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The Boston Globe

Sports

Predicting the college football playoff chase

A NEW ERA IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Now it will be decided on the field — in a four-team playoff that will lead to a winner-take-all championship game in Arlington, Texas, Jan. 12 — and not in the polls or the computer rankings. The College Football Playoff ushers in a new era after the flawed BCS system ran its 15-year course with the crowning of Florida State as its final champion last January.

This year, a 13-member selection committee will select a final four, from which the inaugural champion of the College Football Playoff will emerge. Here’s a look at the potential Final Four candidates, the Contenders, the Fringe Element, and The Sleepers.

THE FINAL FOUR

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1. Florida State — Everything is pointing toward another championship season for the Seminoles, who could become the first team in NCAA history to win the first and last BCS championship and the first College Football Playoff. The return of Heisman Trophy-winning QB Jameis Winston, a solid offensive line, and a stout defense has Tallahassee excited about the prospects for a repeat.

2. Alabama — If not for a loss to Auburn — on a freakish, 100-yard return off a missed field goal attempt — the Crimson Tide would have likely earned a berth in the BCS title game opposite FSU. Nick Saban could get the Tide rolling again by surrounding FSU transfer QB Jacob Coker with an array of offensive weapons, such as RB T.J. Yeldon and WR Amari Cooper.

3. Oregon — In a Pac-12 loaded with good quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota ranks as the head of the class. One of nine returning offensive starters, Mariota has a firm grasp of Oregon’s hyperdrive scheme, which Chip Kelly implemented and Mark Helfrich has perpetuated, and will likely have the Ducks headed on a Southwest trajectory for Arlington, Texas, come playoff time.

4. Oklahoma — The Sooners demonstrated they were worthy of Final Four consideration after Trevor Knight lit up Alabama for 4 TD passes in the Sugar Bowl. The season-ending suspension of five-star freshman running back Joe Mixon could be cause for concern, but coach Bob Stoops is relying on a solid offensive front (and a matching one on defense) to help set the tone.

THE CONTENDERS

5. Auburn — The Tigers’ season will hinge on whether they can survive their Aug. 30 opener against Arkansas without QB Nick Marshall, who was suspended one game for marijuana possession. If backup QB Jeremy Johnson is able to make up for Marshall’s absence in the opener, coach Gus Malzahn could guide the Tigers to an amazing finish.

6. UCLA — There might not be a more exciting college player than sophomore Myles Jack, who as a freshman started 11 games at linebacker and one as a running back. QB Brett Hundley, a Heisman candidate, no doubt would lobby coach Jim Mora to keep the talented Mr. Jack on the offensive side of the ball.

7. Michigan State — The Spartans’ flexed their defensive might against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Despite the loss of CB Darqueze Dennard and LB Max Bullough to the NFL, the defense looks to be just as stout in 2014, which will complement an offense led by QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford.

8. South Carolina — The Gamecocks, who beat three AP Top 10 teams last season, will be a team to be reckoned with in the SEC East. Coach Steve Spurrier has a reliable replacement for QB Connor Shaw in Dylan Thompson, RB Mike Davis lends balance, and TE Jerell Adams (6-6, 242) is a huge target as the Gamecocks attempt to contend for an SEC title.

THE FRINGE ELEMENT

9. Ohio State — The Buckeyes were pegged for the Final Four before the stunning news that QB Braxton Miller had suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. It’s a huge blow likely to have ramifications for the Big Ten title race.

10. Baylor — If there’s any team and anyone capable of upsetting the apple cart for Oklahoma, it’s the Bears and QB Bryce Petty, a Heisman candidate who has mastered coach Art Briles’s hurry-up, fast-break offense.

11. Georgia — There’s no doubt the Bulldogs’ season will hinge on their Sept. 13 road game at South Carolina. RB Todd Gurley and Georgia’s defense, headed by former FSU coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, will have to set the tone early if the Dawgs have any hope of contending for the SEC West title.

12. Stanford — With Oregon lording over the Pac-12 North and UCLA and USC poised to battle it out for the Pac-12 South, Stanford appears to have been pushed down the pecking order. Despite losing two top backs and four starters on the offensive line, coach David Shaw doesn’t intend to change his stripes, especially with QB Kevin Hogan back at the helm.

THE SLEEPERS

13. LSU — The Tigers could emerge as the biggest wild card in the SEC. Coach Les Miles has plenty of holes to fill on offense, but he’ll have the talent with the arrival of freshman RB Leonard Fournette, a star in the making. Miles’s challenge is to mold his youngsters into a cohesive unit.

14. Missouri — Mizzou was the surprise of the SEC West a year ago, winning the division in only its second year in the league. Despite the dismissal of WR Dorial Green-Beckham (who landed with the Sooners), Gary Pinkel returns a huge offensive weapon in QB Maty Mauk, whose swashbuckling style was reminiscent of another SEC game-changer: Johnny Manziel.

15. Southern Cal — Expectations are high now that Steve Sarkisian is back in Tinseltown to guide the Trojans. The coach inherits some talent in QB Cody Kessler and WR Nelson Agholor and DE Leonard Williams. Depth, though, could be an issue.

16. Iowa — The Hawkeyes have a favorable schedule playing Indiana and Maryland as East Division crossovers, and West contenders Wisconsin and Nebraska at home in the last two weeks of the season. While he has some holes to fill defensively, coach Kirk Ferentz has some answers on offense with the return of QB Jake Rudock and RB Mark Weisman, and an emerging talent in WR Derrick Willies (6-4, 210).

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.
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