top of page

Ranking the biggest dark horse playoff contenders in college football this year

Incredibly, it's game week in college football - that's right, with Week 0 upon us, it means that everyone else isn't all that far from kicking off, and once the season gets going, there's no slowing down.

So with it, it's time to continue to roll out our preseason content (if you haven't been following our preseason content on the College Football Betting Podcast/YouTube channel - what are you doing?!)

Today, we talk playoff - but not in the traditional way.

Later next week we'll drop our playoff and national title picks, but today it's time to playoff longshots.

Outside of the main core of teams - Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and a few others - who are the longshots to make the playoff?

Our crew gives us three schools to watch, with odds provided by Betfred Sportsbook:

Jake Faigus - Washington Huskies

The Washington hype train has grown, even if USC has still been seen as the overall Pac-12 favorite.

Washington burst onto the scene last year under Kalen DeBoer and a pass-happy offense. It fit like a glove for the Huskies with Michael Penix Jr. leading the way at quarterback and already knowing the offense with DeBoer from their one year together in Indiana. Michael Penix Jr. finished last season as the second leading passer in the country with 4,641 passing yards and then he had 31 passing touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 65.3 completion percentage. Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan are a great two headed monster in the receiving corps for the Huskies too. Odunze had 1,145 receiving yards with seven touchdowns, while McMillan had 1,098 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The rushing offense is also very solid with Wayne Taulapapa who had 882 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. This offense has proven it fits well for Washington. The defense is more of question mark, but they should be better than last year. Bralen Trice should be a massive difference maker for the Huskies off the edge too.

The Huskies have the schedule to make noise this season too. They open the season against a good Boise State team and then will also travel to Michigan State in the non-con portion of their schedule. The Huskies difficult games in the conference are positioned well too. They go to Arizona where they’ve historically struggled, whether it’s at Arizona State or Arizona, but early in the season. They get Oregon at home in the big rivalry game. The biggest game they could trip up in is at USC, but they then get Utah at home, Oregon State on the road, and then finish with the Apple Cup and Washington State visiting the Huskies. This isn’t an easy schedule at all, but with the talent they have they should be able to manage it. Washington should have a historic season in the last season for the Pac-12 and make it to the CFP.

To see our full Washington preview - click here

Aaron Torres - Penn State

First off, I already know what some of you - including Garrett Carr below - are thinking: How can Penn State be deemed a playoff dark horse?

Well, admittedly, it's tough to define what a playoff "dark horse" is. But Penn State - unlike the other two teams on this list - have never been to the four-team playoff. Their odds are about four-times worse than either Ohio State or Michigan to win the Big Ten. And they're 10th on Betfred's odds to make the playoff.

So they're as much of a long shot as Washington or anyone else mentioned here.

With that said, I love this team.

One, they return talent - and high-end talent - at basically every key spot except quarterback. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen are one of the best 1-2 running back punches in college football, and they're running behind an offensive line featuring at least future NFL first rounder in Olu Fashanu. The defense has dawgs all over, from Chop Robinson up front, to Abdul Carter at linebacker and a pair of elite cover corners.

As for the quarterback, well, a couple things: One, if a QB is good enough, being young or inexperienced has never stopped them from having success. Trevor Lawrence won a national title in his first full year as a starter. Justin Fields, Tua Tagovaiola and JJ McCarthy have all made the playoff in their first year as full-time starters. Well, Drew Allar has that kind of upside. He was, after all, the No. 1 ranked QB in his high school class, ahead of the plenty ballyhooed Conor Weigman, Cade Klubnik and others.

Finally, there's a very manageable schedule, at least by Big Ten East standards. The Nittany Lions "toughest" out of conference game is West Virginia at home, and they don't draw Wisconsin out of the West. Oh, and while they have to play Michigan and Ohio State, the Wolverines are in Happy Valley. Meanwhile, the two weeks before the Ohio State game are a bye, and UMass at home, meaning they basically have three weeks to prepare for the Buckeyes on the road.

There's an old saying that "luck" is where preparation meets opportunity. Well, Penn State is good enough, and gets a few nice, maybe lucky breaks with the schedule.

The Nittany Lions might just be going to the playoff for the first time in school history.

To see our full Penn State preview - click here

Garrett Carr - Notre Dame

Much of the focus nationally is on just a handful of teams. But I think this year, with many of the nation’s best programs breaking in new quarterbacks, is as open as college football has been in a while.

Aaron and Jake made great picks, though I’d argue that Penn State is in no way a sleeper given the amount of hype they’ve received all offseason. Washington is also one of my top sleeper teams. I think Kalen DeBoer is the real deal, the reports out of camp on Heisman candidate Michael Penix Jr. are fantastic, and the defense should be improved.

So, with those two teams off the board, my eyes go to South Bend, Indiana, where I think the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will surprise people and could very well make the College Football Playoff for the third time

Why am I high on the Irish? It starts with transfer quarterback Sam Hartman. The Wake Forest quarterback won 18 games and threw for 77 touchdowns the last two years in Winston-Salem. Now, he heads to a Notre Dame team with significantly better talent at skill positions.

I love the move of dynamic playmaker Chris Tyree from running back to wide receiver, which will get them some much-needed explosiveness on the perimeter. Left tackle Joe Alt will provide blindside protection second only to Penn State’s Olu Fashanu, and the offensive line should be able to make holes for a talent staple of running backs in Audric Estime, Gi’Bran and freshman phenom Jeremyah Love.

They did lose offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to Alabama. Frankly, I’m not sure if that’s much of a loss, and maybe replacement Gerad Parker can bring some more creativity to an offense that looked too stagnant at times the last few years. If the offense takes a leap, and I think it will with Hartman being a huge upgrade under center, you’ve partnered a great offense with an always stout defense.

That defense is simply one of the best units in America. Head coach Marcus Freeman is one of the best defensive minds in the game, and he’s got a staple of talented players to work with.

Defensive tackle Rylie Mills and Ohio State transfer defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste anchor a defensive line that isn’t as strong as last year’s group, but will be one of the nation’s best. The best unit of the defense are the linebackers, which return their top three tacklers in Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Jack Kiser. Benjamin Morrison was one of the nation’s best freshmen a year ago, and provides a lockdown corner option for a secondary that took a step back last year, but should be able to more than hold its own.

And, I love second-year coach bumps. I’m a believer in Marcus Freeman, who led the team to a 9-2 record after losing his first two games last season. They were much better at the end of last year compared to the beginning, he got to hire his own offensive coordinator, and I expect Notre Dame to be a fast and physical football team.

There are some landmines on the schedule, but I’d argue when you dig deeper, they could be okay. The three marquee games are Ohio State, Clemson and USC. With what should be a very high strength-of-schedule, they should probably only have to win two of those three games to make the CFP.

Getting Ohio State early in the season on September 23rd is a big break. The team has not named a starting quarterback yet, and the offensive line during camp has been not great, with a major reshuffling reported by Buckeye beat writers. Remember, last year a much more experienced Ohio State offense only had 395 total yards at home. This year, they’ve got to go to a raucous Notre Dame Stadium.

USC is one of my most overrated teams this year, a season after I picked them as most underrated, and they went into conference championship week controlling their College Football Playoff destiny. The offensive, with Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and playcalling genius Lincoln Riley will be great. But, they still won’t be good on the trenches on that side. The real concern is that defense. Alex Grinch is one of the worst defensive coordinators in the country, and I think Notre Dame will go up and down the field on them, giving them a chance to win a shootout on October 14.

Clemson has been not the Clemson that we became accustomed to the last two years, as the offensive has sputtered with DJ Uiagaleilei at quarterback. He’s moved on to Oregon State, and highly-touted sophomore Cade Klubnik (who Aaron mentioned above) will team up with new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley to eject some life into an offensive scheme that has been pathetic for half of a decade now. But that’s no guarantee, and Dabo Swinney may be too stubborn to change. Those two teams play on November 4th.

Who knows? Maybe the Irish offense doesn’t click, they lose those three big games, and slip up elsewhere to finish 8-4, and put Marcus Freeman on the hot seat. But I think that Notre Dame is a legit playoff contender this year.

Follow Garrett Carr on Twitter - @RealGarrettCarr

For full playoff odds and more - visit Betfred Sportsbook


bottom of page