The College Football Playoff has yet to produce a real surprise team.
In four seasons, nine schools have reached the semifinals — and even the teams that came from outside the AP preseason Top 25 were traditional powers.
The lowest-ranked team in the preseason media poll to make the CFP was Oklahoma in 2015. The Sooners were 19th to start the season, mostly because they were coming off a disappointing season (8-5) and few knew how good Baker Mayfield would be.
Clemson made the playoff that same year after starting the season ranked No. 12. The Tigers went 10-3 the season before, but Deshaun Watson was a sophomore coming off a knee injury, there was major turnover on defense and exactly what Dabo Swinney was building at Clemson had not yet been fully revealed.
Washington was No. 14 going into the 2016 season before going on a playoff run. The Huskies were also coming off mediocre season (7-6), but there was definitely a sense Chris Petersen’s team was ready to take a significant step forward in year two of his tenure. Turns out it was even bigger than expected.
Last year, Georgia went from No. 15 to the CFP. The Bulldogs were 8-5 the season before, Kirby Smart’s first in Athens. The Bulldogs had an experienced team in ‘17 that was favored to win the SEC East, and ended up being the second-best team in the country.
So what does this small sample tell us? If you want to pick a playoff dark horse, look for a brand-name team ranked somewhere in the teens of the preseason poll. Maybe one with a talented quarterback who still has some uncertainty attached to him.
And with that, predictions for the 2018 college football season:
Three teams in the AP preseason poll that will not finish the season ranked: No. 16 TCU, No. 20 Virginia Tech, No. 25 LSU.
Three teams not in the AP preseason poll that will finish the season ranked: Boston College, Memphis, Utah.
— American Athletic Conference: Memphis (West) over Temple (East). The last two teams to win the American lost their coaches soon after. So where’s Mike Norvell going?
— Atlantic Coast Conference: Clemson (Atlantic) over Miami (Coastal). The Tigers are stacked and freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence could give the offense an explosiveness it was missing last year.
— Big Ten: Michigan (East) over Wisconsin (West). Jim Harbaugh finally quiets his critics.
— Big 12: Oklahoma (No. 1) over (West Virginia No. 2). The Big 12 is the most likely Power Five conference to provide an unexpected champion. There is little separation among the top six or seven teams but when in doubt, pick the Sooners.
— Conference USA: Florida Atlantic (East) over Louisiana Tech (West). Lane Kiffin brings a second straight C-USA title to FAU.
— Mid-American Conference: Ohio (East) over Northern Illinois (West). Ohio wins its first MAC title since 1968.
— Mountain West: Boise State (Mountain) over San Diego State (West). Could be the Broncos best post-Chris Petersen team.
— Pac-12: Washington (North) over Utah (South). The Huskies win their second Pac-12 title in three seasons, but the opener against Auburn could determine playoff hopes.
— Southeastern Conference: Alabama (West) over Georgia (East). This time only the SEC champion makes the playoff.
— Sun Belt: Arkansas State (West) over Troy (East). Red Wolves win the first Sun Belt championship game.
The favorites are running backs Bryce Love of Stanford and Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin, but the Heisman has become a quarterback’s award. Fifteen of the last 18 winners have been QBs. Feels like a season where a not-so-obvious player makes a run. Top five vote-getters:
1. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
2. Shea Patterson, QB, Michigan.
3. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin.
4. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson.
5. A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College.
There seems to be no such thing as a slow season when it comes to coaching moves. Almost inevitably a few jobs that seemed safe in September open up by December. Florida, for example, just last year. What job will unexpectedly open this season? How about Oklahoma, when Jerry Jones decides to hire another Sooners coach and brings Lincoln Riley to the Cowboys.
NEW YEAR’S SIX/COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Cotton Bowl: Alabama (1) vs. Michigan (4).
Orange Bowl: Clemson (2) vs. Washington (3).
Sugar Bowl: Georgia (SEC) vs. Oklahoma (Big 12)
Rose Bowl: Wisconsin (Big Ten) vs Oregon (Pac-12)
Fiesta Bowl: Boise State (Group of Five) vs. Ohio State (at-large)
Peach Bowl: Mississippi State (at-large) vs. Miami (at-large)
Clemson and Alabama make it four straight seasons meeting in the playoff. The Tigers even the series at two and win another national title.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://www.podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org/poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25