Best of the rest: Ranking college football's playoff dark horses

Steven Lassan
Dr. Saturday
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Leonard Fournette #7 of the LSU Tigers runs with the ball against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field on December 30, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 30: Leonard Fournette #7 of the LSU Tigers runs with the ball against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at LP Field on December 30, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

AthlonSports.com is a leading website for preseason and in-season football previews, predictions, rankings and analysis.

Rankings are a big part of any college football season. Whether it’s preseason projections or the in-season polls from the playoff committee, rankings generate discussion and interest from all 128 fanbases.

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While some argue preseason rankings have too much of an impact on the actual in-season product, the reality is a playoff contender or national champion can come from anywhere. Need proof? Auburn was unranked to start 2013, yet played in the national championship against Florida State.

Could another surprise team (or two) sneak their way into playoff contention in 2015? Using Athlon’s projected final top 25 for this season, let’s examine a few dark horse playoff contenders and biggest concerns for all 10 teams. 

College Football's Top 10 Dark Horse Playoff Contenders

 
(Note: Only teams outside of Athlon's projected top 10 for 2015 were selected for this article)

1. Notre Dame

Why Notre Dame Can Make the College Football Playoff: Experience isn’t a necessity to contend for a playoff bid. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt Notre Dame’s cause to have 16 returning starters. Quarterback Malik Zaire showed promise in limited snaps last season and assumes the starting role after Everett Golson transferred to Florida State. Zaire lacks experience, but he’s got potential to thrive in coach Brian Kelly’s system. The Fighting Irish also have a strong supporting cast for Zaire, including a standout offensive line and top four receivers from 2014. The defense struggled with injuries, coordinator transition and the loss of a two key players before the start of last season. A year later, Notre Dame’s only “new” starter for 2015 is KeiVarae Russell off academic suspension. Improvement should be noticeable for Kelly’s defense this fall.

Biggest Concerns: It’s dangerous to read too much into trends, but it is worth noting Notre Dame has won more than nine games just once over the last five years. Making the leap from eight to 11 or 12 victories will be a challenge, especially with eight bowl teams dotting the schedule in 2015. Zaire is one of the top breakout candidates this season, but will there be growing pains in his first year as the starter? The defense allowed 29.2 points and over 400 total yards per game last year. While the added depth and experience will help, can the Fighting Irish make the necessary leap from struggling defense to shutdown group?

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

2. Clemson

Why Clemson Can Make the College Football Playoff: The path to an ACC Championship isn’t overly difficult for the Tigers. Georgia Tech and Florida State visit Death Valley, and the Tigers catch Notre Dame at home in non-conference play. Even though Chad Morris is now the head coach at SMU, the offense should continue to perform at a high level behind quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s top groups of skill talent. The defense returns only two starters, but coordinator Brent Venables should keep this unit near the top of the ACC.

Biggest Concerns: Sure, the schedule is favorable. But the Tigers still have to navigate road trips to Louisville and NC State in conference action. Will Watson hold up for a full season after recovering from ACL surgery? The offensive line is coach Dabo Swinney’s biggest concern, as only one starter is back from last season, and true freshman Mitch Hyatt will anchor the left tackle spot. 

Related: ACC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2015

3. Ole Miss

Why Ole Miss Can Make the College Football Playoff: Defense. The Rebels limited opponents to just 16 points a game last season and could be even stingier in 2015. Seven starters return for coordinator Dave Wommack, including tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner. It’s not a stretch to say Ole Miss could have the SEC’s best defense this fall. Quarterback play and establishing the run are question marks for the offense, but the receiving corps should be among the best in the nation, especially with standout Laquon Treadwell back to full strength. The offensive line struggled last season but improvement should be noticeable with five returning starters and better depth. Matchups against Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU take place in Oxford, and the Rebels miss Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee in crossover play with the East Division.

Biggest Concerns: Even though the defense needs to solidify the linebacking corps and has two new starters at cornerback, there’s very little for coach Hugh Freeze to worry about. The offense? Well, that’s a different story. Will the Rebels end fall camp with an answer at quarterback? Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade are competing for the No. 1 job, with Kelly — a former Clemson quarterback and JUCO transfer — considered the favorite to start the opener. The Rebels averaged only 155.5 rushing yards last season. Will the offense develop a consistent ground attack? Road trips to Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn are challenging. 

4. LSU

Why LSU Can Make the College Football Playoff: Any of the seven teams in the rugged SEC West has an opportunity to reach one of the four spots in the playoff. Strength of schedule is on the West Division’s side, and the No. 1 from this league will have an opportunity to earn several marquee wins. LSU also has one of the nation’s most talented rosters. Over the last five years, the Tigers average a 6.8 finish in national recruiting rankings, which checks in No. 4 nationally. The three teams ahead of LSU? Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State — the last three national champions. The secondary is among the best in the nation, and linebacker Kendell Beckwith’s emergence provided a boost to the run defense in the second half of 2014. The offense has its share of question marks, but running back Leonard Fournette could be the best in college football. Three starters return on one of the SEC’s top offensive lines.

Biggest Concerns: Quarterback play. Talent level and strength of schedule at the end of the year will matter little if LSU doesn’t get better quarterback play than it did in 2014. The Tigers averaged only 162.9 passing yards per game and tossed only seven touchdowns in SEC action. The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris is expected to last until the end of fall camp. While the talent level is strong on defense, the pass rush hasn’t been as dominant in recent years. Also, will this defense struggle with the transition to new coordinator Kevin Steele?

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2015

5. Boise State

Why Boise State Can Make the College Football Playoff: Outside of Ohio State, there’s not a team with an easier path to an unbeaten record. Boise State should be favored in nearly all of its games in 2015, with road trips to BYU, Virginia, Colorado State and Utah State the toughest contests for coach Bryan Harsin’s team. The Broncos need to find a new starting quarterback and running back, but the rest of the depth chart is in great shape. Boise State’s offensive and defensive lines should rank among the top 10-15 nationally, and the secondary ranks as the best in the Mountain West.

Biggest Concerns: Boise State usually has no trouble finding the next stars at quarterback or running back. However, until the new faces clearly emerge, the quarterback and running back spots will be a question mark. The Broncos also need to do a better job eliminating big plays allowed. In 14 games last season, Boise State’s defense gave up 34 plays of 40 yards or more. The secondary also has room to improve after giving up 39 plays of 20 yards or more (ranked 11th in the Mountain West). But the big question about Boise State isn’t about personnel. Will an undefeated record or 11-1 mark get the Broncos in consideration for a playoff bid? 

Related: College Football's Top 20 Fall Practice QB Battles

6. Oklahoma

Why Oklahoma Can Make the College Football Playoff: Oklahoma’s final record in 2014 was only 8-5, but the Sooners weren’t far off from winning 10 games last season. Coach Bob Stoops’ team lost by three in overtime to Oklahoma State, by one to Kansas State and by four to TCU. After recording a negative turnover margin (-5) in 2014, getting into the positive side of the turnover battle could swing a couple of games in Oklahoma’s direction. Also, despite last year’s disappointing record, the Sooners still have one of the Big 12’s most talented rosters. Could the new scheme and addition of coordinator Lincoln Riley catch the Big 12 by surprise? The change in offensive coordinators certainly worked with TCU last season. Oklahoma’s backfield is arguably the best in college football, and the receiving corps has options with Sterling Shepard and intriguing junior college recruit Dede Westbrook.

Biggest Concerns: Who will start at quarterback for Riley? Although the Sooners won’t go away from Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross on the ground, the passing attack has to show progress for Oklahoma to win the Big 12. Additionally, four new starters must be found on the offensive line. The defense has star power with the return of linebacker Eric Striker and cornerback Zack Sanchez. However, question marks remain up front and in the secondary. The road schedule in conference play features trips to Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State.

7. Texas A&M

Why Texas A&M Can Make the College Football Playoff: Once again, Texas A&M’s offense should be among the best in the SEC. The Aggies are loaded with skill talent, return three starters on the line and a rising star at quarterback in Kyle Allen. The defense has lagged at times since joining the SEC, but there’s reason for optimism with the addition of John Chavis at coordinator. The overall talent and depth level has improved on defense under coach Kevin Sumlin, especially in the trenches where the Aggies return standout sophomore Myles Garrett, talented freshman Daylon Mack and seniors Alonzo Williams and Julien Obioha. The schedule is also favorable for a run at the SEC West title. Texas A&M plays Vanderbilt and South Carolina in crossover games with the East Division and hosts Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama.

Biggest Concerns: Can the Aggies find the next star at left tackle? Cedric Ogbuehi departed College Station for the NFL, leaving a massive void on the left side. Junior Avery Gennesy could be the answer at left tackle and will be under the spotlight early in 2015. The line also needs to generate a better push on the ground. In eight SEC games last season, Texas A&M averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. While defensive improvement should be anticipated under Chavis, is this group a year away from drastically changing the numbers on the stat sheet? The secondary is the biggest concern for Chavis after this unit allowed SEC quarterbacks to complete 60.9 percent of their passes in 2014.

8. Arizona State

Why Arizona State Can Make the College Football Playoff: Todd Graham has transformed Arizona State into a consistent Pac-12 title contender in just three years. The Sun Devils have back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1972-73. Even with a few personnel concerns, the Sun Devils should be in good shape to reach 10 wins once again in 2015. New quarterback Mike Bercovici shined in limited action last season, and the coaching staff bolstered the receiving corps with the addition of graduate transfer Devin Lucien and D.J. Foster's move from running back. Graham’s aggressive defense returns seven starters from a group that forced 27 turnovers and 39 sacks in 2014.

Biggest Concerns: Will the Sun Devils reload in the trenches after losing both starting offensive tackles from 2014? Will Bercovici continue to play at a high level for the full season? The defense is in relatively good shape, but Graham needs to find a player to fill the Devilbacker role and eliminate some of the big plays this unit allowed last year. Arizona State ranked last in the Pac-12 by giving up 40 plays of 30 yards or more last season. The schedule isn’t kind, as the Sun Devils play Texas A&M in a neutral site affair to open the year, host USC, Arizona and Oregon, while making road trips to UCLA, Utah and California. 

Related: Pac-12 Quarterback Rankings for 2015

9. UCLA

Why UCLA Can Make the College Football Playoff: The Bruins are experienced and loaded for a run at the Pac-12 championship. UCLA has won at least nine games in each of coach Jim Mora’s three seasons and finished No. 10 in last year’s final poll. The Bruins return 17 starters, including defensive standouts Myles Jack (LB), Eddie Vanderdoes (DL) and rising star Kenny Clark (DT). The addition of Tom Bradley as the team’s coordinator is also another reason to believe UCLA can own one of the Pac-12’s top defenses in 2015. While a quarterback must emerge to replace Brett Hundley, the supporting cast is in place to ease the new signal-caller into the lineup. The Bruins return standout running back Paul Perkins, five starters on the offensive line and the top five receivers from last season.

Biggest Concerns: UCLA’s hopes of winning the Pac-12 and contending for the playoffs relies heavily on settling the quarterback battle between Jerry Neuheisel and Josh Rosen. Neuheisel has the edge in experience, but Rosen is one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and enrolled in time to compete this spring. Is it asking too much for a true freshman to lead UCLA to the Pac-12 title? The offensive line played better in the second half of last season but still surrendered 40 sacks. While the defense should be among the best in the conference, linebacker Eric Kendricks and end Owa Odighizuwa will be missed.

10. Stanford

Why Stanford Can Make the College Football Playoff: For the first time under coach David Shaw, Stanford is coming off a season of fewer than 11 wins. However, the Cardinal is positioned for a quick turnaround after an 8-5 mark in 2014. The offense finished the year on a high note, scoring at least 31 points in each of its last three games. Quarterback Kevin Hogan was a catalyst during that span, throwing for 234 yards and two scores against UCLA and 189 yards and two touchdowns against Maryland. Assuming Hogan picks up where he left off, Stanford’s offense should show marked improvement on the stat sheet. The offensive line is among the best in the Pac-12, sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey is poised for a breakout year, and the coaching staff has assembled a good collection of receivers and tight ends. Despite returning only four starters, Stanford’s defense shouldn’t slip too far on the stat sheet. The Cardinal also catch a break in scheduling, hosting Arizona, UCLA, California, Oregon and Notre Dame.

Biggest Concerns: Will Stanford’s offense pickup where it left off last year or resort to the sluggish version that showed up for a large portion of 2014? The defense returns enough pieces to prevent a significant drop in performance, but the line is thin on depth, and the secondary lost three starters. Just how fast will this unit mesh the new additions to the lineup with the returning starters in September? 

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