Which College Football Teams Can Crash the Alabama-Clemson Party?

Damien Harris of the Alabama Crimson Tide dives with the ball as Van Smith of the Clemson Tigers defends in the second half of the All State Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Source Tom Pennington/Getty

Why you should care

Like professional basketball, fans barely have to watch to know how things will end.

College football has morphed into the NBA.  

Yes, you read that correctly. At face value, the comparison makes little sense. How is a sport full of unpaid amateurs, most of whom will never earn a professional paycheck, anything like the National Basketball Association? From gameplay and the 82-game season to the fame and fortune, it’s not. But one overarching similarity has gripped college football in recent years: Since the introduction of the College Football Playoff (CFP), college football has become all too predictable. 

Week after week, college football provides more wild finishes and unforeseen upset than arguably any other sport. But at the game’s highest level — Tier 1, let’s call it — the sport’s elite handle their business like professionals. That is to say they make fewer mistakes. They win. And with the CFP committee’s goal of awarding playoff spots to the “best” teams, the “best” teams have stayed the same. Fans barely have to watch to know that Bama, Clemson and two other elites will make the CFP. 

Over the past five years, 75 percent of CFP berths have gone to Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Those teams make up this season’s preseason Top 5. Either Alabama or Clemson has won the national title four years running, and they’ve met in three of the last four championship games. Still, hope for a shake-up remains … if you squint:

Since 2015, at least one College Football Playoff participant was not ranked in the AP preseason Top 10.

The unpredictability of college football at large opens doors for aspiring contenders. “What’s best about this sport is any team can win on a given night,” says Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth. “Clemson and Alabama have reached another level in terms of attention to detail and producing results. But there are plenty of schools investing to become that next great program.”

The truth is, the college football season is a constant exercise in reassessment. Preseason polls are nothing more than educated guesses based on previous results. In fact, over the last three decades, an average of 1.6 teams in the preseason Top 10 have finished the year unranked. Meanwhile an average of two unranked teams have finished in the Top 10. In the Playoff era, that opportunity to rise up in the rankings means a chance to crash the too-familiar CFP party.

Could an upset of Nick Saban’s Alabama or Dabo Swinney’s Clemson go down this season? There’s a chance.

 

According to The Athletic, the top two teams in the preseason AP poll (Clemson and Alabama, this year) rarely finish that way. Only once since 1951 have the top two finished in that order, and only five times have they both finished at all. Despite recent history, the data says that a shake-up is coming. 

So which underrated clubs have the juice to make a Playoff push this season? No, we’re not counting Georgia, Oklahoma or Ohio State here. “I don’t think it would shock anyone if those teams made a title run,” says ESPN college football analyst Joey Galloway. “The real work comes in when you try to predict which teams are undervalued. I picked [No. 10] Texas to win the Big 12 this season, so that’s where I would start.”

Since 1998, an average of 1.6 of the top four teams in the final CFP or BCS rankings began the season outside the Top 10. That has been the case in each of the last four seasons (2015: No. 12 Clemson and No. 19 Oklahoma; 2016: No. 14 Washington; 2017: No. 15 Georgia; 2018: No. 12 Notre Dame). Notice a trend? Let’s look at those ranked in double digits.

Galloway may be high on Texas, but after a Week 2 loss to No. 4 LSU, and No. 5 Oklahoma still on the schedule, it’s difficult to envision the Longhorns making the Playoff. After a thrilling Week 1 win over then-No. 11 Oregon, Auburn has climbed from No. 16 to No. 8. If the Tigers can knock off Alabama in November, they’ll be difficult to keep out. Still, true freshman quarterback Bo Nix and a loaded schedule against four Top 12 SEC opponents are real obstacles. 

If a sleeper is going to crash the Playoff, they’ll have to come from the Pac-12 or Big Ten East. Particularly, we’re looking at Washington, Utah and Penn State. First: the Nittany Lions. Apologies to Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern, but it’s no secret that the Big Ten East is more talented than the West division. Ohio State and Michigan are both in the Top 10, and No. 13 Penn State and No. 18 Michigan State are perennial contenders. In fact, Michigan State made the CFP in 2015. Is this the year that Penn State goes dancing? The Nittany Lions are loaded on defense, and coach James Franklin has until Oct. 19 (vs. No. 10 Michigan) to get his young offense rolling. The winner of the Big Ten East will be heavily favored in the conference championship, and likely have a spot in the College Football Playoff.  

The real wild cards, though, are out West. National runner-up in 2015, No. 15 Oregon hasn’t been back to the Playoff since. No. 23 Washington made it in 2017, but for the most part the Pac-12 has cannibalized its own. That is to say, there’s been no runaway best team out West, thus no regular Playoff spot for the conference. If that changes this season, Oregon, Washington and No. 11 Utah all have the size, speed and offensive firepower necessary to reach the title game. With potential top NFL draft pick Justin Herbert under center, Oregon remains the favorite. Gunslinging Georgia transfer Jacob Eason and Washington are the real X-factor. 

As is the case in the NBA, the end of an era may require a shake-up out West. 

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