Separating contenders from pretenders in college football’s national title picture

Now college football is becoming more like college basketball.

It’s all about getting into the playoff field, but in football, the task is even more difficult. The NCAA basketball tournament has room for 68 teams; football has four.

No power conferences are being left out to dry in basketball. In football, it’s guaranteed at least one of the big five won’t get a team into the playoffs.

And it might even be two conferences this season.

The Big 12 Conference — the same league left out last season — has two teams in the top four in the Associated Press and USA Today preseason polls.

Here’s a look at the contenders and those teams that are going to be looking in from the outside.

CONTENDERS

Ohio State: The Buckeyes were a year ahead of schedule when they won the national championship last season. With 14 returning starters and three players who can quarterback (one is now a wide receiver) them to the title, the Buckeyes are the clear favorites. Having the game’s best coach, Urban Meyer, doesn’t hurt, either.

Texas Christian: This was the best team left out of the playoff field last season. If not for a blown 21-point lead with 11 minutes left, the Horned Frogs would have been in and as dangerous as any other team in the postseason. TCU has the ability to get into the final four this season, and quarterback Trevone Boykin is a Heisman Trophy candidate.

Alabama: Led by tackle A’Shawn Robinson, linebacker Reggie Ragland and safety Eddie Jackson, the Crimson Tide have the Southeastern Conference’s best defense. Only three starters return offensively, but Alabama typically reloads anyway.

Baylor: This is an experienced team, with 18 starters back from a team with a Texas-sized chip on its shoulder. The Bears believe to this day they should have made the playoffs, and they certainly don’t like being considered inferior to TCU. But those teams meet at TCU this season on Nov. 27, and Frogs coach Gary Patterson is pretty good at motivating his team.

Oregon: The Ducks lost Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, but picked up Eastern Washington transfer Vernon Adams to take over at quarterback. He is surrounded by a lot of inexperience, but the Ducks have become one of those programs that wins at a high level every year no matter who wears the various uniform combinations.

Michigan State: A senior quarterback in Connor Cook is a good place to start, and the Spartans are talented throughout the lineup with 14 starters returning. Their main challenge is the schedule. Michigan State hosts Oregon on Sept. 12 and plays road games against Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Florida State: Jameis Winston is gone, and Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson steps in to take his place at quarterback. It usually would be a bad sign that only 11 starters return, but the Seminoles had that same number back two years ago when they won the national title.

Auburn: If any team steps in Alabama’s way as the SEC representative, it will be Auburn. The Tigers hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp as their defensive coordinator, and his side of the ball returns eight starters. And Auburn has the Tide at home on Nov. 28.

Southern California: The heat is growing on coach Steve Sarkisian, who had to apologize for embarrassing the university after appearing at a public function drunk and using curse words. He better get it done on the field because USC doesn’t have much patience for coaches who cause the program problems. Sarkisian has talent, bringing back 14 starters, including Heisman candidate Cody Kessler at quarterback.

LOOKING IN

Georgia: The Bulldogs are usually a preseason favorite. Then the games kick off, and that theory disappears.

Notre Dame: Every once in a while, the Fighting Irish will have a season in which they contend for the national championship. Most are like this one, in which they are good but far from great.

UCLA: Coach Jim Mora has made this a competitive program, but breaking in a new quarterback is asking too much.

Louisiana State: This is the best LSU team since 2011 when the Tigers lost to Alabama for the national championship. Now they have to win at Alabama on Nov. 7 and will face a team coming off a bye week.

Mississippi: The Rebels return 16 starters from a nine-win team, but it won’t be enough in the demanding SEC West Division.

Clemson: Skill-position players are back from a 10-win team, but the Tigers will play many newcomers on defense.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils’ fortunes will be determined early after back-to-back games against USC on Sept. 26 and UCLA on Oct.3. They get the Trojans at home and UCLA on the road.

WAY IN THE BACK

Boise State: The Broncos should represent the Group of Five in a New Year’s Six game. And if they go undefeated with a schedule that includes Washington, Brigham Young and Virginia (two on the road), that would put pressure on the committee to vote them into the field. Yeah, like the committee would do that.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65. He is first vice president of the Football Writers Association of America.

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