Last week, I lamented the unusual lack of suspense in college football’s playoff race: Barring an abrupt plot twist down the stretch, the four teams most likely to comprise the final bracket — Alabama, Clemson, Washington, and the winner of a blockbuster Michigan/Ohio State tilt to close the regular season — all have such a straight path to the playoff that they’re already beginning to feel like foregone conclusions.
This week, that premise still holds. Even after watching both Clemson and Ohio State survive down-to-the-wire, overtime nail-biters last weekend, the Big Five are so entrenched at the top of the polls that it will take a major upset to shake any of them loose.
Then again, this is college football we’re talking about, where late-breaking twists, upsets, and earthquakes are par for the course. So this week, let’s dispense the status quo and embrace the chaos we all know is simmering just over the horizon: If one of the presumed frontrunners takes a hit over the next six weeks, who’s in the best position to fill the void?
Here are the top 10 midseason dark horses, ranked from least likely to crash the playoff field to most likely.
10. WESTERN MICHIGAN (7-0). The precise sequence of events that would have to unfold to lift a team from the Mid-American Conference into serious playoff contention is too long to indulge, and may not actually exist. Still, the Broncos deserve to be mentioned here: Beyond the perfect record, they’re trashing their victims — including two from the Big Ten, Northwestern and Illinois — by almost 27 points per game, good enough to make them a legitimate top-25 outfit according to both the traditional polls and the more advanced versions. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives WMU a better chance of winning its conference (80.7 percent) and finishing the regular season unbeaten (61.9 percent) than any other team.
For Western Michigan, either outcome would be historic; it has just one outright MAC title, in 1988, and has never come close to going undefeated. And while that’s not going to be enough to make the Broncos candidates for the final four, a major bowl bid is a real possibility — no small potatoes for a program that had never won a postseason game prior to last year’s Bahamas Bowl and had never been ranked before last week. At that point, the only question is who’ll be filling in on the sideline after up-and-coming coach P.J. Fleck bolts for a more lucrative gig that hopefully is not Purdue. (P.J., dude, you can do so much better than Purdue.)
9. FLORIDA (5-1). Tennessee’s wipeout at the hands of Alabama put the Gators back in the pole position in the SEC East, where they enjoy the distinct advantage of not having to play Alabama unless both teams make the SEC title game. And at that point, who knows? Stranger things have happened, any given Saturday, etc.
Just to get that far, though, Florida still has to go 3-0 against Georgia, Arkansas, and LSU, the latter on the road now thanks to Hurricane Matthew. (That LSU was allowed to strong-arm Florida into rescheduling what was originally a UF home game in Baton Rouge still boggles the mind.) And for the conference championship to have playoff implications, the Gators will also have to get past Florida State to arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. Defensively, they’ve been good enough so far to imagine them pulling it off, yielding just 12 points per game. Offensively… well, there’s a good reason FPI puts their odds of winning out at less than one percent.
8. HOUSTON (6-1). Two weeks ago, Houston was undefeated and very much in the thick of the nascent playoff discussion, still riding high off the buzz of an opening-day upset over Oklahoma. Then came an out-of-the-blue loss at Navy, followed by a narrow escape against Tulsa, and suddenly the Cougars look like they’re struggling just to tread water in the AAC West.
The good news is that the next three games, against SMU, Central Florida, and Tulane, are virtually guaranteed wins that should get the Cougars back on track heading into a defining Nov. 17 date against Louisville. The bad news is that they still have to play Louisville, with far less confidence than they had on opening day and no more cushion to absorb a loss. (The season finale at Memphis, currently 5-1, is no sure thing, either.) Even if Houston was to win out and get the help it needs to repeat as AAC champion — Navy would have to lose twice to offset the head-to-head tiebreaker in the division — any team from a so-called “Group of Five” conference that brings anything other than a zero in the loss column has the deck stacked against it.
7. NEBRASKA (6-0). The Cornhuskers are 6-0 for the first time since 2001, the last time they could make any plausible claim to national relevance, which sounds like the beginning of a great story. But this is certainly not a great schedule. The marquee win so far is a 35-32 victory over Oregon, before anyone realized just how bad Oregon is now; from there, it’s been a sustained climb in the polls based on routine outings against Northwestern, Illinois, and Indiana. So clearly, the ’N’ on the helmets still counts for something, but not so much that anyone is ready to start invoking the ghost of Tommie Frazier just yet.
The first chance to change that comes next week at Wisconsin; survive in Madison, and the stakes in a Nov. 5 trip to Ohio State will be higher than they’ve been in a regular-season game involving Nebraska in a long time. The odds of the Huskers winning both of those, on the road, are exceedingly low. Take either one, though, and they’ll be in decent position to win out and roll into the Big Ten title game against OSU and Michigan at 11-1. At which point, again, anything is possible.
6. WEST VIRGINIA (5-0). If this seems like a suspiciously lofty position for West Virginia… yeah, you’re right. At first glance, I agree. It’s also entirely possible that there’s more to the Mountaineers than meets the eye. Until we see them against stiffer competition this team is an ink blot you can interpret any way you’d like.
On one hand, WVU entered the season with no real expectations and hasn’t played anyone of note. But it’s looked good enough in the process, especially on defense, to begin picking up steam in the polls. Generally, it’s a mistake to read too much into a win over, say, Texas Tech; but what about when it’s a 49-17 romp in Lubbock? The Big 12 is so wide open that the Mountaineers could emerge from the pack as legitimate contenders, or quickly fade back into obscurity as early this weekend against TCU. For the time being, all we can say is there’s no game they’re obviously destined to lose.
5. TEXAS A&M (6-0). If this list was a straight-up power poll, A&M might have been No. 1: They’re the highest ranked team on it in both the AP and Coaches’ polls, having already vanquished three other currently ranked foes (Auburn, Arkansas, and Tennessee) as well as UCLA, which was ranked at the time. Win for win, that’s a solid a résumé as any team in the country, including the Big Five.
And sure, if they manage to extend that run on Saturday by upsetting Alabama, then the Aggies will be promoted off the “dark horse” list altogether and into the first-class cabin. But we’ve heard that story before, following impressive starts each of the last three years, and a skin-of-the-teeth win over a Tennessee outfit that was subsequently destroyed by the Crimson Tide doesn’t exactly inspire trust that another second-half collapse is off the table. That seems to be the thinking in Vegas, as well, which lists A&M as a 19-point underdog in Tuscaloosa, an incredible point spread for a meeting of top-10 teams. Add November dates with Ole Miss and LSU, and even for a solid, vastly improved team the margin for error is extremely thin.
4. BAYLOR (6-0). The Bears have flown under the radar so far, for several reasons. One, they’ve fattened up the record against a typically soft early schedule. Two, the offense hasn’t matched the furious statistical pace it set over the past few years. And three, frankly, a lot of national pundits are squeamish about focusing on Baylor’s on-field success in the wake of such a sordid offseason. (The scandal that led to Art Briles’ ouster in May remains ongoing at the university level, by the way, and his former assistants keep generating headlines that paint them as oblivious and unrepentant. Briles’ own attempt to explain himself in an ESPN interview didn’t fare much better.) Ignoring the upheaval altogether feels wrong; the idea of stumbling into an “overcoming adversity” narrative feels even worse.
However: In the absence of a true Big 12 overlord, the reality is that Baylor remains a leading candidate to claim the conference title, and outside of a Nov. 12 trip to Oklahoma the Bears could be favored in every game. (Again, depending on who you ask: Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings are much more optimistic about Baylor’s chances over the second half than FPI.) Right now, the meat of the Big 12 schedule looks as forgiving as it ever has, or is likely to again anytime soon. Baylor hasn’t been quite as prolific, but any suggestion that its championship window has been slammed shut amid turmoil is wishful thinking.
3. BOISE STATE (7-0). The logic here is pretty straightforward: With Thursday night’s wild, 28-27 win over BYU — a game that featured, gloriously, a fake punt attempt by BYU on 4th-and-19 from its own end zone — Boise passed its last significant hurdle en route to a likely 12-0 regular season. (Its next five games, against Wyoming, San Jose State, Hawaii, UNLV, and Air Force, look like formalities.) And wherever you happen to fall on the rigors of the Broncos’ schedule — their best win this year is over Washington State — the fact is that if they do post a perfect record, the giant-killing rep they’ve built and burnished over the past decade ought to be enough to put them on the short list to fill an unexpected vacancy in the top four.
In that case, would that actually make Boise one of the top four teams in the country? Not really; there’s a lot to like about this group, most notably sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, but at this stage it’s still a rung or two below the 2009-11 squads under Chris Petersen that repeatedly earned their place at the table. Still, give the playoff committee a choice of an undefeated Boise State against an equally flawed major-conference team with multiple losses, and there’s no way of knowing how that question will be resolved.
2. OKLAHOMA (4-2). OU was effectively bounced from the national conversation in September thanks to double-digit defeats against Houston and Ohio State, and in most years that would have been the end of the story. The way this season has unfolded, though, it’s conceivable that an opening could eventually reveal itself for a two-loss conference champion with certain credentials. If so, then Oklahoma — a name-brand program with a Heisman-caliber quarterback and the best shot at running the table against the Big 12’s round-robin schedule — is obviously the most likely to possess them come December.
Now, just as obviously, getting to that point would require a lot of dominoes to fall exactly right; Clemson and/or Washington would likely have to lose twice, for starters, before Oklahoma even got close enough to see the front of the line. But based on their track record and the rest of the schedule I have more confidence in the Sooners putting themselves in position to keep moving up than any of the outfits we’ve already covered.
1. LOUISVILLE (5-1). The Cardinals boast the best player in the country, Lamar Jackson; the best performance of the season, against Florida State; and the best possible loss: Their only blemish, a 42-36 nail-biter at Clemson, arguably boosted U of L stock more than most wins by reinforcing that it could hang with a heavy hitter in primetime. Of all the teams on this list, at this point Louisville is the only one that can make that claim.
And while they don’t control their own destiny as far as the ACC championship or the playoff is concerned, the Cardinals do enter the turn as the de facto Next Team In. They’ll be huge favorites in five of their last six, and solid favorites at Houston. Make good on that potential, and there are many more hypothetical scenarios that break in their favor over the final eight weeks than ones that don’t.