Who are the favorites for the College Football Playoff? Depends on who you ask

If one goes by preseason rankings as a predictor for who will play for the national championship, defending champion Ohio State will be playing TCU for the title on Jan. 11.

CFBPlayoffLogoBut it rarely works out that way. The teams ranked 1-2 in the preseason polls haven’t faced off at season’s end with the national championship on the line since 2005.

The Buckeyes shook off a Sept. 6 loss to Virginia Tech last year to roll through the Big Ten before beating Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff to win the national championship. It was the first national title for the Big Ten since Ohio State won it all in 2002.

Repeating is never easy and the 2015 season will not be an exception.

“There’s no perfect team,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. “There’s no perfect program. And everyone deals with stuff. You know, when you’re Ohio State or some of these other big-time programs, stuff becomes a major deal.

“Every team is different. And every day is different. … I can’t say we have a set way that we’re going to approach training camp. It all depends on the pulse. … But tomorrow is another day. And so we just keep pushing forward.”

The SEC perennially has national championship contenders and this season promises to be no different.

“Our goal is the playoffs, our goal is the SEC championship,” LSU coach Les Miles said during SEC Media Days. “I feel like we’re pursuing championships, and we’re in a position to compete for a championship virtually every year.”

SECLogoEither Alabama, Auburn or LSU has won the last six SEC championship games. Georgia coach Mark Richt would like to claim the Eastern Division’s first title since Florida in 2008.

“Let’s get the job done when we get there and move on to the playoff,” Richt said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what everybody’s trying to do.”

Winning the SEC championship comes with the expectation of playing for the national championship, bolstered by the fact that the conference won seven straight BCS titles from 2006-2012.

Auburn is one of the teams that enters the 2015 season with national championship aspirations. Third-year coach Gus Malzahn led the Tigers to the national championship game in 2013 and his team enters 2015 as the favorites to win the SEC.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn

“It’s just a matter of surviving the grind, and the team that does that being able to have enough fuel and enough energy and everything that goes with it to finish the deal,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “We’ve got some guys that have experience. We have some young guys that are extremely talented. So we are going to be relying on those old guys to bring those young guys along. So that’s going to be a big key to our season, especially getting off to a good start. With the inexperience we have, and if you look at our schedule, especially starting out the season, we’re going to have to play well, and we’re probably going to have to win some close games to have that chance of winning the championship in our league.”

Baylor coach Art Briles was outspoken last year about his team not getting into the inaugural playoff, but then his team lost to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. The Bears tied with TCU for the Big 12 title last season and are hopeful to claim a third straight conference championship this year – and hopefully get into the playoff.

“We’re excited about this season,” Briles said. “We feel like we’ve got a unit that understands each other, loves each other, respects each other, and knows how to win football games. That’s a critical thing. There’s all kinds of experience. Our guys have good experience. They have winning experience. They have championship experience.”

Clemson is the preseason favorite to win the ACC and possibly represent the conference in the playoff. Clemson led the nation in total defense last season, but lost eight starters to graduation. None was more impactful than defensive end Vic Beasley, who was selected eighth overall by the Atlanta Falcons.

“Last year having the privilege to go against the No. 1 defense every day in practice was truly a blessing for us in the way we were able to go against and prepare for other teams,” senior guard Eric Mac Lain said at ACC Media Days. “I truly think it’s good to be similar this year. At Clemson we reload, we do not rebuild. The athletes we have brought in, I don’t see any drop-off on that defense at all. The athletic ability, the explosion you’re going to see from the D-line is going to be similar to last year.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team annihilated Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl last season, knows preseason predictions don’t mean much.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney

“As far as the expectations, we talk about that stuff with our players all the time, whether it’s good or bad. Just don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Swinney said. “I think Oklahoma last year was picked to win the national championship, pretty much maybe the consensus. That just doesn’t mean anything. It’s fun for talk, fun to predict, all that. There’s so many things that go into a season.

“This is a game of performance, not potential. It’s great that people say, hey, they have good potential, but it’s really about the performance on those 12 Saturdays. Come November and December, that stuff is a little more meaningful.”

Florida State won the national championship in 2013 and entered the inaugural playoff last year unblemished at 13-0 before losing to Oregon in the semifinal. The Seminoles lost six starters on offense, including 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at quarterback, but return just about everyone on defense. It’s also a defense that ranked last in the ACC in sacks, something coach Jimbo Fisher knows “must get better” if the Seminoles are going to win their fourth straight conference title.

“I’m just worried about winning games,” he said at ACC Media Days. “Whether there are sacks or whatever. If that helps us win games, it does. I think we will. I think we have more fast, twitch guys. Style of defense, the way things go. Those are all things that you have to consider when you do that. In an offense you do what your players can do. On defense you do what your players can do. You have to pressure the quarterback.”

Not being the favorite to win the conference is just fine with junior cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who could be a first-round pick if he enters next year’s NFL Draft.

“When things like that do happen, it will shock them. It will just feel better for us,” he said. “Our goal is just to be the best that we can be. We’re going to be happy with ourselves if we’re going out there truly doing the best we can, preparing ourselves throughout the week, week in, week out, doing everything we have to do. We’re definitely going to get the job done.”

One player brought in to replace Winston was former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who has yet to be named the starter, but has the confidence of his new teammates.

“He’s a competitor. He’s a natural leader,” Ramsey said. “He’s a great person on and off the field. He fits right in to what we’re about at Florida State.”

Getty Images

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson

Georgia Tech could be the overlooked team in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets have the third-longest bowl streak in the country at 18 years, and are coming off a dominating win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech also knocked off rival Georgia for the first time in six years and return junior Justin Thomas at quarterback.

“We’ve just got to keep doing what we do and let that take care of itself,” coach Paul Johnson said. “We have our own set of expectations. I think we left here a year ago picked to finish fifth in our division. We didn’t pay much attention to that, just like we won’t pay much attention to being picked to finish first. I think you’ve got to play the games on the field. We’ve been in the ACC championship game three of the seven seasons we’ve been there. That’s certainly our goal and what we’re shooting for again this year.”

USC was picked as the media favorite to win the Pac-12. Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian told the media his team now needs to “go out and prove it. We need to go out and play our best football week-in and week-out.”

Pac12LogoUCLA has won three straight over USC, but Bruins coach Jim Mora knows “winning a national championship is more than just beating your crosstown rival.” The Bruins will have to beat Stanford and Oregon in the same season for the first time since 2007.

As the only conference in the country with nine conference games and a championship game, commissioner Larry Scott believes the Pac-12 champion deserves a berth in the playoff.

“No one will have a tougher road to the playoffs than the Pac-12 champion,” Scott said at Pac-12 Media Days. Mora agreed, saying the Pac-12 champ will “be battle hardened and ready for whatever is next.”

Getty Images

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is hopeful his Spartans can tip Ohio State on Nov. 21 and play for what would be the school’s first national championship since 1966.

“As far as the national championship, I’ve said all along that great football is played in the Big Ten Conference, as it is played in all these other conferences,” he said. “Great football. There’s a lot of parity in college football. Things hang by the inches. When people get hot, great things can happen.”

They can, and do, the question is for whom?

The season begins Sept. 3.

About Ron Clements

Wisconsin native, former Marine, Summa Cum Laude graduate of East Carolina University and a working sports journalist since 1999.