Sugar Bowl - Georgia vs. Florida State
Rose Bowl - Ohio State vs. Oklahoma State
Michael Calabrese / @EastBreese
The Pokes have quickly become a trendy pick this summer and with good reason. Mike Gundy’s squad returns enough firepower to overwhelm every comer in the Big XII, and their non-conference schedule falls into the perfect sweet spot between challenging and impressive. Then you have the personnel to consider. Pro Football Focus ranks the Cowboys’ triggerman Mason Rudolph as the second highest-rated returning quarterback in the country. James Washington will challenge for All-American honors on the outside, and the prayers of the Stillwater faithful were answered in the form of graduate transfer Aaron Cochran. The former Cal left tackle represents the final piece on offense, and that unit should be enough to carry OSU to the CFP.
Now that it takes 15 games to win the national title, it seems like Ezekiel Elliott was bulldozing the Buckeyes to a national title a decade ago. In reality, Ohio State isn’t that far removed from the college football mountain top, and with one savvy hire, they’re primed to return. Kevin Wilson joins the Buckeyes’ staff and has sufficiently proven himself to be an offensive mastermind. If he can return J.T. Barrett to his former 2014 glory days, Urban Meyer’s program should run roughshod over the Big Ten en route to back-to-back CFP appearances. Greg Schiano was a Broyles Award finalist snub last fall, and he returns to call the shots of one of the most fearsome front sevens in the country. The final reason for optimism in Columbus is the favorable schedule. Oklahoma and Penn State will play under the lights at The Shoe, giving the Buckeyes a 35 percent chance of going 12-0 and a 71 percent chance of winning the Big Ten according to ESPN's Football Power Index.
If you include Derwin James Jr., the Seminoles return ten starters on defense. Much like their national title team from 2013, there’s a high likelihood that their entire defense sees an NFL training camp in the near future. The question for Jimbo Fisher and his staff will be how well they’ve developed their offensive line around Deondre Francois. The über-talented third-year sophomore has it all from a skills perspective, but that does not guarantee he progresses into an All-ACC quarterback this fall. They’ll need him upright, after surrendering 2.77 sacks per game in ‘16, if they hope to strike fear into opponents this year. I’m placing my faith in Fisher and his staff to get it right on that side of the ball.
Alabama’s reign atop the SEC seems to be never-ending, heck the Tide won their league games by an average margin of 24.9 points last fall. But last season’s musical chairs at offensive coordinator proved that Nick Saban is far from infallible in big games, especially if his offense isn’t clicking on all cylinders. That question mark at OC, combined with five new starters on defense, has opened the door for the eventual SEC East champion to crash the CFP party. Georgia returns 11 players with significant starting experience on defense and a dynamic backfield complete with two All-SEC caliber running backs and a super sophomore gunslinger who closed 2016 with freshman stats far greater than Matthew Stafford’s once upon a time. A Week 2 trip to South Bend could give the Bulldogs the swagger they need to finally take the next step as a program.
Sugar Bowl - 1 Florida State vs. 4 Oklahoma State
Rose Bowl - 2 USC vs. 3 Georgia
Anthony Raia / @anthony_raia
The young Seminoles gained a lot of experience in their up-and-down 2016 season, especially at key positions like quarterback and offensive line. The hope is that the 2017 Florida State defense turns out to be what the 2016 version was expected to be and carries an offense that gets off to a slow start while breaking in new pieces. Led by one of the best secondaries in the country and a loaded front seven, the Seminole defense will help Jimbo Fisher’s team navigate a daunting schedule.
Oklahoma State has a relatively favorable schedule, and if they remain undefeated through West Virginia, they’ll be in the hunt for a playoff spot heading into the Bedlam game on November 4th. The Cowboys will put up a ton of points thanks to the combination of Mason Rudolph and James Washington and will have some eye catching blowouts on their resume. They also have key games against TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma in Stillwater.
Fully recovered from NCAA sanctions, USC has likely the best quarterback in the country and a running back that isn’t getting enough offseason love in Ronald Jones II. If USC survives a challenging opening month slate, they’ll be in the hunt to reclaim the Pac-12 crown and a playoff spot. An early November trip to Colorado will be the defining moment of the Trojans' playoff run.
The SEC East will come down to Georgia and Florida, and the edge goes to the team with the better quarterback in Georgia. The road will be tough for the Bulldogs, as they’ll have to beat Alabama in the title game or possibly Auburn twice to take the SEC crown. Georgia has to live up to the hype eventually and can’t afford another 8-5 season.
Sugar Bowl - 1 Florida State vs. 4 Ohio State
Rose Bowl - 2 USC vs. 3 Auburn
Sean MacLean / @DraftInDepth
Ohio State doesn’t forget. They remember the collapse in Happy Valley. They still feel that nearly unwatchable embarrassment Clemson gave them last year. This season is JT Barrett’s final year to lead his team to a National Championship. There have always been whispers that had he not gotten hurt, maybe that team wouldn’t have won the National Championship only a few years ago. Barrett will “bounce back” with Kevin Wilson calling the shots on offense. The defensive backfield is young again after the annual purge of talent, but Urban Meyer turns out DB talent without a problem. To aid in the defensive backfield growing pains, the defensive line will be wreaking havoc with potentially seven draftable players in next year's draft (and Nick Bosa who may be the best of all of them).
Florida State will live and die by Deondre Francois. They are returning probably the most talented team in the NCAA. Specifically, the defense will be lethal, with ten starters back and most importantly Derwin James Jr. returns from injury. Francois has all the talent to lead a young offense to a National Championship, but he needs to earn it during crunch time. I fear they lose a close game, in a very odd manner resulting from Francois running for his life and throwing a bad pick-six. That said, they will most likely mop up the rest of their schedule forcing the committee to put them in the Final Four over the likes of a second SEC team or Oklahoma State. This team could easily resemble the Clemson team from last year, carried by their defense with great (yet risky) QB play and an inexplicable loss.
The Southern California offense will look better than the LA Rams next season. I understand they lost their starting WRs and Adoree Jackson, but it really doesn’t matter because Sam Darnold is a machine. Seriously, check out his post-game interview after coming back against Penn State and tell me that guy doesn’t have ice-water pulsing through his veins. The game that gives me pause is their trip up to Washington State to play Luke Falk and the Cougars, but if they exit that game with a W, they should coast to an undefeated season (unless Josh Rosen learns to lead). On the defensive side of the ball, they have Cameron Smith to play the Sam Darnold-type leader and Iman “Biggie” Marshall manning the outside. Let’s be honest though; this is all about Darnold and his ascension to college football Valhalla.
Bear with me on Auburn, and no that wasn’t a subtle nod to the Tide’s greatest coach. I agonized over this slot as Georgia is a great pick with so many returning starters and LSU has Derrius Guice, but there is something about Auburn I’m buying into. It came down to Gus Malzahn and Jarrett Stidham. Malzahn was an offensive savant but has not had the quarterback talent to successfully run his offense. Enter Stidham, a stud recruit who has proved he can play and win on the D1 stage. Last year’s Auburn team was inconsistent but only lost at Georgia by six without Kamryn Pettway, and return 16 starters. The schedule is favorable, playing a very young Clemson in Week 2 that will get much better as the season progresses, then they host Georgia and Alabama during the last three weeks. They will definitely lose one game, but with Stidham and Pettway I expect Auburn to shock the world like Malzahn did (as OC) seven years ago with Cam Newton.
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