World-Herald staff writers Sam McKewon and Dirk Chatelain name their top contenders for the 2014 College Football Playoffs, and even offer up some bonus picks.
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SAM'S TOP EIGHT
Florida State: No-brainer here. FSU's back — all the way back — and bound to stick around for years to come. It's a reload-not-rebuild scenario in Tallahassee. The ACC will be glad it held onto the Seminoles in the recent conference realignment. Here come the ratings and the money.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes return quarterback Braxton Miller and key parts of an improving defense. Because the Buckeyes avoid Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin out of the West in the regular season, it'd be wise for OSU to have one or zero losses headed into a potential Big Ten title game.
Oregon: Presuming it beats Michigan State at home in a nonconference playoff knockout game, the Ducks will be heavy favorites in the Pac-12 North. Oregon's system — offense and defense — withstands departures to the NFL pretty well.
USC: The Trojans should have tapped Steve Sarkisian several years ago instead of Lane Kiffin. Sark's there now, and you'll see a more dynamic offense to go along with an already strong defense. USC has to run the whole table before a potential Pac-12 title game.
Oklahoma: The defense will be great — eight or nine starters back. And the schedule's a dream — Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State in Norman. But remember: OU loses a game on the road every year. Every year. And it'll need the rest of the Big 12 to help, mightily, in creating a decent strength of schedule.
Georgia: The Bulldogs' defense will return 10 starters, and the offense will get back Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell, all NFL-caliber athletes who struggled with injuries in the fall. Beat Clemson at home, avoid Alabama and LSU in the regular season, and Georgia's right back in the national title mix.
UCLA: With Brett Hundley back, the Bruins are ready to roll on offense. On defense, UCLA's recruited very, very well in recent years. Jim Mora stayed in Westwood, I think, to coach this team.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose their stars — Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney — but return the meat of a terrific 12-win team. Steve Spurrier knows the window is closing for him and his program. A playoff berth elevates him to one of college football's greatest coaches.
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DIRK'S TOP EIGHT
Florida State: Analysts had been waiting for FSU's results to match its talent level. In 2013, they did. With Jameis Winston back, the best may still be coming.
Alabama: Nick Saban recruits and develops players so well, I just can't see 'Bama slipping far, even with a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator.
Oregon: Marcus Mariota's Ducks will beat Michigan State in September, then finally get over the Stanford hump. Both games are in Eugene.
Ohio State: Urban Meyer has dropped the past two after winning 24 straight. His first recruiting classes are starting to become playmakers, though.
Oklahoma: OU's bowl win over Alabama should invigorate the Sooner program, which had gone stale since 2008. If Trevor Knight keeps developing, look out.
UCLA: Jim Mora wouldn't have stayed in L.A. if he didn't like his returning talent, most notably quarterback Brett Hundley.
South Carolina: The SEC East is wide open, but Steve Spurrier gets Missouri and Georgia at home — and his defense will be the division's best.
Stanford: The defense takes a hit, but the general blueprint makes Stanford a perennial contender. If Kevin Hogan gets better, Stanford can win the Pac-12
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12 OTHER CONTENDERS
Baylor: Easy nonconference schedule again. You can't underestimate the Bears' electric offense: ever.
LSU: The NFL picks the Tigers pretty clean every year. While LSU restocks well, here's a stat: Aside from the 2011 season, LSU has averaged three losses per year since 2008. No three-loss team is making the playoffs.
Stanford: The studs of that Cardinal defense: Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy: are gone. Even with those guys, Stanford lost three this year. The offense, however throwback it seems, wasn't that good.
Louisville: However offensive you may find Bobby Petrino's return to a school he burned, the Cardinals will still play a season, and Petrino still knows offense.
North Carolina: If the Tar Heels emerge through the muck of recent NCAA-related troubles, the program still has a ton of talent.
Colorado State: Here's my pick to emerge from the Group of Five conferences that don't get an automatic bid to the access bowls. The Rams aren't a serious playoff contender unless they go undefeated.
Michigan State: The schedule's brutal. Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State? The middle three games are at home, over the course of a month. The strength of schedule will help the Spartans, though.
Nebraska: Manageable schedule in the nonconference, but road trips to Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin will be a challenge. Remember: This isn't about winning the Big Ten, but qualifying for the playoff. Nebraska has to win 12 or 13 regular-season games to do it. Too many questions right now to guarantee that.
Iowa: Tissue-soft schedule. Really. It's some kind of feat to avoid Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State from the East: and then get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to end the season: but that's what Big Ten schedulers offered up.
Auburn: Tre Mason's departure to the NFL is a big deal, but the Tigers have coach Gus Malzahn, who seems pretty wired to produce great offenses yearly.
Texas A&M: I'm dubious that life after Johnny Manziel will be as fruitful as life with him, but Kevin Sumlin has earned some benefit of the doubt.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils stumbled big time in the last two games of the year, but the meat of the offense should come back.