7 Teams Ready to Climb the CFB Mountain
For what seems like forever, the college football landscape resembled a wide-open terrain, one where all the best teams in the country were spread all over in hopes of being considered the best of the best.
The Bowl Championship Series gave us 16 years of trying to sort through the clutter to give us a national champion.
Through a designated title game or just a post-bowl game vote, the national champion in college football has often been a source of controversy and rarely one of consensus. But now we have the College Football Playoff, the first-of-its-kind format that aims to erase all debate by having the champ determined through a bona fide elimination process.
Four teams will be slotted into a winner-takes-all tournament, using the Rose and Sugar bowls as semifinal games on New Year's Day and then an official national championship on Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Additionally, four more games—known as "host bowls"—will feature champions from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC that don't qualify for the playoffs, as well as at-large selections that will include the top-rated team from outside the five power conferences.
A 13-person selection committee will rank teams, beginning in late October and then every week until determining the 12 CFP entrants.
With a true process to knock teams out of the running and determine a champion, a mountain has been established. There will be many programs striving to climb that hill in 2014, including plenty of the traditional powers, but they won't be alone.
Here's a look at the teams heading into this season who are ready to climb the CFB mountain.
Alabama Crimson Tide
There have been two distinctly different kinds of Alabama teams under Nick Saban during the last few years of his tenure: the ones that play for the national championship, and dominate in doing so, and the ones that show a relative disinterest in postseason play if a title isn't on the line.
Considering that, there might not be a program more suited for a playoff than the Crimson Tide. In fact, it might have made last season (when they lost to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, a game Saban has referred to as a "consolation game") more like the two previous years. When given a chance to win it all at the end, the Tide did so in dominating fashion against Notre Dame in January 2013 and LSU the year before.
Alabama has one major hole to fill heading into this fall, that being its quarterback spot, where three-year starter A.J. McCarron is being replaced by either Florida State transfer Jacob Coker or career backup Blake Sims. Beyond that, though, the Tide is stacked all over with talent and has all the pieces necessary to win a four-team playoff if they can earn a spot.
Superstitious people would not be able to handle the number that Auburn is throwing itself behind this season. That number, 13, represents the number of seconds that were left on the clock in January's BCS national championship game when Florida State scored the winning touchdown to take the title.
Coach Gus Malzahn has used the mantra of needing to be 13 seconds better since preparations began months ago for the 2014 season. It will be one where the Tigers will go from being an underdog to among the hunted as one of the favorites to reach the College Football Playoff.
"This year we're going to be circled (on teams' schedules)," Malzahn told the Associated Press. "We told our players that. We’re going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season."
That means somehow improving on an offense that averaged more than 39 points per game and an FBS-leading 328 rushing yards per contest. The key to that improvement will be in the form of senior quarterback Nick Marshall's passing ability, which wasn't used much in 2013 but will be essential to getting into the CFP.
Few teams have come further in the past five years than Baylor. From a perennial doormat in the Big 12 Conference to the home of a Heisman Trophy winner, one of the country's most explosive offenses and this fall a brand new stadium, the Bears are a true rags-to-riches story.
Is the next step the College Football Playoff?
Baylor won the Big 12 title last year, and played in the Fiesta Bowl. It won 11 games and brings back standout senior quarterback Bryce Petty to once again operate an offense that averaged 619 yards and 52 points per game in 2013.
Coach Art Briles, who has been at the helm since 2008, believes the Bears are ready to take the next step and contend for a national title. But even as reigning conference champs he considers his team an underdog, telling reporters at last month's Big 12 media days that "we see ourselves as the guy fighting hard scratching hard to try and get some recognition and some respect."
A spot in the CFP will go a long way toward gaining that respect.
Florida State Seminoles
You can't have a list of contenders for the first-ever College Football Playoff without the team that won it all the year before. Especially when that team brings back the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and numerous other key contributors from that 14-0 squad.
Florida State was unquestionably the best team in the country in 2013, the only one to go unbeaten through the regular season and the winner of the final BCS National Championship game. The Seminoles knocked off Auburn 34-31 on a touchdown in the final minute of play, and not long after the confetti had stopped falling on the Rose Bowl turf in Pasadena, coach Jimbo Fisher had started work on the next season.
But not as defending champs. Don't call FSU defenders of anything, Fisher says.
"We're not defending anything, because they can't take that away," Fisher told reporters in February. "To defend something means you can lose it. We can't lose that. What we have to do is be hungry for another one."
There's no doubt FSU has the hunger to win another title, and that appetite has only been enhanced by the prospect of a playoff format to determine the champion.
Michigan State Spartans
Michigan State wasn't expected to contend for a division title last season, let alone win the Big Ten championship and then the Rose Bowl. But that's just what the Spartans did, going 13-1 and knocking off Ohio State for the conference crown and Stanford in the Jan. 1 bowl game in Pasadena.
A year later, and MSU is still looked at as an underdog, with Big Ten media members picking Ohio State over the Spartans for the league's East Division title. If that's to happen, OSU will have to win the Nov. 8 clash in East Lansing in what will be the biggest Big Ten game of 2014 outside of December's conference final.
MSU returns its top offensive players in quarterback Connor Cook and running back Jeremy Langford, while its defense is anchored by standout end Shilique Calhoun. The Spartans also have an early game that can provide a huge boost in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee, a Sept. 6 trip to Oregon.
The Spartans have won 11 or more games in three of the past four seasons, yet they are still trying to get the credit they're due. Maybe playing in a national semifinal (and beyond) will fix that.
Ever since Oklahoma romped over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl this past January, the talk of the Sooners being a legitimate national title contender in 2014 has been constant. Oklahoma last won a title in 2000, Bob Stoops' second year at the helm, and hasn't been in line for a championship since 2008, but this year's team might be the best one he's ever had.
That promise starts on defense, where even with the recent year-long suspension of linebacker Frank Shannon the unit is so stocked with talented playmakers that missing one shouldn't have too big an effect. Other standouts like linebacker Eric Striker and defensive back Zack Sanchez should be able to fill the void.
On offense the Sooners have rising sophomore Trevor Knight at quarterback, a player who is getting a lot of hype based heavily off his breakout performance in the Sugar Bowl. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns in that game, and a lot more of that is expected from him in 2014.
Stoops has developed a nickname over the years of "Big Game Bob," which would make you think he's the perfect coach to lead a team through a playoff. If the Sooners come out on top in the Big 12 we should see if that's really the case.
If there's one team that seems to perennially be the one to beat in its conference over the last five years, it's Oregon. Yet the Ducks haven't managed to win the Pac-12 outright since 2011, losing a key game or two during the regular season in each of the past two years to knock themselves out of contention.
But this Oregon team looks to be the best of the lot since the one that played for the BCS title following the 2010 season, and that distinction starts and ends with junior quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Arguably the best dual-threat passer in college football, Mariota is both elusive as a runner (he's gained more than 1,400 rushing yards and scored 14 touchdowns in the ground the past two seasons) and incredibly sharp as a passer (6,300-plus yards, 63 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions) and is maybe the single-most important player for any team in contention for the College Football Playoff.
But none of the nation's best are considered as such because of one player, as Oregon is talented all over the field. It has a seemingly endless supply of running backs, a strong defensive front and the country's best shutdown corner in senior Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.
The Pac-12's reputation has risen greatly in the past few years, and last year computer ratings guru Jeff Sagarin listed the North and South divisions as the second- and third-toughest leagues in the country. That means a team from the West has a great chance to be one of the four CFP qualifiers, and Oregon is the best shot to be that representative.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.