We are officially halfway through the season, and Louisville has surpassed all expectations and become a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. However, Louisville may – or may not – need some help down the road to complete its first ever playoff bid. And with only four teams entering the playoff, the air is going to get incredibly thin at the mountaintop, so it’ll be of interest to see how the nation plays out for Louisville’s CFP campaign.
Here are some teams to watch in the coming weeks that could challenge Louisville’s run to its first ever CFP bid.
(Click on More below for the breakdown)
Unless your team is either Clemson or Louisville, the others haven’t really received any praise for a legitimate CFP bid. For those hoping for Clemson to lose two conference games and get Louisville into the ACC Championship game, the two teams with the best shot are Florida State and Pittsburgh. Clemson will have to travel to Tallahassee for the game, and the Seminoles should expect Derwin James back on the field by then, which will be a massive boost for them. Other than that, it’s tough to really see where Clemson will slip up. NC State and Wake Forest have had impressive starts to their season, but Clemson’s talent level makes it hard to imagine they’ll drop one to either of them. Pittsburgh could be an intriguing team to test Clemson down the road with their running game and physical style, but with the game at Clemson, it’s hard to see them actually losing that one also.
The Coastal could produce some teams that can challenge for an at-large bid. North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech are three teams that have distanced themselves as the favorites in what has suddenly become a competitive division. UNC already has a solid win under its belt at Florida State, but Virginia Tech dominated the Tar Heels last week and established their presence. The Hurricanes are trying to rebuild under Georgia head coach Mark Richt, and they came very close to toppling Florida State last week if not for a blocked PAT. But a win against UNC is absolutely critical, as the Hurricanes also have a big matchup against Virginia Tech next Thursday. After that, the picture will suddenly become clearer, and the winner among those three will likely meet Clemson or Louisville in the conference championship.
Right now, we can only assume that three conferences will have their champion be represented in the CFP: SEC, Big Ten and ACC. The SEC has a few teams that could challenge one another, or potentially sneak an at-large bid in. Alabama, as most people are aware, is the perennial favorite to win the national title every year. They have a dual-threat quarterback, dominant defense and the best coach in the nation. However, they have another stout road test against Tennessee, who has had a knack of pulling off some dramatic comebacks this season. If Alabama loses against the Volunteers on Saturday, it is going to create a massive logjam for the SEC at the top, but also create an opportunity for Tennessee to move up and challenge for a playoff spot. Texas A&M could also sneak into the playoff as well, but they’ll get their turn at Alabama next week and Ole Miss relatively soon.
In my opinion, the Big Ten has the most teams with a legitimate shot at making the College Football Playoff, and could possibly get two in to shut Louisville out. Ohio State is possibly the best team in that conference with Heisman Trophy contender J.T. Barrett, but now they enter their serious meat of the schedule. The Buckeyes have two major tests on the road coming up against Wisconsin and Penn State.
While they haven’t had the impressive schedule that Ohio State does up to this point, Michigan is also a team that could challenge for the conference title, or possibly an at-large bid. The Wolverines have a road test at Michigan State on October 29th, which if the Wolverines lose to Sparty, could eliminate the Big Ten’s potential of getting an at-large bid into the playoffs. Nebraska has quietly snuck into the top ten, but their most impressive win so far is a 35-32 victory over Oregon in mid-September. The Cornhuskers, though, will have some opportunities to bolster their resume, starting with a tough road game at Indiana. Nebraska also has a tough road trip at Wisconsin, who has been the surprise of the Big Ten. The Badgers have an outstanding defense that, if they can win against Ohio State, could create some chaos within the conference.
The Pac-12 lacks multiple teams that can contend for the CFP, but also holds the one that has grabbed Louisville fans’ attention the most. Washington entered this season as a team that, like Louisville, entered the season ranked, but had to prove their worth to stay there. So far, Washington has dominated seemingly everyone on their schedule, including a 44-6 trouncing of Stanford and a 70-21 win at Oregon in the last couple of weeks. The Huskies have a bye this week, but if Louisville fans are looking for a game they will slip up in, keep an eye on their October 29th matchup at Utah. The Utes are always tough to play at home, and head coach Kyle Whittingham has had a history of finding a way to win big games in Salt Lake City. The Huskies also have two interesting games at Cal and at home against USC in early November, but their schedule seems favorable for them to win out and become a contender.
But like the Pac-12, the Big XII has also lacked a legitimate threat to the CFP up to this point. Right now, Baylor and West Virginia are the only two teams that are undefeated, but most have wondered if the Bears and Mountaineers are actually the best teams in the conference. Baylor still has an exciting offense and great playmakers on offense, but struggling to put away Iowa State could raise some concerns going forward against teams like TCU and Oklahoma. West Virginia has quietly taken care of business around them, but they will face their first major test against Texas Tech and their star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Speaking of, Oklahoma still stands to be the favorite in the conference, in spite of two early losses to Houston and Ohio State. The Sooners have a solid offense, and with the tough out-of-conference schedule in the rear-view mirror, Bob Stoops could be gearing for another Big XII title run with playmakers like receiver Dede Westbrook and Samaje Perine leading the charge. TCU is also a team to watch in the coming weeks, as they have pushed Oklahoma and Arkansas to the limit in the last few weeks. But as it stands, the Big XII will likely need some help with teams above them falling out, and hoping that a team like Baylor or WVU can keep rolling and push for a CFP bid.
Group of Five:
With Houston coming up short on the road against Navy, Louisville’s Thursday night matchup against them loses some of the luster that most had projected after they beat Oklahoma in the season-opener. It would still be a solid win for Louisville, but it will not carry as much weight now that Houston is no longer undefeated. Houston could, theoretically, still be a contender for a New Year’s Six Bowl down the road, but unless something drastic happens, don’t expect anyone from the Group of Five to be a legitimate playoff contender.
Do keep an eye on Western Michigan and Boise State. Those Broncos teams (both are nicknamed that, indeed) are really good, and will likely challenge Houston for the Group of Five bid. WMU probably has the best receiver you’ve never heard of in Corey Davis, and already has two wins against Big Ten teams (22-21 against Northwestern, 34-10 against Illinois). Boise State has returned as a perennial contender for those New Year’s Six Bowls, and has a solid QB/WR pairing in Brett Rypien and Thomas Sperbeck.