As Alabama controversially proved in 2017, you don’t need to play in your conference title game to win a national championship, but the other seven College Football Playoff finalists in the format’s four-season history can attest that it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Of the 10 teams that played in Power 5 conference title games in 2017—Georgia, Auburn, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, TCU, Clemson, Miami, USC and Stanford—which ones won’t be back in their leagues’ top two by the end of November? Below, five SI writers and editors make the case for one of these teams to miss out on the chance to play for a conference crown.
Chris Johnson: Stanford. There is a very good chance that Stanford will be one of the 10 best teams in the Power 5 this season. It returns a Heisman Trophy contender at running back (Bryce Love), multiple quarterbacks with strong recruiting pedigrees (K.J. Costello and Davis Mills), most of its starting offensive line and a potential all-conference linebacker (Bobby Okereke). Only twice in the seven seasons since David Shaw took over as the Cardinal’s head coach prior to the 2011 season has Stanford won fewer than 10 games, and it feels unlikely that it’ll happen a third time this fall.
The problem for the Cardinal is that they share a division, the Pac-12 North, with a legitimate College Football Playoff contender in Washington, which will host the teams’ 2018 meeting. The rest of Stanford’s conference slate is manageable, but the North’s representative in the league title game could well be decided in Seattle on Nov. 3. That favors Washington.
Eric Single: TCU. While the other participant in last year’s Big 12 title game loses the Heisman Trophy winner from its hyper-efficient offense, TCU has its own worrisome questions to answer on that side of the ball if it wants to make a return trip to Arlington in December. Despite his propensity for the untimely implosion, Kenny Hill was a dynamic yet dependable quarterback more times than not last season. His replacement, sophomore Shawn Robinson, was the highest-ranked quarterback recruit in TCU history (until four-star Justin Rogers signed in the 2018 class, that is), but we only got to see a fraction of Robinson’s potential during a true freshman season in which he was only trusted with a stripped-down version of the offense when he was on the field.
As they wade into 2018 with Robinson, the Horned Frogs will also be breaking in four new starters along the offensive line. The Big 12 routinely punishes teams that can’t score 40 points consistently—any growing pains among Robinson and his protection will be tough to mask, even with help from a defense expected to be among the league’s best once again.
Joan Niesen: Ohio State. Even though Auburn is the simple answer, residing as it does in the same division as the defending national champs, I want to look up north, to the Big Ten, where a stacked East Division runs the risk of keeping Ohio State out of the title game. As we’ve learned in past years, that won’t necessarily doom the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes, but I do think this year will end with either Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State at the top of that division. The Big Ten East tends to cannibalize itself, and with four teams seriously talking national title contention, I don’t think the 2018 season will be an exception to that rule. Of note: Michigan State is the only of those presumptive top four teams from the East that won’t face Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin, and the Spartans bring back a ton of their 2017 production, making them especially well-positioned to bust the Buckeyes’ repeat bid.
Scooby Axson: Miami. The Hurricanes looked nothing like the team that sprinted out to a 10–0 start to the season in their final three games, all losses by double digits, including a 38–3 drubbing at the hands of Clemson in the ACC title game. Miami returns 15 starters, including several key members of last year’s excellent defense, but sustaining success in 2018 hinges on better quarterback play, whether from senior and incumbent starter Malik Rosier or whichever underclassmen establishes himself as next in line during fall camp. Replacing Mark Walton at running back won’t be easy, but Travis Homer handled the starting role capably when Walton was lost for the year with an ankle injury last fall.
The defense, which forced 31 turnovers and gave national exposure to college football’s celebratory sideline bling trend, has the potential to be the best unit in the ACC outside of Clemson. There can’t be any regression on the takeaways front if Miami plans to meet the Tigers in Charlotte again.
Daniel Rapaport: USC. There's so much talent to replace in L.A., beginning with the most important position of all. Sam Darnold is off to play on Sundays under the bright New York City spotlight, and for the first time in quite a while, the Trojans have no clear heir apparent for an NFL-bound quarterback. The three QBs on campus right now—Matt Fink, Jack Sears and walk-on Holden Thomas—have not distinguished themselves as world-beaters, which means the Week 1 starter may very well be a guy who should still be a junior in high school.
J.T. Daniels re-classified in December to move up to the class of 2018, and he appears to be the favorite to win the job, even if he won’t formally enter the quarterback battle yet until he arrives on campus this summer. Daniels has all the tools—good size, a live arm, precocious leadership that draws praise from all his coaches. He also has experience leading one of the best programs in high school football as a star at Santa Ana’s Mater Dei, the same school that produced two other USC signal callers in Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, as well as five-star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, who could be catching passes from his high school quarterback sooner than everyone thought.
It's not impossible to win with a true freshman quarterback, but in order to do so, you need creative play-calling and a coaching staff capable of guiding an 18-year-old through the ups and downs of a college football season. Head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin haven’t sold me on those skills just yet. USC will win eight or nine games on sheer talent alone, but someone other than the Trojans will represent the South in Santa Clara.