By Mike Keeney
“Change” is definitely the word in these parts when it comes to the 2014 football season.
Houston Texans fans got the change they asked for when longtime head coach Gary Kubiak was fired last December and replaced by former Penn State, and Bill Belichick acolyte, Bill O’Brien in January. University of Texas fans got the change they clamored for when Mack Brown stepped down after 16 years leading the Longhorns and was replaced by former Louisville head football coach Charlie Strong.
And college football fans finally got the change they had been asking for when the highly unpopular Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was done away with and the College Football Playoff was born. The new system will pit the top four rated teams chosen by a selection committee made up of individuals with coaching experience, student-athletes, collegiate administrators and current athletic directors. The committee will choose the top four teams for the playoff, rank them (1-4) and assign them to the semifinal games. The selection committee will choose the four national semifinalists based on strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and other factors.
This year’s semifinal games will be held on Jan. 1 and will be the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The No. 1 and No. 4 seed will meet in the Rose Bowl, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seed will meet in the Sugar Bowl. Each year, the national semifinals will rotate among those two bowls and the Fiesta, Orange, Cotton and Peach bowls in coming years.
The inaugural national championship game will be played on Monday, Jan. 12 at AT&T Stadium (formerly known as Jerry World). Read on to see who yours truly thinks will be the four teams to be this year’s semifinalists and the overall national champion, along with a number of other predictions.
While University of Texas fans are hoping their team will be making the trek to Arlington for the national title game, they might be getting a bit ahead of themselves. The ‘Horns still have some holes in their team, but I have a feeling UT fans will like what they see from their new head coach. The no-nonsense Strong laid down the law right off the bat and dismissed seven players from the team during the spring and summer for violating team rules. I have a feeling Texas will be a more disciplined team in 2014 and will be much better on defense. The key to how far they go will center on quarterback David Ash, who missed a majority of the 2013 season with a concussion. He followed that injury up by breaking his foot during spring drills, but has been cleared for the upcoming season. The 6-4 Ash has talent and speed and if healthy would be a huge plus for the UT offense, which should field a strong running game led by the powerful Malcolm Brown and the speedy and elusive Johnathan Gray, who is coming off an Achilles injury but has also been cleared to play this season.
Texas should be in the Big 12 mix, but it appears Oklahoma and Baylor are the class of the league heading into the season. Bob Stoops’ Sooners finished off the 2013 season in impressive season by blasting Alabama 45-31 in the Sugar Bowl. The Sugar Bowl was a coming out party for quarterback Trevor Knight and he should be ready for a big season in 2014. The offense is loaded and so is the defense as nine starters return this year.
Scoring won’t be a problem for Art Briles’ Baylor Bears, who won the Big 12 last year and return a pretty fair signal caller in Bryce Petty, who set a school passing record last season. He has plenty of weapons to call on once again, but the big question in Waco will be how much improved will the Baylor defense be? That unit was exposed in the Fiesta Bowl by Central Florida and the Bears will face much better offenses than CFU with the likes of OU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas on their schedule.
Not only will Baylor be looking to win a second straight league title, but they will also be opening a new stadium, named after former Houston Astros owner, and major Baylor contributor Drayton McLane Jr.
Please read below for how one person thinks the major conferences will shake out this year.
Turning our attention to the NFL, fans of the Texans and Cowboys could be in for another long year. The Texans are starting over (once again!) with a new head coach and quarterback and sorry, but when a team pins its hopes on a journeyman to lead the way at quarterback, that’s not the best of news. Matt Schaub wore out his welcome and was traded to Oakland during the offseason and the Texans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 10-year vet who has made stops in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Tennessee to less than stellar reviews. The Harvard grad has thrown 106 touchdowns during his career and 93 interceptions. If the Texans are going to be a factor in the AFC South race, Fitzpatrick is going to have to be a good game manager and count on a healthy Arian Foster to pick up the slack in the running game. As of this writing, Foster has missed most of training camp for a second straight year, this time dealing with a hamstring injury. O’Brien will need a healthy Foster and Andre Johnson to take pressure off of Fitzpatrick. I’m not holding my breath.
Defensively, the Texans should be stout up front with J.J. Watt and rookie Jadeveon Clowney bringing the heat on opposing quarterbacks, but the secondary is still questionable and no amount of pressure can make up for a lack of coverage on the back end of a defense. It would also help is linebacker Brian Cushing returns to form after suffering another leg injury last season.
The one thing going for the Texans is they play in a weak division. Indianapolis is definitely the class of the division, but they will be playing a more difficult schedule this year than the Texans. The Colts also have some questions in the offensive line and defensively, they will be without 2013 sack leader Robert Mathis for the first four games of the season because he violated the league’s substance abuse policy. Despite those shortcomings, the Colts are still the class of the division, but if Houston can take care of business when they play Jacksonville and Tennessee and split with the Colts, they could be vying for a Wild Card spot as the 2014 season winds down.
Up north on I-45, the Dallas Cowboys should have one of the better offenses in the NFC, but the defense was the worst in the NFL last year and lost key players in DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher in free agency. Tony Romo and his offensive mates are going to have to outscore folks to give the Cowboys a chance to win, and with Romo coming off back surgery, he could be one hard hit away from going down again this season. The Cowboys have built one of the better offensive lines in the league, so don’t be surprised if they run the ball a lot more this year to take pressure off of Romo and keep their defense on the bench. DeMarco Murray had his coming out party a year ago and proved he can carry the running load and head coach Jason Garrett has also assembled quality depth at the position to keep Murray fresh. Like the Texans, the Cowboys don’t play in the toughest division, but they do play in the toughest conference. If they hope to earn a playoff spot, they most likely will need to win their division, because the NFC West and South are loaded. Should the Cowboys record another 8-8 or worse season, it might be time for owner Jerry Jones to think about making a change at head coach. We shall see.
While questions abound with both NFL teams in Texas, a new season awaits, which is always exciting. I’m looking forward to once again put my picks out there for you to view and to agree or disagree with, and having said that, let’s take a look at what one person thinks will transpire in the college game and NFL during the 2014 season.
ATLANTIC DIVISION: Florida State
COASTAL: Virginia Tech
ACC CHAMPION: Florida State Jimbo Fisher has resurrected the Seminole program and has his team poised to defend its national title. Winning the conference is Step 1.
EAST: Ohio State
BIG 10 CHAMPION: Ohio State – Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller put Buckeyes in position to play for all the marbles by winning league title.
PAC 12 CHAMPION: Oregon – Quarterback Marcus Mariota returned for a shot at playing for a national title, and he and the Ducks take a big step towards that by winning a difficult conference.
EAST: South Carolina
SEC CHAMPION: Alabama – Nick Saban’s team doesn’t stay down very long, even with a new quarterback under center, there’s plenty of talent around to help ease the transition.
BIG 12 CHAMPION: Oklahoma Big Game Bob knows the Sooner faithful are growing impatient, but he’s got a loaded team and gets the job done this season.
ROSE BOWL: Florida State over Oregon In a dual of outstanding quarterbacks, Jameis Winston out duels Mariota in what should be a classic.
SUGAR BOWL: Alabama over Oklahoma In a rematch of last year’s Sugar Bowl, Saban gets revenge, and the Crimson Tide play for another national title.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Alabama over Florida State – Like I said before, the Crimson Tide don’t stay down very long. ‘Bama’s defense and running game will be too much for the Seminoles in this one.
AFC EAST: New England
AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis
AFC NORTH: Cincinnati
AFC WEST: Denver
WILD CARDS: Baltimore and San Diego
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Denver over Cincinnati – Peyton Manning and an improved defense win a second straight AFC title.
NFC EAST: Philadelphia
NFC SOUTH: New Orleans
NFC NORTH: Green Bay
NFC WEST: Seattle
WILD CARDS: San Francisco and Chicago
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Green Bay over San Francisco
SUPER BOWL: Denver over Green Bay – Manning wins second Lombardi to match little brother Eli and rides off in the sunset.