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5 Dark Horse Title Contenders After 1st College Football Playoff Rankings

Tyvis Powell kissing Cardale Jones on the cheek after Ohio State wins the National Championship.

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 12: Safety Tyvis Powell #23 and Quarterback Cardale Jones #12 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrate after defeating the Oregon Ducks 42 to 20 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at AT&T Stadium on January 12, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

On Tuesday night, the College Football Playoff selection committee dropped its first Top 25 of the season. If things ended today, the group selected Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Alabama as the four-team field, with Notre Dame and Baylor on the outside looking in. As they will every Tuesday from now until the end of the season, debates raged on about Alabama's inclusion, TCU's bump down to No. 8 and whether we're all undervaluing the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, who slot in at nine. 

Of course, this field means very little in the grand scheme of things. In 2014, the first foursome was Mississippi State, Florida State, Auburn and Ole Miss. Only the 'Noles ended up making the field in December. Ten teams in the FBS remain undefeated and there are numerous contenders remaining in the field, even more than we had at this point last year. Which teams that are flying under the radar can rise up and break into the top four at year's end?

Here are five dark horse contenders to play for the national title, after the first College Football Playoff rankings.

Next: Iowa >>>

No. 9 Iowa Hawkeyes

Big wins: vs. Pitt, at Wisconsin, at Northwestern
Loss: None
Games remaining: at Indiana, vs. Minnesota, vs. Purdue, at Nebraska 

It is easy to look at Iowa's schedule and say that the Hawkeyes haven't played anyone, but there is an argument to be made that they have as many good wins as anyone. Pitt is 6-2, Northwestern is ranked No. 21 in the CFP rankings and the Hawkeyes won that game on the road by 30. Beating Wisconsin in Wisconsin is always a nice win, too. Even if the Badgers are a bit down, they are still 7-2. Things open up for the Hawkeyes over the next month. Indiana is a bit improved this season, Nebraska has more talent than it has shown, and Minnesota is scrappy, but Iowa will be favored from here on out in the regular season.

If Iowa holds serve, it will earn a date with the Big Ten East champion: likely Michigan State or Ohio State. Either of those teams would probably be a substantial favorite over Iowa, but anything can happen in college football. Iowa fans have to like where they are. One upset in December and it will be nearly impossible to keep them out of the field.

Next: Florida >>>

No. 10 Florida Gators

Big wins: vs. Tennessee, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Georgia (neutral site)
Loss: at LSU
Games remaining: vs. Vanderbilt., at South Carolina, vs. FAU, vs. Florida State

It's natural to devalue what a team has done when it loses its quarterback, but if we know anything about this selection committee, it is that it doesn't take injuries or missing players into account when selecting teams, at least to this point. Last season, they famously put Ohio State into the field ahead of Baylor and TCU, two teams with Heisman-caliber quarterbacks, despite the Buckeyes' Cardale Jones having just one start under his belt. On Tuesday, Jeff Long said that Seth Russell's injury did not impact Baylor's ranking this week.

Florida lost impressive starter Will Grier to suspension, but Treon Harris has gotten the job done as his replacement. Harris is not the most accurate passer, completing 56.4 percent of his throws, but he is fairly efficient, averaging 8.91 yards per attempt, with five touchdowns and no interceptions so far this season. Paired with a fairly effective rushing attack led by Kelvin Taylor, Harris should be good enough to lead Florida to an SEC East title. The defense is really what gives Florida some serious potential. The Gators have not missed a beat on that side of the ball with the coaching transition from defensive guru Will Muschamp to offense-minded Jim McElwain. UF ranks No. 7 in scoring defense, allowing just 15.5 points per game, allowing them to suffocate teams, even when the offense isn't clicking.

With wins over Tennessee and Georgia under its belt, Florida has the inside track to the SEC Championship. If the Gators beat Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss in Atlanta, it will be very hard to keep them out of the field, especially with the one loss coming by just one touchdown to a good LSU team.

Next: Stanford >>>

No. 11 Stanford Cardinal

Big wins: at USC, vs. UCLA, at Washington State
Loss: at Northwestern
Games remaining: at Colorado, vs. Oregon, vs. Cal, vs. Notre Dame

After one set of rankings, the Pac-12 is looking like the power conference that has the best chance of being left out, but if Stanford wins out, its resume may be too good to ignore. Conventional wisdom in college football is that it is better to lose early than late, and the loss to Northwestern, which is ranked, is far more understandable in November than it was in early September. Since that game, the Cardinal has been an absolute wrecking ball. The average margin of victory for Stanford has been 18.6. Only Washington State, an underrated team playing at home, managed to stay within single digits. 

The top of the Pac-12 is different than what we're used to this season. Oregon is way down, although a win against the Ducks may look better by season's end as the Ducks continue to get healthier and improve. Rival Cal is improved, and the regular season finale against Notre Dame could be a de facto elimination game. The Irish are currently ranked No. 5 by the committee, so they would likely place a lot of value in a win over the Irish. If Stanford runs the table in wins the Pac-12 title, it will be hard to find four teams with definitively better resumes than the Cardinal. Of course, that may involve them knocking off...

Next: Utah >>>

No. 12 Utah Utes

Big wins: vs. Michigan, at Oregon, vs. Cal
Loss: at USC
Games remaining: at Washington, at Arizona, vs. UCLA, vs. Colorado

The Utes lost a bit of their sheen with a blowout loss to USC, but they remain the only Pac-12 South team that only has one loss, giving them an edge over both the Trojans and UCLA in the division. Statistically, the Utes won't blow anyone away on either side of the ball, but they play consistently, and get great production from star running back Devontae Booker. Quarterback Travis Wilson has also taken a step forward, and is now completing over 68-percent of throws for a solid 7.54 yards per attempt. 

The upcoming schedule is very friendly to the Utes as well. 6-2 UCLA is extremely talented, but the other three teams left on Utah's schedule have a combined record of 13-13. A loss to USC, even by 18 points, isn't the end of the world, either. The Trojans are undeniably talented, and were playing in an emotional home game after losing their head coach. Rebound with four more wins, and a date with Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship could become a play-in game, if one of the other four conferences has a hiccup.

Next: ??? >>>

North Carolina Tar Heels

Big win: vs. Pitt
Loss: vs. South Carolina (neutral site)
Remaining games: vs. Duke, vs. Miami, at Virginia Tech, at North Carolina State

We're not trolling you here, we promise. Despite little-to-no hype, North Carolina has run out to a 7-1 start after a fluky loss to South Carolina in Charlotte to kick off the season. The Heels just entered the polls this week, slotting in at No. 21 in both, but have not yet done enough to warrant consideration from the selection committee. That's not a great sign, as North Carolina does not have a ranked opponent left on the schedule, but college football has been known to get weird. We did say these were dark horses, so indulge us for a second.

To start, North Carolina is pretty good. The Tar Heels offense averaging 36.9 points per game shouldn't surprise anyone. Larry Fedora's offense has rarely been an issue. What is surprising is the Tar Heels defense, led by first year defensive coordinator and former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. Last year, the Tar Heels ranked 119th in scoring defense, allowing 39 points per game. This year, the same unit is ranked 15th nationally, at 17 points per game. 

Duke, Miami, Virginia Tech and N.C. State are all fairly average-to-above average squads. If North Carolina runs through the rest of the schedule, which is a big 'if,' they will probably climb into the Top 10-15. In all likelihood, a win over Clemson in the ACC Championship would push UNC to the fringes of the Top Four, but the ACC would be left out. But what if the rest of college football goes crazy? Two loss Ole Miss can still win the SEC. There's a doomsday tiebreaker scenario developing in the Big Ten East with Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. The top of the Big 12 may devour itself like it did last year. A two-loss UCLA could knock off Stanford in the Pac-12 title game.

A UNC run to the playoffs is very unlikely, and would require a pretty crazy confluence of events, but it is far from impossible. If we know anything about college football, nothing is ever impossible.

Next: 5 Teams That Got Screwed In CFP Rankings >>>