With the college football season just three weeks away, it’s time to take a look at the Big Five conferences and some selected teams from the independent ranks and other conferences. With the advent of the College Football Playoff system, the schedule will be a big part of determining the makeup of the Final Four. Until the field inevitably expands to eight teams, one or more of the power conferences will be shut out of the playoffs. I’ll be taking the next few posts to come to a conclusion of which teams stand the best chance to make it into the tournament. We’ll start with a view of the Atlantic Coast Conference, home of the final BCS champion, Florida State.
The ACC is an interesting conference. In addition to the fourteen football schools, Notre Dame participates as a member in all of the other sports. The Irish play six football games against member schools, so even though they don’t compete for a title, half of their games are against conference foes. It’s my prediction that as soon as the league decides on a fifteenth member, Notre Dame will bite the bullet and round out the conference’s full sixteen team lineup. But let’s get to this season’s outlook, leaving Notre Dame to a later post.
Last season’s championship game pitted Georgia Tech against Florida State, won by the Seminoles 37 - 35. I think the gig’s probably up for the ‘Noles as they try to replace Jameis Winston at quarterback as well as six other starters on offense. A lot of experts are picking Georgia Tech in the Coastal, but they have what is arguably the toughest schedule in the league, playing Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic Division and Notre Dame and Georgia in non-conference matchups. Despite thirteen returning position starters, the Yellow Jackets will probably need to defeat Virginia Tech to return to the championship game.
Now to the rest of the league, since I don’t think either of last year’s championship game participants will be back in 2015. The Atlantic Division is top heavy, while the Coastal probably has more strength from top to bottom. The pundits, including those that have a vote in the preseason polls have three ACC teams in the top 25: Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech. But the fallacy in that logic is that those three teams all play each other and the Atlantic teams also have to take on Louisville and N.C. State. Georgia Tech and Clemson also take on Notre Dame, which is ranked in the top ten in most rankings. Unless my math skills are rusty, that’s five guaranteed losses to be shared among those four teams. And that’s just in games involving those teams. Georgia Tech has to play Virginia Tech and Georgia, Clemson gets South Carolina and Florida State gets, well, okay, Florida.
Looking at the schedules, last year’s results and the number of returning starters, a couple of teams emerge, not so much nationally but within the league. Virginia Tech dodges Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, setting up the game with Georgia Tech as a potential winner take all contest for the Coastal. But given the difficulty of the Yellow Jackets’ slate, the Hokies may be able to get to the championship game even if they lose to Paul Johnson’s squad. As for the Coastal, Louisville can certainly contend if they can pull out a victory over either Clemson or Florida State. The Seminoles pulled out a number of close victories last year, and those things have a way of evening out over time. Clemson is talented, but they only return three starters on defense, leaving them vulnerable if the offense has some difficulty in a game or two.
I would think that an ACC team is going to have to run the table or have no more than one loss to get into the playoffs. Last year, Florida State was undefeated and still didn’t get one of top two seeds. I like Louisville and Virginia Tech to meet in Charlotte for the title, with the Cardinals standing a much better chance to make it into the playoffs with a victory. But don’t count out the Hokies. With a huge opener in Blacksburg against reigning national champ Ohio State, they can certainly gain some national attention with an upset win, just as they did in Columbus last year. They follow it up with games at Purdue and East Carolina before their conference slate.
My prediction: Louisville