The four teams that ultimately made the inaugural College Football Playoff were, on the whole, boring. Sure, how each of them got there was interesting, and there was plenty of controversy in the selection process, but a field of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State lacks any real shock value. The Buckeyes squeaking in as the No. 4 seed hardly makes them a true Cinderella.
But consider what we nearly had. One week before the final rankings were released, TCU was in the projected bracket a year after finishing 4–8 and just months after being picked to place 7th in its own conference. For the first five weeks of the committee’s rankings, Mississippi State appeared playoff-bound despite coming in fifth in the SEC West in a preseason media poll.
Although the final field was full of bluebloods, year one of the playoff proved the potential for teams who begin the season outside of the Top 25 to rise into the mix. So who could be this year’s playoff dark horses? Here are six who have a shot:
The general consensus is that Boise State is the top team from outside of the Power Five conferences (excluding Notre Dame) and therefore holds the best chance of crashing the College Football Playoff. However, as SI’s Pete Thamel noted, the Broncos will face an uphill battle to simply tread water in the rankings once the playoff committee begins releasing its top 25. And the lack of a high-profile matchup against a top-tier Power Five opponent this year will prevent them from proving their worth. Even with a dearth of Power Five conference champions with one loss or less, Boise State will likely get shut out of the playoff no matter its record.
So which team from outside of the Power Five has the best playoff shot? BYU. The Cougars are set to play Nebraska, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri, giving them plenty of opportunities to show they can compete against the Power Five. They’ll also have the chance to prove they’re the best team from outside of the Power Five in home games against Boise State and American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati.
Even without running back Jamaal Williams, whom BYU announced on Thursday withdrew from school for personal reasons, the Cougars should be able to move the ball because quarterback Taysom Hill is finally healthy. Hill compiled 975 yards passing and 460 yards rushing with 15 total touchdowns while leading BYU to an undefeated start before he fractured his leg on Oct. 3 against Utah State. The Cougars return plenty of contributors on the defensive line this year but will be young in the secondary, which could become a major problem against such a daunting schedule. Still, the high degree of difficulty at least gives BYU a chance to earn itself a top four ranking.
After a successful debut season in the ACC, Louisville now looks to take the next step and contend for a conference title. That’s no easy task in the Atlantic Division with Florida State and Clemson, but the opening is there this year. If the Cardinals can capitalize, they could play their way into the top four.
Despite returning five starters, the offense should build on its 5.1 yards per play now that it’s in its second year under Bobby Petrino. When Petrino took over at Arkansas, the Razorbacks also averaged 5.1 yards per play in his first season before leaping to 6.3 in Year Two. Personnel matters, of course, but the track record for improvement is there, especially with all three quarterbacks who played last year returning in addition to the Cardinals’ top rusher, Brandon Radcliff. Most of the pieces are gone from last year’s elite defense (4.5 yards allowed per play), but Louisville isn’t as inexperienced as would be expected thanks to transfers. Key additions like former Big 12 defensive player of the year Devonte Fields and former Georgia defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons should keep the Cardinals thriving.
Louisville has an opportunity to take down Florida State or Clemson and win the division. The Seminoles are rebounding from the loss of Jameis Winston and their running game remains up in the air due to Dalvin Cook’s suspension, while Clemson’s offense is heavily dependent on Deshaun Watson’s health. The Cardinals also have a chance to score one of the marquee victories of the nonconference slate with their Week One matchup against Auburn. With enough key wins, Louisville could present a very compelling case to the selection committee.
The Cowboys will likely enter November with their playoff chances very much alive. What they do from there will define their season. After returning just eight starters last season, Oklahoma State doubles that in 2015, including quarterback Mason Rudolph, who shined (853 yards, six TDs, four INTs in three games) after taking over the starting job from Daxx Garman. Rudolph will have no shortage of targets with the Cowboys’ top three receivers all back this fall and sufficient time to throw behind an experienced offensive line. Emmanuel Ogbah gives the defense a fantastic pass rusher and Ryan Simmons leads one of the top linebacker corps in the Big 12.
Oklahoma State’s schedule sets it up to steal the conference if its talent is up to it. TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma all come to Stillwater, among the five conference home games the Cowboys will play this year. To have a legitimate chance to make the playoff, however, Oklahoma State will have to survive trips to Texas and West Virginia. If it can enter its November slate (TCU, at Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma) undefeated, a 3–1 finish might be enough. That certainly won’t be easy to do, but neither is making the playoff.
Despite going 3–5 in the SEC last year, and losing 59–0 to Alabama, the Aggies have playoff potential in 2015. With Kyle Allen under center, Kevin Sumlin’s offense should find a more consistent rhythm. If Allen struggles, highly touted true freshman Kyler Murray will be ready to step in. Regardless, the QB situation looks solid, especially when paired with the SEC’s best group of receivers, including Josh Reynolds (52 catches, 842 yards, 13 TDs), Ricky Seals-Jones (49 catches, 465 yards, four TDs), Speedy Noil (46 catches, 583 yards, five TDs) and true freshman Christian Kirk.
Texas A&M’s biggest flaw the past two years has, of course, been its defense, but the Aggies should make major strides this year with LSU guru John Chavis in charge. Whereas it’d usually be overly optimistic to expect a coordinator change to make an immediate impact in year one—Texas A&M allowed 5.9 yards per play in 2014—Chavis has plenty of talent with which to work, including standout defensive end Myles Garrett. Sumlin has recruited well, but those high-caliber recruits simply haven’t been coached and positioned to succeed. That changes with Chavis, and could change immediately.
The Aggies’ schedule also puts them in a position to contend in the SEC West, and therefore vie for a playoff spot. Alabama and Auburn both come to College Station this fall, and Texas A&M has only three true road games, including an easily winnable trip to Vanderbilt.
The Pac-12 South goes five-deep for division-title contenders, so if Utah can survive the gantlet, it could emerge a playoff hopeful. The Utes boast an elite defense and should once again contend for the nation’s top pass rush after leading the FBS in sacks last season. Although the head of last year’s sack brigade, Nate Orchard, is gone, Utah returns five players who had four or more sacks in 2014, including end Hunter Dimick, who is poised to become a star after recording 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
On offense, running back Devontae Booker gives coach Kyle Whittingham an explosive weapon. Booker, a 5'11,'' 212-pound senior, projects as one of the most powerful backs in the Pac-12, and he’ll take the pressure off whoever is under center.
The Utes benefit from five Pac-12 home games—though they struggled at home last season, losing three of four conference games—but trips to Oregon, USC and Arizona will test their ability to contend. If they can survive the season with a division title and win the Pac-12 championship game, they could make the playoff even with two losses.
The Hokies have a strong chance to go from worst to first in the ACC Coastal and could make a run to the playoff, too. Virginia Tech’s defense, stout even during last year’s 7–6 campaign, could be among the nation’s best this season. Passing against the Hokies will prove exceedingly difficult with Dadi Nicolas, Luther Maddy and Ken Ekanem pursuing the quarterback while Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson shadow receivers. Although Virginia Tech is shaky at quarterback with Michael Brewer, its rushing game should improve thanks to better health as Trey Edmunds, Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams all recover from injuries. The deceptively strong J.C. Coleman—he’s 5’6” but reportedly squats 465 pounds—is also back after averaging 5.0 yards per carry last year.
The best and worst thing for Virginia Tech’s playoff chances is its schedule. In addition to playing in the easier Coastal Division, the Hokies dodge Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in crossover games. That means there are plenty of wins to be had, but the margin for error is slim. If Virginia Tech can’t upset Ohio State in Week One, its only chance for a marquee victory in the regular season will be at Georgia Tech on Nov. 12.