ABOVE: From left: Alabama's Nick Saban (Vasha Hunt/Associated Press), Michigan State Quarterback Connor Cook (Al Goldis/Associated Press), Florida State Seminole Jameis Winston (Phil Sears/Associated Press) and Oregon's Marcus Mariota (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
NCAA Football Preview
2014 NCAA FOOTBALL PREVIEW:
Alabama Crimson Tide
The key to any successful run through the SEC is the right schedule, and the Crimson Tide’s is among the conference’s easiest. Its Eastern Division tie-ins are Florida and Tennessee, both unproven teams, and Coach Nick Saban’s group has open dates before road games against Mississippi and LSU. It doesn’t hurt to have Auburn visiting on the final Saturday of the regular season, where fans will be craving revenge.
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans’ chances of cruising through the Big Ten schedule became much easier when Ohio State QB Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. But the conference outlook, which includes a home game against Michigan, isn’t the issue. That Week 2 contest at Oregon is a major test for quarterback Connor Cook and Co. that will propel the winner into early-season playoff conversations.
Florida State Seminoles
Like Clemson, the Seminoles will have an idea where they stand after their fourth-week matchup against the Tigers in Tallahassee. Heisman winner Jameis Winston, likely the focus of 12 weeks of aggressive game planning by opponents, is the nation’s best athlete — but he’ll need to remain focused to avoid late-season surprises against Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Florida.
Strength of schedule will be a major point of emphasis for the new playoff committee, and even one-loss Oregon would be an obvious choice for a slot after running the Pacific-12 gauntlet. Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota, now healthy and the top Heisman front-runner not named Winston, will host Michigan State in Week 2, the first of four opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State Seminoles
There hasn’t been a repeat Heisman Trophy winner since Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975. But Winston and the Seminoles return key weapons like wide receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. No quarterback was more efficient than Winston last season.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon Ducks
Mariota looked like he might win the Heisman last year until Oregon lost two of its final four regular season games. The dual-threat junior could eclipse 4,000 total yards in the Ducks’ high-octane attack this year.
Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor Bears
A first-time starter last season, Petty threw for 4,200 yards, had 32 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Only Winston averaged more yards per attempt, and with innovative Coach Art Briles back, Petty looks poised for a record-breaking campaign.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers’ latest backfield weapon led the country in yards per carry the past two seasons and rushed for more than 1,600 yards last season. With the help of an experienced offensive line and a wide open Big Ten, Gordon should become a household name this fall.
The strength of schedule impact
The Tigers’ reward for their stunning, drama-filled run to the BCS championship game last season is a brutal schedule. Auburn will travel to Georgia and Alabama in November, particularly difficult tests considering home games against both the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide required last-second heroics last year. The crowds in Athens and Tuscaloosa will not have forgotten, but Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn will remember how to keep his team in those games, too.
The Pacific-12 is the new SEC, with playoff contenders all over the schedule. But the Bruins’ best three opponents — Oregon, Southern California and Stanford — all come to the Rose Bowl. A prime-time contest at Texas in the season’s third week will help determine whether UCLA is a serious playoff contender in a difficult conference, but it could be 5-0, with quarterback Brett Hundley potentially atop the early Heisman race, when the Ducks visit on Oct. 11.
This week's games: See this week's schedule
Quarterback Bryce Petty is one of the most exciting players in the nation, and he has perhaps the most electric wide receiver in stocky senior Antwan Goodley, whose speed and size (5 feet 10, 220 pounds), make him tough to defend. The Bears won’t take anyone by surprise this season, and they’ll need to survive a tough schedule that includes road games against Texas and Oklahoma.
Marshall Thundering Herd
The Thundering Herd has one of the nation’s easiest schedules, including a cupcake run through Conference USA, and one of the nation’s most experienced rosters. Quarterback Rakeem Cato could be this season’s surprise Heisman contender, following in the footsteeps of Northern Illinois’s Jordan Lynch and Central Florida’s Blake Bortles from 2013. Marshall’s weak schedule — a mid-November meeting with Rice could be its marquee test — might be the only thing that keeps it outside the playoff bubble, so it needs a few convenient losses from the big boys.
Possible playoff sleepers
The Hawkeyes doubled their win total from 2012 during last year’s 8-5 season and return 14 starters, including quarterback Jake Rudock, leading rusher Mark Weisman and top receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley. They also avoid Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan and play Wisconsin and Nebraska at home in what is shaping up to be a wide-open Big Ten race.
Chris Petersen takes over the Huskies after a successful stint at Boise State (Dean Rutz/Associated Press)
The Huskies’ defense remains intact and the hiring of former Boise State coach Chris Petersen has inspired optimism for 2014. Washington gets Pac-12 contenders UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State at home, a slate that makes the Huskies an intriguing sleeper nationally if they’re able to avoid the pitfalls of a deep conference.
Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats won six of their final seven games last year, and that lone loss came against 2014 Big 12 favorite Oklahoma. The development of second-year quarterback Jake Waters will be crucial, with an early test against 2013 national runners-up Auburn and five conference road games. But if navigated successfully, that’s the sort of challenging schedule that would undoubtedly impress the new playoff committee.
With the Trojans still dealing with NCAA scholarship limitations, crosstown rival UCLA has drawn much of the preseason hype. But USC does not lack for returning talent on defense or at the skill positions, which helped it win six of its last seven games following Lane Kiffin’s mid-season dismissal. The hope is new Coach Steve Sarkisian can sort out an offense that was less than the sum of its parts in 2013.