Every season, the preseason narratives surrounding every seemingly unbeatable team are gradually stripped away, but this process rarely happens as quickly as it has in 2014. Through four weeks, no team has looked invincible, and while all of the preseason favorites still seem to be in a good position, they all have evident flaws.
Florida State, the pick by many to repeat as national champion, has been exposed in some ways already. In last week’s game against Clemson, with Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston serving a one-game suspension, Florida State struggled to pull out a victory at home. The Seminole defense stood tall to close out the game, but overall seems far weaker than the formidable unit of last year. The FSU running game struggled, and their offensive line was at times dominated by Clemson’s front seven, who themselves were exposed by Todd Gurley and Georgia at the start of the season. Yet, the Noles play in the weak ACC, so their road to the playoff is entirely manageable.
Whereas FSU relishes in their soft conference schedule, Alabama, Auburn, and Texas A&M, each legitimate playoff contenders, are forced to play in the brutal SEC West, which could be the best division of all time. There are an unprecedented six SEC West teams in the current AP top 20, and the lone outsider, Arkansas, has impressed as well. Perennial favorite Alabama seems to have finally invested their confidence in quarterback Blake Sims to go with a dynamic running back in T.J. Yeldon, the best receiver in the nation in Amari Cooper, and their usual formidable defense. Alabama’s Achilles’ heel could be their sloppiness with the ball, as they rank 103rd in turnover differential through four games, a surprise considering head coach Nick Saban’s hyper-disciplined system.
Texas A&M and defending national runner-up Auburn trot out similar line-ups, both with electrifying quarterbacks, Kenny Hill and Nick Marshall, respectively, solid running games, and defenses with a lot to prove that have looked impressive so far. Of the two, I’d give the edge to Auburn because of their experience in big games last year, particularly having a veteran quarterback. Overall, though, I think Alabama remains the favorite to win the SEC as the Tide are the most complete team and have the luxury of playing Auburn and A&M at home.
Next in the set of teams which have emerged as the most likely playoff contenders is Oregon. The story of the Ducks, thus far, begins and ends with one player: quarterback Marcus Mariota. It appears that Mariota will have to shoulder virtually the entire burden of the Ducks’ season, and for his efforts he has emerged as the early favorite to win the Heisman. Take last week’s game against Washington State; Mariota played a near-perfect game, and yet, Oregon barely eked out a win with a late touchdown drive. The Ducks’ biggest issues are a porous offensive line and an inconsistent pass defense, which made the Cougars’ offense, who struggled to score against Nevada, look unstoppable at times. Oregon has a fairly daunting schedule, with matchups against UCLA and Stanford, as well as another top opponent in the conference championship, all of whom should present a challenge for the Ducks, but should still be favored to win the Pac-12.
The final team in the current top tier of college football is the Oklahoma Sooners. While they have had the easiest schedule of the top teams thus far, the Sooners look to be the most complete team in the nation, who, while not completely blowing away their opponents, have the fewest apparent weaknesses. The biggest challenge for Oklahoma is not talent, but intangibles. Under head coach Bob Stoops, Oklahoma has had a tendency to struggle in important games, earning Stoops the facetious nickname “Big Game Bob.” Several games loom large for the Sooners, including their showdown with in-state rival Oklahoma State and Bill Snyder’s always-dangerous Kansas State team. Their biggest challenge, however, comes on November 8, against the Baylor Bears, led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, Bryce Petty, a vastly improved defense, and one of the best coaches in the nation in Art Briles.
While not likely to make the playoff, the two teams that have been the most compelling thus far are two non-power conference teams, East Carolina and BYU. East Carolina has beat two ACC teams in back to back weeks, including a 70-41 rout of in-state rival UNC. ECU fields one of the most potent offenses in the nation, having put up nearly 800 yards in last week’s shootout against UNC. BYU boasts a similarly exciting brand of football, led by quarterback Taysom Hill. Hill and BYU rose to the fore after routing Texas 41-7 and I expect Hill to take the college football world by storm this season. Both BYU and ECU will likely dominate their remaining schedules and could reak havoc on a major conference team in a significant bowl game. And when Hill finishes 4th in the Heisman vote this December, remember, you heard it here first.
The beauty of college football lies in the fact that, while the scenarios I’ve outlined are what should happen, they are almost certainly not going to happen, as favorites will be upset and underdogs will rise to prominence. So, let the insanity ensue.
Photo: Thomas Boyd