This season be the sixth that a four-team playoff has determined the college football national champion, and the first five did not disappoint fans and bettors alike. Clemson, the 2018 national champion, has met Alabama each of the past four seasons in the playoffs, playing for the NCAA title three times and winning it twice.
Heading into the 2019 season, both Clemson and Alabama are again among the teams expected to compete for the national championship. While it would not be surprising at all to see the Tigers and Crimson Tide meet in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row, many fans would probably like to see some new blood make the final four.
So, what schools have a chance to make the playoffs in 2019 besides Clemson and Alabama? That is a very good question. Any teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 will have a shot, based on the fact that pollsters voting for them already know about them and believe they have enough returning talent and a favorable schedule to make a run. Those two factors alone are what football handicappers should seriously consider before trying to make college playoff predictions for 2019, and what we used to break teams into two categories below: The Favorites and The Other Contenders.
Clemson Tigers: The Tigers went a perfect 15-0 straight up and 9-6 against the spread last season, en route to winning their second national championship in three years. Even though they lost a lot of talent to the NFL, they return arguably the best quarterback in college football in sophomore Trevor Lawrence, who is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. Lawrence’s poise as a young signal-caller is virtually unmatched, and his performance under pressure in a 44-16 rout of the Crimson Tide in the national title game set the tone (347 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions).
Also returning to Clemson’s offense is junior running back Travis Etienne (1,658 rushing yards as a sophomore), although he may find it difficult to top his 26 touchdowns from a year ago. Defensively, the Tigers may have holes to fill, but they will reload with recruits.
Alabama Crimson Tide: Reloading has been the story for Alabama ever since head coach Nick Saban took over the program in 2007. Since then, the Crimson Tide have won five national championships and found a way to replace NFL draft picks with top-tier talent on an annual basis.
This season will be no different, with Heisman finalist Tua Tagovailoa back under center for another run at what he and his teammates hope will be a second title in three years. Tagovailoa has some unfinished business at the school and will look to prove he is an NFL-caliber quarterback, worthy enough of possibly being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft next April. Alabama was 14-0 SU last season before falling in the National Championship Game. However, this team struggled to cover the spread late in the 2018 campaign, going just 1-4 ATS in its last five games.
Oklahoma Sooners: The Sooners have had the benefit of deploying a Heisman-winning quarterback each of the past two seasons (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray) and may have a third this year if Jalen Hurts can thrive in coach Lincoln Riley’s offensive system. The good news for the former Crimson Tide star is that Mayfield and Murray were both transfers as well, so they obviously picked things up quickly from Riley and were able to dominate the porous defenses of the Big 12.
Oklahoma has made the playoffs three times in five years, but has been unable to get past the first semifinal game against much more difficult competition, losing to Alabama, Clemson and the Georgia Bulldogs. That will likely be the case every year for the Sooners unless they improve defensively. They ended up going 12-2 SU and 6-7-1 ATS last season, with their other loss coming to the Texas Longhorns, who should be better this year.
Ohio State Buckeyes: The Buckeyes were the Big Ten’s best team with former head coach Urban Meyer at the helm, and they still have a ton of talent. What remains to be seen is whether or not new head coach Ryan Day can duplicate the same kind of consistent success as Meyer’s replacement in 2019.
Day led Ohio State to a 3-0 mark last season as acting head coach when Meyer was placed on administrative leave and then took over on a full-time basis after his retirement. Like all of the other favorites here, the Buckeyes lost some key players to the NFL, including defensive end Nick Bosa (he played only three games last year due to injury) and quarterback Dwayne Haskins (the third Heisman finalist). The Big Ten should be better this season with the Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers also viable contenders for the conference title, so another 13-1 SU mark (6-8 ATS) could be tough.
Georgia Bulldogs: The Bulldogs are seemingly the best bet to end the Crimson Tide’s reign atop the SEC, just like they did two years ago when they topped the Auburn Tigers in the conference title game. Alabama had won three straight SEC Championship Games prior to that, and Georgia definitely has the players to do it again.
Led by junior quarterback Jake Fromm, the Bulldogs know they cannot blow big leads like they did against the Tide last season with the SEC title on the line. Fromm’s experience playing in high-profile matchups – including the National Championship Game as a freshman – has many believing his third time will be the charm. Georgia nearly snuck into the playoffs last season despite two losses and wound up going 11-3 SU and 8-6 ATS.
The Other Contenders
Michigan Wolverines: Whenever you talk about Michigan, you have to talk about Ohio State and how one-sided that rivalry has been in favor of the Buckeyes since Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh was supposed to take the Wolverines to the next level, and instead they have been dominated by the Buckeyes – losing seven straight times now – and failed to make the playoffs once in four seasons with three consecutive bowl losses as well.
With Meyer retired, Harbaugh has no excuses and must find a way to help Michigan break through. He has a solid quarterback returning in senior Shea Patterson, who was hyped heading into last year as a transfer from the Ole Miss Rebels, but disappointed from a statistical perspective. Patterson wants to play in the NFL, so he will get an excellent opportunity to prove himself again this season. The Wolverines failed to cover the spread in their last four games to close out 2018, but they will get a fresh start in 2019, with all eyes on Harbaugh and Patterson to bounce back.
LSU Tigers: Another SEC team worth watching in 2019 is LSU, after finishing last season strong behind quarterback Joe Burrow. Now a senior, Burrow has what it takes to be a difference maker in the best conference in the country, and he will get to showcase his skills early on against another national title contender in Week 2 vs. Texas. The Tigers have been known to be a tough defensive team over the years, and they finally seem to have an offense that can put enough points on the board to compete with the elite teams. After going 10-3 SU and 7-6 ATS in 2018, there is definitely room for improvement and enough returning talent to take the next step.
Texas Longhorns: Already one of this season’s darlings of future bettors to win the national championship based on how they finished last year, the Longhorns certainly have what it takes to reward their backers in 2019. They beat the Sooners once last season and have a legitimate Heisman contender in junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Texas head coach Tom Herman prepares his players better than almost anybody in the nation, especially as underdogs. Herman’s teams are an impressive 13-2-1 ATS in that role during his career, including 8-2-1 since joining the Longhorns, with 10 SU wins. Texas may not close as a dog too many times this year, and that is a credit to Herman as well based on how far he has taken the program in only two seasons.
Oregon Ducks: The Pac-12 has not been particularly relevant in the national championship picture since the Ducks made the inaugural playoff field and played in the title game five years ago behind Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Marioa. Since then, the Washington Huskies cracked the top four two years later but were manhandled by the Crimson Tide in the national semifinals.
Oregon has a shot this year because they return 10 of 11 starters on offense, including quarterback Justin Herbert, who some thought could have been the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft had he left school following his junior season. Instead, Herbert shocked many by staying, and the Ducks should put themselves in position for a playoff spot. They won four of their last five games (3-2 ATS) to finish out 2018 and will need to be even better this year if they are going to make their second-ever playoff appearance.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The Fighting Irish could not have played much better last season, going 12-0 SU and 6-5-1 ATS in their first 12 games before getting crushed 30-3 by the eventual-champion Tigers in the national semifinals as 10.5-point underdogs. Like most of the other aforementioned teams, they return a strong core of players and also have a very favorable schedule outside of a key meeting with the Bulldogs in their third game. Notre Dame lost to Georgia at home two years ago as a five-point favorite and will need to turn the tables in the rematch on the road in order to get back to the playoffs for the second season in a row. The rest of the team’s slate is pretty weak, so head coach Brian Kelly may earn another chance to win the program’s 12th NCAA title.
College Football Playoff Predictions
Realistically, there are probably fewer than the 10 teams discussed above that can actually win the national championship. However, this is about simply getting into the playoff field, something that is hardly simple if you are not from one of the power conferences. Just ask the Central Florida Knights, as they could not accomplish that feat once, while going 25-1 SU and 17-7-1 ATS over the previous two years combined. Of the 10 schools listed above, three are from the SEC (Alabama, Georgia and LSU), two from the Big Ten (Ohio State and Michigan), two from the Big 12 (Oklahoma and Texas), one from the ACC (Clemson) and one independent (Notre Dame).
In the brief history of the playoffs, there have been six SEC teams among the top four teams, but the Crimson Tide made it each time to account for five of them (the Bulldogs were the other). Meanwhile, the ACC has had the Tigers and Florida State Seminoles, the Big Ten has had the Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans, the Pac-12 has had the Ducks and Huskies, and the Big 12 has had the Sooners. In other words, no conferences outside of the Power 5 have made it.
Bettors can expect more of the same in 2019, with a few surprises. Instead of Alabama, look for Georgia to represent the SEC. Michigan will also become the third different Big Ten team to make the playoffs and Texas the second from the Big 12. Clemson will be the only mainstay to return and appear for the fifth straight time, and the lone favorite from the first group combining with the three other contenders.