Months ago, who knew if college football would even be played in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life around the world, and football was no exception. Conferences canceled their seasons. Some fought through but have faced multiple hurdles to play and keep players safe. Others have even battled outbreaks within their programs. Yet for those who have been lucky enough to play, they have a shot at one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.
On Tuesday, November 24th at 7:00 pm on ESPN, the first College Football Playoff” Top 25 show will reveal their first rankings of the pandemic year. The selection committee will pick the top four teams in the country, based on strength of schedule, talent, and overall play. While there is still plenty of games to go, it is time to predict which programs will make up the initial rankings.
In the Running:
10. Oregon (3-0)
The fact that Oregon remains in contention is a testament to head coach Mario Cristobal’s ability to adjust. The team lost a handful of players to the NFL, including now Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. They then lost many others to the opt-out, including future first-round picks offensive tackle Penei Sewell and defensive back Jevon Holland.
Nevertheless, the Ducks are still sneaking into the conversation. Their offense trucking along, led by running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. Quarterback Tyler Shough has been fantastic, cumulating 1,070 total yards and nine total touchdowns in three games. Meanwhile defensively, they have held their ground despite losing multiple starters.
However, Oregon needs a miracle to make the playoff. The Ducks may be undefeated, but they have beaten opponents who are unranked, and nobody in their last three games is either. Playing a six-game schedule compared to others 10+ is going to be their biggest downside. Even if they meet a ranked USC in the Pac-12 championship, it may not be enough to overcome their scheduling setbacks.
9. Northwestern (5-0)
In 2018, Northwestern lost 45-24 to Ohio State and then went on to only win three games last season. But now, the Wildcats are back and on track to make the Big Ten Championship game. Thanks to this past week’s win over Wisconsin, they are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West.
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald once again leads a talented roster, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker duo Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher are rocks in the middle, while freshman defensive back Brandon Joseph has come out of nowhere with five interceptions. The defense is fourth in the nation in points against, averaging 12.6.
Offensively, Northwestern has a lot of work to do. The team averages only 25.8 per game, ranking 84th in the country. The team only averages 3.4 yards per carry, and quarterback Peyton Ramsey only has 926 yards passing in five games. The offense has just gotten by to this point, with only one win by more than one possession before beating Wisconsin. If they have any shot at the playoff, they will need to pick it up on offense.
8. BYU (9-0)
One of the best storylines of the season has been the emergence of BYU Heisman contender and quarterback Zach Wilson. Leading a high-flying Cougars offense that averages nearly 48 points per game, Wilson has put up 2,724 yards and 26 touchdowns through the air in nine games. The team has won all but one game by multiple possessions and has only given up 20+ points in two games.
Then again, not one of their opponents currently ranks in the top 25. Their lone top 25 matchup came against a Boise State team, in which their 51-17 blowout win knocked them out of the rankings. Especially with non-power five teams, the playoff committee focuses on strength of schedule, which for BYU is 97th out of 127 teams. With only one game left against a 3-2 San Diego State team, BYU needs a lot of help in order to leap those ahead of them.
7. Cincinnati (8-0)
Similar to BYU, Cincinnati looks to have some help in order to be the first non-power five conference team to make the playoff. Playing in the American Athletic Conference, they have beaten the likes of Army (7-2), SMU (7-2), Memphis (5-2), and one of the best offenses in the country in UCF. Though it is not the strongest of schedules, it certainly is stronger than BYU’s.
As for the actual team, Cincinnati boasts one of the stingiest defenses in the country. It was seen this past weekend against UCF, as they held them to a season-low 33 points and below four yards per carry. Offensively, the Bearcats can tear up opponents too. They average nearly six yards per carry and have five different players over 200 yards receiving on the year. But again, being a non-power five team, all Cincinnati can do is keep their resume clean and hope another team slips up.
6. Florida (6-1)
Since a loss in their third game to Texas A&M, Florida has been tearing up everyone, including Georgia. Their offense has been unstoppable, led by a Heisman candidate in quarterback Kyle Trask. Through just seven games, Trask already has 31 touchdown passes and 2,554 yards passing. Not to mention, the best tight end in the country Kyle Pitts is set to return after missing two games due to nasal surgery. Pitts has eight touchdowns in five games to go with 24 receptions for 414 yards.
As for their defense, Florida has been week-to-week. Early in the season, the unit struggled, but of recent has put together a string of better performances. However, their loss to Texas A&M now looms large as the Aggies are the number five team…
5. Texas A&M (5-1)
Similar to Florida, the Aggies have overcome an early-season loss and went on a convincing rampage to fly up to the fifth spot. They beat Florida in their third game following a loss to Alabama, and their defense has been dominating. They have taken care of business when they should and have two more resume-building games against a ranked Auburn and tough Tennessee program.
A large part of their success has been thanks to the efficiency of senior quarterback Kellen Mond and running back Isaiah Spiller. Mond is having a career year with 16 touchdown passes and a 158.9 rating, while Spiller has posted 643 yards rushing on a 6.2 average. The team is very well rounded, and in a position to be the first to steal a playoff spot if one of the top four lose.
The Playoff Field:
4. Clemson (7-1)
After a multi-game absence, the best player in college football is set to make his return. Trevor Lawrence is coming back from COVID-19 to retake the reigns from D.J. Uiagalelei, who performed well during his time out. Nevertheless, the team still suffered a loss to Notre Dame, one that makes their likely rematch in the ACC Championship game a win or go home situation.
This season, Clemson, despite defensive youth showing at times, has taken care of business against some rather tough opponents. From Miami to Boston College, the team has never faltered offensively. They have the best running back in college football in Travis Etienne and multiple receivers who can do damage. In other words, with Lawrence coming back, do not expect the sixth-highest scoring offense in the country to slow down anytime soon.
3. Ohio State (4-0)
Without a doubt, the Buckeyes have one of the most talented rosters in the country. From quarterback Justin Fields to cornerback Shaun Wade, they have playmakers at every level. Yes, they narrowly escaped Indiana this past weekend, but they still did. And with an easy schedule going forward, they have a straight path to yet another playoff berth.
What could be interesting is how the committee approaches talent vs strength of schedule. Their only opponent who remains ranked is Indiana, meaning they need them to win out. Additionally, they Northwestern to continue to cruise to the championship game to get another highly ranked win.
2. Notre Dame (8-0)
Gritty. That describes the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The team has had some questionable performances, although their win against a Lawrence-less Clemson is why they are here. Contests against #25 North Carolina (6-2) and a tough beat in Wake Forest (4-3) will be closely monitored as they can be resume builders.
The Fighting Irish have an experienced quarterback in Ian Book, and a running back in Kyren Williams who has 777 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on the year. The Fighting Irish remain defensively sound, although the team as a whole has played down to their opponent multiple times this year. A strong finish will go a long way to proving they have the talent to truly compete in the playoff this time around.
1. Alabama (7-0)
Once again, Alabama has established itself as the best team in the country. Their defense has settled in after a rough start and has been cruising, while the offense has not missed a beat. Quarterback Mac Jones remains in Heisman trophy contention while running back Najee Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith have joined him to form the most dangerous trio in the sport. As for their schedule, two games remain against a ranked Auburn and Arkansas. That is until the SEC Championship Game, which could make for their biggest game of the year. Even with a loss, the Crimson Tide still have a strong enough resume to hold a spot in