NCAAF
October 27, 2020
BY Calvin McAlee

College Football Playoff: Contenders and Pretenders

Just two months into the college football season and some teams, like BYU, have already played six games. Other teams, like Oregon, have yet to even step on the field. With the Big Ten finally kicking off their season last week and the PAC-12 ready to hit the gridiron this weekend, it's time to start thinking about the College Football Playoff. 

In the Big Ten, Ohio State and Wisconsin opened their season with impressive performances. For potential CFP contenders in the PAC-12, like Oregon and USC, we will see what they are actually made of this weekend. 

For other Power 5 Conferences like the ACC, SEC, and Big 12, we have seen plenty of games to know which teams are actually legit contenders and which ones are pretenders. 

Which programs are championship contenders and which are just pretenders?

Contenders

Clemson Tigers

There's no surprise here. The consensus No. 1 team in the country, the Clemson Tigers are almost surely a lock to be in the CFP again this season. The Tigers have two potential Heisman finalists in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne. 

The Tigers have blown out all of their opponents so far this season, including then No. 7 Miami (FL). Looking at the rest of their schedule, Notre Dame is likely the only serious threat. Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech could be tougher competition but certainly not enough to take the Tigers down.

An undefeated regular season is likely to happen again and even if they fall to Notre Dame and then win out —  including the ACC Championship Game — the Tigers are still likely to find a way into the CFP.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Some people actually believed that Alabama would be in for a down year because of the departures of Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy, among others. Well, the offense actually looks just as good if not better this season. Mac Jones has proven to be a more than capable quarterback. It also helps to have two future first-round picks at wide receiver in Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith. Losing Waddle for the season is a blow but John Metchie III will do well to fill in as the second receiver on this team. 

Bama’s defense isn’t as good as it has been in the past and this could be an issue once they start playing top-tier offenses. Looking at the rest of their schedule, there is no serious threat remaining among LSU, Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas or Mississippi State. Sure, one team could play them tough but like Clemson, Alabama should march through their schedule undefeated.

In the CFP, teams like Clemson and Ohio State could be too much for that defense to handle, though.

Ohio State Buckeyes

They have only played one game so far this season so it is hard to really grade this team. However, in that one game, against a Nebraska team that should be decent this season, the Buckeyes easily looked like a CFP contender. Justin Fields will likely be a Heisman finalist this year as well. Aside from Fields, that Ohio State offense has some serious weapons in Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Master Teague and Trey Sermon.

Similar to Bama, the defense might be in for a good-but-not-great year. Aside from Chase Young, this defense lost a lot of key pieces from last season. After letting Nebraska march right down the field on the opening drive of the game, the defense stepped up to hold them to just 17 points. It’s too early to get a real read on this team, but all signs through one game point to another CFP appearance for the Buckeyes.

Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia is the highest-ranked one-loss team in the country at No. 5 and there's a reason for that. They’re good. Other than their loss to Alabama, Georgia outscored its opponents 108-37. No, they didn’t play cupcake teams, either, battling Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee. In their game against Alabama, they went into the half leading 24-20 before collapsing and losing 41-24.

Quarterback Stetson Bennett had a rough game against Alabama, throwing three interceptions. But outside of that game, he has done very well this season. We know Georgia is a team with a great defense and that they can run the ball. Bennett will be the difference between a CFP appearance or a down year. Florida should be the only hurdle standing between Georgia and the SEC Championship Game.

A rematch with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game would give Georgia a chance at the CFP with a win.

Wisconsin Badgers

One of the most impressive performances in college football last week came from the Wisconsin Badgers. They destroyed Illinois by a whopping 38 points. The Badgers’ defense didn’t allow a single point as the Illinois touchdown came off of a fumble return for a touchdown. Illinois totaled just 218 yards in the entire game. Even more impressive than the defense, was quarterback Graham Mertz, who went 20/21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns. 

Mertz reportedly tested positive for COVID this week which is a huge blow to Wisconsin. If he needs to sit out the 21 days as mandated by the Big Ten, Mertz will miss contests against Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. The first two might not be an issue, but they will need him against Michigan.

Even without Mertz, that defense should still give them a chance to win without him until his return. A healthy Wisconsin team could potentially steal the Big Ten from Ohio State this season.

Michigan Wolverines

One of the most anticipated games of the week for the Big Ten was the contest between Michigan and Minnesota. Minnesota is expected to have an elite offense. For Michigan, many wondered how new quarterback Joe Milton would perform. Well, he performed better than expected and that Michigan defense stifled that supposedly dangerous Minnesota attack.

Milton is a dual-threat quarterback who should prosper in this Michigan offense. Running backs Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet provide an excellent one-two punch. For Michigan to make a legit run at the CFP this year, Milton will have to win with his arms as well as his legs. Also, the offensive line has to give him the time to do so.

An impressive win against a team that will finish the year ranked is a good start to the season. For now, they deserve a spot on the contender list but their contest against Wisconsin in a few weeks will be the true test.

BYU Cougars

Perhaps the most surprising of the contenders, BYU is a team that should not be overlooked. Currently ranked No. 11 with a 6-0 record, the Cougars have a legit shot at finding a way into the CFP. Due to not playing in a Power 5 conference, the Cougars will likely need some help from teams above them in order to get in. Either way, this is a team nobody, no matter how good, wants to overlook.

Quarterback Zach Wilson should be a Heisman finalist this season. Wilson has completed 78.3% of his passes for 1,928 yards and 16 touchdowns with only one interception. He has also scored six touchdowns on the ground. Unfortunately for BYU, the pandemic cost them a number of games against Power 5 teams this season. Aside from a game against UTSA, BYU has been dominant in all of their games. They will likely need some help to get into the CFP, even with an undefeated season (which they will likely get) but this team still deserves some recognition.

They will show their true talent in a New Year’s Six Bowl against a team like Oklahoma State.

Pretenders

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame is somewhat like the Dallas Cowboys in how every year there seems to be so much hype surrounding them but in the end, nothing really comes from it. This year, Notre Dame has already climbed its way up to the No. 4 ranking. Playing in the ACC this year, Notre Dame will have a chance to compete with the truly elite teams this year like Clemson.

Notre Dame squeaked by Duke 27-13 to open the season. Then, after blowing out a weak South Florida team, the Fighting Irish struggled with two weak teams in Florida State and Louisville. After escaping Louisville 12-7, Notre Dame took down Pitt 45-3.

Their Nov. 7th contest against Clemson will show whether or not this Notre Dame team is different and can actually have a shot at the title — but don’t count on it.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State entered this season with a lot of hype as well and many expected running back Chuba Hubbard to be a Heisman finalist. Hubbard is putting together a respectable season but the quarterback play from a rotating carousel of players has not been good.

The Cowboys narrowly escaped Tulsa in their season opener. Then they needed a last-minute touchdown to pull away from West Virginia. After blowing out Kansas, the worst Power 5 team in the country, OSU snuck one out against Iowa State. In a season where the Big 12 is certainly having a down year, an undefeated team in this conference isn’t as appealing as in the past. Oklahoma State still has some solid teams to play in Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas, TCU and Baylor. While none of those programs are exactly top-tier teams, at least one of them will be able to dethrone a questionable Cowboys’ team.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Cincinnati started the season ranked 14th in the country thanks to some major conferences postponing the start of their campaign. Now, at 4-0, somehow the Bearcats are ranked No. 7. After beating FCS Austin Peay, Cincinnati edged out Army in an ugly 24-10 game. Then Cincinnati took down South Florida by 21. Their really only impressive performance this season came in their most recent game when they beat SMU 42-13.

Cincinnati’s offense has looked ugly at times this season. Quarterback Desmond Riddler is a very inconsistent quarterback that makes some very poor choices at times. Barely completing 60% of his passes, Riddler has seven touchdowns to go along with four interceptions. He showed in the SMU game that he has the ability to do damage with his legs but his inability to be a consistent thrower will be the downfall for this team. With high-scoring offenses like Memphis, Houston and UCF still to play, Cincinnati will have a hard time scoring enough consistently to beat all of those teams, unless their defense plays on a god-like level.

Texas A&M Aggies

When your only loss of the year is against Alabama, like the case is for Georgia, there is nothing to be ashamed of. However, beating Vanderbilt by five and Mississippi State by 14 is something to be ashamed of. Like Notre Dame, we once again see an A&M team that is over-ranked and will likely show how true that is in the coming weeks.

The Aggies did have a big comeback win against Florida, but other than that, there really isn’t much this team has done to suggest they can compete with the elite in the country. Every team remaining on the Aggies’ schedule could be a potential “upset." Already a game and a half behind Alabama in the SEC East, it is hard to fathom a scenario where the Aggies get a chance at the SEC Championship Game. Another loss or two for the Aggies seems likely.

Florida Gators

The team that Texas A&M beat, Florida, was likely a contender up until that loss to the Aggies. Having played just three games so far this season, the Gators looked legit after two wins against Ole Miss and South Carolina to start their season. Quarterback Kyle Trask is a possible Heisman finalist. Tight end Kyle Pitts is the best in the country and a scary target for opposing defense. Offensively, this Florida team is legit. It’s the defense that makes them a pretender.

Defensively, the Gators have been terrible through three games. Ole Miss put up over 600 yards and a questionable South Carolina offense tallied 24 points. Then, the Gators’ defense choked away a win against the Aggies, allowing 543 total yards and 41 points (24 of those points in the final 19 minutes). In the SEC, a strong defense is a must and Florida just doesn’t have that. They can continue to beat up on weak teams but once they play Georgia, they will be in trouble as their offense won’t be able to bail them out. 

Miami Hurricanes

When D’Eriq King transferred to Miami, many thought he would be the one to help turn this program around. So far, he has done well to put this team on the map. Statistically, King is having a solid season and making a lot of impressive plays. However, his offensive line is a disaster and the rest of the offense outside of King is almost non-existent.

The Miami defense is a very good unit that will give Miami a chance to beat almost any team in the country. When they play the elite teams, though, that isn’t the case as Clemson destroyed Miami in a game some experts thought Miami could win.

Over their last three games, the Hurricanes have scored just 67 points. While that isn’t terrible, it’s nothing to be proud of, either. Once you stop King, you stop this entire Hurricanes offense.

North Carolina Tar Heels

North Carolina is another team many experts expect to have a big season. They opened their season with a respectable 31-6 win against a bad Syracuse team. Then, they struggled to narrowly beat Boston College. Their best performance of the season came against Virginia Tech when they won 56-45. Tech was missing a number of key starters in that game so that is one to take with a grain of salt. They followed up their impressive win with an ugly loss to a bad Florida State team.

The Tar Heels just took down in-state rival NC State last week in another solid performance. The offense is the key for this team as their defense is as vulnerable as any in the ACC. The loss against Florida State likely ended their CFP chances as a contest against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game is going to be a hard goal to reach. Games against Notre Dame and Miami will be their toughest, but even Virginia or Wake Forest could upset the Tar Heels because of their defense.

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