2015 College Football Preview
By David F. Cline
When I put together last year’s Top 18, I included an eagle and a hazard for each team – one game in each category that could vault them high in the rankings or cause that ranking to sink like a concrete block. This year, I’m giving each team a mulligan, with a twist. I’m listing one game for each team that, if possible, they would possibly re-schedule, with a reason for each one. In some cases, such as conference games, that is not possible – but each mulligan adds a delicious bit of intrigue to the season.
You may notice throughout that I am not too high on the SEC this year. Part of that is because I’m tired of their dominance (the last two national championships out of the conference notwithstanding), but part of it is I see the balance of power shifting to the north. TCU and Baylor are the latest darlings of the sport, while Michigan will look to reclaim their place among the elite within a few years. The SEC always will be strong, but it’s that strength that works against them – any team that survives could be so beaten up that the post-season will be a hill too high to climb.
Finally, even though they aren’t my exact pre-season top four, here are my predicted playoff teams:
1. Ohio State
No, the Pac 12 has not yet overtaken the SEC as best conference in the country – for my money, the Big 12 and Big 10 are both right there – but the separation between all five (including the ACC) is getting much smaller.
Time to tee it up! On the gridiron, I mean ….
1 – Ohio State – Just like last year, I’m picking the defending champion first – and why not? Ohio State is loaded at every position, they return three very capable quarterbacks, they have a Big 10-proud defense, they have re-loaded with young talent all across the board, and they have Urban Meyer. They guy is 36-3 with the Buckeyes – 36-3! They have my vote.
• Mulligan: November 28 – at Michigan. Ohio State goes to the Big House, in the final game of Jim Harbaugh’s first season in Ann Arbor. If OSU is undefeated, a loss could keep them out of the College Football Playoff.
2 – Oregon – Perhaps the loss of Marcus Mariota will affect the Ducks, but to dismiss them as a national power and a potential playoff team is unwise. While Mark Helfrich may not have all the savvy of his predecessor, there is a ton of offensive firepower in Eugene, as well as an underrated defense. I see the Ducks going far.
• Mulligan: September 12 – at Michigan State. College football fans love early-season, inter-conference heavyweight matchups, but to go on the road with a new quarterback just one game into the season … ouch.
3 – Alabama – Do you ever get the feeling Alabama is ranked high just because they’re Alabama? I’m not saying they aren’t good, but I think their window of dominance has closed. In the ultra-competitive SEC the Crimson Tide should again rise to the top, and nearly half of the preseason all-conference team wears crimson and white, so perhaps my reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated.
• Mulligan: October 17 – at Texas A & M. On the road two years ago, the Aggies rode the arm and legs of Johnny Manziel to a near-upset of Alabama. Despite – or maybe because of – a new cast this year, and a game deeper into the season, A & M will be looking for payback.
4 – Baylor – I don’t doubt for a moment the Bears’ ability to score in bunches; however, I do wonder whether they are ready for an extended run among college football’s elite. They lost a big lead and tanked their bowl game last season; how will they respond? Coach Art Briles is a snarly sort of fella, and while his team often personifies that attitude, they do need to replace some key pieces this year.
• Mulligan: November 27 – at TCU. It may never be as big or nasty as Texas-Oklahoma, but these two teams are building quite the rivalry. So much on the line for this one – conference supremacy, playoff spot … but it’s on the road in front of a hostile crowd.
5 – TCU – Just two years ago, TCU was treading water in their new Big 12 home; now they are being touted as a favorite for one of four playoff spots. What happened? Quarterback Trevone Boykin, that’s what. The multi-talented quarterback is a legitimate Heisman candidate, and his experience could help lead TCU to college football’s promised land.
• Mulligan: September 3 – at Minnesota. I love, LOVE when a Power 5 team opens against another Power 5 team. I don’t love it so much for TCU, though – on the road, against a cagey opponent … this could be trouble.
6 – Michigan State – A little drama in East Lansing – how will quarterback Connor Cook respond to his not being voted as a captain by his teammates? Rather than sulk about it, I expect him to get mad, throw the living heck out of the ball, and prove he has the leadership capabilities apparently not visible to his Spartan compadres. Add to that a typical MSU defense, and you’re looking at a potential top 5 squad.
• Mulligan: September 12 – vs. Oregon. Another tasty, early-season, power-vs.-power game, and even though this is a home game for the Spartans, it’s just never fun to battle the Ducks. Can Mar D’Antonio come up with a plan to defend the potent Duck O? Hmmm …
7 – Auburn – This could be the year that the SEC falls hard from its lofty perch atop the college football world. Plenty of good teams – Auburn right up there – but the Tigers will be beat up each week, and it will be a serious test for them to slog through the year unscathed. If Will Muschamp can harness a solid defense to go with a high-flying offense, Auburn may have the last laugh.
• Mulligan: November 21 – vs. Idaho. I know, I know – home game, lower-level opponent, week before Thanksgiving … but those are the reasons I would feel queasy about this game. After seven conference games, Auburn may be looking past the Vandals and ahead to Alabama.
8 – UCLA – Despite their butt-ugly alternative uniforms, the Bruins are a sharp, ready-for-prime-time squad. 18 returning starters will help keep the pressure off true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, and keep the pressure on the rest of the Pac 12. Oh, and as an added bonus, UCLA doesn’t play Oregon this season, so their path to the top is a bit less dicey.
• Mulligan: September 12 – at Nevada-Las Vegas. As with many other Mulligans, this looks like a yawner. However, UNLV has a new coach, a new attitude, a new spirit … and remember, UCLA has a freshman quarterback. Will the bright lights get to him?
9 – Arizona – A ranking this high may be a bit of a reach, but Arizona has some serious momentum going on. Don’t focus on the Rich Rodriguez spread offense; instead, peek at the defense – especially linebacker Scooby Wright. He’ll get his mates behind him and will them to win, if necessary – and he’ll bring the rest of his team along for the ride.
• Mulligan: Saturday, October 31 – at Washington. This is one of those ‘can’t-be-avoided’ games because it’s in-conference, but it does have the potential to derail the Wildcats. With a few breaks, they could head to Seattle undefeated – but what their record be coming home?
10 – Georgia – Again I will say that I’m not sold on the SEC this year, thanks in part to Georgia. Every year they are picked high or as a co-favorite, yet they fall short – if winning nine or more games can be considered falling short. This ranking isn’t a reflection on them; rather, it’s just the nature of the conference. The good-but-not-great Bulldogs will fall just short of conference glory.
• Mulligan: November 28 – at Georgia Tech. Oh, how Peach State natives love this game … and oh, how Tech fans love sticking it to the guys from Athens. I see that happening this year – if the Bulldogs make it to Atlanta in decent shape, the Rambling Wreck will not be very welcoming.
11 – Wisconsin – Now that the Gary Andersen experiment is over, native son Paul Chryst returns to Madison to restore Wisconsin to the upper echelon of the Big 10. Chryst devised the famed and still-potent power running game, and despite losing Melvin Gordon, strong running backs seem to thrive in the land of cheese.
• Mulligan: November 7 – at Maryland. It would be easy to pick the season opener against Alabama, but going on the road to play an inspired Terrapin team will be tough. The Badgers will need a quick start to solidify what should be a strong conference campaign.
12 – LSU – A mad scientist, a football guru, a southern preacher, and a mystic walked into Louisiana and … actually, that’s just one person – Les Miles. Somehow, some way, despite what swirls around him, the Mad Hatter wills his Tigers to the top of the SEC each year. They will be tough again this year, and have a stout defense, but do they have the depth on offense to go far?
• Mulligan: October 24 – vs. Western Kentucky. A classic trap game, thanks to the goofy SEC schedules. The Hilltoppers are no pushover, and will give LSU all they can handle – and then some.
13 – USC – When he’s not making news in the tabloids, Steve Sarkisian is a pretty decent coach – and he’ll need to be this year to steer the Trojans through the thicket of a rough Pac 12. He’s got the quarterback he wants in Cody Kessler, and a solid defense reminiscent of the Pete Carroll era. If his young receivers come through, Sark and the men of Troy might just find glory.
• Mulligan: October 17 – at Notre Dame. One of the classic college football rivalries, this makes fans of both teams nervous. Both will have a lot to play for, and a lot on the line, and home field – in this case, in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus – could be the difference.
14 – Notre Dame – No one is mistaking this year’s Irish squad for the national championship teams of yore – but that may be for the best. Coach Brian Kelly likes flying under the radar, and catching opponents off guard. A new quarterback must be identified, and the defense lost some key performers – in other words, Kelly has the Irish right where he wants them.
• Mulligan: October 3 – at Clemson. The price of being almost an ACC member means having to play genuine ACC teams. And what an assignment – at Death Valley to face a rabid Clemson team and orange-clad faithful. Hold on tight, Irish fans – this won’t be easy.
15 – Mississippi – Was it just last year that Ole Miss was the darling of college football? Yes, it was – and while visions of playoffs danced in their heads, the Rebels fell to earth with a thud. I see a bit of a rebound, but coach Hugh Freeze will be hard-pressed to re-discover the magic of 2014 – and (see previous SEC team previews above) a wicked tough conference won’t make it any easier.
• Mulligan: October 17 – at Memphis. Don’t look past the Tigers, Ole Miss – this is a sneaky good team who could probably hold their own in some Power 5 conferences. Coming in the middle of a typically rough SEC stretch, Freeze had best not freeze in his tracks.
16 – Boise State – Gone are the days of the Smurf Turf being all that was known about Boise State – now, the Broncos are a legitimate, year-in and year-out contender. Their conference home does them no favors; instead, they will just show up and do what they do best: Run you up and down the field, wear you out, and walk away, more often than not, with a victory.
• Mulligan: September 4 – vs. Washington. This could almost be an anti-Mulligan – former coach Chris Petersen returns as the enemy. Pretty juicy, right? Well, possibly – but Boise State needs to stay focused and not let the game turn on emotion.
17 – Oklahoma – Boomer Sooner! (What would a college football preview be without those words?) It’s been a rough stretch for Oklahoma, and while new sheriffs in town have taken the spotlight, Bob Stoops will remind anyone that he knows how to win in the Big 12. A new quarterback? No worries. Under-appreciated defense? Not here. Malaise after more than a decade in charge? Strap up and find out.
• Mulligan: November 14 – at Baylor. In the Big 12, everyone plays everyone, so this game can’t be skipped, but if it could … the Sooners will be coming off a relatively simple three-game stretch and head right into the lions (or Bears, in this case) mouth.
18 – Michigan – Okay, okay – Pandering to the home crowd, right? Well, kind of. Now, I don’t expect Jim Harbaugh to bring Michigan all the way back in year one … but I would dearly love it if he did. And he really has no pressure – he’s THE GUY, and has the respect, admiration, and trust from his campus, his town, his team. All the pieces are there. I really do see good things happening for the Wolverines.
• Mulligan: September 3 – at Utah. Road openers are never easy. Night road openers, even worse. Night road openers for a new coach against a really good team … big ouch. This is a real test – Harbaugh will see just how much he has changed the culture in Ann Arbor.