As I write this, the college football season has already reached the halfway point. Most teams have already played at least six or seven games, and there are now enough data points to predict the outcome of the major conference races, as well as the College Football Playoff. Some surprise contenders have emerged in Western Michigan, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, and other teams have both predictably (Iowa and USC) and surprisingly (Michigan State) failed to live up to previous hype. Of course, as teams gear up for the stretch run, you all should know which channels to turn to and which teams to watch for an entertaining Saturday afternoon of high-stakes football. With that in mind, here are the top teams to watch out for through the stretch run, as well as picks for a few major awards and the four College Football Playoff spots.
1) Western Michigan Broncos
The Broncos are the top team outside of the Power 5 conferences this season. With an undefeated record and two wins over Big Ten schools, they are still dark horse contenders for the playoffs, and head coach PJ Fleck has understandably been a hot target for many big-name programs. WMU features an experienced senior quarterback in Zach Terrell and a two-headed monster at running back: both Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan have been putting up all-conference numbers. Additionally, they face the most favorable schedule of any remaining contenders, against the rest of the Mid-American Conference. The Broncos are rarely on the big TV networks, but they’re worth watching if you want to see a high-scoring game, or an upstart team that just may steal the show come New Year’s Weekend.
2) Alabama Crimson Tide
Yes, it’s them again. Nick Saban’s perennial powerhouse, one of the most hated teams in college football, is running wild over the rest of the SEC yet again. The Crimson Tide has not suffered in the least from the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and special teams speed demon Kenyon Drake; their championship-level defense and freshman sensation quarterback Jalen Hurts have filled the gap nicely. Most people are sick of watching Alabama win, but it can be fun to watch a top notch team run their stuff, especially when you have Verne Lundquist calling the play-by-play.
3) Ohio State Buckeyes
Another perennial powerhouse, sans the quarterback controversy from last year, Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes are yet again one of the top teams in the Big Ten. JT Barrett has taken over the QB position full-time with the graduation of Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller. Their running game is also strong: Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel are near the top of the Big Ten in yards per carry. The Buckeyes’ defense remains seemingly unaffected by major talent losses to the NFL Draft, and they remain one of the best-coached teams in all of college football. If you can even manage to trade scores with Ohio State, the odds are still against you.
4) Michigan Wolverines
The #1a to Ohio State’s #1 in the Big Ten, Michigan received more than enough preseason hype in the media, and they have justified it, matching the Buckeyes stride-for-stride in the race for the Big Ten East. Jim Harbaugh is not one to avoid controversy or the spotlight, but his team’s on-field successes are much more worthy of attention than his outlandish recruiting stunts. All-around star Jabrill Peppers is the de facto team leader, making highlight reel plays on defense and returning kickoffs and punts. Despite what ESPN would indicate, however, there is more to Michigan than Peppers. Wilton Speight has anchored the team under center, and Jehu Chesson is living up to all-conference expectations at wide receiver. Michigan’s showdown with Ohio State on November 26 may end up being the game of the year.
5) Washington Huskies
Chris Petersen’s team may not get much coverage on the East Coast, and to see them most weeks requires watching some “Pac 12 After Dark” until 1 or 2 a.m. Nonetheless, they have certainly earned their Top 10 ranking, scoring an impressive 44–6 win over Stanford, and shutting down phenom Christian McCaffrey in the process. The Huskies have the easiest path of any Power 5 team to the College Football Playoff, playing in the watered-down Pac 12 conference, and they have won five of their first six games by 20 or more points. Jake Browning (QB) and Myles Gaskin (RB) are two of the nation’s top players, and they should have no problems getting enough points, playing behind last year’s FBS-leading scoring defense.
6) Baylor Bears
Baylor was reviled throughout football circles during the offseason after former head coach Art Briles resigned amid sexual assault allegations against a number of players. Still, off-field issues have not slowed the Bears down on the field. Seth Russell is once again putting up impressive passing numbers with KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora in his arsenal, and Shock Linwood has been as reliable as ever on the ground. Baylor likes to play fast, making them fun to watch, but their proclivity toward high-risk, high-reward plays can leave them vulnerable against a lesser opponent on any given week.
7) Clemson Tigers
Last year’s top overall seed at the College Football Playoff is back for another shot, and they look just as formidable as last year. Having survived a scare at home against NC State and beaten fellow ACC playoff hopeful Louisville, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have survived the worst part of their schedule and should have a smooth path to an unbeaten season. Quarterback DeShaun Watson is one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy, and Wayne Gallman will be ready to lead the team at running back when he returns from a concussion. Expect to see Swinney, one of America’s most colorful coaches, roaming the sidelines in late December.
That just about wraps it up. Remember to enjoy the last few weeks of our most tradition-rich sport, and not to get too bogged down in the analysis. Those Saturday afternoons are supposed to be fun. For the sake of space, I couldn’t include every top team, so here are a few more playoff hopefuls to watch for, along with my predictions for some major awards:
Other teams to watch
Louisville Cardinals, Texas A&M Aggies, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Wisconsin Badgers, Florida State Seminoles, Colorado Buffaloes
Individual Player Awards
Heisman Trophy Winner: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
Maxwell Award Winner: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Bednarik Award Winner: Desmond King, Iowa
Butkus Award Winner: Raekwon McMillan, Ohio State
Lou Groza Award Winner: Nick Weiler, North Carolina
Ray Guy Award Winner: JK Scott, Alabama