Aside from the semifinals being played on New Year’s Eve, the College Football Playoff has worked.
Year 1 featured Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon, and then Year 2 put together ‘Bama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma. It’s been a pleasant mix of schools from Power 5 conferences.
Based on what we’ve seen from the preseason polls, most of the early contenders for the CFP in 2016 have been once before. The Tide, Seminoles, Buckeyes, Tigers and Sooners are comfortably in the Top 10, while Michigan State is just a few spots below. Only Oregon seems to have slipped a bit.
Through two iterations of the Final Four model, no league has managed to crash the college football party with multiple teams. The top candidate to do so this season is probably the ACC, not the SEC.
Here are the four I’m projecting to make it to the College Football Playoff and compete for a ring.
The Tide were the only team to make it to the CFP in Years 1 and 2, and three in a row is possible.
Unless all hell breaks loose this season and the two division winners both lose multiple games, the SEC champion will head to the Final Four. ‘Bama is as good a choice as any to come out of the West.
More than any other conference in America, the SEC can feel comfortable knowing that its best team won’t have to go undefeated in order to play for a national championship. The Crimson Tide only get four true road games in 2016, but at Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU is a gauntlet.
As is usually the case, coach Nick Saban (above) has to replace his fair share of NFL talent on both sides of the ball — including at quarterback. But he has the kids to do so with the way he’s recruited.
With four national titles in seven years and another near miss or two, UA is a full-on juggernaut.
The Seminoles have a question mark under center, but they have definitive answers everywhere else.
Due to incumbent senior Sean Maguire’s injury during fall camp, redshirt freshman Deondre Francois won the QB battle by default. While he’s inexperienced, he’s a blue-chipper with tremendous upside.
From the line to the skill positions, every single offensive contributor from 2015 returns — most important, transcendent tailback Dalvin Cook. Defensively, the pass rush is deep with talent and the secondary is commanded by safety Derwin James. He’s coming off a breath-taking freshman season.
SEC supporters love to complain about FSU’s schedule, but they don’t have much of a case this year. The ‘Noles have four non-conference games, and two are against Ole Miss and rival Florida.
Best of all, coach Jimbo Fisher and Co. play the ACC’s other premier team, Clemson, in Tallahassee.
If the Cardinal make it to the Final Four, they will have earned it. Their schedule is treacherous.
After hosting USC in Week 3, they travel to UCLA and Washington — the Huskies in particular are a sexy pick this season — in Weeks 4 and 5. Two Saturdays later, they fly out to take on Notre Dame.
The loss of Kevin Hogan at quarterback is manageable considering the fact that do-it-all super back Christian McCaffrey remains in Palo Alto. In addition to his eight rushing touchdowns a season ago, he caught five, threw two and also scored one each as a punt and kick returner. He was everywhere.
If not for a stunning Week 1 loss on the road at Northwestern last year, Stanford may have made the College Football Playoff. Coach David Shaw’s brains-and-brawn approach has been awfully impressive.
Even with a loss, provided it comes earlier in the season, Shaw can make a good case for inclusion.
One of the most underappreciated programs in the land, the Spartans are fresh off a run to the CFP.
Connor Cook is gone at the game’s most important position. The passing game has been an important part of the offense’s success under Mark Dantonio. Tyler O’Connor (below) is the new starter, and he defeated Ohio State a year ago.
Dantonio featured a three-headed monster in the backfield last season, and all three — L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London — return for 2016. Scott in particular has real superstar potential. The run defense and pass rush should continue to be among the best nationally.
It’s easy to forget about Sparty in the Big Ten. The love-him-or-hate-him personalities Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh at Michigan project are tough to ignore. Dantonio just does his job.
The schedule is in MSU’s favor, though. Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines must head to East Lansing.
Clemson: The Tigers made it to the national championship game in 2015 and still have Heisman contender Deshaun Watson at QB. Even if they lose to Florida State, they’ll likely win the rest and be in the conversation.
LSU: Despite Tennessee’s ascent in the East, the West is best in the SEC. The Bayou Bengals get to host Alabama this season. If they can turn the tables on that rivalry, they can win it all in 2016.
Michigan: Harbaugh won the offseason. Whether he was planning satellite camps on Saturn or trolling his detractors on Twitter, he’s either crazy, genius or both. The maize and blue are relevant again.
Oklahoma: Outside the conference, the Sooners play frisky Houston and loaded Ohio State before the calendar flips to October. With no Big 12 title game for another year, it’s hard for a one-loss team to get chosen.
Source: Saturday Down South