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Contenders vs Pretenders in College Football Playoff Race

Entering the final weekend of college football in September, we are starting to see separation in team's quests for playoff berths.  While it is still early to make steadfast predictions, we have a sense of which teams are true contenders versus absolute pretenders.  Currently, there is an unquestioned top six in the AP poll.  These six teams, Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma, are considered the favorites in the playoff race.  

Auburn and Wisconsin, both coming off wins over ranked conference foes, also seem to be billed as true contenders.  This article will not focus on these top eight teams, but rather the sleepers in the playoff race.  Following are a look at eight sleepers (in no particular order) and how their schedules set up.


The winner of the SEC has been included in the playoffs every year and this year will be no different.  So the question for the Gators is, can they win the SEC?  Their hopes took a hit when starting QB, Feleipe Franks, was lost for the year with a devastating leg injury.  However, backup Kyle Trask led Florida to a comeback win over Kentucky.  Trask then played well against Tennessee, but that was the same team that has lost to both Georgia State and BYU at home.  Trask has one more week (vs Towson) to get his play polished, before the Gators play a daunting two game stretch:  vs Auburn, at LSU.  The road trip to Death Valley looks especially tough given LSU's level of play in the first four games.  

That makes next week's home date against Auburn a must win.  While Auburn starts a true freshman at quarterback in Bo Nix, this will still be an extremely tough game given Auburn's stout defense and the fact that Bo Nix hasn't looked like a freshman since the first half of the Oregon game.  Even if the Gators beat Auburn or LSU, they still would have to beat Georgia and avoid a potential upset against Missouri in November to make it to Atlanta.  If Florida were to make it to Atlanta, they would still have a tough game against the West's champion.  Florida's defense does rank tied for 9th nationally allowing just 11 points a game, but the offense ranks 53rd and has yet to play one of the elite SEC defenses.

Status:  Slight Contender   


Virginia is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2004 and has been billed as the favorite to win the ACC's Coastal division.  We should get a good assessment of the Cavaliers when they tangle with Notre Dame tomorrow.  If Virginia is able to pull the road upset off, it would set the Cavaliers up to play Clemson (assuming the Tigers win the Atlantic) as a likely undefeated team.  Beyond Notre Dame, the toughest games on the Cavaliers schedule are at Miami and at North Carolina.  While Virginia does not play one of the toughest schedules in the nation, there is no way the committee would leave out an undefeated ACC champion.  However, the Cavaliers would have to beat Clemson to win the ACC, a daunting task to say the least.  Virginia is tied for first nationally with 20 team sacks.  

Status:  Slight Contender (True Contender with win over Notre Dame)


California reached 4-0 last week with a late goal line stand to beat Ole Miss 28-20.  While the Golden Bears are undefeated, they are only winning games by a margin of 7.25 points a game in a schedule that has included FCS foe UC Davis.  This margin of victory is rather troubling given their early season schedule.  California ranks 99th in scoring offense, but does rank 26th in scoring defense.  California has a tough two game stretch beginning tonight vs Arizona State and then at Oregon.  

The Golden Bears still have home dates with Washington State and USC and a road game against Utah awaiting them.  History has shown that the playoff committee generally views the Pac-12 as one of the bottom power five conferences, so California will not be able to afford any mistakes.  However, an undefeated Golden Bears team would be next to impossible to leave out, so if they can keep winning they will be in fine shape.  

*NOTE - California loss Friday night's game against PAC 12 foe Arizona State 24-17.

Status:  Moderate Contender


Another Pac-12 team that is shaping up as a contender.  Oregon's opening six point loss to Auburn will continue to look better if Auburn continues to win.  In fact, it would be advantageous to Oregon's playoff hopes if Auburn won the SEC.  Justin Herbert ranks 20th nationally in passing yards per game and has already faced what will most likely be the toughest defense he plays against in the regular season.  The defense has only allowed 42 points all year with 27 of those coming against Auburn.  

Oregon has an extra week to prepare for California with a bye this week.  The Golden Bears are the highest ranked team remaining on the Ducks schedule.  However, the Ducks do have two conference road games against ranked opponents in Washington and USC.  If Oregon was to win the Pac-12 as a one loss team, they would stand a good chance of making the playoffs, especially with a little help.

Status:  Moderate Contender


Texas has an early season loss to LSU on their resume, but with the level LSU is playing at this doesn't seem that bad.  Oklahoma is getting most of the hype in the Big-12 with their heisman contending quarterback, but Texas has their own heisman contender in Sam Ehlinger.  The Longhorns, already with one loss, can't really afford anymore losses, so they could conceivably have to beat Oklahoma twice (once in the regular season, once in the championship game).  Texas hosts number 24 Kansas State and has to travel to Ames to play Iowa State in consecutive weeks in November.  Avoid hiccups in these two games and find a way to slow Jalen Hurts enough to beat the Sooners and Texas likely plays in the playoffs this season.

Status:  True Contender

Penn State

Given Michigan's struggles so far, Penn State seems like the team with the best shot of beating out Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big-10.  The Nittany Lions have a tough road game tonight against Maryland and in two weeks have an even tougher road game at Iowa.  Throw in road games against Michigan State and Ohio State later in the season and Penn State's schedule shapes up extremely tough.  The one perk on this schedule is that Penn State does not have to play Wisconsin.  Penn State will have to play better offensively than they did against Pittsburgh, when the Nittany Lions only managed 17 points, to keep up in the Big-10.

Status:  Sight Contender


Another undefeated team in the Big-10 with a shot at derailing Wisconsin and Ohio State's playoff hopes.  Iowa has to travel to Michigan to play the Wolverines, but get Penn State at home.  Iowa's toughest remaining game on their schedule is a road trip to Madison to play the Badgers on 11-9.  This game will likely decide the Big-10 West.  Iowa does not have to play Ohio State, unless they were to meet in the championship game.  Iowa is 6th nationally allowing only 10.3 points per game.  The offense will need to continue to improve, if Iowa wants to find a way into the playoffs.

Status:  Moderate Contender

Boise State

This final team on my list is a true sleeper in the playoff race.  The committee has already shown that a group of five team will struggle to make the playoffs.  However, if it were to happen this year Boise State has the best chance.  The Broncos have a road win over a power five team, but if Florida State continues to struggle this win will have less meaning.  Also, the Mountain West has shown they're not just one team deep with Air Force beating Colorado and Wyoming beating Missouri.  To have any playoff chance Boise State will have to finish undefeated and hope some of the power five conferences finish with two loss champions.  The Broncos still have a non-conference matchup at BYU which is likely their toughest remaining game.

Status:  Slight Contender

There is an early season look at some of the sleeper teams we could be talking about in November.  Of course the contenders vs pretenders will continue to change as the season progresses.

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