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College Football's Top 10 Dark Horse Playoff Contenders for 2015

Malik Zaire

Malik Zaire

Rankings are a big part of any college football season. Whether it’s preseason projections or the in-season polls from the playoff committee, rankings generate discussion and interest from all 128 fanbases.

While some argue preseason rankings have too much of an impact on the actual in-season product, the reality is a playoff contender or national champion can come from anywhere. Need proof? Auburn was unranked to start 2013, yet played in the national championship against Florida State.

Could another surprise team (or two) sneak their way into playoff contention in 2015? Using Athlon’s projected final top 25 for this season, let’s examine a few dark horse playoff contenders and biggest concerns for all 10 teams. 

College Football's Top 10 Dark Horse Playoff Contenders

(Note: Only teams outside of Athlon's projected top 10 for 2015 were selected for this article)

1. Notre Dame

Why Notre Dame Can Make the College Football Playoff: Experience isn’t a necessity to contend for a playoff bid. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt Notre Dame’s cause to have 16 returning starters. Quarterback Malik Zaire showed promise in limited snaps last season and assumes the starting role after Everett Golson transferred to Florida State. Zaire lacks experience, but he’s got potential to thrive in coach Brian Kelly’s system. The Fighting Irish also have a strong supporting cast for Zaire, including a standout offensive line and top four receivers from 2014. The defense struggled with injuries, coordinator transition and the loss of a two key players before the start of last season. A year later, Notre Dame’s only “new” starter for 2015 is KeiVarae Russell off academic suspension. Improvement should be noticeable for Kelly’s defense this fall.

Notre Dame Logo

Biggest Concerns: It’s dangerous to read too much into trends, but it is worth noting Notre Dame has won more than nine games just once over the last five years. Making the leap from eight to 11 or 12 victories will be a challenge, especially with eight bowl teams dotting the schedule in 2015. Zaire is one of the top breakout candidates this season, but will there be growing pains in his first year as the starter? The defense allowed 29.2 points and over 400 total yards per game last year. While the added depth and experience will help, can the Fighting Irish make the necessary leap from struggling defense to shutdown group?

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

2. Clemson

Why Clemson Can Make the College Football Playoff: The path to an ACC Championship isn’t overly difficult for the Tigers. Georgia Tech and Florida State visit Death Valley, and the Tigers catch Notre Dame at home in non-conference play. Even though Chad Morris is now the head coach at SMU, the offense should continue to perform at a high level behind quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s top groups of skill talent. The defense returns only two starters, but coordinator Brent Venables should keep this unit near the top of the ACC.

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Biggest Concerns: Sure, the schedule is favorable. But the Tigers still have to navigate road trips to Louisville and NC State in conference action. Will Watson hold up for a full season after recovering from ACL surgery? The offensive line is coach Dabo Swinney’s biggest concern, as only one starter is back from last season, and true freshman Mitch Hyatt will anchor the left tackle spot. 

Related: ACC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2015

3. Ole Miss

Why Ole Miss Can Make the College Football Playoff: Defense. The Rebels limited opponents to just 16 points a game last season and could be even stingier in 2015. Seven starters return for coordinator Dave Wommack, including tackle Robert Nkemdiche and safety Tony Conner. It’s not a stretch to say Ole Miss could have the SEC’s best defense this fall. Quarterback play and establishing the run are question marks for the offense, but the receiving corps should be among the best in the nation, especially with standout Laquon Treadwell back to full strength. The offensive line struggled last season but improvement should be noticeable with five returning starters and better depth. Matchups against Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU take place in Oxford, and the Rebels miss Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee in crossover play with the East Division.

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Biggest Concerns: Even though the defense needs to solidify the linebacking corps and has two new starters at cornerback, there’s very little for coach Hugh Freeze to worry about. The offense? Well, that’s a different story. Will the Rebels end fall camp with an answer at quarterback? Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade are competing for the No. 1 job, with Kelly – a former Clemson quarterback and JUCO transfer – considered the favorite to start the opener. The Rebels averaged only 155.5 rushing yards last season. Will the offense develop a consistent ground attack? Road trips to Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn are challenging. 

4. LSU

Why LSU Can Make the College Football Playoff: Any of the seven teams in the rugged SEC West has an opportunity to reach one of the four spots in the playoff. Strength of schedule is on the West Division’s side, and the No. 1 from this league will have an opportunity to earn several marquee wins. LSU also has one of the nation’s most talented rosters. Over the last five years, the Tigers average a 6.8 finish in national recruiting rankings, which checks in No. 4 nationally. The three teams ahead of LSU? Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State – the last three national champions. The secondary is among the best in the nation, and linebacker Kendell Beckwith’s emergence provided a boost to the run defense in the second half of 2014. The offense has its share of question marks, but running back Leonard Fournette could be the best in college football. Three starters return on one of the SEC’s top offensive lines.