The College Football Playoff, CFP, could aptly be renamed “The Alabama Invitational” since the Crimson Tide has made the playoff every year since its inception in the 2014 season. Last season, the Crimson Tide earned their second CFP National Championship and will be looking to earn their third in four years with breakout star Tua Tagovailoa at the helm.
But who are the other teams that can spoil the party? This list ranks the potential threats to Bama.
Returning Playoff Contenders:
The Tigers will look to avenge a poor performance against Alabama in the semifinals of last year’s playoff with another strong run. The Tigers return senior quarterback Kelly Bryant, leading returning tackler Kendall Joseph, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, and defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell. The Clemson defense led the nation last season with 46 sacks and much of the same should occur this season. Bryant retained his role as starting quarterback over five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence during the spring and will look to build on his junior year.
Georgia was a play away from beating Alabama and winning the national championship, so the outlook for next season is, at minimum, a return to the CFP. The Bulldogs breezed through SEC East play last season and are poised to do the same in 2018. However, they could see tougher competition with Dan Mullen returning to Florida.
The Bulldogs lost Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who led UGA in their run, but sophomore Jake Fromm had a solid freshman campaign for himself. The Bulldogs lost 17 seniors to graduation and two juniors to the NFL Draft, but reloaded with the No. 1 draft class, according to Sports Illustrated. A class that included five-star quarterback, Justin Fields, the top quarterback prospect in the country.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Any team under Urban Meyer is destined for greatness, and oftentimes they achieve it. Ohio State won the Big 10 last season but narrowly missed out on a playoff berth.
The Buckeyes will not have J.T. Barrett running the offense, but Dwayne Haskins showed poise in the game against Michigan late in the year. They also return J.K. Dobbins, who is one of the preseason favorites for the Heisman trophy, and Mike Weber to form a great backfield.
Talent on the defensive side will not be a problem, especially with the defensive line. The Buckeyes led the nation with 114 tackles for loss a year ago. They will need to compensate for losing Denzel Ward, but OSU is becoming “DBU” these days. Surely, they have someone groomed to take over. In 2018, the Buckeyes will have early tests in September against TCU, in Dallas, and at Penn State. If they can get through September, they could run the table.
One Win Away
In head coach Mark Richt’s second season, the Hurricanes exceeded all expectations by making the ACC Championship Game and being just one win away from the CFP. The team won its’ first 10 games but sputtered in the end with back-to-back double-digit losses to conclude the season.
But the future is bright in Coral Gables. Miami had a top 10 recruiting class, second only in the conference to Clemson. Quarterback Malik Rosier will be returning as a fifth-year senior. Last season, Rosier led the Hurricanes with 3,120 passing yards, but he under-performed in the last three games. He threw for 166 yards per game with just a 44.9 completion percentage. While Rosier is the starter, freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Jarren Williams are hungry to lead the Canes back to their old glory days.
Whoever the quarterback is, he will be accompanied by speedy wide receivers like Jeff Thomas and freshman All-American Ahmmon Richards, who will return after missing most of last season due to injury. The defense will look to break out the turnover chain early and often in 2018 with a talented linebacker core. The Canes will mix inexperience with veterans in what will be a season of high expectations in Miami.
Wisconsin will be the favorite in the Big 10 West again and may even be the favorite of the entire Big 10 since they return 10 of 11 offensive starters. Jonathan Taylor ran for nearly 2,000 yards last season and he can meet or exceed that total with the Badgers returning all five starters on the o-line.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is going to be who makes or breaks this Wisconsin team. He had 15 interceptions last season, but the defense picked up the slack by holding teams to under 20 points in all but three games. Hornibrook did, however, have moments where he showed out. In the Orange Bowl against Miami, he threw for four touchdowns and nearly 300 yards. Wisconsin’s out-of-conference schedule will be criticized again, but if the Badgers can run the table and pick up marquee wins at Michigan and Penn State, they can put themselves in a spot to make the playoff in 2019.
For about three weeks last year November, Auburn was possibly the best team in college football, but a brutal, back-loaded schedule caught up to them. In a span of three weeks, Auburn beat rivals Georgia and Alabama by a combined 35 points. But the Tigers ran out of gas and were returned the favor by Georgia in the SEC Championship.
In 2018, the Tigers will return one of the best defensive lines in the country as well as quarterback Jarrett Stidham and leading receiver Ryan Davis. Stidham is a good quarterback, but the offense’s success will likely revolve around the offensive line, which lost four starters after the 2017 season. Auburn will have to face Washington in its opening game, LSU in week three, and go on the road to Georgia and Alabama to conclude a brutal regular-season schedule.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State lost Saquon Barkley, one of the best players in program history, to the NFL Draft. Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions have one of the best coaches in the country in James Franklin and return one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in Trace McSorley. He led the Big 10 in passing with 275 yards per game. Returning four starters on the offensive line will be a boost for them, too.
But, on defense the Nittany Lions will be replacing the nine starters they lost after last season. Linebacker depth will be a problem, but the team looks like it will be solid everywhere else, especially since senior corner Amani Oruwariye returns. He led the team last year with four interceptions.
Jim Harbaugh will enter his fourth season as the Wolverines’ head coach, so his first recruiting class are now seniors. He has a reputation as a great coach, but so far he has underachieved, which some have attributed to struggles at the quarterback position. However, the Wolverines may have found an answer in Shea Patterson, a transfer from Ole Miss.
Patterson’s eligibility was in question, but he was ruled eligible in the spring. After the 2016 class left, the Wolverines were forced to play many underclassmen, most notably on defense. Those young players should continue to grow under Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown. The Big 10 East is loaded, but if Michigan makes it through they will be primed for a playoff run in the CFP.
As long as Nick Saban is at Alabama, the Crimson Tide will be and should be annual favorites to take the crown. However, college football is one of the most unpredictable sports in America. If the Tide slip up, one of these teams will be right there to take advantage.