Weak Links: The Potentially Fatal Flaw for College Football’s Top Contenders

The 2014 college football season is rapidly approaching. Are you excited? We’re excited! We’re also here to help you prep for the impending campaign with a steady stream of preview content. So check back daily (well, not on weekends!) for more on the players, teams, leagues, trends, and emojis destined to define this season. Roll Tide. Or War Damn Eagle. Whichever.

The 2014 college football season begins this week, making this the precise moment when the carefully assembled scaffolding of preseason polls, bowl projections, and Heisman hype begins to quiver and crack under the weight of reality. By now you’ve read the predictions, internalized the narratives, and debated the odds. You know the new stars better than you probably should, and the old stars better than your own children.

You also know that some of those summer dreams will turn out to be hopelessly, hilariously misplaced. Order and optimism spring eternal in August, but chaos and disappointment will soon reign. For a few more days, every team is a contender; for a few more moments, this feels like your year! We regret to inform you that, most likely, it’s not.

Seven teams boast odds of 15/1 or better to win the first national championship awarded under the auspices of a four-team playoff. (An eighth contender, Ohio State, was effectively bounced from the race in the wake of a season-ending injury to quarterback Braxton Miller.) There’s a very good chance one of those seven will in fact be the last team standing in January, hoisting the new, Georgia O’Keeffe–inspired trophy awarded to the playoff champ. In each case, though, there’s still a much higher likelihood of coming up short. As a wise man once said: You only gotta fuck up once. So which weak link could prove pivotal? From the bottom of the list to the top, here’s why each of the ostensible heavyweights could ultimately find itself on the mat.

UCLA: Irrational Exuberance

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AP Poll: no. 7 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 7  Consensus: no. 7  Odds: 14/1

UCLA is the team on this list that least resembles a perennial juggernaut; the Bruins haven’t finished in the top 10 of the AP Poll since the 1998 season, or anywhere in the final poll in 13 of the past 15 seasons. They’re divisive, but the believers really, truly believe. Phil Steele, the dean of the preseason prognostoscenti, ranked UCLA fifth in his annual slab of a magazine, higher than any other Pac-12 contender. At least one national pundit became possessed by such a violent case of Bruin fever this summer that he ranked them no. 1, and no lesser luminaries than Lee Corso and Desmond Howard followed suit over the weekend by tabbing UCLA as their national championship pick on national TV. Even those who doubt the Bruins’ national potential have seen fit to install them as runaway favorites to win the Pac-12 South.

The object of most people’s affection, of course, is redshirt junior quarterback Brett Hundley, who told the NFL “thanks but no thanks” after accounting for nearly two-thirds of UCLA’s total offense in 2013, including a lion’s share of the production on the ground.1 Still, Hundley didn’t always match that success through the air, and the Bruins struggled against the conference’s upper crust, managing just 10 points against Stanford and 14 against Oregon in consecutive October losses, falling short of 300 total yards in each game; against Arizona State, the best team in the South, the Bruins’ second-half rally couldn’t make up for a lethargic first half in a loss that decided the division for ASU.

Hundley threw five interceptions in those three games, posting a combined efficiency rating of 120.2, more than 40 points below his rating in UCLA’s wins. Even when he was on, though, he could never really trust his offensive line, a patchwork unit that wound up starting three true freshmen over the second half of the season2 and subsequently finished 109th in Adjusted Sack Rate, or his wide receivers, none of whom ranked among the top 150 nationally in terms of targets or yards per target.

This year, Hundley will be working without his best 2013 blocker (Xavier Su’a-Filo, a high second-round draft pick by the Texans) and receiver (Shaquelle Evans, a fourth-round pick by the Jets), and will be stuck with the same committee of undistinguished tailbacks. Even with Myles Jack on the field, it’s tough to envision that all adding up to a breakthrough against a schedule that boasts a degree of difficulty on par with the Temple of the Sun.

Georgia: Who’s the Quarterback?

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AP Poll: no. 12 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 12 • Consensus: no. 10 • Odds: 14/1

I mean, I’m aware his name is Hutson Mason, but who is he? I don’t know this guy. Why should I trust him? He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit out of high school in 2010, and he’s done nothing in the intervening four years, while nailed to the bench behind Aaron Murray, to cast doubt on the scouts’ assessments. Mason’s two starts in place of an injured Murray at the end of last season were fine, but nothing to write home about. His first game as Georgia’s actual Starting Quarterback will come against a Clemson front seven loaded with future draft picks who collectively spent more time in opposing backfields in 2013 than any other college defense. It’s looking increasingly likely that it will also come without his best receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, who just underwent a second knee surgery after missing 2013 with a torn ACL.

It would be one thing if Georgia’s new quarterback were operating opposite a top-shelf defense like, say, Alabama’s (see below). Mason won’t be. Last year, Georgia yielded at least 30 points in eight of 11 games against opponents from Power Five conferences, including close, high-scoring wins over LSU (44-41), Tennessee (34-31), and Georgia Tech (41-34). Then UGA sent not one but two starting safeties packing over the offseason and lost a starting cornerback to transfer. What, exactly, is significantly better about this lineup than the one that finished unranked in 2013 for the third time in the last five years?

Oklahoma: The Good or the Bad?

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AP Poll: no. 4 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 3 • Consensus: no. 4 • Odds: 10/1

Quarterback Trevor Knight is one of the nation’s most compelling wild cards entering the season, with his MVP turn in the Sooners’ Sugar Bowl ambush of Alabama largely erasing the memories of his mediocre showing during the regular season. Compared to the rest of Oklahoma’s skill players, though, the sophomore quarterback is a proven commodity: Altogether, the Sooners lost their top three tailbacks and three of their top four wide receivers from 2013, leaving us with virtually no insight into the depth chart beyond what the recruiting rankings tell us. Even on that front, the picture has been muddied by the arrest and subsequent suspension of five-star freshman tailback Joe Mixon, and by the NCAA’s decision to deny former five-star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham’s waiver request to play immediately after being dismissed from Missouri.

Before its bowl-game triumph, Oklahoma never settled on a coherent offensive identity last season, muddling through a series of ghastly offensive performances against the best teams on its schedule: Texas, Baylor, and Oklahoma State. (The Sooners also struggled mightily to score against one of the worst teams on the schedule, West Virginia.) The Sugar Bowl performance was brilliant, but it’s difficult to reconcile with the flops in the Red River Rivalry and in Waco, and there’s no good reason to expect the Sooners to hit the high note on a weekly basis this year.

Auburn: Karma Police

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AP Poll: no. 6 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 5 • Consensus: no. 6 • Odds: 9/1

Auburn fans bristle at the implication that last year’s miracle run to the BCS title game was … well, a miracle, as opposed to a hard-earned triumph of execution, perseverance, and the triple option. But, come on, we were there. We all know the odds of rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter at Texas A&M and connecting on a once-in-a-lifetime Hail Mary to beat Georgia and conjuring a once-in-a-millennium dagger out of thin air to upset Alabama with no time on the clock, all within the span of six games. And those odds are pretty damn well near zero.

There’s no external, cosmic force determined to put the Tigers in their place, just like there was none intervening on their behalf, but such improbable results do tend to even out over time, especially when they hinge in part on a defense that yields well more than 400 yards per game, as Auburn’s has in each of the past three years. (In fact, against FBS offenses, the 2013 SEC champions allowed a whopping 439.8 yards per game, the exact same number as the hapless outfit that finished in last place in the SEC West in 2012.) The Tigers can perform exactly as well this season as they did last season and realistically expect to finish with two or three additional losses. And after sending two first-round draft picks and a Heisman finalist to the NFL, even that seems like an awful lot to expect.

Oregon: Running Wild?

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AP Poll: no. 3 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 4 • Consensus: no. 3 • Odds: 7/1

Look, the last thing I ever want to do as an ostensible “expert”3 is lend any credence whatsoever to the meathead faction that revels in dismissing the Ducks as “soft” or, worse, “gimmicky.” Oregon is consistently one of the most productive, entertaining outfits in America, and it owns the best record in the FBS over the past four years. But let’s face facts: Since Chip Kelly’s promotion to head coach in 2009, Oregon has played nine games against opponents that went on to finish in the top 10 at season’s end, and it lost seven of them. And those games have tended to follow a fairly predictable pattern:

Oregon Rushing Chart

For some context: Only six other opponents in that span have managed to hold the Ducks below 200 yards rushing, and not very far below.4 Stanford, especially, has defined its ascendance in the Pac-12 North by carving out a niche as the anti-Oregon: Although they were gashed in a pair of lopsided losses in 2010 and 2011, the Cardinal have manhandled the Ducks the past two years, bringing undefeated, unchallenged seasons to an abrupt halt on both occasions. Before Oregon rolled into Palo Alto last November, it had scored at least 42 points in every game en route to an 8-0 start, winning all eight by at least three touchdowns. After, it limped out the victim of a thorough 26-20 mugging that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggested.5 Offensively, the Cardinal added insult to injury by pounding out 274 rushing yards of their own in a series of patient, methodical marches to the sea.

The next time Oregon controls the line of scrimmage against an opponent of that caliber will be the first.

Alabama: Rebuilding, for Real

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AP Poll: no. 2 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 2 • Consensus: no. 2 • Odds: 5/1

We’ve discussed the quarterback situation at length, yet we’re still no closer to actually identifying who the starter is going to be. But many of the same optimistic assumptions that seem to apply to the new quarterback — “Oh, he’ll be fine, this is Alabama!” — apply elsewhere, too: the starting left tackle is a true freshman, the defensive front seven is exceedingly green, and the young cornerbacks are still licking their wounds from the Sugar Bowl.

Yes, the newcomers all have sterling pedigrees according to the recruitniks, and yes, Nick Saban’s past teams have rarely bowed to attrition. But dynasties don’t last forever, especially in this century, as former front-runners Miami, USC, and Florida can all attest. In each of those cases, the cracks in the facade were visible before the win-loss record itself began to give way, but were largely ignored until it did. In Alabama’s case, even before the two-game losing streak that ended last season, the Crimson Tide had endured both the most anemic offensive performance (against Virginia Tech) and the most generous defensive performance (against Texas A&M) of the Saban era without losing a single no. 1 vote in the polls. Such minuscule fissures accumulate. At some point, the next generation of blue chips will come up shy of the lofty bar set by their predecessors, and this particular point seems as likely as any.

Florida State: Chaos Theory

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AP Poll: no. 1 • Coaches’ Poll: no. 1 • Consensus: no. 1 • Odds: 4/1

Don’t worry: We’re not going to insult your intelligence by suggesting the Seminoles don’t deserve their place atop every preseason poll. If you come across a poll that doesn’t defer to the defending champs, feel free to laugh in its face; you know a desperate cry for attention when you see it. Until further notice, Florida State is no. 1, period.

Now, that said, running the table in consecutive seasons is exceedingly difficult — no I-A/FBS outfit has closed out back-to-back undefeated seasons since Nebraska in 1994-95, before the arrival of the BCS — and the addition of one more, very high hurdle before the championship round will only make it more so. FSU’s checklist mostly concerns the defense, which lost six starters, including leading tackler Telvin Smith and All-Americans Timmy Jernigan and Lamarcus Joyner. The projected starting defensive lineup doesn’t feature a single senior. Surely Jernigan’s muscle will be missed in the middle of the defensive line? Who can hope to replace Joyner’s Polamaluvian range and versatility in the secondary? And what about wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a truly outrageous talent even by Florida State standards? Raw as he may have been, Benjamin was arguably the best receiver in the nation over the last six weeks of the season and was the only Seminole drafted in the first round in May.

And perish the thought, but what if Jameis Winston is injured, or suspended, or otherwise indisposed, even briefly, against a tougher schedule? The top backup in 2013, Jacob Coker, is now in Tuscaloosa, leaving the safety net in the hands of nondescript sophomore Sean Maguire. If pressed, how long could he weather the storm?

To be fair: If the most plausible scenario for failing to repeat as national champion involves a hypothetical catastrophe befalling the reigning Heisman winner, FSU is in pretty good shape.

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, College Football Playoff, 2014 College Football Playoff, UCLA Bruins, Georgia Bulldogs, Oklahoma Sooners, Auburn Tigers, Oregon Ducks, Alabama Crimson Tide, Florida State Seminoles, Brett Hundley, Trevor Knight, Nick Saban, Jameis Winston, NCAA, Matt Hinton

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Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton