We’re almost a quarter of the way through the college football season, and the national landscape is already starting to take shape. Just four weeks in, we’ve been able to start discerning the contenders from the pretenders in 2019 - and who might have a realistic shot at standing on top at the end of the season.
And while powerhouses like Clemson and Alabama have done nothing to dissuade us from all but booking their ticket to the College Football Playoff, there are a few teams who began 2019 on the outside looking in… but who are now right in the thick of the action.
Here are a few of the teams that have found themselves in the spotlight, and who you should have your eye on...
Ohio State (4-0, 2nd in SP+)
It’s a bit of a stretch to call Ohio State a surprise within the College Football Playoff landscape, but having lost their head coach and their starting QB - it was certainly worth wondering if they could bounce back from their 2018 near miss.
Few could blame Ohio State fans, after all, feeling a bit salty that a single loss to Purdue kept the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff. Besides that loss, the Buckeyes were inarguably one of the country’s best squads in 2018, and one of the great “what if’s” will always be what might have happened had Dwayne Haskins gotten his shot against any of the four teams in the CFP field last January.
But the good news in Columbus is that behind a surging freshman campaign from Justin Fields (69.5% completions, 880 yards, 13 TDs, 0 INTs, 192.4 QB rating), and a defense that has gone from 26th in 2018 to 5th this season, the Buckeyes appear ready to make up for lost time. They are currently beating opponents by an average of 44.5 points, and while they’ve yet to face any major competition thus far - no one in the B1G appears to have all the tools the Buckeyes will bring to the table every week.
No one, that is, except for a notable exception...
Wisconsin (3-0, 5th in SP+)
On Wisconsin, indeed.
This season’s biggest surprise so far has been the Badgers, who are absolutely ripping through their schedule thus far with a balanced attack that has all the features of a team primed for a championship season.
Their most recent win over Michigan was an absolute thumping; Wisconsin led 28-0 at halftime, and didn’t yield a point until the 2:08 mark of the third quarter. That last state is particularly important, given that those points were the first points the Badgers have allowed all season.
Meanwhile, Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor added 203 yards against the Wolverines and now finds himself 3rd in the country when it comes to rushing yards per game.
All of this has taken the Badgers from a preseason AP ranking of 19th, and an SP+ ranking of 11th, to 8th and 5th, respectively - placing them right in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation.
Of course, their path through to get there will go through the Buckeyes on October 26, in a game that’s already shaping up to be the biggest B1G match-up of the regular season.
LSU (4-0, 7th in SP+)
It’s not so much that no one expected LSU to be in the thick of the SEC Championship and College Football Playoff conversation - it’s just that no one expected them to do it this way.
Whereas the Tigers of Baton Rouge have built their program on staunch defense mixed in with an offense just good enough to compliment it, the 2019 iteration seems to have flipped that on its head. While the defense is solid, ranking 38th in the SP+ thus far and allowing a little over 320 yards per game (36th), their offense has exploded to 2nd in SP+ behind QB Joe Burrow, who, under first year passing game coordinator Joe Brady, has gone from 52nd in passing yards per game to 2nd with 380.
The Tigers have already notched one huge win under their belt after going on the road to beat the Texas Longhorns, but their October is an absolute gauntlet; they’ll play Florida, at Mississippi State, Auburn, then will hit the road to take on Alabama in Tuscaloosa - all in four consecutive weeks. If they make it through that, it’d be hard to argue not just that LSU one of the four best teams in the country… but that they’re the country’s best team. Period.
Auburn (4-0, 10th in SP+)
The Auburn Tigers certainly haven’t been the most dominant team on this list - but they are my most intriguing team.
It was just a year ago, after all, that the Tigers went from a huge week one victory over Washington with all the momentum of a team looking to pick up where they left off in 2017.
But that would be the high point of their season - as the Tigers slipped to an 8-5 finish, lost QB Jarrett Stidham to the NFL, and placed head coach Gus Malzahn firmly on the hot season as plenty of uncertainty surrounded this upcoming season.
But they’ve found stability under freshmen QBs Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood splitting time, while their defense has come up big so far and ranks 6th in the SP+ and 15th in points allowed per game. Perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the few teams in the country to have beaten two ranked teams already this season - and, in your “eye raise moment” of the newsletter… neither of those games happened at home.
But even if you’re skeptical about Auburn having watched them win barely edge out Oregon (we’ll get to them in a moment), and win unconvincingly against Tulane, just you wait; they’ll have to prove themselves soon. Like LSU, their schedule is an absolute firestorm from here on out; with games against Florida, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama - all of whom could be mentioned in the same conversation as the teams on this list.
Still, their start to 2019 is hard to ignore, and has created plenty of buzz around them in the elite SEC West division.
Oregon (3-1, 13th in SP+)
I’ll never pass judgement on a team for scheduling an early season non-conference test, but you do get the feeling that if their week one loss to Auburn was replaced with an easy win over an FCS team, the Ducks would be more readily mentioned as a potential CFP pick.
The good news, however, is that their season is far from over.
Never mind the fact that they’ll likely be the presumptive favorite in each of their remaining regular season games, or that I’m still picking them to win the Pac-12 outright by year’s end, or that as Auburn’s star continues to climb, so too with the Ducks’... this is just a darn good team.
QB Justin Herbert hasn’t put up jaw-dropping numbers, but he’s passing at a completion rate of 74.4% with a QB rating of 183.6, good for 7th in the country - and alongside RB CJ Verdell (231 yards and 2 touchdowns so far this season), the Ducks offense will likely improve as the season goes on. And besides, the defense is dominant enough to demand conversation all by itself.
Oregon ranks 13th in yards allowed per game, 8th in points allowed per game, and 2nd in defensive SP+. Assuming their offensive playmakers do, in fact, find their form soon - it’s impossible to ignore the Ducks as a viable playoff team in the vein of Oklahoma’s one-loss entry a year ago.
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