- These 25 teams have the strongest playoff cases in the country entering Week 1—but there are two sides to every argument.
It’s that time of year again: College football’s preseason rankings will no doubt look nothing like the ones that matter in December, and yet we lap them up in mid-August as table-setters for a new season. There looks to be no dominant team that will wipe the floor with the rest of the country, and no less than seven or eight teams have a legitimate chance of ending up taking in the confetti in Atlanta on Jan. 8, but every team who cracks the preseason rankings can talk itself into a conceivable playoff path.
Each of the top teams have questions that will certainly be answered as the season kicks into gear. Will Alabama’s last-second title loss to Clemson be the motivation to get the Crimson Tide to the playoffs for a fourth straight year? Has Ohio State solved its offensive problems? Is USC the real deal behind Heisman candidate Sam Darnold? Will a dark horse threaten and possibly even join the playoff regulars?
Below are the preseason power rankings (which exist for a different purpose than SI’s Preseason Top 25), along with one reason why each team will and won’t make college football’s final four.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The Crimson Tide are the only program to appear in each of the first three College Football Playoffs. And they do like their traditions in Tuscaloosa.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The way the national runners-up have been fêted from February to August, is there really any way they won’t make it?
Relevant number: Two, SEC losses in the last three seasons by the Crimson Tide (both to Ole Miss).
Why they will make it to the playoff: J.T. Barrett’s leadership ensures the offense won't take any weeks off under new coordinator Kevin Wilson, while the defense proves to be the difference in getting the Buckeyes through the Big Ten.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The “offensive” performance against Clemson in last year’s national semifinal could hang over this team if things don’t run smoothly right away.
Relevant number: 194, games it took head coach Urban Meyer before one of his teams was shut out, thanks to the aforementioned 31–0 beatdown at the hands of eventual champ Clemson.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Heisman frontrunner Sam Darnold looks poised to continue slicing and dicing defenses through the air.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The extent of that slicing and dicing depends on a rebuilt offensive line that is replacing both tackles, and the Trojans need a few of their young receivers to step up and become a go-to target alongside junior Deontay Burnett.
Relevant number: 11, years since “Tailback U” has produced a first-team All-America at that position.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Elite talent all over the field is an entry-level requirement in a team’s ability to compete for championship. Make no mistake: The Seminoles are loaded.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Florida State won’t go anywhere if the offensive line continuously has to scrape quarterback Deondre Francois off the turf. Francois was sacked 34 times and lost four fumbles last season.
Relevant number: 35, consecutive bowl appearances for FSU, which is the best streak in college football history.
Why they will make it to the playoff: QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley are just the headliners in coordinator Joe Moorhead's deep stable of offensive skill players.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: There is no room for error. The Nittany Lions have to beat Ohio State on Oct. 28 and Michigan the week before that.
Relevant number: 600, total weeks Penn State has appeared in the AP Poll after preseason rankings came out Monday.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The triplets of quarterback Mason Rudolph, wide receiver James Washington and running back Justice Hill will absolutely light up defenses this season.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: As is almost always the case in the Big 12, it’s the defense. The Cowboys return only five starters from a unit that ranked 92nd in total defense a year ago.
Relevant number: 18, wins the Cowboys have over primary Big 12 challenger Oklahoma in 111 all-time meetings.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Most of the Pac-12 heavy hitters come to Seattle this year, plus Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin should keep the offense humming in case the defense takes a step back after losing a boatload of NFL talent.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The dreaded playoff hangover—only Alabama and Clemson have made back-to-back appearances in the College Football Playoff’s brief three-year history.
Relevant number: .826, Chris Peterson’s career winning percentage. Only four other head coaches have won more often.
Why they will make it to the playoff: If the Sooners find capable replacements for departed playmakers Dede Westbrook, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, the steady play of Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield should put them on track for a serious run. Shoring up a defense that was leaky at times last year will also be key.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The road schedule from hell: The Sooners play Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Ohio State (in Week 2) all away from Norman, in addition to the annual matchup with Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Relevant number: 196.39, Mayfield’s passing efficiency in 2016, which broke the FBS record set by Russell Wilson in ’11.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The defense will be stout as usual, but the Tigers’ offense has been giving out gifts like it’s Christmas the past few years—and Clemson still has been to two straight title games. That turnover-happy approach won’t work this year.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The offense, which is expected to be solid under presumed starting QB Kelly Bryant, fails to consistently generate points.
Relevant number: 26, combined college pass attempts that Clemson’s quarterbacks have thrown in a college game.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Competent quarterback play is the key here. Derrius Guice will run over lesser opponents, and starter Danny Etling doesn't have to light the world on fire, but LSU must have some semblance of a passing game to get past Auburn and Alabama.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: If the Tigers think they can throw it for 200 yards a game, they might as well make reservations to the Texas Bowl.
Relevant number: .128, LSU’s fourth-down conversion rate in 2016, the worst in the FBS.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The arrival of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a Baylor transfer, has given the Tigers the offensive potential to dream of dethroning Alabama in the SEC West.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Someway, somehow, the defense needs to find a way to get to the opposing quarterback with Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams in the pros.
Relevant number: Three, consecutive Iron Bowl losses to Alabama.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The rest of the Big Ten West shouldn't be much of an obstacle as Wisconsin tries to make it back to the conference championship game, and the Badgers miss Ohio State and Penn State on the schedule.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Wisconsin has relied on its running game for years, but quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been given the keys to offense. His consistency or lack thereof might be the difference between a special season and a mediocre one.
Relevant number: 2014, the last time Wisconsin led the Big Ten in rushing.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Jim Harbaugh won't waste all that talent on defense. Michigan also plays Ohio State at home this season.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: That brutal schedule leading up to The Game. The Wolverines open against Florida and face tough Big Ten road tests at Penn State and Wisconsin.
Relevant number: 37, third-down attempts out of 176 that opponents converted against Michigan in 2016.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The Bulldogs’ defense is good enough to win the SEC East, and if the offense, especially the line, makes even a slight improvement, this team could end up in Atlanta ... twice.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Road trips to Notre Dame, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech are enough to derail any team’s championship dreams.
Relevant number: Two, rank of Georgia’s strength of schedule in 2017, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Why they will make it to the playoff: There's little anyone can do to stop Lamar Jackson from being the dynamic player he was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy last fall.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Did anyone watch the last three games of 2016? Louisville's good is great, but its bad is ... bad.
Relevant number: 22, fumbles lost by the Cardinals last season, four more than any other team in the nation.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Never count out a Bill Snyder team, whether critics think the Wildcats have championship-caliber talent or not.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: The Wildcats don’t have championship-caliber talent.
Relevant number: 78, Snyder’s age; the next oldest FBS coach is 72.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Stanford’s title hopes depend on the efficiency of quarterback Keller Chryst and a veteran line to help keep the offense moving in a positive direction.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Washington and USC are standing in Stanford’s way. While they’re always a tough out, the Cardinal may be outgunned this year.
Relevant number: 11, rank of Stanford’s offense in the Pac-12 last season, averaging just 367.1 yards per game.
Why they will make it to the playoff: If the running game somehow finds success, and the Hurricanes handle their business in a winnable Coastal Division, everything's on the table.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Undisciplined play; the Hurricanes have been penalized 216 times in the past two seasons. Last year’s average of 7.31 flags per game landed them 107th in the country.
Relevant number: 13, seasons since the Hurricanes last won 10 or more games.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Running the table is a real possibility, but from there they need total chaos in the rest of the country. Not out of the question.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Name the last Group of Five team to be one of the last four teams standing.
Relevant number: 82.8, plays per game the Bulls’ defense spent on the field in 2016.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Newcomer and Notre Dame grad Malik Zaire should give a much-needed boost to a stagnant offense. Florida’s kicking specialists are the best in college football, if they need to play the field position game or attempt a late field goal.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: They plan to replicate the top-20 defense of a year ago, but the Gators are replacing eight starters on that side of the ball.
Relevant number: Seven, players suspended for the season opener vs. Michigan for a violation of team rules, including leading receiver Antonio Callaway.
Why they will make it to the playoff: The Mountaineers have talent in quarterback Will Grier and running back Justin Crawford, but the new receivers Grier will be throwing to could surprise some folks in Big 12 country.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Turnover has prompted the word “rebuild” to be thrown around in Morgantown, so asking them to win 10 games again and finish higher than sixth in the conference might be a stretch.
Relevant number: Five, the over/under on how many meltdowns head coach Dana Holgorsen will have on the sidelines.
Why they will make it to the playoff: See South Florida.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Again, see South Florida.
Relevant number: Nine, turnovers forced by Boise State’s defense in 13 games last season.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Because no one will be able to stop veteran quarterback Luke Falk and his 70 pass attempts a game.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Because Washington State will throw it 70 times a game. Case in point: The Cougars threw it more than anyone else in college football last season. Their yards per completion? Dead last out of 128 teams (10.09).
Relevant number: Zero, wins in Mike Leach’s first five season openers at Washington State.
Why they will make it to the playoff: A veteran-laden team under a new voice like Tom Herman could make things very interesting in a Big 12 where anyone can beat anyone.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: If anything happens to incumbent quarterback Shane Buechele, another losing season could be on the horizon.
Relevant number: Six, offensive coordinators the Longhorns have had in the past six years.
Why they will make it to the playoff: Asking a redshirt freshman to lead a program to the promised land isn’t entirely impossible, but the Hokies will need a heavy dose of the running back and keep scores reasonably low to help Josh Jackson out and have any chance.
Why they won’t make it to the playoff: Jackson needs to settle into an offense in overhaul mode, and quickly. That's a big ask.
Relevant number: 23, seasons coordinator Bud Foster has been at the helm of the Hokies’ defense.
Maybe next week: Utah, Tennessee, Colorado, TCU, NC State.