It’s hard to believe half of the college football regular season has already come and gone.
There have already been teams that have fallen from grace (Texas, Florida), only to resurrect their seasons. Coaches have been (Ed Orgeron specifically) squarely on the hot seat and now are far from it. And it looks like five teams have already separated themselves a bit from the rest of the pack.
But who are the true contenders out of that group? And what about the teams chasing their heels? As you’ll find out, a lot of the decisions come down to scheduling. Some of the more stacked teams can still be pretenders, even if a less-talented team is very much a contender.
There are several teams to discuss in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. So let me start at the top with my first contender:
1. Alabama: Contender
What a surprise.
But really, who has an argument against them right now? Sure, they haven’t played many quality opponents. Texas A&M is the only top-25 team they’ve played. And they won’t play another ranked team until November.
But the eye-test doesn’t lie. This team has most of the same pieces that make any Alabama team great. And now they have an explosive passer in Tua Tagovailoa to bring it all together.
Yes, they looked somewhat suspect against Arkansas defensively. Allowing 31 points to the bottom-feeder of the division shows there’s room for improvement.
I don’t see any team in the country right now with this many offensive weapons to go with such a turnover-happy defense. This may be the best Alabama team coach Nick Saban has had.
Toughest Tests: 11/3 @ LSU and, presumably, the SEC Championship on 12/1.
2. Georgia: Pretender
Before people go berserk over this pick, let me explain.
First off, with how Notre Dame and Clemson’s schedules stack up, it’s hard not to like them. With the way Alabama and Ohio State have played, it’s hard not to like their chances as well. And this is a Georgia team that must go through LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, and more than likely, Alabama.
Any loss to the first four teams and they’d have to beat Bama. Lose only to Bama in the SEC Championship Game, and things still get sketchy. Especially if Notre Dame is undefeated and there are a couple of one-loss conference champions floating around.
As far as the team goes, you could make the case that Georgia’s younger talent is the best in college football. They even out-recruited Alabama last year, according to 247 Sports.
But they’ve switched back-and-forth between pedestrian and other-worldly so many times without playing a single intriguing opponent.
They’re still probably more talented than a couple of teams who will eventually jump in front of them. But that inevitable clash with Alabama is a tougher road-block than anyone else has. And they’ve got plenty of tests before that.
Toughest Tests: 10/27 vs Florida, and if they make it through that, the SEC Championship on 12/1.
3. Ohio State: Contender
After watching Michigan State and Michigan this week, it still seems that Ohio State’s toughest opponent is behind them.
Surviving the whiteout at Penn State got them a “W” against the most talented team they’ll play in the Big 10. Michigan is arguably better-coached and Michigan State and Wisconsin might be a bit more physical. But Penn State is the best combination of coaching and physicality.
As for Ohio State, they probably have the best pure passer of the Meyer era in Columbus. Dwayne Haskins also has the luxury of defenses not being able to spread out of the box. That’s because there’s a good deal of balance in this offense.
The rushing stats for J.K. Dobbins (3.2 YPC on 43 carries) the last couple games have been a little troubling. But Mike Weber has done his part as the second of the two-headed monster in the Buckeye backfield. It seems like at least one of them is always on.
The secondary is probably Ohio State’s greatest concern. Indiana QB Peyton Ramsey looked better against them than he did against Rutgers (322 yards, three TDs). But for every explosive play they give up, they seem to have three to answer with.
Toughest Tests: 11/24 @ Michigan and the Big 10 Championship on 12/1.
4. Clemson: Contender
This is another example of picking schedule over talent. And that’s not to say Clemson isn’t littered with gifted players. But that (lack of) a schedule outweighs everything else.
After they face NC State the weekend after next, Clemson may not play another ranked team in the regular season. Boston College might become one again, but that’s about it.
So far, the one top-25 opponent they’ve had (Texas A&M) pushed them to the brink of a loss. And an unranked Syracuse did the same. So it’s no sure thing that Clemson runs the table.
But even if they do stumble once, a conference championship win over a team like Miami could still put them in. That is provided a chip or two falls.
Any one-loss champion from any other Power 5 conference will probably have a better resume though. So it’s probably best they keep from stumbling. But it’s hard to see them doing so after playing 20th-ranked NC State October 20th. And they even get them at home.
They’re good enough in the trenches and have a superb rushing attack. If they keep those going, they’ll easily pave their way into the playoffs.
Toughest Tests: 10/20 vs NC State, and the ACC Championship on 12/1, most likely against Miami.
5. Notre Dame: Pretender
The Fighting Irish are coming off what I would consider to be their best win of the season. And it was against a team that lost to Old Dominion.
Sure, they got a much better punch from Virginia Tech. But Notre Dame has yet to face its toughest test. And that’s even with a favorable schedule still to come.
I was on the fence about the pick simply because USC is probably their most talented opponent left. Also, the progression of QB Ian Book is hard to ignore. It’s opening up Dexter Williams and the run game too.
83 points combined against a Stanford and Virginia Tech defense is good even on a down year. But make no mistake, these are substantial down years for these programs.
Stanford was gift-wrapped a game at Oregon and has already been exposed by Utah at home since then. They’re the least physical squad this program has had in some time. Bryce Love has whether been ineffective or hurt.
As for Virginia Tech, their defense will occasionally be schematically amazing. But they still lost a lot from last year’s unit and putting the pieces together will be a long process.
Lastly, don’t be deceived by Michigan. Their wins are against teams that are a combined 12-16. Shea Patterson is coming along in the offense, but they still haven’t beaten a top-25 team on the road in their last 17 tries.
So what Notre Dame has done so far may not mean too much in a few weeks. If Michigan loses to Wisconsin, their resume looks even weaker. Any slip-up would be the end of their playoff chances, while several other power-5 teams could get one regular season freebie.
Toughest Tests: 11/3 vs Northwestern and 11/24 @ USC
6. West Virginia: Contender
I’ve switched this team back and forth multiple times before settling on them as a contender. This is another team I’m hot-and-cold on mostly because of their schedule.
But they have a true Heisman candidate in Will Grier at QB and a collection of receivers who have somehow matched incredible preseason expectations. They have at least four options they can rely on at all times. And they have a very underrated stable of backs all averaging over 5.1 YPC.
The main concern for them coming into this season was if they were going to be able to stifle the air attack of the top-tier Big 12 teams and if they could apply pressure.
They’ve only played one high-powered offense, Texas Tech’s, but survived on the road.
Their defense has swarmed the ball-carrier on a more consistent basis. Their sack numbers still aren’t head-turning, but simply the ability to cause any disruption is an improvement from last year’s front seven.
None of the O-lines they’ve played have been particularly strong though, so there’s still a bit of mystery there. If they’d played NC State earlier in the year, much more would be known about this team. But they’re clearly going to wreak havoc offensively against pretty much any Big 12 team.
Oklahoma doesn’t have the personnel to stop them through the air. WVU’s defense would be a step up at this rate for Texas. And Oklahoma State would have a hard time winning a straight shootout. WVU is 26th against the run and has at least enough presence up front to contain Justice Hill.
This isn’t a perfect Mountaineer squad, but if anyone from this conference is going to make noise, it may surprisingly be these guys. Any team they get beat by, they could get revenge on in the Big 12 Championship. Their November slate is brutal, but so are most of the defenses they’ll be playing.
The way they shut down the Texas Tech passing game is a sign they won’t be scored on at will like they were at crucial spots in 2017.
Toughest Tests: 11/3 @ Texas and, if they make it there, the Big 12 Championship on 12/1
7. Washington: Pretender
They are, by and large, the best team in the conference. But that seems to mean absolutely nothing at this point.
Oregon will be a very tough game this weekend. That team did everything in its might to not be undefeated. Now their season is on the line at their own “Autzen Zoo” in Eugene.
But even if Washington, who outscored the Ducks 100-24 the last two years, survives, they’re still not promised anything. Even if they run the table.
Oregon may be their only real resume-builder when all is said and done. Colorado is ranked 19th and is the wild card here. But they could still lose four games by the end of the season, even if they’re undefeated right now.
Utah might end up being the better potential win for Washington once all the cards are placed down. But even if they have an extra ranked team on their resume, that Auburn loss is looking worse and worse.
They still have most of the pieces they need on their vaunted defense. Their secondary could hang with any in college football and will be one heck of a test for Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
But can they put all their offense together when it matters most? And will it even matter? Both are too large of uncertainties right now.
Toughest Tests: 10/13 @ Oregon and, maybe, the Pac-12 Conference Championship on 11/30.
8. Penn State: Pretender
For as good as the Nittany Lions have proven to be, it’s hard to see themselves sneaking in.
They’re behind Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship line after allowing their arch nemesis to come back against them. And playing Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin all on the road won’t be easy. They also have the Michigan game, although it’s at home.
Penn State is equipped with Trace McSorley, one of the better leaders at the QB position. He causes a lot of issues even when the play breaks down. And Miles Sanders may not be Saquon Barkley 2.0 right now, but he’s been a force going around tackle.
There will be times when McSorley has to do most of the work by himself though, which was evident against Ohio State. He lost a lot of weapons after last year and the Nittany Lions simply aren’t going to have that kind of supporting cast on offense in 2018.
Despite the last few minutes of the OSU game, the Nittany Lions have been getting a lot of big stops, ranking 22nd in 3rd-down defense and 10th in the red zone. But their work against the run has been a little spotty.
Toughest Tests: 11/3 vs Michigan and 11/10 @ Wisconsin.
Other Notable Contenders
It’s impossible to write this team off. Their defense doesn’t have the pure talent to size up with their past units. But they can at least be good enough to allow the offense to outpace opponents.
They have a challenge now to make the schematic changes to cover up weaknesses in the secondary. The fact they’re 106th against the pass and played one of their games against Army (who had nine total passes) is inexcusable. They also need to simply be more physical and wrap-up better.
But they have more than enough weapons at the offensive skill positions. And I was wrong about Kyler Murray. You can expect this guy to compare somewhat to Baker Mayfield.
The receivers find more than enough space, creating plenty of big windows for him to throw into. And he’s also quicker than his predecessor.
I know, they’ve looked nothing like a championship contender.
But they play Michigan and Penn State at home, a chance to pick up two big wins in their own backyard. RB Jonathan Taylor will have a challenge against the Wolverines but could have a field day versus the Nittany Lions.
This team’s loss against BYU does not look good. But their Iowa win will probably continue to look better and better. They’re still the class of the Big 10 West, and it’s not all that close. If they get to the Big 10 Championship with one loss, nothing is off the table.
Hear me out.
This team is hard to ignore. While nothing from last year should dictate where they’re placed this season, they’ve pretty much done everything they could do over the last year-and-a-half.
They didn’t know how bad Pitt or North Carolina (canceled) were going to be when they scheduled them. UNC was coming off a trip to the ACC Championship the year before (2015).
As for what the Knights resume would be with a perfect record, they’d likely have three top-25 wins over Cincinnati, South Florida, and Houston in the presumable AAC Championship.
A two-loss Pac 12 champion is certainly plausible. The same could be said for the Big 12. Clemson would probably have the same number of top-25 wins. It’s definitely a longshot, but UCF could easily hold up their end. Again.
Other Notable Pretenders
Georgia and Alabama are simply too good right now to let Florida and LSU, respectively, into the conversation. Both of those teams will make way more noise next season though.
Everyone is re-boarding the Texas bandwagon. But they will whether play a better defensive test in West Virginia twice or have to play a very motivated Oklahoma team again in the Big 12 title. It’s a set-up for failure, and they still must deal with Oklahoma State on the road too.
As for Michigan, they haven’t done much of anything to be ranked 12th. They still can’t win a road game against a top-25 team. If they reverse that trend against Wisconsin and Penn State, I’ll be convinced.
But they’d have to beat both and Ohio State just to make it to the Big 10 Championship against Wisconsin again.
Then there’s Miami. They have a schedule that bodes well for them now that they escaped FSU. But it’s hard to get past them getting muscled around by the only difficult opponent they’ve had.
Even with a win over Clemson in the ACC Championship, a one-loss Big 12 Champion would probably look more appealing. An undefeated Notre Dame and the SEC and Big 10 champions would too.
Now if NC State were to beat Clemson in two weekends, then things would start to get interesting. Because playing at Syracuse would be their toughest remaining regular season contest after that. But this team has proven very little in beating Boston College and Marshall.
If only they could reschedule that West Virginia game.