Pivot Points: Power Five conferences 

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
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Gary AndersonMichael Hickey/Getty ImagesThe Badgers could very well be playing a playoff contention knockout game in Week 1.
With the countdown to college football’s kickoff now measured in hours, we thought we would revise a feature from 2013 called “Pivot Points.” As a refresher, it’s cause-and-effect; “if X happens, then Y will happen.”

Here's one take for each Power Five conference:

If Wisconsin can get past LSU this week, then the Badgers will be in the playoff.


I’ll quickly lay out why the Badgers will at minimum gain momentum if they win this week.

Up next: Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. That takes you to the middle of November, when they close with Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.

So, even with some front-seven question marks and a first-time starter at QB, Wisconsin is 100 percent a playoff threat. But the Badgers will likely have to go undefeated to make it, which means knocking out a wild-card LSU team this weekend.

In fact, there’s a shot this could be a playoff contention knockout game. Both teams are on the fringe, and this is a win that both could very well need by November to woo the committee.

Coaches reveal their playoff picks 

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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Hutson MasonTodd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia pulled in multiple votes among coaches -- could this suggest two SEC teams in the playoff?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today's question: We polled 20 coaches and asked them, "Which teams do you predict will be in the inaugural College Football Playoff?"

We've analyzed the College Football Playoff pecking order in almost every way imaginable. I even started my deep dive back in January. All of the speculation will change this weekend, of course, when we have actual game activity on which to base our opinions.

In the meantime, however, I contacted as many coaches I could to poll them. Surely, they've seen, heard and know enough to gauge who will still be playing come January.

In fact, I’ll make a little wager. I’ll bet you an Austin street taco and a local brew that my group of 20 coaches nails all four playoff teams. I’ve got faith in this well-paid-yet-motley crew.

The only teams that didn't get a vote in my poll but still scare me as sleepers are Clemson and Miami from the ACC, Iowa from the Big Ten, Kansas State from the Big 12 and USC from the Pac-12. Clearly, those squads are on the far end of the probability spectrum, but so were 2013 Auburn and 2012 Notre Dame.

And if a playoff team does wind up being one not listed here, well, we’re in for a really fun year -- and I’ll buy you a dang taco and a beer, anyway.

In addition to the 20 responses, three coaches abstained. UCLA’s Jim Mora promptly responded that he "didn't have an opinion," which elicited a chuckle from me.

“I only think about two teams, UCLA and our opponent,” Mora said. “Classic coachspeak!”

Troll on, Jimmay. Your pops is proud as we enter this play-offff?! era.

And then there’s the Power Five coach who suggested this final four: Air Force, New Mexico State, Idaho and Eastern Michigan. There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there?

But on to more earnest efforts: There was a lot of chalk, and a lot of favorites. A ballot I particularly liked was one coach taking Florida State, South Carolina, Stanford and Wisconsin.

“Didn’t want to come with the typical BS,” he said. Perfectly plausible -- and original! Thanks, Coach.

As for the chalk, the coaches picked four conference favorites as the leaders to make the playoff: FSU (19 of 20 ballots), Alabama (16), Oklahoma (10) and Oregon (10).

Let’s cut through that to where the intrigue begins. I have a hunch that the next six teams chosen by the coaches, receiving between two and five votes, wind up being the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds. There will be surprises. And they’ll likely come from this group.


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Connor CookAllen Kee/ESPN ImagesConnor Cook and the Spartans can emerge as new Big Ten favorites for the College Football Playoff.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: In honor of the College Football Playoff, which four teams' stock has been on the rise since the start of preseason camp, and which four teams have seen their stock drop?

Whether or not Ohio State is ultimately hopeless without Braxton Miller, we know that, at the bare minimum, the Buckeyes’ national title chances took a substantial hit when the playmaking senior quarterback re-injured his throwing shoulder last week.

Where there was previously a swirl of uncertainty and optimism around the Buckeyes -- who, mind you, haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2011 -- now only lies unsettling doubt.

“I already wasn’t sure about them,” one coach said last week, just after the Miller news hit. “Without [Miller], there’s no way. He got them out of so many bad plays. Who cares if he ever became a [pure] passer? The kid made things happen.”

You know what’s distinctly possible? An 0-2 start. Would you be all that stunned if the Miller-less Bucks, trying to figure things out and establish a new identity, stumbled against both Navy and Virginia Tech? Those are not bad teams, folks. And ESPN's recently-updated Football Power Index now has OSU ranked No. 12, down six spots minus Braxton.

For the obvious reason of losing what might have been college football’s most valuable player to his team’s playoff chances, Ohio State leads our discussion of teams with shifting stock during August.

And in each case, there is a beneficiary on the rise. That is to say, for every Ohio State, there’s a Michigan State.

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Better offense: '14 OSU or '10 Florida? 

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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Urban MeyerGreg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsJ.T. Barrett has been unexpectedly thrust into a starting position for the Buckeyes.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Could 2014 Ohio State (minus Braxton Miller) be as bad as 2010 Florida (minus Tim Tebow) on offense?

The coaches I’ve talked with this week emphatically say no. There’s too much faith in the offensive system and coaching -- whether it’s Urban Meyer or OC Tom Herman -- and too much respect for Ohio State’s skill position talent.

The Buckeyes might lose a game or two, but the personnel is not going to let them slip far.

“They’ve got guys at every position,” a coach in another league said.

“Guys” is often an understated term in the coaching world. It translates roughly to “NFL talent.”

“They’re loaded,” he said of the Buckeyes, who are on their way to a fourth consecutive top-10 recruiting class under Meyer. “They’re everywhere.”

So don’t expect those esophageal spasms to flare up for Meyer this season, even if his team's playoff hopes are shakier than they were a week ago.

So what will the offense look like without the dynamic and experienced Braxton Miller?

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Week 2 make-or-break for Big Ten 

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
11:16
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Connor CookAndrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAs new conference favorites, can Connor Cook and the Spartans show up for the Big Ten?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: In light of Ohio State QB Braxton Miller's season-ending injury and the Notre Dame academic investigation, how monumental has Week 2 become for the Big Ten?

An academic investigation in South Bend. Miller's shoulder injury in Columbus. It might seem counterintuitive after adversity hit both Notre Dame and Ohio State the past few days, but college football’s second week could be even more meaningful as a result.

Just look at the lineup: Michigan State at Oregon, Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech and Michigan at Notre Dame. It would not be an exaggeration to say each of those games could be make-or-break in terms of the College Football Playoff hopes for those three Big Ten teams.

So let’s take a closer look at how those Big Ten East Division teams have had their chances altered, for better and worse.




Michigan State Spartans

With Ohio State’s playoff chances greatly diminished sans Miller, Michigan State’s game at Oregon takes on even more meaning.

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Braxton MillerJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesWhich teams will benefit the most from Braxton Miller's absence?
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Now that Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season, which teams instantly rise in the playoff pecking order?

Ohio State QB Braxton Miller reinjured his right, throwing shoulder in practice on Monday, and following an MRI on Tuesday morning, a source told ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy that Miller is out for the season.

A Heisman Trophy candidate expected to lead his team to the inaugural College Football Playoff, Miller's absence will directly affect Ohio State's Big Ten competitors, as well as teams across the country that might have otherwise been behind OSU in the minds of the selection committee.

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Will Jake Coker live up to the hype? 

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
12:08
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Jacob Coker 140806AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha HuntJake Coker, who didn't arrive at Alabama until May, will beat out Blake Sims.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -– it all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Will Jake Coker start for Alabama Week 1 against West Virginia?

Based on conversations with several coaches and those who know Nick Saban well, I made Coker my No. 1 breakout player in a file that was published a couple of weeks back.

Am I regretting that now that Saban has said Blake Sims and Coker are essentially in a dead heat in Tide camp? Is it time to alter expectations for Coker?

Heck, no. Here’s why.

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Muschamp among coaches on hot seat 

August, 17, 2014
Aug 17
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Will MuschampSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp knows he'll need to win more games to hang on to his job at Florida.
Take it from a coach on the hot seat to explain how you get there. And Will Muschamp is without question there as he enters his fourth season as head coach of the Florida Gators.

“You can point to whatever you want to, and we’ve had our fair share of adversity,” Muschamp told me back in the spring, “but we haven’t won enough games. You’ve got to win games. We’ve got to do a better job, as coaches and all of us, and that’s what we’re working to do.”

He’s right. Put whatever you’d like into the front end of the formula, but the back end had better result in victories. Muschamp had 18 wins in his first two seasons with the Gators, but 2013's 4-8 debacle -- even one during which the team was ravaged by injuries -- has cast a dark cloud over his future with the program, even as AD Jeremy Foley continues to voice support.

Muschamp, 22-16 at Florida, leads our look at coaches feeling the heat entering the 2014 season.

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Should playoff include eight teams? 

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
9:56
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2009 Alabama Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf an SEC champ somehow gets shut out of the playoff, calls to expand to eight teams will follow.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.


Today’s question: Should the playoff have started at eight teams?

Yes, ideally, because the current “playoff” is literally an invitational; the committee ultimately decides who's in. Merit is defined by a 13-person panel.

But as we gravitate toward autonomy and the Power Five is entrenched, the conference that gets left out of the four-team model -- or more than one league, potentially -- will raise hell. And that's why I believe we'll see an expansion to eight teams in the coming years.

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Deontay Greenberry, Jordan BatisteBob Levey/Getty ImagesDeontay Greenberry is one of the young stars expected to lead the Cougars this season.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Which is the best-equipped team from the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt) to make a New Year’s Six bowl?

I irritated Central Florida fans the other day when I wrote that UCF shouldn’t be ranked, so this should really make the Knights’ day: Houston is going to be the better American Athletic team in 2014.

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Clear preseason Heisman pick: Mariota 

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
9:45
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Marcus MariotaJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota is back from injury, and ready to pick up where he left off last year.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kick off on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: How did I arrive at my preseason Heisman top five of Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Braxton Miller, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon?

I’ve been big all summer on Braxton Miller and Ohio State breaking through in big ways. I made a late change in my initial Heisman Watch vote, however, because I’m not fully confident in the health of Miller’s shoulder.

Coach Urban Meyer and OSU insist that the senior QB is fine in his recovery from spring surgery and that the plan all along was to bring him back slowly during camp. But I’ve got to see Miller in action to fully buy into him as the front-runner.

In the meantime, Miller is keeping good company. A strong start could quickly pull him even with the reigning Heisman winner, Jameis Winston, and the majority favorite, Marcus Mariota. Personally, I’ll start the season with Mariota ahead of Winston.

Marcus Mariota | Oregon Ducks | QB


I remain convinced that Mariota would have won the Heisman last year if not for the knee sprain that prevented him from being himself in the loss at Stanford and over the following weeks, which included the stunning rout at Arizona.

When Mariota couldn’t run, Oregon’s offense became more predictable.

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College Football Playoff National Championship TrophyAP Photo/Tony GutierrezA conference champion is guaranteed to be left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Will there be one or two teams with legitimate cases left out of the playoff?

No one is under the assumption that the new playoff format will suddenly eliminate debate from college football. If it did, I would have been vehemently opposed to the playoff. Conversation -- and consternation, at times -- have driven the sport, and fortunately it’ll continue to be that way. Deserving teams will be left out of the playoff; if it doesn’t happen this year, it will soon enough.

Playoff director Bill Hancock said as much when he met with us last week at ESPN. So did Arkansas AD Jeff Long, the selection committee’s chairman. There will be debate in November, even with the committee’s desire to be transparent in the process. In fact, that openness will invite more discussion.

So who will the debate be about? Which teams will be left behind?

My playoff choices since the first week in January have been Alabama, FSU, Ohio State and UCLA. I’m sticking with them, so they’re in and seeded in that order.

Projected records: Alabama (12-1; SEC champ), FSU (12-1; ACC champ), Ohio State (12-1; Big Ten champ), UCLA (11-2; Pac-12 champ).

That means one league champ doesn’t get in ... and it’s the league that doesn’t play a title game.

Team 1: Let’s say Oklahoma loses at Texas Tech and finishes 11-1, winning the Big 12.

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Notre Dame can spoil FSU's season 

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
12:40
PM ET
Everett GolsonJoel Auerbach/Getty ImagesEverett Golson will lead the most threatening offense the Irish have had in years.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -– it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Which team could potentially knock off FSU?

The Florida State Seminoles, according to our Stats & Information department, have a 40 percent chance of going undefeated. The next-closest Power Five undefeated probability is Ohio State -- at 8 percent.

It’s sort of like a batting average in baseball, isn't it? Optimal as it might seem by relative comparison, FSU still has a 60 percent chance of losing at least one game.

Why that’s important: How much would the playoff selection committee discount a one-loss FSU team because of a weaker ACC schedule -- the very one that dramatically increases its odds of going 12-0 in the regular season? How much cache would it carry being the defending champs? Would it need to go undefeated to crack the top four?

The Football Power Index formula suggests that Miami (13 percent win probability), Clemson (12 percent) and Florida (9 percent) will be the closest games.

But, c’mon, you’ve watched enough college football. It’s the longshot that often comes in.

That longshot is Notre Dame. And here’s why.

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Aggies, Rebels aren't top-25 teams 

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
10:55
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Kevin SumlinPatrick Green/Icon SMIKevin Sumlin's Texas A&M Aggies have high expectations for this season.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners -- it all will be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s question: Which four teams should not be in the ESPN Power Rankings?

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Power Rankings: Four that should be in 

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
11:11
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Brandon ScherffKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBrandon Scherff -- the "best player in the country" -- leads an increasingly deep Hawkeyes roster.
As we count down 50 days until the start of the 2014 college football season, ESPN Insider Travis Haney is answering at least one big question a day until South Carolina and Texas A&M’s kickoff on Aug. 28.

Heisman contenders, breakout freshmen, conference winners – it will all be covered as part of Insider’s Ultimate Season Preview.

Today’s questions: Which four teams should have been in the ESPN Power Rankings?

In a replication of the new College Football Playoff selection committee, ESPN created a 13-person panel to vote on our weekly Power Rankings.

The preseason Top 25 is here, and there are some real misses by our in-house voting body. Here’s how I would have done it differently.

 





Iowa Hawkeyes


This is a no-brainer.

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