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Five sleeper picks to make inaugural College Football Playoff

Five sleeper picks to make the inaugural College Football Playoff this season.

It’d be easy to frame this column as an attempt to answer the question, “Who will be this year’s Auburn?” But to do so would be a disservice to just how incredible Auburn’s 2013 season was in light of how putrid the Tigers were in 2012.

To label any team as “this year’s Auburn” – a power conference team coming off of a shockingly dismal campaign in the prior season – I’d be forced to select from the following entries: Arkansas, Cal, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina State, Purdue and Virginia. Sorry Bret Bielema, but I just don’t think the Razorbacks are playoff-bound this year.

So let’s begin with a caveat: There almost surely will be no “Auburn of 2014.” However, simply because Auburn’s cellar-to-super turnaround was too rare an accomplishment to be repeated doesn’t mean we should chalk up the 2014 season to the, well, chalk and call it a year. Here are five unranked teams in the preseason Coaches’ Poll that could make a surprising push for the College Football Playoff.

Iowa – 8-5 (5-3) in 2013

Losses in three of its first five conference games kept Iowa from having any shot in the Big Ten title race last year, but the Hawkeyes quietly put together a significant leap from a 4-8 campaign in 2012 and held their own with LSU in the 2014 Outback Bowl.

In wide-open Big Ten West, Iowa Hawkeyes have reasons for optimism

Iowa has 14 starters returning, including quarterback Jake Rudock (2,383 yards, 18 touchdowns, 13 interceptions), power running back Mark Weisman (975 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, eight touchdowns) and wide receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith (64 combined receptions, 698 yards, six touchdowns). Those offensive returnees could be crucial as the Hawkeyes lose all three linebackers from last year’s talented corps, but standout defensive tackle Carl Davis and cornerback Desmond King will help to fill a leadership void while the new linebackers gain experience.

The biggest reason to be bullish on Iowa is a shockingly easy schedule. The Hawkeyes miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in their divisional crossover games and get Big Ten West rivals Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. Iowa has all the makings of a classic Big Ten team with a cakewalk schedule that endlessly frustrates a one-loss SEC team’s fan base as the Hawkeyes pile on wins on their way to the playoff.

Mississippi State – 7-6 (3-5) in 2013

In a year in which the SEC is marked by new faces at quarterback nearly across the conference, Dak Prescott is one of the few returning signal callers who could spark an unexpected run to an SEC title. Prescott gives Mississippi State a dynamic dual threat as he returns to Starkville after a 1,940-yard-passing, 829-yard-rushing junior campaign. He could easily improve on both those numbers in 2014 and has drawn hype as a dark horse Heisman candidate. Prescott should have no shortage of capable targets, including speedster Jameon Lewis, the Bulldogs’ top receiver last year (64 receptions, 923 yards, five touchdowns).

Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins has eight starters returning from a group that finished fifth in the conference and third in the SEC West in scoring defense. Defensive tackle Chris Jones showed tremendous promise as a freshman last fall, and junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney brings consistency after making 173 tackles in his first two seasons.

Though the SEC West is typically a hostile division to Cinderella bids, rebuilding years at LSU and Texas A&M create room for the Bulldogs to improve on their consistent lower-to-middle finishes under Dan Mullen. Even Alabama faces a relative unknown at quarterback and potential vulnerabilities in the secondary. If there were a year in which a perennial SEC West also-ran could shake up the division, this might be it. Mississippi State will just have to hope it’s not Ole Miss who causes the stir.


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Marshall – 10-4 (7-1) in 2013

With four playoff spots and five major conferences, much of the playoff debate will likely center on which Power Five conference champion gets snubbed. However, Marshall could throw an interesting wrench into that discussion if the Thundering Herd can pull off an undefeated season.

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For the first time in Doc Holliday’s tenure in Huntington, the offense and defense began to click at the same time in 2013. Rakeem Cato, arguably the best player from outside the Power Five conferences, returns under center for Marshall, ready to build on the 76 touchdown passes he’s tossed in the past two seasons. Cato’s favorite target, wide receiver Tommy Shuler, is back, too, as is explosive running back Steward Butler, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry on 87 touches last year. The defense, which improved from 82nd to 21st in yards allowed per play and recorded 102 tackles for loss last season, has nine starters back, including the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year James Rouse.

Marshall could present an interesting test case for the playoff committee as the Herd have a strong chance to go undefeated but would do so without playing a major-conference opponent or even a slate of challenging Group of Five foes. Marshall’s toughest games appear to be a home date with Rice and a road contest at Southern Miss. Will dominant performances against mediocre teams be enough to get Marshall into the playoff over a one-loss Power Five team?

Florida – 4-8 (3-5) in 2013

No, Florida isn’t 2013 Auburn – the Gators won three more SEC games last year than the Tigers did in 2012 – but Will Muschamp’s squad does bear some similarities. Florida, like Auburn last year, brings plenty of talent to the season with no recruiting class ranked worse than 12th by in the past five years. And while it’s true comparisons between Muschamp and Gus Malzahn are likely to be unfavorable to the Florida coach, Muschamp is turning the offense over to Kurt Roper, whose Duke offense averaged 32.8 points per game last year and who will better play to quarterback Jeff Driskel’s strengths with an up-tempo spread scheme.

After injury-shortened year, Gators' Jeff Driskel ready for spotlight

Despite an offense that limited him by forcing him to stay in the pocket, Driskel posted what would have been the second-highest completion percentage in the SEC before he broke his leg against Tennessee. Muschamp knows defense and should have a stout one again with all-SEC first-team selection Vernon Hargreaves III and Jabari Gorman anchoring the secondary, and stud pass rusher Dante Fowler along with leading tacklers Antonio Morrison and Michael Taylor controlling the front seven.

A top-to-bottom talented, yet underperforming SEC team shifting from a pro-style to a spread offense? Sounds a lot like Auburn last year, only Florida wouldn’t have to make nearly as steep a climb.

Duke – 10-4 (6-2)

It’s rare that a reigning major-conference division champion can be considered a dark horse, yet such is the best-fitting narrative for defending ACC Coastal champion Duke.  When a school like Duke makes an incredible run like last year's, it’s easy to dismiss that rise as a fluke, or at best a one-off occurrence attributable to one good recruiting class that then graduated. Neither explanation fits Duke, though. David Cutcliffe has a proven reputation as an elite football mind, and the Blue Devils return nearly all of the offensive firepower, including their leading passer (Anthony Boone), rusher (Josh Snead) and receiver (Jamison Crowder).

Duke’s biggest loss of the offseason was the departure of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to Florida, and while Roper’s impact can’t be dismissed, Cutcliffe’s track record suggests he’ll manage to keep the offense humming. The decision to replace Roper with Scottie Montgomery, the Blue Devils’ wide receivers coach last year, should also add to the continuity of the offense’s 2013 successes (third in the ACC in yards and fourth in touchdowns).

Duke’s greatest vulnerability last year was its limited ability to hang with the ACC’s more athletic squads when on defense (see last year’s conference championship game for a prime example). One good year will not completely reshape the Blue Devils’ athleticism, but luckily for Duke, that weakness may not be significantly detrimental until a possible return to the ACC title game. Duke avoids both Florida State and Clemson during the regular season, a perk Coastal rivals Miami and North Carolina can’t claim. The advantageous schedule could help the Blue Devils defend their division title, and though they’d be major underdogs in the ACC championship again, one big upset to potentially make the playoff is not such a ridiculous path.

ELLIS: Seven thoughts on preseason Coaches' Poll