When the 2019 season begins on Saturday, Aug. 24, every team will have the same record, and theoretically, the same chance of winning the College Football Playoff. Except … they won’t. Based on what we’ve seen in the first five years of the CFP, we can draw plenty of conclusions as to the teams that will actually have an opportunity to take home the trophy at year’s end.
First, let’s eliminate Group of Five schools from the jump. That leaves us with the Power Five teams along with Notre Dame, but even then, not all Power Five programs are created equally. Within those 65 teams in any given year, there are never more than 10 real contenders for the national title.
To run down the field and earn a spot in the CFP, you need to have a combination of factors working in your favor. One of the most important being a roster talented enough — and remaining healthy enough — to get through your schedule with as few flaws displayed as possible. Strength of schedule can work both for and against you, depending which games you potentially drop.
So which teams are the real title contenders entering 2019? Below is a list of 16 teams broken down into tiers. To be clear: Just because a team is on this list does not mean I’m predicting that it will be a threat in 2019. I have a few listed who I do not believe will be a factor, but because of their pedigree and talent level, they cannot be ruled out entirely.
Alabama, Clemson: You didn’t have to finish reading the headline to this post before you knew exactly where these teams would be located — at the top. There has never been a College Football Playoff without Alabama in the field, and Clemson has been selected the last four seasons. These two have met in the CFP four times, and while they’ve split those four meetings, both Clemson’s wins came in the CFP National Championship, including last year.
Both enter 2019 with some questions that need answering, but they remain the gold standard for college football programs right now. The difference is that Alabama’s path to the CFP (through the SEC) is a more complicated than Clemson’s (through the ACC) this year. Still, you’d be a lot more surprised to see one of these teams miss the playoff than both of them make it again.
Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma: Of these four teams, one has won a national title in the CFP era (Ohio State in 2014), and another has lost a title game in overtime (Georgia in 2017). Then there’s Oklahoma, which has reached the playoff three times, including each of the last two years. The problem is that Oklahoma has yet to win a playoff game. Finally, there’s Notre Dame, which went undefeated in the regular season last year but then ran into the buzzsaw that was Clemson in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
All four of these programs can get back, though some have easier paths than others. As Ohio State has shown, it’s capable of winning the Big Ten and being left out. Of course, that’s what happens when you lose to Purdue by 29. Without a conference title game to play, Notre Dame will have to be nearly perfect to get back, and with road games against Georgia and Michigan, that won’t be easy. As for Oklahoma, it has proven to be the best program in the Big 12 as of late, and it has the CFP Selection Committee’s respect. Should it win the conference with fewer than two losses, it will be a favorite for selection.
With that Notre Dame game on its schedule and its SEC slate schedule, Georgia will have a shot should it get through the season with only one loss and not win the SEC. Let’s not forget that plenty of people wanted to put it in the playoff last season despite it being 11-2 with a 20-point loss on its resume.
Michigan, LSU, Texas, USC: These are the four schools that have plenty of history but have yet to make a College Football Playoff appearance. We’ll start with the one that made you do a double-take. No, I don’t think USC is going to reach the playoff this year, but it’s still USC, and it’s still a roster loaded with talent. It’s also in the Pac-12 where there isn’t another obvious choice to win the conference, and USC also has the brand appeal. Should the Trojans defy expectations and win the Pac-12, they’ll be a real threat for playoff selection as long as they don’t have more than one loss.
Then there’s Michigan, LSU and Texas; these are three teams that are talented enough to win their conferences in 2019. Can you see any of these three being left out of the final four if they win their respective conference? The problem they all face is that there’s at least one other top program they need to topple to get there. Michigan must get through a demanding schedule unscathed, and then beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011. LSU has to beat Alabama for the first time since 2011. Texas has beaten Oklahoma a few times during the regular season lately, but it has to both beat Oklahoma and win its other games. That’s always been the problem lately!
All of these teams have the talent and brand appeal to be considered threats.
Other SEC teams
Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M: If the first five years of playoff selection have taught me anything, it’s that conference titles matter, but they don’t matter as much as some conferences may want. No conference is better equipped to take advantage of that more than the SEC. The committee tends to admire the ability to survive the SEC with only a loss (and maybe even two) more than winning in Atlanta at the end of the season.
As such, all three of these teams must be considered. And to be clear, the reason I chose these three is that they’re all capable of winning the SEC in 2019. You wouldn’t consider any of them favorites in the conference, but if we fast-forwarded to December right now and you saw one of these teams playing in Atlanta, you wouldn’t be surprised, either.
West Coast biased against
Oregon, Utah, Washington: Whether it’s reality or more of a narrative, I’ll let you decide for yourself, but it’s hard to deny that there has been a gap between the Pac-12 and the rest of the Power Five in recent years. The conference just hasn’t earned much respect nationally, and a lot of that is on the league itself. The conference is considering all sorts of ideas to raise its profile, but what would help more than anything is having a dominant team. The Pac-12 doesn’t have one right now.
I listed USC earlier, but the Trojans aren’t a favorite in the conference this year. These three schools are the favorites, but when conference title odds were first released earlier this summer, Washington and Oregon were co-faves with Utah right behind them. And that’s the problem the Pac-12 faces right now. Parity is great for exciting conference title races, and exciting games on Saturday, but it’s not a good thing for playoff consideration or getting through a league with one loss or fewer.
UCF: Please don’t yell at me about it, Knights, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that you aren’t in the running. You should know that by now.