine, yet he still finds a way to impress every week. Fournette has rushed for over 150 yards in all six of LSU’s games this season, and he hasn’t made it look particularly difficult. The Tigers’ star is a once-in-a-generation talent, and he’ll snap the streak of a quarterback winning the Heisman at five straight years.
Becht: Seth Russell, Baylor. Fournette is a fantastic running back, but given quarterbacks have won 13 of the past 14 Heismans, it's hard to pick against that trend. Expectations are so high for Fournette and defenses will game-plan for him so intensely that I can't see him continuing his incredible early success. Florida and Mississippi State are the only defenses Fournette has faced that rank better than 86th in yards allowed per carry. Once he has to go up against Alabama (No. 3) and Ole Miss (No. 13), his numbers should fall from otherworldly to merely great. Baylor's Russell, however, has settled in quite nicely (1,907 yards passing, 27 touchdowns, five interceptions), and the Bears' offense has yet to score fewer than 56 points in game. His Heisman campaign is set to peak at just the right time.
Baumgaertner: Fournette. He’s the most physically dominant offensive player in college football since Adrian Peterson. He also has an outstanding offensive line. Where most running backs get four yards, Fournette gets seven or more. We could be talking similarly about Dalvin Cook if Fournette weren’t around.
Johnson: Trevone Boykin, TCU. Whether the Horned Frogs can navigate the rest of their conference schedule without losing remains to be seen. But if they pull it off, it will probably be because Boykin continued to shred defenses with his arm and legs. Though several running backs have made strong Heisman cases so far, arguably no player has been as important to his team’s success as Boykin.
Estes: Fournette. I don’t foresee LSU making the playoff, and it is somewhat rare for the Heisman to go to a player on a non-championship contender. Still, voters will have no problem giving the award to Fournette after he continues his utterly dominant season with a strong finish.
Next to fall out of the Heisman race
Staples: Trevone Boykin, TCU. In addition to its banged-up defense, the other reason TCU could have trouble in November is the Frogs will be playing teams that can defend better than the ones they’ve seen so far. That’s bad for Boykin, who, along with Doctson, has been carrying TCU.
Thamel: Dalvin Cook, Florida State. It’s pretty much a one-horse race here, especially at running back.
Hamilton: Cook. The Seminoles are doing what they need to do, but a loss at Clemson on Nov. 7 will nudge Cook to the fringe of the race.
Schnell: Boykin. It kills me to say this, because I love Boykin’s game, but I think TCU is due to lose a game or two (so many injuries!). To win the Heisman, your team has to keep winning.
Ellis: Cook. He has emerged as the most important player on Florida State’s offense. But he hasn’t done it against quality competition. Cook’s big chance to impress comes against Clemson the first weekend in November, but the Tigers, who allow just 2.98 yards per carry, will shut him down.
Niesen: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State. This is no knock on Elliott himself, who has been putting up good numbers this year and should continue to do so. Instead, it's a reflection of Fournette and just how far ahead he is. Comparing his numbers to Elliott's—or any other back's—should be enough to push the latter out of the race.
Glicksman: Corey Coleman, Baylor. The Bears star should enjoy an immensely productive second half, but it’s hard to imagine him maintaining the eye-popping numbers necessary to keep pace in a Heisman race headlined by prolific passers and an unusually deep group of backs. Coleman could haul in 25 touchdown catches, but if the Bears send a player to New York, odds are it’ll be Russell.
Becht: Coleman. It might seem odd that I'd predict Russell to win the Heisman and pick his top receiver as the next player to fall out of the race. But as teams seek to find a way to slow Baylor's offense, their likely first step will be halting Coleman, or at least keeping him out of the end zone, which he has already reached 16 times this season. If defenses do that, Russell has no reason to try to force the ball to Coleman; he has other options in KD Cannon and Jay Lee.
Baumgaertner: Boykin. Fournette has such a sizable lead on the rest of the competition that it will only take one mediocre game from Boykin for the TCU star to fall from the race. It’s a shame, too, because Boykin has been spectacular this year. At this point, the only immediate threats to Fournette are Boykin and Cook. Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey will earn an invite to New York if he continues his stellar play, but it’s hard to see him unseating the LSU star barring an injury.
Johnson: Derrick Henry, Alabama. Henry has been terrific this season, but it’s going to be difficult for him to remain in the race as long as Fournette continues to deliver big performances. Anytime the LSU back is on the field, it’s appointment viewing. Consider that Georgia’s Nick Chubb was largely excluded from the Heisman conversation before he went down with an injury. Henry probably won’t get the attention he deserves.
Estes: Deshaun Watson, Clemson. Watson isn’t the strongest contender as it is, but he’ll still be in the race as Clemson enters its Nov. 7 showdown with Florida State at 8–0. He will then promptly fall out of the race when the Tigers suffer a disappointing home defeat to the Seminoles.
Coach of the year
Staples: Jim Harbaugh. Michigan. But only because he’ll beat Florida’s Jim McElwain and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham in the obligatory tiebreaker cage match.
Thamel: Gary Patterson, TCU. Patterson has overcome relentless turnover on defense and should help push TCU into the playoff.
Hamilton: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. The Hawkeyes will be undefeated until they lose to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, but we'll have to credit Ferentz for pushing this unpredictable run that far.
Schnell: Harbaugh. He has made Michigan good with a roster many assumed was terrible (especially on offense), and he’s interjected confidence in a downtrodden fan base. If Harbaugh sticks around, the Wolverines be really good in a few years.
Ellis: Jim McElwain, Florida. Florida could legitimately end up in the SEC title game, which speaks volumes to McElwain’s work in just one season in Gainesville. I’m less confident in this pick without suspended quarterback Will Grier, but Treon Harris looked serviceable against LSU. Plus, the defense is still strong. Given Florida’s remaining SEC schedule (Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt), it could end the year as a 10-win team. That’s great coaching.
Niesen: Justin Fuente, Memphis. We already knew Memphis's coach was one of the hottest up-and-coming names in the business, and beating Ole Miss at the neutral Liberty Bowl only compounded that notion. In just his fourth year leading the Tigers, Fuente has turned a program that won five games from 2009-11 into a 6–0 contender.
Glicksman: McElwain. Despite inheriting a roster he characterized this spring as “really insufficient,” McElwain has led the Gators back to conference contention. His hiring last December wasn’t met with the same response Harbaugh’s was at Michigan, but McElwain’s impact has been similar. Florida’s resurgence feels like the start of something, not an anomalous flash in the pan.
Becht: McElwain. This category is loaded this year, but McElwain deserves special praise for making chicken salad out of ... well, you know. Florida's offense will eventually be filled again with high-caliber recruits who have been developed in the system into talented players. But for now, McElwain is working with the pieces Will Muschamp left him and turning them into a capable offense. No one confuses the Gators for Baylor, but the offense has done its part to put Florida in a position to win the SEC East.
Baumgaertner: Fuente. Memphis was one of the nation’s worst jobs before the arrivals of Fuente and athletic director Tom Bowen. Now, the Tigers have beaten an SEC team and may well crash a New Year’s Six bowl. To call Fuente’s job remarkable would be an understatement. He should win in a landslide unless the Tigers lose more than once. Temple’s Matt Rhule is a similarly viable candidate.
Johnson: Dabo Swinney, Clemson. The Tigers returned only four starters from the nation’s top defense (4.03 yards per play), and they lost their top returning receiver (Mike Williams) to injury in the season opener. Yet Swinney has the Tigers (6–0) in prime position to earn a spot in the playoff. He gets extra credit for officially excising the term “Clemsoning” from the college football lexicon and then avoiding what would have been a major case of “Clemsoning” the subsequent week against Boston College.
Estes: David Shaw, Stanford. It looked like the Cardinal were on their way to another disappointing season after their opening loss to Northwestern, but Shaw has turned things around in a big way. He’ll get the slight nod over Whittingham after Stanford beats Utah in the Pac-12 title game.
Biggest playoff-related controversy
Staples: My projection here has the ACC getting left out, and commissioner John Swofford is a ninja. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be in those luxury hotel meeting rooms next year.
Thamel: Too early to say, but this one promises to be much uglier than last year. Too many teams with similar résumés are shaping up to force the committee into a hard decision. We’ll see how much it really values conference champions.
Hamilton: The American Athletic Conference gets shut out. Someone from that league will finish the season undefeated, whether it's Memphis or Houston or Temple. And that won't be enough to jump a one-loss Power Five team.
Schnell: In my playoff picks, you'll probably notice the absence of an SEC team.
Ellis: Stanford, a one-loss Pac-12 champion, misses the playoff due to its early-season loss to Northwestern, which will not finish the year in the Top 25. The selection committee instead tabs an unbeaten Michigan State for the No. 4 spot after the Spartans win the Big Ten. Pac-12 fans won’t be happy that the team with the tougher conference schedule missed the playoff.
Niesen: The SEC will get a one-loss team into the playoff, while a "lesser" conference—my guess here is the ACC, with Clemson—will see an unbeaten team miss the bracket entirely.
Glicksman: If any of the currently undefeated Group of Five programs (Houston, Temple, Toledo, Memphis) goes on to finish without a loss, the committee will be asked to make it clear: What would it take for a mid-major team to crack the field? Would a 12–0 Memphis be regarded as more deserving than a one-loss traditional power? And if not, what message would that send to the Group of Five? We seem to be nearing a point similar to when Boise State made a case for BCS inclusion.
Becht: Michigan State will go 11–1 with its only loss coming to undefeated, defending national champion Ohio State. The selection committee will have to evaluate how the Spartans compare to 12–1 teams that won conference title games but suffered worse defeats than Michigan State. Could the Spartans really be denied a top-four ranking if their only loss is on the road to the No. 1 team?
Baumgaertner: If the winner of Clemson-Florida State loses even one game, the ACC will be omitted from the playoff in favor of a two-loss team.
Johnson: It seems likely that at least one of the teams selected for the playoff this season will have lost two games. Whether that team comes from the Pac-12, SEC or another league, expect fans to argue that a one-loss team was more qualified to get in because of record. That’s silly, but whatever. Don’t be surprised if that argument leads to another debate over playoff expansion.
Estes: Alabama will slightly edge out Utah for a playoff spot as the committee gives preference to a conference champ over a team that arguably has a better overall résumé. One-loss TCU and Florida State being left out will also hasten calls for an eight-team field.
Staples: I picked Utah to win the national title. What more do you people want?
Thamel: There will be 30 FBS jobs open by the end of the season, including an unexpected one with a prominent coach jumping to the NFL.
Hamilton: Ohio State will beat Michigan State to keep its national title repeat hopes alive ... until the Buckeyes see them dashed the following week against Harbaugh and Michigan.
Schnell: Iowa wins the Rose Bowl. As the Hawkeyes dance around in yellow and black confetti Ferentz takes the stage to thank the loyal fans. Then he defies haters by accepting a contract extension through 2031 on the spot, and boldly demands $4 million a year.
Ellis: After Alabama reaches the playoff for the second year in a row, Maryland hires Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin as its next head coach.
Niesen: Ohio State will lose its final two games, against Michigan State and Michigan. With so many close calls and uncertainties already, Meyer and company won't be able to stack up to their rivals to the north.
Glicksman: With last week’s heartbreak in the rearview mirror, Michigan won’t lose again for the rest of this season, and will beat Ohio State on Nov. 28.
Becht: The upper half of the American Athletic Conference will finish the season with a better overall perception than the upper half of the ACC. While Florida State and Clemson give the ACC some might, no other team in the conference boasts a marquee victory. The winner of Memphis and Houston's Nov. 14 meeting will likely finish the season undefeated, while the loser will go 11–1.
Baumgaertner: Utah will lose at least twice before the end of the season. One of those games will be to USC.
Johnson: The SEC will get shut out of the playoff. This was my bold prediction before the season, and nothing that has taken place since has convinced me to back off. There are a few teams from the SEC that could earn playoff bids, but I’m not confident enough in any of them to know how they’ll perform over the next few weeks. Prepare for more chaos in the nation’s toughest conference.
Estes: TCU will flop in its much-anticipated rematch with Baylor. Baylor-TCU, a candidate for game of the year, ends up being a Bears' rout. All the defensive injuries and absences finally catch up to the Horned Frogs and they fall 70-35, simultaneously ending Boykin’s Heisman candidacy and TCU’s playoff chances.