Picking college football champions is not unlike picking the right character in a murder-mystery story, as Dwight Schrute puts it in 'The Office":
"It's never the person who you most suspect. It's also never the person you least suspect since anyone with half a brain would suspect them the most. Therefore, I know the killer to be Phyllis...the person who I most medium suspect."
College football prognostication often seems to follow a similarly laughable pattern.
The only clear favorite in college football in 2015 are the returning champs from Columbus, who return a ridiculously sizable chunk of the star-studded team that rolled through the 2014 playoffs. The "it's never the person you most suspect" wisdom may be laughable, but the fact of the matter is that Ohio State is much more likely to not be champions than they are to win.
Their QB position is still unsettled, their championship OC is now the head man at another school, and they have to navigate some tough games on the schedule as "the hunted" team everyone wants to take down. Virginia Tech looms in the opening week, eastern rival Michigan State might be one of the nation's top 5 teams, Penn State and Minnesota lurk as upset specialists, and Harbaugh is going to come after them with all he's worth when they meet at the close of the year in Ann Arbor.
Then there's the possibility of facing Wisconsin again in the Big 10 title and the actual playoff slate...there's a lot that could go wrong for Ohio State. You might say, "well isn't that true of everyone else only moreso?" Yes it is, but if you want to identify the murderer at the end you can't just assume it will be Urban's Buckeyes.
Then there are the teams no one expects, these teams rarely win in college football. The nature of polling and the selection committee is such that perception plays an out-sized role in the whole proceedings and only teams that are either on the radar or have multiple games with opponents that are on the radar are good bets to even have a chance at getting the benefit of the doubt.
In other words, as strong as they might be Boise is probably not going to be the team to get it done simply due to lack of access.
There are also teams out there that are going to be much better than expected in 2015 because relative unknowns like a Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston are going to end up being very good. There are endless possibilities here and it's hard to foresee who these teams might be.
Then there's the team that everyone most medium suspects, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs.
The Dawgs are quietly in a pretty good place to be a darkhorse bet with a no. 9 preseason ranking, placement in the SEC East, and a fairly reasonable draw. Unless you believe that Auburn and Alabama are going to perpetually reload and be dominant again in 2015 (which is admittedly possible), the slate of teams they drew from the SEC West isn't too terrifying either.
There are actually some good reasons to believe that Richt might finally have the Georgia team that breaks through and plays for a national title.
Positive indicators for the Dawgs
In Bill Connelly's recent S&P projections the Bulldogs are projected to be the 5th best team in the country. This is a team with a lot of returning talent, strong annual recruiting, and a few obvious weapons on the team that make them stand out as a potential power.
Perhaps the most notable feature to this team is the return of star running back Nick Chubb, who was so good in 2014 that Todd Gurley was barely even missed when he went down. Chubb ran the ball 219 times for 1547 yards at 7.1 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns and is a favorite to win the Heisman trophy.
Most of his escorts return, including 4/5 of the 2014 starting OL that paved a way for him...
|Left tackle John Theus||6'6" 303||35 starts|
|Left guard Isaiah Wynn||6'2" 290||0 starts|
|Center Brandon Kublanow||6'3" 282||13 starts|
|Right guard Greg Pyke||6'6" 313||13 starts|
|Right tackle Kolton Houston||6'5" 285||19 starts|
...as well as fullback Quayvon Hicks and young tight end Jeb Blazevich who started last season as a true freshman and should be much improved as a blocker in year two. Georgia has an extensive run game complete with two-back schemes, shotgun runs, and blocking schemes that attack every area of the line of scrimmage.
With all that experienced beef in the middle of the field it's not hard to imagine that Richt's Dawgs will find some success running the football this season. Meanwhile on defense, Jeremy Pruitt's squad is losing a lot of experience in the trenches but returning several key pieces to 2014's 7th rated passing S&P defense.
That includes pass rushing outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, and Lorenzo Carter as well as both starting safeties and several young DBs that were pressed into action in 2014 when the secondary was depleted by transfers.
Fantastic secondaries have followed Pruitt everywhere he's been, he's coached two of the better secondaries college football has seen this century and the program's he's left behind have seen drop-offs in play since he departed.
Even at inside linebacker where the Dawgs lose their two leading tacklers, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, they return some exciting athletes and also add UAB transfer Jake Ganus who led his team in tackles each of the last two seasons.
With all this returning experience and Pruitt returning for year two there's a good chance that Georgia could be better in 2015 than in 2014 in the trenches on offense and in their secondary and pass defense.
There are four major concerns about the Dawgs and their chances of winning the SEC and reaching the playoffs with a championship-caliber football team.
The first is the loss of longtime OC, Mike Bobo, who was hired by Colorado State to replace Jim McElwain after he was hired by Georgia's rival in Gainesville. Bobo coordinated some very effective and very balanced offenses over the last few years while maintaining strong play from his QB charges over the years.
However, he leaves behind a roster with several QBs groomed in the system, including Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta, to back-up new starter and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert. Ultimately it's Mark Richt's offense and Brian Schottenheimer has been brought in to be the caretaker of an established, successful system.
Lambert is the next concern, can he manage the Georgia passing game effectively around Chubb after a season at Virginia in which he averaged only 6.25 yards per pass and threw 11 interceptions in nine games?
Where hope can be found for Georgia fans is in the fact that Brice Ramsey was a pretty good candidate and played reasonably well as a redshirt freshman in spot duty last year, yet Lambert beat him out. Lambert's biggest problem at Virginia was his decision making, but he played in a terrible offense that regularly set him up for failure on passing downs with an anemic run game and poor protection. He'll be much better supported in Georgia and if he has a stronger mastery of the system than the players who'd already been on campus that suggests his decision making might be better when throwing off play-action fakes to Chubb than on 3rd down for the Cavaliers.
Next up, run defense. The Dawgs ranked 65th in rushing S&P a year ago and were surprisingly and soundly whipped by the Gators' run game and the Georgia Tech option attack even though they had a stronger effort earlier in the year against Missouri.
In year one they were more comfortable in Pruitt's two-deep coverages that were undoubtedly leaned on in large part to protect the young secondary. When they tried to build eight man fronts against Florida the squad noticeably struggled to adjust well to motion and to force the edge consistently.
With a second year in the system, returning starters on the edge at outside linebacker and safety, it stands to reason that the players will be more comfortable in the various packages and in run defense.
Finally there's receiver, where the Bulldogs lose longtime contributors Michael Bennett and Chris Conley and most of the vestiges of the Aaron Murray era of Georgia football. How things progress here depends largely on the health of "the human joystick" Isaiah McKenzie.
McKenzie can be seen straining his hamstring here, while torching the Georgia secondary on a deep post from the slot in their spring game. With Blazevich and Malcolm Mitchell returning it seems reasonable to suspect that Richt's ball control passing game will chug along but the addition of a vertical threat to ease pressure off Chubb and the run game could make this Georgia offense devastating. If healthy, McKenzie can bring an explosive element that serves as the final piece to the Dawg offense.
An all around good bet
Mark Richt's Bulldogs are poised to have a balanced offense with an elite running game, a very good pass defense with a stouter run D, and a navigable path to postseason opportunity.
For years this program has "underachieved" in the sense that while Richt has had several good teams, they've not won the SEC championship since 2005 and have not played in a national championship game. After 14 years, it's generally assumed that a coach is not going to win a title if he hasn't done so already.
But this flawed reasoning is as silly as any put forth by Dwight Schrute and only serves to make the Bulldogs a team that most only "medium" suspect to be a likely player in the 2015 playoff picture. If things don't go exactly as people expect in Columbus or Tuscaloosa it shouldn't be surprising if Georgia is a team that benefits.