Let's start with one of those fun lists that uses world events to make a moderate passage of time seem like eons. The last time I blogged about college football, on May 11:
- The Confederate flag flew proudly atop the South Carolina state capitol.
- Gay marriage was illegal in 13 states.
- Fortune 40 companies allowed their employees to use Donald Trump's hotels and golf courses.
- Rachel Dolezal was a black woman.
- Walter Palmer could fill a cavity without fear of PETA sniper fire.
- Tom Brady was a cheater.
While some things never change, in other ways two and a half months ago feels like a different time period, a simpler, more innocent epoch when deflated footballs and steroid kings dominated the headlines, before they were supplanted by headless lions, headless babies and crazy candidates.
Thank God football season is around the corner. Maybe if we turn our attention to the gridiron and away from the news, we can choke the crazy of its needed attention supply before it metastasizes any further.
One more order of business: Let's dispense with the notion of "surefire," "bold," or "bankable" football predictions. All sports predictions are shots in the dark, whether made by people who get paid millions for them (Simmons, Reilly); who get paid a few cents a month for them (me); or who earn nothing from them beyond the satisfaction of winning drunken barroom arguments (probably anyone bored enough to be reading this blog).
Face it, when it comes to sports, you can spend hours scrutinizing statistics, reading scouting reports and analyzing match-ups, only to gain a nugatory amount of insight, and diminishing returns set in quickly. No one knows what's going to happen, and most of the factors that determine outcomes can't be gleaned from objective data. If I'm wrong, why do guys who pore over college basketball minutiae every March always lose the office pool to some chick who filled out her bracket based on stylish uniforms and cute coaches?
So take these predictions for what they are: the conjectures of one guy, encumbered by bias, shrouded in ignorance, and sure to be wrong. Which, really, makes me the same as the big-time sportswriters, minus the talent and the big paycheck.
Here are five predictions for the 2015 college football season.
1. Ohio State doesn't repeat.
The Buckeyes were unquestionably the best team at the end of 2014. And they return as much or more talent than any team on their heels. But several factors are working against them. The first is obvious: They're the defending champs. The target on their backs is massive. Every team on their schedule has its date with OSU circled. All it takes is one slip-up, one overlooking of an upstart team, one game where they're not 100% dialed in, on the same day their opponent plays over their heads, and Ohio State is on the outside looking in. Even with a four-team postseason, as TCU and Baylor can attest, one loss can be too many.
Then there's Urban Meyer's quarterback situation. It made for fun banter on the late night talk shows in January, but waiting until you're well into August to settle on a QB rarely turns out well. Braxton Miller, at least, appears to be out of the picture, having moved to H-back. But until either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones is named as the starter, that person is only getting half the first-team reps he could be getting. One could argue, and validly, that both guys did more than okay when called upon with little experience in 2014. But the margin for error is smaller when you're the defending champs.
Lastly, lack of team control, an issue that's hung around Meyer's neck like an albatross his entire career, seems to be taking hold in Columbus. Four Buckeye players, all starters, recently earned one-game suspensions for "violation of team policy" -- nebulous coachspeak that is almost invariably code for "positive drug test." OSU's opponent in that one game? Their 2014 conquistador, Virginia Tech. And it's on the road.
2. The trophy returns to the SEC.
This isn't a fanboy homer prediction. It's math. The SEC has the most teams with a realistic shot of winning it all. That simple fact gives the conference, at this point, the highest probability of recapturing the trophy.
Suppose we sort every Power 5 team into one of four categories: good chance of winning it all, so-so chance of winning it all, outside chance of winning it all, and no chance of winning it all. No need to list the teams in the last category, since they're irrelevant. What we want to know is how many teams from the Power 5 conferences have at least an outside chance of winning it all.
Good chance: Florida State
So-so chance: Clemson, Georgia Tech
Outside chance: Virginia Tech
Good chance: Ohio State, Michigan State
So-so chance: Wisconsin
Outside chance: None
Good chance: TCU, Baylor
So-so chance: Oklahoma
Outside chance: Oklahoma State, Kansas State
Good chance: Oregon, USC
So-so chance: UCLA, Arizona State
Outside chance: Stanford, Arizona, Utah
Good chance: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia
So-so chance: LSU, Ole Miss
Outside chance: Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas A&M
That's 10 teams for the SEC that, based on preseason rankings and analysis, have some degree of chance to take home the title. Only the Pac 12, with seven, is remotely close. The SEC also boasts the most "good chance" teams (which, admittedly, I picked lazily using the top 10 of the preseason coaches' poll).
Ohio State could run the table and make this entire exercise a moot point (as well as trouncing on my first prediction). But the smart money goes to the SEC, given the conference's sheer presence in college football's subset of contenders.
3. No team finishes undefeated.
My feeling is that, moving forward, this will be the case more often than not. Sure, every few years a team will parlay some lucky breaks into a 15-0 campaign. But we'll never see another 1995 Nebraska, one of those on-another-level teams that leaves no doubt.
The explosion in college football's popularity over the last two decades, and the resulting infusion of money into the sport, has done more for parity than anything the most skilled communist dictator could devise. Add to that the move toward superconferences, all with profit-sharing policies that ensure everyone gets a piece of the pie, and no longer can the Notre Dames, the Alabamas, the Ohio States use their huge financial advantages to dominate the recruiting game.
Programs that formerly struggled to maintain pace due to sub-par facilities, unimpressive stadiums and no-name coaches are catching up quick. Texas A&M, not Tennessee or Alabama, has the largest stadium in the SEC. Oregon, for decades in the shadow of USC and UCLA, dominates the Pac 12. Ole Miss, led by a guy who coached high school a few years ago, now pulls top-five recruiting classes. Boise State (had I mentioned them in 1994, you would have replied, "who?") is a top 25 mainstay, and in 2007 beat mighty Oklahoma in an elite bowl.
Point being, there's too much competition at the top. When LSU won the 2007 title with two losses, analysts and casual fans alike called it a crazy season, an anomaly. I predict that to become the norm over the next few years.
4. A non-conference champion makes the CFP.
It has to happen at some point. There are only five power conferences, four of which feature championship games that often pit a two- or three-loss team from one division against a national title hopeful from the other. Sometimes upsets happen in those games. What if, due to such upsets, two of the Power 5 conferences crown three-loss champions? Assuming the other three conferences send their zero- or one-loss champs to the CFP, that still leaves one spot.
That final spot, then, based on what the selection committee decides, goes either to a three-loss conference champ, or to a non-conference champ with fewer losses.
Or, they could vote for something else....
5. A non-Power 5, non-Notre Dame team doesn't make the CFP.
This will happen as well at some point, probably due to a scenario such as the above where chaos in the Power 5 leaves an opening for one of the little guys to slip in. 2015, however, won't be the year. The best non-Power 5, non-Notre Dame team looks to be Boise State, which, while ranked #24 preseason, has given no indication it can compete with the top teams.
One season in the near future, however, the emergence of a 2005 or 2009 Utah (before it joined the Pac 12), or a 2006 Boise State will coincide with a CFP opening left by a conference championship game upset or general attrition in the Power 5.
That's a surefire prediction you can take to the bank.