College Football's 2018 Final Four Dark Horses

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2018

College Football's 2018 Final Four Dark Horses

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    When the 2017-18 men's college basketball season began, the Loyola of Chicago Ramblers were nowhere close to being projected nationally as a Final Four qualifier. This fall, a team on the gridiron could make a similar ascent from afterthought to College Football Playoff hopeful.

    Given last season's performance, returning starters and production and other favorable circumstances, we've highlighted six programs with the potential to climb the rankings in 2018.

    Will they all threaten? Absolutely not. But the Georgia Bulldogs soared from 8-5 in 2016 to 13-2 last season, winning the SEC championship before reaching the national title game. The path has been achieved.

    Each of the programs featured won 10 games or fewer last year.

Northwestern Wildcats

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    2017 recap: After opening the season with three losses in five games, Northwestern rattled off eight consecutive wins to close the campaign. That included a win over Michigan State, which finished the year ranked 15th in the Associated Press Top 25. NU's defense ranked 23rd nationally.

    2018 outlook: Head coach Pat Fitzgerald has built a perennial bowl contender, but the recovery of quarterback Clayton Thorson is a glaring potential issue. The rising senior is recovering from a torn ACL. The Wildcats also must replace Justin Jackson, a four-time 1,000-yard rusher. Northwestern has a tough schedule, but most of those difficult matchups are at home.

    The CFP path: Can the Wildcats survive the opening stretch? They mustered a 3-5 mark in September over the last two seasons. If NU can accomplish that, a pair of two-game stretches (Michigan/Michigan State and Wisconsin/Notre Dame) will determine the height of success. Only the matchup with MSU is on the road, so Northwestern could surge if it protects home field.    

Virginia Tech Hokies

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    2017 recap: Virginia Tech took a 7-1 record into November and had a Coastal Division title within reach. However, the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets toppled VT in consecutive weeks. The Hokies, who relied on a freshman quarterback in Josh Jackson, ended the season with a loss to Oklahoma State in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

    2018 outlook: Jackson showed great promise before a rough November, so his development is a critical topic. The defense is slightly more concerning, but it appears Virginia Tech has a sturdy group of returning talent to replace Tremaine Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds and Greg Stroman. Opening the season on the road against Florida State should be a great test for the Hokies, who later host Notre Dame and Miami.

    The CFP path: If Tech can steal a victory at FSU, the next three contests are opposite non-power (or FCS) teams. A 4-0 start could set up a rested Hokies roster for a strong start to the bulk of ACC play. That's when Jackson's progression would really need to become apparent, especially Nov. 17 against the Hurricanes.  

Oregon Ducks

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    2017 recap: Oregon jumped out to a 4-1 start, but a collarbone injury to quarterback Justin Herbert derailed the Pac-12 squad's season. The Ducks dropped four of the next five games, only scoring more than 14 points once in a stretch that preceded Willie Taggart's departure to coach Florida State. Oregon limped to a 7-6 record.

    2018 outlook: Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has provided some much-needed optimism after the unit climbed from 115th in yards per play allowed in his first season with the Ducks to 28th last season. Oregon is losing a handful of starters, but six freshmen earned significant time too. Their development combined with a healthy Herbert should put Oregon back on track to contend for a Pac-12 crown.

    The CFP path: Herbert must be on the field. 2017 showed Oregon's brutal lack of usable depth at the position. The Ducks also need to defeat Stanford (Sep. 22) and Washington (Oct. 13). Both showdowns are in Eugene at Autzen Stadium, and wins would likely make Oregon 6-0. From there, it's a matter of surviving road trips to Washington State and Arizona and a home game against UCLA.

Michigan State Spartans

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    2017 recap: One year after finishing 3-9, Michigan State shot right back up the Big Ten standings with a 10-3 record. Mark Dantonio's club only dropped clashes with Notre Dame, Northwestern and Ohio Statethree year-end ranked teamswhile upsetting both Michigan and Penn State. The defense finished No. 18 in the country.

    2018 outlook: Last season, 14 players notched at least 15 tackles. Chris Frey and Demetrius Cooper were the only seniors. Michigan State is both young and experienced on defense. Dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke is an intriguing talent, but the rising junior must be consistently effective against top competitionnamely Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.

    The CFP path: Nothing is ever assumed, but the Spartans should begin the year 4-0. Their next three contests are Northwestern, at Penn State and Michigan, and anything worse than 2-1 would effectively eliminate MSU. Barring a future upset, the Nov. 10 matchup with Ohio State would determine the front-runner in the Big Ten East.

Florida State Seminoles

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    2017 recap: Florida State's championship hopes disappeared in the season opener when a knee injury sidelined Deondre Francois for the rest of the year. Hurricane Irma also delayed two games, and head coach Jimbo Fisher bolted for a job at Texas A&M. The Seminoles mustered a 7-6 record during the setback-filled year.

    2018 outlook: Francois is limited this spring, but he should reclaim the starting spot in the fall once healthy. The offense will be adapting to Willie Taggart's uptempo system, too. Although several NFL-bound defenders are gone, available talent is no concern for the unit. Joshua Kaindoh and Levonta Taylor highlight the players ready for a leading role.

    The CFP path: On the bright side, the schedule is loaded with marquee games. No upset loss would crush the 'Noles, who host Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida and travel to Louisville, Miami, NC State and Notre Dame. But that's a hugely difficult schedule. FSU needs Francois to regain his 2016 form while running back Cam Akers makes the leap from prized freshman to superstar sophomore.

West Virginia Mountaineers

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    2017 recap: Led by Florida transfer Will Grier, the Mountaineers compiled a 7-3 record while only losing to ranked teams. That should be the focus, since Grier's finger injury took a top-10 quarterback off the field. West Virginia lost its final three contests without him.

    2018 outlook: Grier and All-American wideout David Sills V are back, as well as 1,000-yard receiver Gary Jennings. Between them, Kennedy McKoy and Marcus Simms, the 'Eers boast one of the nation's most formidable scoring attacks. Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White leave major voids on defense, but last season's inexperienced D-line is a year older and will bolster the unit.

    The CFP path: Defeating both Tennessee and NC State is essential because November is a minefield. The Mountaineers end 2018 opposite Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahomaall of which defeated WVU last year. (Yes, Grier was unavailable against UT and OU, though the latter would've been favored.) That's a treacherous finish, but the Mountaineers have the firepower to compete with anyone.  

            

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