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Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press
Is this going to be the year that a dark-horse team sneaks into the College Football Playoff?
With uneven scheduling, seasons starting and ending at different times, players opting out and expected CFP contenders like LSU, Oklahoma and Auburn falling off early, the college football landscape is primed for a shake-up.
Ahead we took a closer look at the dark-horse teams most likely to crash the playoff party, based on their current body of work and remaining schedule.
Clemson, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Notre Dame were viewed as the clear-cut contenders, so they were off limits in this conversation.
What’s left is a combination of unexpected contenders from Power Five conferences, the cream of the Group of Five crop and an independent that is making some serious noise.
Let’s get to it.
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Zach WilsonRick Bowmer/Associated Press
The BYU Cougars have not been a Top 10 team in the AP poll since 2009 when they finished 11-2 and climbed as high as No. 7 behind quarterback Max Hall, running back Harvey Unga and tight end Dennis Pitta.
With a 5-0 start to the 2020 season, they have already gained national attention, and an undefeated season is not out of the question with their toughest remaining test being a trip to Boise State on Nov. 6.
Quarterback Zach Wilson has already eclipsed the 11 touchdowns he threw a year ago, completing 78.7 percent of his passes for 1,641 yards and 12 touchdowns against one interception. He also has 100 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
Beyond his exploits under center, the running game is also averaging a terrific 187.8 yards per game, and the Cougars are outgaining opponents 541.4 to 288.2 in total yardage.
Similar to most Group of Five teams, the big question for independent BYU is strength of schedule and whether it would build an impressive enough resume even with an undefeated season.
The Cougars’ best win was a convincing 43-26 victory over a Houston team that was sitting just outside the Top 25, and Boise State will likely be similarly positioned heading into what will be its third game of the year.
Expect margin of victory to be a focal point in the weeks to come.
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Ahmad GardnerKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press
The Cincinnati Bearcats went 11-3 last season as one of the premier Group of Five teams in the nation, blowing out Boston College 38-6 in the Birmingham Bowl to finish No. 21 in the final AP poll.
With 20.6 points allowed per game a year ago, defense was their calling card, and that has been the case once again during a 3-0 start to the 2020 campaign.
Defensive linemen Elijah Ponder and Myjai Sanders, cornerback Ahmad Gardner and safety James Wiggins were all named to the preseason All-AAC first team, and that group headlines a stellar defensive unit.
After steamrolling FCS opponent Austin Peay in their opener, the Bearcats held a good Army team to 10 points and then forced South Florida into five turnovers in a 28-7 win.
The question is their offense.
Desmond Ridder has plenty of experience under center and Gerrid Doaks is a handful out of the backfield at 6’0″ and 230 pounds, but Cincinnati is not built to come from behind in a shootout.
A COVID-19 outbreak has kept the Bearcats sidelined since Oct. 3, and a road game against fellow AAC unbeaten SMU awaits Saturday in what will be their biggest test of the year.
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Tylan WallaceMatthew Putney/Associated Press
As the lone undefeated team left standing in the Big 12, Oklahoma State has to be part of the current College Football Playoff conversation, even if its road to a 3-0 record has been a bumpy one.
Quarterback Spencer Sanders suffered an ankle injury in the first quarter of the team’s opener against Tulsa, a game the Cowboys narrowly escaped with a 16-7 victory.
Freshman Shane Illingworth, a 4-star recruit and the No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 recruiting class, has held his own in Sanders’ absence, completing 73.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception.
Running back Chuba Hubbard and wide receiver Tylan Wallace are two of the most dangerous offensive weapons in college football. It’s just a matter of finding more offensive balance so teams can’t stack the box against Hubbard, who is averaging just 4.9 yards per carry, down from 6.4 during his 2,094-yard season a year ago.
The offense piled up 593 total yards in a blowout win over Kansas on Oct. 3, but the Cowboys have been inactive the last two weeks with a bye week followed by a COVID-19 outbreak at Baylor keeping them out of action.
With Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma next on the schedule, we’ll know whether Oklahoma State is a legitimate CFP threat before the month of November comes to a close.
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Tyler ShoughChris Pietsch/Associated Press
The Pac-12 season will officially start on Nov. 7, and conference favorite Oregon kicks off its schedule at home against Stanford.
The Ducks checked in at No. 9 in the first AP poll before inactive teams were removed, with USC (No. 17) and Utah (No. 22) the only other Pac-12 teams to crack the Top 25.
With the conference set to play a seven-game schedule, including the conference championship game, the Pac-12 faces an uphill battle to secure a playoff berth.
There are a few things working in their favor. Oregon and USC sit on opposite sides of the conference’s two divisions, which means they won’t face off during the regular season.
If both teams make it through conference play undefeated, the winner of the Pac-12 title game would have a legitimate case for a CFP spot. That’s especially true if Oklahoma State loses at some point and the Big 12 drops out of the conversation entirely.
The Ducks have the most talented roster in the conference. The biggest question mark is under center where Tyler Shough is set to replace Justin Herbert.
Don’t count Oregon out of the title race.
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Sean CliffordJim Cowsert/Associated Press
Most view Ohio State as the cream of the Big Ten crop, and understandably so with quarterback Justin Fields returning after finishing third in Heisman voting last year and a wealth of talent up and down the roster.
However, the Buckeyes had 10 players selected in the 2020 NFL draft—including Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and J.K. Dobbins—and replacing that level of talent is never easy, even with a steady pipeline of high-end recruiting talent.
With that in mind, it’s not inconceivable that Penn State could give them a run for their money in the Big Ten East division, which also includes Michigan.
The Nittany Lions were No. 7 in the initial AP poll, behind Oklahoma and LSU teams that have since plummeted down the rankings after suffering a pair of losses.
Sean Clifford returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns during an 11-2 season last year, and even with All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opting out of the season, the Penn State defense should still be a force.
After traveling to Indiana in their opener next week, the Nittany Lions will welcome Ohio State to State College on Oct. 31. There won’t be a regular-season Big Ten game this year with more significant playoff implications.
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Shane BuecheleJulio Cortez/Associated Press
With a three-point win over Memphis on Oct. 3 and another three-point victory in overtime against Tulane on Friday, SMU has not exactly been rolling over the competition.
Nevertheless, the Mustangs are 5-0 on the year.
A Group of Five heavyweight clash with Cincinnati on Saturday will inevitably cross one of those teams off this list while giving the other more legitimate footing in the College Football Playoff conversation.
Shane Buechele, who feels like he’s in his 10th year of college eligibility, is under center once again and piloting the offense with 1,710 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 67.6 percent completion rate.
That said, the offense is far from one-dimensional, with Ulysses Bentley IV tallying 506 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry with eight touchdowns.
The defensive side of things is less promising, with the Mustangs allowing 407.4 yards and 25.4 points per game. But they’re capable of hanging around in a shootout.
Next week will determine where their season is headed.
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Kellen MondSam Craft/Associated Press
After LSU and Auburn suffered early losses, most viewed Florida as the No. 3 team in the SEC heading into the conference’s third week of the season.
Texas A&M had other ideas.
The Aggies scored 10 points in the final 4:30 to pull out a 41-38 victory over the Gators, with Seth Small nailing the game-winning 26-yard field goal as time expired.
Suddenly, a 3-1 Texas A&M squad whose only loss was against Alabama looks like a legitimate candidate to shake things up on a national scale.
Quarterback Kellen Mond has thrown for 984 yards and nine touchdowns while spreading it around in a well-balanced passing game, and Isaiah Spiller has 430 rushing yards on a solid average of 6.7 yards per carry.
Defensively, the Aggies have done a terrific job shutting down the opposition’s running game, allowing just 2.7 yards per carry and 75.5 rushing yards per game.
They have already played Alabama and Florida, and they won’t have to face Georgia during the regular season. Road games against Tennessee and Auburn won’t be easy, and Arkansas is a sneaky tough matchup in two weeks, but they’ve weathered the hardest part of their schedule and come out the other side looking like a contender.
A lot that is out of their control will have to break right, including multiple losses from the Big 12 and Pac-12 front-runners, but they are still in the CFP hunt with a more favorable road ahead than most SEC teams.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.