College football’s opening weekend is on deck and “experts” everywhere are trying to figure out everything there is to know about how the 2018 season will unfold. At least two teams, Alabama and Clemson, are widely expected to reach the College Football Playoff at the end of the line and, despite the general absurdity of that in a sport involving more than 100 teams, it is easy to see why the top programs would have that baseline.
Others — headlined by Ohio State, Georgia, Wisconsin and Oklahoma — land on virtually any top-10 list ahead of the season and that allows for each program to become a trendy College Football Playoff selection. In this space, though, we’ll glance off the radar to some extent, fully excluding the top 10 teams in the country (at least according to the initial AP Poll) in an attempt to unearth “sleepers” to reach the sport’s final four.
It should be noted that Group of 5 teams could become involved but, unfortunately for fans of those programs, the deck is stacked wildly against them and that doesn’t allow us to fire on a smaller conference program in this exercise. Also, the word “sleeper” doesn’t usually apply to some of these (very) large brands but, considering their starting point, it would be at least a mild surprise if any of the five teams below crashed the party.
Here are five teams that have the talent, schedule and opportunity to do so, however, and they arrive in alphabetical order.
There have been moments of promise during the Jim Harbaugh era but the make-or-break moments haven’t gone in Michigan’s favor since his arrival. If you’re looking for a reason not to back the Wolverines as a CFP contender, it arrives in the form of a brutal schedule and that is almost part of the calculus in keeping Michigan outside the top 10 to begin the campaign.
Michigan has three legitimately perilous road trips (Notre Dame, Michigan State, Ohio State) on the agenda and the home schedule isn’t much easier with both Wisconsin and Penn State coming to Ann Arbor. From a talent standpoint, it is easy to get excited about this squad, though, with a top-flight defense (led by freak defensive end Rashan Gary) and the arrival of former five-star quarterback Shea Patterson as a transfer from Ole Miss.
Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprise if Michigan’s true talent level and performance mirrored a legitimate title contender but the stars have to align in order to get them to the Big Ten title game with a playoff berth on the line. Fortunately, this is a roster that could make that happen. We’ll know just about everything we need to about Michigan after Saturday night when they meet…
It is an alphabetical coincidence that Notre Dame and Michigan are back-to-back on this list. Amusingly, the two teams face off on Labor Day weekend in the opener and that could decide quite a bit. For the Wolverines, there will be plenty of opportunities to impress during Big Ten play but, on the Notre Dame side, this could be the toughest game on the entire schedule.
That might seem silly considering the Irish’s propensity for difficult schedules but some projection systems make Notre Dame a betting favorite in all 12 games and the schedule is kind. There are potential potholes, including Stanford, Florida State and a season-ending road trip to USC, but Notre Dame is very talented and they often receive the benefit of the doubt when it comes to name recognition.
The opener will tell us a lot but Notre Dame is quite capable of a deep run.