College Football's New Look

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This week, ESPN.com is examining the top contenders for the College Football Playoff. Yesterday, we narrowed the field from 16 to eight, focusing on a unique talent or skill that differentiated our remaining teams. But talent alone isn't enough to prevail in the playoff era.

Today, we whittle the list of contenders from eight to four, identifying a challenge facing each team this spring, and how they're working to turn a potential pitfall into an opportunity.

The Contenders | The Talent | The Strategy

The Strategy

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The older players saw the change in attitude earlier this spring during the Fourth Quarter, Alabama's offseason conditioning program.

"You didn't really hear anybody whining about it," Crimson Tide junior safety Landon Collins said. "Like, if you was here last year, 'Man, why we gotta do this? Why we gotta do so many?' Everybody just came in this year and said, 'We only got 16. Let's just get it done. Let's get it out the way.' And that's how it was. That's how we did it, and it was fantastic."

The team that won two straight BCS championships finished last season on a two-game losing streak. The postmortems on last season revealed a team that didn't bother to take care of details.

"The older guys kind of let it slide," junior center Ryan Kelly said. "... [If] anybody really would do something that didn't reflect how we do things, no one would stand up and say that. So it kind of just let everything get pushed underneath the rug."

Where Alabama tripped over it on the last play against Auburn and pretty much every play of the Sugar Bowl.

"We just didn't have the proper respect for what it takes to win," coach Nick Saban said. "And that's what you're trying to get people to do without having something bad happen. Not having to have a thunderbolt strike everybody and say 'OK, it's time to wake up and do it right.' Because you can't afford that."

Saban spent the offseason refocusing his team. He also tried to foment connections among his players, who now come from 18 states across four time zones. In the offseason, they went to a movie, went bowling, held a pingpong tournament. Saban is searching for that interdependence that connects a locker room.

"Look, it's human nature, you know," Saban said. "And you're trying to overcome human nature. You're trying to get people to be special, beyond normal. Most people respond better when things go bad than when they go good."

At Alabama, 11-2 is a bad thing.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has spent the offseason telling anyone who asked that the Tigers will not change a thing from how they prepared a year ago, even if they are in a much different place in 2014.

A year ago, Auburn finished with a 3-9 record that left the program in tatters. A year ago, Malzahn and his staff had to earn the trust of his players, even though most of them knew Malzahn from his time as offensive coordinator (2009-11).

In this offseason, the Tigers are coming off a 12-2 season. Most of us see that as 12 wins and two losses. Malzahn is holding a different lens. He sees that as 13 seconds short of a BCS championship, and one job left painfully undone.

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