Forget everything you ever knew about college football, well, maybe not everything. The chase for one of the four playoff spots begins this weekend with a handful of high-profile games taking place from coast to coast.
1. Just how important is strength of schedule anyway?
The new playoff era has a number of questions that can’t be answered until after a full season (or two or three). First, and perhaps the most important along the way: just how important will strength of schedule be in the years to come? Will the selection committee stay true to its word and focus on overall strength of schedule, or will the trend of finishing strong still prevail? If who a team plays in September is as important as who they play in November, the future of non-conference schedule should change.
2. Will anyone stop Florida State from a repeat championship?
Florida State won it all last season, snapping the SEC’s championship streak in the process. The Seminoles now look to repeat, just as Alabama did in 2011 and 2012. Jimbo Fisher’s squad looks as well-positioned for a title defense as any with a stacked roster built through top-notch recruiting, a Heisman Trophy quarterback in Jameis Winston and a favorable schedule in a conference not quite up to par with the top program.
3. Speaking of Florida State, can Jameis Winston win a second Heisman Trophy?
Odds will always be against a reigning Heisman Trophy winner winning a second the following season. Rather, history will always be against that reigning Heisman winner. Only one player has ever won the Heisman Trophy twice (Ohio State’s Archie Griffin), so that leaves Winston looking to make some rare history. It is not impossible, but if you want to bet on it, then it may be wise to bank on another candidate, such as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley or Georgia running back Todd Gurley. We’ll talk more about the Heisman later this week.
4. The SEC is still on top, right?
The gap between the SEC and the rest of the power conferences may have closed the last couple of years, but there is still a gap. The Pac-12, though, will look to make a strong case for top conference this season thanks to a healthy number of returning star players, most notably at quarterback. The SEC sees a good amount of quarterback turnover this season, but the overall talent across the field on both sides of the football still makes the SEC the best conference. Is the Pac-12 the second best conference? Probably.
5. Don’t forget about the Group of Five.
The new playoff format has created some new terms for the dividing line between college football’s haves and have-nots. Say hello to the Group of Five (American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference). The highest-ranked champion from these conferences will be guaranteed a spot in the big revenue bowl system, as chosen by the selection committee. This sounds like great news for Boise State, but do not forget about potential candidates from other conferences like UCF, Cincinnati and Marshall, not to mention Utah State.
6. Good riddance to the old targeting ejection role.
The NCAA acted as quickly as it could on the controversial targeting rules last season. Last year a player would automatically be ejected after being called for a targeting foul, and his team assessed a 15-yard penalty. An immediate video replay could return the player to the game, but the penalty yardage remained. The rule had good intentions but was executed poorly, and inconsistently. This year the ejection process will remain the same, but if a player is ruled eligible to return to the game, then the penalty yardage will also be wiped clean.
7. Latest realignment changes
If you are still trying to remember which conference West Virginia is in (Big 12), then you should probably keep studying realignment changes. The 2014 season brings with it more conference shake ups. Rutgers and Maryland are now in the Big Ten. Louisville is in the ACC. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa are joining the American Athletic Conference. Conference USA welcomes Western Kentucky. The Sun Belt is adding former FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
8. Building off momentum from 2013 season
Some believe finishing the previous season on a high note means there’s potential for a strong upcoming season. If that is the case, North Carolina and Oklahoma could be looking forward to some fun 2014 seasons. Oklahoma ended its 2013 season by keeping rival Oklahoma State from getting a share of the Big 12 championship and then followed it up by throttling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Now the Sooners are deemed the Big 12 team to beat and considered a favorite for a playoff spot. North Carolina is not quite on that level, but after ending their season winning six out of seven games, the Tar Heels could quickly emerge as the top threat in the wide-open ACC Coastal Division.
9. Which traditional powers are ready to climb back into the national spotlight?
USC and Texas met in one of the best college football games of a generation in the 2006 BCS Championship Game. Since then, each program has leveled off and undergone at least one coaching change. This year Steve Sarkisian (USC) and Charlie Strong (Texas) look to start turning things around at their new programs. The 2014 season may not see the Trojans or Longhorns become playoff contenders, but the rebuilding begins this season for the historic powers. Miami and Michigan are also hoping to turn things around, with Al Golden looking to lead the Hurricanes to the school’s first ACC Championship Game appearance and Brady Hoke hoping to reverse the downward trend for the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
10. It’s still college football, so enjoy it.
College football is great, even if it is not as pure as it once was. There will be plenty of things to watch this season, and there will surely be many surprises along the way. Sit back, relax and get ready for a fun season.
Kevin McGuire is a Philadelphia area sports writer covering the Philadelphia Eagles and college football. McGuire is a member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. Follow McGuire on Twitter @KevinOnCFB. His work can be found on Examiner.com.