This is the first year of the four-team playoff format, so it’s time to make my fearless preseason prediction on which teams will make it in. Here goes:
Auburn – Gus Malzahn is the best football coach in America. Who else could’ve taken over a team that was 3-9 the previous season and guided it to within one minute of a national title? And all with a first-year starting quarterback and a defense that couldn’t really stop anybody. Sure, Nick Saban is great. But he even he needed a throwaway season before getting Alabama back into the sport’s upper crust. Malzahn didn’t have time for that nonsense. This year, Auburn’s offense will be the SEC’s best and one of the top two or three in the country. That’s what Malzahn does, you know. He’s done it practically every year he’s been a coach. The defense will be better than last year, too. So…better offense and better defense plus very good recruiting class means a better team, in my book. Book their place in the playoff as the SEC champ.
Oklahoma – I was very high on Trevor Knight coming out of high school, so I was surprised by his early struggles as the OU starter last season. But his brilliant performance against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl made it clear to me that he’s ready to play at a high level as a sophomore. The Sooners have very good talent all around, especially on the defensive front, and a schedule that is favorable. Bob Stoops made it to the BCS title game four times with three different style quarterbacks. The dual-threat Knight will lead him to his first playoff appearance.
Florida State – All it took was one great season for the benefit of the doubt to be returned to Florida State. In seasons past, the mantra by pundits was that the Seminoles would always find some way to screw things up against at least one lesser opponent. Now that FSU finally made it through its slate unscathed, that assumption has been turned on its head and nothing less than dominance is expected in every outing. Based on talent and the ease of the schedule, that should indeed be the case in 2014. FSU returns too many key components on offense and defense for a letdown to have a deleterious effect. I don’t think the ride will be as smooth as it was last season, but the soft ACC should once again put up little fight against the ‘Noles.
Oregon – This is the Ducks’ year, at least on paper. They have the Heisman front runner in Marcus Mariota. They have a stable of talented running backs. They have most of their offensive line back. They’ve got a premier deep threat at wide receiver and some good athletes at tight end. The defense is Oregon’s most talented in the modern era. The offensive system is formidable. The only question is whether Mark Helfrich has what it takes to lead the Ducks to a Pac-12 title. Oregon is almost unstoppable when the sun is shining, but it tends to struggle when the sky gets dark and cloudy (I’m talking metaphorically here). Helfrich needs to teach this team how to overcome adversity, which is tough to do when things go your way so easily most of the time. If he figures out how to do it, the Ducks could win them all.