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Perennial Man of College Football Steel, the Inimitable Phil Steele, Editor of Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, Joins CYInterview for Our 2014 College Football Preview

We are a couple of weeks from the kickoff of the 2014 college football season, but it is never too early to get a well informed preview of what to expect. For example, this is the first season that there will be a four team playoff to determine the national champion.

For 20 years, Phil Steele has been putting together the best preseason magazine for NCAA football in Phil Steele’s College Football Preview. The 20th edition of his magazine is over 300 pages. Mr. Steele joins us for our yearly college football preview, breaking down who he thinks will win the title, what teams will surprise and who to keep an eye on.

You can listen to our 30 minute CYInterview or read the highlights below:

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Giving his thoughts on the new college football playoff, the NCAA football expert offered this:

“Back in 2000 and this was about the fifth, sixth year of the magazine, the BCS was struggling and I said, here’s my article, I think this is the perfect scenario for the NCAA playoffs. I think we go to a four team playoff. Not 8. Not 16. That would be overkill. We keep the bowls intact, we keep the regular season intact, we get a true national champ every year. Let’s play one against four and let’s play two against three. Wrote that article in 2000, rewrote that article in 2001, 2002, over a decade of writing that article, putting in the magazine every year. Finally, that exact scenario has come to fruition.

So I’m just thrilled to have a four team playoff, have it locked in for 12 years. And if your argument at the end is this number five team should have been number four, I don’t care. The main thing is we don’t want to leave out that number three team that should have been one or two, or even if a number four team was unbeaten that should’ve been 1 or 2. Let’s get the national title contenders in the mix at the end of the year and I think this playoff format does it.”

Phil Steele has FSU, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma making this year’s college football playoffs with Florida State repeating as national champions. The sports magazine editor breaks it down for us:

“When you look at the number four team in the country, I went with Oklahoma. And to be honest with you, when Oklahoma had beaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, I sort of wanted to go against Oklahoma, go against the grain because here’s a team that had they lost to Alabama probably would have opened up the season number 18 or number 19 in the polls and now they were elevated all the way up to, they’re gonna be in the top five in the polls because they beat Alabama. But after doing the research, after breaking down the team, after going through every position and then after plugging in the schedule, I do have Oklahoma favored in every single one of their games. You look at their road schedule this year, they play one team on the road that had a winning record last year. Every other team they played on the road had a losing record last year. They really do have the talent and schedule to run the table.

Now with Ohio State, I think they gotta keep Braxton Miller healthy. Last year when Braxton Miller got injured, they had Kenny Guiton to call upon. I wasn’t that impressed with their backup quarterbacks in the spring. But if Braxton Miller stays healthy, they’ve got potentially the number one defensive line in college football. I think their defense will be improved, will have one of the most explosive offenses and if they survive that big test November 8th at Michigan State, I’ve got Ohio State running the table this year.

But to me, the top two teams in the country are Alabama and Florida State. When you look at Alabama, lot of folks wonder how I can have them number two with an inexperienced quarterback. But I got three different major factors saying I’m not concerned about that at all. First of all, first year starting quarterbacks have been doing quite well. Last year’s national championship game had a couple of first year starting quarterbacks, last two Heisman Trophy winners, first year starting quarterbacks. Three of the last four national champs, first year starting quarterbacks. And then Alabama, they don’t need their quarterback to be a superstar. They just need their quarterback to be a game manager almost if you look at their history and the years they’ve been winning the championships.

And they don’t just have a regular quarterback here, they’ve got Jacob Coker. This guy’s 6’5, 235, gave [Jameis] Winston a run for his money at Florida State last year. NFL scouts are looking at him. He could be a potential first round pick. I think he steps in and does well especially with my number one running back core in the country, number two set of receivers, number eighth offensive line and perhaps the best defense. Alabama’s got a little bit tougher schedule than Florida State does. They have to play LSU on the road, Mississippi on the road. They got big games against Auburn and Florida, but I add it all up, I’ve got Alabama favored in all their games and expect them to be in the title game.

Now number one, I went with Florida State and if you’re looking for a team to put in your final four bracket at the end of the year, you are gonna use pencil right now, but I would put one team in pen and that’s Florida State. When you look at this team top to bottom, their weakest unit in the front of my magazine, and of course they rank in my top units in all eight positions, their weakest unit is running backs. They have the 12th best running core in the country.

That means all the other units rank in my top 10 in the front of the magazine. So they are the most talented team out there, the most complete team out there. There are no question marks. Then you factor in that schedule, schedule’s middle of the road. I mean they play Oklahoma State, but Oklahoma State’s in a rebuilding mode. They play Louisville on the road, but Louisville loses Bridgewater, they lose Charlie Strong. I’ve got Florida State a double digit favorite in every single one of their games this year. That’s why I’ve got them in pen to be in the final four playoffs. They have the best chance of making it.”

Looking outside the top four teams Phil has in the playoff, he believes two Pac 12 teams, Oregon and UCLA, also have a chance to crack the top four and even win the national title.

“I think you gotta look at the two Pac 12 teams, Oregon and UCLA are two teams very capable of getting in there. The reason I didn’t pick a Pac 12 team in my final four scenario, the Pac 12 is the second toughest conference. I just think each team slips up somewhere along the line and that’s why I didn’t pick one to get there. But I do not have UCLA an underdog in any game this year. I’ve got Oregon an underdog in one game, that’s their trip to UCLA. They would have to play each other again in the Pac 12 title game, but I think when you look at both those two teams, extremely talented, the Pac 12 is loaded. I give one of those two an excellent shot of getting to the title game.”

Mr. Steele says the Cinderella surprise this year in college football will be the Marshall Thundering Herd out of Conference USA. He has them going undefeated and playing in the Orange Bowl.

“I believe they will go undefeated. In fact they take on my number 125 schedule in the country this year. Now, Marshall’s not chopped liver. They’re not some team that’s just playing a soft schedule. You look at them defensively, they’ve got eight starters back and last year’s defense allowed 22.9 points per game. So they’ve got the potential on defense. My computer projects them to allow 17.3 points per game this year, 300 yards per game and that’s pretty remarkable when you consider my computer projects their offense to average 546 yards per game and 41.9 points per game. Rakeem Cato is back at QB. He’s in another year as a starter. He’s got tremendous set of receivers to throw to. …

They had three very talented freshman running backs two years ago, those guys are all juniors this year. The offensive line looks solid as well. And then you factor in that schedule. Their road games this year are against Miami Ohio, Akron, Old Dominion, FIU, Southern Miss and UAB. Now Old Dominion did win some games last year, but they had a losing record against FBS teams. All of those teams had losing records against FBS teams. The rest of the games are at home and Marshall at home last year just pounded people. They beat them at home last year by an average of 53 to 13. So this is a Marshall team that I think will not only win all 12 games this year, they’re gonna win their games by an average of 24 points per game. Folks will be taking notice and that’s why I think they’re the top non BCS team or non power five conference team out there and get into the Orange Bowl this season.”

With fans across the United States, Notre Dame is one of college football’s most storied programs. They have the toughest schedule in America this year, but Phil still believes they will get into a BCS bowl game:

“Toughest schedule in America, but not an unwinnable schedule, you know, if you look at their 12 opponents that they are playing this year, 11 of them are gonna be in bowl games with a potential of 12 if Purdue gets things turned around. But let’s say Purdue doesn’t make a bowl. 11 of Notre Dame’s opponents make a bowl game and they play some of the tougher teams in the country. They’ve got Florida State on the schedule, USC, Arizona State, North Carolina, my pick to win their division in the ACC, Stanford’s on the schedule. But really the schedule is manageable in the fact that their true road games this year, they have three of them at Florida State, at Arizona State, at USC; none of them are easy.

Let’s say they even drop two of those games. The rest of the games are at home or at a neutral site and their neutral site games are Purdue, Syracuse and Navy where they have the edge. The rest of the tougher opponents are at home. So really when you only play three true road games on the year, that’s gonna help it a little bit. … I see Notre Dame winning double digits this year against the toughest schedule in the country and that should be good enough to get them into the Fiesta Bowl where by the way I have them matched up against UCLA.”

Last year, Florida had its first losing season in over 30 years at 4-8. This year, the college football expert is making a bold prediction that Florida will win nine or ten games.

“I put Florida right in the mix of the SEC East this year. In fact, usually in years where Florida has this schedule and when I say this schedule, I mean three SEC road games, Georgia being at a neutral site and the other games at home, that’s a schedule that usually has them contending for the East, which I think they will this year. They get South Carolina at home, they get Georgia at a neutral site and their SEC road games Tennessee and Vanderbilt, they’ll be favored in. Yes they do draw Bama out of the East and have to play them on the road, they’ll be an underdog in that game. They’re also gonna probably be an underdog when they face Georgia and then of course at Florida State.

But when I look at Florida, I see a team that in the first six games last year arguably had the best defense in the country. They were giving up 235 yards per game, then injuries set in. … They’ve got seven starters back overall [on defense]. I rate all three of their units in my top 20 in the front of the magazine, two of the units in my top 10. I think they have a top 10, potentially top five defense this year. Now offensively, that’s where they really struggle. They’ve been averaging about 20 points per game the last couple of years.

But Kurt Roper comes in with his new offense, Jeff Driskel really seemed like he adapted to the offense very well in the spring. They’ve got Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones Mack Brown in the backfield. All these guys started and produced last year, but all three were also injured last year. There’s gonna be more production out of receiver. You’ve got a Quinton Dunbar coming back. Keep your eyes on Demarcus Robinson. He only had five receptions last year. I’m looking for a breakout year from him. And they’ve got a new offensive line coach who did wonders at USC last season. I think he’s gonna do well with this Florida group. So an improved offense, improved defense, I think this year’s Florida team more resembles the 2012 version of just two years ago when they went 11-1 during the regular season and almost played in the national title game. … Yes, I list Florida as a legitimate contender in the SEC East and I see them getting nine or ten wins this season.”

Many will be focusing on how Texas will do this year with first year head coach Charlie Strong. He tells us how the Longhorns will do:

“I see Texas having a much improved defense this year and offensively, the key is going to be the quarterback play. Let’s face it the last two games last year, Case McCoy couldn’t complete a pass. They had 54 yards passing against Baylor on a total of 34 attempts. They had 56 yards passing against Oregon putting the ball up 23 times, struggled to complete a pass. Now if David Ash or Tyrone Swoopes wins that starting job and gives them that passing game, they’ve gotten a tremendous set of running backs to use, they’ve got a good set of receivers, the offensive line looks solid. Texas could be one of those surprise teams out there. I am gonna temper my expectations. I know there’s been, you know, a lot of things where, hey, maybe the coaching staff not fitting in with the offense. It’s always different in the first year of a head coach. But I see them topping last years eight win total and they could be a surprise contender in the Big 12 this year.”

Last year, CYInterview regular, Washington State head football coach Mike Leach [see here] surprised everyone by taking his team to a bowl. Speaking about the 2008 College Football Head Coach of the Year’s chances to make a bowl again this year, Phil said this:

“I do give them the chance of getting back there, but this is a brutal Pac 12 Conference and they do play a tough schedule. You’re looking at, you know, when you host Oregon during the course of the season and host USC and host a team in Washington that adds Chris Peterson, they could very well be an underdog in those home games. That means a couple of the winnable games are on the road like Oregon State, Utah’s gonna be a much improved team this year, Arizona State’s on the road, Stanford’s on the road. They could be an underdog in as many as seven games this year. Now for the record, I didn’t think Washington State necessarily was gonna get to a bowl game last year, but they did get to that 6-7 record. They just probably have to pull one upset. I think I’ve got them favored in five games this year. They pulled some upsets last year and so they probably need to pull one upset to get back to a bowl game this year.”

Though they won three national titles in the 1940s, Army has been to only five bowl games. Steele tells us why he believes they will get to one this year:

“When you talk about a service academy, generally the bulk of your team graduates every year. They usually lose 30, 35 letterman. Well, this year Army has 16 returning starters on offense. They also have one of the most talented backfields in the country. They have thousand yard rushers coming out their ears. three or four of them on the roster and when you add up the total career yards back in the backfield, it’s among the most in the country. They now have some experience at the quarterback position, experience on defense and now [Jeff] Monken can bring them and that extra step. We saw that when [Rich] Ellerson took over. They won five games and seven games, they won 12 games his first two years. And then you factor in the fact they have my number 103 schedule they take on this year, I do think Army’s the potential to get to the six wins. In fact, I project them to be in the Armed Forces Bowl against Houston.”

Finally, on who he thinks will win the Heisman Trophy this year, the sports magazine veteran likes Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

“I went with Marcus Mariota, the quarterback of Oregon. Now I think when you look at the start of November last year, Mariota was probably the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, but then he suffered an injury, wasn’t 100 percent in the month of November. Oregon’s offense dropped off a little bit in the month without him being 100 percent. I think if he can stay healthy this year, he could pilot the nation’s most potent offense and Mariota would be right up there. When you’re looking at quarterbacks for next years draft, NFL scouts are looking at Mariota and Winston as one, two for the draft. And I think when you add it all up I went with Mariota, but l’ll tell you this Chris, if you would take the field, basically if Vegas puts a line on the top 15 candidates and then everybody else joins into the field, the field has been the best bet to win the Heisman Trophy. We’ve seen them coming out of nowhere to win the trophy the last couple of years.”

You can purchase Phil Steele’s college football preview magazine and find all his daily information at his official website www.philsteele.com.

You can follow Phil Steele on Twitter here.

You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com

You can follow Chris Yandek on Twitter here.