Not every conference makes the College Football Playoff. And whatever teams do make the playoff will do so on the strength of more than one player or one coach.
But since it’s the summer, and since we can, here’s a look at arguments for the most impactful player and coach in each conference’s hunt for a spot in the sport’s final four.
Player: Greg Ward, Jr., QB, Houston. Replicating or improving upon his 2015 season (3,936 combined passing and rushing yards) is perhaps the only way a team from this league will have enough juice to make a Group of Five push toward the playoff.
Coach: Phil Snow, defensive coordinator, Temple. The Owls ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense in 2015 (20.1 points allowed per game) but had tackle machine Tyler Matakevich in the middle. If Snow can figure out a way to replace a star and maintain that stinginess, then perhaps Temple has at least a long shot of running a regular season schedule that doesn’t include Houston and then stifling the Cougars in the AAC title game.
Player: Florida State’s next starting quarterback. Deshaun Watson may be the league’s best player, but the Seminoles’ starter will either be good enough to do enough to lift a playoff-caliber roster into contention … or Clemson won’t face much to derail it from a second straight trip to the final four.
Coach: Mark Richt, head coach, Miami. If the first-year coach and his staff can squeeze all the potential out of quarterback Brad Kaaya and coach up the offensive line, then he’s got a club that has opportunities to jumble the race to a playoff spot. Miami has Florida State and North Carolina at home, plus a road date with Notre Dame, all potential statement games in the regular season.
Player: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. I wanted to pick someone other than Mayfield. Like maybe someone on the Sooners’ defense, given the offenses that it will face. But it’s Mayfield because when Houston and Ohio State are on the non-conference schedule and the regularly scheduled Big 12 fireworks follow, someone has to trigger the offense to outpace the competition.
Coach: Jim Grobe, acting head coach, Baylor. I’ll stipulate that not too many folks outside of Waco currently concern themselves with the Bears’ wins and losses, given the revelations regarding the team’s non-football behavior and the school’s woeful handling of it. But even if you couldn’t care less, there is nevertheless a season to play. If interim coach Grobe steadies things, this is an outfit that can beat Oklahoma on the road on Nov. 12 and, well, create a lot of very interesting headlines heading into the playoff.
Player: Jabrill Peppers, LB/S/All-purpose, Michigan. The winner of the Big Ten East will again be favored in the league championship game and thus be a favorite for a playoff invite. Peppers could be the uncommon player who will be deployed in such a fashion to make game-changing impacts singlehandedly. He has enough talent to do exactly that.
Coach: Brad Salem, quarterbacks coach, Michigan State. The Spartans have depth at running back, enough returning experience on the offensive line and a ton of potential to be exceptional on defense. What they don’t have is a starting quarterback who won 34 career games, as Connor Cook did. The toughest road game is Week 3 at Notre Dame. Michigan State’s schedule, which also includes matchups with Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin, could eat a bad quarterback alive. But if there’s a prepared, solid option available, suddenly the tenor of a playoff pursuit changes.
Player: Adoree’ Jackson, CB/WR/PR, USC. Yes, Christian McCaffrey is vital, especially given Stanford’s grueling schedule. But the Trojans also have a crushing slate, starting with Alabama and continuing with road games at Stanford and Utah before September concludes. That’s a load of difficulty but also opportunity; somewhere in there, someone has to make great individual plays for the team to make its statement to the playoff selection committee. Jackson has that chance in all three phases, and if he follows through, USC should roll again.
Coach: Jonathan Smith, offensive coordinator, Washington. There’s enough back on a Huskies defense that ranked 13th nationally in 2015, allowing just 18.8 points per game. So if Smith and Co. can coax more out of sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and sophomore tailback Myles Gaskin, who already had fine debut seasons … could the Huskies upend the expected pecking order of the Pac-12? Stanford and USC come through Seattle, after all.
Player: Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama. It’s not that it doesn’t matter who the Crimson Tide’s quarterback is. It’s that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has proven adept at wringing everything out of whomever his quarterback is, so it’s at least a little moot. And Kiffin is also quite good at putting awesome skill players in spots to do awesome stuff. Ridley, who had 1,045 receiving yards as a freshman, will be in those spots. Teammate Jonathan Allen makes about as many individual plays as a defensive end can, so he bears mentioning here, but Ridley might be the guy to blow games open.
Coach: Bob Shoop, defensive coordinator, Tennessee. Shoop takes over a unit that ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense (20.0) and has the likes of defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton still in the fold. Shoop was a coveted addition, and the Volunteers are paying him $1.15 million to deliver a championship-caliber unit. With Alabama coming through Knoxville, maybe Rocky Top can shake the playoff chase at its roots.
Player: Brett Rypien, QB, Boise State. The issue in discussing playoff contention for most independents (save Notre Dame) and Group of Five teams is that there isn’t enough meat on the schedule to get them into the conversation. But if you have an ascendant quarterback like Rypien (3,353 passing yards as a freshman) in a dangerous system with a decent defense and a couple Pac-12 teams in the non-conference, would an undefeated run be enough to warrant attention? Maybe not. But the choice for this spot is Rypien because Notre Dame’s quarterback decision isn’t going to decide its season. Which brings us to…
Coach: Brian VanGorder, defensive coordinator, Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish will have enough offense regardless of who runs it—and here’s guessing DeShone Kizer takes the first snap under center in the opener at Texas—but there’s hardly anyone left on defense. And even the 2015 unit wasn’t immensely superb, averaging a middle-of-the-pack 6.5 tackles for loss per game (tied 54th nationally). VanGorder has to find answers fast. Notre Dame has a relatively front-loaded schedule and can’t outscore everyone … can it?