College Football's 2017 Final Four Dark Horses

Greg WallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2017

College Football's 2017 Final Four Dark Horses

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    Can Tom Herman unlock the potential of Shane Buechele and Texas?
    Can Tom Herman unlock the potential of Shane Buechele and Texas?Michael Thomas/Associated Press

    In three years, the College Football Playoff has been a huge success. Part of its appeal? Unlike the Bowl Championship Series, its four-team format offers teams that haven't found the national spotlight in a while, or ever, to prove themselves to college fans and make an impact on a big stage.

    In 2015, Michigan State surprised many by outlasting Iowa in a classic Big Ten title game and making the playoff. Last fall, Washington rode Jake Browning's arm and a stout defense to a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth. And, of course, Clemson stunned Alabama with a final-second touchdown pass to win its first national championship since 1981.

    So it won't be surprising if a team or two emerges from the pack and makes an under-the-radar run for the College Football Playoff.

    Which programs will stand out as playoff dark horses? Let's take a look.

    Teams were selected on the basis of their returning talent base, their coaching and their strength of schedule.

    Here we go...

Auburn

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    Auburn's Gus Malzahn needs a big season from his offense in 2017.
    Auburn's Gus Malzahn needs a big season from his offense in 2017.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    2016

    Auburn and Gus Malzahn started and finished 2016 poorly en route to an 8-5 finish. The Tigers got off to a rough start with losses to eventual national champion Clemson and Texas A&M but salvaged their season with a wild 18-13 win over LSU that sparked a six-game win streak.

    A 13-7 loss to Georgia was a missed opportunity, and losses to Alabama and Oklahoma (in the Sugar Bowl) to end the season were frustrating. But even while playing three quarterbacks, Malzahn did enough to save his job and make a major bowl game.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    The Tigers return 15 starters, but the biggest addition is a guy who didn't even play football a year ago.

    Former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham was one of the biggest prizes of the transfer market, and his signing was a huge boon for Malzahn and the Tigers.

    He'll challenge Sean White for the starting role, and it'd be a surprise if the strong-armed, mobile Stidham doesn't win the job. He could energize an offense that would thrive with him under center. Auburn needs a more potent system to compete in the SEC West.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    If Stidham wins the role and teams with Kerryon Johnson in the backfield, Auburn will be a far more formidable opponent in the SEC West.

    A Sept. 9 trip to Clemson is daunting, as is a three-game road trip to LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. But finishing the season with Georgia and Alabama at home is promising.

    If the Tigers are in contention for the SEC West when the Crimson Tide comes calling, toppling them is a must for any serious hopes of playoff contention. 

Georgia

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    Is Jacob Eason ready to take Georgia on a title run?
    Is Jacob Eason ready to take Georgia on a title run?Michael Chang/Getty Images

    2016

    Georgia fans had big expectations for Kirby Smart's first season at Georgia but endured an up-and-down debut.

    The Bulldogs finished 2016 with a Liberty Bowl win over TCU but finished 8-5 with losses to rivals Tennessee (on a last-play Hail Mary), Florida and Georgia Tech.

    Quarterback Jacob Eason seized the starting role as a true freshman and threw for 2,430 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he topped the 200-yard mark in just two of his final six games.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    The Bulldogs have had a year to acclimate to Smart's systems and ways, and that could pay off this fall.

    Georgia returns 18 starters, including all 11 on the defensive side of the ball. Tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for 1,970 yards and 12 touchdowns, passed on the NFL to return for their senior seasons, and Chubb should be even better another year removed from a serious knee injury.

    If Eason can get more comfortable as a sophomore, the Dawgs can challenge for something meaningful.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    The SEC East is wide open, with both Tennessee and Florida facing uncertainty at quarterback and offensive issues.

    Georgia's schedule is tough, with a Sept. 9 trip to Notre Dame and visits to Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech. But if Chubb and Michel can take pressure off an improved Eason and an experienced defense carries a bigger load, the Bulldogs could make a surprise playoff run, given the not-so-small task of overcoming Alabama or the SEC West champion in the SEC title game.

Kansas State

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    Jesse Ertz makes plays happen in a number of ways for Kansas State.
    Jesse Ertz makes plays happen in a number of ways for Kansas State.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    2016 results

    Count out Bill Snyder and Kansas State at your own peril. The Wildcats recovered from a disappointing 6-7 season in 2015 with a solid 9-4 2016 campaign.

    K-State ended the season on a four-game win streak that included routs of TCU and Baylor and a 33-28 Houston Bowl victory over Texas A&M. Snyder's team was close to Big 12 contention, losing to Oklahoma State and West Virginia by a combined seven points.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    The Wildcats return 14 starters, led by quarterback Jesse Ertz, who proved himself a two-way threat in 2016.

    He threw for 1,755 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions but was also K-State's leading rusher with 1,012 rushing yards and 12 scores on the ground.

    The Wildcats return 14 starters (eight on offense) and get Baylor, TCU, West Virginia and Oklahoma at home while traveling to Texas and Oklahoma State.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    The Big 12 still has just 10 teams but did give its teams an edge toward playoff contention by approving the return of the league title game beginning this season.

    The round-robin schedule remains, and the top two teams will face off for the league title. How does K-State get into that conversation? First, they must find a capable replacement for defensive end Jordan Willis, who piled up 11.5 sacks, and keep Ertz upright and healthy to lead the offense.

    November, with trips to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, will be daunting. Snyder's bunch must win the close games and hold serve at home to have any shot at a playoff run.

Miami

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    Mark Richt had a solid debut season at Miami.
    Mark Richt had a solid debut season at Miami.Associated Press

    2016

    Mark Richt's debut season at Miami showed that you can go home again. The streaky Hurricanes ended the season on a five-game win streak and finished 9-4, building hope for the future with a 31-14 Russell Athletic Bowl rout of West Virginia.

    Richt proved to Georgia fans that he can still coach, and Miami fans got a dose of optimism following some frustrating campaigns under Al Golden's watch.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    Miami must replace starting quarterback Brad Kaaya, who left for the NFL following his junior season, as well as tight end David Njoku, but the Hurricanes do return 15 starters, including an imposing defensive front seven.

    The schedule is manageable; Miami must travel to Florida State on Sept. 16 but avoids both Clemson and Louisville from the ACC Atlantic. If a competent starting quarterback (perhaps Malik Rosier) emerges, the ‘Canes could take a big leap forward in Richt's second season.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    Miami will be tested in Week 3 at Florida State; the Hurricanes will have to break through against the Seminoles to have any shot at national contention.

    They've lost seven consecutive games to FSU, but the last three losses have come by a combined 11 points.

    A trip to North Carolina could be daunting, and Notre Dame's visit on Nov. 11 is intriguing. History shows that two-loss teams have no shot at the College Football Playoff; if Miami can go 11-1 and win the ACC title, it'll have a chance. But that won't be easy.

Northwestern

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    Justin Jackson is dangerous in Northwestern's backfield.
    Justin Jackson is dangerous in Northwestern's backfield.Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    2016

    Pat Fitzgerald's team had an up-and-down 2016 season. The Wildcats salvaged the year by whipping Illinois to get bowl-eligible and beating Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, finishing 7-6.

    They spent all season digging out of an 0-2 hole that featured losses to Western Michigan (no shame there) and FCS power Illinois State. But the strong finish gives Northwestern some hope moving forward.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    Northwestern projects as one of the Big Ten's most experienced teams. The Wildcats return 16 starters, tied with Penn State for most in the league, led by quarterback Clayton Thorson (3,182 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions) and tailback Justin Jackson (1,524 rushing yards, 15 scores).

    The schedule also sets up very nicely; Northwestern avoids Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State from the Big Ten East. This is a team that can make a run for the Big Ten West title and get in the playoff conversation.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    Thorson is a talented passer, but he needs to find a top receiving option following the departure of Austin Carr, who caught 90 passes for 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns.

    Anthony Walker's NFL draft departure also leaves a hole in the middle of the linebacker corps. The 'Cats need more consistency and will have to win at Wisconsin and Nebraska, then pull an upset in the Big Ten title game against the East champion. It's hardly probable, but it is possible.

Texas

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    Can Tom Herman bring Texas football to life in his debut season?
    Can Tom Herman bring Texas football to life in his debut season?Eric Gay/Associated Press

    2016

    It just never came together for Charlie Strong at Texas. Brought in to reverse the malaise that consumed the end of Mack Brown's tenure, Strong installed a firm culture of discipline but never got results on the field with three consecutive losing seasons.

    The Longhorns lost their final three games in 2016, including an unthinkable overtime defeat at Kansas, to finish the season 5-7 and ultimately seal Strong's fate. Following his firing, Texas officials hit a home run by luring Tom Herman away from Houston to take the program's reins.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    Strong had a forgettable run at Texas, but he left the cupboard full for Herman. The Longhorns will return 17 starters, led by sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele, who threw for 2,958 yards with 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions as a true freshman.

    Herman quickly turned around an underperforming program at Houston with a fast-paced offense built around quarterback Greg Ward Jr., and he can do the same at Texas with Buechele.

    There's no question that the Longhorns will be improved under Herman's watch. Texas has as much potential as any program in the nation. The only question is how quickly can he get it going in the right direction?

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    Texas will be tested early on. The Longhorns face a returning bowl team in Maryland in their opener and then travel to Southern California, a strong playoff contender, on Sept. 16.

    The Horns have Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home in October sandwiched around the annual Red River Rivalry date with Oklahoma. They do play three of their final five games on the road, with trips to Baylor, TCU and West Virginia.

    If Buechele makes a leap in his sophomore season and Herman finds a replacement for hard-running tailback D'Onta Foreman, we could see something special in year one of the Tom Herman era in Austin.

UCLA

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    If Josh Rosen is healthy, UCLA will be a dangerous team.
    If Josh Rosen is healthy, UCLA will be a dangerous team.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2016

    UCLA and Jim Mora Jr. endured a frustrating season in 2016. The Bruins started the season with an overtime loss at Texas A&M and lost six of their final seven games, finishing 4-8.

    Four of those losses were by a touchdown or less, and it should be noted that a poor second half unfolded without star quarterback Josh Rosen, who missed the final six games following shoulder surgery.

     

    Why they're dangerous in 2017

    The Bruins returned 14 starters and inked a talented recruiting class with multiple potential impact players on the defensive side of the ball. Rosen is also expected to be healthy and ready for a big junior season.

    UCLA can get off to a strong start with winnable non-conference games against Texas A&M and at Memphis, and if Rosen can build confidence early, it'll be huge for a rugged Pac-12 schedule.

     

    Will be a playoff team if...

    The Pac-12 isn't an easy league by any means, and UCLA's schedule is tough. The Bruins must travel to Washington, Stanford, Utah and rival Southern California. If Rosen shows that he's fully healthy and the Bruins run the road gauntlet, they'll prove themselves as playoff contenders and take some heat off Mora.