Odds for Top College Football Teams to Pull Off an Undefeated Season
Alabama has the best odds of winning the College Football Playoff, but there's another title contender with a better shot at going 12-0 during the regular season.
One important thing to note: Conference championships and bowl games are not part of this projection. We're only considering how likely it is that each team will win all 12 games already on its schedule. There are too many unknowns and moving parts to venture a guess at whether these teams will beat their yet-to-be-determined opponents in December and January. Hence, Alabama can be the favorite to win it all without appearing in the top spot in these rankings.
As far as the selection of teams goes, 10 ranked in the top 11 of our AP preseason poll projection as well as in the top 11 of the consensus odds to win the national championship, per OddsShark. Those are the 10 teams on the following slides, listed in ascending order of likelihood of an undefeated regular season.
Difficulty of schedule was the main determining factor, with head-to-head strengths and weaknesses dictating each team's chances of defeating its tougher foes.
10. Michigan Wolverines
Why They Could
Despite losing a plethora of starters, there's a lot to like about Michigan. Provided he's able to hang onto his job during fall camp, Wilton Speight gives the Wolverines quality experience at quarterback. They have three returning running backs who rushed for at least 400 yards last year, and they're "adding" redshirt freshman and 2016 5-star recruit Kareem Walker to that mix. Also, a defensive line anchored by Rashan Gary, Maurice Hurst Jr. and Chase Winovich could be special.
Take your pick, really. Despite the above chatter about returning talent, there are massive question marks at multiple positions. The returning team leader in receptions is fullback Khalid Hill with 16. Not a single player on the roster recorded an interception or more than one pass defended in 2016. And as we'll get to in a moment, the schedule is a nightmare. No matter how much you drink the Jim Harbaugh milk Kool-Aid, it's beyond difficult to envision a scenario where Michigan goes 12-0.
Undefeated Odds: 2,000-1
Figuring out starters and rotations while opening the season against Florida will be no picnic. Later on in the year, Michigan will have back-to-back road games against Indiana and Penn State. Then, the Wolverines close out the regular season by playing at Wisconsin seven days before hosting Ohio State. B/R's Greg Wallace ranked this as the toughest schedule in the country, and that doesn't factor in the roster turnover.
9. Auburn Tigers
Why They Could
There might not be a better rushing attack in the country than what Auburn brings to the table in 2017. Led by Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, the Tigers ran for at least 410 yards four different times last year, and they get back virtually everyone who contributed to those numbers. More importantly, the addition of Jarrett Stidham at QB gives Auburn one heck of a backup plan for when it's facing a stout rushing D.
As usual, Auburn's biggest concern will be the Iron Bowl against Alabama. Even though it's a home game for the Tigers, it's a showdown with a team that will be No. 1 in the preseason polls. Internally, Auburn has to figure out its options at receiver. No returning player had more than 25 receptions or 300 yards in 2016. Stidham will help, but he isn't a panacea.
Undefeated Odds: 150-1
While it isn't quite as unforgiving as Michigan's schedule, Auburn has one heck of a hill to climb for 12 wins. In addition to the Iron Bowl, the Tigers have to play a Week 2 road game against the defending national champs (Clemson), a road game against LSU and a home game against Georgia, each of which will almost certainly open the season ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll. Auburn might win the battle against Alabama, but there's almost no chance it enters that regular-season finale with a zero in the loss column.
8. Clemson Tigers
Why They Could
Clemson is 28-2 over the past two years and has won at least 10 games in six consecutive seasons. Much has been written about the unknowns at quarterback and running back in the absence of Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman, but the Tigers were an annual contender long before those guys showed up. The offense will be more than adequate thanks to a stellar group of wide receivers, and this defensive line is going to wreak havoc on opposing backfields once again.
If Clemson doesn't hit the ground running, it could have two losses just three weeks into the season. Florida State is the opponent on Clemson's schedule with the best national championship odds, but that game isn't until mid-November. Rather, the back-to-back September games versus Auburn and at Louisville will be the biggest problem, particularly if there's still any uncertainty about Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson or Zerrick Cooper at quarterback.
Undefeated Odds: 100-1
In addition to the three stiff challenges listed above, Clemson also plays road games against Virginia Tech, North Carolina State and South Carolina. Depending on how the first month of the season goes for both the Tigers and their late-season opponents, it's not unreasonable to think Clemson could be a slight underdog in Vegas for 50 percent of its contests.
7. Oklahoma Sooners
Why They Could
Baker Mayfield returns, and so do all five of his starting offensive linemen for what might be the best passing and pass-blocking combination of the past several years. Whether the defense can hold up remains to be seen, but Oklahoma should remain one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
Oklahoma travels to Ohio State in Week 2, which could be trouble. The biggest question mark for the Sooners is at running back, as they seek to replace 2,334 combined yards from Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. And the Buckeyes might have the best run-stopping defense in the country. Even with a stud QB, yards will be tough to come by in that game.
Undefeated Odds: 75-1
Even if the Sooners upset Ohio State in Columbus, their conference schedule is still going to be an issue. Oklahoma plays road games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor, hosts West Virginia and TCU and plays a "neutral-site" game against Texas in Dallas. The Sooners ran the table in the Big 12 in 2016, but the league should be better this year, and they're facing the toughest opponents on the road this time.
6. Penn State Nittany Lions
Why They Could
Penn State has not one, but two strong candidates to win the Heisman. Thanks to the combination of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions averaged 45.6 points over their final seven games of last season. And that duo is a fraction of the 16 starters Penn State gets back for another year. This team just had its best season in more than a decade, and it might be even better in 2017.
One of the most memorable games of the 2016 season was Penn State's come-from-behind win over No. 2 Ohio State, and you better believe the Buckeyes are looking for revenge. Not only do the Nittany Lions have to travel to the Horseshoe for the rematch, but this game comes right after Ohio State's bye week, giving Urban Meyer an extra seven days to prepare for McSorley and Barkley. Can Penn State possibly prevail against a rested defensive line that is arguably the best in the nation?
Undefeated Odds: 50-1
By and large, Penn State's schedule is begging for another season with at least 10 wins. There are a couple of tricky road games in conference against the likes of Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State, but the Nittany Lions ought to be favored in every contest but one. However, that road game against Ohio State is the biggest hurdle any team on this list needs to clear—particularly when you consider it comes just one week after Penn State's home game against Michigan.
5. Florida State Seminoles
Why They Could
An injury to Derwin James derailed Florida State's 2016 season in a hurry. The defense just wasn't the same without its do-it-all safety, giving up an average of 45.7 losses in its three losses. But with James (and Tarvarus McFadden) back, this should be the best secondary in the country. The defensive line might be top-five nationally. And there's no denying what Deondre Francois brings to the table at quarterback—provided the offensive line can keep him a little more vertical this year.
The neutral-site (Atlanta) season opener against Alabama might be the most highly anticipated game until the CFP semifinals. The loser will have plenty of time to rebound and prove it belongs in the hunt for a national championship, but the fact remains that one of the top candidates to win it all is guaranteed to suffer a loss in Week 1. And given the vast difference in proven talent at running back, Florida State will be the underdog for that battle.
Undefeated Odds: 40-1
Even if the Seminoles make it to Week 2 with a perfect record intact, they're still unlikely to run the table. They have home games against Miami and Louisville, followed by road games against Clemson and Florida. FSU may be favored in each of those contests, but not by much. And, again, this immediately goes up in flames if the 'Noles are unable to win a game away from home against Alabama.
4. USC Trojans
Why They Could
Beginning with his sensational performance in the Rose Bowl, Sam Darnold has become the prohibitive favorite to win the 2017 Heisman. He threw for at least 205 yards and two touchdowns in each of his final nine games of last season—all wins for USC. On the opposite side of the field, the Trojans have arguably the best linebacking corps in the country. And the schedule is forgiving enough that they should be favored in every game.
The Trojans get to avoid both the Washington Huskies and the Oregon Ducks during the regular season, but a trip to the northwest could be the end of their perfect season. They play a Week 5 Friday night game at Washington State that is certain to put their somewhat-depleted secondary to the test. In a good old-fashioned late-night shootout, Cougars QB Luke Falk might put more points on the board than Darnold can.
Undefeated Odds: 25-1
By all accounts, USC is one of the favorites for the College Football Playoff, and it doesn't have any games on the calendar that stand out as a clear problem. However, there are too many coin flips and not enough cakewalks to give the Trojans better odds than this. Case in point, their seventh-most difficult—or sixth-easiest—test of the season is the home game against Texas, which is anything but a guarantee. One loss somewhere along the way is likely, but that wouldn't stop USC from at least reaching the Pac-12 title game.
3. Washington Huskies
Why They Could
It makes no sense that Jake Browning wasn't one of the frontrunners for the 2016 Heisman in the process of accounting for 47 touchdowns as a sophomore, but he's back to lead the Huskies to a second straight Pac-12 title game. Though his favorite target (John Ross) is now in the NFL, there is no shortage of options in this offense. Look for Dante Pettis and Myles Gaskin to become household names around the country while Washington scores at will against a forgiving schedule.
Can the Huskies replace their departed defensive backs? They held every 2016 opponent to 28 points or fewer, primarily because big plays were few and far between against a back line of Kevin King, Budda Baker and Sidney Jones. In fact, Washington allowed just 16 plays of 30 or more yards all season, ranking second-best in the nation in that category. But with all three of those secondary stars becoming second-round draft picks, is there any chance the defense can remain that stingy?
Undefeated Odds: 12-1
For a second straight year, it seems likely we'll spend the second half of the season arguing over whether Washington's abysmal nonconference schedule (at Rutgers, vs. Montana, vs. Fresno State) should preclude it from a spot in the College Football Playoff. USC isn't on Washington's schedule this year, either, and the games against Oregon, UCLA and Washington State all come at home. With the exception of the toss-up road game against Stanford, the Huskies might be at least a touchdown favorite in every game.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why They Could
Three times in the last nine years, Alabama at least made it as far as the SEC title game with a flawless record. And in the other six years, the Crimson Tide were among those with the best preseason odds of running the table. Lather, rinse and repeat for what should be an unstoppable rushing assault and another typical campaign of defensive dominance.
The bookends to the season are of the utmost concern. We've already mentioned both games earlier, but Alabama opens the year with a neutral-site battle against Florida State and ends the year at Auburn. Running the ball against the Seminoles could be a challenge, and stopping the run against Auburn will be equally difficult.
Undefeated Odds: 8-1
Those are the two big ones, but Alabama also hosts LSU and Tennessee and plays road games against Texas A&M and Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide are arguably the best team in the country and should be favored in every game they play, but like USC's schedule, there are a lot of potential pitfalls.
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
Why They Could
Ohio State has lost a grand total of six games over the last five seasons under Urban Meyer, including one undefeated season and one national championship. Before even considering the schedule or the roster, it's all but guaranteed there will be talk about Ohio State's chances of going undefeated. Pairing senior QB J.T. Barrett with the best defensive line in the country is just icing on the cake.
ESPN's FPI projections give Ohio State at least a 77 percent chance of winning each of its 12 games, but it's worth noting the Buckeyes will be taking a depleted secondary into battle against Baker Mayfield, Trace McSorley and Wilton Speight. As is the case for Washington, Ohio State's toughest challenge will be getting consistency out of the secondary after losing all three of last year's top defensive backs.
Undefeated Odds: 5-1
This may seem like a generous line for a team facing three opponents that will likely open the season in the AP Top 10. However, two of those games (Oklahoma and Penn State) come at home, where the Buckeyes are certain to be favored. And the third is against a Michigan team that no one can get a good preseason read on, one which Ohio State has beaten in 12 of the last 13 meetings. The Buckeyes ought to win each of those games, and—with all due respect to the likes of Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska—there's nothing else on the schedule worth worrying about.