Five Teams with a Realistic Chance of Crashing the CFB Playoff

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist ISeptember 22, 2021

Five Teams with a Realistic Chance of Crashing the CFB Playoff

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    As we head into the fourth week of the college football season, there are a number of teams that look like favorites to make it into the College Football Playoff. No. 3 Oregon appears to be a lock to represent the Pac-12, as does No. 4 Oklahoma, who will likely repeat as Big 12 champions. No. 2 Georgia, who upset Clemson in the season-opener, still appears to be the favorites in the SEC East, and controls its own destiny to make it to the Playoff. 

    But as things stand now, there are also some teams that have a serious shot at crashing the CFP. What does it mean to “crash” the Playoff? Essentially, a team that pretty much nobody predicted to have even a shot at the CFP now looks primed as a dark horse candidate. Let’s take a look at which teams might surprise us all and be one of the top four teams in the country come Selection Sunday. 

Even Without Its Biggest Playmaker, Florida Made Alabama Look Mortal

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Moral victories usually don't help regarding CFP inclusion, but if they did, Florida's 31-29 loss to the No. 1 Crimson Tide would stand out.

    The Gators were down 21-3 after the first quarter but put up 440 total yards of offense and had a chance to tie it late. Had it not been for a missed extra point in the second frame, Florida may not have had to go for a fourth-quarter two-point conversion that failed. 

    All of this happened as the Gators' most electrifying playmaker, quarterback Anthony Richardson, sat on the sidelines. The redshirt freshman suffered a hamstring injury the week prior against USF.

    Looking ahead, Florida's schedule sets up nicely. It gets Tennessee at home this week, having won the last four in that series. That's followed by games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and a road contest against a struggling LSU (2-1). 

    The biggest contest remaining on Florida's regular-season schedule, per usual, is the Cocktail Party against No. 2 Georgia in Jacksonville on Oct. 30. After Alabama, this will be the toughest defense Florida faces. The Dawgs are ranked No. 1 defensively, per ESPN's S&P+. If Florida can get past Georgia, it will return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for a second consecutive year. 

    Alabama is still the favorite to win the SEC West, but it has to get past Ole Miss (No. 5 offense per S&P+), Texas A&M and Auburn before it can return to Atlanta for the sixth time in eight seasons. If Alabama gets out of its division unscathed, Florida could be waiting, and it will likely have Richardson back.

    The QB has rushed for 275 yards and two touchdowns this season. He's thrown for another 192 yards on 11 passes with two scores. He's an electric playmaker, and switching things up between Jones and Richardson would give Alabama a whole lot of trouble.

    Winning the SEC is as close as it gets to an automatic CFP berth.

The Ole Miss Rebels Will Give Alabama Trouble...Again

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Ole Miss' attack is rolling, as it ranks No. 1 in total offense (638.3) and points per game (52.7).

    The unit is led by quarterback Matt Corral, who had his best game against Tulane in Week 3. The junior threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns and had four rushing touchdowns

    But it's not just the aerial attack. Ole Miss is ranked sixth in rushing yards per game (298.7) behind a trio of backs. Jerrion Ealy leads the unit with 190 yards and a touchdown, followed by Henry Parrish Jr., who's averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Snoop Conner has 125 yards and three touchdowns.

    Corral is a threat on the run too. He's third on the team in rushing yards with 158, is averaging 4.8 yards per carry and has five rushing scores. 

    Defensively, the Rebels don't have to do too much given how productive the offense is, but the unit has allowed just 20.5 points per game. Ole Miss is 55th in total defense, allowing 340.7 yards per contest, and the D will have work to do when it isn't blowing out its opponent early. 

    The Rebels travel to Tuscaloosa to take on the top-ranked Tide on Oct. 2. Last season, Ole Miss nearly upset Alabama in Oxford, putting up 647 total yards in a 63-48 loss. Ole Miss allowed 519 yards per game in 2020, so the defensive improvement could be the difference. Ole Miss gets a bye this week before it heads to Alabama, which could give the Rebels a leg up.

    If Ole Miss can upset the Tide—and that's still a big if on the road—it still has to run the table in the SEC West. A week after Alabama, it gets No. 16 Arkansas at home, which looks like a much more intriguing matchup than it did when the season began. The other two divisional hurdles include a road game against Auburn on Oct. 30, followed by No. 7 Texas A&M at home two weeks later. 

    Sure, it's a tall order to defeat Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M. But if they manage to do so (or at least win two out of the three to still win the division), they will get an SEC Championship berth for the first time since the game began in 1992. Win that, and they're in.

The Iowa Hawkeyes Look Like One of the Big Ten's Best Teams

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    Bolstered by one of the nation's stingiest defenses, the 3-0 Iowa Hawkeyes are the new favorite to win the Big Ten West and have a shot to win the conference outright. They also got a signature road win in Week 2 over then-No. 9 Iowa State. 

    The Hawkeyes have given up just 10 points per game, good for fourth in the country. On the ground, they've allowed just 81 yards per contest, and linebackers Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs have anchored the front seven with 61 total tackles and a pair of forced fumbles. 

    Although Iowa's secondary allows 197.7 yards per game, it has six interceptions already—defensive backs Riley Moss and Matt Hankins have two apiece. 

    Iowa's offense is the weaker unit. But junior quarterback Spencer Petras had his best outing of the season last week against Kent State, throwing for 209 yards and a touchdown while completing 69.4 percent of his passes. Hawkeye running back Tyler Goodson has 307 yards and five touchdowns through three games. 

    So, who else does Iowa have to beat to make its case for the CFP?

    The Hawkeyes go on the road to face Maryland and a productive Terps offense Oct. 1. Eight days later, Iowa welcomes No. 6 Penn State to Kinnick Stadium in what should be a low-scoring affair, as the Nittany Lions also have a stout defense.

    Three weeks after that, Iowa goes on the road to face No. 18 Wisconsin in a game that could decide the Big Ten West. 

    According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the Hawkeyes have a 61.8 percent chance to win the West and a 22.1 percent chance to win the Big Ten—that's higher than both Penn State (10.4) and Michigan (18.5).

    Despite an early loss, Ohio State still has a 33.3 percent chance to win the conference, but this Buckeye offense would have a challenge ahead of it in Iowa if the two were to meet in the conference title game.

    If Iowa wins the Big Ten title even with one loss, the Hawkeyes are a virtual lock to make it into the playoff.

Penn State Could Represent the Big Ten for 1st Time

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    Barry Reeger/Associated Press

    Coming off a big victory at home in prime time over No. 22 Auburn, Penn State might be the Big Ten's best chance to make the playoff—though it might also have the toughest road to get there.

    PSU is ranked No. 6 and has a top-10 defense, according to S&P+. The Nittany Lions held Auburn to 20 points after the Tigers headed into that game averaging over 60 per contest. Although Penn State gives up plenty of yardage (342.3 per game), it's allowing just 14.3 points per outing.

    In a statement Week 1 road win over Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions stopped the Badgers on three out of their four drives that ended up in the red zone. Penn State has an experienced unit, too—it returned seven starters and landed transfers Derrick Tangelo from Duke and Arnold Ebiketie from Temple this offseason. Ebiketie has three tackles for loss, which leads the team, and Tanglo recovered a fumble against Auburn last week.

    Quarterback Sean Clifford is improving each week and had his best game in the win over Auburn, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns.

    PSU's receiving corps is led by senior Jahan Dotson, who has 245 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 12.3 yards per reception. The Nittany Lions average just 124.7 yards on the ground, so Penn State could use more than 54 yards per contest from running back Noah Cain. 

    Penn State has some big games ahead.

    It goes on the road to play No. 5 Iowa on Oct. 9, and then three weeks later it travels to Columbus, Ohio, to face the No. 10 Buckeyes. PSU then gets back-to-back games against Maryland and No. 19 Michigan.

    It ends the season with its annual rivalry game against No. 20 Michigan State on the road. Per ESPN's FPI, Penn State has a 16.9 percent chance to win the Big Ten East and just a 10.4 chance to win the conference.

    Still, PSU has a 15 percent shot to make it into the playoff. Perhaps a one-loss Penn State might be good enough to make it into the Top Four, even without winning the Big Ten. This outcome will likely require there being a few two-loss conference champions at the end of the season, however. 

Could Cincinnati Be the Playoff's First Non-Power 5 Team?

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Cincinnati heads into Week 4 ranked No. 8, having gone 12-1 since the beginning of last year. In 2020, they went undefeated in the regular season, won the AAC and lost a close one to Georgia in the Peach Bowl. 

    A non-power five team has never made it into the playoff. But a two-loss conference champion has also never made it in. If at least a couple of conference winners take two losses, the Bearcats could have a shot. 

    Cincy (3-0) ranks 13th in ESPN's overall S&P+ and has the No. 10 defense, per the same metric, allowing just 15 points per game. 

    Linebackers Deshawn Pace, Darrian Beavers and Joel Dublanko have combined for 66 tackles, two sacks, an interception and three fumble recoveries. The Bearcats allow 138 rushing yards per game, but the strength of their defense lies in the secondary. It's tied with multiple teams with six interceptions, the nation's second-highest mark. The Bearcats' secondary ranks 21st in passing defense, allowing just 160.7 yards per game. 

    The offense has put up 43 points per contest, tied for 12th. Senior quarterback Desmond Ridder has seven passing touchdowns and two scores on the ground. Junior running back Jerome Ford had 234 yards rushing and four combined touchdowns in his first two games. 

    Although the Bearcats beat Indiana 38-24 last week, they missed a chance to make a statement. Cincy will likely have to win big the rest of the way if it wants a shot at making the playoff. The good news is it has a big road game ahead in Week 4 against No. 12 Notre Dame. One early line has Cincy as a 3.5-point favorite, but the Bearcats will likely have to win by more than that to impress. 

    As far as the rest of the season goes, Cincy has to win out. The biggest tests will be UCF on Oct. 16 and an Oct. 30 road game against Tulane. It then closes out its season against Tulsa, USF, SMU and East Carolina.