The College Football Playoff semifinals are less than a week away, so let's dive into ... which teams could end up in next year's top four!
To make this more interesting, I'm going to examine the playoff contenders not appearing in next week's semifinals. So for this exercise, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama are excluded. To be clear, all four teams are capable of getting back to the playoff stage.
Here are 10 teams that should be in the mix for the CFP, plus the Group of 5 front-runner for a New Year's Six berth.
The team that fell just short of the No. 4 spot this year should have a good chance to leave no doubt about its playoff profile in 2018. Ohio State will lose key seniors and draft-eligible juniors, but its depth chart features quite a few sophomores, freshmen and juniors who will return. Quarterback J.T. Barrett leaves a void, but Dwayne Haskins showed promise against Michigan and might have a higher ceiling than Barrett. Running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins both return behind a solid offensive line, and receivers K.J. Hill, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin all have eligibility left. The defensive front seven loses a handful of standouts, but end Nick Bosa, a true sophomore, will be back alongside linebacker Tuf Borland and others. Cornerback Denzel Ward should go pro, but Ohio State would get a big boost if end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Jerome Baker stick around. The Buckeyes will be tested away from home -- TCU, Penn State, Michigan State -- but have the talent and experience to get in.
Although the Huskies couldn't repeat as playoff participants in 2017, they bring back a team that could get there next year. Washington will return a lot in the secondary, where the two-deep is filled with promising underclassmen such as safety Taylor Rapp and cornerback Myles Bryant. The defensive front also should be an area of strength, although Vita Vea will be missed in the middle. Quarterback Jake Browning has seemingly led Washington's offense for a decade, but he'll be back for one more season, possibly alongside running back Myles Gaskin. The Huskies lose some key offensive lineman and must identify receivers to fill Dante Pettis' production in receptions and return yards. But Chris Petersen's players know how to win and begin the season with a signature game against Auburn in Atlanta. The Pac-12 schedule features Stanford at home and no USC.
This season, Miami became a fun story and a legitimate playoff contender for a few weeks before fizzling down the stretch. The Hurricanes also were a year ahead of schedule. The 2018 defense could be celebrated for more than the Turnover Chain, as it currently features only two senior starters (end Chad Thomas and cornerback Dee Delaney). Even if tackles Kendrick Norton and RJ McIntosh enter the draft, Miami will bring back explosive players such as safety Jaquan Johnson, end Joe Jackson and linebackers Shaq Quarterman and Michael Pinckney. The quarterback situation is worth monitoring and must improve, but running back Travis Homer, who filled in well for Mark Walton, returns alongside talented wide receiver Ahmmon Richards. Miami will miss wideout Braxton Berrios and several linemen. The Canes open with LSU but get Florida State at home and will be heavy favorites to repeat as ACC Coastal champions.
This is a tough team to project without knowing all of the NFL draft entries. But even assuming departures from quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones II and others such as defensive end Rasheem Green and cornerback Iman Marshall, USC will have no shortage of talent. The Trojans will be less quarterback-dependent in 2018, which will allow the new starter (Matt Fink, Jack Sears, perhaps a graduate transfer) time to get comfortable. They return Stephen Carr and several other promising running backs, and if Deontay Burnett returns, he'll lead an exciting group of wide receivers. The defense will be loaded with experience at linebacker, where Cameron Smith returns alongside Porter Gustin and others, and in the secondary. There are some tricky games in September -- road trips to Stanford, Texas and Arizona, along with a Friday home game against Washington State -- but the overall schedule isn't nearly as demanding, as USC gets a bye in Week 6, hosts Notre Dame and doesn't play Washington.
After consecutive 10-win seasons, a Big Ten title in 2016 and two New Year's Six bowl appearances, Penn State has staying power under James Franklin. The Lions bring back quarterback Trace McSorley for his third year as a starter and should take a much-needed step forward along the offensive line, the position group affected most by the NCAA sanctions. Saquon Barkley departs, but Miles Sanders is a talented fill-in, and Penn State is stocked with promising young wide receivers, among them incoming recruit Justin Shorter. There will be a lot of turnover on defense, especially in the secondary and the interior defensive line, so Penn State needs its momentum on offense to continue despite a coordinator change. But Franklin's recruiting gains should continue to pay off, and Penn State gets most of its toughest Big Ten opponents (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa) at Beaver Stadium.
The Big 12 should be wide-open in 2018, and West Virginia might be the primary challenger to Oklahoma, as Oklahoma State loses top offensive personnel and TCU has key departures on both sides of the ball. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, bring back the nation's top passing connection in quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills V, a Biletnikoff Award finalist. They also add Alabama transfer wideout T.J. Simmons to an offense that might end up being the most explosive of Dana Holgorsen's tenure in Morgantown. Wide receiver Gary Jennings is back, along with four line starters. Tony Gibson's defense loses a few more important pieces, but returns its most important player in linebacker David Long, and promising youngsters such as playmaking safety Kenny Robinson. If there ever were a year for West Virginia to break through nationally, 2018 seems to be it, as the Mountaineers have Tennessee and NC State in non-league play and host both TCU and Oklahoma.
A lot depends on whether quarterback Jarrett Stidham returns for a second season on the Plains, but Auburn is set up to challenge Alabama and Georgia again in 2018. Auburn's wide receiving corps started to develop down the stretch, and almost everyone returns. Even if running back Kerryon Johnson enters the NFL draft, Kamryn Pettway and Kam Martin are back, and coach Gus Malzahn always produces 1,000-yard rushers. Auburn must replace most of its starting offensive line, though, a big concern. The biggest reason for a potential playoff push is a defense that coordinator Kevin Steele has upgraded during his time there. Auburn will bring back all but a handful of starters, and even if standouts such as cornerback Carlton Davis turn pro, the Tigers should be in good shape on that side of the ball. The schedule gets tougher with trips to both Alabama and Georgia, a neutral-site opener against Washington and a Week 3 home game with LSU. But as Malzahn said when he agreed to a new contract, Auburn's best days are ahead.
A late touchdown drive separated Wisconsin from the playoff as the only Power 5 unbeaten team this past season. While it will be tough to go 12-0 again, Wisconsin brings back a lot on both sides of the ball. Running back Jonathan Taylor comes off of one of the best freshman seasons in FBS history (1,847 yards, 13 touchdowns), and he'll run behind a line that could return all five starters. Tight end Troy Fumagalli is a big loss, but third-year starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have a solid group of wide receivers, as Quintez Cephus returns to join A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis. The defense loses a lot in the secondary, but if T.J. Edwards returns, the linebackers will once again be a major strength. Wisconsin has had a run of elite defenses that shouldn't change. The non-league schedule once again isn't great, but Wisconsin will visit Penn State, Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa, so its margin for error might be wider.
It feels like Stanford deserves a place in these "other contenders" lists until the Cardinal finally bust through onto the playoff stage. The big unknown is whether Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love returns for his final season. If so, he would lead the offense alongside quarterback K.J. Costello, who showed some good signs down the stretch as the starter. Stanford's offensive line also got back to the status quo this season and has some nice building blocks for the future. There are concerns on defense, as several productive linebackers depart along with All-Pac-12 lineman Harrison Phillips. But if the secondary keeps safety Justin Reid and/or cornerback Quenton Meeks, it will be in great shape. Stanford has several tough road games -- Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon -- but gets USC and Washington State at home.
Yes, this is a projection pick, and the hype around Jim Harbaugh at Michigan hasn't materialized so far. But Year 4 always was going to be the best chance for a breakthrough, as the roster would be filled with players Harbaugh and his staff recruited and developed. There are clear concerns, chief among them quarterback, a position that should be further along at this point. But Brandon Peters showed promise in limited action, and if the NCAA rules Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson eligible, he gives the coaches another option. The defense figures to be among the nation's best again, even with Maurice Hurst departing, as productive players such as Rashan Gary, Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson all return. Michigan must upgrade an average offensive line, but the running game should be solid with Karan Higdon, and wideout Tarik Black's return from injury will be big. The schedule will be very tough with trips to Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame and Northwestern, as well as home games with Penn State and Wisconsin.
Top Group of 5 candidate for New Year's Six
It's tempting to go with UCF again or to hop aboard the Lane Train. Florida Atlantic will enter 2018 as a strong favorite in Conference USA and has big September showcase opportunities at Oklahoma and UCF. But don't be surprised if the Group of 5's golden ticket goes back to the blue turf. After a shaky start this season, Boise State won the Mountain West and beat Oregon convincingly in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish 11-3. Bryan Harsin's team returns a lot of firepower, including quarterback Brett Rypien, who will be a fourth-year starter, and top rusher Alexander Mattison. But the defense is the biggest reason for optimism. Boise State could lose only two starters (linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Gabe Perez) from a group that allowed fewer than 20 points in nine games this past season. Safety Kekoa Nawahine and top pass-rusher Curtis Weaver are among those coming back. Boise State opens with a tough game at Troy and also visits Oklahoma State.