Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes and Jimbo Fisher's Florida State Seminoles project to be two of the nation's best teams in 2014 and strong playoff contenders. Which other teams have a chance to make playoff noise? Let's rank the top 20.
Jonathan Daniel & Joe RobbinsJonathan Daniel & Joe Robbins
20. Texas Tech Red Raiders
This is a longshot, of course, with a strong Big 12 schedule that features visits to Oklahoma State and Kansas State, but the Red Raiders do get their toughest opponents (Oklahoma, Baylor) at home. If Davis Webb morphs into one of the nation’s top QBs – there’s no question he has the talent to – then we’re saying TTU has a chance.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
19. Auburn Tigers
The national runner-up from a year ago would be higher if the schedule wasn’t so brutal and the defense inspired more confidence. QB Nick Marshall returns, and the ground game should be fine with Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Marshall despite losing Heisman finalist Tre Mason, but getting through the SEC is just so vicious, particularly the West. Auburn has LSU and South Carolina at home but then makes trips to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
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18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State will have a new starting QB – most likely J.W. Walsh – and has to plug the hole left behind by first-round corner Justin Gilbert. It could overcome losing to Florida State in Arlington to begin the year, but it has road trips to Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State and then still has Texas Tech and Texas at home. Tough road.
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17. Clemson Tigers
Some believe Clemson will take a step back in 2014 after losing QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins, among others, but those around the program don’t believe that. Cole Stoudt will be the starting QB entering camp, with talented freshman Dashaun Watson waiting to compete, and the defense should improve, boosted by the return of DE Vic Beasley. The tough games: at Georgia, at Florida State, vs. South Carolina, vs. North Carolina.
Getty ImagesTyler Smith
16. USC Trojans
Could USC sneak into the playoff in Steve Sarkisian’s first year? Like Texas Tech, the Trojans have to escape a brutal league, but they have a shot. Cody Kessler should solidify the QB position under Sark, and the defense is loaded with elite talent. The best news for USC? It wouldn’t face Oregon until the Pac-12 title game. USC’s toughest tasks are at Stanford and at UCLA, with home games against Oregon State, Arizona State and Notre Dame also awaiting.
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15. Louisville Cardinals
Bobby Petrino in the playoff. Tell us that wouldn’t be fun. The Cardinals have to replace Teddy Bridgewater, and Will Gardner will begin that job as a redshirt sophomore. We’d like Louisville’s chances better if it were in the Coastal Division, as it has to go through Clemson (on the road) and Florida State (home). Miami and a trip to Notre Dame also await. One silver lining: The home game against FSU is on a Thursday night, which have a tendency to get a little funky. If Louisville can ambush FSU on that weeknight in Kentucky, it gets interesting.
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
14. Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal are better than 14th in the country based on talent, it’s just tough to make a case that they have an easier road to the playoff than the teams ahead of them on this ranking. They replace workhorse RB Tyler Gaffney, as well as defensive cogs Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, and face this gauntlet: at Notre Dame, at Arizona State, at Oregon, at UCLA. Woof. Stanford’s 'easier' game to note is a home contest against USC.
Getty ImagesJeff Gross
13. Missouri Tigers
Gone are big names from the SEC East title team of a year ago – James Franklin, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Henry Josey, L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham – so there are plenty of holes to fill here. But the Tigers have a good option at QB in Maty Mauk and, perhaps more importantly, they miss Alabama, LSU and Auburn. At South Carolina, at Florida, at Texas A&M and Georgia at home is where their playoff hopes will turn.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY SportsMark Zerof
12. LSU Tigers
Who’s under center for LSU when it plays Wisconsin in Houston to kick off the season is one of the juiciest questions entering training camp. It’ll be either sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. LSU will be young in a lot of places, but those young players filling in are uber-talented. LSU has road games at Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M but gets Ole Miss and Bama at home.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY SportDerick E. Hingle
11. Georgia Bulldogs
How far can RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall carry this team? They’re not alone – QB Hutson Mason is no dog (sorry, bad pun) – but it could take new DC Jeremy Pruitt a little time to overhaul the defense. Georgia is ranked here because it misses the two big threats from the West and gets the third (Auburn) at home, as well as Clemson and Florida. At South Carolina and at Mizzou are the road games to note.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsDale Zanine
10. UCLA Bruins
People love UCLA entering 2014, and while we do too, we’re going to be a bit cautious with the Bruins due to the conference they play in. They have Texas in Arlington early in the season and make a trip to Arizona State. The bad news: Oregon, Stanford and USC are all on the schedule. The good news: They all come to the Rose Bowl.
9. Baylor Bears
Can the Bears win a second straight Big 12 title? If so, they’re in the playoff. To do that, they have to get through road games at Texas and Oklahoma. They get Oklahoma State and Kansas State at home, while facing Texas Tech in Arlington. Tough stretch, but one Baylor is good enough to survive.
Getty ImagesRonald Martinez
8. Wisconsin Badgers
How are the Badgers this high, you ask? Simple: Some talent and a cake schedule. RB Melvin Gordon is a star and should be a Heisman finalist. If Wisconsin gets just solid QB play from Joel Stave, it has a good chance to eclipse its nine wins from a year ago and compete for a Big Ten title. It’s toughest game is LSU in Houston to begin the year, which the Badgers could lose and be fine. Next toughest? Maryland or Nebraska at home? Seriously. No Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the schedule.
Jeff HanischJeff Hanisch
7. South Carolina Gamecocks
RB Mike Davis is among the top backs in the SEC, and QB Dylan Thompson brings some experience to the position as he fills in for Connor Shaw. The Gamecocks have trips to Auburn, Florida and Clemson, but get Texas A&M and Georgia at home and don’t play Alabama or LSU. South Carolina is a favorite to win the East, which puts it on the playoff’s doorstep.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
6. Michigan State Spartans
The Rose Bowl champ from last year is helped by the improvement of QB Connor Cook – who was a stud in the Spartans’ final two games of 2013, against Ohio State and Stanford – and the relatively soft slate (although it could be considered difficult by 2014 B1G standards). Ohio State and Michigan come to East Lansing, and the Spartans go to Penn State while missing Wisconsin. Perhaps the juiciest game (which could have little effect on MSU’s playoff chances): an early season trip to Oregon.
APJae C. Hong
5. Oregon Ducks
Oregon is loaded again on offense, with QB Marcus Mariota leading one of the nation’s top crops of running backs, and has a manageable schedule. After getting Michigan State at home, Oregon’s toughest game is a trip to UCLA and a season-ending ‘Civil War’ at Oregon State. The Ducks are not only a popular choice to make the playoff, but to win the whole thing.
Getty ImagesDavid Madison
4. Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners might have the conference’s best QB in Trevor Knight, and all of their big tests come in Norman – Baylor, Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Tennessee. If it can survive a trip to Texas Tech and not get knocked off a home, Oklahoma will win the Big 12 and be a title favorite entering the playoff.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
3. Alabama Crimson Tide
For the first time in what feels like a decade, Alabama enters a season with some uncertainty, if not concern, at quarterback. Jacob Coker is the presumed favorite to replace AJ McCarron, and Jimbo Fisher, his former coach at FSU, said he’s better than any recent QB the Crimson Tide have had. Still, you never know. Bama opens with West Virginia in Atlanta and makes road trips to Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee. It gets Florida, Texas A&M and the Iron Bowl at home. The 2014 Tide will look different, but they may be just as good.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
This is Urban Meyer’s best chance to win a national title at Ohio State – until he reloads the thing and has his next stud QB after Braxton Miller, surrounded by the usual array of elite talent. But with Miller and a superb front seven, the Buckeyes are huge title players. They go to Penn State, Michigan State and Maryland but the toughest game after that figures to be its rivalry game with Michigan at home.
1. Florida State Seminoles
And so we’ve reached the defending national champions. Plenty of talent left Tallahassee after the Noles won it all, but plenty of talent remains, including Heisman winner Jameis Winston. The Noles open with Oklahoma State in Arlington and make trips to Miami and Louisville. The other games to watch: Clemson, Note Dame and Florida at home. There could be a slip-up in there, but as we sit here today adding up total talent and strength of schedule, FSU has the best chance to reach the playoff.