Ohio State

The chase for the 2015 College Football Playoff will begin in earnest Thursday when a handful of teams hit the field for the season opener. But of the 128 FBS programs, maybe only a dozen or so realistically may be considered in the hunt for the four playoff spots.

The selection committee gave us a pretty good idea last year on what it's looking for when it comes to doling out the playoff slots. With that in mind, here's our forecast of the teams with the best chances of landing in the football version of the Final Four:

Contenders

Ohio State (14-1 in 2014, No. 1 AP preseason): The defending national champion is loaded with talent, with 14 starters returning from last year's title team. As if they need any help, the Buckeyes also are gifted with a soft schedule after a potentially dangerous opener at Virginia Tech.

TCU (12-1, No. 2): QB Trevone Boykin is back to complete some unfinished business for TCU, which was snubbed of a deserved playoff spot last year and had to settle for a Peach Bowl win and No. 3 final AP ranking. The Frogs will leave nothing to chance and try to run the table this year, with an opportunity to gain revenge on Baylor at home.

Oregon (13-2, No. 7): It took Eastern Washington graduate transfer Vernon Adams two weeks to win the Ducks' starting quarterback job and the rest of the Pac-12 should be very concerned. He's got the ability to replicate what Marcus Mariota has done and put Oregon right back on track for another playoff berth.

Georgia (10-3, No. 9): While everyone is focused on the ultra-tough SEC West, Georgia looks to have smooth sailing in the SEC East. Thanks to a typical SEC-eque cupcake-filled, non-conference schedule, the Bulldogs are well positioned to make a run for not just the conference title -- if they can handle Alabama at home.

Notre Dame

Pretenders

Alabama (12-2, No. 3): It's easy and lazy to peg Alabama as a preseason playoff contender, but have you looked under the hood? The Tide must replace eight starters on offense and once again have an unsettled quarterback position. 'Bama also has three daunting road games at Georgia, Texas A&M and Auburn. Winning the SEC West is far from a sure thing.

USC (9-4, No. 8): The Trojans are a chic pick to win the Pac-12 after finally getting unshackled from NCAA sanctions ... but then #SarkAfterDark happened. Steve Sarkisian has yet to prove that he's ready to win big despite an abundance of talent. And even with Heisman favorite QB Cody Kessler, USC still must win at Arizona State, Oregon and Notre Dame (three teams that really don't suck).

Michigan State (11-2, No. 5): The Spartans have consistently punched above their weight class in the Mark Dantonio era, winning at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. But Michigan State just doesn't have the elite talent necessary to claim a playoff spot even with 14 starters returning.

Notre Dame (8-5, No. 11): A certain publication has the Irish ranked among the top four, but there's no legitimacy to such prognostication other than a blatant attempt to sell magazines. Brian Kelly's team has an unproven quarterback and a defense that gave up nearly 40 points per game in the season's final eight games. Even with a fairly benign schedule, it's hard to see this team with any shot at a playoff spot.

Clemson (10-3, No. 12): Dabo Swinney might finally get over the hump, after having been denied by Florida State a path to the ACC championship in each of the past three years. But there's reason to believe that #clemsoning of some sort is always around the corner to sabotage the season. And in a weak ACC, any conference loss is a #clemsoning.

UCLA

Also-Rans

UCLA (10-3, No. 13): One rapper went berserk about his kid and crash-landed in the weight room and another rapper's kid quit before putting on his pads for even one practice. That's how it went for UCLA's offseason. Despite all the talk about Jim Mora having rejuvenated the program, the Bruins have yet to win a conference title or play in a major bowl game. Hard to see how 2015 would be any different.

Auburn (8-5, No. 6): The Tigers are better when they sneak up on people, like in 2004, 2010 and last year. When they are highly ranked in the preseason, they don't usually fare well. That trend should continue as Gus Malzahn will have to completely retool an offense that needs to replace its quarterback and also the top runner and receiver.

Florida State (13-1, No. 10): There's no real reason to expect Florida State to replicate what it's accomplished in the past three seasons, namely going 39-3 and winning a national championship. Besides the huge question mark at quarterback, the Noles also lost half of their starters on both sides of the ball.

LSU (8-5, No. 14): Make no mistake, Les Miles' Tigers have grossly underachieved since going to the BCS title game in 2011. LSU has lost to Alabama in its past four encounters and hasn't come close to winning the SEC West in the past three seasons. Despite an abundance of talent, the Tigers are a long shot to suddenly turn the page.

Baylor (11-2, No. 4): The Bears' offeseason has been imploded by the Sam Ukwuachu controversy and Art Briles will have a difficult time to manage this huge perception crisis. Remember, the committee is all about being subjective. Combine this debacle with Baylor's unabashed patsy-filled non-conference schedule it means short of being picture perfect (in record and form), Baylor would be in danger of being left out of the playoff again.

Darkhorse

BYU (8-5, Unranked): While there's plenty of talk about Notre Dame, the independent program that might end up crashing the playoff party is BYU. Of course it's very unlikely, but with a healthy QB Taysom Hill, the Cougars have enough schedule juice to make some noise. If they can run the table with a slate that includes four Power 5 teams and also Boise State, coupled with several conference champions that have multiple losses, there's a chance ...

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of College Football Exchange. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

trophy

The 2014 college football season provided us its inaugural playoff and an unlikely champion. It was new, and while everybody tried to take a shot at how the playoff would work, few predicted the final outcome.

Now as we enter Year 2 of the College Football Playoff, there is less guesswork on how it all should materialize. But you still might be confused by all the changes that are taking place just from last year.

Fear not, that's where we come in. These are the burning questions you have about the playoff and we have the answers.

1. Plan on a New Year's Eve party

Unlike last year, when the semifinal games were held at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, this year's semis will be held on New Year's Eve at the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl. In fact, in 2016 the semis will again be on New Year's Eve when they're being hosted by the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.

2. What about the rest of the "New Year's Six" bowls?

For this season, the Peach Bowl will be played on New Year's Eve before the two semifinal games. The Fiesta Bowl will be played on New Year's Day before the traditional time slots for the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

3. Don't forget the automatic matchups

Last year there were just one tie-in for the New Year's Six bowls: The ACC to the Orange. This year, two bowls are essentially already spoken for: The Rose Bowl will have a traditional Big Ten-Pac 12 matchup while the Sugar Bowl will begin its new SEC-Big 12 arrangement. That means the ACC could easily be left with just one entry to the NY6 bowls if it fails to land a team in the playoff.

4. Who else can get in the playoff and NY6 bowls?

The highest ranked champion from the non-power 5 "Group of 5" conferences -- Mountain West, American, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt -- is guaranteed a spot in an NY6 bowl. This year, that spot will be in either the Fiesta Bowl or Peach Bowl. Notre Dame and BYU, two independents with sights set on the NY6 bowls or perhaps even the playoff, are guaranteed nothing and must make it on merit based on the committee's rankings.

Jeff Long

5. Speaking of the committee ...

It still has 13 members, with Arkansas AD Jeff Long as the chairman, but there are two changes: Archie Manning, who never participated last year because of health reasons, is replaced by former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson; and Oliver Luck, who left West Virginia to join the NCAA, is replaced by Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, presumably as the token Texan to keep Art Briles happy.

6. And are we still going to have the weekly rankings show?

Yep, even though if we learned anything last year, the Tuesday night unveilings were just a dog-and-pony show that meant absolutely nothing. This year the presentations featuring Jeff Long will start Nov. 3 until the final one (the only one that counts) on Sunday, Dec. 6. If you're wise, don't bother wasting your time to check on the weekly rankings, as they're as meaningless as the weekly AP and Coaches polls with respect to the playoff.

7. So what are the preseason projections on the playoff and NY6 bowl participants?

That, you'll have to check back in next week, right before the season officially starts Sept. 3.

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of PlayoffGuru.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

EndZone Michigan Book

New York Times bestselling author John U. Bacon tackles the story of how Michigan football collapsed into almost unrecognizable mediocrity during the past decade. Published by St. Martin's Press, "EndZone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football" will be released Sept. 1. Here is an excerpt:

The jet cut through the clouds and eased onto the airstrip at Detroit Metro Airport, just a few miles from where Charles Lindbergh once tested World War II bombers.

This plane's mission wasn't nearly so serious, of course. But the joy it gave to the people below seemed to exceed just about everything since V-J Day.

The jet's cargo happened to be one James Joseph Harbaugh. He's just a football coach, but that day he had done what so many experts said he would never do, right up until the minute he did it: leave the bright lights, big cities, and even bigger money of the NFL for the cornfields and college towns of the Big Ten. This decision -- so mystifying to NFL reporters -- explains why the masses might have been forgiven if they mistook Harbaugh for their savior.

But why did Harbaugh make that decision -- and how did he even get the chance?

Most reporters kept saying there was no way Jim Harbaugh would ever bypass the NFL for Ann Arbor. It turns out their doubts were well founded -- but not for the reasons they offered. The odds against Harbaugh's return really were astronomical -- but when a stunning series of departmental mistakes inspired a grassroots effort for reform, bold leaders stepped in to remove each obstacle, one by one. That it all happened just in time for Michigan to offer Harbaugh the chance to come home completed a chain of events that would have been impossible for anyone to predict even six months earlier.

That chain actually reaches back more than a century.

The University of Michigan was founded in 1817, and a band of students formed the school's first football team in 1879. The two have been inextricably linked ever since.

The university boasts world-renowned professors, researchers, and alumni -- 500,000 strong, more

Michigan Fans

than any university in the world -- with an endowment fast approaching $10 billion, and a QS Ranking as the nation's top public university.

That university also claims the iconic banner, the band, and the Big House -- the biggest stadium in North America, not to mention "The Victors," the winged helmet, and the most wins in college football.

Arguably the nation's greatest public university and its greatest college football program can both be found on the same campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Michigan students, lettermen, alumni, faculty, and fans take a great deal of pride in that unique combination -- and they watch the source of their pride very closely. They believe it's not just Michigan's victories that matter -- on and off the field -- but the values behind them that are so important, values that place a premium on community, achievement, and integrity.

When they feel those values are threatened, they rise to defend them.

***

When dawn broke on Friday, November 17, 2006, the Michigan Wolverines stood atop the college football world.

Michigan Cheerleaders

They had notched the most wins in the sport's history (871), the highest winning percentage (.735), the most conference titles (43) in the sport's oldest, most storied league, the biggest stadium (101,501), the largest crowds -- exceeding 100,000 for 251 straight games, going back to 1975 -- the biggest revenues and, many believed, the most respect.

That morning, the Wolverines stood at 11–0, and were ranked second in the nation. A win over top-ranked Ohio State the next day, in the first "Game of the Century," would give them a shot at a twelfth national title, which would provide a fine springboard for the complete renovation of the stadium, ensuring the Big House would remain the nation's biggest and most profitable, for years to come.

Retired coach Bo Schembechler, the program's patriarch, gave the team a vintage speech Thursday night. But he did not spend much time on that weekend's game, or the stakes involved. Instead, he talked to them about what it means to be a Michigan Man, and how becoming one was the ultimate goal of everyone in that room.

In Ann Arbor, life couldn't get much better.

***

The next morning, Friday, November 17, 2006, Bo Schembechler died from heart failure. For Michigan fans, the bad news has lasted almost a decade.

More EndZone: How Harbaugh Repairs Rift With Michigan

The next day, Michigan lost a nail-biter, 42–39, to Ohio State -- then dropped the next three straight, including the 2007 season opener against Appalachian State, still considered the greatest upset in the history of college football.

When head coach Lloyd Carr retired after that season, Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, whose troubled three-year run produced a 15–22 record and a fractured fan base. In 2011, little-known Brady Hoke replaced Rodriguez and enjoyed a honeymoon season when the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes for the first time in eight years, and won a BCS bowl for the first time in twelve, to finish 11–2. But the next three seasons, the program slid steadily downhill, culminating in a 5–7 record in 2014, and Hoke's dismissal.

Michigan Fans

Since the day Schembechler died eight years earlier to Hoke's firing on December 2, 2014, mighty Michigan had gone 55–48 overall, and 24–33 in the Big Ten -- not the kind of numbers that had made Michigan the envy of its peers. Once the pride of a powerful conference, the Wolverines had become also-rans in an often overlooked league.

When the football program collapsed into almost unrecognizable mediocrity, its fall pulled the university itself into conflict, controversy, and crisis.

What went so wrong, so fast?

The losses, fans could see. But most of the problems that led to those losses were invisible to the public -- as were their solutions, and the people who conceived them.

On January 5, 2010, University of Michigan's president, Mary Sue Coleman, announced she had hired former Michigan football player, university Regent, and Domino's Pizza CEO Dave Brandon, ahead of three experienced athletic directors with strong Michigan ties, to become Michigan's eleventh athletic director. She introduced him as the "ideal candidate."

Brandon put his guiding principle, "If it ain't broke, break it!" to work as soon as he took office, transforming Michigan's rock-solid 135-year-old operation into a dazzling money machine, pushing revenues roughly 50 percent higher in just a few years, up to $150 million.

Fire Brandon

But Brandon also replaced loyal, experienced employees who had built great relationships with the students, the lettermen, the fans, and the media, with outsiders who quickly alienated all those groups. Just four years into Brandon's tenure, the money started drying up, the fans stopped filling the Big House, and just about everyone was bailing on Brandon's vision. In October of 2014, the students held a campus rally outside the home of recently hired President Mark Schlissel to demand he fire Dave Brandon.

It was not simply the 2014 team's 2–3 record to that point that had them upset, or they would have been asking for Hoke to be fired, not Brandon. It went deeper than that: They no longer had confidence the athletic director represented the values of the university they loved.

In different ways and at different times, the many constituents of Michigan football reached the same conclusion: This is not Michigan.

Something had to give. But could anyone make the needed changes fast enough to prevent a truly disastrous 2015 season, on and off the field, and avoid missing out on Michigan's slim chance to hire Jim Harbaugh?

Jim Harbaugh

Why Michigan pined for Jim Harbaugh is simple: He had been raised in the Michigan tradition, he'd embodied those values while quarterbacking the Wolverines to a Big Ten title, and he had since become the hottest coach in the country, leading the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC title games.

But why Harbaugh wanted to return to his beleaguered alma mater was harder to see -- and most observers dismissed even the possibility that Harbaugh would consider leaving the NFL to captain Michigan's sinking ship. If Harbaugh wasn't going to stay in San Francisco, surely he would accept the riches of another major-market NFL team looking to land the nation's most wanted coach.

But if you knew Jim Harbaugh, and the hold Michigan had always had on him, the idea of turning down the big time for small town Ann Arbor wasn't so far-fetched. Countless people, both inside the university and out, worked to fix what had been broken, to make that marriage irresistible to both parties.

If Harbaugh had gone to New York, Chicago, or Oakland, he'd still have been a great coach -- and he probably would have been fired one day. But his boosters made it clear that if he returned to Michigan, he'd be greeted as a savior.

For all college football's commercial trappings -- including NFL-style coaching salaries -- its fans still believe their favorite sport is less a business than a religion. This is why Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan draw almost twice as many fans as the NFL teams do in their states. That religious fervor is what draws college football fans to the game, year after year.

But the question remained: Was that spirit strong enough to pull the Michigan family together and call its native son back home when the chance arose -- or would they miss their opportunity and suffer through another cycle of mediocre Michigan football, one that would test the patience of even the most ardent Michigan fan?

This is the story of how Michigan fixed itself.

-- Excerpted by permission from EndZone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon. Copyright (c) 2015. Published by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Follow John U. Bacon on Twitter @johnubacon.

Jim Harbaugh

Years before he began his triumphant Summer of Jim revival tour in which he preached his shirtless brand of coaching gospel, Jim Harbaugh was staring at a large chasm, separated from the alma mater that meant everything to him.

In the years before he was deemed Jim Harbaugh the Michigan Football Messiah, he had, at least around Ann Arbor, become Jim Harbaugh the Outcast, the former poster boy quarterback that few around the picturesque Midwestern college town wanted much -- if anything -- to do with.

The coach, molded in legendary Michigan general Bo Schembechler's image, had been deemed an "elitist" by former Wolverines football coach Lloyd Carr. The characterization came after Harbaugh -- then in his first year at Stanford's helm -- called for Michigan to hold itself to a higher academic standard rather than being known as a "good school" where the athletic department "has a way to get borderline guys in."

The comments, made in 2007, were seen initially as harmless by both those who know Harbaugh best and Michigan's athletic director at the time, Bill Martin. But around Ann Arbor, where loyalties run thick, Harbaugh -- unbeknownst to him -- was facing excommunication.

EndZone Michigan Book

After a media firestorm during which he not only repeated his claims but also expounded on them, a rift between Harbaugh and his beloved school back in Ann Arbor began to grow.

How the relationship was healed and eventually led to a football marriage between Harbaugh and Michigan is chronicled in John U. Bacon's latest book, "EndZone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football," which will be released Sept. 1. (Click here to read exclusive excerpt.

The book focuses largely on the devastation and eroding of Michigan's program under the watch of former athletic director Dave Brandon. But running through its 83 chapters is the detailed backstory of how Michigan landed the biggest fish in the coaching sea last winter, pulling off what was seen by many as the impossible task of luring Harbaugh from the NFL and back to the college program he had long dreamed of leading.

Bacon obtained a simple but significant 2009 email exchange between Harbaugh and Martin that in all likelihood provided a back door entry into what turned out to be Harbaugh's grand front-door return to Michigan almost five years later.

Without the fence-mending mission, says longtime Harbaugh friend, advisor and confidant Todd Anson, the deal to bring Harbaugh home to Ann Arbor -- and the healing between the two sides that needed to happen -- likely doesn't happen.

***

The ideologies spelled out by San Francisco Examiner columnist Glenn Dickey in 2007, stating that college football needed Stanford to serve as a shining academic example to its fellow NCAA brethren was nothing new to Anson. A night before his comments ran in the paper, Harbaugh had preached the same message almost verbatim on Anson's San Diego patio during a casual barbecue.

Todd Anson

Harbaugh arrived at Michigan as a freshman in 1982 and planned to major in history only to be told that he needed to take on a less rigorous academic load. Now, all these years later, he had overseen the recruiting of Andrew Luck, landing the prize recruit largely because the quarterback could major in engineering at Stanford rather than being forced to follow the same path Harbaugh had years earlier.

So when Harbaugh asserted that Stanford had set itself apart from other universities -- including Michigan -- Anson, a graduate of Michigan's law school, took no offense.

In his confident language of Harbaughese, the coach was calling for schools nationwide to step up their academic game.

"To me, the story was about empowerment and about the race to the top academically," Anson told ThePostGame in a phone interview. "It wasn't a story about some scandalous notion that Michigan is weak in any way academically, which of course, it's not."

But Harbaugh, first in his comments to Dickey and then in a conversation with then Ann Arbor News columnist Jim Carty, quickly became Public Enemy No. 1 in Ann Arbor.

"I don't think (Michigan) should cut corners that dramatically for football and basketball players," Harbaugh told Carty in a column Bacon references in the book. "I love the university. I got a tremendous education there. I think it should be held to a higher standard. I think it should hold itself to a higher standard."

Bill Martin

Like Anson, Martin, Michigan's AD from 2000 to 2010, wasn't offended by Harbaugh's assertion. Martin, who nearly a year after Harbaugh's comments hired Rich Rodriguez to take over Michigan's program, didn't anticipate the public backlash that made Harbaugh out to essentially be a traitor.

Martin told ThePostGame that at the time, he felt if Harbaugh had thought about his comments, they likely wouldn't have been made, characterizing the then-Stanford coach's feelings as "candid and off-the-cuff."

But when Harbaugh further outlined his opinion to Carty in the Ann Arbor News, the controversy around town and within the Michigan community grew. It prompted Carr, then in his final season at Michigan, to refer to Harbaugh as "arrogant" and former running back Mike Hart, famous for referring to rival Michigan State as "Little Brother," to tell reporters at the Big Ten's Media Day that Harbaugh wasn't a Michigan Man and that he wished Harbaugh had never played at Michigan. According to Bacon, neither Carr nor Hart appeared to reach out to Harbaugh before making their comments.

What had started out as a call for Michigan to take more accountability in its approach to athletics and academics had become an explosive topic that turned much of the school's fan base against Harbaugh.

Jim Harbaugh

And in Ann Arbor, Martin heard from some of Harbaugh's critics who were "madder than heck about it." That became as part of what Martin calls a "visceral human reaction" and he knew it meant trouble.

"Absolutely, it bothered me," Martin says in a phone interview. "It was (like), ‘We don't need this -- this shouldn't be here.' But it happened and you do what can to heal it and move on.

"Yes, it very much bothered me. It detracted from the focus of the team at that time, the legacy of the program and nobody needs that."

Anson says he and Harbaugh never discussed the coach's crumbling relationship with his alma mater. But he could tell that a coach famous for keeping distractions at a stiff-arm's length and being unfazed by public option, had clearly taken a hit -- even if publicly, he acted like nothing was amiss.

"He's got the thickest, toughest skin of anybody I've encountered in my life," Anson says. "So if he knows he's right about something, it's going to affect him less than if he is -- or might be -- wrong about it."

***

As Michigan's reputation as a national football power continued to take a pounding under Rodriguez and eventually under Brady Hoke, Harbaugh was turning Stanford into a major player.

He was doing so with his Cardinal players adhering to Stanford's strict academic standards while running his program with the belief that a smarter team is a better team all other factors being equal.

As Harbaugh was becoming a top-notch coach that would eventually lead to his graduation to the NFL and the San Francisco 49ers, things were still not right with Michigan.

While Harbaugh had moved on past his comments two years earlier, Michigan clearly had not.

Instead of viewing Harbaugh's comments as constructive criticism, Michigan had dug its heels in, holding firm to the belief that nothing needed to change. By doing so, it was creating distance between itself and Harbaugh.

Harbaugh Chair

"Jim was never estranged to Michigan -- he has always unqualifiedly loved Michigan," Anson says. "Michigan was estranged from Jim, and that's what I never could understand."

Despite harboring no ill feelings toward Michigan, Harbaugh used the occasion of Martin's retirement as athletic director to begin to reconstruct a bridge between himself and the university, and ultimately the Wolverines' legion of fans.

Anson suggested to Harbaugh that perhaps, by opening lines of communication with Michigan, a damaged relationship could somehow be put back together.

The rebuilding began with a simple email obtained by Bacon and chronicled in "EndZone."

Mr. Martin,
Congratulations on your retirement announcement. You've done a great job in the last ten years. Don't let the bastards get you down.
Go Blue/Go Stanford
-Jim Harbaugh

Martin, according to Bacon, replied the same day. In it, Martin accepts the olive branch offered by Harbaugh and writes,

It's time to have you back on campus. You're a big part of Michigan's football history. All the "drama" of a couple of years ago is over. I would be honored to host you anytime, even if we can't work out a game (between Michigan and Stanford).
Regards, Bill.

Harbaugh Fans

Anson, who was just leaving Harbaugh's Stanford office as the emails were sent between Palo Alto and Ann Arbor, could tell that Harbaugh took great satisfaction that the severed ties between himself and Michigan were, at the very least, on the road to recovery.

"The healing feels good, doesn't it?" Harbaugh told Anson.

Martin didn't recall the email exchange until presented with copies by Bacon during the reporting phase of the book. But he now looks upon the fence mending as something that needed to take place to restore the relationship between the university and of one of its favorite sons.

"I absolutely wanted (to fix the relationship) because of what he's done for Michigan, what he means to Michigan as part of our overall football legacy," Martin tells ThePostGame. "So yeah, I was very aggressive and I meant every word I put in those emails."

The exchange, which includes two other emails included in "EndZone," is -- according to the author -- a critical moment in restore the relationship that led to Harbaugh's hiring.

"I think the email between Jim Harbaugh and Bill Martin is a quiet, private, relatively small but crucial first step," Bacon says in a phone interview. "It showed both men at their best -- Jim humble enough to reach out and assert his loyalty to Michigan, which has never waned and Bill Martin being a big enough man to accept and return an olive branch.

Jim Harbaugh

"That is how Michigan Men are supposed to handle themselves."

As Harbaugh prepares for his first season with the Wolverines next week at Utah, he has restored the rock star -- almost cult-like -- status he had as an upperclassmen in 1986 when he became the Big Ten's top player.

Gone is the animosity that came with his comments eight years ago, having been replaced by the belief Harbaugh is the man to bring Michigan football back to greatness.

In part, Anson believes that Harbaugh's commitment to holding his players accountable -- not only on the field but academically -- is part of what made the former quarterback such a big target for Michigan after Hoke was fired after last season's 5-7 finish.

But for Martin, who was replaced by Brandon (who resigned following his own firestorm of controversy in 2014), understands that for all of the hero worship, Harbaugh's road to rebuilding Michigan football won't be easy.

"The family is together again," Martin says. "The Big House is sold out, people are excited, but I think they understand it's going to be two years probably before we're probably a very strong national contender."

Only time will tell. But if Harbaugh -- now fully again embraced by a community that once shunned him -- has anything to do with it, the return of Michigan football will be one its proud and loyal fan base won't soon forget.

More: Read exclusive excerpt from 'EndZone'

-- Email Jeff Arnold at jeff.arnold@thepostgame.com and follow him on Twitter @JeffArnold_.

Columbus is pretty hyped right now. The defending national champions are 38-3 overall and 24-0 in the Big Ten regular season since Urban Meyer took over in 2012. The Buckeyes are expected to be ranked No. 1 when they open the season at Virginia Tech.

Some Buckeyes fans are so excited for the season they cannot wait to see the band spell out the "Script Ohio." They had to do it themselves even if they lack musical talent.

Script Ohio

Reddit user "orweezy" posted a picture to the reddit Columbus page of the "Script Ohio" on a map. Orweezy and friends walked 19 miles to manually draw the O-h-i-o on Google Maps. For artistic pleasure, the dot over the i was designed to be Ohio Stadium.

Orweezy gave a nod to his coworker friends, who he said came up with the idea with him. He also acknowledged walking 19 miles was not the brightest medium to go through the route.

"We got like 8 miles into it and thought…. 'you know, this would have been better if we biked it,'" orweezy wrote. "It took us 6 and a half hours of walking but we made a few bar stops so from 6:30am through 2:45pm. We were doing a work competition about fitness and the metrics used was time, so we walked everywhere and I think we just carried it over. I would rather bike it next time for sure."

Interesting decision to mix fitness and bars, but anything goes in a college town.

A curious reddit commented asked orweezy how he or she was able to make it home after walking 19 miles. Luckily, a new form of car service has made this easy.


"We all met up at our friend's house then Uber'd back and forth," orweezy wrote.

Orweezy gauged interest from reddit users about a possible fundraising event in the future using the same route. Fellow users appear to be supportive. Right now, everyone is positive about everything in Columbus.

There is no evidence this stunt will help Meyer choose between J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones as Ohio State starting quarterback, though. The coach still has that i to dot.

Baylor Football

In three weeks, the 2015 college football season will commence, entering the second year of the College Football Playoff format. Last year was an instructive experience, as we all learned that the CFP committee is a vast departure from the BCS with its computers and polls.

With that in mind, some games this season will take on more meaning because of its CFP implications. But a few others will also grab the spotlight because of who's involved. And finally, there'll be the timeless rivalries that are special every season.

Here are our list of 10 games to especially keep an eye on, in chronological order:

Michigan at Utah (Sept. 3)

Jim Harbaugh's hiring this offseason was by far the biggest coaching splash in football -- pro or college -- and his coaching debut at his alma mater will render everything else on the season's opening night into a sideshow.

But Harbaugh has anything but a cupcake to kick things off. The Utes routed Michigan at the Big House last season and will be tough to handle at Rice-Eccles for a Wolverines squad still in search of a starting quarterback. Rest assured cameras will be trained on Harbaugh the entire game to see how he handles things.

Frank Beamer

Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 7)

The Hokies were the only team to inflict a loss on Ohio State before it went on to claim the inaugural CFP championship. That loss at the Horseshoe nearly cost the Buckeyes a spot in the playoff, thanks mostly to VT's awful season, including the infamous 0-0 tie at the end of regulation against Wake Forest.

To be sure, the Buckeyes won't take the Hokies lightly this time, but they will have plenty of adversity to deal with. Not only is this game in hostile Blacksburg, Ohio State will be without four suspended players, including star defensive end Joey Bosa. Urban Meyer's defending champs can easily open the season 0-1.

Boise State at BYU (Sept. 12)

The Broncos crashed the CFP party with a victory over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, their third win there in the past 10 years. While Boise is poised to claim the New Year's Six bowl bid guaranteed to a non-Power 5 team once again, BYU has similar ambitions as well.

The Cougars have a difficult schedule with four Power 5 opponents and seven of their eight other opponents come from either the Mountain West or American Athletic. BYU can play its way into an NY6 bid as an at-large, and a win over Boise State will help things considerably.

Oklahoma vs. Texas at Dallas (Oct. 10)

Both of these programs are trying to rebound from subpar seasons and reclaim their supremacy in the Big 12. Bob Stoops is under siege after a preseason top 10 team disintegrated in an 8-5 season at Oklahoma. Texas' Charlie Strong got a pass for his first season, but Longhorns fans won't be patient for long.

This version of the Red River Shootout probably won't decide the Big 12 title, but it'll give us an idea which team is closer to returning to elite status.

Bush Push

USC at Notre Dame (Oct. 17)

There hasn't been a USC-Notre Dame game that had national title implications since the 2005 classic in which the two-time defending champion Trojans prevailed on a late Matt Leinart QB sneak thanks to the "Bush Push." This year, both teams have national championship aspirations once again.

This game will mean more to the Irish in this respect: Without a conference title game, their only path to the CFP playoff is by going 12-0 or at worst, 11-1. A loss to USC might be a deal breaker as Notre Dame must negotiate a brutal stretch in its first seven games.

Florida State at Clemson (Nov. 7)

Clemson won 20 of its past 24 ACC games, but three of the losses were against Florida State and therefore denied the Tigers a shot to even make it to the conference title game. But Dabo Swinney and Co. hope this season will be different, as his team is now favored to dethrone the Seminoles.

Florida State managed to beat Clemson last year despite starting little-used Sean Maguire because Jameis Wnston was suspended. The Noles might have to do that again with Maguire, unless he's beaten out for the starting QB job by Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson.

USC at Oregon (Nov. 21)

It's the titanic tilt between the Pac-12's old money and new money. USC ruled the conference in the Pete Carroll era only to be supplanted by the Ducks when it was hit by severe NCAA sanctions.

The Trojans are back near full strength now and their late-season clash might not be the only time the teams meet this year. The last time those two faced each other in Eugene, USC pulled off a 38-35 upset that denied Oregon a shot at the BCS title game that season.

Baylor at TCU (Nov. 27)

Last year, this game essentially decided the Big 12's playoff fate. With Baylor pulling off a stunning comeback in the fourth quarter, the teams shared the conference title but both got left out of the four-team CFP field.

This year the conference has voted to declare a single champion in the event of a tie, so this game might very well serve as either a winner-take-all or the tiebreaker. And it might take something like 61-58 to decide it again.

Ohio State at Michigan (Nov. 28)

In 1969, first-year Michigan coach Bo Schembechler shocked his mentor Woody Hayes' defending national champions at the Big House. Will history repeat itself for Bo's protege now?

Jim Harbaugh would like nothing less than that, of course, even if his team most likely will be playing spoiler as he restocks a program that's fallen into mediocrity. Urban Meyer, on the other hand, will do his damnedest to make sure he comes out ahead in the most celebrated coaching matchup of the year.

Iron Bowl

Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 28)

Two years ago the Iron Bowl gave us perhaps the most memorable finish in the history of college football. As the game returns to Jordan-Hare Stadium, there's plenty of hype and hope for another classic.

Both teams are expected to be a national title contender, but only one of them will get to play in the SEC championship game. The stakes will be enormous even considering that the SEC West might turn out to be even tougher than last year.

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of PlayoffGuru.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

The Big Ten was getting ridiculed as a has-been conference. Sure, it was raking in a lot of money, but it hardly won anything anymore. And by adding nondescript Maryland and Rutgers in the latest round of expansion, commissioner Jim Delany was thought to be losing his touch.

All that changed, dramatically, in a span of four months.

After almost certain to being shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Big Ten barely snuck in after Ohio State thumped Wisconsin in the conference title game. The heavy-underdog Buckeyes then shocked both Alabama and Oregon to claim the CFP title, ending the conference's 12-year football title drought. Then two Big Ten teams made the men's basketball Final Four, with Wisconsin taking down unbeaten Kentucky in the national semifinals before losing to Duke.

So pardon Delany for being once again his confident (some would say smug) self. The Big Ten has a lot to crow about -- with its abundant cash and hardware -- and that's not even counting the biggest hire in the football offseason, pro or college.

The Big Ten Media Days in Chicago last week was quite an attention-grabbing festival. These are our five biggest takeaways:

1. Jim Harbaugh is in the news, whatever he does

Unless you lived under a rock (or on a rock in outer space), you couldn't have possibly missed the Harbaugh Show the entire offseason. Michigan landed its unicorn with the celebrated hire of its former All-American quarterback and he immediately set the football world on fire. Whether it's his never-banal tweets, or tossing a football on Ile Saint-Louis in Paris, or visit to the U.S. Supreme Court, Harbaugh attacked each day with an "enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

Though he's not even won a game for Michigan yet, he's already done much to restore luster to the winningest program in college football history. But as the real games approach, Harbaugh made it known that he's crystal clear on what's the task at hand.

"Not striving to be creating any buzz," Harbaugh insisted. "Just striving to coach the football team. Not trying to be popular or anything. Anyone who is popular is bound to be disliked. So just coaching football."

2. Urban Meyer is on top of the world, but he has issues

While his new rival is getting all the buzz, Meyer's team is making news of its own, though not all in a good way. After ending the Big Ten's football title drought in January, Ohio State is favored to repeat as national champions. But Meyer has an unsettled situation at quarterback -- even if it's an embarrassment of riches -- and also he'll be missing four players for the season opener at Virginia Tech.

Meyer said that he's primarily concerned with three things with his players: Academics, the social element and the weight room. So far, he's liked what he's seen and he's ready to move forward even if the season opener will be fraught with uncertainty against the only team that beat the Buckeyes last year.

"Every team is different, and every day is different," Meyer said. "I can't say we have a set way that we're going to approach training camp. It all depends on the pulse. So the indicators other than (the suspensions) has been not good; it's been great. But tomorrow is another day. And so we just keep pushing forward."

3. Can a nice guy like Mike Riley win in Nebraska?

Nebraska dumped Bo Pelini after a successful run but one that never met the lofty expectations of the program or its rabid fan base. Pelini, a fiery sort who's had a few run-ins with his bosses and Huskers fans, then not burned, but napalmed the bridge on his way out of Lincoln with an expletive-filled tirade.

So the Huskers went out to hire the anti-Pelini. In Mike Riley, Nebraska now has possibly the nicest guy in college football as coach. While Riley has done more with less at Oregon State, questions abound on whether he can thrive in a demanding environment that expects championships.

"I don't know about all that with the 'nice guy' thing," Riley scoffed, sort of. "I just hope they see a guy that loves what he does. And I also tell people that the personality part of it, the neat thing about any -- probably any teacher that you've had in the past, personalities are different. But different kinds of personalities in our business have all been successful. So I really think that -- my dad always taught me just be yourself, enjoy what you do - because players see through phonies."

4. Confident Big Ten is done with cupcakes

In 2016, the Big Ten will join the Pac-12 and Big 12 as Power 5 conferences to play nine regular-season conference games. But the athletic directors have upped the ante -- despite opposition by the coaches -- on future schedules. Delany said that each Big Ten school is mandated to play at least one out-of-conference Power 5 team each season and that, after existing contracts are done, conference schools will no longer play FCS teams.

"I think that's responsive to what the College Football Playoff committee is looking for," Delany said. "It took a little while to get here because of schedules and expansion. But ... we think it's what our fans want. We think it's what our players want. And we think it's what the College Football Playoff committee wants."

And let's face it, this is what the Big Ten's TV partners want. The conference will be the first among the Power 5 to negotiate a new television contract after its current deal runs out at the end of the 2016-17 season. In a fast-changing landscape with more people cutting the cord with cable, Delany obviously concluded that playing Sisters of the Poor isn't going to help the Big Ten to land the next windfall.

5. Delany is mindful of how to keep raking in the cash

While the SEC might've nipped the Big Ten in the money race this year, the conference schools still took home around $32 million each in 2014-15. But it's the future that has everyone concerned, as declining revenues at TV networks - particularly ESPN - threaten to pinch on what should've been a record-busting upcoming contract for the conference.

Delany is well aware of the turbulence ahead. He'll be the last guy caught flat-footed.

"It's a dynamic time in the communications world that we live in," Delany said. "We've had a great period running up to this. I'm quite optimistic about our position in the marketplace even with the dynamic change which is occurring. We've prepared for it. ... We read the trades like you do. And we're hopeful, look forward over the next year to figure out where we end up."

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of PlayoffGuru.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

Michigan Stadium, the largest in the land, is undergoing renovations.

But this time, it's getting smaller.

The Big House is losing about 2,300 seats in total, lowering its maximum capacity from 109,601 to 107,601. The renovations were done to make the stadium better-equipped for non-football events, and to come into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

Michigan Stadium is still the nation's largest, but only by a hair: it beats out Big Ten rival Penn State's Beaver Stadium by just more than 1,000 seats.

"Our facilities group has done a phenomenal job in increasing the accessibility of Michigan Stadium while minimizing the reduction in seat locations," said one of the school's athletic administrators in a press release. The release cited the installation of handrails throughout the stadium's lower bowl as the reason for changes to comply with ADA guidelines.

Although its reasoning seems valid, it's somewhat interesting timing to reduce capacity of a stadium that, last season, struggled to attract fans. An average of just 104,909 fans attended Wolverines football games last season, according to the Detroit Free-Press.

As John U. Bacon pointed out for ThePostGame last fall, the universities struggles are even more concerning among student fans. In a three-year span, student attendance has declined by more than one-third.

Ticket sales are already up for the 2015 season, thanks in large part to renewed excitement around the program after the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as head football coach.

But for a school that has led college football in annual attendance almost every year since 1974, flagging fan interest remains a concern.

The Pac-12 (and its predecessor the Pac-10) has for many years dubbed itself as the "conference of champions" and never seems to tire of flaunting the self-obsessed slogan.

There's just one problem. In the sports that actually matter to most, the Pac-12 is anything but.

In men's basketball, the Pac-12 has not won an NCAA title since Arizona did in 1997 and last appeared in a championship game in 2006 with UCLA. In some ways it's worse in football. The last national title won by a Pac-12 team was USC in 2004. But since the Trojans were stripped of the BCS/Coaches title that year because of the Reggie Bush scandal, you have to go all the way back to USC in 1972 to find a consensus national champion from the conference (when it was the Pac-8).

Needless to say, all other Power 5 conferences have won titles in the meantime in both football and basketball. But at least in football, there are some hopeful signs that the Pac-12's drought might be ending soon.

At the recently held Pac-12 Media Days in Burbank, Calif., there was renewed optimism in the air. But you came away with the nagging sense that there was more hope than substance to all the talk, just like the "conference of champions" motto. With that being the case, here are the five key takeaways:

1. USC is ascendant, at least on paper

The Trojans are finally off the crippling sanctions from the aforementioned Bush scandal, and will be close to having a full complement of roster players for the first time in four years. Because of its abundance of talent, and having a Heisman contender in quarterback Cody Kessler, USC was picked by the media to win the Pac-12 for the first time since 2008.

Steve Sarkisian, in his second year as the Trojans' head coach, sounded cautious while embracing the challenge.

"You voted us to be the conference champions, but the reality is we need to go out and prove it," Sarkisian said. "We all chose to come to USC to win. I didn't come here to be OK or come here to be mediocre. We came here to win championships. If the expectations were going to be too big, this wasn't going to be the place for you. ... So for you guys to feel that way about us, that's, like I said, that's great and all but ultimately we have to go perform."

2. But Oregon is ready to cede the throne to no one

The Ducks made it to the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game, only to fall against underdog Ohio State. They lost Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota to the NFL draft, but it's only time to reload in Eugene, not rebuild.

Mark Helfrich, who's 24-4 in his two seasons as Oregon coach, is ready to take on USC (Nov. 21 at Autzen Stadium) or whomever.

"We can all go home. It's done. It's decided," joked Helfrich after learning USC was voted by the media to win the conference. "No, I think whatever it is, I always tell our guys, whatever the noise is that you listen to, if it's your girlfriend, your wife, the media, Twitter, whoever, if you use that for motivation, great. If you use it to dwell or think about something else, that does nobody any good. So if somebody's sitting at home going 'those jerks didn't vote us for whatever' and they go lift. Great!"

3. RichRod has a future as a comedian

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is many things: Innovative, unorthodox and a little country. But he won the day during Media Days with his dizzying references to "Dumb and Dumber," "the Lion King" and how many cars are on the 405 and 101 (freeways) in L.A. But he saved his best for when someone asked him whether it's "refreshing" to have a returning quarterback.

"Refreshing?" RichRod quipped. "I think a nice cold beer or a Bacardi and Coke, or maybe even a nice iced tea sweetened is refreshing. ... What was the question again?"

4. Pac-12 is falling behind in the arms race for cash

With reports of the SEC and Big Ten hauling in record amount of cash (in excess of $30 million per school last year), the Pac-12 is not keeping pace. While the SEC Network and BTN are reportedly netting SEC and Big Ten schools, respectively, more than $10 million each year, Pac-12 schools are clearing just $250,000 after buy-back expenses.

The $10 million annual gap per school isn't likely to change anytime soon as the Pac-12 is locked in its current TV deal for another decade. Yet commissioner Larry Scott was happy that he won't have to negotiate anytime soon.

"I’m glad we’ve got our deal done," said Scott, who worked the current TV contract that runs through the 2023-24 season. "I’d be more worried if I were the Big Ten coming up.”

5. But the conference's failing TV business might get a reprieve

Entering its fourth season of existence, the Pac-12 Network is by any measure a massive failure. By refusing to partner with ESPN or Fox as the SEC Network and BTN did, the Pac-12 now owns a network that has independence but little leverage. While its competitors are in more than 60 million homes each, the Pac-12 Network is barely in 10 million homes, and nowhere near saturation even within the conference's own footprint.

A huge problem that confronted the Pac-12 Network from Day 1 was its inability to cut a deal with DirecTV. Four years in, the standoff with the satellite giant looked to continue with no end in sight ... until now.

Thanks to the FCC's approval of AT&T's takeover of DirecTV in July, now there's a possibility that the Pac-12 Network will finally be on DirecTV this football season, since AT&T is one of the Pac-12's biggest corporate partners. Scott was cautiously upbeat that a deal can get done, but refused to speculate on when.

"We're not going to think we're their first, most important priority (for AT&T)," Scott said. "But we are a priority. I expect we’ll be engaging very soon. I don't know that it's realistic to think that before the start of the (football) season (there will be a) resolution."

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of PlayoffGuru.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

In 2010 the Big 12 was in its death throes.

Caught flat-footed in the realignment frenzy, the Big 12 nearly lost half of its teams to the Pac-10, which was bidding to become a monstrous 16-team conference that spanned from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. And this was after the Big Ten already poached Nebraska.

The Pac-10's ambition turned out to be a bridge too far, and it settled for Utah and Colorado instead (come to think of it, this was akin to Alexander the Great setting out to conquer Persia and India and ending up with Azerbaijan and Armenia). But the Big 12 wasn't done being picked apart, as Texas A&M and Missouri were pried away by the SEC.

The conference only survived after then-commissioner Dan Beebe was fired and TCU and West Virginia were invited to boost its numbers to 10. The Big 12 held on to Texas and Oklahoma and thus avoided being downgraded to be a rump conference. But its future, even five years later, remains as murky as ever.

At the just-concluded Media Days in Dallas, the uncertainty of the Big 12's status hung over the proceedings like the lingering stench of spoiled food. That was among the key takeaways as the 2015 season approaches:

1. Expansion is coming to Big 12, as a matter of survival

The expansion questions were inevitable ever since Oklahoma president David Boren said last month that adding two teams won't reduce TV payouts to current members. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby claimed that a majority of the Big 12 presidents and chancellors are not in favor of expansion -- for now -- but he left the door wide open when he said "there are probably four or five in the middle who are persuadable one way or the other.

The Big 12 might not have a choice but to preemptively wade into the expansion waters before its current members are poached again. Just as a reminder, even before the Pac-10 and SEC made their flirtations five years ago, as many as five Big 12 schools also danced with the Big Ten.

2. For now, it'll take its chances without a conference title game

After being the only Power 5 conference left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Big 12 was under pressure to host a conference championship game. That could've been done through expansion to 12 teams or obtaining an NCAA waiver. But at the end, Bowlsby said the conference decided not to make a knee-jerk decision.

That's probably a wise move, since the Big 12 was pretty close to having two teams in the playoff last year, too. CFP boss Bill Hancock, who also made an appearance at the Media Days, reminded that "the risk from conference championship games is significant. Nobody knows that better than the Big 12 through the years, as many good teams as they had go down in championship games. So, yes, it helped Ohio State, but one year doesn't make a trend, and I think the Big 12 is smart to sit back and wait."

3. But Big 12 will strive to be kinder and gentler, at least in practice

The Big 12 reduced allowable live contact drills during the game weeks from three (as mandated by the NCAA) to two as a way to improve player safety. The decision not only met no resistance from the coaches, it earned their unanimous approval.

TCU coach Gary Patterson had an interesting way of looking at it: "(With coaches) there's a false sense of (us) just try to bang our kids around, but I think all of us, we like keeping our jobs, and we want to keep our kids healthy."


4. Charlie Strong wins in the locker room, now he needs to win, period

Strong's first season as Texas' head coach was more of a success behind the scenes than on the field. He re-established discipline and offloaded nine players from the program, but the Longhorns finished 6-7 and were blown out by Arkansas in the Texas Bowl.

While he got a pass from boosters and fans alike for the first season as he got his house in order, Strong knows that patience won't last forever. And he won't use the brutal 2015 schedule -- with the season opener against Notre Dame in South Bend -- as an excuse.

"Last year 6‑7 is not good enough. It will never be good enough at the University of Texas," Strong said. "The schedule is very challenging. It's very demanding. ... But the good thing about it, why would you want it any other way? That's why you're at the University of Texas, and that's why players have to understand, it's all about competing. That's why you're here. You're here to go compete for championships."

5. Back in Dallas, the scene of the crime

If one single winner must be picked from the Media Days, it had to be new Kansas coach David Beaty. The former Texas A&M assistant/recruiting ace dazzled with his enthusiasm and charm, a stark departure from his woebegone predecessor Charlie Weis.

And then he dropped this nugget: His late father Buford Lee Beaty, a Dallas police officer, was at the scene when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. He was also cited in the Warren Report on the Kennedy assassination.


"He was in line with the gun as it shot through (Oswald),” Beatty said of his father. “I think he kind of helped get him on the gurney but they got him in the ambulance pretty quick."

For the record, Oswald, unlike the Big 12, did not survive his wound.

-- Samuel Chi is the managing editor of RealClearSports.com and proprietor of PlayoffGuru.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ThePlayoffGuru.

Syndicate content