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Meet College Football's 2015 Dark-Horse Playoff Contenders

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2015

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If there's one thing the month of September has taught us, it's that we should take everything that we've talked about over the past eight months, crumple it up and throw it in the garbage. 

Then again, that's the beauty of this thing we call college football. Its only predictable quality is that you never know who's going to emerge and who's going to tank. 

Although the 2015 season is still young, enough games have been played that a handful of playoff dark horses have emerged. But, by the same logic, that means there's still more football to be played. September playoff dark horses could be gone by November. Conversely, teams we never would have predicted to be in the Final Four conversation could lead it. 

In the meantime, let's look at which teams won September with huge games and/or individual performances and then what their season looks like moving forward. Below we examine teams that are undefeated and weren't picked to win their respective division and/or conference to start the season. 

Dark Horses

Utah

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The Pac-12 South division was supposed to be monopolized by the city of Los Angeles. After clubbing Oregon 62-20 in Week 4, though, Utah officially introduced itself to the divisional and Pac-12 title race.

And, potentially, the playoff field as well. That's not bad for a team that was projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South. 

The Utes aren't a consensus Top 10 team yet—Associated Press voters ranked Utah 10th, while the coaches poll ranks them 12th—which is peculiar given they provided college football with its most eye-opening win of the 2015 season so far, as Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports explained: 

Michigan State, a strong team that got some legit support for No. 1 this week in the polls, barely escaped against the Ducks a few weeks ago, and that game was in East Lansing. Utah's season-opening win against Michigan also is looking a lot more impressive when you consider how the Wolverines have looked since, especially on Saturday when they smashed No. 22 BYU.

Truth is, no one has two wins any more impressive than what Utah has.

Utah is at least hovering around the Top 10—it also received one first-place vote in the AP poll. Nevertheless, UCLA remains the South division (and Pac-12) favorite. 

Certainly, the win over Oregon was impressive, but the season-opening victory over Michigan looks better and better by the week as well. The one-two punch of quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker makes the ground game go, and Wilson is effective enough at passing the ball to maintain offensive balance. 

Utah hasn't quite caught UCLA, which makes the Utes a trendy dark-horse pick. ESPN.com's Pac-12 bowl projections still have the Bruins in the Final Four. But Utah is creeping up. The Nov. 21 game in Salt Lake City looks far more interesting now. In the meantime, Utah has tough games against Cal, USC and Arizona. 

Just don't ask head coach Kyle Whittingham about the playoff just yet. 

"Don't even go there," Whittingham said Monday, according to Matthew Piper of the Salt Lake Tribune."That's not even in the realm of our thought process."

Oklahoma

Oklahoma's Week 2 win over Tennessee has lost a lot of shine lately. Thanks to a heartbreaking loss to Florida—just the latest in a disappointing trend for the Vols—Tennessee's breakout season looks over before it ever truly got started. Beating Tennessee might still be the Big 12's best nonconference win, and that does count for something, but it's not by nearly as wide a margin as it once was. 

Wade Payne/Associated Press

Still, grabbing the W in Knoxville launched Oklahoma into the Big 12 title picture with Baylor and TCU. That part hasn't changed. The Bears have yet to be tested, and the Frogs' defensive attrition has been evident in the past two weeks against SMU and Texas Tech. The perceived gap between the projected top two teams in the Big 12 heading into the season and Oklahoma has definitely shrunk. 

The Sooners defense has still been hit-or-miss, an extension of a problem from last year. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops put together an outstanding game plan against Tennessee, but couldn't follow that effort up the next week against Tulsa. (Golden Hurricanes head coach and former Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery continues to be nightmare fuel for Oklahoma.) 

The biggest difference for the Sooners in 2015 has been quarterback Baker Mayfield. The former Texas Tech signal-caller gives this offense an extra boost in confidence and improvisation that has taken it to the next level. There's simply no coaching against what Mayfield can do with his feet when he extends the play. And there's no shortage of playmakers for him, either. 

Looking ahead, the Sooners catch the right breaks schedule-wise. Three of their five toughest games on paper (excluding the neutral-site rivalry game against Texas) are at home: West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU. 

November could not only be critical for Oklahoma, but could very well decide the Big 12 title race in a matter of weeks. Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU all play one another within a month's time. For the Sooners specifically, the Nov. 14 road trip to Baylor could be the game of the year. The Bears have had OU's number lately, and a win in Waco could go a long way to transitioning this team from a playoff dark horse to a legitimate option. 

LSU

When you have arguably the best player in college football, it immediately boosts your chances of winning. And LSU has running back Leonard Fournette, the current odds-on favorite to win the Heisman, according to OddShark.com

Anything and everything you need to know about the Tigers' 2015 season—their offense, identity, playoff hopes and more—is neatly packaged in a 6'1", 230-pound weapon of mass football destruction. 

“He fits in very comfortably with some of the elite running backs that we’ve had here,” LSU head coach Les Miles told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer

Fournette is averaging about 210 yards per game and won't face a run defense capable of slowing him until Florida in mid-October. So long as quarterback Brandon Harris can be a complementary running threat and competent enough passer—LSU ranks last in the SEC in passing offense, but Harris is seventh in passer rating—it's OK that the offense goes through Fournette. 

LSU operates like a team from a previous era: outstanding running attack, sound defense and not too many explosive plays (at least in the passing game). If it works, it works, and so far, it has worked. 

If the Tigers find themselves in the 11, 12 or 13-win echelon by season's end—they were picked to finish third in the SEC Westit will be in large part because of Fournette. That would bode well for his Heisman chances as well. 

Next Ones Up

Northwestern

The Wildcats are a surprising 4-0, and not just any 4-0, either. Wins over Stanford and Duke look incredible now that the Cardinal have defeated USC and the Blue Devils have topped Georgia Tech. Northwestern has to be the Big Ten West favorites at this point, right? The question remains whether this team would be able to stand up against Ohio State or Michigan State. It faces neither in the regular season. The Michigan game should be another good test, though.

Texas A&M

The Week 1 win over Arizona State is far less impressive now that the Sun Devils have shown they're capable of being housed more than once. The come-from-behind win against Arkansas showed the run defense is still a work in progress, too. That could be troublesome with Mississippi State, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU still on the schedule. The month of October is just brutal for the Aggies. 

Bonus: Memphis

We'll look the other way on part of the aforementioned "dark horse" criteria for Memphis, the preseason American Athletic Conference West favorite, for one important reason: The Tigers reside outside the Power Five. If there are any playoff crashers remaining, Memphis has the best chance to assume that role. 

However, the Tigers are 4-0 and still outside the two major Top 25 polls. That should tell you how far this team still has to go before it's even remotely in the playoff conversation, let alone seriously involved. 

But what separates Memphis from, say, Temple or Houston is that it has a monster game at home against Ole Miss on Oct. 17. There are only three opponents standing in the way of this being a matchup between undefeated teams—for Memphis, South Florida (Oct. 2) and for Ole Miss, Florida (Oct. 3) and New Mexico State (Oct. 10). Assuming the Tigers and Rebels can get through Week 5 unscathed, the stage should be set for a game worthy of at least some national attention: 

Dan Wolken @DanWolken

FWIW, it sounds like Memphis-Ole Miss on Oct. 17 could be an ABC national game.

Memphis gets a bye before facing Ole Miss, so there would be no lack of preparation or enthusiasm. If the Tigers beat a potential Top Five team, you can be sure they'll quickly enter the outside playoff discussion. Memphis would have to go undefeated to remain a valid playoff contender, but it would have a quality win like no other Group of Five team. Assuming Ole Miss' season doesn't burst into flames, that is. 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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