After 16 seasons of the BCS formula and decades of the mind-numbing poll structure, college football will finally host a playoff to rightly determine a national champion. Not a big playoff, mind you, just four teams. A committee of football minds ranging from Archie Manning to Nebraska coaching legend Tom Osborne to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (a football coach’s daughter and former Stanford provost who hired Ty Willingham) will vote on a top 25 starting in the middle of the season and will eventually select the four teams that will gun for the title. The postseason action will rotate annually around six big-time bowl games (Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose and Sugar). This year’s national championship will be played January 12, 2015 at Jerry World in the Dallas area. Hey, a significant postseason game at the Cowboys’ home stadium? What a novel concept! So who’s going to come out on top in this historic season? Alabama and Ohio State will make the semis, with Florida State conquering Oregon in the final, which will turn into a veritable highlight reel for Noles Heisman quarterback Jameis Winston (left). Let’s kick it off.
The Seminoles finally ended the SEC’s stranglehold on the BCS last season, led by QB Jameis Winston (below), who became the youngest player to win a Heisman. Winston also delivered the off-season’s most bizarre story line, getting busted for shoplifting crab legs. But he’s back. Seven Noles were drafted into the NFL, but FSU is still loaded with five potential first-rounders. Winston has two go-to targets in wideout Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. FSU also has one of the nation’s most talented secondaries. The big question: Can Winston stay out of trouble?
How much have things changed in Eugene? Oregon’s 11–2 record last season seemed like a downer. Second-year coach Mark Helfrich still has skeptics after his old boss Chip Kelly left for the NFL, and prized QB Marcus Mariota’s knee injury last year didn’t help. But Mariota (right) is 100 percent again, playing behind an O-line that returns intact (led by PLAYBOY All America center Hroniss Grasu), with major talent in the backfield. The Ducks have a tough schedule, including Michigan State and Stanford, but at least those two games are at home.
Coach Urban Meyer will break in new staff, with D-line coach Larry Johnson coming in from Penn State and defensive coordinator Chris Ash from Arkansas. Meyer’s blue-chip recruits now make up the nucleus of his defense. He also gets back dynamic QB Braxton Miller (above). The bad news: Only two teams in the country have less experience on the O-line. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay will help anchor the front. Key game: a rematch with Michigan State, which beat the Buckeyes in last season’s Big Ten title game.
Bama was stunned by two losses to end last season. But coach Nick Saban will begin anew with QB Jacob Coker, a six-five graduate transfer from FSU, where he narrowly lost the job to Jameis Winston. (Noles coaches were saying Coker had the best arm they’d ever seen.) But for all the hype, Coker has never started a college game. Star wideout Amari Cooper and a deep backfield will help.
The Bruins beat crosstown rivals USC twice in coach Jim Mora’s first two tries. Next up: a run at the national title. UCLA’s triggerman is junior QB Brett Hundley, who held off the NFL for another year at Rose Bowl Stadium. He was shaky in big games last year and lacks talent at skill positions. But his line has matured, and the Bruins have speed on D, led by Myles Jack (left) at linebacker.
The Sugar Bowl thrashing of mighty Bama has fueled the hype that dual-threat QB Trevor Knight is headed for the big time. A ferocious defensive line led by Geneo Grissom, Charles Tapper and Jordan Phillips complements PLAYBOY All America linebacker Eric Striker. The schedule helps, with Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all coming to Norman.
The Spartans are coming off huge wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. QB Connor Cook has NFL written all over him. He’s joined by 1,400-yard rusher Jeremy Langford and a veteran O-line. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is never a worry. Week two is big, with a trip to Oregon.
In his first season at Auburn, coach Gus Malzahn turned a 3–9 team into a 12–2 juggernaut, shaping former Georgia defensive back Nick Marshall into a star QB. Marshall returns, as does a lethal crew of pass rushers. Downside: The Tigers got big breaks last year. You can’t count on that kind of luck twice.
The Bears move into a fancy new stadium this fall, with a Heisman contender in QB Bryce Petty (32–3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year). Coach Art Briles has recruited speed at every position, with mean fronts on both sides of the ball. Key game: a November 8 trip to OU, where Baylor is 0–11, all-time.
The Tigers lost a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,400-yard rusher and two 1,100-yard receivers to the NFL. The good news: gifted freshman arrivals QB Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette and wideout Malachi Dupre. Some are calling Fournette the best rushing prospect since Adrian Peterson. Coach Les Miles is loaded with studs on D. He faces Bama in November, so the kids have time to grow up.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Playboy.