I was in charge of picking Playoff dark horses last year and did… pretty darn decent. After exempting myself from selecting Washington (who, obviously, made the Playoff) I selected Florida, winner of the SEC East, Louisville, who was in the hunt into November and UCL…. let’s just move on.
Here’s a look at who will be this year’s Washington, this year’s Louisville and, yes, probably this year’s UCLA.
Wisconsin: The Badgers are college football’s most consistent bet to be good and not great. That will likely be the case again this year, but Wisconsin’s schedule is tailor-made for a 2015 Iowa-like run. The Badgers get five of their first seven at home, and their next two games after that are road trips to Illinois and Indiana. After that, Iowa and Michigan come to Madison before the regular season finale at Minnesota. The Gophers should be better under P.J. Fleck than they were with Tracy Claeys, but Wisconsin owns a massive mental edge in this series with 13 straight wins. As long as Wisconsin wins two of its three games against Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa (and only the first is on the road, remember) they’ll be back in Indianapolis, where only an anything-can-happen 60 minutes will stand between Paul Chryst and a Playoff berth.
TCU: It seems every time we forget Gary Patterson is one of the very best coaches in the game, he reminds us in a big way. So let’s look back to the last two times Patterson finished under .500, and then what happened the year after. In 2004, TCU went 5-6. A year later the Frogs finished 11-1, won the Mountain West Conference in their first year in the league and closed the year with the first of Patterson’s top-10 final rankings. In 2013, TCU stumbled to a 4-8 mark and roared back to a 12-1 2014 season, narrowly missing the Playoff but ending the year at No. 3 in both polls. TCU went 6-7 in 2016, and return one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country in Kenny Hill. If quarterbacks coach and play-caller Sonny Cumbie can coax the bad plays out of time, TCU will be a factor yet again.
Notre Dame: Yes, yes, save your jokes. Notre Dame went 4-8 last season. Last year is over. Brian Kelly has refocused himself to the job, and helped himself out greatly by hiring Mike Elko to fix his defense, one of the absolute best hires of the offseason. Brandon Wimbush is a star in the making at quarterback, and the schedule is difficult without being impossible.