When our experts convened in August to make their College Football Playoff predictions and pick a national champion, six of the seven writers and editors polled had Clemson pegged as 2018’s title-winner. The lone dissenter? Ross Dellenger, who took Alabama—and has subsequently looked like a genius as the Crimson Tide have reminded everyone how dominant they can be when in top form.
Things can change just as drastically over the final seven weeks of the regular season as they did over the first seven, but that won’t stop us from taking another crack at predicting the answer to the question on everyone’s minds: Who will make up the fifth edition of the playoff? Below, our experts get a second chance to set their matchups for the New Year’s Six bowls, the playoff semifinals and the national title game. Read on to see who we like to go all the way and why.
College Football Playoff Picks
New Year's Six Bowls
Who will win the national championship?
Andy Staples: Since Ohio State beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl en route to the national title in the first year of the playoff, we’ve wanted to see these two programs play again. I still wish we could have seen them play in 2015, but this one might be even more fun. Dwayne Haskins has allowed Ohio State’s offense to stretch the field, and Ohio State’s cadre of playmakers could do some damage against Alabama’s defense. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes likely would struggle to stop a Tua Tagovailoa–led offense. This one could look like the two Alabama-Clemson national title games—which were both every kind of fun.
Ross Dellenger: This isn’t a whole lot different from my preseason CFP selection, aside from the inclusion of Notre Dame in place of Washington. The Crimson Tide and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa look even better than I anticipated in August, so I’m sticking with my champion selection. Instead of Clemson winning a semifinal duel with Ohio State, as we picked in the preseason, our midseason pick reflects the Buckeyes’ first six weeks.
It feels like Alabama is two cuts above the rest and Ohio State is a cut above the rest, but all that can change. The Tide must travel to LSU and win a potential SEC title game. Ohio State, meanwhile, hosts Michigan to end the regular season and then would have to get past a rock fight against Northwestern, Wisconsin or Iowa to win the Big Ten title.
Joan Niesen: Halfway through the season, I have far more confidence than I should—Week 7 reminded us that college football is nothing if not confidence-busting—in the following three teams: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Each has a path to the playoff that seems eminently doable, and maybe even a bit of wiggle-room with a wonky loss
That fourth spot, though, looks up for grabs, and of the teams with a reasonable shot of snagging it, Oregon jumps out at me. The Ducks’ only loss was as bad-luck as they come, and their schedule for the rest of the season consists of just one currently ranked team, No. 25 Washington State in Week 8. Win the Pac-12 title, and they’re in, assuming Notre Dame loses, which I expect it to.
As for Alabama winning it all, if SI let us publish emojis, this paragraph would just be the blonde woman shrugging. This team has all the features of Nick Saban’s other great squads, plus Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback. Done and done.
Laken Litman: The only thing that has somewhat slowed Alabama is injuries. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa tweaked his sprained right knee in Week 7, receiver DeVonta Smith pulled a muscle, and for the first time all season, Alabama didn’t blow out an opponent by more than 34 points in its 39–10 win over Missouri. Unless LSU, Auburn or the SEC East champion discover some other vulnerabilities, we can go ahead and pencil Alabama in for another national championship.
It looks like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Clemson have clear paths to the College Football Playoff, too. The Fighting Irish survived a scare from Pitt and now have an idle week to regroup before a run of what should be winnable games, Clemson’s greatest remaining threat should be Virginia Tech or Miami in the ACC title game, and Ohio State has to play Michigan State and Michigan, but is expected to win the Big Ten and therefore make the final four. But when all is said and done, it doesn’t seem plausible that anyone can knock off the Tide.
Scooby Axson: Though the first seven weeks of the season only one thing remains clear: Alabama is a virtual lock to make the playoff for a fifth straight time. Notre Dame’s rise has put the Big 12 and Pac-12’s chances on life support, and the ACC looks like it’s Clemson’s to lose. Ohio State would risk being left out like they did last year after a stunning loss to Iowa.
Max Meyer: With Tua Tagovailoa under center, this is by far the best offense Alabama has had under Nick Saban. The defense admittedly looks a little more vulnerable than in seasons past, but that side of the ball has a lot more room for error if Tua keeps putting up Heisman numbers in the first halves of games. Clemson and Notre Dame are undefeated and have easy schedules the rest of the way. Even if either team drops a game, I don’t see many other Power 5 teams finishing with only one loss.
Michigan is my “surprise” choice here, but the Wolverines have looked great for most of the season. Ohio State is susceptible to the big play, and the offensive line was manhandled by Minnesota this past Saturday. Michigan has the rushing attack and shutdown defense to upend the Buckeyes, and Shea Patterson is steady enough at QB to lead the Wolverines on a CFP run.
Eric Single: Let's assemble the most comprehensive stress test for Alabama in the playoff: one game against the type of offense Nick Saban can’t always solve, one game against the only roster that can hold a candle to the Crimson Tide’s depth. As West Virginia proved in Week 7, Oklahoma was never going to be the only Big 12 contender to lose a head-scratcher in conference play. The Sooners will rise back to the top of the standings and win a Red River rematch in Arlington to sneak in.
Meanwhile, Clemson is getting better all the time and quickly realizing that it should be running its offense through running back Travis Etienne, which bodes well for its chances of running the table in the ACC. The Tigers can expose Ohio State’s mistake-prone defense in the semifinals and give Alabama a better fight than they did last year, but “a better fight” will have to suffice for drama this postseason. Alabama’s winning it, and credit to Ross for not getting cute in the preseason like the rest of us did.