Whether you look at sportsbooks offshore or in Vegas, you won’t find much difference in opinion on the top four teams listed to win the national title. These four teams come from four different Power Five conferences, and each has at least one significant hurdle in their path to the College Football Playoff.
Alabama +245 is the listed favorite, which makes sense considering they have won the SEC five of the past eight years and have participated in the playoff in each of the three seasons since inception. Nick Saban has predictably reloaded on defense while getting his key weapons back on Offense.
Ohio State +650 is getting all of the early Big Ten love. After scoring zero in last year’s [layoff against Clemson, Urban Meyer hired offensive guru Kevin Wilson, who messily left Indiana. The Buckeyes get the benefit of playing Penn State at home in a favorable scheduling spot before ending the season with Michigan and the Big Ten Championship.
USC +850 is carrying the majority of the West Coast hype, and why not after how scorching hot they were to finish the season in 2016? Sam Darnold, the current Heisman favorite, returns under center for what could be a magical season in So Cal.
Florida State +1000 rounds out the top four listed favorites. The Seminoles arguably have the roughest schedule in the nation, starting with a neutral site game against Alabama. If a two-loss team is going to make the College Football Playoff this year, it may just be this year’s ACC champion.
Most would agree that the four teams listed above deserve to be listed as the preseason favorites, but what would happen if chaos ensues? What if Alabama doesn’t win the SEC and loses two games (Florida State, Auburn) while a non-Power Five team goes undefeated? What if Stanford or Washington win the Pac 12 Championship game with two losses? Fans and bettors love potential chaos within the college football rankings. It never gets old arguing over the undefeated Group of Five team or a two-loss conference champion. If you want to wager on chaos in 2017, consider the following four teams that have value at current odds as long shots to win the national championship.
What case can be made for War Eagle? The demise of the SEC is true for every single team in the SEC West outside of the state of Alabama. The one-two punch of Stidham and Pettway should dominate most SEC Saturdays. The trip to Clemson catches a national championship team with no offensive identity playing their first game without Deshaun Watson. I like Auburn’s defense in the rushing and explosiveness department, which is a theme you will notice for all four teams in this article. Categories such as IsoPPP+ (explosive plays), rushing S&P+ and adjusted line yards had Auburn’s defense in the top 20 in 2016. Expect more of the same in 2017. Even if Auburn drops a game in Baton Rouge, the Iron Bowl could still offer the opportunity for War Eagle to make the playoff. The good news for Tigers fans is that game will be played in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Much like Auburn, Stanford has a number of defensive metrics that qualify to make this list of teams. IsoPPP+, adjusted line yards, rushing S&P+ and plenty of efficiency categories find the Cardinal in the top 20 of all FBS. Stanford also gets some scheduling breaks in the season. Their back seven on defense should be loaded in 2017. They host North rivals Oregon and Washington and get plenty of rest before a trip to USC. Even if they lose that game to the Trojans early in the season, they may get a rematch in the Pac-12 Championship Game. If David Shaw can get playmaking ability from Keller Chryst and Bryce Love, this could easily be a playoff team.
South Florida 175/1
Quinton Flowers is as good of an offensive playmaker as you will find. Head coach Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Sterling Gilbert inherit a Bulls team with one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the nation. The question remains as to whether the staff will keep the Gulf Coast attack in place, as it suits the current roster so well. Flowers is a star, but I included South Florida in this list mainly due to their schedule. The Bulls will get knocked by the committee even if they sweep, with the likes of Illinois, San Jose State, and Stony Brook on their schedule. They will need a lot of help, but if chaos breaks out in 2017, South Florida could easily be sitting out there with a perfect record.
BYU is projected to be an underdog in just two of its 13 games (LSU and Wisconsin). The Cougars play LSU in a neutral site (Houston), and the line currently sits around LSU -14. I have this game projected at 10.5, but there is no reason that BYU, a team that ranked top 20 in defensive IsoPPP+ (explosiveness), opportunity rate, adjusted line yards, rushing S&P+ and average yards gained on first down, cannot rise to the occasion for one game and shut down Derrius Guice. If BYU can somehow win that game, they get Wisconsin at home in a wonderful scheduling slot, as the Badgers will come to Provo with a massive lookahead spot to Northwestern, a game that could determine the outcome of the Big Ten West. I can make a case that BYU ends the year in the top 10 with that defense and the opportunities on their schedule. Unlike South Florida, BYU has some opportunities for quality wins. An undefeated Cougars team with wins over LSU, Wisconsin and Utah wouldn’t need as much chaos as South Florida would need to steal a bid.