Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State have all made the playoffs before and are the favorites to do so again. But there are a plethora of other teams waiting if one of them slips up. Here are the most likely newcomers to the College Football Playoff this season.
There are three clear top teams in the SEC: Alabama, Georgia and Auburn. But South Carolina is steadily rising under head coach Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks avoid Auburn and Alabama in cross-division play, and the non-conference schedule is weak until the season finale at Clemson. The only other monster game the Gamecocks have is a home game against Georgia in the second week. So if South Carolina can get on track early they can catch the Bulldogs off guard and gain an advantage in a slacking SEC East. Last year wasn't pretty for South Carolina, but they did finish 9-4 and beat Michigan in their bowl. This year, veteran quarterback Jake Bentley returns as well as Deebo Samuel, so South Carolina could turn some heads this season.
The Big 12 will possibly be the most wide-open conference in the Power 5 with nearly every team except Baylor and Kansas putting up a fight. The Mountaineers will benefit from returning one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, Will Grier, as well as four wide receivers and most of the offensive line. Lack of depth will hurt on both sides of the ball. But if they get to November relatively unscathed, the Mountaineers can put themselves in prime playoff position with a back-loaded schedule that contains Oklahoma and TCU at home in November.
TCU has seen a meteoric rise from decent Group of 5 team under Gary Patterson to one of the most consistent programs year in and year out. With the Big 12 being wide open, this could be TCU's chance to break through and finally make the playoffs. The defense is the bread and butter for the horned frogs, and this season the unit will be just as good if not better. The problem though lies in the offense. They have to replace the quarterback, their leading rusher, multiple offensive linemen and two wide receivers. The Horned Frogs can significantly improve their chances at a playoff berth with a win against Ohio State in Arlington, Texas, which is essentially a home game. And with the recent suspension of Urban Meyer, the Horned Frogs have an even better shot at taking this game. About a month later, TCU gets Oklahoma at home in a game that could go a long way in deciding the Big 12 title matchup and a possible playoff bid.
The Pac-12 is arguably the weakest Power 5 conference, so the Stanford Cardinal will have little room for error. But Stanford has become one of the most consistent programs under head coach David Shaw. The Cardinal will benefit from returning All-American running back Bryce Love, who ran for over 2100 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and quarterback K.J. Costello. Stanford travels to Notre Dame and Oregon in back-to-back weeks and then Washington in November. The Cardinal will need to be nearly flawless in their schedule to make the playoffs, but Shaw runs one of the most disciplined programs in the country and have a phenomenal half back.
Notre Dame is one of the most overrated football programs in the entire country. With that being said, the Fighting Irish have a shot at the playoffs this year. The defense returns nearly everybody from last year, so the problems may arise in the offense. Notre Dame lost two offensive linemen in the first 10 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft as well as its top running back and two wide receivers. Brandon Wimbush returns at quarterback, so retooling the offensive line for him will be a major key to success. The Irish will benefit greatly from having Michigan, Stanford and Florida State at home. Notre Dame has no conference title game, but road games at USC, Virginia Tech and Northwestern will certainly be enough to make the playoffs if they can navigate through the schedule.
Penn State is probably one of the 12 best football programs in the nation right now, but they could finish as low as fourth in their own division this season. That's how strong the Big 10 East is. Penn State lost offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and one of the best players in program history, Saquon Barkley. But they still have head coach James Franklin and dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley, who could see Heisman consideration this fall. But the schedule is brutal. From Sept. 29 to Nov. 10, the Nittany Lions play Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin at home and go to Michigan. The home-field advantage will be huge, but that's a gauntlet to go through especially with the pieces they have to replace on offense and defense.
I really want to believe in Auburn and love it, but earning a playoff bid this year will be extremely difficult. However, the Tigers still have a shot. The defense should once again be among the best in the country and will carry a reloading offense. Jarrett Stidham returns at quarterback, but the Tigers lost both halfbacks Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway as well as three offensive linemen. The schedule is rough from the start. Auburn faces No. 6 Washington and LSU in the first three weeks. November will be rough for the Tigers once again as they face Georgia and Alabama on the road in the span of three weeks to close the regular season.
The preseason hype happens every year for Michigan. But this year, the maize and blue could have its best season yet in the Jim Harbaugh era. Shea Patterson will be the starting quarterback after transferring from Ole Miss. Does Harbaugh finally have his quarterback? That remains to be seen, but Patterson will most certainly be an upgrade from John O'Korn. The Wolverines go to Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, but they get Penn State at home. And at no point in the schedule does Michigan have to go on the road in back-to-back weeks, so look out for the Wolverines this year.
Miami exceeded all expectations last year and rose to the top of college football only to sputter in its last two games and lose in the Orange Bowl to Wisconsin. But "The U" is just getting started under Mark Richt. Quarterback Malik Rosier returns, and the front seven look to be a dominant force again. The Hurricanes start off immediately with a test against LSU in Arlington, Texas. But the rest of the schedule is manageable, and Miami is fortunate to play arch-rival Florida State at home. The only team truly standing in their way of a playoff bid is Clemson.
It's Wisconsin's year, right? The Badgers return their entire offensive line, which consists of actual giants. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook, though inconsistent, showed Heisman potential in the Orange Bowl against Miami, throwing for 258 yards and four touchdowns. Wisconsin's non-conference schedule is a joke, but in Big 10 play the Badgers avoid Ohio State. They'll have to go to Iowa, Michigan and Penn State. But if they make the conference championship, the Badgers will likely be one game away from the playoffs just like they were last year.
Alabama and Clemson are all but locks to make the playoffs again. But there are plenty of other hungry teams who are chomping at the bit to finally earn a playoff berth for the first time in their school's history.