Friday Five: Possible 2016 College Football Playoff Cinderellas – CBSSports.com
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Every Friday, the Friday Five will rank something in the world of college football — anything and everything from the logical to the illogical. This week, we rank five teams who could potentially serve as college football versions of Cinderella in 2016.
Thursday marked the beginning of this year’s NCAA Tournament. Even though I’m not a huge college basketball fan, it’s still one of my favorite events of the year — those first two days of the tournament especially, when there are 16 games played per day with barely a moment to catch your breath in between.
Immersing myself in the first two days of the tournament has been a life-long tradition for me, as I was already 16 years old by the time my mother finally noticed I kept getting sick on the same Thursday and Friday every March. Luckily for me, when she did figure out my true intentions, she just let me stay home from school those two days anyway. Sure, I had to bargain for it, but it was worth it.
Anyway, the greatest part of those first two days is it feels like anything can happen. Underdogs win the games all the time, and those underdogs sometimes turn into Cinderellas, making a deep run through the tournament.
The Cinderella story has always been one of the tournament’s greatest hooks, but it’s not something we deal with much in the world of college football.
That said, now that we have an actual College Football Playoff, it’s fun to dream of a college football cinderella, so for this week’s Friday Five I’m going to list five teams I believe have the potential to surprise a lot of people in 2016 and possibly find themselves as one of college football’s Final Four.
5. Houston: If we’re thinking of Cinderellas in the traditional college basketball sense, Houston would probably be number one. We aren’t, though. When it comes to college football Cinderellas, we can’t just pick schools outside the Power Five. Fair or not, for any school outside the Power Five conferences to earn a playoff spot, a lot of things will have to happen.
I’m including Houston, however, because the Cougars had a great 2015 season. They went 13-1 and beat Florida State by 14 points in the Peach Bowl. Were the Cougars to go 13-0 and win the American Athletic Conference again this season, the 13-0 mark in 2016 combined with the performance in 2015 might convince the CFP Selection Committee to give them one of the four spots.
I stress might, though, because I remain convinced that the committee would do everything in its power to keep out a Group of Five school. So unless everybody else has two losses, it isn’t likely to happen, so I can’t put Houston higher than fifth here.
4. Nebraska: It’s hard to think of Nebraska as a Cinderella in football because it’s Nebraska. It’s won five national titles after all. Still, even with that illustrious history, it’s been nearly 20 years since that last title (1997), and it’s been nearly as long since the Cornhuskers even won a conference title (1999).
So whether it feels right or not, Nebraska reaching the CFP would be a Cinderella story at this point. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the Huskers went 6-7 last year.
What works in Nebraska’s favor this year is that it’s the second season under Mike Riley, meaning the transition process should be over. Also, the Huskers play in the Big Ten West, where Iowa showed us all last season how quickly you can turn things around in a division without a dominant power. Throw in a schedule that includes some nice resume games (vs. Oregon, at Ohio State) and nothing too incredibly difficult outside of that road trip to Columbus, and it’s not entirely out of the question Nebraska finishes the regular season at 11-1 and plays for a Big Ten title. If it wins that title, well, it’s never going to be easy to keep a 12-1 Big Ten champ out of the playoff.
3. Miami: Another situation like Nebraska. Yes, Miami has had success in the past — and more recently than Nebraska. That still doesn’t change the fact the Canes have never won an ACC title since joining the conference in 2004.
They haven’t even won their division.
The U just hasn’t been great in a while, but it is in a position similar to that of Nebraska as far as its division is concerned, too. There is no real power in the Coastal, and with Mark Richt giving the program a boost, as well as a Brad Kaaya that’s a year older and more experienced, a division title isn’t out of the question in 2016. The Canes get both Florida State and North Carolina at home this year, and a win against Notre Dame on the road would look great on the resume. If Miami can get to its first ACC title game and win it, it’ll be in the playoff.
2. Tennessee: The former powers theme continues. If you haven’t been paying attention to college football long enough, you might not even realize that Tennessee was the first champion under the BCS. That’s because since that title in 1998, things have definitely been on a steady decline in Knoxville.
Last season, the Vols were anointed as a darkhorse and failed to live up to the pre-season expectations. I think the collective hivemind of the media may have been a year early, as this is now not just a talented team, but a team with more experience. It’s also a team in an SEC East that’s currently begging for somebody to step up and restore some credibility to the division.
The schedule isn’t easy, but compared to other SEC schedules, it’s not that bad, either. At least Alabama comes to Knoxville this year, right?
Anyway, if the Vols can get through the SEC East and pull off a (likely) upset in Atlanta, we all know the SEC champ is going to the playoff. Even if it has two losses.
1. Washington: The Huskies have quite a bit working in their favor this season. The 2015 team had to replace a lot of players, and while it struggled to a 7-6 finish, it was a very young squad. It was also a talented team. It’s still talented, and it still has a coach that’s used to winning in Chris Petersen.
Washington is also in a conference that I believe could see a bit of a power vacuum in 2016. Stanford will enter 2016 as the Pac-12 favorite, as it should, because it’s good and it still has Christian McCaffery. That said, the Cardinal will replace a lot of key players as well, including quarterback Kevin Hogan. Oregon didn’t seem like the same Oregon last year, though a bounce-back is possible. Then in the South, there are plenty of good teams, but until USC becomes the USC everybody always expects it to be, there’s no true power there, either.
Then there’s Washington’s schedule. It has to play Oregon on the road, but Stanford, USC and Arizona State all have to travel to Husky Stadium this year, and that’s never an easy place for a road team.
So when I put all of these factors together, I can see a “perfect storm” scenario playing out for Washington emerges from the Pac-12 as its clear champion. Since it does not have a national “brand” that measures up to the other Power Five schools I listed, that only adds to its Cinderella cred, and that’s why the Huskies are No. 1.