The College Football Playoff: The Only 12 Contenders

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Athlon Sports has pinpointed the 12 playoff contenders in 2014.

The Only 12 College Football Playoff Contenders in 2014

Just reading the words “playoff contender” warms the soul, doesn’t it?

Or “playoff berth,” “playoff contention” or “postseason bid.”

No one really knows what to expect from the College Football Playoff or Playoff Selection Committee — not the fans, not the media and not the coaches. But we all can agree that it’s going to be exciting no matter how many teams are left unbeaten at season’s end.

The 2014 Athlon Sports Top 25 has been released and Florida State (1), Alabama (2), Ohio State (3) and Oklahoma (4) are our picks to make the inaugural CFP. But getting to those four teams, the editorial staff — much like the selection committee — had to sift through copious amounts of data on all 128 teams.

What we learned is that there seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the top 12 teams and the rest of the nation. The first dozen teams in the Top 25 appear to be true playoff contenders and the rest feel like they are operating on a lower tier of expectation. Could someone outside of the top 12 make a playoff run? Of course, but history shows us that champions rarely come from outside the top dozen or so teams.

During the 16-year BCS Era, only twice did the national champion begin the season ranked outside of the top 15 in the preseason and never lower than 22nd (Auburn, 2010, No. 22; Oklahoma, 2000, No. 19). Only four times did the champion come from outside of the top 11 and nine of the last 10 champs were ranked 11th or better in the preseason AP Poll. Even further, eight of the last 10 crystal football winners were ranked seventh or better in the first ranking of the season.

Here is a breakdown of the only 12 teams we deem to be playoff contenders, why we like them and what could be their potential downfall.

Florida State Seminoles
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 13-0, 8-0
Key Games: Clemson, Notre Dame, at Louisville, Florida

Why we like them: The list is long. This roster is one of the top two in the nation along with Alabama. The Seminoles boast the best player in the nation under center, six first-team All-American selections and 11 total All-Americans. One shouldn’t need to explain oneself when talking highly of the defending national champions.

Potential downfall: Complacency and all that comes along with it. That means lack of focus on and off the field. It can mean playing not to lose rather than playing to win. The Noles should be a solid favorite in every game they play so they need to be on guard against a possible letdown.

Alabama Crimson Tide
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: Florida, at Ole Miss, at LSU, Auburn

Why we like them: The Crimson Tide still have the best coach in the nation, arguably the best roster in the nation and will be playing a fairly manageable SEC schedule in 2014. Fans can bet Nick Saban will use the way his team ended last year (0-2) to motivate them this offseason. Anyone remember what happened the last time Alabama missed the national title game by losing the last two games of the year? Yup, it won the ’09 national title the following year — the only perfect record of Saban’s SEC tenure.

Potential downfall: Quarterback play and the secondary. Jacob Coker is largely an unknown but won’t be asked to do too much for Saban’s offense so if he can simply not turn the ball over, Bama should be fine under center. The cornerback position also was an issue last year and doesn’t appear to be back to 2009 or '11 strength. Covering big wideouts has been an issue for Bama the last two seasons.

Ohio State Buckeyes
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: at Penn State, at Michigan State, Michigan

Why we like them: Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer and the best defensive line in the nation. The schedule also sets up very nicely with two quality (but very beatable) non-conference games and only three tough conference games with a possible letdown alert coming at Minnesota after the rematch with the Spartans. Few teams in the nation boast a head coach-quarterback duo like the Buckeyes.

Potential downfall: The offensive line is returning just one starter and the secondary is replacing first-round talents at both linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and cornerback (Bradley Roby). And the schedule might actually hurt Ohio State should it slip up somewhere along the way. A one-loss OSU team would likely be left out for a one-loss SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 team due to lack of schedule strength.

Oklahoma Sooners
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 11-1, 8-1
Key Games: Texas, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State

Why we like them: The defensive front is as good as Bob Stoops has had in a decade and Trevor Knight flashed brilliance against Alabama to end the year. If Knight can stay healthy, the schedule sets up very well for Oklahoma to win the league. All of the key challengers in the league apart from Texas will come to Norman.

Potential downfall: The road schedule includes trips to distant Big 12 outposts in Morgantown, Lubbock, Ames and not-so-distant Fort Worth. Strange things happen to a lot of good teams in those towns. Additionally, many feel that this team could simply be overrated due to one great bowl performance against a less-than-motivated Alabama team.

Listen to a complete playoff breakdown on this week's Cover 2 Podcast:

Oregon Ducks
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 11-2, 7-2
Key Games: Michigan State, at UCLA, Washington, Stanford

Why we like them: Marcus Mariota might be the best player in the nation and, if he stays healthy, could smash Oregon record books this fall. The Ducks also get three of their four biggest games at home, including critical Pac-12 North Division games against the Cardinal and Huskies. From a talent standpoint, there are few teams on offense that can match the Ducks' prowess, speed and athleticism.

Potential downfall: Leadership from the sidelines and a dependency on one player could prove to be just enough to keep Oregon from the postseason. Mark Helfrich is still very much an unknown and when Mariota wasn’t healthy last year, Oregon lost both games with the division crown hanging in the balance. Toss in a nasty overall schedule and the Ducks will need to play near perfect football to reach the playoff. Also, much like Oklahoma, Oregon faces trap games on the road in tough places likes Pullman, Salt Lake City and Corvallis this season.

UCLA Bruins
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 7-2
Key Games: at Arizona State, Oregon, at Washington, USC, Stanford

Why we like them: Getting critical swing games with Oregon, Stanford and USC at home is a huge positive for the Bruins, especially with the Trojans and Cardinal visiting in the last two weeks of the season. Brett Hundley is an elite player and the both lines of scrimmage appear to be developing around him.

Potential downfall: There is an overall lack of playmakers on offense and a lot of young faces dotting the starting lineup on defense. This is an extremely talented team but names in the secondary, along the defensive line and at wide receiver need to take big steps forward. Especially, against a schedule that features six games against preseason Top 25 teams.

Auburn Tigers
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Too many to list

Why we like them: Gus Malzahn is a genius and Nick Marshall runs his unstoppable option offense to perfection. In fact, this offense could be even better this year with a deeper receiving corps and four starters back along the offensive line. Marshall should only continue to add balance with his arm as well.

Potential downfall: The defense allowed 420 yards per game last year, gave up over 35 points per game in the final month and the schedule is as tough as any in the nation. Getting through road trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama unscathed will be virtually impossible while LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all come to The Plains. Lastly, after one full year of game tape to study, Auburn won’t sneak up on anyone this year and won’t be nearly as fortunate as it was a year ago.

Michigan State Spartans
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-1
Key Games: at Oregon, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, at Penn State

Why we like them: Mark Dantonio has built a tradition of defensive prowess that should be able to withstand a lot of key departures. The offense is more stable than a year ago with star power returning in the backfield (Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford). And the schedule sets up nicely with critical conference home tests coming against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska.

Potential downfall: While the roster is in great shape, there are some heavy losses it must withstand on defense to be the nation’s best unit again in 2014. The offensive line also needs some work with just two returning starters. If nothing else, it will take some time for these units to return to form and an early road trip to nasty Autzen Stadium leaves Sparty’s margin for error razor thin within the Big Ten.

Georgia Bulldogs
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 6-2
Key Games: at South Carolina, at Missouri, Florida, Auburn

Why we like them: Jeremy Pruitt steps into run a defense with nine returning starters after having a hand in three of the last four national titles. The offense, although filled with plenty of unknowns, should also be much healthier with Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell clicking on all cylinders this year.

Potential downfall: Georgia has to break in a new quarterback after four full seasons of Aaron Murray. Hutson Mason should have some nice talent to work with at the skill positions but three starters are gone from the O-line as is star tight end Arthur Lynch. The defense tends to underachieve and it’s unknown if Pruitt can simply flip the switch. Clemson and Georgia Tech are tough non-conference games and hosting Auburn in crossover is brutal. Throw in a normally difficult SEC East slate, including road trips to both Columbias, and UGA has one of the harder paths to a playoff berth.

South Carolina Gamecocks
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Georgia, Missouri, at Auburn, at Florida

Why we like them: The offensive line returns entirely intact with Mike Davis fully healthy and ready to churn out yards. The linebackers are now a strength of the defense after being a liability last year. And the Ol’ Ball Coach is still running the show. On the whole, Steve Spurrier has built his program to a new level where it can finally withstand key departures at key positions. Important SEC East games against Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri all come at home as well.

Potential downfall: Key departures at key positions. Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Bruce Ellington, Kelcy Quarles and both cornerbacks are all gone and filling those holes will be very difficult. Dylan Thompson has some experience at quarterback but took a small step back last year while the D-line is easily the biggest concern entering the summer against a nasty schedule that features half-a-dozen excellent running attacks.

Baylor Bears
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 4 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-2
Key Games: at Texas, at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State

Why we like them: Art Briles and Bryce Petty are as good a duo in the nation and the offense should once again be the Big 12’s best. The overall talent on the roster has been elevated to unprecedented levels and the new stadium will bring with it serious energy and expectations in Waco, including key swing home games against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. This team did pound Oklahoma 41-12 last year.

Potential downfall: Heart and soul leaders are gone from the first Big 12 title team in school history and they will be difficult to replace, especially on defense. The schedule is also much more difficult this year with five tricky Big 12 road trips, including to conference front-runner Oklahoma — a place Baylor has never won (0-11). Fans across the nation will learn about Baylor’s staying power this fall.

Stanford Cardinal
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 9-3, 7-2
Key Games: USC, everyone else on the road

Why we like them: The overall depth of this roster is excellent and the physical attitude of this program is unlike any other in the conference. Stanford is the two-time defending champ for a reason. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back for what should be his best season and the skill players around him are better than they have been in years as the tight end might be back in the playbook this year.

Potential downfall: The Cardinal road schedule is probably the toughest in the nation. Key divisional games against Washington and Oregon as well as important crossovers with UCLA and Arizona State and a non-conference tilt with Notre Dame all take place on the road (read that again). The offensive line and front seven on defense have major holes to plug even if those gaps are being filled with very talented prospects. And defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has big shoes to fill now that Derek Mason is in Nashville.

Next best options: USC Trojans, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Wisconsin Badgers, Ole Miss Rebels, LSU Tigers

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