Irish Illustrateds 100 hunches: 100-91
100. Florida State will win the ACC Atlantic Division -- Not exactly going out on a limb, especially following the First Rate series of stories in which the Seminoles clearly have the most talent of any Notre Dame opponent by far. The question, at least at this time, is not whether the Seminoles will win the ACC, but repeat as national champions. QB Jameis Winston is back, and while claiming back-to-back Heisman Trophies is certainly more rare than back-to-back national titles, only injury/complacency/lack of focus should prevent Winston from turning in another highly-productive campaign. Florida State’s toughest games (Clemson, and non-conference Notre Dame and Florida) are at home. Oklahoma State – FSU’s opening opponent in Arlington, Texas – is expected to take a step back this year. A game at Miami, where the Seminoles haven’t lost since 2009, could be interesting (for a half). But they don’t have to play North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech or Duke – the best teams from the Coastal Division.
99. North Carolina will win the ACC Coastal Division -- Whereas Florida State and Clemson are the two strongest choices by far in the Atlantic Division, the Coastal is up for grabs after Duke (2013), North Carolina (2012) and Virginia Tech (2011) took turns claiming the division title in the last three seasons. The Tar Heels and head coach Larry Fedora are on the rise in Chapel Hill after losing five of their first six games a year ago, followed by wins in six of the last seven. QB Marquise Williams spearheaded the second-half revival, and with 15 starters back, including the bulk of the (sometimes quite shaky) defense, we’ll go with North Carolina, which does not have to play Florida State (although neither does Virginia Tech) and catches the Hokies (a 10-point loser to North Carolina in Blacksburg last year) in Chapel Hill. Virginia Tech finishes second while Duke takes a step back.
98. Ohio State will win the Big Ten East Division -- Despite a pass defense that often yielded huge chunks of land to the opposition in 2013, the Buckeyes still managed to win all 12 regular-season games, due largely to a Braxton Miller-led offense that shredded opponents to the tune of 45.5 points per game, including 52 at Cal, 63 versus Penn State, 56 at Purdue and 60 at Illinois. Michigan State held Ohio State to its lowest yardage output of the season (374) in the Big Ten championship game (a 34-24 Spartan victory), and then Clemson scored 40 points and gained 576 yards in a five-point defeat of the Buckeyes in the Orange Bowl. Miller is back and the defense will be better. The team’s leading rusher (Carlos Hyde 1,521 yards, 7.3-yard average) and receiver (Corey Brown 63 catches, 10 TDs) are gone, but you’ll hardly notice. The only thing that stands in the way of a third straight division title under Urban Meyer is a trip to East Lansing to play Michigan State, which shifts into the division with Ohio State following the abandonment of the Legends/Leaders division names. No Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska or Northwestern on the schedule from the West Division.
97. Iowa will win the Big Ten West Division -- Going out on a limb here in a very, very competitive Big Ten West Division where Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern all have a shot. The Hawkeyes have a lot going for them in 2014. The defense, which returns just five starters and loses four of the top five tacklers, held opponents to 18.9 points per game a year ago, including the Ohio State juggernaut to “just” 34 points and LSU to 21 points in the seven-point Outback Bowl loss. Eight starters return on offense, led by QB Jake Rudock, who must improve his 18-to-13 TD-to-interception ratio. The ground game will increase its 179.9 yards rushing per game. And then there’s the schedule, which does not include, get this, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State, and features games against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern at home. While the Badgers are a much easier choice to win the Big Ten West, none of the starting front seven on defense returns for Wisconsin.
96. Oregon will win the Pac 12 North -- The Ducks and Stanford have been dominating this division, and there doesn’t appear to be much reason to look beyond these two again, unless new Washington head coach Chris Petersen can add a couple of layers to a Huskies squad that has gone 5-4 in Pac 12 play each of the past four seasons. The Cardinal has a ton of talent to replace (RB Tyler Gaffney, LB Shayne Skov, OLB Trent Murphy, S Ed Reynolds, et al) while Oregon has Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota at QB, its top rusher (Byron Marshall 1,038 yards, 14 TDs), second most-productive receiver (Bralon Addison) and top two tacklers/interceptors (LB Derrick Malone and CB Ife Ekpre-Olomu) from a year ago. The offensive line, for a unit that has scored no less than 45.5 points per game the last four seasons, is top-notch in the Pac 12. The greatest hurdle is a trip to UCLA on Oct. 11, yet the Ducks defeated the Bruins by four touchdowns a year ago while USC is not on the schedule, and Stanford and Washington both come to Eugene.
95. UCLA will win the Pac 12 South -- It’s the third year of the Jim Mora regime, and all things are pointing up for the Bruins, who won five of their last six games in ’13, including a 21-point defeat of USC and a four-touchdown victory over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl. Mora took over a program following the 2011 season in which the Bruins averaged just 23.1 points offensively and lifted it to a 36.9 mark by the second season. Likewise, on defense, the Bruins went from allowing 31.4 points per game pre-Mora to 23.2 two seasons later. Seventeen starters return (well proportioned on both sides of the ball), including QB Brett Hundley and do-everything LB Myles Jack. It’s a tough draw from the North Division, although Oregon and Stanford both must come to the Rose Bowl during the regular season. UCLA also travels to Washington. Then there’s the visit to Arizona State, which was the only team to defeat the Bruins in the last six games of ’13. USC could ride its defense to the Pac 12 South title, but we’ll give the nod to UCLA.
94. Alabama will win the SEC West -- Not willing to go out on a limb for head-coaching genius Gus Malzahn, despite taking Auburn from the depths of the SEC (3-9 in ’12, 0-8 in conference play) to the national title game after the Tigers’ miraculous victory over the Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl and the throttling of Missouri in the SEC championship game. Big shoes to fill at QB where A.J. McCarron left an indelible footprint. But the lines on both sides of the football are stout and the defense has not yielded more than a two-touchdown-per-game average for six straight seasons. Nick Saban’s teams are much more dangerous than when they’re coming off a national championship season, and an 11-2 campaign is considered utter failure around Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s conference record in the SEC the last six seasons is 39-3, including no more than one loss in any one year. They’ll survive the Nov. 8 trip to LSU and avenge last year’s loss to Auburn. No Georgia or South Carolina on the slate from the SEC East. They’ll also play Florida at home.
93. South Carolina will win the SEC East -- If one had to make a living picking Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks to play in the SEC championship game, he’d be a pauper. South Carolina has posted three straight 11-2 records with equal-opportunity losses to Auburn and Arkansas in 2011, LSU and Florida in 2012, and Georgia and Tennessee in 2013. The Gamecocks always seem to find a way to let it slip away, and with Georgia returning the bulk of its defense, the Bulldogs are the easy pick to win the SEC East. But before Spurrier is done, he’ll break through, and at the risk of another tough conference loss on the road to spoil the dream, we’ll go with South Carolina, which will be without QB Connor Shaw and No. 1 NFL pick Jadeveon Clowney, who challenged Spurrier’s blood pressure throughout the 2013 season. Trips to Auburn and Florida could prove tricky, but Georgia comes to Columbia for a Sept. 13 game that should go a long way toward determining the SEC East. Once again, the Gamecocks do not play Alabama. The last time was 2010. They’ll hook up in the SEC championship game.
92. Baylor will win the Big 12 -- In order for the Bears to claim the Big 12 championship, they’ll likely have to defeat Oklahoma in Norman, where the Sooners have won 46 of 49 games the last eight seasons. Yet if anyone can do it in 2014, it’s Baylor, which beat Oklahoma by 29 last year in Waco and has won two of the last three over Bob Stoops’ Sooners. We’re counting on a couple of things here. No. 1, we’re not completely sold on Oklahoma QB Trevor Knight, who helped orchestrate huge upset victories over Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, followed by a shocking two-touchdown victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. We are, however, sold on Baylor QB Bryce Petty, who threw for an incomparable 4,200 yards in ‘13 with an even more incomparable 32-to-3 TD-to-interception ratio. The defense will be hard-pressed to match last year’s 23.5 points per game with just four starters back (compared to nine for Oklahoma). Shocking losses at Oklahoma State (by 32) and versus Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl will serve as lessons learned for the Bears. Art Briles’ offense will match last year’s 52.4 points per game and do the previously unthinkable – defeat Oklahoma in Norman.
91. Central Florida will win the AAC -- Not much left of this conference after getting picked clean the last few years. Gone are Louisville, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers with programs such as Houston, Cincinnati and East Carolina now legitimate contenders for the conference crown. Despite the loss of QB Blake Bortles (3,581 yards passing, 25 TDs) and RB Storm Johnson (1,139 yards rushing 14 TDs), this remains the best team in the conference with 15 starters back, including nine on defense (six of the top seven tacklers). The Knights must travel to Houston and East Carolina, two of the better teams in the conference, but don’t face Cincinnati, who will be counting on former Notre Dame QB Gunner Kiel to lead Tommy Tuberville’s offense. George O’Leary’s squad doesn’t match last year’s 12-1 mark, but doesn’t have to in order to win the watered-down AAC.