The 2019 college football season marks the sixth year of the College Football Playoff era, and what an era it has already been for the Clemson program. The Tigers have made four straight Playoffs as a top-two seed and won two national championships in three title game appearances. Only Alabama can boast anything approaching that type of success since the inception of the four-team field.
It’s been predictable. It’s been shocking. It’s been logical. It’s been senseless. The selection of the four-team field has been anything and everything in its short lifespan, and it figures to once again be totally reasonable and completely maddening throughout the 2019 season. Which teams will be the ones jockeying for position this time around? Let’s take a stab at it.
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The Tigers stunned college football viewers and pundits alike with a national championship performance for the ages when they blasted the supposed “best team of all time” in a four-touchdown throttling of Alabama to cap the 2018 season. While the Tide’s five-year CFP pedigree still slightly edges that of the Tigers, Clemson’s most recent win was a massive step toward staking its claim as the preeminent power in college football. Dabo Swinney and Co. must replace a historically good defensive line this coming season, but a loaded offense and soft schedule makes Clemson perhaps the safest bet to make the field once again.
Despite the uninspiring end the Crimson Tide’s 2018 campaign, they are certainly a favorite to return to the Playoff - and perhaps the title game. We’ve seen the loser of the each Clemson-Alabama matchup consistently come back with a chip on its shoulder the following season, and we shouldn’t expect any less from Nick Saban’s group this season. Similarly to Clemson, Alabama brings back an offense full of firepower but may have relative question marks on the defensive front. There could be a legitimate challenger or two in the SEC, but until somebody actually knocks them off their pedestal, are you really going to bet against the Tide?
If there is an SEC team chomping at the bit to usurp Alabama, it’s undoubtedly the team that has surrendered fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back seasons against the Crimson Tide. Kirby Smart undoubtedly has Georgia on the doorstep of greatness, and it’s easy to see the Bulldogs becoming the next dominant force in the SEC if Alabama wanes at all in the twilight of Saban’s career. We almost saw this team make the field as an 11-2 non-champion last year (which would have been a terrible precedent to set, but we digress), so finishing at 12-1 in any fashion this year would likely be enough for Georgia to make the field. This barring a rash of incredible resumes elsewhere, of course.
This is admittedly a bit of obligatory positioning for a team that has made three of the last four Playoff fields and has one of the great young coaches in the game. That said, it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about a team that may have to rely on a pedestrian thrower of the football like Jalen Hurts to run a pass-happy offense that has consistently needed to outscore one of college football’s worst defensive units the past few seasons. The assumption many seem to be making that this offense will just keep humming along as if Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray were at the helm is absurd, and it wouldn’t even be particularly surprising to see Hurts give way to the more talented Spencer Rattler at some point during the season. Let’s just say this year’s Sooners may have trouble living up to the standard set by their recent versions.
Speaking of teams with quarterback questions... It seemed a mere formality when Justin Fields transferred to Columbus earlier this year that he would assume the starting role for the Buckeyes in Ryan Day’s first season as head coach, but it seems things may not be so cut and dried. One would think Fields’ dual-threat capabilities will eventually help him overtake Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak for the job, but it’s clear that the transition from Dwayne Haskins to Fields could potentially be less seamless than conventional wisdom may have held. This is still a team with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball of course, and while they have missed the Playoff three of the last four seasons since winning the title in 2014, they were within three spots of making the field each time. The Buckeyes definitely been good for one head-scratching loss per season, but they’ve still been one of the most consistent programs of the Playoff era and are always in the mix.
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We’re certainly not itching to name LSU a serious threat to Alabama in the SEC West, as the Tigers have to go to Tuscaloosa a year after getting shut out at home by the Crimson Tide. Ed Orgeron has this program slowly moving back toward national relevance though. Even with a loss to Alabama, running the table in the rest of the schedule - including a non-conference road win at Texas - could make a compelling case for the committee to consider. It’s more likely, though, that the Tigers stumble somewhere else along the way and end up 10-2 or so and fall just short of the Playoff field.
The Wolverines have arguably been the best program over the last five years that hasn’t qualified for a single Playoff field. What has held them back? Simply, the inability to beat Ohio State. Michigan once again had everything in front of it last season entering its annual rivalry game with the Buckeyes but fell flat on its face, surrendering 62 points and watching its Playoff candidacy go up in smoke. The pressure is quickly mounting for Jim Harbaugh to end his futility against Ohio State and lead the Wolverines to a Playoff berth, and 2019 may present the best chance for him to do it. If his team can’t close the deal this season with the Buckeyes coming to Ann Arbor, it may never happen.
It wasn’t always pretty a season ago, but the Fighting Irish navigated a 12-0 regular season to secure the No. 3 seed in their first Playoff appearance. They were a momentary laughing stock after getting blown out by Clemson... until the Tigers turned right around the next week and did the same thing to Alabama. An undefeated run might be a tougher task this time around with road trips to Georgia and Michigan on the slate, but the schedule may actually be a bit less trying week in and week out compared to last season. Was 2018 Notre Dame a flash in the pan, or are the Irish here to stay?
The Longhorns finished last season on a high note with a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia and are a sexy pick to crash the Playoff party. The hype may be a bit premature with regard to challenging for a national title, but with Oklahoma likely taking a step back, there may be no better time for Texas to make a move in the Big XII. The previously mentioned matchup with LSU is a pivotal game for both teams and may determine which team, if either, could make a serious run at the Playoff.
The case for Texas A&M may not be that of a team that could finish with one or fewer losses given the Aggies’ brutal schedule. However, a notably difficult schedule lends itself to potential leniency from the Playoff committee (especially when that schedule features the grind of the mighty SEC). The Aggies host Alabama while also facing daunting road trips to Clemson, Georgia and LSU, so it’s certainly possible they simply won’t be able to overcome that slate and threaten the Playoff field at all. But win, say, two of those four games and run the table the rest of the way? Let’s just say we’ve seen a fellow SEC West team (Auburn) position itself to make the field with two losses just two seasons ago before ultimately failing to win the SEC Championship Game. Sure, it’s a long shot - but the Aggies have a built-in margin for error you won’t find with every team.
The Pac 12 has been the most futile Power 5 conference when it comes to putting teams in the Playoff, with a representative in just two of the last five seasons. There is no clear-cut contender entering 2019, but with legitimate uncertainty nationally outside of Clemson and Alabama, this season could provide an opportunity for someone out west to unexpectedly grab a spot. The Utes quietly had a nice season in 2018 (despite the thud of a 10-3 loss in the conference championship game) and are considered the favorite in the South division of the Pac 12. Their schedule is manageable but provides enough challenges to make it respectable, and Utah should be a team to keep an eye on.
The Ducks boast one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and should be hungry after letting last season get away from them after a 5-1 start. The Pac 12 North is no cakewalk, and Oregon will have to prove that it can win more consistently if it wants to approach the elite level required to make the Playoff. They get an opening-week opportunity identical to the one Washington choked away last season - a neutral-site matchup with Auburn. The Ducks would be well-served to do what the Huskies couldn’t - notch a big out-of-conference win to give themselves (and the Pac 12) some much-needed credibility.
Chris Petersen has built Washington into a program worthy of Playoff consideration on a yearly basis, and they will battle it out with Oregon (and perhaps Washington State and Stanford) for supremacy in the Pac 12 North this season. Georgia quarterback transfer Jacob Eason provides an element of intrigue for what has been the Pac 12’s most consistent team. The Huskies may fall short of the field again, but don’t expect them to be too far away from the conversation.
Washington State, Syracuse, Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, TCU
WEEK 1 GAMES TO WATCH:
Florida vs. Miami (August 24th)
Utah @ BYU (Friday, August 30th)
Northwestern @ Stanford
Oregon vs. Auburn
Houston @ Oklahoma
***Two of our fellow writers, Ryan Kantor and Tom Dianora, were recently on the Clemson Pawcast discussing this very topic. If you’d like additional perspectives on these teams and specifically how they matchup against Clemson. It’s long, but worthwhile. You can play it through SoundCloud below or subscribe to the Clemson Pawcast through your phone’s podcast app: