• Notre Dame's Cotton Bowl appearance made it an even 10 schools that have played their way into the playoff in its five-year history. Which programs look to be next up to crack the final four? Plus, mayonnaise advice and the rest of this week's #DearAndy mailbag.
By Andy Staples
February 13, 2019

Everyone is tired of the same few teams making the College Football Playoff, but it’s never too early to begin imagining some new blood…

From Mitchell: Biggest “dark horse” to make the College Football Playoff?

Dark horse is a tough term to use when talking about College Football Playoff teams, because the system makes it very difficult to come out of nowhere. The five years of data we have tell us that a team either needs to win a Power 5 conference or finish second in the strongest Power 5 conference to make the playoff. The last team to come from nowhere to do that was Auburn in 2013, which went from 0–8 in the SEC in 2012 to SEC champ and BCS title game participant. But even then, the Tigers were only three years removed from a national title. So they didn’t exactly feel like a dark horse.

The question with a more satisfying answer is probably: Which team has a chance to join the playoff club?

So far, the following teams have made the College Football Playoff: Alabama (five times), Clemson (four times), Oklahoma (three times), Ohio State (twice), Florida State (once), Oregon (once), Michigan State (once), Washington (once), Georgia (once) and Notre Dame (once). Notre Dame is the newest, joining the club last year and pushing membership into double digits. So who’s next? Here’s a list of teams that could be strong candidates.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions were very close in 2016 and ’17 but took a step back in ’18. Quarterback Trace McSorley is gone, but the Nittany Lions feel like they have capable replacements in Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford. Plus, Ricky Slade could be fun to watch as a feature back, and K.J. Hamler is a threat to break loose every time he catches the ball. More importantly, we should really begin to see the full power of James Franklin’s recruiting prowess along both lines of scrimmage. These positions take time to develop, but enough time has elapsed now. The departure of Urban Meyer from Ohio State doesn’t mean the Buckeyes won’t continue to rule the Big Ten, but it does mean there is an opportunity for someone else to take command. Penn State could be that team.

Michigan: The way the Wolverines ended the season makes them feel farther from the playoff than they actually are. They’ll probably have to solve the Buckeyes to get there, but with Meyer gone, that might tilt the balance of power. Michigan brings back a lot of production and will be led by a senior quarterback (Shea Patterson). An October stretch that includes a visit to Penn State followed by a matchup with Notre Dame in Ann Arbor should tell us whether the Wolverines can contend for a playoff berth.

Texas: The Longhorns beat Oklahoma in the regular season and then creamed Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, and they bring back a lot of the players—specifically quarterback Sam Ehlinger and receiver Collin Johnson—who helped create a renaissance in 2018. They’ll get a chance to prove they belong in the playoff conversation early with a visit from LSU on Sept. 7, but their candidacy likely will come down to how they play against the Sooners in Dallas and (they hope) in Arlington. 

LSU: The Tigers bring back a lot from a team that won 10 games. The returns of defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko and defensive end Rashard Lawrence are huge. The Tigers will be deeper on the defensive line than they’ve been in years. A full offseason of Joe Burrow as the starting quarterback should help the offense develop, but the Tigers still need to be better on the line to make the playoff. They still need to beat Alabama to get where they want to go, and the way the Crimson Tide dominated LSU’s offensive line showed exactly where the Tigers need to improve to contend for a national title.

DELLENGER: Is Les Miles Ready for the Hardest Job in College Football?

As a bonus, let’s include a team that has made the playoff but could make a return after a prolonged absence. Oregon got quarterback Justin Herbert back and will be old and deep on the offensive line. The Ducks slipped last season when an ankle injury put left tackle Penei Sewell on the shelf, but Sewell will be back healthy—and Oregon should be better equipped to handle such an injury this year. The Ducks will need to beat Auburn out of the gate not only for their own chances but for the rest of the Pac-12’s as well. With Washington playing Eastern Washington, Hawaii and BYU in the non-conference, the league doesn’t have a chance at many marquee non-conference wins other than USC at Notre Dame on Oct. 12.

From Keith: What is a realistic expectation for Mack Brown at North Carolina this season?

The good news for Brown is that North Carolina can’t get much worse than it has been the past two seasons. The Tar Heels went 5–18 in those two seasons, but they probably have a better roster than that record indicates. In 2017, North Carolina had horrific injury luck. In 2018, NCAA suspensions for players selling their Jordan Brand gear kept the Tar Heels from establishing any sort of consistent lineup early. Tailback Michael Carter also broke his wrist in camp before returning to average 7.1 yards a carry in nine games.

Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo will have to pick a quarterback. Senior Nathan Elliott, junior Chazz Surratt and redshirt freshman Cade Fortin have experience. Meanwhile, true freshman Sam Howell is this staff’s first marquee recruit. Brown and his staff flipped Howell from Florida State in December after coordinator Walt Bell left the Seminoles to be the head coach at Massachusetts. The good news is that Longo’s offense is one of the simplest to learn and execute, so if the Tar Heels can narrow their choices in the spring, they should enter camp with a chance to have a quarterback who has a firm grasp of the offense by the season opener.

SINGLE: Winners and Losers of 2019 National Signing Day

The bad news is the early schedule is going to be rough. The Tar Heels may regret scheduling ACC foe Wake Forest in a non-conference game to get these two nearby schools together more frequently than the ACC schedule allows, because the result of an injury-riddled 2018 for the Demon Deacons was a more experienced 2019 team with an impressive young quarterback (Sam Hartman). Here is North Carolina’s first month: South Carolina in Charlotte, Miami, at Wake Forest, Appalachian State, Clemson.

If North Carolina can go 2–3 in that stretch, everyone in Chapel Hill should be thrilled. We don’t know if Virginia Tech is going to bounce back, and Georgia Tech is going to need some time to adjust its roster now that it’s running an offense that isn’t the triple option. The ACC Coastal is still the ACC Coastal, and NC State is a rivalry game. The Tar Heels can make a bowl game if they don’t get too beaten down by the front end of the schedule, and if they do, Mack Brown’s first year should be considered a rousing success.

From Nate: Wait, if you're against mayo what do you use for your coleslaw?

Someone always seems surprised when they learn about my vehement anti-mayonnaise stance. I do not use Satan’s pomade as a condiment, nor do I eat items where the emulsion that tastes like despair feels is prominently featured.

Nate, here is how you handle the cole slaw situation. Let’s imagine you’re at a chicken finger restaurant that serves boxes featuring fingers, fries, garlic bread and slaw along with a sauce that is just mustard and mayonnaise mixed together but called something cool so idiots don’t realize they’re eating so much mayo.

Store employee: Can I take your order, sir?

Me: One box, no slaw, double garlic bread and please jettison the sauce container into the sun so that it will stay as far away from my box of chicken fingers as possible.

That said, vinegar-based slaw is lovely. The mayo stuff? Just follow our pal Scott’s advice.

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