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Buying or Selling the Power-5 Playoff Contender

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Numerous teams from Power-5 conferences (ACC, Big-12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) look to build off of success and momentum from the previous season and translate it into a run at the College Football Playoff. But, of course, the offseason hype and talk is only that—talk—and teams only remain contenders, rather than “pre-tenders,” if they live up to the expectations. As such, only the most deserving handful will join one of college football’s most elite clubs as a College Football Playoff Semifinalist. And, of course, it is never too early to buy or sell the hype of those contenders with kickoff of the 2015 College Football Season just a few months away.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Buy: Clemson Tigers

Sell: Florida St. Seminoles

Though difficult to bet against the Florida St. Seminoles, winners of their last 29 of 30 contests, I am instead buying the hype of the Clemson Tigers as the ACC contender for the College Football Playoff. Though the Tigers dropped three games in 2014—all to ranked opponents at that—they boasted the 3rd best scoring defense in the league, giving up only 16.7 points per game. Clemson benefits from facing its toughest foes in 2015 at home in “Death Valley,” which include Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Florida St. In fact, Clemson has only lost three times at home in as many seasons. Florida St., on the other hand, faces an uphill battle in the upcoming season, needing to compensate for the loss of Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Draft Overall 1st Pick Jameis Winston, as well as a host of defensive starters. Notre Dame Transfer quarterback Everett Golson should fit nicely into Jimbo Fisher’s offense at FSU, however there is no knowing which Golson he will actually be getting: the one who led the Irish to a BCS National Championship game, or the one who tossed 10 interceptions over Notre Dame’s last six regular season games in 2014, in which five were losses? Unless rapid developments are made in Tallahassee this summer, it is a fair bet that Golson’s trend of inconsistency dooms the Seminoles’ hope of a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff. Even so, seven of FSU’s contests last year were decided by six points or less, and this year’s schedule includes difficult road tests at Boston College, Georgia Tech, Clemson, and Florida.

Big-12 Conference

Buy: TCU Horned Frogs

Sell: Baylor Bears

The TCU Horned Frogs meant serious business in 2014, and loudly proclaimed that the new playoff era would be theirs for the taking. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, TCU was snubbed from the inaugural playoff with an 11-1 record. Fellow Big-12 rival Baylor, who beat TCU 61-58 last October, was also passed over in favor of the Ohio St. Buckeyes, so it is no secret that both the Frogs and the Bears will vie to not only be one of the four playoff semifinalists, but win the Big-12 Conference outright (both earned a share of the title in 2014 and were participants of New Year’s Six Bowls). In 2015, however, I give the edge to TCU, which returns 10 of 11 starters on offense, including senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Trevone Boykin, who passed for nearly 4,000 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.  Though Baylor returns 18 of 22 starters, the Bears must compensate for the loss of quarterback Bryce Petty, who led his team to the Fiesta Bowl and the Cotton Bowl Classic in consecutive seasons. Junior Seth Russell will replace Petty; however he must lead the Bears through a threatening road slate, which features trips to Kansas St., Oklahoma St., and TCU. The 2015 showdown between Baylor and TCU is one of the most anticipated games of the upcoming season, and features offenses who ranked 1st and 2nd last season in scoring, respectively. Since the rematch pits the two at the home campus of TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, I see the Horned Frogs taking both the game and the conference title in 2015. Boykin should have a special senior season that culminates in both a playoff appearance and visit to New York City as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Big-Ten Conference

Buy: Ohio St. Buckeyes

Sell: Michigan St. Spartans

As both the Buckeyes and the Spartans are members of the Big-Ten East Division, their November 21st date in Columbus, Ohio should decide not just the divisional champion, but perhaps the outright Big-Ten Champion. The Buckeyes took last year’s meeting in East Lansing, Michigan 49-37, and both teams return their starting quarterback (or in the case of Ohio St., starting quarterbacks). It would be a fair bet that both Ohio St. and Michigan St. enter their showdown undefeated. Even so, the journey is more challenging for Michigan St., whose road goes through the likes of Oregon, Michigan, and Nebraska before facing the Buckeyes. Senior quarterback Connor Cook remains at the helm of the Spartan offense, and looks to put the cherry on top of an absolutely remarkable career at Michigan St. with a playoff appearance. Cook previously led the Spartans to a win over Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl Game and a miraculous 21-point come-from-behind victory over Baylor in the 2015 Cotton Bowl Classic. The Buckeyes, of course, benefit from having three quarterbacks with substantial game experience vie for the starting position: Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones (who in three starts led the Buckeyes to a Big-Ten Championship over Wisconsin, Sugar Bowl victory in the semi-final round of the College Football Playoff against 1st seed Alabama, and National Championship triumph over Oregon). It is safe to say that, no matter their starting quarterback, the Buckeyes have a strong road lined to a repeat playoff appearance due playing a favorable schedule in 2015 (Ohio St. misses conference foes Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa). Though tough to go against a highly committed and highly consistent Spartan team and head coach Mark Dantonio, the Buckeyes have the edge out of the Big-Ten since its bout with Michigan St. is scheduled at home. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, for the Spartans to earn another well-deserved Rose Bowl or New Year’s Six berth.

Pacific-12 Conference

Buy: USC Trojans

Sell: Oregon Ducks

Following its 45-42 triumph over Nebraska in the 2014 Holiday Bowl, the pundits and polls favor the USC Trojans to not just return to prominence with a Pac-12 Championship and berth in the Rose Bowl, but perhaps a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans return Redshirt Senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who, statistically, had the best season of any Trojan quarterback in 2014, passing for a school-record tying 39 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions, and a 69.7% completion rate. Kessler rolls into the 2015 campaign as the 1st Team QB of Phil Steele’s All-American team, and is also thought to be one of the front runners for the Heisman Trophy. The road to a conference championship and the playoff is nevertheless challenging, as USC must overcome road tests in that of Notre Dame and Oregon, and of course squares off with UCLA over Thanksgiving weekend at the Coliseum. The Trojans return 9 starters on both offense and defense, and should the defensive line compensate well for the loss of end Leonard Williams, USC should be the conference’s best hope of having a Pac-12 team repeat an appearance in the playoff. Oregon, of course, looks to do exactly that—repeat a playoff and national championship appearance. The Ducks must rebuild after parting with their 2014 Heisman Trophy recipient and starting quarterback Marcus Mariota. To fill the void, junior Jeff Lockie and Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams will compete. However, Lockie has spent his entire career as a Duck backing up Mariota—having never started a game—and Adams is making a difficult transition from the FCS to an FBS team, which means that head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost have their work cut out for them to mold the next starting quarterback in Eugene. There is no denying that Oregon still returns a host of talent—in particular offensive starters Royce Freeman and Byron Marshall—however the loss of Mariota and the experience of Kessler will vault the Trojans into the driver’s seat of the Pac-12.

Southeastern Conference

Buy: Alabama

Sell: Mississippi St. Bulldogs

The SEC West Division should again produce the conference’s best hope of having a team represent at the College Football Playoff. By default, that would again be Alabama. The Crimson Tide only play four road games this season (really??) and return junior tailback Derrick Henry to the starting role. Though Alabama must make up for the loss of quarterback Blake Sims and first round draft choice Amari Cooper, it is expected that Florida St. transfer Jake Coker will fill in nicely to the starting quarterback position. Like Sims, Coker will be a first-year starter, and if offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Lane Kiffin can make similar strides with Coker as he did with Sims, expect Alabama to repeat as the SEC Champion.  The Mississippi St. Bulldogs are probably the biggest threat to Alabama, and finished right behind the Tide in the division last season. Senior quarterback Dak Prescott looks to build off a breakout year in 2014, and his rematch with Alabama at home on November 14th should most likely define the West champion. However, this should be a road test that Alabama aces. Nick Saban, no matter where he has coached, has proved able to rebuild and compensate for loss of personnel, and this year should be no exception. While the Crimson Tide might not yet be a lock for the playoff, I buy Alabama as the SEC Conference’s best chance of having one of its teams reach the playoff semifinals. Look for Mississippi St. to have another strong showing in 2015, but at the end of the day, its divisional record will instead favor Alabama for a postseason run.