5 dark-horse candidates for the College Football Playoff
With Year 1 in the books, we have an idea of how the selection for the College Football Playoff will play out. Four teams — almost certainly Power-5 schools and likely conference champions — will make the cut.
There has been little debate over who the favorites are. The AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll both produced similar top 10s — the order may vary slightly but the teams are identical. Today, we’ve picked five schools outside that top 10 that could make a run for the title if the breaks go their way.
The Florida State Seminoles remain favorites to win the ACC for a fourth consecutive time, but they look more vulnerable than ever. If they are to topple then it’s likely that Clemson will bring about the fall. The Tigers have an explosive offense led by dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson, (with his 83.7 overall rating). Watson has talent to work with — wide receivers Mike Williams (85.5), Artavis Scott (79.2) and a fit-again Charone Peake (72.3) make up one of the strongest receiver groups in the nation. The issue for the Tigers is replenishing the defense, which has lost considerable talent and experience. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has gifted players to work with, but it may take time for the 2015 defense to approach the standard set by the 2014 team. If they gel fast, and if Watson remains healthy, Clemson will be a very dangerous team indeed.
The Sooners are third in line to win the Big 12, and with good reason. TCU and Baylor were the best of the conference in 2014 and return many key performers. However, the Sooners have no lack of talent, andO boast a re-vamped offense that could allow them to keep pace with the Horned Frogs and Bears. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has installed the Air-Raid offense. He has a new starting quarterback with experience running the Air-Raid in Baker Mayfield, along with two of the conference’s best players to give the ball to in wide receiver Sterling Shepard and running back Samaje Perine. Shepard (84.9) finished fourth in the nation in 2014 by averaging 3.94 yards per route run against Power-5 opponents. The Air-Raid doesn’t typically cater for work-horse running backs like Perine, but Riley is mindful of maximizing the talent at hand, and if they succeed in spreading defenses out that makes it even harder for them to stop Perine. The Sooners can also call upon edge rusher Eric Striker, who ranks third in the nation with a 91.8 pass-rush grade
The Badgers’ schedule has worked out quite well for them. They open the season with a difficult game against Alabama in Arlington, where a solid performance is a must, but they avoid both the Buckeyes and Spartans in conference play. Unlike many teams with a new head coach, the Badgers are unlikely to miss a beat. Paul Chryst spent seven seasons as the offensive coordinator in Madison, and inherits a team built to play that same brand of football. Running back Corey Clement averaged 2.71 yards after contact in 2012 and should be the focal point of a productive offense, while safety Michael Caputo (84.4) and edge rusher Joe Schobert (81.2) return as the key players on defense. While it’s difficult to envision any team other than Ohio State or Michigan State emerging as Big Ten champions, one team from the Big Ten East will be in the title game, and Wisconsin looks best-placed to do that.
The upstarts of the Pac-12, the Wildcats have been on the rise since Rich Rodriguez arrived in Tucson. Their rise saw them claim the Pac-12 South last season, before losing to Oregon in the title game. Now in his fourth year as head coach, Rodriguez finally enters the season with an established starting quarterback in sophomore Anu Solomon (72.4). Solomon was inconsistent as a freshman, but excellent games against Utah, Cal and Washington State showed his strengths. He has talent around him as well, with running back Nick Wilson (70.4) alongside wide receivers Samajie Grant (74.7) and Cayleb Jones (70.7). On the other side of the ball the Wildcats can count on linebacker Scooby Wright III, who was one of the best players in the nation last season. The Wildcats have developed a healthy habit of exceeding expectations under Rodriguez — don’t be surprised if they do so again.
Logically speaking, it’s a season too soon for Tennessee. The team is talented but young, with a two-deep heavy with sophomores. And yet, if a surprise team is to emerge from the SEC they will likely come from the East — so why not the Volunteers? They have impressive players at some key positions, and with a little early momentum that talent could swiftly emerge. Defensive ends Curt Maggitt and Derrick Barnett recorded 20 sacks and 88 total pressures between them in 2014. Their respective pass rushing productivity scores of 14.3 and 12.7 in SEC play put them first and fourth among the SEC’s returning 4-3 defensive ends. Their pass-rush prowess plays into the hands of cornerback Cameron Sutton (87.8), who had three interceptions and 10 pass break ups in 2014. Offensively running back Jalen Hurd (79.9) and quarterback Joshua Dobbs (85.5) give the Volunteers a potent one-two punch on the ground.