It’s only June and there is still some uncertainty surrounding the 2020 college football season. Still, there is no reason why we can’t start dreaming about this year’s College Football Playoff

We know the favorites.

It’s the usual suspects that include Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma, but what about a true sleeper … a dark horse. Not just any dark horse though. A real bona fide I-didn’t-see-that-coming dark horse CFP candidate.

Well, since you asked, Coach Rick will now provide.

Real vs. Unreal

Okay, so here’s the deal. If you are a realist and understand how the game works, then you know that programs like UCF, Boise State, and Cincinnati are never winning a CFP national championship.

Now, as a true fan of college football, Coach Rick loves watching Boise State beat an Oklahoma or Oregon. He loves a 13-0 UCF.

But, there’s a reason why online sportsbooks have UCF is priced at +10000 and Boise State and Cincy are at +15000 to win it all. There is no way any of the three are getting in after playing a schedule that includes UConn (no offense, Coach Rick coached one of their quarterbacks), Tulsa, New Mexico, and UNLV.

So, while you’re getting all giddy for Air Force to win 11 games again or maybe you’re even lathering up another Appalachian State 13-1 campaign, we are talking about realistic CFP title contenders.

That cancels out about 115 teams.

In a given season, there are roughly 15 teams that have a realistic shot at just making the College Football Playoff. Even that is a stretch since only 11 teams have ever reached the CFP which started in 2014.

The Ingredients

If you examine the 11 programs that have qualified for the CFP over the years, you will find some similarities.

Great defense is a must.

Programs like Alabama, LSU, and Clemson continually line up defenses with NFL talent. They usually finish at or near the top in major defensive statistical categories as well.

Coaching is a big factor. Last year was the first year that Nick Saban did not coach in the CFP. Dabo Swinney and Lincoln Riley are making the CFP an annual event. If you don’t have the leader, your team probably isn’t making the CFP.

The factor that really separates teams is the quarterback.

College football national champions normally have elite quarterbacks running their offenses. Joe Burrow anyone? Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts? Quarterback play is a key indicator of a potential playoff team.

Finally, there is the schedule.

If you win the SEC West or Big Ten East and have an unbeaten record at the end of the season, you have earned an invitation to the CFP. Sometimes, it’s who you don’t play that is a factor.

In 2018, Notre Dame finished 12-0. The Fighting Irish play five games against ACC teams. Guess which one they didn’t play during the regular season? That’s right. Clemson.

The two teams ended up meeting in the national semifinals where the Tigers beat Notre Dame 30-3. If that would have happened in the regular season, the Irish would have been playing in a forgotten bowl game.

Top Candidates to Win it All

Putting it all together, there are a few dark horse candidates with a real chance of winning the 2020 national championship. The first is Florida.

The Gators are given +1800 odds and for good reason. Head coach Dan Mullen’s defense will once again be outstanding. In 2019, Florida was 10th in the nation in total defense (299.0 ypg) and 8th in scoring defense allowing opponents just 14.4 points per game.

The big question for the Florida Gators will be the play of QB Kyle Trask. Many believe Trask could be the best in the SEC. He’s probably the most underrated. The Gators do crossover to face LSU at midseason, but could still win an SEC title.

Penn State (+5000) has the toughest go of any dark horse as the Nittany Lions will have to face Michigan, Ohio State, and a surging Indiana in the East and crossover to play Iowa and rising Nebraska on the road. Head coach James Franklin’s squad will have a great defense, but QB Sean Clifford, while good, is nowhere near elite.

The two dark horse candidates worth a real good look are Notre Dame (+2800) and Texas A&M (+3300).

Remember, Notre Dame doesn’t have a conference championship game. The Irish do play Clemson this season though. Even with one loss, Notre Dame will have the defense, the quarterback in Ian Book, and the coaching in Brian Kelly, who has taken the Irish to the CFP before.

The Aggies could be the most intriguing sleeper candidate with an elite QB in Kellen Mond who totaled 3,397 yards and 28 touchdowns last season. Texas A&M does face both Alabama and LSU but at the very end of the season. They do not crossover to play either Georgia or Florida. A one-loss Aggies team with an SEC title is a CFP qualifier. Head coach Jimbo Fisher just has to get them there.

About the Author

A native of Western Pennsylvania, Rick, a Generation X-er, who now lives just north of the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan. A former high school, college, and professional football player, Rick now spends his time as a high school coach and as a personal quarterback trainer. An all-state high school quarterback, he went on to become an Academic All-American at Division II Indiana University of PA. He later coached at his alma mater helping lead the program to the 1990 NCAA Division II national championship game. Rick has also served as a high school head coach and as an assistant in Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan.

His passion for sports writing started when he was the sports editor for his high school newspaper and continued when he worked as a sportswriter for the Jamestown (New York) Post-Journal in the early 1990s. A true sports fanatic, Rick enjoys all things Pittsburgh: Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins. The Immaculate Reception, the 1979 We Are Family Pirates, and the ’91-’92 Penguins are among his favorites. After working as an educator and athletic director for several years, he again took up sports writing and has contributed to several websites and publications, including Coach & Player magazine, X & O Labs, American Football Monthly, and many others.

When not consumed with coaching, watching, thinking about, or writing about football and other seasonal sports, he finds himself working out like he was still in college and reading everything from military history to Brad Thor novels. Rick has also been chasing rock god stardom as a drummer who has played with bands that have opened for the likes of Fuel, Days of the New, and Alien Ant Farm. He continues to play with his church worship group. Most importantly, Rick is married to the love of his life, Lisa, and has two beautiful daughters.

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