College Football’s 2019 Final Four Dark Horses

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistApril 2, 2019

College Football’s 2019 Final Four Dark Horses

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    Several names immediately come to mind when talking about the favorites for the 2019 College Football Playoff. 

    With all its explosive offensive talent, national champion Clemson is a prime candidate to repeat. Alabama will be just as good as anybody on both sides of the ball, and Nick Saban will have his players motivated.

    Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame and Texas round out the other favorites. Any teams beyond those would be dark-horse candidates to reach the playoff, much like the Fighting Irish were in a brilliant season a year ago.

    So, which teams could surge forward and join those leading candidates in the national conversation?

    It'll take roster improvement, impact freshmen and a magical season. A little luck wouldn't hurt, either.

Iowa State Cyclones

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    Coach Matt Campbell's Iowa State Cyclones could shock a lot of people in the Big 12 and beyond this season. 

    Pretty much everybody is (rightfully) talking about the Oklahoma Sooners with Alabama transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts at the helm to lead all that offensive talent and the Texas Longhorns with Sam Ehlinger and those loaded recruiting classes Tom Herman is bringing to Austin.

    Don't forget about the team from Ames, though.

    Last year, the Cyclones went 8-5 and 6-3 in the conference and found a rising star in freshman quarterback Brock Purdy. Yes, it hurts to lose every-down back David Montgomery and star receiver Hakeem Butler, but there are still weapons.

    Campbell returns seven offensive and eight defensive starters, and though the two biggest offensive playmakers around Purdy are gone, he'll make everybody better with rapid improvement in his second season.

    Starting cornerbacks D'Andre Payne and Brian Peavy will be difficult to replace, but Campbell has done a good job recruiting and developing talent at a place at which it isn't easy to win.

    Finding Montgomery's replacement is the biggest need, though. A good bet is Kene Nwangwu, but Sheldon Croney Jr., Johnnie Lang and incoming freshman Jirehl Brock will help, too. If they can replace his production by committee, watch out.

    But College Football Playoff? Yeah, it's possible, but the Cyclones are one of the two longest shots on the list.

LSU Tigers

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    Don't sleep on the LSU Tigers.

    It's easy to forget about them considering they play in the same division as Alabama, who routinely comes out of the rugged SEC West. But coach Ed Orgeron has stockpiled a slew of talent on the Bayou; it's just a question of how well he can coach them.

    It hurts that the Tigers lost so much defensive talent, including Greedy Williams, Devin White, Ed Alexander and Terrence Alexander. But, like it is at Alabama, it's just a revolving door of elite prospects, and others are ready to step in.

    Elite defensive backs Kristian Fulton and Grant Delpit return, and incoming 5-star Derek Stingley Jr. is going to be one of the best first-year players in college football. With defensive coordinator Dave Aranda leading the way, that side of the ball should always be stout.

    Though quarterback Joe Burrow is not going to wow anybody, he's a capable, qualified signal-caller who is battle-tested and can do a lot with the ball. He can make the throws, and he proved in several games (like the epic overtime loss to Texas A&M) that he can run a little, too.

    The Tigers will be better in the running game this year with Clyde Edwards-Helaire bolstered by a pair of star freshmen running backs in John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis.

    If those guys are as good as advertised, the Tigers are going to be a force this year, and they could be Alabama's biggest competition in the West along with the Aggies.

Oregon Ducks

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    Let's face it: Any team coming out of the Pac-12 into the College Football Playoff would be a dark-horse candidate, right?

    The league has been so bad recently other than Washington, and coach Chris Petersen's Huskies are replacing so much talent in 2019 it would be a shocker if they were one of the final four, too. So, that's why three Pac-12 participants are on this list.

    Oregon is the first of these, and coach Mario Cristobal's Ducks are here chiefly because senior quarterback Justin Herbert elected to eschew millions in the NFL draft to return to Eugene. The 6'6" signal-caller has an elite arm, and he's made plenty of big plays at key moments.

    Though the Ducks have struggled to win the big game the past couple of years, Herbert has the talent to change that trend. His measurables and physical prowess almost certainly will keep him near the top of draft boards over the next year if he's healthy, too.

    It hurts the Ducks that top target Dillon Mitchell left a year early, but he's the biggest departure.

    Cristobal gets back 10 offensive starters and seven guys on defense. A seventh-ranked recruiting class headlined by 5-star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux will bring plenty of excitement, too.

    Oregon's strengths will be its quarterback, running backs and offensive line. If Cristobal can blend the youngsters into the mix, it could be a huge year in Eugene. This could be a year the Quack Attack returns to college football prominence.

Syracuse Orange

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    The other big long shot on this list is coach Dino Babers' Syracuse Orange. 

    It was a remarkable turnaround season in 2018 for the Orange, who went 10-3 and 6-2 in the ACC. They almost knocked off Clemson, losing 27-23 loss to the eventual national champions after Trevor Lawrence went down with an injury.

    The next week, Syracuse dropped a 44-37 overtime game to Pittsburgh, and the only other loss in the season was against College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium. So, yeah, losing to the two ACC Championship Game participants and another of the sport's top four teams wasn't bad.

    It's not out of the realm of possibility the Orange could be even better this year, too. Babers seems to play coach Dabo Swinney's Tigers as tough as anybody, so expect him to have a good game plan in that one, and it'll be at the Carrier Dome.

    The Orange return eight starters from a stacked defense, and though just five returning offensive starters come back, the team could be more dynamic on that side of the ball. The Orange will miss leader and quarterback Eric Dungey, but Tommy DeVito is more that capable and is a better passer.

    Holes will be difficult to fill along the offensive front, where three starters are gone, and at linebacker, where a pair of starters left. But the Orange have decent replacement options in both spots.

    They also will play only one Power Five opponent in Maryland out of conference, and they should be favored in their in-conference road games against Duke, Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina State.

    Babers' team quietly won 10 games a season ago, but you'd better pay attention to them this year.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Nobody expected Texas A&M to be one of college football's biggest surprises a season ago, but the Jimbo Fisher factor was real in College Station. The Aggies got their money's worth in 2018, but they hired Fisher to ultimately take them to championships.

    If things fall right, they could start coming as early as this year.

    The Aggies went 9-4 a season ago and 5-3 in the tough SEC, but though they were within an eyelash of beating Clemson, they were barely in the game against Alabama. Unfortunately for Fisher's team, both national title game teams are back on the schedule again this year.

    That's the biggest road block of any team on this list. 

    But if you're going to win a championship, you're going to have to play the best teams, right? The Aggies are going to be more equipped to do that in 2019 thanks to a loaded top-five recruiting class that will help defensive coordinator Mike Elko fill holes with star players like defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal.

    With potentially elite dual-threat quarterback Kellen Mond back for his junior year and some of the best pass-catchers in the SEC if they jell the way they're expected to, it's an exciting time to be an Aggie.

    It's going to hurt to lose SEC star running back Trayveon Williams, who was the best offensive player you hardly heard about in the conference a season ago.

    They plan to attack Williams' production gap with numbers, and Jashaun Corbin will help. Central Florida transfer Cordarrian Richardson, Charles Strong, Vernon Jackson and Deneric Prince all are talented options, too. 

    At least a couple of them will turn into quality SEC backs, and once that happens, the Aggies will be firmly in the mix again. But how far can they go?

UCF Knights

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    If the Central Florida Knights keep winning the way they have been, they'll get some national love at some point. But beating LSU in last year's Fiesta Bowl would have been a great start to notoriety and a little more respect.

    Instead, the Knights lost 40-32, and the naysayers got louder that UCF didn't belong in the playoff.

    In 2019, coach Josh Heupel's team plays Stanford at home and travels to Pittsburgh. If they run the table, it means they will have beaten those two, Houston, Cincinnati, South Florida and the West Division winner in the AAC Championship Game. Will that be enough?

    It will speak volumes for the growth of the program if the Knights prove they are better on defense, especially since they have to replace a lot of talent on the defensive front. Eight offensive starters return, and six on defense return, too.

    The Knights also will do a lot to advance their program if they keep winning at their recent clip without Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback McKenzie Milton, whose gruesome leg injury suffered late last season will likely keep him out for most, if not all, of '19.

    Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush and last year's late-season hero Darriel Mack Jr. will battle it out for the starting spot under center, and with all the returning talent in the offensive backfield, they should have plenty of help.

    Still, the Knights have to be considered a dark horse for the College Football Playoff because they ran the table in each of the past two regular seasons and didn't get any love from the committee. At this point, you have to wonder if they're going to.

Washington Huskies

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    If you're a Washington Huskies fan, you have to be a little excited and a lot nervous about the 2019 season.

    On one hand, coach Chris Petersen's recruiting model keeps producing higher-ranked classes each year, and the players who are young and waiting in the wings are talented enough to keep the Huskies at the top of the Pac-12.

    But when you're replacing nine defensive starters, including guys like Byron Murphy, Ben Burr-Kirven, Taylor Rapp, JoJo McIntosh, Greg Gaines and Trevis Bartlett, that's a massive overhaul.

    While seven offensive starters return, they don't include record-setting quarterback Jake Browning or four-year starting running back Myles Gaskin.

    That's the biggest turnover of any top-15 program in the nation, so it's time to see what Petersen and Co. can do.

    The answer should be a resounding positive, especially if Georgia transfer and Washington native Jacob Eason steps into the quarterback role and is as awesome as the promise he carried with him as a 5-star high school player who started as a freshman in Athens.

    The Huskies have plenty of quality options at running back, and the young, star-in-the-making defensive backs could wind up being the strength of the defense. If the Huskies find capable playmakers at linebacker and coming off the edge, they won't drop off at all.

    Eason is a superior talent to Browning, and there's talent all over the field for a program that has done well in living rooms the past couple of recruiting cycles. How quickly that translates on the field will determine just what level of contender they are in '19.

Washington State Cougars

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    Unlike their hated Apple Cup rivals, the Washington State Cougars aren't totally rebuilding their starting lineups.

    It just feels that way in the wake of losing Gardner Minshew II.

    The graduate transfer quarterback was one of the biggest stars in college football a year ago after coming over from East Carolina. Replacing him could be Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud.

    Gubrud was a finalist for the FCS version of the Heisman, the Walter Payton Award, for two years while at Eastern, and he has the ability to thrive in Mike Leach's offense. But he's probably going to miss the spring after suffering a lower-body injury, according to the Spokesman-Review's Theo Lawson.

    With Gubrud missing valuable reps in learning the offense, that opens the door for Trey Tinsley or Anthony Gordon to win the gig. 

    Exceptional receivers will help ease the transition for any of the signal-callers. The Cougars have eight returners who caught at least 20 passes a season ago, including Tay Martin and Dezmon Patmon who caught 69 and 53, respectively.

    With running back James Williams off to the NFL early, Max Borgi will be the primary back, and he, too, can catch the ball out of the backfield.

    With eight offensive starters and six defensive starters returning, Leach could field yet another strong unit, and this may be the year the Cougs finally upend the Huskies in the rivalry and go a little further in the Pac-12. It's tough winning 11 games, like they did a season ago, and watching the conference championship game.

    If a quarterback blossoms, Wazzu is going to be tough. Don't sleep on the Pirate and his band of high-flying weapons.


    All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from the 247Sports composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.