With spring football over, we can officially start to turn the calendar ahead to the 2017 season. My colleague Stewart Mandel even got things rolling with his “post-spring Top 25” last week.
Obviously, a lot is going to change between now and Week 1, but it’s never too early to look ahead and begin projecting who might be a true College Football Playoff contender, and who could fall short.
Eight teams that can take advantage of a favorable schedule to make this season’s playoff:
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Alabama Crimson Tide
While it’s totally unfair to say that any team that opens with Florida State has an “easy” schedule, things open up significantly for Alabama from there. The Tide’s next three games are against Colorado State, Fresno State and at Vanderbilt – games they’ll win by an estimated combined score of 745-3. Matchups against some of the better teams in the SEC West (LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss) are at home. So, too, is a game with rival Tennessee.
Finally, there’s a season-ending matchup against Auburn on the Plains. Yes, the Tigers should be improved, but the Crimson Tide have beaten Auburn by an average of two touchdowns each of the past three seasons. Plus, they still have some guy named Nick Saban coaching them. You betting against ‘Bama? Me neither.
Georgia’s deal is kind of similar to Alabama’s: If it can get through a Week 2 game at Notre Dame, things really ease up. Sure, there are tough games ahead (Mississippi State at home, Tennessee on the road), but the Dawgs could be favored in every game after Notre Dame until a visit to Auburn on Nov. 11.
That doesn’t guarantee anything for Kirby Smart’s club, and it doesn’t discount the fact that Georgia would need to win the SEC title game to make the final four. However, it’s hard to imagine the road to a potential playoff berth being much easier for any SEC school.
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After heavy personnel losses, it’s fair to wonder if Louisville is a true playoff contender. But among the “big three” in the ACC Atlantic, Bobby Petrino’s club has the most manageable schedule. Unlike Florida State and Clemson, the Cardinals won’t face a truly elite non-conference foe and will avoid cross-divisional games with ACC Coastal heavyweights Miami and Virginia Tech.
Therefore, Louisville’s entire season could come down to those matchups with Florida State and Clemson. The Cardinals probably won’t be favored in either game, but considering last season's results (a dominant win over the Seminoles, a narrow loss to the Tigers), it isn’t inconceivable that they win both games. Do that, and Louisville could be the surprise of the College Football Playoff.
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Penn State Nittany Lions
Again, “easy” is a relative term and nothing is truly easy when you share a division with Michigan and Ohio State. But beyond those two games, the path is actually quite manageable for the Nittany Lions.
James Franklin’s club doesn’t face nearly the tough out-of-conference tests that those other teams do (Michigan plays Florida, and Ohio State hosts Oklahoma). The Nittany Lions' marquee non-conference game is at home versus Pitt, a club that went 8-5 last season and lost starting quarterback Nathan Peterman to the pros. Unlike the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions don’t have to play Wisconsin (the likely Big Ten West favorite).
Therefore, Penn State’s playoff hopes will likely come down to its two toughest division opponents. The Nittany Lions get a graduation-depleted Michigan team at home, and although a game at Ohio State won’t be easy, they beat the Buckeyes last year. Penn State doesn’t quite have a yellow brick road to the College Football Playoff, but it is more manageable than most.
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Kansas State Wildcats
Stewart Mandel has the Wildcats ranked 15th in his preseason poll, meaning – at best – they’re a fringe playoff contender. Yet they have a schedule that could put them in the conversation later in the season.
As has become a bit of a fall tradition, Kansas State should breeze through a cakewalk out-of-conference schedule (vs. Central Arkansas, vs. Charlotte, at Vanderbilt) and gets two of its toughest Big 12 opponents (Oklahoma and West Virginia) at home. Assuming everything goes to plan, the Wildcats’ entire season could come down to a trip to Oklahoma State in the second-to-last week of the regular season.
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Last season, Wisconsin had a murderer’s row schedule that opened with LSU and included a four-game stretch where the Badgers faced three Top 10 teams (Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State). Yet, the Badgers still won the Big Ten West. This season, however, the schedule-makers have been much kinder to Paul Chryst’s club.
After three straight years of opening the season against either LSU or Alabama, the Badgers have a much more manageable out-of-conference road; the toughest game is against a good-but-not-elite BYU team. Also, they avoid two of the three Big Ten East heavyweights (Ohio State and Penn State) and get the other (Michigan) at home.
It by no means guarantees Wisconsin a spot in the playoff. But boy, is the road much more manageable this year than last.
Is Miami a true playoff contender? On paper, no. But the Hurricanes have a schedule that will allow them to play their way into the conversation – if they can take care of the teams they’re supposed to beat.
The Hurricanes don’t have to face either Louisville or Clemson from the Atlantic Division, and their toughest challenger in the Coastal (Virginia Tech) comes to Miami in late November. Out of conference, their toughest game is also at home, against a Notre Dame club that went just 4-8 last season.
Incredibly, Miami’s toughest test all season will come early, when it faces Florida State on Sept. 16. If the Hurricanes can somehow get by their rival (it won’t be easy, considering they’ve lost seven straight to the Seminoles), get ready to hear a LOT of Miami playoff chatter.
Last season, Washington rode an easy-breezy schedule into the College Football Playoff – and Chris Petersen’s club could do the same in 2017. The Huskies’ out-of-conference schedule is again soft, with matchups against Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State (although it’s hard to blame Petersen – most of those games were scheduled before he got there) and the Pac-12 schedule is about as manageable as it gets.
The Huskies won’t play fellow conference heavyweight USC in the regular season, and get this: The Huskies play four of their final five games at home, and leave Seattle only once after Oct. 14.
If you thought the chatter about Washington’s schedule was annoying last year, it will be nothing short of obnoxious in 2017. The Huskies again have a schedule built for a College Football Playoff run. And it will be fascinating to see if the Huskies can get back there.