|Gregory Bull / Associated Press|
|Defending champion FSU enters 2014 as the favorite to win the first playoff in FBS history.|
We're less than a week away from the first kickoff of the season, and it's never too early to talk playoffs.
So, who is going to be in the first four-team playoff in FBS history? There appears to be one team you can go ahead and write down in pen in your mock bracket, but a whole lot of questions remain as to the makeup of the other three teams.
Here's a look at a dozen teams that would seem to have the best shot at a playoff invitation; they're listed in order of their likelihood of making the playoff. If you're interested in some potential surprise playoff teams, we have you covered.
1. Florida State
The case for the playoffs: The defending national champions again are loaded with talent. WR Rashad Greene, G Tre Jackson, TE Nick O'Leary, OT Cameron Erving, QB Jameis Winston and K Roberto Aguayo can stake a claim to being the best at their positions nationally. The offensive line, which returns four starters, might be the nation's best. The secondary is extremely deep, extremely fast and extremely talented. The defensive line has a high ceiling. While the non-conference schedule is tougher than it was last season, the ACC as a whole doesn't look to be as good as it was in 2013. It's not a stretch to think FSU will be the only ACC team to finish in the top 15.
The case against the playoffs: FSU is the only team that should be expected to make it into the playoff. Still, the lack of a proven No. 2 wide receiver behind Greene could prove troublesome. Can Karlos Williams -- who was a safety this time last season before moving over to tailback two weeks into the season -- be a 150-carry running back? And which unproven backup will step up to help Williams? FSU appears to have the necessary talent to fill two holes at linebacker, but will the new starters play up to expectations? Finally, there's Winston, who is the reigning Heisman winner. He has some mechanical tweaks he must make, but more important is remaining trouble-free off the field. If FSU encounters rough waters at any time, chances are the pain will be self-inflicted because the Seminoles are better than anybody on their regular-season schedule.
The case for the playoffs: The Ducks are the favorites to win the Pac-12, and QB Marcus Mariota headlines what will be one of the nation's most productive offenses. There is a lot of fast skill-position talent surrounding Mariota. CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu might be the best at his position in the nation, and there is a nice group of linebackers.
The case against the playoffs: No one questions Oregon's team speed or explosiveness. But it is legit to question the Ducks' toughness after their struggles against Stanford the past two seasons. How will the Ducks react to losing their best offensive lineman, LT Tyler Johnstone, to a torn ACL? And as talented as Ekpre-Olomu is, he also is the only returning starter in the secondary, and safety could become an issue. The schedule is a tough one, too, with a monster non-conference game against Michigan State, as well as contests against Stanford, UCLA and Washington.
The case for the playoffs: The Tide is loaded with talent, with WR Amari Cooper, TE O.J. Howard, DE A'Shawn Robinson and FS Landon Collins among the best players at their positions nationally. The tailback depth chart is as impressive as any in the nation. The defensive front seven looks loaded. And coach Nick Saban never gets outworked.
The case against the playoffs: Quarterback play is a question. Is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker truly the best thing since sliced bread? He hasn't taken an important snap since he was a high school senior in 2010, and if he struggles, it's hard to see a team quarterbacked by Blake Sims winning an SEC title, much less playing for a national title. And while there is a ton of talent everywhere, there are still questions about the offensive line (is a true freshman really going to start at left tackle?) and at cornerback (is there a true marquee player at the position?).
The case for the playoffs: The Sooners are the most talented team in the Big 12, which doesn't appear all that strong. OU has one of the best offensive tackle duos in the nation in Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams. There is an excellent group of linebackers, headed by Eric Striker and Dominique Alexander, and they make OU's front seven the best in the Big 12 and one of the best in the nation. Michael Hunnicutt is one of the best kickers in the nation. The schedule is not overly tough, and the toughest league games are at home (Baylor, Kansas State) and at a neutral site (Texas).
The case against the playoffs: QB Trevor Knight played at an extremely high level in the Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama. Is that a sign of things to come, or was it a fluke? He basically was adequate in other games last season. His growth is mandatory, especially because there is no established go-to receiver or feature back. A lot depends on Knight.
The case for the playoffs: QB Nick Marshall returns, and he was a big reason Auburn played for the national title last season. He is a tremendous athlete who is a great fit for Gus Malzahn's productive spread offense. WR Sammie Coates is an explosive talent who should become a bigger weapon this fall. The defense made huge strides last season, and even though it lost some key players (most notably DE Dee Ford and CB Chris Davis), it should be better this season.
The case against the playoffs: The departure of Tre Mason means there is no proven tailback, though Corey Grant certainly would appear to have the talent to fill the role. As talented and athletic as Marshall is, he remains a work in progress as a passer, and if the running game struggles, the offense as a whole will bog down unless Marshall shows he can beat teams with his arm. There is a new kicker, a new punter and a new return man. The schedule is a tough one and includes road games against Kansas State, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama, as well as a home contest against South Carolina. Finally, Auburn was lucky at times last season and won five games by seven or fewer points; do things even out this fall?
6. Michigan State
The case for the playoffs: The Spartans are as tough physically as anybody in the Big Ten, and the defense is going to be stout with the likes of DE Shilique Calhoun, CB Trae Waynes and FS Karlos Drummond. QB Connor Cook made great strides last season, and Jeremy Langford is a battering ram with some speed at tailback.
The case against the playoffs: There are some questions along the offensive line and at defensive tackle, and the receiving corps lacks a true go-to guy. There's also a huge Sept. 6 game at Oregon. If they win that game, the Spartans become a big-time playoff contender; lose that and the outlook becomes far, far murkier. Still, along with Ohio State, Michigan State looks to be head and shoulders above anyone else in the Big Ten.
7. South Carolina
The case for the playoffs: The Gamecocks look to be the best team in the SEC East, and depth appears to be as good as it has been during Steve Spurrier's tenure in Columbia. This is a physical group up front on both sides of the ball. Running back Mike Davis is a long-shot Heisman candidate, and one of the most physical running backs in the nation; he has 1,500-yard potential.
The case against the playoffs: Davis is a proven talent, but do the Gamecocks' other skill-position guys give you pause? Who's the go-to receiver? And can QB Dylan Thompson really get the job done? The defensive line has issues, too, without Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. We'll know early whether the Gamecocks are legit: They have games against Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri before the end of September (one positive is that all three are at home). There's a road trip to Auburn in October, and also road games against Florida and Clemson.
The case for the playoffs: The Bruins look to be the best team in the Pac-12 South. QB Brett Hundley heads into the season as a Heisman contender, and leads an offense that should be better than the one that averaged 37 points per game last season. The defense is young but talented, and there is good depth.
The case against the playoffs: While the offense looks fine, that there is no proven feature back (Hundley is the leading returning rusher) is at least a bit worrisome. Can the Bruins get it done when they are expected to win? They haven't won a conference title since 1998, and the schedule is a tough one -- road games against Arizona State and Washington, a neutral-site contest against Texas (in Texas, which basically makes it a road game) and home games with USC, Stanford and Oregon.
The case for the playoffs: The Bears are going to have one of the nation's most potent offenses, thanks to QB Bryce Petty. And there is ample skill-position talent, headed by WR Antwan Goodley, for Petty. In addition, the non-conference schedule is a joke -- and the Big 12 schedule isn't all that daunting, either.
The case against the playoffs: Baylor can simply outscore everybody on its schedule, but at some point the defense is going to have to step up -- and the back seven is a giant concern. And as for the schedule, while it's not that daunting, two of the three toughest league games (Oklahoma and Texas) are on the road, and there's also a neutral-site game with Texas Tech.
The case for the playoffs: While UCLA is the Pac-12 South favorite, it's not a stretch to think the Trojans could win the division -- and the league as a whole. Depth is an issue, but the starting 22 is solid. There is a proven playmaker at wide receiver in Nelson Agholor and a deep group of tailbacks behind QB Cody Kessler. The offensive line looks good, too. DL Leonard Williams might be the best defensive player in the nation, and there are standouts at linebacker (Hayes Pullard) and in the secondary (Su'a Cravens). Steve Sarkisian is an upgrade at head coach, too.
The case against the playoffs: While Sark is an upgrade, there also is going to be a learning curve as the players adjust to his style. The biggest issue is the defensive front seven. Williams is a stud, and Pullard is one of the best linebackers on the West Coast. But the lack of depth already has reared its head with the season-ending injury to projected starting OLB Jabari Ruffin. There simply isn't much margin for error on a team counting on a lot of inexperienced backups against a tough schedule.
The case for the playoffs: This program has been as good as any in the Pac-12 for the past five seasons, and the Cardinal should be in the hunt for the league title again this season. QB Kevin Hogan is experienced, and he has perhaps the best receiving duo in the Pac-12 to work with in Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. OT Andrus Peat is one of the nation's best. The defense has standouts at each level and should be one of the best, if not the best, in the league.
The case against the playoffs: There is no proven tailback. Peat is the only returning starter along the offensive line. Can Hogan win a game with his arm? The biggest issue, though, is the schedule. It is a monster, with road games against Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA -- all of those teams have top-20 (or even top-10) aspirations. Basically, every tough game except one (USC) is on the road.
The case for the playoffs: As long as new starting QB Hutson Mason plays competent football, the Bulldogs have as good a chance as anybody at the SEC East title. And wining the SEC East obviously would give them a chance to win the SEC championship game. Mason is a senior and is said to have a good grasp of the offense. Plus, it's not as if he's going to have to win games by himself; the offensive focal point is going to be stud TB Todd Gurley and the rushing attack. The defense had issues at times last season, but a coordinator change (Georgia hired away Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State after Todd Grantham left for Louisville) should be extremely beneficial. We'll know early -- by the end of the day Sept. 6 -- whether the Bulldogs are a viable contender, as they open with back-to-back contests against Clemson and South Carolina.
The case against the playoffs: What if Mason doesn't play competent football? As good as Gurley is -- and he is the best back in the nation -- he cannot do it all by himself; there will be a few times during the season where Mason has to make plays for the Bulldogs to win. Can he do it? Defensively, while Pruitt is an upgrade, the secondary might not be salvageable, at least early in the season. Other than senior CB Damian Swann -- who, truth be told, hasn't exactly been Mr. Consistency -- the secondary looks like a big mess, and Clemson and South Carolina will try to take advantage. Losing either of those first two games gives Georgia zero margin for error the rest of the way; lose both and Bulldogs fans can start thinking about spending New Year's Day in Orlando or Tampa.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at email@example.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.