Cue the bands. Fire up the tailgates. Block off Saturdays for the next 4 months. College Football season is here.
Millions of fans across the country wait for opening weekend with the hopes of their school kicking off a season that ends with a College Football Playoff (CFP) appearance, but how many of these teams really have a good chance of making it there?
Last year, a non-conference winner, Alabama, jumped over the winners of the Pac-12 and Big-10 to get into the CFP. They even hurdled the winner of the American Conference who finished 13-0. Teams like Ohio State, UCF and USC scratched their heads at not getting in, while the committee sat confidently that Alabama was the better fit. The committee breathed a sigh of relief as Alabama ran the table and finished as the country’s #1 team.
Now that we know you don’t need to win the conference to get in, it may change the way we view the CFP rating system throughout the season.
Let’s take a look at the teams who have a good chance of making the playoffs this season.
Clemson. Again. For the fourth season in a row, they should be in the final four. Their defense is too good, Dabo Sweeny is too smart, and the Tigers have not lost an ACC game in two seasons. Outside of conference play they have a big showdown in Texas when they visit A&M in week 2, but with only one preseason top-25 team on their dance card, expect Clemson to cruise through the season and finish atop the ratings.
If there is a team that runs the table and goes undefeated, it’s them.
The Tigers have the most terrifying defensive front possibly in college football history. Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins combine to form a brick wall that seems impossible to run through, that pressures the backfield and forces fumbles and levels the quarterback from either side. They are the most impressive combination of athletes as there is the nation. Ferrell is the highest rated of the group by NFL scouts, Bryant is poised for a breakout season, Wilkins has an engine that never runs low and Lawrence could start in the NFL today. Look for them to dominate this season, again, and potentially even end up with a Heisman candidate, or two.
Alabama. Same story. Sure, there is quarterback controversy, but if anyone is capable to keeping it from being a headline in the locker room, it’s Nick Saban.
Jalen Hurts, a 2-year starter who has brought his team to back-to-back National championships and Heisman-hopeful Tua Tagovailoa are both vying for the starting position come Saturday, but don’t expect to find anything out long term this weekend. It’s likely that Saban and his staff will rotate both guys until one of them wins the position. In the team’s first two-deep chart, both guys were listed on first team. This isn’t exactly a problem that leads to a disastrous season either. Running back Najee Harris could be the best runner in the conference, and once again the Tide will feature a defense that is mean and hungry.
The SEC is a dominant conference, but this year ‘Bama gets Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn at home, and they only play four true road games. Expect to see Saban and the Tide in the CFP for year number 5.
This is the year. Finally, this is the year.
They have a tough road schedule with games at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State, but these Badgers are too consistent for that to matter. Head Coach Paul Chryst is on the verge of becoming a premier name in the sport, and halfback Jonathan Taylor is poised for big numbers following a rookie campaign in which he ran for 1,977 yards and 13 scores. They went 13-1 last year and only needed to replace two starters on offense this fall.
We have always had the Badgers on the cusp of the greatness, and maybe they have always been a player or two away, but this is a different team than before. They are seasoned. They have looked the best of the Big-10 in the eyes and defeated them. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has become reliable and delivered when it mattered. Look for Wisconsin to cruise to the CFP.
They should have run through the Pac-12 last season, but they didn’t.
They should have put up better numbers offensively, but they didn’t.
But somehow, someway, they still strike me as a top 4-5 team in the country. Remember two years ago when quarterback Jake Browning came so close to winning the Heisman? Well he is still under center, and now the most seasoned player in the nation is set to take the field for his senior season.
Running back Myles Gaskin and wide receiver Chico McClatcher are two of the best at making big-plays and should dominate the West Coast headlines. This Huskies team should cruise through the conference, and if they finish 12-0, they get in to the CFP for the second time.
Baker Mayfield is no longer a Sooner, but Rodney Anderson is.
So is CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown, and that means this Oklahoma team is for real.
The new starting quarterback Kyler Murray is going to have a lot of weapons to play with. Combined Lamb and Brown caught 1,900-yards, and Anderson ran for another 1,161. Their offense last year was historic, and although they might take a step back without last year’s Heisman, they will still be really good.
Defensively, they still have some concerns. That passing defense was the weakness that potentially stopped them from being national champions last year. They were ranked 87th in passing yards allowed, and they lost their two starting safeties and top cornerback. They recruited well the past few years, so they will be able to fill those spots with great athletes, the question will be how fast they can adjust to a pass-happy conference that features some of the best receivers in the sport.
If a team gets to the final four out of the Big-12, it’s likely going to be Oklahoma. Offensively they should be able to outscore opponents, and they will need to if their defense doesn’t improve.
They should roll through the SEC East, again. Then a conference title game against Alabama will likely send one, and only one, team to the CFP. If Georgia wins that game, they would certainly be in.
With the nation’s top recruiting class, coach Kirby Smart has a locker room full of young athletes to send out on the field. They will need to replace their two running backs, Nick Chubb and Sonny Michael, but we saw flashes of D’Andrew Switft last year and he should be ready to carry the load.
There is a quarterback controversy brewing in Athens. Well, not yet entirely, but you can bet that if Jake Fromm has a few bad quarters of a big game, the Dawgs will be ready to unleash 5-star freshman Justin Fields. Fromm showed up in the brightest of stages last year and came within a play of being a National Champion, so don’t expect a young quarterback breathing down his neck to bother him.
And their defense? Still as solid as ever. Sure, they lose some leaders to the pro’s, but they rotated enough guys last year that they shouldn’t miss a beat.
The Rest of the Field
Notre Dame: They can’t close down the stretch. They were on a roll last season winning 8 of their first 9 games, but stumbled until the end, dropping 2 of their last 3. Also, until Brian Kelly can beat Poeer-5 times in November (4-11), I can’t put them anywhere near the CFP. Not with games on the road against Northwestern and USC in November sandwiched around a primetime match-up with Florida State.
Miami: They should win the ACC Coastal division. They have play makers on both sides of the ball. So why not give them a shot in the CFP? For starters they were worse than Notre Dame down the stretch, losing three in a row after starting 10-0, and coach Mark Richt needs to prove that was a fluke. And second, there is Clemson. Meeting them in the ACC title game is a scary task. This is the best Clemson team Dabo has coached, and Miami just isn’t there yet.
Auburn: They are good, very good. But their schedule is tough with an opening tilt against Washington and road games at Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Four road trips that could disrupt any momentum. Oh, and that Georgia and ‘Bama game are in the final 3 weeks of the season. They beat both teams last year, but lighting doesn’t strike twice.
Penn State: They have become America’s sweetheart again. Jason Franklin has seemingly erased all doubt that the Nittany Lions can be a premier team once again, and he has them close to being a top-4 team. Replacing Saquon Barkley is going to be difficult and replacing their offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will be even harder. Fortunately, they get Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin at home, so they have that advantage, but I just can’t see two teams from the Big-10 making it to the CFP, and Ohio State and Wisconsin are better suited for an undefeated season.
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