NCAAF
October 15, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

5 Teams That Could Sneak Into the College Football Playoffs

Barely a month into the college football season, it’s fair to say that this season is nothing like we ever could have imagined. The Big Ten and Pac-12 haven’t even started their seasons yet while some teams have played as many as four games.

Things have been downright crazy, and we might have only just scratched the surface of what’s to come. With that in mind, it seems possible, if not likely, that the College Football Playoff will look a lot different this year than in past years. After all, Oklahoma is all but out of the running while defending champion LSU is already on thin ice. There could be some new or unusual names crashing the CFP party in 2020, including these five sleeper teams.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Despite a sluggish start to the season offensively, Sam Howell and the Tar Heels appear to be clicking offensively after scoring 56 points against Virginia Tech last week. However, it’s not just that Howell is considered a star on the rise. Mack Brown’s team has a pair of dynamic running backs in Michael Carter and Javonte Williams and two playmakers on the outside in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. The UNC defense is also solid if unspectacular and should be good enough to keep winning games if Howell and the offense are able to keep building off of last week’s performance.

Obviously, North Carolina would eventually have to get past Clemson in the ACC Championship Game to reach the CFP. The Tar Heels also have games against Notre Dame and Miami late in the year, along with road games against Florida State and Virginia.

There are plenty of potential stumbling blocks for a program that was at the bottom of the ACC just a couple of years ago. But North Carolina’s success early in the season is no fluke and the Tar Heels are more than capable of reaching the ACC Championship Game against Clemson with a spot in the CFP on the line.

Iowa State Cyclones

If the Cyclones hadn’t lost their season opener to Louisiana, they’d be more on the radar at this point in the season. However, there’s still enough time left in the season for Matt Campbell’s team to become a factor in the CFP conversation if they can win out. A lot of the hard work is done with the Cyclones beating Oklahoma two weeks ago. Road games with Oklahoma State and Texas, as well as a home game with a ranked Kansas State team, could trip them up. But if Iowa State wins the Big 12 championship with that loss to Louisiana being their only blemish, they’ll have a strong argument for a top-four spot.

More importantly, the Cyclones are starting to look the part of a CFP contender. They knocked off Oklahoma two weeks ago and then put together a complete win over Texas Tech last week. The Red Raiders got one touchdown in garbage time and another off a blocked field goal. In the end, Iowa State allowed just 270 total yards. Meanwhile, Brock Purdy had his best game of the season, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns. If he keeps it up, the Cyclones are going places, especially with the way Breece Hall is running the ball. In other words, the ingredients are there for Iowa State to run the table and end up in the CFP.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Elsewhere in the Big 12, Oklahoma State is another sleeper to watch. The Big 12 is wide open with Texas and Oklahoma already losing two conference games. That puts the Cowboys as one of the teams in the driver’s seat for a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. Unlike Iowa State and Kansas State — who are also undefeated inside the Big 12 — the Cowboys didn’t lose a non-conference game. That gives OSU a little more leeway to lose a game during the regular season but stay alive in the CFP conversation if they can win the Big 12 title game.

With Chuba Hubbard, the Cowboys have one of the best running backs in the country leading the way. That should give the OSU offense some stability while they work out the quarterback situation with Shane Illingworth playing well while Spencer Sanders was out with an injury. With Sanders returning to full health, there is some uncertainty about who will play moving forward. But with Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace, there isn’t a bad choice.

More importantly, the Oklahoma State defense finally looks like an asset rather than a liability. The Cowboys have allowed just 27 total points over their first three games. They will face much better offensive teams than Tulsa, West Virginia and Kansas, sure, but if the Oklahoma State defense can contribute more than in past years, don’t count out the Cowboys from winning a wide-open Big 12 and becoming a CFP contender.

Wisconsin Badgers

The Big Ten hasn't kicked off their 2020 campaign yet, but the Badgers are the dark horse to come out of that conference. Defensively, they’ve got a lot coming back from a unit that shut out four teams last season. On the other side of the ball, the Badgers are also in good shape thanks to two potential options at quarterback. Jack Coan is the steady and trusted option, but he's out indefinitely with a foot injury. Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz is the more talented option and should step in nicely for Coan. The Badgers will need Mertz to play well as the Wisconsin offense will need to replace star running back Jonathan Taylor, who made the move to the NFL. 

Equally important to the equation is Wisconsin’s schedule. With just eight games, playing in the Big Ten West division should pay off more than usual. The Badgers play just two games against teams that are currently ranked in Michigan and Minnesota. It’s also likely that they’ll be favored in every game, giving them a clear path to the Big Ten Championship Game. Obviously, either Ohio State or Penn State will be waiting for them in that game. But if the Badgers can get to the conference title game and pull off an upset, they’ll be 9-0 and it’ll be difficult to keep them out of the CFP.

Cincinnati Bearcats

Considering everything that has happened in 2020, it’s not the craziest thing in the world to think that a team from outside the power conferences can crash the CFP. If a team does it this year, Cincinnati looks like the best bet. The Bearcats are off to a 3-0 start, including a win over a ranked Army team. Perhaps more important, Cincinnati will get a chance to add some impressive wins with SMU, Memphis and UCF still on its schedule. The AAC Championship Game will also give the Bearcats another quality win. If the Bearcats finish the season undefeated, they’ll be deserving of serious consideration, especially if there ends up being a limited number of one-loss teams in the mix.

It’s worth noting that Cincinnati is good enough to remain unbeaten, even with plenty of tricky games left. Luke Fickell’s teams are always strong defensively, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue to be the case for the rest of the year. The Bearcats slowed down Army’s triple-option and stifled USF. Offensively, Cincinnati has plenty to prove, but there are signs that the Bearcats can win shootouts if necessary. They have an experienced quarterback in Desmond Ridder who’s capable of making plays with his legs. If he can continue to progress as a passer and limit his turnovers, Cincinnati has a legitimate chance to remain undefeated and at least be in the conversation for a top-four spot.

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