We’re just days removed from Alabama winning its fifth national championship in nine years, and only 200-plus days stand in the way of college football’s return.
In the months leading up to the season, specifically around the “100 days until the season begins” mark in May, we’ll be bombarded with predictions for which schools are this year’s sleeper teams, candidates for breakout players and, of course, the four teams that’ll be competing in the College Football Playoff.
That last one kind of stands out to me. Not because it’s a really intriguing question with a ton of possible answers, but for this reason: don’t we pretty much already know which teams are going to be in the Playoff next year?
The Playoff, a better format for choosing a champion than the BCS, still has its flaws. There are only four spots while there are five power conferences, meaning at least one conference will be left out every year. The path for a Group of Five school play for a national championship is even more impossible in this format than it used to be, which is why this season’s undefeated Central Florida squad has claimed a national title of its own, complete with championship rings and a parade.
While I wouldn’t go as far to say that it’s a problem, but there’s really not much of a mystery for which teams are going to be in the conversation for the final four.
Let’s start with a little math.
Four years with four teams per year means there have been 16 playoff teams, but three schools–Alabama (4), Clemson (3) and Ohio State (2) –have occupied nearly half of those slots and each has won it all at least once. Ohio State and Oklahoma each have made two playoff appearances each, so 11 out of 16 possible teams have been by only four schools, which is a pretty stark lack of representation from other programs.
It’s safe to say we can write Alabama in next year’s Playoff bracket in permanent marker. This was Nick Saban’s least talented team in terms of star power, and it still won the national championship. Even when Saban has a “down year,” he’s playing for a title, and next year the offense will be better with Tua Tagovailoa under center. Pair that with a defense which is always loaded, and the Crimson Tide will be the team to beat once again.
Clemson is close to permanent marker status, too. The Tigers will return a senior quarterback in Kelly Bryant as well as talented running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne. The defense was tenacious in 2017, and even though there will be an exodus of players leaving for the NFL, head coach Dabo Swinney has this program to the point where it reloads rather than rebuilds.
Alabama and Clemson are the “sure things,” but Ohio State isn’t far off. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten in 2017, but were left on the outside looking in large part because of a horrible loss at Iowa. Losing J.T. Barrett to graduation shouldn’t hurt the offense too much, especially with Dwayne Haskins taking the reins at quarterback, in addition to the top two rushers and top six receiving options coming back. Defensively, Ohio State will be anchored by defensive end Nick Bosa, who will likely be a first round draft pick whenever he enters the draft.
Of the three schools, Ohio State has the most competition standing in its way for the Playoff, sharing a division with Penn State and Michigan State, in addition to Wisconsin in the Big Ten West.
Clemson’s biggest ACC competition will be Florida State and Miami, assuming the Seminoles get back on track and the Hurricanes stave off Virginia Tech. It’s a good thing the Tigers have been good on the road in recent years, because they have to play at Texas A&M and Florida State in 2018. Clemson’s schedule this year was pretty tough, too, so I think Dabo Swinney’s team will be able to get through it.
Alabama? The Tide lost the SEC West to Auburn, but the Tigers will be on the road next season for the Iron Bowl, and will be without NFL-bound running back Kerryon Johnson. Advantage: Alabama. I also expect Georgia to take a bit of step back in 2018, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, the Bulldogs will lose running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for over 9,000 scrimmage yards in their careers. Replacing those two won’t be easy, and it remains to be seen whether or not Kirby Smart can reload talent as quickly as his mentor, Nick Saban, can. And second, if Roquan Smith declares for the NFL draft (which I think he will), that will leave a massive hole in the middle of Smart’s defense.
So there you have it. While talking about potential playoff teams is fun to do in the summer, when you really think about it, the same schools will be the ones punching their tickets. There will be four Playoff spots up for grabs in 2018, but it sure feels like only one or two are really unclaimed.