Sure, four teams will make the College Football Playoff. But like it or not, there are plenty of identifiable reasons why your favorite team could fall short of that dreamy goal. Here is why the top 20 squads in our preseason top 25 won’t claim a spot in the national semifinals.
The Tide never have problems overcoming inexperience, but this season’s overhaul may be too much for them to handle. Nick Saban isn’t interested in naming a starting quarterback to placate the media or his fan base, but the options (Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell, Jalen Hurts) have recorded a combined 52 pass attempts … and they all belong to Bateman. Quarterback turnover is one problem, but the Tide also don’t return an experienced running back (even if sophomore Bo Scarbrough showed well during the College Football Playoff). Add road dates at Ole Miss and LSU, and the Tide may actually miss the playoff for the first time.
Even if “Clemsoning” is dead (Dabo Swinney says it is, at least), the team still failed to recover an onside kick to start the second half of the national title game. The bad luck still haunts the Tigers; it just got them on the national stage this time. Deshaun Watson is incredible and so is the rest of the offense, but the Tigers are awfully young (only 22 upperclassmen) and return just four starters on defense. Should any team limit Watson, Clemson may not have the defense to keep up.
3. Florida State
Deondre Francois is already being (unfairly) compared to Jameis Winston because he’s a redshirt freshman starting quarterback. The Seminoles’ fate may be a lot like LSU’s last season—star running back (Dalvin Cook), an excellent defense and an inconsistent quarterback. Whether it’s Francois or Sean Maguire leading the team by the end of the season, middling QB play will cost Florida State.
We still don’t know who will start at quarterback or how the defense will adjust to new coordinator Don Brown’s defensive schemes. The Wolverines also play Ohio State and Michigan State on the road. Even if Jim Harbaugh converted Jake Rudock into a decent quarterback by the end of last season, he will need to coach up either John O’Korn or Wilton Speight into one of the conference’s best if Michigan wants a playoff spot.
Is inconsistent quarterback play becoming too familiar a theme? Perhaps! But in LSU’s case, this is what keeps it out of the playoff (and before that, a top bowl game) seemingly every year. Brandon Harris showcased improvement at the beginning of last season before becoming a liability toward the end of the year (he completed six passes in a loss to Alabama, seven against Texas A&M). The defense will probably dismember a few players under new coordinator Dave Aranda, who arrives from Wisconsin, but if Leonard Fournette struggles at any point, then the Tigers could falter in the vicious SEC West.
Hopefully the Sooners are low enough on the preseason top 25 to make Baker Mayfield’s supposed black list of media members, teammates, coaches and surly fans that insist he won’t succeed. He’ll be one of their better pieces, but the absence of a go-to receiver and a vicious opening schedule (Houston, Ohio State and TCU all in the first four games) will knock the Sooners out of contention early.
We probably overrated the Huskies at No, 7, but we must be excited that Chris Petersen is entering his third season with a roster that is (mostly) his own. Sophomores Myles Gaskin and Jake Browning are exciting young players, and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of college football’s gems, but the Huskies are likely one year away from making a run at the playoff.
The inability to find an adequate replacement for star defensive back William Jackson and the Cougars’ youthful defense will cost them in at least one shootout. Even if Houston beats Oklahoma, plenty of traps are in place for a team with some holes on that side of the ball.
9. Ohio State
Unless Raekwon McMillan is one of the nation’s best defensive players (he might be), then the turnover on defense might be too much to overcome. Urban Meyer is a wizard, but it’d be one of his finest coaching jobs ever if he could get one of the most inexperienced teams in the country to score wins at Oklahoma, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State.
The talent is there, but does Butch Jones have the coaching chops to manage it into a playoff berth? Florida owns 11 consecutive wins over the Vols and they have to host Alabama. Tennessee needs to overcome a decade of bad luck and the ninth-ranked passing attack in the SEC to return to college football’s elite. It may be too much to ask for in one season.
Stanford’s first six games are Kansas State, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State and at Notre Dame. If the Cardinal survive that gauntlet with fewer than two losses, they should be considered a national title contender. The problem is they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback (either Keller Chryst or Ryan Burns). Stanford has proven time and again that it’s not a squad to be doubted, but the opening stretch it faces is arguably the worst of any team in the nation.
12. Notre Dame
The defense is painfully young (and recently lost presumed starting safety Max Redfield to dismissal) and the offense lost one of its top receiving targets (Alize Jones) to an academic problem. DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire are talented quarterbacks, but splitting reps is always a risky gambit. Even with a forgiving schedule, the Irish defense won’t hold up.
13. Michigan State
Talk about a team that loves to play up the “little brother” card. Michigan State tends to emphasize the “disrespect” it receives despite its landmark success the past few seasons under Mark Dantonio. The schedule bodes well for the Spartans (they host both Ohio State and Michigan). The problem is they eked their way to five wins last year (including an inexplicable struggle against Rutgers), so they’re bound for regression while breaking in new starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor.
The top candidate for regression in all of college football, the Hawkeyes spent last season narrowly beating opponents with a combination of power running and strong secondary play. Kirk Ferentz’s squad does return Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, but five conference road games and a brutal Week 3 matchup against North Dakota State casts doubt over whether Iowa can repeat last year’s magic.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a rising star and the offense returns every player that mattered from last year’s attack, but the defense loses its most dominant player (Sheldon Rankins) and the Cardinals play both Florida State and Clemson in the first month of the season. There is virtually no chance they reach their sixth game with fewer than two losses.
Most will be focusing on whether the Bulldogs will opt for freshman quarterback Jacob Eason or senior Greyson Lambert, but the bigger problem facing the Bulldogs is their lack of depth in the front seven. The departure of Leonard Floyd is going to leave a big hole in the middle, even if new head coach Kirby Smart is one of the best defensive schemers in the nation. Sony Michel and Nick Chubb will team up to create a terrifying running back tandem, but that won’t be quite enough firepower to win the SEC.
17. Oklahoma State
The inability to replace Emmanuel Ogbah plus a totally backloaded schedule will cost the Cowboys. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is one of the nation’s most underrated players, but back-to-back tilts at TCU and at Oklahoma will prevent the Cowboys from winning the Big 12. There’s an outside shot in the event they enter the TCU game 10–0 and split the two, but the likelihood isn’t high.
18. Washington State
The team lost its two best defensive linemen and let the opposition convert over 44% of its third downs last year. No matter how thrilling the offense is, the patchwork defense will ensure the Cougars don’t enter the national title conversation.
19. Ole Miss
If the infractions committee doesn’t slap a bowl ban on the Rebels before season’s end, somebody’s rushing offense will keep them out of playoff contention. The departure of Robert Nkemdiche and his versatility will show, and at least one of the SEC West’s punishing running backs will make the Rebels pay.
The Horned Frogs have two outstanding offensive coordinators (Doug Meacham, Sonny Cumbie), but the challenge of coaching up so much youth and inexperience in the unit will prove overwhelming—even if the defense will be one of the Big 12’s best.