5 Teams That Could Surprise College Football World and Crash the Playoff
With the 2014 football season just days away, every fan and media outlet have likely put their playoff predictions on the record. Ralph Russo of The Associated Press, for example, has Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon as his final four.
For the most part, playoff predictions have included those teams or some variation of Auburn, UCLA, Michigan State and Oklahoma. But which teams could come out of nowhere to crash the playoff party? Picking these teams is even harder since they (1) have to exceed expectations and (2) need some things to break their way schedule-wise.
Here are five programs poised to do it, though.
Of the non-power-five programs that could bust down the door of the College Football Playoff, Marshall is one of the easier picks.
And it starts with the player pictured above: quarterback Rakeem Cato.
The senior has been prolific in the Thundering Herd's offense, amassing more than 8,100 yards passing and 76 touchdowns through the air over the past two seasons.
Marshall also returns Cato's favorite target: Tommy Shuler. If Cato has another big year statistically, he can cement himself as a dark-horse Heisman candidate along the way.
Marshall's schedule also sets up nicely with zero games against power-five opponents. On the flip side, though, that means Marshall has to go undefeated to even be in the conversation for a playoff spot—and probably rack up several "style points" along the way.
Even then, the Herd probably need help—welcome to life as a "Group of Five" team in the playoff era—but keep an eye on them.
The Big Ten champion competing in the first College Football Playoff could be someone other than Ohio State or Michigan State. It's a long shot—hence the headline of this piece—but Iowa could be a sneaky playoff possibility.
For one, the Hawkeyes are in the right division: the Big Ten West. According to The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Big Ten preseason rankings, Iowa is predicted to finish second in the West behind Wisconsin. That doesn't indicate a lack of faith in Kirk Ferentz's team.
Iowa's schedule is more than manageable all the way up to the final two games of the season against Wisconsin and Nebraska—both of which the Hawkeyes get at home. Despite the popular jokes about Iowa's offense, there's some talent returning on that side of the ball, including quarterback Jake Rudock.
"Last year at this time, the sky was falling. Now, it’s going the other way. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But we think we have a chance to have a good team," said Ferentz, via Brian Bennett of ESPN.com.
Going undefeated may not be necessary, and a strong November/early December could make Iowa one of the hottest teams in the country. While it would be up to the selection committee to avoid the "what have you done for me lately?" line of reasoning that was a staple of the BCS, Iowa could have as many as three excellent wins on its resume.
And, of course, a Big Ten champion getting into the playoff would mean another conference champion from a power conference would be left out.
There's only one thing to say—Chuckie Keeton is back.
Keeton, Utah State's quarterback, is one of the most exciting players outside the power five. Unfortunately, his season was cut short a year ago because of a knee injury. He's a fun player to watch who can make plays with his arm and legs, as Paul Myerberg of USA Today notes:
Keeton is basically another Colin Kaepernick, and don't roll your eyes at the comparison: Like Kaepernick, the Aggies' starter is long, agile, speedy, long-stepped, big-armed, accurate and supremely dangerous, assets that move him into an elite class of Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks
The Aggies are more than Keeton, though. They should have another solid running game, and while the defense may not be as stingy as last year's, it should still be more than good enough to take pressure off the offense.
Utah State's schedule is not overly daunting, so like Marshall, the Aggies have to go undefeated to even be considered for a playoff. However, there are three key games to watch: the season opener at Tennessee, a midseason road game against BYU and a season-ending game at Boise State.
Beating Tennessee on the road would be considered a solid win, provided a young Vols team doesn't completely fall apart. Ideally, BYU and Boise State finish the season ranked in the Top 25.
If the Aggies somehow sneak into the playoff, a conference champion from a power conference would likely start stumping for playoff expansion.
This is impossible, right? Clemson, which is in the same division as Florida State, in the playoff?
By picking Clemson to have even an outside shot at a playoff appearance, I've officially sounded the death knell for the Tigers, who will now undoubtedly finish 7-5.
For that, Tigers fans, I am truly sorry.
But here's why Clemson could be an intriguing team: It starts on defense, where the Tigers have one of the more athletic defensive lines in college football. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been overshadowed by his offensive counterpart, Chad Morris, but his group could be ahead of the offense.
On that note, the Tigers offense is replacing quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, and now running back Zac Brooks is out for the season with a foot injury. This is an important year for Morris, who will be in charge of showing he can plug and play anyone in his scheme and get results.
Clemson's schedule is intriguing, but its playoff chances likely come down to three games: the season opener at Georgia, the Sept. 20 game at Florida State and the season-ending game against South Carolina. If Clemson finishes 11-1, it could realistically be in the playoff discussion regardless of whether it wins its own division.
It would certainly need help if it doesn't win its division, but this team would still be in the conversation.
Getting two teams from the same conference in the playoff could be hard. Getting two teams from the ACC into the playoff would blindside just about everyone. That means, at a minimum, two power conferences would be shut out of the playoff pool.
Oklahoma State truly has all the key elements of a blindsiding team. For one, the Cowboys are basically a brand-new team. The Pokes return just nine starters from last year's group.
The talent is there—head coach Mike Gundy deserves credit for building a consistent program in Stillwater—but there's simply no telling the direction this specific team is headed. Last year's veteran squad won 10 games and came oh-so-close to winning the conference. A dip is in the cards.
Second, the Pokes open the season against the defending national champs, Florida State, and are 17.5-point underdogs, according to VegasInsider.com.
Is anyone realistically picking Oklahoma State to win? In the unlikely event that Oklahoma State pulls the upset, that would not only put Gundy's team in the early playoff conversation but could shake up Florida State's chances.
Oklahoma State's final four games are also big: at Kansas State, Texas, at Baylor and at Oklahoma. The Bears and Sooners have their own set of eyes on the playoff, so the Cowboys have two more ripe opportunities to play spoiler. Kansas State has become the sexy sleeper pick for the playoff, but Oklahoma State has a bigger come-out-of-nowhere feel given its expectations.
Hypothetically, let's say Oklahoma State barely loses to Florida State and beats Baylor and Oklahoma to win the Big 12. That's a serious playoff contender.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.