The College Football Playoff needs a shakeup. The formula to this point has not led to many surprises, short of appearances by Michigan State in 2015 and Washington in 2016 — both of which were rewarded with fruitless semifinal matchups against Alabama.
It’s hard to welcome potential Cinderella stories with such a small bracket. The expected eventual move toward an eight-team tournament would breed more upheaval at season’s end. Until then, we can still hope.
The best place to look for a sleeper — with how predictable the field has become, let’s say anyone outside the preseason top 10 — is on the schedules of the favored few. Proponents of the four-team playoff say the regular season is its own playoff. In that case, who can beat Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia and Ohio State and hold on for dear life until the CFP committee sets the bracket?
Texas A&M: No team in the country has more title bouts over 12 games than the Aggies. They play at Clemson, Georgia and Louisiana State but get the chance to host Alabama and Auburn in College Station. Texas A&M boasts a national championship coach in Jimbo Fisher and a talented quarterback in Kellen Mond. If the Aggies can win those two massive home games and finish 10-2 with that schedule, they’ll have an argument for a way into the playoff.
Washington: The Huskies making the playoff, given three straight New Year’s Six bowl appearances, would not be a shocking development. But they are in the opposite scenario of the Aggies in that they would need to go unbeaten to gain enough respect to make the field. Luckily for Washington, it has the schedule to do it. Win at Brigham Young and Stanford and hold serve at rowdy Husky Stadium and then win the Pac-12 championship game and Chris Petersen will make his second playoff appearance.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions lose quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, but they’ve been recruiting at a high level and should have a fierce defense. A soft early schedule should allow the offense to find its footing before playing at Iowa, hosting Michigan and traveling to Michigan State. There’s a universe in which Penn State has one loss heading into the Nov. 23 showdown at Ohio State, which means the Nittany Lions are worth keeping an eye on.
Syracuse: It all comes down to Syracuse’s mammoth home game against Clemson on Sept. 14. The Orange beat the Tigers two years ago in the Carrier Dome, where things tend to get wild in a hurry. Dino Babers’ program is now coming off a 10-3 season that would have been even better if Syracuse had finished off its legitimate upset bid at Clemson.
Oklahoma State: It has been a while since the Cowboys entered a season unranked, and, even after a 7-6 season, that’s probably unwarranted given the consistency Oklahoma State has shown under Mike Gundy. The Cowboys have a talented redshirt freshman quarterback in Spencer Sanders and plenty of playmakers to win Big 12 shootouts. Most importantly, the season finishes with a Bedlam visit from rival Oklahoma.