The College Football Playoff will undoubtedly feature some of the biggest names in the sport this fall. LSU, Alabama, Clemson or Michigan could all be in the mix. But what about the programs not on the short list of playoff contenders that could crash the postseason and compete for a national championship? Let's look at five of those playoff sleepers heading into the fall.
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Houston has to run the table to have a shot at the playoff, given it's a non-Power 5 program, which means beating Oklahoma and Louisville, and then it needs both of those teams to have good seasons independent of a loss to the Cougars. That's not likely, but it is possible. For starters, both of those games are in Houston (the opener against Oklahoma is technically a "neutral site" game at NRG Field, home of the Texans), and the Cougars do return the talent to play with anyone. Quarterback Greg Ward is coming off a season in which he accounted for over 3,300 yards of total offense and nearly 40 touchdowns, while the defense should again be stout. The question again: Can they beat the two Power-5 schools in front of them, starting with Oklahoma in Week 1?
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Clearly the Cardinals would have to beat the team mentioned above (Houston) to make the playoff, but that game isn't until Nov. 17. The simple truth is that we'll know long before then if the Cardinals are a true contender or not. For Bobby's Petrino's club, they get thrown right into the meat of their schedule early with games against perennial ACC juggernauts Florida State and Clemson within the first five weeks of the season. The good news is that they get the Seminoles at home and played Clemson really tough last year, losing 20-17. In terms of their talent, Louisville has enough to beat anyone on the schedule. The Cardinals return 18 starters, including quarterback Lamar Jackson, All-ACC linebacker Keith Kelsey and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.
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While Louisville getting into the playoff might be a stretch, it really isn't for North Carolina. They play in the much more manageable ACC Coastal (meaning they get to avoid Clemson in the regular season), and even if they do face the Tigers in the ACC championship game, they played with Dabo Swinney's club right down to the bitter end last year. For the Tar Heels, their whole season likely comes down to two things: How does QB Mitch Trubisky handle the adjustment after taking over for the departed Marquise Williams? And can they defeat either Georgia in their regular-season opener or Florida State on Oct. 1 to set up what could be a "win-and-you're-in" playoff scenario in the ACC Championship game?
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I know, I know, we've seen the Oklahoma State hype before. Heck, we saw it last year when the Pokes started out 10-0 before getting bludgeoned down the stretch with losses to Baylor, Oklahoma and Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl by a combined score of 151-78. Still, in 2016 things will be different! Or at least that's what they're hoping in Stillwater. The best argument for Oklahoma State is that they return basically their whole team (17 starters), including quarterback Mason Rudolph, and that the rest of the Big 12 except Oklahoma could take a step back from last year. The question as always probably comes down to Bedlam, where a Big 12 title berth and playoff spot could be on the line.
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Sure, it seems absurd to have USC on a list of college football sleepers, given its tradition and brand value. But is it possible that they enter 2016 a tiny bit underrated? It seems likely as USC returns talent all over the field, including running backs Ronald Jones and Justin Davis, as well as star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Not to mention the Trojans may have the best group of defensive backs in the country, led by everybody's All-American Adoree Jackson. The question now: Can USC somehow survive a daunting schedule that includes Alabama in an opener at Jerry's World and 11 games against teams that made bowl games last year?