The playoff race is underway. There are a few teams with significant and obvious caveat, including Georgia Tech, Houston and Utah State. But there are also a number of teams other teams are overlooking, with potential to gain some ground in the coming weeks. Here’s a closer look at the playoff contenders and the teams that should be taken for granted, but shouldn’t.
Avenge last season’s disappointment by picking a team that has a chance at making the College Football Playoff with the first college football playoff rankings of the 2018 season. Last season, the playoff selection committee allotted a four-team playoff after a season of upsets and controversy. The committee’s first official rankings, released on Monday, will lead to speculation as to which teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Some teams that have received votes after the first set of rankings include:
College Football Playoff Director Bill Hancock has made it clear on several occasions that nothing will change in the playoffs this season or next, meaning it will still be an exclusive four-man club.
Although the usual suspects remain at the top in the fall, the field of contenders is not limited to Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Teams like Georgia and Oregon want to return to the CFP, while Iowa State and Texas A&M want to make their debuts.
And they’re not alone.
Here’s a look at the favorites in each league – and the teams that have a chance to challenge them:
Go to the conference: ACC: Big 12: Big Ten: Pac-12: SEC: Independents / Group of 5
Best chance: Clemson. I’ve been there and won. Twice. With six CFP appearances and two national titles, the Tigers have made the ACC a major player in the playoff conversation. Season opening on the 4th. September against Georgia will reveal which team – and which conference – will take first place in the top four.
A chance for the underdog: North Carolina, Miami. UNC coach Mac Brown and Miami coach Manny Diaz have developed their programs to the point where the loss of Clemson should not be considered shocking. Miami’s game against UNC on the 16th. October will determine the Coastal Division winner, but the non-league schedule of these two teams could derail their playoff hopes. Miami opens the season on the 4th. of September with a game against Alabama, while North Carolina is on the 30th. October will make a difficult trip to Notre Dame.
Don’t forget this: Virginia Tech, Pitt. They are here because of their win potential – and that starts on the 3rd. of Sept. with the Hawkeyes’ home opener against UNC. As Lane Stadium prepares to welcome all of its residents, the hype surrounding the Heels might fade quickly. Playing spoiler on the coast is probably a ceiling for Virginia Tech, as the Hokies are ranked 18th in the country. September an outing to West Virginia and the 9th. October has a game against Notre Dame coming up. Pitt faces a very tough October, with a trip to Blacksburg on Oct. 16, followed by a crossover game with Clemson on the 23rd. and Miami on the 30th. October. Even if Pitt won from one of those three teams, it would be a game changer.
Conference Analysis: Without Clemson (and Notre Dame’s short-lived 2020 season), the ACC would be irrelevant in the national championship conversation. The Pac-12 – which is facing increasing adversity – may be the best conference from top to bottom, but it lacks a great team. So the reality remains that it is Clemson and everyone else until proven otherwise. The difference this fall, however, is that UNC and Miami have improved imperceptibly, and if either of them has a chance to play Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, anything is possible if they come through the regular season unscathed or with a loss against a ranked opponent.
A chance for the underdog: Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa. In 2020, Indiana played against the Bucs and lost 42-35 in Columbus. Nineteen starters are back, and they have something to prove. A win against Cincinnati would also be important for the selection committee. It will likely be a different story in Wisconsin, where three games were cancelled last year because of COVID-19 and that ended with a remarkable 4-3 record. The Badgers have a 47.7 percent chance of winning the Big Ten West championship, the highest percentage in the league. If Iowa starts the season 2-0 with a win over IU and rival Iowa State, look out for the Hawkeyes. They get Penn State at home, don’t have to play Ohio State in the regular season and have their toughest games behind them.
Don’t forget this: Penn State. In 2020, the Nittany Lions started 0-5 but finished the season with a four game win streak. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State will show how abnormal last season was.
Conference Analysis: The Big Ten will be better than it was in 2020 because it can’t get any worse. Nine teams, including Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska, finished the season with losses in a shortened season that was continually disrupted by COVID-19. The scoring schools should be better, and Penn State should be better with 82% of the offensive team back, including starting quarterback Sean Clifford. Michigan’s offense should be a top-25 offense this season, but the defense should make big strides.
Best chance: Oregon. The big game on the 11th. September at Ohio State will tell if Oregon can claim more than just the conference title. Four players return on the offensive line, and there is new depth at the skilled positions. Mario Cristobal and his team are recruiting well, but they may not be able to cash in on the results for another year.
A chance for the underdog: USC. The Trojans dominate their division, but since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 2011, USC has won just one Pac-12 title in three championship games. There’s talent. Clay Helton has to make the most of it.
Don’t forget this: Arizona State, Washington. Washington could very well have one of the best offensive lines in the country, and their favorable schedule could make them a team no one will look at. The game against Oregon on the 6th. November is a home game, but it is followed by another tough home game against Arizona State. A promising season for the Sun Devils was overshadowed by an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations, and it’s unclear how and when that will affect the team and coaching staff.
Conference Analysis: The Pac-12 hasn’t made the playoffs since 2016, and that streak is likely to continue. Depth is not an issue – there are plenty of good teams in the league, but not great ones. Schedule, impact, public perception, and playoff elimination are all issues, but only the coaches are primarily responsible. If Oregon or USC – and ideally both – become top-10 teams and one of them is a true playoff contender, the rest will be quietly settled with a new commissioner and athletics directors who understand the challenges. Last year was an anomaly. The Pac-12 champion isn’t used to finishing 25th, but he should be in the top 10.
Best chance: Alabama, Georgia. They’re back on the line. The question is whether Georgia can beat the Tide this time around on the sport’s biggest stage. When these two teams met for the national title following the 2017 season, Alabama won 26-23 in overtime. The Bulldogs should have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in J.T. Daniels, who will be surrounded by playmakers. Georgia’s legitimacy as a playoff contender will be tested in the season opener against Clemson.
A chance for the underdog: Texas A&M – The Aggies struggled at the No. 5 position last fall, but with a new quarterback and four new players on the offensive line, they will have a hard time beating the favorites. But the big hope rests on backup defender Isaiah Spiller and a strong defense.
Don’t forget this: Ole Miss, LSU. Lane Kiffin should have one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Ole Miss, but the Rebels won’t be a factor unless the defense improves. Last season Matt Corral led the country in passing and ranked in the top 5 in the FBS in completion percentage, passing yards per game and total QBR. However, he has lost his top two targets and should reduce his interceptions, which totaled 14 last year. LSU will have two new coordinators and a new quarterback, but the team will have many talented players returning. There remains a cloud of uncertainty surrounding a major Title IX lawsuit in which Ed Orgeron was recently named as a defendant.
Conference Analysis: The SEC is leading the way as usual and should have the most playoff contenders this season. No conference has a better chance of putting two teams in the top four. Still, the SEC East could be one of the weakest divisions in the country. There is a lot of buzz around Florida being a top 25 team, but is that justified? The Gators will have to replace key players on offense, and the defense allowed 30 points per game and six yards per play last year. Florida has until the 30th. It’s time to get over the hump against Georgia.
Independent/group of 5
Best chance: Notre Dame. There is some overlap here, as the Irish play Cincinnati on the 2nd. in October – and they hired the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Marcus Freeman, who spent the last four seasons in Cincinnati, helped the Bearcats rank in the top 15 in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and total defense (324.6) last fall. Notre Dame will have to lean on its defense as a new quarterback replaces Jan Buk. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is the favorite, and he can help the Irish get open a bit. Notre Dame also gets running back Kieren Williams, who was named the 2020 ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year.
A chance for the underdog: Cincinnati. The schedule is everything you need for a Group 5 contender, and the Bearcats probably have it. If Cincinnati can beat Indiana and Notre Dame in an undefeated season, it will have the profile of a playoff contender. The average top 25 team would have a 15% chance of going 12-0 against a Bearcats team.
Don’t forget this: Coastal Carolina, Louisiana. The Chanticleers drew national attention last year and are again considered the favorites to win the Sun Belt, but Appalachian State might have something to say about that. Your game at 20. October should determine the winner of the East Division, allowing them to play in the championship game against Louisiana.
General Analysis: As long as the field consists of four teams, there is little chance that a team from Group 5 will qualify for the CFP. Coastal’s indicator of strength of schedule currently ranks 116th. Louisiana is ranked 77th, but a win over Texas to open the season will please the selection committee all season long. However, it is unlikely that this will be enough to secure more than qualification for the New Year’s Six Cup.
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