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5 top College Football Playoff contenders (besides the obvious)

College Football News logo College Football News 8/16/2018 Pete Fiutak

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Besides the obvious top contenders for the College Football Playoff, which five teams are the next-best candidates to be in the tournament? 

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- 2018 CFN Preview

You know who the main players are in the race to get to the College Football Playoff.

The average doorknob on the street can tell you that Alabama is the favorite to get there and win it all, and of course, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State - even with the issues - are right there among the four schools most likely to make it to the CFP.

The preseason odds to win the College Football Playoff National Championship are: Alabama at 19/10, Clemson at 3/1, Georgia at 9/1, Ohio State at 10/1, and Washington checks in at 12/1.

But to get in, a team has to - most likely - 1) win a conference championship and 2) do it by going unbeaten or finish with one loss to be assured of a spot. Even for the biggest of big boys, that's not easy.

Let's say there are a few missteps along the way by a few of the favorites. If it's not four of those five getting the nod to be in the tournament, which schools are the ones with the best chances of getting the call?

Here are the five who should be deep in the mix until the very end. Don't be surprised when at least one of them shocks the world.

5. West Virginia Mountaineers

Preseason Odds To Win The CFP National Title: 100/1

- West Virginia Preview

Is this going to be one of the four most talented teams in college football?

Not even close.

But the Big 12 appears to be the easiest of the Power Five conferences going into the season, and there's just enough juice in the non-conference slate to give the Mountaineers a break with the committee when it comes time to rank.

Tennessee might not be anything amazing quite yet, but it's still Tennessee - it's a restaurant quality program with a big name. That's the opener, and a few weeks later there's a date at North Carolina State. It's not like playing Clemson or Miami, but again, it's a real game against a real team on the road.

In Big 12 play, the Mountaineers only play four road games, and none of them are against Oklahoma or TCU, going to Texas Tech, Texas, Iowa State and Oklahoma State - that's manageable.

If they can get through the non-conference part unscathed, there's a realistic path - Kansas State, at Texas Tech, Kansas, at Iowa State, Baylor - to be 8-0 going into November. Do that, go 3-1 in the final month with at Texas, TCU, at Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma on the schedule, get into the Big 12 Championship, win it, get into the CFP.

With Will Grier the league's best returning quarterback, armed with a loaded receiving corps, and helped by a good enough defense to get by, the team is in place to come up with a massive year.

But it's West Virginia. It can't get to the CFP, right?

It might seem like ancient history, but the 2007 team under Rich Rodriguez would've played in the BCS Championship - LSU caught a break of all breaks - if it didn't gag against Pitt in the regular season finale.

The 2005 Big East champion team went 10-1 and would've made it into a CFP had there been one at the time, and to go a million years back, the 1988 Major Harris-led team went unbeaten in the regular season and lost the to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national title.

This year, with this team, it really might be possible if Grier stays healthy.

4. Michigan State Spartans

Preseason Odds To Win The CFP National Title: 40/1

- Michigan State Preview

It always takes a little bit of luck and magic to get to the College Football Playoff - you need at least one game that goes the right way when it shouldn't - but the 2015 Michigan State team caught way, way, way too many giant breaks.

Of course, great teams create their own luck and make the big plays in big moments in the biggest games, but …

Oregon's Vernon Adams air-mailed what would've been a sure-thing touchdown pass to a wide open receiver in the final moments of MSU's 31-28 win over the Ducks.

A miserable Purdue team had a few shots late to pull off a win in a 24-21 loss; the Spartans got a touchdown run with 43 seconds to play to beat Rutgers; and, of course, there was the improbable blocked punt for a score to beat Michigan.

That team held off Iowa on a final drive to get into the CFP, and then went on to get pantsed by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.

This year's team should be better.

From the running game, to QB Brian Lewerke, to the special teams, to the defense that should be among the ten best in the country, everything is in place experience and talent-wise to make it back to the playoff for the second time in four years. there just aren't any major weaknesses.

There might be a trip to Penn State, there's no Wisconsin to deal with. If the 2015 team could get it done with trips to Michigan and Ohio State, this year's version just might be able to get it done with those games at home.

3. USC Trojans

Preseason Odds To Win The CFP National Title: 66/1

- USC Preview

Wait, so the team that lost Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones, Uchenna Nwosu and Rasheem Green is going to be better?

Yup. Partly because those are the only four players the Trojans lost to the NFL. And now, the team might just get to the College Football Playoff for the first time.

The offense will be more than fine. JT Daniels is another great USC quarterback, the rest of the skill guys are going to be fantastic, and the defense is going to be the best in the Pac-12 South, just behind Washington in the conference.

Best of all, there aren't massive expectations - at least compared to normal - and there's not all that much of a spotlight on the program.

And why?

With three new head coaches in the division, Arizona, Arizona State, and UCLA are sucking up the attention. And that also means three of the division's teams are in a transitional phase.

USC is better than Stanford, and it's better than Texas. However, both of those games are on the road in the first three weeks.

Going to Arizona at the end of September won't be a breeze, either. However, get out of the month 4-1, don't lose at Utah, and take care of UCLA up in Pasadena (it won't) and don't lose to Notre Dame (it won't), and it'll be off to the Pac-12 Championship for the second straight season.

There's no Washington or Oregon on the regular season slate, but if USC can get to Santa Clara at 11-1, it should be good enough to be good enough to get there for the CFP national championship. 

2. Wisconsin Badgers

Preseason Odds To Win The CFP National Title: 25/1

- Wisconsin Preview

Last year's team would've been in the College Football Playoff and gone to the CFP semifinal in the Rose Bowl to face Oklahoma - most likely - had it scored a touchdown on its final drive in the 27-21 Big Ten Championship loss to Ohio State.

The 2016 team was 10-2 in the regular season, but it would've had a theoretical argument to be in if it had gotten past Penn State - again, it didn't score a touchdown on the final drive - in the B1G title game.

The 2010 team that went 11-1 - but totally choked against TCU in the Rose Bowl - would've made it into a playoff had there been one.

The 2006 team that went 11- 1 in the regular season would've been close, the 1998 Ron Dayne Rose Bowl-winning team would've been a lock, and the 1993 breakthrough Rose Bowl team almost certainly would've been in a playoff, too.

This year's team might just be better than all of the others.

The defense loses a few key parts from the secondary, but it's fine - after starting out against WKU, there aren't any games against a team that can throw a forward pass until November 10th at Penn State.

The front seven is going to be a killer again, the offensive line is the best in college football, the Jonathan Taylor-led corps of running backs is ridiculous, and QB Alex Hornibrook is a veteran with real receivers to throw to this year. Throw in what should be a great kicking game, and it's all there.

However, unlike last season, the schedule could be an issue.

There's that trip to Happy Valley to face the Nittany Lions, and the road games at Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern are scary. But get through all of that at 11-1 - at least - get back to the Big Ten Championship for a third straight year, and this time, score on that final drive.

And then, the best program over the last four years to not get into the College Football Playoff will finally have its moment.

1. Oklahoma Sooners

Preseason Odds To Win The CFP National Title: 16/1

- Oklahoma Preview

If you noticed in the opening of all of this, something was missing from the listing of the five favorites to get into the College Football Playoff.

Four of the Power Five conferences were represented, but missing was the reigning three-time Big 12 champion that came within an overtime heartbreaker to Georgia from playing Alabama for the whole ball of wax.

But that Baker Mayfield guy is gone now. As is all-star tackle Orlando Brown, All-America tight end Mark Andrews, and pass rushing terror Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. But that's it.

The Sooners only lost four players to the NFL Draft.

Yeah, Mayfield was special, but Kyler Murray will bring an added dimension to the mix. Older, wiser, and more prepared now than when he started out his career at Texas A&M, he's ready for the gig, and he's ready to bring his otherworldly speed to what should be a dominant ground game.

The O line is going to be a killer, even without Brown. Murray and RB Rodney Anderson will be devastating. the receiving corps can fly, and the defense should be good enough to hold its share of serves in Big 12 shootouts.

And now, head coach Lincoln Riley knows what he's doing.

Unlike last year, there's no Ohio State to deal with, and getting UCLA at home shouldn't be a problem.

There might be dates at TCU and West Virginia, and facing Texas in Dallas and handling Oklahoma State in the two rivalry games are challenges, but come on - what are we doing here?

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The school lost two conference games in the last three years. In a mediocre year for the conference, the Sooners are going to get back to the Big 12 Championship game.

The Sooners will almost certainly be favored in every game this year. Make it four conference championships in a row, do it with only one loss, and get into the College Football Playoff for the third time in four years.

And in the meantime, hope Mayfield survives whatever that is in Cleveland.

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