The College Football Playoff selection committee’s top 25 rankings are the biggest source of discussion and criticism among fans and media after their release on Tuesday nights. While the rankings are important to show where teams stand relative to the other contenders, as well as how the committee is evaluating different teams, it’s important to remember that the top 25 is going to change significantly by Dec. 6.
With four weeks of games remaining, college football is due for a few upsets. Which teams could play spoiler and end the playoff hopes of some of the leading contenders after Week 10? Here are five teams to watch the rest of 2015:
5 Teams That Could Play Spoiler to CFB Playoff Contenders
High expectations surrounded Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, and the first-year coach has the Wolverines sitting at 7-2 and in position to play in one of college football’s top bowl games. Michigan should be favored in upcoming matchups against Indiana and Penn State, with the regular season finale at Ohio State looming large. Assuming the Buckeyes defeat Illinois on Nov. 14 and Michigan State on Nov. 21, coach Urban Meyer’s team will take a 31-game winning streak in Big Ten play to Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are a work in progress on offense with an average of 5.4 yards per play in Big Ten matchups, but the defense leads the conference by holding opponents to just 11.9 points a game. Harbaugh’s defense also leads the Big Ten in fewest third-down conversions allowed and ranks third nationally in rush defense. After losing three in a row to the Buckeyes, Michigan will be hungry to spoil the season of its bitter rival.
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Mississippi State (7-2)
The Bulldogs were picked by most to finish last in the challenging SEC West, but coach Dan Mullen has relied on the right arm and legs of senior quarterback Dak Prescott to guide Mississippi State back in contention for a 10-win season. Prescott is the SEC’s top quarterback, throwing for 2,351 yards and 18 scores and rushing for 418 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. Prescott needs more help from his rushing attack and offensive line, but the senior has one of the SEC’s top receiving corps. Coordinator Manny Diaz returned to Starkville after four years away and has helped Mississippi State’s defense reload after returning only three starters. The Bulldogs are giving up 5.2 yards per play and rank fourth in the conference by holding opponents to 17.2 points a game. It’s a longshot, but Mississippi State is still alive in the SEC West title picture. To keep those slim West Division title hopes alive, the Bulldogs have to upset Alabama on Saturday. The Crimson Tide are coming off a huge win in a physical affair against LSU and have to quickly refocus for a tricky road trip to Starkville. A win by Mississippi State on Saturday would have huge implications in the playoff picture.
North Carolina (8-1)
The Tar Heels have reeled off eight wins in a row after losing to South Carolina 17-13 in the season opener. Coach Larry Fedora’s team is in control of the Coastal Division and could clinch this Saturday with a win, combined with a Duke victory over Pittsburgh. As usual, the offense is a strength under Fedora. North Carolina ranks second nationally with an average of 7.6 yards per play, quarterback Marquise Williams is second in the ACC with 297.2 total yards per game, and freshman running back Elijah Hood is having a standout season with 813 yards and 11 scores in nine games. While the offense is explosive, the difference in North Carolina’s run at the Coastal title in 2015 is its defense. The addition of new coordinator Gene Chizik has paid huge dividends for Fedora’s team, as this unit has made significant strides. The Tar Heels are limiting ACC opponents to 5.3 yards per play, down from 6.3 in 2014. Additionally, Chizik’s defense has surrendered only 11 plays of 30 yards or more. With an explosive offense and an improving defense, North Carolina could give Clemson trouble in the ACC Championship.
The final Saturday in the regular season shouldn’t be short on drama as teams make their final pitch to the committee for a playoff spot. If – and it’s a big if – Baylor can run the table in November and defeat Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU, the Dec. 5 matchup against Texas could determine whether or not coach Art Briles’ team makes the playoff or just misses for the second year in a row. On paper, Baylor should be a heavy favorite against Texas. However, coach Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford have experienced some success in slowing down the high-powered Bears’ offense. In 2013, the Longhorns limited Baylor to 30 points and 5.5 yards per play (third-lowest mark of the season). Last year, Texas held the Bears to 28 points and just 4.7 yards per play. The personnel is different for the Longhorns’ defense, but this unit has not allowed more than 234 passing yards in each of its last four games. Additionally, Texas can control the pace of the game with an offense averaging 227.8 rushing yards per game in Big 12 contests. It’s a long shot, but the season finale could determine whether or not the Longhorns go to a bowl. If that’s the case, Texas will have plenty of motivation on Dec. 5 in Waco.
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UCLA (7-2)/USC (6-3)
The Pac-12 South title is a three-team race with three weeks remaining until Championship Saturday. Utah is the clear favorite at 5-1 in league play, but USC and UCLA are both positioned to make a run at 4-2. The Trojans also own a critical tiebreaker over the Utes thanks to a head-to-head win on Oct. 24. The Bruins will have their shot at Utah on Nov. 21 in Salt Lake City, followed by a road test at USC on Nov. 28. For USC or UCLA to play spoiler, it needs some help. Utah has to lose once – UCLA on Nov. 21 is the most-likely outcome – and the Bruins or Trojans have to win out and play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship. If the Cardinal defeats Notre Dame on Nov. 28, there’s a good chance for David Shaw’s team moves to No. 4 in the committee rankings. While Stanford would be favored over UCLA and USC, both teams would have revenge on their mind after losing to the Cardinal already in the regular season.