TCU joins Ohio State as prime title contenders next season

After dismantling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, quarterback Trevone Boykin and TCU enter next season as playoff favorites.
After dismantling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, quarterback Trevone Boykin and TCU enter next season as playoff favorites. Star-Telegram

In a season that will be remembered as a dynamic debut for the College Football Playoff, Tarrant County dipped its toe into the playoff waters as the site of the inaugural championship game.

Don’t be surprised if Tarrant County doubles up on its playoff possibilities during the 2015 season.

Not only will one of the playoff games be headed back to AT&T Stadium in Arlington (Cotton Bowl, Dec. 31) but TCU, the No. 3 finisher in the postseason polls, looms as a likely participant in the playoff field after being omitted from the first four-team fray in December.

The Horned Frogs (12-1), whose nucleus of 15 returning starters is headed by standout quarterback Trevone Boykin, have been a consistent choice as No. 1 or No. 2 in multiple Way-Too-Early rankings for the 2015 college football season.

Add the Star-Telegram projection to that mix because TCU should be the team to beat in the Big 12 next season. And members of the CFP’s selection committee need to create room for the Big 12’s best team in 2015 after keeping two league co-champs with deserving résumés (TCU, Baylor) out of the title loop in 2014.

Like any playoff hopeful, TCU would be well-served to run the table and post a perfect record if the Frogs want to be assured of playoff inclusion next season. So would Baylor, another 2015 playoff contender.

But that is a tall task in any league, a reality underscored by the fact that five of the top six teams in the final CFP rankings had one loss when the 2014 bracket was set.

The eventual champion, Ohio State, began the playoff in the No. 4 spot after the Buckeyes’ inclusion over TCU, which dropped three spots in the final committee rankings following the Frogs’ 55-3 rout of Iowa State.

Many want to identify Ohio State’s title as evidence the committee put the “right” team in the fray at No. 4. Without question, the Buckeyes belonged in the final four-team mix. But so, too, did TCU, as evidenced by the Frogs’ 42-3 rout of a quality Ole Miss team in the Peach Bowl.

What we really learned about the 2014 season, before and during the playoffs, is that college football had no elite team that stood out from the pack. Given the right matchups and breaks, any of the top six teams in the final rankings, including TCU and Baylor, could have run the playoff gauntlet and hoisted the trophy Ohio State claimed Monday night in Arlington.

That does not cheapen the Buckeyes’ title. They earned it, fair and square. But the primary lesson learned in Year One of the CFP era is that expansion of the playoff bracket needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

ESPN’s record-setting ratings testify to the popularity of the playoff format. It would only be enhanced by expansion to at least six teams (with first-round byes for the top two seeds) to assure a representative from each Power 5 conference gets a title shot each year.

Alas, CFP officials are too busy congratulating themselves on their debut season to recognize the elephant in the room. Bill Hancock, CFP executive director, said he does not envision major changes to the existing format because expanding the playoff field would require tweaking a 12-year contract after only one season of feedback.

But he did offer hope for future modifications.

“We know there is a tipping point beyond which the size of a postseason bracket will begin to erode the regular season,” Hancock said. “We know it’s not four …. They say a tree doesn’t grow to the sky. But we haven’t reached the sky on college football yet.”

Hopefully, the “sky” can become a six- or eight-team playoff as soon as possible. But that won’t impact the 2015 season, when TCU or Baylor will need to be successful enough to crack a four-team bracket. The Big 12 champ, if impressive enough to earn a top-two seed, likely would open the playoffs Dec. 31 at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington.

If that team is TCU, we’ll have a Tarrant County double dip to open the 2015 playoffs on New Year’s Eve in Arlington.

After a first-year shutout for the Big 12’s best teams, that sounds like a giant step in the right direction by CFP officials. But lots of positive things must happen for the Big 12’s best team during the next 11 months before making that a reality.

Projecting the playoff field

The 2015 playoffs begin with semifinal games on Dec. 31 and conclude with the title game Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz.

1. Ohio State: Defending champs will be loaded again.

2. TCU: If QB Trevone Boykin stays healthy, the Frogs could be 12-0.

3. USC: The best team on paper in a powerful Pac-12.

4. SEC champ: Hard to imagine the winner gets excluded. But it might.

Preseason Top 10

1. Ohio State: Elite talent and speed, with 14 returning starters.

2. TCU: Prolific offense returns 10 starters and defense should be fine.

3. USC: QB Cody Kessler is one of 15 returning starters.

4. Baylor: Bears return 17 starters to help new QB Seth Russell.

5. Michigan State: QB Connor Cook, defensive nucleus returns.

6. Georgia: RB Nick Chubb should shine behind veteran OL, solid D.

7. Clemson: Rising power in ACC fueled by QB Deshaun Watson.

8. Alabama: Offense must rebuild, but defense will be stout.

9. UCLA: Bruins need QB but return 18 starters from 10-win team.

10. Arizona: Wildcats return lots of elite playmakers from 10-win team.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

Key dates

Sept. 3 TCU at Minnesota

Sept. 5 Alabama vs. Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium

Dec. 31 CFP semifinals at the Cotton and Orange Bowls

Jan. 11 National Championship, Glendale, Ariz.

Five key games in 2015

Oct. 3: Alabama at Georgia

Oct. 3: Notre Dame at Clemson

Nov. 7: Arizona at USC

Nov. 21: Michigan State at Ohio State

Nov. 27: Baylor at TCU

Five lessons learned about the CFP

1. Expect more aggressive fluctuations in weekly rankings than we’ve seen from voters in the AP and coaches polls.

2. Understand that a 13-game résumé trumps a 12-game résumé for playoff hopefuls when all else is basically even.

3. Realize that an undefeated record does not translate to a No. 1 seed, even if only one FBS school achieves that milestone.

4. Embrace the need to upgrade soft nonconference schedules because committee members are watching and will hold that against teams during deliberations.

5. Accept that the “eye test” carries more weight than any piece of quantifiable data, including head-to-head results, when breaking virtual ties in either/or situations.


Five changes we’d make to improve the CFP

1. Expand the playoff field to a six- or eight-team bracket, thereby assuring a representative from each Power 5 conference.

2. Cut back the number of weekly rankings from seven to five. Five is still enough to build drama and identify the right teams.

3. Add more regional diversity among the primary “football voices” in the committee room, particularly if Archie Manning does not return in 2015. Having the two highest-profile personalities with football pedigrees (Barry Alvarez, Tom Osborne) holding connections to Big Ten schools creates too many raised eyebrows when Big Ten teams rise unexpectedly in the rankings.

4. Pencil in AT&T Stadium as a recurring venue for the championship game once in every five-year cycle. You know it works here, just as the Final Four works in Indianapolis.

5. Allow more committee members than just the chairman to address placement of teams in the final bracket to maximize transparency.

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