College Football Playoff breakdown: An early look at top contenders


For the most part, ESPN’s Football Power Index and Bill Connelly’s SP+ agree on the top 10 preseason teams, and while the coaching staffs and returning production help decipher that, the scheduling will also determine which teams emerge as contenders.

The past six seasons have taught us that strength of schedule plays a significant role in the College Football Playoff selection committee meeting room, but so do a variety of other factors. Here’s a close look at the top 10 preseason teams, listed alphabetically, and how the 13-member committee is likely to view them throughout the season:

Preseason FPI: No. 4
Preseason SP+: No. 1

Where they stand now: Alabama sidestepped some staff uncertainty when offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian withdrew his name from the Colorado coaching search, allowing for more continuity to develop with returning quarterback Mac Jones. Jones, who went 3-1 last year at the expense of injured starter Tua Tagovailoa, threw for 1,503 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. The Tide lost significant talent on defense, but there won’t be any shortage of motivation after missing the playoff for the first time in six years.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Sept. 19 vs. Georgia. A loss against the SEC East favorites won’t keep Alabama out of the playoff, but it will make for an extremely pressure-packed November that includes a road trip to LSU, Texas A&M and the Iron Bowl. If Alabama beats Georgia, and meets the Bulldogs again in the SEC title game, it could be difficult for Alabama to win twice — or it could again open the door for both to finish in the top four.

What the committee will like: A win against USC on Sept. 5 in the AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium. Assuming USC has a respectable season, this is the kind of Power 5 opponent that earns playoff contenders respect within the committee meeting room. It’s not a deal-breaker if Alabama were to lose, but a win can certainly earn some bonus points for its résumé.

What the committee won’t like: Two losses and no SEC title. See: 2019. Alabama isn’t immune to missing the playoff. It’s not impossible for a two-loss team to finish in the top four, but it hasn’t happened yet. With Georgia State, Kent State and UT Martin on the schedule, it would certainly help Alabama’s cause to beat USC, the most formidable nonconference opponent on its schedule. If Alabama lost to USC, it wouldn’t have a Power 5 nonconference win, and if it lost a second regular-season game, Alabama probably would have to win the SEC to have a chance at becoming the first two-loss team in the CFP.

Preseason FPI: No. 1
Preseason SP+: No. 3

Where they stand now: Clemson has to replace four starters on the offensive line, and for the first time in six seasons, Tony Elliott will be the sole offensive coordinator, as former co-coordinator Jeff Scott was hired at South Florida in December. Still, with quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne returning, the Tigers should again be the overwhelming favorite to win the ACC and reach the CFP for a sixth straight season.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Nov. 7 at Notre Dame. Wait, the committee wouldn’t leave out a one-loss ACC champion, would it? Maybe. It depends on what the other Power 5 conference champions had done, and if Clemson can’t beat Notre Dame — and the rest of the ACC is again embarrassingly weak — what would be the Tigers’ best win? Oct. 10 at Florida State? Home against South Carolina? A loss against the Irish could create a great debate.

What the committee will like: Clemson’s defense. Yes, the return of Lawrence is the headline, but the Tigers return all four starters to their defensive line and are again projected to have the most efficient defense in the country, according to ESPN’s FPI.

What the committee won’t like: The overall strength of schedule. It only becomes a problem for Clemson if the Tigers lose a game they shouldn’t.

Preseason FPI: No. 10
Preseason SP+: No. 4

Where they stand now: Not even Georgia knows exactly what its offense will look like with a new quarterback and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was hired from the Cleveland Browns. The Bulldogs are replacing quarterback Jake Fromm and seven other offensive starters.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Oct. 31 vs. Florida. Yes, the most difficult game on the schedule is the Sept. 19 trip to Alabama, but Georgia can lose and still have a chance to avenge the loss in the SEC championship — if it wins the East. And it’s not going to be as easy as the preseason predictions might lead you to believe. Georgia has defeated its SEC East rival three straight seasons, but on paper, Florida might be more deserving of the label preseason favorite in its division. The Gators return 12 starters from last season’s 11-win team, including quarterback Kyle Trask.

What the committee will like: Overall résumé. With crossover games against Alabama AND Auburn, and two Power 5 nonconference opponents in Virginia and Georgia Tech, Georgia could have an edge when measured against another contender with a similar record.

What the committee won’t like: 0-2 vs. SEC West. Not only would losses to Alabama and Auburn put Georgia in a serious pit before November, it would force the Bulldogs to win the SEC. With two conference losses, just getting to the title game would be tough, and put Georgia in a must-win situation against the Gators (see: biggest obstacle). Plus, if Georgia can’t at least split against the SEC West, that regular-season résumé might not be as impressive.

Preseason FPI: No. 9
Preseason SP+: No. 12

Where they stand now: Notre Dame returns quarterback Ian Book and all five starting offensive linemen, which should help first-year playcaller Tom Rees. The Irish still have to replace their leading rusher and top three receivers, though. Notre Dame will always be the X factor in the CFP, with the potential to bump out a second Power 5 conference champion, but those within the program know their margin for error is only one loss.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Winning on the road. Don’t underestimate the challenge of opening the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, or facing Wisconsin at historic Lambeau Field. The Irish have a total of three neutral-site games in 2020, and three true road games (Pitt, Georgia Tech and USC). If the Irish are going to finish in the top four, they’re going to have to win on the road, because there’s no guarantee home-field advantage will help them Nov. 7 against Clemson.

What the committee will like: Wins against division and/or conference champions. Notre Dame obviously can’t win a conference title, but it still has a chance to claim victories over what should be the ACC champion (Clemson) and a Big Ten contender (Wisconsin). Against Clemson, the Irish have a chance to upend a top-four team and earn what could be one of the best wins in the country. These wins don’t have to be pretty — the others do.

What the committee won’t like: Close wins. Notre Dame has a decent schedule, especially with Clemson and Wisconsin, and a trip to Ireland to face Navy, but if it’s going to assert itself as one of the top four teams, it can’t narrowly beat the likes of Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. It can’t struggle against a rebuilding Arkansas team, and should take advantage of home field against a rapidly-improving Louisville team. If Notre Dame finishes with one loss, which is likely, it will be compared against one-loss Power 5 conference champions. If those teams have stronger résumés, Notre Dame has to leave no doubt it’s one of the four best, and the only way to do that is win convincingly.

Preseason FPI: No. 2
Preseason SP+: No. 2

Where they stand now: Quarterback Justin Fields returns for his second season, along with five other offensive starters, which is reason for optimism in Columbus, but the defense is a legitimate question. Boston College hired Jeff Hafley as its coach, and defensive end Chase Young, defensive tackle Davon Hamilton, linebacker Malik Harrison, cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette, as well as safety Jordan Fuller, are all gone. The Buckeyes were a contender last season because they were one of the nation’s most complete teams. There was a point when the committee put Ohio State No. 1 and LSU No. 2 because committee chair Rob Mullens said the Buckeyes’ defense was “just a little ahead at this point.” Can Ohio State’s defense be the difference again?

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Oct. 24 at Penn State. Sure, there’s a trip to Oregon, but one nonconference road loss to a ranked opponent won’t keep Ohio State out of the top four. Yes, there’s always the Team Up North, but the Buckeyes get Michigan at home. The trickiest game in 2020 is the trip to Happy Valley, because Penn State should be a contender in the Big Ten as well, and they’re both in the East division. Of course, every game looms larger should Ohio State lose to Oregon on Sept. 12, as a second regular-season loss would probably knock the Buckeyes out of the playoff. But if they can win the East again and finish with one loss or better, they are in the mix.

What the committee will like: The Sept. 12 trip to Oregon. Win or lose, the committee will respect this scheduling, unless for some reason Ohio State loses in lopsided fashion. This is comparable to Oregon’s game against Auburn last year, which the Ducks lost. The committee never held that close loss against Oregon, which went on to win the Pac-12. It was the embarrassing loss at Arizona State that did in the Ducks. As long as Ohio State plays well, it should receive the same treatment, and a win would obviously carry weight within the meeting room through Selection Day.

What the committee won’t like: A home loss. The committee considers where the games are played, and if Ohio State is a top-four team, there’s no reason it should lose at home to Bowling Green, Buffalo, Rutgers, Iowa, Nebraska or Indiana. And if it’s going to win the East, it has to beat Michigan at home, too.

Preseason FPI: No. 3
Preseason SP+: No. 8

Where they stand now: Quarterback Jalen Hurts is gone after only one season, receiver CeeDee Lamb is also gone, and the defense has major depth issues. The Sooners have to replace their top two players on defense, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and linebacker Kenneth Murray, and they’re all trying to forget giving up 63 points in a loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. One year after making some strides under coordinator Alex Grinch, Oklahoma’s defense is in a rebuilding mode.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Texas. On paper, Texas makes a case to be ranked ahead of Oklahoma this preseason. The Longhorns have two things OU does not: an experienced starting quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, and a more experienced defense, particularly in the secondary. Oklahoma has lost the regular-season game to Texas before, and then finished in the top four after beating the Longhorns to win the Big 12 title. Given the state of both programs, it’s very possible this series could again determine the Big 12’s representative in the playoff.

What the committee will like: The Big 12. While the voices of the CFP have repeatedly stated they rank teams, not conferences, this could be a collectively strong year for the Big 12. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State and Baylor are all potential CFP top-25 teams. This is good news for the Sooners’ strength of schedule, but it also makes a more difficult path to the conference title game.

What the committee won’t like: A nonconference loss. It doesn’t matter who it’s to — Missouri State, Tennessee or Army — it could be an eliminator. Why? Alabama has USC. Clemson has Notre Dame, Ohio State has Oregon and vice versa for both. All of those other contenders have bigger, better opportunities, and while OU would still be considered as a one-loss Big 12 champ, it might not measure up against another one-loss Power 5 champion with better wins — and a better loss.

Preseason FPI: No. 5
Preseason SP+: No. 5

Where they stand now: Penn State has flirted with playoff consideration under James Franklin, and should have enough in place this season to make a serious run. Starting quarterback Sean Clifford returns, along with the Nittany Lions’ top three running backs, but the passing game still has something to prove. Anyone who watched linebacker Micah Parsons in the Nittany Lions’ win over Memphis in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic saw a true All-American who should be one of the most disruptive players in the country.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: October. Penn State doesn’t have to face crossover opponents Wisconsin or Minnesota during the regular season in 2020, but it has to survive October. The three-game stretch against Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State will define Penn State’s season, but don’t underestimate the Oct. 31 trip to Indiana, either. Penn State has been in the playoff shadow of Ohio State, and will need to take advantage of getting the Buckeyes at home this year for that to change.

What the committee will like: Road wins. Penn State will face Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Sept. 12, a tricky place to play, especially in Week 2, and they’re in Ann Arbor on Oct. 3 and Bloomington on Halloween. If the Nittany Lions can win all three of those games, it would carry weight in the committee room.

What the committee won’t like: A lackluster November. Penn State ends the season against Nebraska, Michigan State, Maryland and Rutgers — four programs that combined to finish 17-32 last year. Meanwhile, Alabama will be punctuating its résumé against Auburn. Ohio State will be facing Michigan. Notre Dame is playing Clemson and USC. Other contenders have a chance to wow the committee, and Penn State will be playing in their shadows. Style points can help compensate for that.



Cole Cubelic and Mike Golic Jr. analyze if 2020 is the year that Texas is back.

Preseason FPI: No. 7
Preseason SP+: No. 14

Where they stand now: OK, now might be the time to raise expectations under Tom Herman. It’s Year 4, he has had plenty of time to recruit, and Herman also made sweeping staff changes after finishing 8-5 last season. He has 18 returning starters, including quarterback Sam Ehlinger, but the team will have to adjust to new offensive and defensive coordinators.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Sept. 12 at LSU. This was a wild game in Austin last year, with Ehlinger holding his own for most of the game, but LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was already padding his Heisman résumé in a 45-38 win. LSU has plenty to replace this year, including Burrow, but Tiger Stadium is an extremely difficult venue in which to win, and it’s a critical game for the Longhorns’ playoff hopes. Sure, they can survive if it’s their only loss, but that’s a big if with what should be a deep Big 12, plus the possibility of facing OU — or another conference contender — twice.

What the committee will like: Overall strength of schedule. With the nonconference game at LSU, plus four more conference road games and what should be a respectable season in the Big 12, Texas will have a great chance to finish in the top four as a one-loss Big 12 champion.

What the committee won’t like: Another loss to a sub-.500 team. It’s one thing to lose to LSU or Oklahoma. A road loss in the regular-season finale at Oklahoma State can also be forgiven with a Big 12 title. Texas cannot, though, stumble against TCU the way it did last year, or to another 5-7 team like Maryland in 2018.

Preseason FPI: No. 8
Preseason SP+: No. 10

Where they stand now: This program still has a lot to prove under Jimbo Fisher, and last year’s grueling schedule was a good barometer of how the Aggies stack up against national title contenders and how far they need to climb to be one. Texas A&M’s losses were to Clemson, LSU, Georgia — the ACC champion, the national champion and the SEC East champion, respectively — and Alabama and Auburn. Texas A&M has a chance to take advantage of some coaching changes and roster turnover in the SEC West, but if the Aggies are going to win the division, they have to get more from quarterback Kellen Mond.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: An average offense. A common trait among past national champions has been outstanding quarterback play, and Texas A&M hasn’t had it — or enough protection from the offensive line, or enough from the running game. The Aggies gave up 34 sacks in the SEC last year, second most in the conference. In those five losses, Texas A&M was outscored by an average of 33.6-15.6.

What the committee will like: October road wins. The back-to-back games at Auburn and South Carolina to close October are critical. Yes, they end the season against Alabama and LSU, games that will help define the SEC West winner, but if Texas A&M can’t survive October, the Aggies will be relegated to role of spoiler.

What the committee won’t like: September. Zzzzzz. Texas A&M starts the season against Abilene Christian, followed by North Texas, Colorado and Arkansas. If the Aggies are going to be taken seriously in the SEC West race, let alone come within striking distance of the top four in 2020, they should be undefeated heading into Mississippi State on Oct. 3, their first true road trip of the season. There’s nothing in the first half of the season that’s going to wow the committee members, especially when other contenders have more challenging opponents. With Mike Leach in his first season with the Bulldogs, and that game followed by Fresno State, a 6-0 start heading into Auburn isn’t an unrealistic expectation.

Preseason FPI: No. 6
Preseason SP+: No. 9

Where they stand now: The Badgers have to replace some major star power in running back Jonathan Taylor and receiver Quintez Cephus, but with nine defensive starters returning, Wisconsin should again contend for the Big Ten title. The question is if the Badgers can take the next step and actually win it.

Biggest obstacle to playoff: Back-to-back games against Michigan and Notre Dame away from Madison. Wisconsin beat Michigan last year at home but this time has to face the Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Sept. 26. The following week, Wisconsin faces Notre Dame at Lambeau Field. The Badgers can’t afford to go 0-2 during that stretch and still expect a shot at the top four.

What the committee will like: Wisconsin’s defense. The committee members go deeper than strength of schedule, and the Badgers have enough pieces in place to impress them defensively. Last year’s group finished fourth in the FBS in total defense, sixth in rushing defense, 10th in scoring defense, and 12th in passing defense. As long as the Badgers have the leadership, they will have the returning talent.

What the committee won’t like: A November loss. Wisconsin’s biggest challenges are early, and if the Badgers slip up against Michigan or Notre Dame, they certainly can’t lose to Northwestern, Purdue, Nebraska or Iowa — all respectable teams capable of beating Wisconsin, but teams the Badgers should beat if they’re truly top-four material.

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