August 15, 2014

Giglio’s guide to college football: The favorites, surprises

N&O college football writer Joe Giglio expects Florida State to have many challengers this season and thinks too many people are sleeping on East Carolina.

Only in college football is No. 1 a bad place to start, at least it has been for the better part of the past 25 years.

The Associated Press’ preseason No. 1 has won the national title just three times since 1989 and not since 2004.

Even Alabama, as powerful as it has been under coach Nick Saban winning three national titles in four years from 2009 to ’12, was unable to avoid an AP curse.

But rest easy, Florida State, fans. The Seminoles, who will open the season ranked No. 1 by the media, won their first national titles – in 1993 and ’99 – after starting from the pole position.

The advent of the College Football Playoff means for the first time since 1936, neither the AP nor the coaches’ vote will determine a national champion.

The CFP committee, which will release a weekly top 25 starting Oct. 28, will determine which four teams will play for the first playoff title.

The new era of college football ends for the first time with a true national championship game on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.

Twenty teams to watch during the 2014 season:

The Five Favorites

1. Florida State: It will not be as easy as it was last year for the Seminoles, who won all but the Bowl Championship Series title game (34-31 over Auburn) by double-digits.

There were significant losses on defense, notably defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Quarterback Jameis Winston would not have won the Heisman Trophy without receiver Kelvin Benjamin (the Carolina Panthers’ first-round pick), but coach Jimbo Fisher’s fifth team has the best offensive line in the country (see the real key to Alabama’s success under Saban) and a whole new rack of recruiting riches on defense.

2. Oklahoma: Normally, too much stock is put into how a team does in its bowl game, but the Sooners so thoroughly outplayed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, a 45-31 win, (more so than Auburn did in the “War Damn Miracle” game), that it’s impossible to ignore the Sooners. Oklahma gets itstoughest challenges (Baylor, Oklahoma State) at home and doesn’t have to play in a conference championship game.

3. Ohio State: Conversely, we worry too much about how a team finishes, too, and it was a miserable finish for the Buckeyes, losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and then dropping the Orange Bowl to Clemson.

But Urban Meyer has run circles around the Big Ten, save for Sparty, in short order and has the clearest path ( easiest schedule) to a spot in the CFP of any major conference team.

4. Alabama: There are so many questions, starting at quarterback with FSU graduate Jacob Coker, and continuing with a rebuilt offensive line, but Saban has recruited like no other coach and the skill-position talent (RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper) is off the charts.

5. Michigan State: The Spartans were basically Florida State without Winston or Benjamin last season. Mark Dantonio’s crew is defense first and last and is truly the type of a tough team no one wants to face in a playoff on a neutral field.

The Next Five

1. Oregon: The Ducks will be fine on offense, quarterback Marcus Mariota (40 total TDs in 2013) will see to that, but can they avoid their annual Pac-12 letdown?

2. Baylor: Another team docked for a poor bowl showing (a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl), but Art Briles can coach with anyone and quarterback Bryce Petty (32 TDs, 3 INTs) can go step-for-step with Mariota or Winston. Already forgotten, the Bears hammered Oklahoma 41-12 last year and won the Big 12.

3. UCLA: The sexy pick, because of QB Brett Hundley, and the vacuum created by USC’s downturn in Los Angeles, but there should be some caution with the Bruins, who are being given a little too much love for waxing an ordinary Virginia Tech team in the Sun Bowl.

4. Georgia: Granted, there is a “Groundhog’s Day” feel to believing in the Dawgs’ annual preseason hype, but everything that could go wrong for Mark Richt last year did. That should change with a healthy Todd Gurley. Plus, they avoid both Alabama and Louisiana State from the SEC West.

5. Ole Miss: The schedule is probably too much to overcome, but if Auburn can go from 3-9 in 2012 to SEC champs in 2013, why not the frisky Rebels, who finished 8-5 a year ago.

The Overlooked Five

1. East Carolina: The Pirates, 10-3 a year ago, have been ignored nationally, oddly in favor of a team (North Carolina ) it beat by 24 points on the road. Quarterback Shane Carden will have plenty of motivation and the opportunity (at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech, at home to UNC in consecutive weeks) to make a push for a spot in one of the major bowl games.

2. Marshall: The Thundering Herd, also 10-3 last year, pasted ECU 59-28 and have one one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country in senior Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for 76 TDs the past two seasons.

It’s important to note, unlike the BCS there’s no qualifying ranking to get into a major bowl in the CFP. The highest-rated team from the other conferences (American, Sun Belt, MAC, Mountain West, WAC, C-USA) is guaranteed a spot in the Peach, Cotton, Fiesta or Orange bowls.

3. Louisville: The Cardinals lost their coach (Charlie Strong went to Texas) and their quarterback (first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater), but they have an excellent offensive line and they’re being virtually ignored after winning 23 games the past two seasons.

4. Stanford: Great offensive line and a great defense is a combo that wins a lot of games, even with a difficult Pac-12 schedule that includes road dates with Oregon, UCLA plus another trip to Notre Dame.

5. Missouri: Remember the SEC East champs? The USA Today voters didn’t and that’s probably a good thing for Gary Pinkel, who won 12 games last year and still resides comfortably in the SEC East and avoids regular-season meetings with Alabama, Auburn and LSU.

The Five New Guys

1. Texas: Charlie Strong was not the first choice (Saban) nor was he the most obvious (Briles) to replace Mack Brown, but the Longhorns got themselves a no-nonsense coach who can recruit and won big at Louisville.

2. Washington: The Huskies finally answered the question: What would it take to get Chris Petersen out of Boise State? Don’t be surprised if Petersen leads the Huskies to their first 10-win season since 2000.

3. USC: The Trojans go back to the Pete Carroll coaching tree to pluck Steve Sarkasian. This time, they hope with more success.

4. Penn State: James Franklin won at Vanderbilt, which had nearly been impossible. The NCAA mess at Penn State is still very real, with two more years of a bowl ban still on deck, but the Nittany Lions have a brighter future with Franklin.

5. Rutgers: He’s not the head coach, but Ralph Friedgen takes over the Scarlet Knights’ offense in their first year in the Big Ten. There are few coaches anywhere who know and teach the game as well as the former Maryland head coach.

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