The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism—at least one Power 5 conference champion is left on the outside looking in every year, and in 2016 Western Michigan learned that for many teams even an undefeated regular season is no guarantee of a shot at a national championship.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, SI.com will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. Up first: the ACC.
Atlantic Coast Conference
2016 champion: Clemson
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Five
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Six
Clemson: The defending national champions get one game (vs. Kent State) to get their new quarterback (all signs point to junior Kelly Bryant) up to speed before September turns ugly: Auburn, at Louisville, a brief respite hosting Boston College, then at Virginia Tech. Luckily, the 2017 defense should be even better than the unit that last year gave Deshaun Watson some time to settle in after a shaky start.
You’ve likely heard about the havoc the loaded defensive line is expected to wreak, but that hype has overshadowed two invaluable veteran playmakers up the middle behind them: middle linebacker Kendall Joseph, the team’s leading returning tackler, and free safety Van Smith, the only returnee with multiple interceptions a year ago. The Nov. 11 visit from Florida State could remain a de facto ACC title game even if the Tigers stumble in one of those early tests.
Florida State: Aside from that trip to Clemson, the Seminoles have a manageable slate away from Doak Campbell Stadium after the neutral-site season opener against Alabama. But plenty of trouble comes through Tallahassee, especially in the first two months of the season: Miami and NC State have the defensive line talent to send the Seminoles out of September with two losses, and in mid-October Lamar Jackson and Louisville will arrive looking to replicate last year’s 43-point beatdown. Florida State has a lot of receiving production to replace, but Jimbo Fisher will probably take that problem over the offensive line injuries and inconsistencies that ran quarterback Deondre Francois ragged at times last year. Junior center Alec Eberle & Co. have pledged to give Francois time to breathe in year two as the starter, but you can’t build a clean pocket out of pledges.
Away from the line of scrimmage, the Seminoles have a trendy Heisman sleeper in safety Derwin James, one of the best freshmen in the country in five-star running back Cam Akers and blue-chip talent everywhere else on the field—plenty of weaponry to hold up their preseason top-four ranking.
Louisville: If Lamar Jackson is protected well enough to stay around the Heisman conversation, Louisville will stay around the playoff conversation. Knowing what Jackson does to a defense doesn’t necessarily give you a better chance to stop it; you just need athletes capable of running him down, like LSU and Houston had late last year. The Cardinals appear ready to once again score a truckload of points and challenge their opponents to keep up, and last year’s late-season fade that ended on a three-game losing streak will be fresh in everyone’s mind if they enter November ranked in the top 10 again.
Jaire Alexander emerged as a budding star in a shutdown cornerback role last year, and he’s one of the few non-seniors on the projected first-team defense. If Jackson’s show-stopping 2016 forced Louisville into playoff contention a year ahead of schedule, both sides of the ball have the horses to finish as strong as they start this time around.
NC State: Sure, we’ve jumped down a few pegs in terms of preseason expectations, but NC State played too many good teams tough in 2016 not to like its chances to sneak up on the rest of the Atlantic Division—think of what Penn State did to the Big Ten East a season ago as a best-case scenario. The Wolfpack were obedient extras in Jackson’s Heisman highlight reel during a blowout loss to Louisville, but they had Clemson and Florida State dead to rights in that same month span and couldn’t finish the job either time. A sweep of those three divisional opponents, however improbable, would force the committee’s hand. The Pack’s star-studded defensive line would be the equalizer in that scenario: Ends Bradley Chubb, Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro combined for 23 sacks between them last year, and seniors B.J. Hill and Justin Jones clog the middle.
Head coach Dave Doeren’s slow reconstruction project has frustrated a few fans in Raleigh, and if NC State can’t top eight wins in his fifth season, even more locals will get restless. After tearing up inferior competition only to struggle against top teams in 2016, quarterback Ryan Finley needs a breakout year if NC State wants respect outside the division.
Virginia Tech: The closer we get to the season, the more it feels like the Hokies’ Nov. 4 date with Miami will determine that division’s representative in the ACC championship game. Barring a bad loss for either team along the way, a win over the Atlantic champ in Charlotte should be enough to make the playoff, but that’s the only halfway believable route. Virginia Tech has cast its lot with redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson, who will test head coach Justin Fuente’s quarterback mentoring skills at the controls of a rebuilt offense replacing Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, two of last year’s top three receivers. The Hokies’ consistently stout defense, led by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and several talented returnees at the second level, should supply their offense with some margin for error.
Miami: Mark Richt’s first season in Coral Gables: four-game winning streak, four-game losing streak, five-game winning streak. And that was with a quarterback in his third year as the Hurricanes’ starter. It’s unlikely Brad Kaaya’s Week 1 replacement Malik Rosier will be the only player taking snaps all year—Miami seems eager to get highly-touted freshman N’Kosi Perry involved, but Rosier is more likely to spend the year as the nominal starter. Whereas the Hokies have experience at the second level on defense, the Hurricanes seem ready to dominate in the trenches and expose any shakiness in opposing offensive lines. If the Hurricanes topple Florida State in Week 3, Richt could have them hovering in the back half of the top 10 ahead of those pivotal early November home games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.