Buying or Selling Top Teams as College Football Playoff Contenders
Even as the calendar flips to October, our brains continue to drift toward the final College Football Playoff rankings in December. We're focused on the current games, but many of these results will shape what happens two months from now.
Before the contests happen, though, which programs look built to contend for a place in that four-team championship tournament?
Remember, a CFP contender is defined as a team capable of making the tournament. That's different than being a true national championship threat―for example, Notre Dame in 2018.
Last season at this time, we identified eight teams as worthy CFP candidates. Washington (finished ninth) and Penn State (12th) were slight misses, but the remaining six―Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State―ended in the top-six spots.
That's a high bar. Let's nudge it upward.
Top SEC Teams
Alabama: Pretty sure this one doesn't require much attention. Through five games, Tua Tagovailoa has accounted for 25 touchdowns with zero turnovers. The defense has surrendered only 14.8 points per game. With a healthy Tagovailoa, this is obvious. BUY.
Georgia: Head coach Kirby Smart's team offers an enticing blend of productive offense and shutdown defense. Georgia has a relatively large margin for error and already has a marquee win over Notre Dame. As long as the Bulldogs defeat Florida on Nov. 2, they can afford a loss somewhere and still be in position for the SEC Championship Game. Win there, and the CFP is a likely destination. BUY.
LSU: This defense was always going to give the Tigers a chance. This offense, however, is suddenly that of a championship team. Joe Burrow has completed 80.6 percent of his passes in this spread attack, totaling 1,520 yards and 17 touchdowns to just two interceptions in four games. The schedule is tough, but a victory over Alabama is―for the first time in several years―a real possibility. BUY.
Auburn: We'll always have September, Auburn. Freshman quarterback Bo Nix is a rising star, and the defense is excellent again. But the remaining slate is basically the worst-case scenario for any SEC team. Auburn travels to Florida and LSU in October and then hosts Georgia and Alabama in November. Managing a 2-2 record would be fantastic, but that's not enough to win the West. SELL.
Florida: Similar to LSU in recent years, Florida has a superb defense and a questionable offense. Quarterback Kyle Trask has been effective against lesser opponents, but the competition level is about to rise significantly with Auburn, LSU and Georgia. Could the Gators get the perfect breaks, beat Georgia and reach the SEC title game? Possibly, sure. Can they actually win in Atlanta? Highly doubtful. SELL.
Top Big Ten Teams
Ohio State: Last season, Ohio State had its worst defense in program history statistically. This year, the Buckeyes are a nightmare―in a good way. They squashed lesser foes in September, allowing 43 total points while averaging 52.4 with Georgia transfer Justin Fields leading the offense. The schedule is a bit tricky, but Ohio State hosts Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State before a suddenly not-so-dicey trip to Michigan. The Buckeyes are in a favorable spot. BUY.
Wisconsin: The parallels to the 2017 team are apparent. Jonathan Taylor is among the nation's most prolific players behind a stout offensive line, and Wisconsin's defense is exceptionally stingy (an FBS-leading 192.3 yards and 7.3 points allowed per game). That combination can carry the Badgers to the Big Ten title game, but that's where the quarterback needs to be a playmaker. Like Alex Hornibrook two years ago, we can't trust Jack Coan in that manner. SELL.
Penn State: Part of this discussion is the fact that Penn State must travel to Iowa, MSU and Ohio State, as well as host Michigan. Thanks to an elite defense (14th nationally), the Nittany Lions could navigate that at 3-1 and give themselves a chance. However, falling at Ohio State would demand two losses from the Buckeyes for Penn State to win the division. That's not a likely occurrence. SELL.
Iowa: Basically every year, Iowa has that bizarre loss to an underwhelming team. The lone exception was in 2015, when the Hawkeyes avoided Michigan, MSU, Penn State and Ohio State in crossover play. That offensive letdown feels inevitable, but the margin for error is slimmer in 2019. Along with a trip to Wisconsin, they travel to Michigan and host the Nittany Lions. Surviving that stretch and also winning the Big Ten Championship Game would be remarkable. SELL.
Other Top-10 Teams
Clemson: Trevor Lawrence is going through a sophomore slump. Texas A&M and North Carolina held All-American runner Travis Etienne to 120 combined rushing yards too. The offense has some serious questions to answer. But which of Clemson's remaining opponents is capable of a similar test? North Carolina State? Wake Forest? Probably not. The Tigers aren't playing like a championship threat right now, yet they appear to be destined for a Top Four ranking. BUY.
Oklahoma: Losing a rivalry game is never acceptable, but OU has twice reached the CFP despite a regular-season loss to Texas. The game itself isn't a season-defining result if the Sooners enter undefeated. The bigger question is whether Oklahoma would side-step another Big 12 letdown to set up a rematch in the conference title game. So far, the answer looks promising thanks to Jalen Hurts. November won't be easy, but an 11-1 or 12-0 regular season is likely. Beat the Longhorns in Arlington on Dec. 7, and OU is a top contender. BUY.
Notre Dame: The Irish need a whole lot of help. According to the CFP selection protocol, when teams are deemed comparable, the committee is supposed to consider championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head record and outcomes with common opponents. Notre Dame has no conference title available. Its strength of schedule won't be as high as a Big Ten or SEC school. Georgia beat Notre Dame. Unless the Irish play so dominantly they are not deemed comparable to another 11-1 team, the outlook isn't encouraging. A second loss eliminates them anyway. SELL.
Best of the Rest
Texas: Because of the early loss to LSU, Texas finds itself in a precarious spot. Still, the outlook is simple: Can the Longhorns beat Oklahoma twice? If everything breaks perfectly, losing to the Sooners in October yet defeating them in the Big 12 title keeps Texas in the discussion. That's only if the Longhorns are 11-2 while only losing to top-five opponents. That's a heck of a condition. SELL.
Oregon: Last year, Oregon dropped three Pac-12 road games. Can the Ducks turned those away contests into victories and knock out Washington, USC and Arizona State in 2019? Oregon might be the toughest evaluation because―despite the unfavorable slate―it has a reasonable claim to the Pac-12's best offense and defense. Based on the schedule, we're going to sell. But it's an uncomfortable choice. SELL.
Washington: We're headed to a similarly uncomfortable pick but a different conclusion. Washington hosts Oregon and Utah with an idle weekend in between, and the Apple Cup is in Seattle. If the Dawgs can avoid an upset at Arizona or Colorado, they're in a terrific spot. However, Jacob Eason already has two mediocre showings. The reason for concern is obvious, but we're ignoring it. Foolishly? BUY.
Boise State: Defeating Florida State was a terrific win for Boise State. But this is a down season for the Seminoles. That road victory isn't providing an inordinate amount of acclaim for a respected Broncos program. This outlook is comparable to what UCF faced and could not overcome in 2017 and 2018. SELL.
Utah: Kyle Whittingham's club lost to USC. And if we're buying Washington, it logically follows that we project a Huskies win in their Nov. 2 matchup. Utah's pass defense, which is stingy yet imperfect, will determine this team's ceiling. SELL.
UCF: If the Knights couldn't rise higher than eighth in the CFP poll despite back-to-back 12-0 seasons, they're not going to receive a better spot with a loss to Pitt on the resume. SELL.
Michigan: At this point, Michigan hasn't played like a "best of the rest" school. Given the preseason, expectations, though, the Wolverines merit a mention. They cannot afford a second loss but still have to play Iowa, Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State. Our optimism is not high. SELL.
SMU: Neat story! Head coach Sonny Dykes is thriving at another Group of Five school, and Texas transfer Shane Buechele is playing at a high level. SMU has a half-decent chance at 12-0, but its best victory would be over TCU―a mid-tier Big 12 team. It's not happening. SELL.