Because time is a fickle mistress, we’re already at the midway mark of the 2014 college football season. Where did the weeks go? Well, Dak Prescott ran over them, and Bo Wallace passed through them, and Jaylon Smith sacked them.
But that’s OK. Less than two months ago, Grantland’s college football enthusiasts gathered in this digital sandbox to offer up predictions we suspected would make us look very foolish in the end, and sure enough, they did! But, never ones to fear our own idiocy, we’ve elected to revise our predictions and share our second-half story lines to watch.
Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on you for reading these Shootarounds, because we’re just going to keep doing them, you guys. Roll Tide. War Eagle. More cowbell, please.
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Playoff participants: Florida State, Ole Miss, Alabama, Michigan State. Two of the four slots might as well be reserved for the winners of the November 29 Egg Bowl and Iron Bowl. Ole Miss and Alabama are my picks over Mississippi State and Auburn for one reason: The Rebels and Crimson Tide get to host their respective all-important rivalry games. Meanwhile, Florida State (assuming Jameis Winston remains in the lineup, which is a week-to-week proposition at this point) and Michigan State are clearly the best two teams in their respective conferences and should win out in the regular season, while the flawed front-runners in the Big 12 and Pac-12 remain at each other’s throats.
National champion: Ole Miss. With a remaining schedule that includes Auburn and Mississippi State in Oxford and LSU and Arkansas on the road, the Rebels may not be ready to run the table. But if they make the playoff cut, they’ll boast a formidable combination of overall talent, a productive senior quarterback, and the best Power 5 defense in the nation in multiple respects.
Heisman winner: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. If I had a vote right now, I’d cast it for Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Unfortunately, there’s a chance Gurley’s college career might be over due to some NCAA bullshit. And while I’d love to see a groundswell of support for, say, a rough-and-tumble defensive lineman like Mississippi State’s Preston Smith or a dynamic wild card like Washington’s Shaq Thompson, the realistic bet for Heisman voters in lieu of an obvious front-runner is a highly visible quarterback with the best career résumé. And in that category, Mariota is way ahead of the pack. (Plus, he was my pick this preseason, so …)
Second-half story line to watch: Whither Winston? The reigning Heisman winner is a ticking time bomb of drama: Between his previous suspension against Clemson, his upcoming disciplinary hearing on a sexual assault allegation, and, yes, some recently uncovered NCAA bullshit, the cloud that formed over Winston last season looks as dark as ever. He appears likely to play this weekend against no. 5 Notre Dame, but beyond that, who knows what sordid revelation each new week will bring? Once the calendar turns to November, every college football season becomes about the chaos at the top of the polls, and the playoff may exacerbate that. Throw in the queasy sense that the best player on arguably the best team could find himself on ice at any moment, and it feels like we’re on the verge of some bona fide madness.
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Playoff participants: Alabama? Baylor? Florida State? Oregon? I don’t have the first clue or shred of confidence about any of these, and I’m completely comfortable with that.
National champion: Baylor? Again, I’ve got no clue, but I’m with Hinton in thinking the Bears might have strung together enough of a defense to make a difference this year, assuming they stay healthy.
Heisman winner: Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia. Yup.
Second-half story line to watch: Roll Tide. Every Power 5 team will have at least one loss by the time Week 15 winds down … and Alabama won’t lose again during the regular season. I know, I know. I’m no fan of ubiquity; I’m in this for entertainment, and I like it bountiful and varied. But we (America) aren’t done with this generation of Tide players just yet. I almost like them more now that they’re demonstrably fallible; it does make for more captivating television.
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Playoff participants: Florida State, Oregon, Baylor, Michigan State. I’m going for boring multiconference representation over my personal desire for a final four of Gurley, Mariota, Dak, and Petty starting a hey-folk band and playing a two-week residency at Red Rocks.
National champion: Oregon. Can Phil Knight live?
Heisman winner: Mariota. DON’T SIGN ANYTHING, MARCUS.
Second-half story line to watch: Fall of the Underdogs. Ask anyone who was in Northeast Philadelphia back in 2008: I love hope and change enough to go door to door to canvass for it. But this ain’t politics. This is war. The Mississippi schools have won a lot of early battles, but like it says on the wrapper, this is just the first half of the season. I just don’t see Ole Miss and Mississippi State emerging from the next six weeks unscathed. One is going to beat the other, and Arkansas has to beat somebody. Until then, I will be searching Etsy for Shepard Fairey–style Dak Prescott posters. I’m just not getting my hopes up.
Playoff participants: Florida State, Oregon, Michigan State, Georgia. Why the Noles? It’s Clemson’s fault. The Ducks? Even after the Zona game, the door is wide open. The Spartans? They lost early enough, and while contenders in the Pac-12 and SEC cannibalize themselves, MSU will be every bit as good against lesser competition. The Bulldogs? They can run the table in the SEC East, then win the SEC championship game, and then …
National champion: Georgia. MARK RICHT HAS LOST CONTROL OF THESE EXPECTATIONS.
Heisman winner: Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State. If he can beat Alabama on the road, it won’t matter if the Bulldogs go undefeated. The voters won’t be able to give it to anyone else.
Second-half story line to watch: Chaos! Anyone who worried that the playoff might cost us a bat-shit regular season can officially rest easy. The potential for teams to get screwed adds a special layer of drama to every Saturday, and here we are again. There are three or four teams from the SEC that could have a legitimate case to be in the playoff at the end of the year, to say nothing of Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. Ohio State might even sneak back into the discussion. Is there any way we get two SEC teams? What if the SEC West champ goes undefeated, but loses in the SEC title game? Will that squad make it over a one-loss team from the Big Ten or Pac-12?
I have no idea how it’ll end, but I can’t wait to watch all this unfold over the next six weeks. The only guarantee is that the first playoff in college football history will arrive with complaints from all over America, blurred lines of fairness, and at least one or two surreal endings that change everything. And that’s exactly the way it should be in college football.
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Playoff participants: [HOLD]. I don’t think we should pick teams this year. I think we should pick placeholders, notions of teams. Something like this: (1) Mississippi State, in the “SEC West champion” slot; (2) Auburn, in the “seemingly dead SEC West team that finishes with one loss” slot; (3) Baylor, in the “Big 12 champ with the crappy nonconference schedule” slot; and (4) Oregon, in the “we need a fourth team, right?” slot.
National champion: Baylor. Call this the “guaranteed to be wrong” slot.
Heisman winner: Prescott. If this is truly the year of Mississippi, there ought to be a Heisman winner that explains why.
Second-half story line to watch: Chaos! Back in the BCS era, writers wielded the c-word to describe the imminent demise of the two-team system. “If Oregon beats Stanford, commence BCS chaos?” was one of many representative headlines. Every upset was supposed to be the BCS’s ruination. It was like Y2K each week.
In 2014, a small but telling semantic change has occurred. Chaos is now a feature rather than a bug. Why is this? Why was the 2011 rise of the SEC West terrible, while its present-day counterpart is the coolest thing ever? Don’t say it’s the playoff. We haven’t had a playoff yet. There’s still plenty of time to feel we got jobbed.
My 2014 theme is this: We are in the midst of an irrationally exuberant transition season. The bad, old BCS system is gone; the flaws of the new system have yet to reveal themselves. These are happy times, and for a couple more weeks, we get to savor “chaos” without sounding like a doomsday cult.
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Playoff participants (Count of Monte Cristo Edition): Mississippi State, Florida State, TCU, Notre Dame. The Irish will avenge their forthcoming 14-point loss to the Seminoles with a 28-point loss to the Noles in the playoff.
National champion (Jim Valvano Memorial Edition): TCU. Playoffs create upsets, right? The Horned Frogs will sneak in after Baylor and Oklahoma implode, then roll to the title by a combined score of 188-186. I like this scenario because I’m pretty sure the AP would respond by issuing an emergency post-championship poll that gave the title to Alabama.
Heisman winner (X Marks the Spot Edition): Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss. You’d think Dak Prescott would have a leg up here, but I see Wallace getting the committee’s nod after a November press conference during which he tearfully announces that, as a student at a public school in Mississippi, he doesn’t actually know how to sign his name.
Second-half story line to watch (Decided Schematic Advantage Edition): How Will Charlie Weis Fail Upward Next? There are bigger stories in college football. There are more important stories in college football. But there are no more delightful stories in college football than Charlie Weis’s mushroom-cloud-size golden parachute. Weis, as Grantland’s Matt Hinton explored, stands to make as much as $4.6 million in 2015, despite having been fired by Kansas after the second game of the season; he is still the highest-paid athletics employee at Notre Dame, where he last coached a game in 2009. It’s a little bit inspiring, watching Charlie Weis fail at a genius level. He is bad at his job, yes, but he is so, so good at being bad at it. So where does he go next? Here are five headlines I expect to see between now and bowl season.
1. CHARLIE WEIS CRASHES YACHT INTO DESERT ISLAND; ‘HAHAHA THE WHOLE PLACE IS FULL OF PLATINUM,’ HE INFORMS RESCUE HELICOPTER
2. CHARLIE WEIS GIVEN PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM AFTER NOSEDIVING PRIVATE JET INTO WHAT JUST HAPPENED TO BE A GATHERING OF SERIAL KILLERS
3. CHARLIE WEIS FIRES GUN INTO OWN FACE, WAKES UP KNOWING THE FORMULA FOR COLD FUSION
4. CHARLIE WEIS WINS POWERBALL LOTTERY; ‘WAIT, THIS ISN’T A DIET RED BULL?’ THE DAZED EX-COACH MURMURS AS HE EYEBALLS THE WINNING TICKET
5. GOD-EMPEROR CHARLIE WEIS, PRAISED BE HIS NAME, SLIPS ON SPILLED NEWMAN’S OWN LEMONADE AND FALLS BACKWARD THROUGH MAGICAL PORTAL OF IMMORTALITY; ‘YOU GUYS WANT TO KNOW HOW A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE ENDS?’ NEWLY APPOINTED LORD OF ALL CREATION ASKS HIS TERRIFIED MINIONS
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Playoff participants: Auburn, Baylor, Oregon, a four-year public institution from the state of Mississippi. I believe there will be two teams from the SEC West, and two other teams from the Big 12/Pac-12/Big Ten, and I believe Florida State and Notre Dame will both fall out of contention in the second half, and I believe I am almost certainly wrong about everything.
National champion: Auburn. Because I think the Tigers are probably the second-best team in the SEC West, and because I’m still in some kind of unconscious denial about this thing happening in Mississippi.
Heisman winner: Mariota. Because Dak rhymes with “ack,” and because this has the looks of a “default candidate” kind of year.
Second-half story line to watch: The Plight of the Little Guy. So let’s say that at season’s end, there’s a logjam of major-conference programs with two losses vying for that fourth playoff spot. And let’s say that (1) East Carolina wins out, and (2) Marshall goes undefeated. Will anyone even notice? Will anyone care?
The very notion of the playoff was conceived to ensure a more democratic system, but with the balance of power veering toward five conferences, I imagine neither the Pirates nor the Herd will earn much (if any) consideration, no matter what they do. And that will lead to the same old circular strength-of-schedule arguments that got us here in the first place.
Playoff participants: Ole Miss, Baylor, Notre Dame, Oregon. In theory, the College Football Playoff was conceived to increase the likelihood of a non–SEC West team winning the national championship. In reality …
National champion: Ole Miss. I don’t think the Rebels are appreciably better than #CLANGA, but give me the Mississippi team that has already played Bama and gets to host the Egg Bowl.
Heisman winner: Prescott. Provided, of course, the NCAA doesn’t see this.
Second-half story line to watch: One B1G Comeback. Back in Week 2, blowout losses by Michigan State (to Oregon) and Ohio State (to Virginia Tech) seemed to effectively eliminate the Big Ten from playoff contention. The conference looked too weak for a one-loss champion to snag a final four spot, and besides, neither team would have another crack at a nonconference Power 5 opponent. Then the season got weird, with 11 ranked squads falling in Week 6, and a glimmer of hope began to emerge for the crusty old Big Ten, and specifically for Michigan State and Ohio State.
The resolute Spartans and much-improved Buckeyes meet in East Lansing next month, and the victor will have an extraordinarily strong chance of winning out. (Seriously, check out their schedules.) If chaos continues to reign elsewhere — i.e., if Ole Miss and Mississippi State both lose before the Egg Bowl, Stanford gets its customary victory over Oregon, and the rest of the SEC eats itself alive — you may be forced to watch Big Ten football in January, and not just in the Outback Bowl.
Playoff participants: Alabama, Oregon, Michigan State, Notre Dame. With every Power 5 squad but Notre Dame (!) eventually registering at least one loss, the teams that went down early and won big late will be best positioned to earn the selection committee’s nods. And that means we might still get the Alabama-Oregon title game so many of us anticipated this preseason.
National champion: Alabama. What can I say? I’m a slow learner.
Heisman winner: Mariota. Even if Oregon pulls its annual bed-shitting act (uh, you know, a second time …) and loses to Stanford, Mariota’s candidacy isn’t going to suffer if he maintains his totally normal, nothing-to-see-here 17-TO-ZERO TOUCHDOWN-TO-INTERCEPTION RATIO. Dak’s been incredible, but he’s the front-runner at the midway point, and that means he’s got more to lose than to gain.
Second-half story line to watch: Courting Mullen. Danny boy has worked wonders in Starkville, winning with inferior individual talent that he’s turned into a superior squad. So, seriously, think about what he could do with a field full of five-stars at Florida. This could be a big year for destination-job openings (Florida, Michigan … LSU and Georgia, if you ask insane LSU and Georgia fans [said with love!]), and Mullen’s going to be atop everyone’s list after the wizardry he’s worked this season.
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Playoff participants: Ole Miss, Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon. Michigan State will probably win its remaining games, but the committee has promised to consider strength of schedule, which will cost Sparty.
National champion: Alabama. With Bama’s offense and defense in the top 12 of my adjusted yards per play rankings, it’s impossible for me to go against Nick Saban’s squad.
Heisman winner: Wallace. It’s hard to deny a blond quarterback from an unexpected SEC contender.
Second-half story line to watch: Playoff Blowback. Come December 7, college football fans will hate the playoff more than they hated the BCS. The selection committee has an impossible task in picking the fourth-best team, and when it announces that squad, fans from East Lansing to Waco to Auburn will be irate that their team got left out due to some fuzzy notion like strength of schedule. Couches will burn as fans scream for an eight-team playoff that includes the champion of every Power 5 league.