As Alabama has grown into the premier program in college football under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide’s dominance has cast a shadow over the rest of the sport.
It wasn’t long ago that a new contender could envision a path to a national championship each year, a goal that seems to slip further and further out of reach as Alabama and Clemson have risen to startling heights.
The sport has always been defined by its blue bloods, which made upstarts such as Boise State and Central Florida so exciting. But now it seems as if it’s impossible for a new program to become a perennial College Football Playoff contender. Even going undefeated in the regular season, as UCF has the past two seasons, hasn’t been enough to earn a spot in the final four.
In the Bowl Championship Series and CFP era, which began in 1998, 12 different schools have won a national championship (13, if you count UCF’s self-declared title in 2017) in 21 seasons. Included was a stretch of nine straight seasons without a repeat champion, which began with Tennessee’s 23-16 win over Florida State in the inaugural BCS title game in 1998 and ended with LSU’s 38-24 victory against Ohio State in 2007, which gave the Tigers their second championship in five seasons.
That’s what makes the recent dominance of Alabama and Clemson so … deflating.
But maybe, just maybe, things will be different this season.
Here’s a look at how each national title contender could miss the playoff this season.
(A note: Possible injuries will not be considered in these scenarios. It’s obvious Clemson and Alabama would take a step back without their star quarterbacks, for example.)
No. 1 Clemson
Why they’ll probably make the playoff: Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Dabo Swinney. The Tigers return their star freshman quarterback, speedy touchdown machine of a running back and program-altering head coach, respectively. That’s more than enough to repeat.
Why they might not: Clemson lost three starting defensive linemen to the NFL draft. And not only that, all three were top-20 picks. Xavier Thomas returns after recording 10 1/2 tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks in limited time as a freshman, but he alone can’t replace the production of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. If the Tigers struggle to get to the quarterback after leading the country with 54 sacks last season, Brent Venables’ defense could have some trouble.
Biggest hurdle: Sept. 7 vs. No. 12 Texas A&M. Clemson gets the Aggies at home this time after holding on for a 28-26 win last season in College Station. If quarterback Kellen Mond takes the leap everyone expects and coach Jimbo Fisher makes more improvements in Year 2, this will be the Tigers’ toughest test by far.
No. 2 Alabama
Why they’ll probably make the playoff: Setting aside the five titles in 10 years, there’s a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, perhaps the best wide receivers corps in the country and an always tough and athletic defense that just retools each season. Oh, and the best coach in modern college football history.
Why they might not: Seven of Saban’s 10 assistants this season are new, including a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian (replacing new Maryland coach Mike Locksley) and a new defensive coordinator in Pete Golding. If anyone can shake off losing more than half of his on-field staff, it’s Saban, but it might take some time for his new charges to jell. Maybe that’s enough for the Tide to slip up in one or two games. Plus, injuries to Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon have thrust a pair of true freshman linebackers, Shane Lee (St. Frances) and Christian Harris, into the starting lineup.
Biggest hurdle: Nov. 9 vs. No. 6 LSU. Alabama hasn’t lost to the Tigers since 2011, but they’re by far the most talented team the Tide will face in the regular season. Under Ed Orgeron, LSU has been outscored 63-10 against Alabama, including a 29-0 beatdown last year. But this might be Orgeron’s most talented defense in Baton Rouge, which could be enough for the Tigers to grind out an upset.
No. 3 Georgia
Why they’ll probably make the playoff: Jake Fromm has steadily improved since taking over as the starter as a true freshman, and he only figures to get better. And while the Bulldogs haven’t been able to get past Alabama, they’ve come as close as you could possibly get without winning. In their past two matchups with the Tide, they’ve held leads with 3:49 and 1:04 remaining, respectively, in regulation. This is shaping up to be the year they break through.
Why they might not: Even if Georgia gets through the regular season unscathed, they’ll most likely meet Alabama again in the Southeastern Conference championship game. A loss to the Tide probably won’t knock them out of the playoff, but putting the decision in the hands of the committee is a tricky proposition. Perhaps an unbeaten Notre Dame or Pac-12 champion jumps in over the Dawgs. A pair of one-loss conference champions — say Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten and Oklahoma or Texas in the Big 12 — also might have a better case.
Biggest hurdle: Other than Alabama, it’s Sept. 21 vs. No. 9 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish lost some offensive talent to the NFL — including Ravens rookie Miles Boykin — but Ian Book is back after completing 68.2% of his attempts and throwing 19 touchdown passes last season while showing some elusiveness as a runner. Georgia gets the Irish at home, but it comes early in the season after a soft early schedule, which could lead to a rude awakening.
No. 4 Oklahoma
Why they’ll probably make the playoff: Lincoln Riley has turned Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray into back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall picks in the NFL draft. Is Jalen Hurts next? The Alabama transfer has always been a talented runner, but his passing has left a lot to be desired (though he did have a 17-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in leading the Tide to a title in 2017). He isn’t as talented of a thrower as Mayfield and Murray, and that could hurt the Sooners late in tight games, but there’s little doubt Riley’s offense will get the most out of Hurts.
Why they might not: The Sooners defense was among the worst in the nation last season, allowing 33.3 points per game and 6.13 yards per play. We know Oklahoma won’t have trouble scoring. The question is, will coordinator Alex Grinch be able to turn the defense around? The 39-year-old was able to manufacture a top-20 defense in his last season at Washington State. If he can make Oklahoma just average on defense, that might be the difference between winning and losing the Big 12.
Biggest hurdle: It’s the Red River Showdown against No. 10 Texas on Oct. 12, of course. The Big 12 title game could again be another Oklahoma-Texas rematch, but a loss here could severely hurt the Sooners’ chances of repeating. Don’t sleep on a Week 1 matchup with Houston, either. Dana Holgorsen probably needs more time to get his bearings, but at West Virginia, he nearly upset Oklahoma last season. Plus, it could take a while for Hurts to get up to speed, meaning an opening-game stumble isn’t out of the question.
No. 5 Ohio State
Why they’ll probably make the playoff: Ryan Day is a first-time head coach, but he earned the Ohio State job for a reason. As the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last season, he helped Dwayne Haskins throw 50 touchdown passes and become a first-round draft pick as Ohio State averaged 42.4 points per game, eighth most in the nation. Georgia transfer Justin Fields takes over for Haskins, and the former five-star recruit has the talent and enough playmakers around him to be the best quarterback in the Big Ten.
Why they might not: A 3-0 record filling in for the suspended Urban Meyer as the interim coach last season (including a 40-28 win over then-No. 15 TCU in Arlington, Texas) notwithstanding, Day is still an unproven coach. And while the offense probably won’t miss a beat, the defense is looking to improve after allowing 5.77 yards per play and 25.7 points per game in 2018 (including 51 points in an overtime win over Maryland). Plus, Fields still needs to prove himself after facing mediocre defenses in garbage time with the Bulldogs.
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Biggest hurdle: At No. 7 Michigan on Nov. 30. Ohio State has won seven straight and 14 of its past 15 games against the Wolverines, but this might be coach Jim Harbaugh’s best chance to end the streak, with quarterback Shea Patterson returning to play under an offense more suited to his skill set under new coordinator Josh Gattis. Also, don’t sleep on the Buckeyes’ Week 2 matchup against Cincinnati. The Bearcats won 11 games last year under former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell and return most of their top playmakers, giving Day, Fields and the defense an early test.