Dark-Horse College Football Playoff Contenders for 2016 Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 14, 2016

Dark-Horse College Football Playoff Contenders for 2016 Season

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    Mitch Trubisky
    Mitch TrubiskyGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and other top-flight programs are common College Football Playoff picks for the 2016 season, but several underrated options could crash the party.

    The following six teams represent the top dark-horse candidates to spring a couple of upsets and reach the championship tournament.

    Any program with 50-1 or worse odds according to Odds Shark's futures list was eligible for inclusion. The list is ordered alphabetically.

Houston

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    Greg Ward Jr.
    Greg Ward Jr.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    The darlings of the 2015 season, the Houston Cougars finished 13-1 with a Peach Bowl victory over ACC powerhouse Florida State.

    Expectations are high for the Cougars. They return an electrifying quarterback in Greg Ward Jr. and a sturdy defense. Plus, since head coach Tom Herman reeled in 5-star defensive lineman Ed Oliver, there's plenty of excitement, too.

    "There are a lot of dominoes that have to fall between now and then," safeties coach Craig Naivar said, per ESPN's Heather Dinich. "Is that a possibility? Sure. The unique thing is we did a really good job keeping Houston talent, Houston kids, to stay home."

    Houston's success is primarily dependent on Ward, who completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 2,828 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. Plus, he scampered for 1,108 yards and 21 scores.

    Ward takes a lot of hits, however. He logged 198 carries and missed a majority of two games—including the team's lone loss—because of an ankle injury.

    The Cougars must replace key contributors like Demarcus Ayers, Elandon Roberts and William Jackson III, but Herman is an offensive genius with a perfect quarterback—minus the durability—in a weak conference.

Louisville

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    Lamar Jackson
    Lamar JacksonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Louisville Cardinals reside in the same division as two popular College Football Playoff choices (Florida State and Clemson). At worst, it means the opportunity is there.

    According to Steve Jones of the Courier-Journal, Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples said despite that, "if you build an offense around what Lamar Jackson has showed you he can do as a freshman, there's a chance against even elite defenses like that. I think that gives them a shot to really do something in the ACC."

    Only four starters departed, so the roster brings back a healthy majority of its production. In addition to Jackson, leading tackler Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fieldswho paced the team in sacks—return.

    The Cardinals will need every ounce of that talent to challenge both Clemson and Florida State. Plus, they have a mid-November matchup at Houston, too.

    Louisville's road isn't easy, but it's a balanced team with legitimate offensive firepower and multiple chances to impress on a national level.

Nebraska

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    Tommy Armstrong
    Tommy ArmstrongEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    Wisconsin—a perennially strong club—will take on Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State this season. Good luck with that. Northwestern will challenge MSU and OSU. Those are tough crossover draws for West Division contenders.

    The Iowa Hawkeyes and Nebraska Cornhuskers will only oppose one top East foe. And while Iowa won the division last year, Nebraska lost six one-possession games. One play in each contest was the difference between a 6-7 record becoming 12-1.

    Dual-threat quarterback Tommy Armstrong, No. 1 receiver Jordan Westerkamp and leading tackler Nate Gerry highlight a formidable roster that must be prepared to win on the road.

    After hosting Oregon in September, Nebraska's toughest conference games—Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowaare away games.

    Is it likely? No. But the Cornhuskers were always close in 2015. If Mike Riley's squad is consistently one play better this season, Nebraska could be the breakout program of 2016.

North Carolina

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    Mack Hollins
    Mack HollinsGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    The 2016 North Carolina Tar Heels will rely on Mitch Trubisky to replace Marquise Williams.

    However, not only does Trubisky have game experience, but four starters on the offensive line, elite deep threat Mack Hollins, versatile talent Ryan Switzer and 1,400-yard rusher Elijah Hood all return.

    Plus, the Tar Heels defense showed significant improvement in year one under coordinator Gene Chizik. Most of the defensive line and secondary are back as well.

    North Carolina will have a significant jump on 2015, too. After falling to South Carolina in the season opener, the Tar Heels didn't appear in the AP poll until Week 10.

    Additionally, a loss to Georgia won't have the same damaging effects, particularly because UNC will travel to Florida State on Oct. 1. If Trubisky and Co. stun the Seminoles, the schedule only lightens up from there. Clemson or FSU would likely await in the ACC Championship Game.

    The CFP committee would have no good reason to overlook the 12-1 conference-champion Tar Heels with a pair of victories over Florida State and/or Clemson.

Oklahoma State

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    Mason Rudolph
    Mason RudolphChris Graythen/Getty Images

    Assuming the Oklahoma State Cowboys dispatch Southeastern Louisiana, Central Michigan and Pittsburgh, the beginning and end of Big 12 action are pivotal contests.

    Baylor hosts the Pokes on Sep. 24. Bedlam against Oklahoma is scheduled for Dec. 3 in Norman.

    That's not to suggest West Virginia or TCU are pushovers, but tiebreakers over Baylor and Oklahoma figure to be the most important regarding OSU's Big 12 title pursuit.

    Just like last year.

    Entering the final two weeks of the regular season at 10-0, the Cowboys had a conference championship within grasp. Instead, they dropped home games to the Bears and Sooners.

    Yes, Oklahoma State's defense as a whole must progress while replacing Emmanuel Ogbah. Although the offensive line must improve, all five starters return to protect quarterback Mason Rudolph and a well-rounded receiving corps.

    The Pokes have experience. Baylor is reloading. Oklahoma failed to protect home field during the 2014 rivalry matchup. Oklahoma State could surge out of the Big 12.

Washington

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    Jake Browning
    Jake BrowningStephen Brashear/Getty Images

    The Pac-12 doesn't feature a clear-cut top program in 2016, particularly in the North Division. Stanford and Oregon have new quarterbacks, while Washington State needs to replenish its defense.

    Could a budding Washington Huskies program take advantage?

    Sophomores Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin are a promising duo behind an experienced offensive line, while the defense returns a couple of starters in every unit.

    And unlike most other under-the-radar contenders, the Huskies host a couple of key games. Stanford and USC come to Seattle, though Washington will invade Oregon and Washington State.

    Development is always a key for every program. Still, Washington in particular needs to progress its young talent quickly because the nonconference schedule and Pac-12 outlook aren't daunting.

    All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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