It feels like the same few teams make the College Football Playoff (CFP) every year, but that isn’t always the case. LSU wasn’t a favorite to make the CFP in 2020 and still got there. In that spirit, here are darkhorse contenders for the College Football Playoff.
1. Wisconsin Badgers (60/1)
Wisconsin has been a solid program for a long time, but have never been able to get to the College Football Playoff. They return just eight starters this season, although that may not be as big of a concern as the Badgers always bounce back well. The key for Wisconsin is that they found a star running back Braelon Allen, who they can lean on offensively. They’ll need three returning starters on defense to really step up.
The reason the Badgers could sneak into the CFP discussion is their schedule. They have a very tough game at Ohio State. Other than that, they play at Michigan State and at Iowa in some tough games. Wisconsin will need to win two of those three games, while making the Big Ten Championship to have a shot. The hard part might be winning the Big Ten Championship Game, where they will be matched up with Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State most likely. If Wisconsin fills gaps on their roster like they usually do, they will at the very least compete for the Big Ten West.
2. Oregon Ducks (80/1)
Oregon lost their head coach in the offseason, but the Ducks can compete in the Pac-12 still. They bring back seven starters on offense, but will be reliant on Bo Nix playing much better than he showed when he suited up for Auburn. The defense will also have seven starters back after being an average unit last season. Their linebackers are their strength on the defensive side of the ball with both Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell being extremely talented.
Playing in the Pac-12 is what could make the College Football Playoff attainable for the Ducks. They open the season with Georgia, which will be a tough test. The Ducks may be able to take the Bulldogs by surprise after Georgia lost so much from their National Championship roster. After the Bulldogs, the toughest games on the schedule will likely be BYU and Utah. Even if the Ducks can squeak by with only one loss, they could win the Pac-12 Championship Game, which could feature a rematch with Utah or a first matchup with USC. A win would put them in contention, with one loss, for the College Football Playoff.
3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (80/1)
Notre Dame has a history of sneaking into the CFP. They’ll have a new coach in Marcus Freeman, who has already created some buzz on the recruiting trail. The Fighting Irish return the entire offensive line and tight end Michael Mayer, who will all help Tyler Buchner take over the reins at quarterback after getting his feet wet in 2021. Freeman is a defensive-minded coach and will have some key players in Isaiah Foskey, Jack Kiser and Cam Hart to rely on after they ranked 15th in scoring defense last season.
There are a few games that can give Notre Dame trouble. The first is at Ohio State to open the year. They will also have tough contests against BYU, Clemson and USC. A loss to Ohio State is projected, but the Fighting Irish are fully capable of winning the other games. Finishing the season with one loss and no conference championship game to worry about could allow Notre Dame to slide back into the CFP.
4. Utah Utes (80/1)
Kyle Whittingham has done a tremendous job with the Utah program and the team could be in store for a surprise run to the CFP. The Utes return quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas, also with six other starters from their offense that went to the Rose Bowl following the 2021 season. Defensively, the Utes will have five starters back from a unit that ranked 29th last year.
Like Oregon, the Pac-12 schedule can help the team get through the year without too much damage. Their tough games will come at Florida, vs. USC and at Oregon. Those are all winnable games for Utah, so they could go undefeated or finish the season with one loss heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game. If they get that far, a rematch with Oregon is likely. Utah could be the first Pac-12 team to make the CFP since 2016.
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys (100/1)
Oklahoma State has a chance to send Texas and Oklahoma out of the conference in style for the 2022 season. The Cowboys have six starters returning on offense, including quarterback Spencer Sanders and wide receiver Brennan Pressley. Derrick Mason comes in to coach the defense, who will have four starters back. They ranked ninth defensively in 2021 and could still be solid in 2022.
Like some other teams listed, the schedule for the Cowboys makes things a little easier. They have tough games at Baylor, vs. Texas and at Oklahoma. Baylor will be tough after winning the Big 12. Texas is expected to have a much better season after going 5-7 last year. Oklahoma had a mass exodus following the season. In all, the games will be tough, but Oklahoma State can win each game. Getting a rematch with one of these teams in the Big 12 Championship and beating them could propel them into the CFP.
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