College football’s four team playoff is the best postseason in all of sports.
MLB has an ill-fitting luck-driven, winner-take-all Wild Card game that stands in contrast to the rest of the postseason. The NFL allows enough teams in that a less deserving “hot” team oftentimes comes out above the best team (remember the 9-7 2012 Giants?). The NBA playoffs (and regular season) have become little more than a waiting game for an inevitable Lebron vs. Super Team matchup. The NHL is great, but NCAA football takes the cake.
In this small, elite playoff bracket, only very good teams can get in, but the list of teams that can get in is far more extensive than the list of teams that could win the whole thing.
Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Georgia, and Wisconsin come to mind as teams that are certainly playoff contenders, but maybe aren’t National Title contenders. Wisconsin may be the best example. They will avoid Ohio State and Penn State during the regular season and face Michigan at home. With a weak non-conference schedule (BYU), they could finish the year at 11-1 and pull an upset over the Big 10 East division champs and make the playoff. Beating a pair of teams like Clemson and Alabama back-to-back in the playoff however becomes unrealistic for the Badgers.
So, with all that set-up, here are the teams I believe can actually win the college football playoff without multiple miracles along the way.
Alabama Crimson Tide: This one is the no-doubter. They’re the most talented team in college football and the SEC is not as daunting as it was 4-5 years ago. If they get by FSU in week one, you’d have to consider picking them over the field.
Ohio State Buckeyes: The Buckeyes may be smarting after a 0-31 exit from the college football a year ago, but they should be a force in 2017. They return 15 starters including QB J.T. Barrett and RB Mike Weber. They lose WR Curtis Samuel, but have Kevin Wilson taking the reigns as the new offensive coordinator who should manage to bring some creativity.
Florida State Seminoles: QB DeAndre Francois cut his teeth behind a dismal offensive line last season. His knack for taking a beating and getting back up was impressive. They should be a bit better on the O-line - though questions remain. They’ll be much better defensively as they improved throughout 2016 and get safety Derwin James back from injury. Their path to the playoff includes a neutral site game versus Alabama and trips to Clemson and Gainesville. If they survive the road, they’d be hard to bet against in the playoff.
Clemson Tigers: Winners of three CFP playoff games in the past two seasons, this program has proven they can compete with anyone. Questions remain about how they will replace QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, and C Jay Guillermo, but they’ve recruited at such a high-level that they could avoid a rebuilding year. Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott will prove their mettle if they pull it off. Having defensive coordinator Brent Venables guide an elite defense with arguably the best starting D-line in the country will help ease the transition as well.
Southern California Trojans: After many years of suffering since the Reggie Bush and Pete Carroll championships and scandals, the Trojans have finally reclaimed their winning ways. After an ugly start to 2016, QB Sam Darnold took the helm and led the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory. Head Coach Clay Helton is still unproven, but this may be the year that changes.
Penn State Nittany Lions: The Big 10 Champions return 16 starters including superstar RB Saquon Barkley. They finished 8th in the S&P+ last season and stand to improve. James Franklin is an outstanding coach and has the program headed in the right direction.
Starting to Stretch a Little
Washington Huskies: Coach Peterson is one of the very best in the country and his Huskies are extremely well balanced. They return 13 starters including QB Jake Browning after finishing 7th in the S&P+ rankings and making an appearance in the College Football Playoff. Their recruiting is a tier below the teams above them though which starts to make it difficult. Still, with their excellent coaching, experience, and QB, they have an realistic chance.
Michigan Wolverines: Jim Harbaugh loses a lot from his 2016 squad, but there’s something of a gut feeling that tells me the Wolverines will win a National Title within the next five years. I don’t think it’s yet, but they may do what Brent Venables does seemingly every year and avoid defensive drop-off when all logic and reason says they should.
There are plenty of other teams that will vie for playoff contention, but I’d be stunned if a team outside these eight won the title in 2017.
Thanks for reading. For a longer-term look, we ranked the 15 best football programs for the next 15 years. Read it here.