It’s still too early, but let’s set the odds for teams from each conference to reach the vaunted heights of the College Football Playoff. To make the playoff, a team must a) play a difficult schedule b) lose no more than, like, two games c)
win its conference d) play in one of the Power Five conferences.*
The team that wins the SEC will go to the playoff, which means that the team that wins the SEC West will probably go to the playoff, which means that Alabama or LSU will probably go to the playoff. Beyond those two, a one-loss Big Ten, Big 12, or PAC-12 champion has a good shot, and whoever can survive the ACC. The latter is going to be a daunting task, indeed, as Louisville, Clemson, and Florida State all look ready to cannibalise each other.
*See “Any Group of 5 team” below.
The PAC-12 is notorious for eating its young: for years Oregon and Stanford continued a proud tradition of ruining each other’s championship hopes for no other reason than spite and revenge. As USC and Washington emerge as national powers, however, the conference has a few more baskets to put its eggs in.
It’s been a poorly-kept secret for a while now that USC is the most fun team in college football, but they’ve never quite managed to put a championship-level season together since Pete Carroll left (2004). Consider this, though: they started last year 1-2, switched to Sam Darnold as the starting quarterback, lost to Utah in his first game, and then tore holes in everyone for the rest of the season, including a Washington team that went to the Playoff and a Penn State team that should have. They were outside of the committee’s rankings at the end of the season, but at the top of everyone’s list of teams they didn’t want to play. An explosive offense and a defense that could keep them in the game against seemingly anyone combined to bring the Trojans back into the national spotlight.
The first game of the season tells you what you need to know about USC. They’re not playing Alabama, and Sam Darnold isn’t on the bench. Already they’re two steps ahead of last year.
I’m going to be honest: it doesn’t look great for Washington. The 2016 preseason darling and eventual Playoff contender starts 2017 with a lot less tools, particularly on defence and a conference schedule facing some resurgent opponents. Of comfort to the Huskies: they don’t have to play USC, their lone regular season loss from last year, and they play most of their toughest opponents at home. If they can stay healthy and put together another one-loss season (or better), they’ll probably play USC in a PAC-12 championship game that’ll decide a playoff berth and be one of the best games of the season.
Winning the SEC is basically an auto-bid for the playoff. This is because it’s a very difficult conference to win and SEC teams (read: Alabama) have acquitted themselves well in the playoff.
Instead of running through the reasons Alabama could make the playoff, let’s instead assume that they probably will and walk through the challenges they face this year. They lose a lot on defense, so much so that in their Week 1 matchup against Florida State, they might be the weaker defensive team (!) and they still don’t have as consistent a passer as playing a power-spread at a championship level demands. They’re bringing in their third offensive coordinator in three games, they play a murderer’s row of a schedule, and Tuscaloosa gets hit by tornadoes, sometimes.
In reality, they’ve made the playoff three of the four times it’s been held, they’ve won it once, and they’ve occasionally done it with mannequins at quarterback. They’ll be fine. Pencil them in.
Ed Orgeron’s LSU Tigers are probably the only other team in the SEC with a reasonable shot at the playoff. After developing elite defenses and struggling to find any kind of offensive productivity in the Les Miles era, Orgeron hired offensive coordinator Matt Canada to implement the power-spread concepts that have elevated Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson to national titles. Hopefully, LSU can overcome Miles’ allergy to good quarterbacking, establish a balanced and productive offense, and restore some sense of balance to the SEC West.
They lose the best running back in college football, Leonard Fournette, and hope to replace him with Derrius Guice, a supremely talented runner that could be a Heisman contender in 2017.
The Big 12 has had to overhaul itself to give its top teams a better shot at the playoff, instituting a conference championship game for 2017 that should help avoid a 2014 Baylor-TCU situation.
Oklahoma certainly has the offensive tools to run through the Big 12 and make the playoff, Baker Mayfield’s return and the continued development of running threats will see to that, but it’s the defense that raises the most questions. Mike Stoops hasn’t been able to field an elite defense: the Sooners allowed 8.9 yards per play against WVU and 854 total yards to Texas Tech. 854. Roll that number around in your head for a while.
Moving back to a 4-3 defense seems like a good start for OU, and the secondary that struggled with injuries last year is back to full health and should be more stable in 2017. Playing in a softer defensive conference and fielding the best gunslinger in college football will help band-aid over Oklahoma’s defensive struggles, but with away games at Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the Sooners will need something steady to make the playoff.
Oklahoma State: 12/1
Well, they’re not an elite recruiter, they play in a conference that’s always had trouble making the playoff, and — what?
— Boone Pickens State (@BP_State) 1 June 2017
They’re gonna win it all.
The Big Ten always sends a team to the playoff. Here’s the rub, though: it’s not always the Big Ten champion. Ohio State lost to Penn State in an October thriller, so Penn State got the Big Ten championship berth, which they won, and then the committee chose Ohio State anyway, who were shut out by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, and now everyone’s upset.
Ohio State: 4/1
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: the Buckeyes are an exceptionally talented, young team with experience in all the right places, a favorable schedule, and a real shot to win it all. They’ve got the most experienced quarterback in the game and one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten, plus their whole pass-rushing operation is returning and they have some fantastic recruits develop.
The counterpoint is that they’ve been here for the last twenty years and they’ve only won it all twice, and once because the NCAA is rigged against Miami. They’ve also lost a lot in their secondary, won’t find a safety like Malik Hooker for a while, haven’t got a go-to receiver figured out yet, and play one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They’ll also be fighting to convince the committee that gifted them a playoff slot in 2016 to forgive them for being shut out in the Fiesta Bowl.
If Michigan puts together as good a team as it has the last few years and manages to avoid some of the disappointing and occasionally baffling losses it’s posted, they’ll be a lock for the playoff. The 2016 and 2015 teams each sported some of the best defenses in college football, and did it with Brady Hoke’s recruiting classes. After two straight elite recruiting classes, it’s time for Jim Harbaugh to make good on all his charms/eccentricities.
Michigan’s got a lot to replace — they lose more players to the draft than any other team — but hopefully all that recruiting will help find someone to fill the holes that Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton and others leave. Of critical importance will be finding receivers for Wilton Speight to throw to (all three of 2016’s top receivers are gone) and imposing a dominant run game.
Arguably the best conference in college football last year, the ACC fields three extremely good teams (FSU, Clemson, and Louisville) and no truly bad teams.
Florida State: 3/1
Florida State is ranked #1 in the Nick Saban preseason rankings, and he’s not out of his mind. A great defense, one of the best young quarterbacks in the country, championship-level coaching, and remarkable recruiting have all aligned to make FSU a contender in 2017. Playing in the ACC is tough (nowadays), and with a schedule that features both sides of last year’s championship game and the Heisman trophy-winner, FSU will have a long road to a playoff-worthy resume. Fortunately, the talent Jimbo Fisher puts on the field is as up-to-the-task as anyone, and their championship bona fides will help them with the committee.
You’d think Clemson would be the favorite in this conference, but no. They lose the best player in college football, their best receiver, their captain on defense, the map to the treasure of the sierra madre, and pretty much everything of value. They’re still a well-coached team that’s been recruiting at a high level for years now, but it doesn’t look like 2017-18 is going to be their year to make a run. Once Trevor Lawrence gets on campus, however, that’ll change.
Notre Dame: 25/1
It is my professional responsibility to inform you that Notre Dame went 4-8 last year. They won’t do that again. By any measure, they were more like a seven-win team. But the committee is always going to be very hesitant to let the 2011 BCS runner-up anywhere near a championship game for some time.
Brian Kelly fired his defensive coordinator to bring in Wake Forest DC Mike Elko, and Notre Dame fans should be excited. Elko’s thrived with young talent at Wake, and Notre Dame’s defensive roster of sophomores and juniors puts him in a very similar situation in 2017. The Fighting Irish should progress to the mean in 2017, and with a top-ten recruiting class, look to be on the path back to national relevance.
Any G5 school: 40/1
It’s been said over and over again, but the four-team playoff does not allow teams outside the Power 5 a reasonable pathway to the championship. If, say, Temple (a decent team by all metrics) finds a way to beat Houston and Cincinnati and Notre Dame on its way to an undefeated system, it will still probably rank behind a one or two-loss SEC team and not get a sniff of the playoff. PJ Fleck rowed his boat all the way to 13-0 at Western Michigan and finished the season ranked 15th, behind an Auburn team that lost four games and played a stout out-of-conference schedule against ULM, Arkansas State, and Alabama A&M.
The leader in this category is probably USF, with former Texas head coach Charlie Strong inheriting a stellar offence and an… improving defence. Temple, by the way, loses head coach Matt Rhule (to Baylor, of all places) and might regress a bit in former Florida DC Geoff Collins’ first year.
My pet theory: if any team outside of the Power 5 can make the playoff, it’s an undefeated Navy. It doesn’t even take too much of a stretch to imagine: the Midshipmen won 10 regular season games in 2015 and beat Pitt in a bowl game. If they up that number to 11 or 12, the bone-deep union of martial and athletic culture that is american football will overpower the committee. They’ll be compelled to give Navy a playoff bid if Navy’s resume is even close to good enough.