As we enter the second half of the season, who are the real contenders -- the teams that can actually win this year’s College Football Playoff?
We’re talking true contenders -- not those like West Virginia, Miami or Virginia Tech that could, theoretically, if all the stars align and pigs begin flying, get into the playoff and win the title.
Here are the eight teams that have both a path in front of them and the chops talent-wise to get it done.
Getty ImagesJamie Sabau
With Alabama this weekend, a potential SEC title game and two playoff games in front of them, Tennessee has by far the hardest path to a potential national championship, and they are by far the weirdest team on this list. They don’t rank in the Top 20 nationally in a single major offensive or defensive category and outside of ferocious pass rusher Derek Barnett, don’t have a single guy who is putting up jaw-dropping stats either.
But the Vols do have heart and after everything we’ve seen this season, I’m not ready to rule out Tennessee for anything, even a national championship. Yes, the Vols have needed wild comebacks to win several games this season (and in their loss last week to Texas A&M as well), but at a certain point these victories stop being about “luck” and start being about will.
We’ll know for sure whether the Vols are a true contender by Saturday evening after they face Alabama.
Louisville is the only team on this list that doesn’t control their own destiny. The Cardinals will need some combination of a Clemson collapse or chaos from the rest of college football to get into the playoff. But if they do get there, watch out.
The Cardinals have the most explosive offense, a unit that leads the nation in both scoring (58 points per game) and yardage (659) and a defense that ranks 20th nationally. As Louisville showed against Clemson two weeks ago, they can play with any team in any venue. They might have been the better team in Death Valley.
Louisville’s path to the playoff seems to be littered with pot holes going forward. But don’t underestimate them.
If Tennessee is the weirdest team on this list, then Texas A&M is 1A. After all, it’s not often you can say that a team is one of the most ferocious defenses in college football (ranked second in tackles for loss), while also playing a “bend but don’t break” kind of style (they rank just 96th nationally in yards allowed). They also have an explosive offense, which works best when their quarterback is out in the open field, running for first downs rather than passing for them.
The proof is in the pudding with A&M. They have four solid wins (UCLA, at Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee) against teams with varied styles. We’ll find out if they’re for real next Saturday against Alabama. But like Tennessee, for right now, they belong on this list.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY SportsTroy Taormina
The Tigers looked like a different team the last two weeks. In just two victories, they went from a club that I wasn’t even sure could win their own division to absolutely good enough to win a national championship.
You could make the case that the BC win was actually more impressive than Louisville. Sure, Louisville was a Top-5 matchup on their home field, but any team can play well in a big game. To go on the road five days later against a team you know you’re better than and not have a letdown shows that you’re a mature championship-caliber team.
One stat worth noting: Deshaun Watson has thrown as many touchdowns in his last two games (nine) as he did in his first four combined. That’s definitely a good sign for a Clemson offense that was struggling just a few weeks ago.
Joshua S. KellyJoshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports
Is it possible that a team can be undefeated, ranked in the top five nationally, an overwhelming favorite to win a Power-5 conference and still be underrated? Yes — Washington.
The Huskies do all the little things right to put themselves in a position to win a title. They play spectacular defense (ranking sixth nationally in points allowed) and their offense has turned into a juggernaut with QB Jake Browning, who now leads college football with 23 total touchdown passes. As a team, they are averaging 49 points per game (fifth nationally) and they lead the country in turnover margin.
This team isn’t just “Pac-12 title” good. They can win the whole darn thing.
When Jim Harbaugh isn’t busy crushing big steaks and swigging tall glasses of milk, he’s busy kicking you-know-what and taking names. And we’re not just talking about last week’s 78-0 win over Rutgers, but really, this entire season.
Michigan ranks first nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 10.3 points per game. They lead the nation in passing defense, tackles for loss and are No. 2 in sacks. They also run the ball down your throat at 255 yards per game and have the greatest special teams weapon in Jabrill Peppers.
Just about the only thing Michigan doesn’t do well is throw the ball, ranking 84th nationally in passing offense. But even that is a bit misleading since they don’t throw the ball often (an average of just 29 attempts per game). Then again, when you do everything else so well, I guess you don’t have to.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsRick Osentoski
Alabama Crimson Tide
Yes, the Crimson Tide are still the overwhelming favorite to most casual fans and a team that appears to be nearly unbeatable. And when you look at the stats you’ll see why.
Alabama is their usual dominant self on defense, allowing just 16 points a game and their continued evolution on offense is incredible. Alabama ranks sixth in the nation in scoring and has found balance with Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough complementing Jalen Hurts in the run game. Hurts himself isn’t a shabby runner either.
But the Tide are not totally invincible — their pass defense allows 223 yards through the air per game (for comparison’s sake, Michigan’s pass defense allows half of that). And as great as Hurts has been this season, many wonder if the true freshman can really get through two more brutal road games against Tennessee and LSU.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
Ohio State Buckeyes
For a guy who has won three national championships, it seems impossible to say that this is the best coaching job of his career. But that could be the case with Urban Meyer this year. For his team to lose 12 guys to the NFL Draft (including five first-round picks) and have them come back and rip off wins like it’s nothing is pretty incredible.
I can’t remember a team that’s been so dominant over the first half of the season in recent memory. Overall, here are the categories that Ohio State ranks in the Top 10 nationally in: Scoring defense (no. 2), total defense (No. 4), rushing defense (No. 9) and pass defense (No. 5). Not to mention scoring offense (No. 3), rushing offense (No. 3) and turnover margin (No. 4). They’re tied for fourth nationally with 10 interceptions and have the most interception returns for a touchdown with four. Oh, and just for good measure, their kicker hasn’t missed a field goal all year.
Ohio State is a juggernaut and even Meyer admits that this might be the best team he’s ever coached. They just might be the best team in college football this year, and the favorite to win it all.