Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Long and Suite Preview: The College Football Playoff and Heisman Race

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will chase a national championship and Heisman Trophy in 2014.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) with a cameo from Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

I've written enough introductions, so let's jump right into things. You can find all of my conference previews, along with my "Group of Five" and Independents preview, below.



Big Ten

ACC and Notre Dame


Group of Five/Independents

Now, let's get to our national outlook.

Handicapping the Heisman

The last four Heisman winners have been quarterbacks, and only one of them (Robert Griffin III in 2011) had any FBS starting experience before his winning season. That run includes a pair of redshirt freshmen winning the award the last two years (Johnny Manziel in 2012 and Jameis Winston in 2013), plus a junior college transfer turned phenom in 2010 (Cam Newton).

Since 2000, quarterbacks have won the Heisman 12 times, with only running backs Mark Ingram (2009) and Reggie Bush (2005, later forfeited) breaking through since the turn of the millennium. What does this tell us? Well, you pretty much need to be a quarterback on a good, but not necessarily "championship good" team. After all, RGIII won the award in a year his team finished third in the Big 12 and played in the Alamo Bowl, and Tim Tebow won it in a year the Gators tied for fifth in the SEC and played in the Capital One Bowl.

Johnny Manziel also didn't play in a BCS Bowl, but you can't deny that the national title race has helped players like Jason White, Matt Leinart and Troy Smith raise their profiles. Given all we know, here are my front runners for the Heisman Trophy, plus a Dark Horse, a top value pick and someone to stay away from. All players are listed with their current Vegas odds next to them.

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: 7/1
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State: 7/2
3. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA: 18/1
4. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor: 10/1
5. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama: 15/1
Dark Horse: Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina: 28/1
Top Value Bet: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall: 45/1
Potential Flop: Trevor Knight, QB, Oklahoma: 17/1

To me Mariota was in line to win the award before he injured his knee and the Ducks offense struggled as he played with limited mobility. He's the top run-pass threat in the country, and he'll again play in a fun, wide-open system that should allow him to put up huge numbers.

He'll also have a number of large stages to make impressions, namely a week two game against Michigan State's vaunted defense, a home game against Stanford late, and a trip to UCLA in mid-October.

Mariota barely edges out Winston for the simple fact that it's hard to repeat as a Heisman winner. Hey, it's only happened once before (Archie Griffin in 1974 and 75), and recent winners Matt Leinart, Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Johnny Manziel have all failed to cash in on the chance to win back-to-back Heismans. Part of that is a team's natural regression: It's hard to expect the Seminoles to be as good as they were last year. But another reason I like Mariota over Winston is, like Johnny Football before him, Winston hasn't exactly endeared himself to voters during the offseason.

Things like that shouldn't matter, but when all things are equal (and they may be between these two), voters will likely pick the guy they simply like better.

Hundley and Petty will have to again put up big numbers to get themselves in what will start as a two-man race, but the Baylor offense is capable, and if UCLA wins big early season games against Texas and Oregon, Hundley could be in perfect position to win the award with showcase games against USC and Stanford to close out the year, plus the Pac-12 title game.

Yeldon is the only running back to crack my top five, simply because the Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback this year, so you better believe Nick Saban is going to ride his workhorse back all year long. There are only two running backs I currently give a decent shot at the award, and the other is South Carolina's Mike Davis. With no more Connor Shaw, the rushing load will fall totally on Davis, and he looks to be up for the task. If the Gamecocks can break through and win their first SEC championship, and Davis improves upon his 1,200 yards and 11 TDs from a year ago, he has a legitimate chance of winning the award.

Not many backs can say that, and that's why I think he's a steal at 28/1.

Speaking of steals, how on Earth is Rakeem Cato drawing 45/1 odds? I know mid-major players don't often win the award, but you're talking about a guy that could lead Marshall to the Orange Bowl (more on that later) while passing for 4,000 yards, 40 TDs and under 10 INTs, all on 60 percent passing. Cato nearly hit all those totals last year (3,916 yds. 39 TDs, 9 INTs, 59.7%) and he returns his favorite receiver, his center and two OTs, plus the Herd's schedule gets even easier.

Not saying he'll win the award and become the next Ty Detmer, but I certainly like his chances better than someone like Miami running back Duke Johnson, who's coming off an injury for a team that shouldn't make much noise, and still getting action at 38/1.

Finally, the one guy I'd stay away from is Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight. It's not that Knight isn't a great talent and couldn't one day win the award, it's just that all of the hype around him, and perhaps Oklahoma in general, stems from the Sooners' Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

That was a great win, but I'm not going all in on a guy that didn't even throw for 1,000 yards last year because he put together one game. While the last two years have shown us you don't need much experience to win the award, there are a bunch of established quarterbacks Knight would have to jump past, and at 17/1 I just don't think that's a smart bet.

National Title Bets

I was recently in Vegas and saw Stanford listed at 25/1 to win the national title on the MGM's board. I thought that was a great bet because, while I'm picking Oregon to take home the Pac-12 North, the Cardinal have actually roughed up the Ducks the last two times out, and I wouldn't exactly be surprised to see them do it again.

Fast forward a week, and now Vegas Insider is listing a "consensus" line of 65/1 for the Cardinal. You can see all the lines here.

Are you kidding me? That ranks Stanford lower than Michigan, Florida and Ole Miss, and just above Notre Dame in terms of what Vegas thinks its chances are. I personally give the Cardinal a far better shot than that with do-it-all weapon Ty Montgomery coming back along with quarterback Kevin Hogan. There are questions marks on defense and along the offensive line, but Stanford has reloaded at those spots in recent years, and at the end of the day I just can't justify them being THIS much lower than Oregon (7/1), UCLA (14/1) and USC (28/1).

Another pick I like is Michigan State. With the injury to Ohio State's Braxton Miller, the Spartans have to be considered the clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten East. Quarterback Connor Cook went from game manager to weapon late last season, and while some pieces need to be replaced on defense, like Stanford, that has been a mere formality for Michigan State in recent years.

The improved offense and defensive genius of coach Mark Dantonio should get the Spartans to the tournament, and for a team that will give you a return of 30/1, that's really all you can ask.

Similar to my Heisman bet against Knight, I'm just not sold on Oklahoma at 9/1, and I really don't like Auburn at 12/1. There is pretty much no way the Tigers get all the lucky bounces they did last year, plus they lose their biggest offensive play maker in running back Tre Mason, and their best defensive player in Dee Ford. Oh yeah, and even with those bounces and NFL players, they didn't win it all last year. Now with Bama and LSU back, plus an improved Ole Miss in the SEC West, Auburn will be incredibly fortunate to win 10 games in the regular season, and I don't think that will be enough for them to qualify for the College Football Playoff.

Conference Championship Predictions

Pac-12: Oregon (over USC in title game)

Big XII: Baylor

Big Ten: Michigan State (over Wisconsin in title game)

Ed Note: I originally picked Ohio State over Michigan State in their division, but the injury to Braxton Miller has changed some things.

ACC: Florida State (over North Carolina in title game)

SEC: Alabama (over South Carolina in title game)

"Group of Five" Representative: Marshall, C-USA champion

College Football Playoff Projections

National Semifinals

1. Alabama vs 4. Michigan State at Rose Bowl (Pasadena)

2. Florida State vs 3. Oregon at Sugar Bowl (New Orleans)

National Final

1. Alabama over 3. Oregon at AT&T Stadium (Dallas)

Marquee Bowl Projections

Orange Bowl (Miami): Marshall vs South Carolina

Peach Bowl (Atlanta): Auburn vs North Carolina

Fiesta Bowl (Glendale):
Stanford vs Oklahoma

Cotton Bowl (Dallas): Baylor vs Wisconsin

Conlin's Cameo

I kind of slacked on the whole "cameo" thing. I jumped in for the Pac-12, Big XII, and Big Ten, but didn't make it for the ACC or SEC. Mostly because that Vegas trip (referenced earlier) threw me for a loop.

I agree with most of what Joe said. Stanford and Michigan State are probably the two best value bets on the board. Realistically, I don't think either one of them will end up actually winning the thing, but if we played the season 65 times, I could definitely see Stanford winning at least one of them, and the same goes for Michigan State with 30 tries.

The Michigan State line is the one that really throws me for a loop. There are five SEC teams with better odds or just slightly lower odds (Alabama at +600, Auburn at +1200, Georgia at +1800, LSU at +2500, and South Carolina at +3500). Isn't it more likely that all of those teams will beat each other up and Alabama will be the last team standing? Meanwhile, Michigan State will probably cakewalk through the Big Ten and secure a spot in the four-team playoff. Unless you think the SEC is going to get two teams into the playoff (almost impossible, considering Florida State is almost a shoo-in, which means two of three of the Pac-12, Big XII, and Big Ten would be left out), there's just no conceivable reason to bet on Georgia or LSU before you bet on Michigan State (unless you think Georgia or LSU will somehow run the table, which is highly doubtful).

In a four-team playoff, your best bet is to put your money on the teams most likely to get there in the first place. After that it's mostly coin-flips anyway. And for me, those four teams are Florida State, Alabama, Oregon, and Michigan State (sorry, everyone who was hoping Joe and I would have drastically different picks). The best value there is Michigan State. If you have an opportunity, throw a $10 or $20 flier on them. But for as the team I actually think will win the whole thing, I'm going with Oregon. They were the best team in the country last year until Mariota got hurt, and then they fell apart. If you're going to trust Vegas, there must be some reason to think Stanford can't hack it this year, which means the Pac-12 North is Oregon's for the taking. If they win the Pac-12, which is expected to be the best or second-best conference in the country, they'll make it to the playoff. And once they're in, they'll have the best offense out there. That will be good enough.

No comments :