The usual suspects in college football never leave our sights. When Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and Oklahoma take the field, they’re contenders to win it all. You can pencil in SEC juggernauts like Georgia, Florida and defending national champion LSU each year with the caveat that one, if not all, will lose a conference game to be left out of the College Football Playoff.
College football’s four-team format opened the door for some others to have realistic dreams of a title. Step one is winning your conference championship (unless you play in the SEC) in order to book your ticket to the big dance. With the rise of sports gambling around the country, that means more and more money is being placed on the “underdogs” when it’s time to pick your preseason champion.
According to the oddsmakers over at the Bovada sportsbook (via Odds Shark), here are the top contenders as of April 3, 2020 to hoist the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game trophy:
2021 National Championship Odds
Clemson Tigers, +225
Ohio State Buckeyes, +350
Alabama Crimson Tide, +450
LSU Tigers, +850
Georgia Bulldogs, +900
Florida Gators +1200
Oklahoma Sooners, +2500
Oregon Ducks, +2500
Penn State Nittany Lions, +2500
Auburn Tigers, +2800
Texas A&M Aggies, +3000
Notre Dame Fighting Irish, +3500
Texas Longhorns, +4000
Michigan Wolverines, +4500
USC Trojans, +5000
Wisconsin Badgers, +6600
Miami Hurricanes, +8000
Oklahoma State Cowboys, +8000
Tennessee Volunteers, +8000
North Carolina Tar Heels, +10000
Traditional programs like the Nebraska Cornhuskers (+12500) and Florida State Seminoles (+15000) still get some love despite being in the midst of program rebuilds, while up-and-coming teams like Arizona State, Iowa State and Arizona also made Bovada’s top 32.
But gamblers love value. It’s easy to put your money on Clemson and Ohio State knowing how good those programs are with Heisman Trophy candidates Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, respectively, leading the charge.
The most bang for your buck comes from teams outside that top tier — LSU started with the ninth-best odds (+3300) to win it all in 2019. Here are who I think are legitimate contenders heading into the 2020 season, and why you shouldn’t write them off just yet.
College Football Playoff Dark Horses
Penn State Nittany Lions (+2500)
Stuck under the guise of the Big Ten’s “kid brother,” the Nittany Lions are one of the best programs in America right now. Penn State’s nearly unbeatable inside Beaver Stadium — Since 2016, the program’s 26-2 record trails only Ohio State (28) for the most wins at home. The Nittany Lions reached three New Year’s Six bowl games in three 11-win seasons over the last four years, and regularly sign one of the best recruiting classes.
Micah Parsons might be as the best defensive player in college football next season. The two-time All-American heads into his junior season leading a defense that allowed 16.0 points per game last year (8th in the country). The offense led by quarterback Sean Clifford and running back Journey Brown scored 35.8 points per game in 2019, good for 15th in the nation.
This team is as good as it’s been in years, and playing Ohio State at home in 2020 means the door is open for PSU to finally make its first run at a CFP national championship.
Texas A&M Aggies (+3000)
Jimbo Fisher at the helm means no team is ever safe. (Just ask LSU in 2018.) Fisher’s entering year three in College Station, and all signs point to the Aggies potentially spoiling an SEC West division loaded with Alabama, LSU, and Auburn.
Quarterback Kellen Mond enters his senior season with 34 starts under his belt. The fourth-best (2019) and sixth-best (2020) recruiting classes nationally, according to 247Sports, will be on campus and ready to go. The young talent on this roster is improving, and if they survive conference play, the Aggies are as dangerous as any team in the country.
A&M’s biggest tests are road games against Auburn and Alabama. They get LSU and Ole Miss at home, but besides that their schedule looks winnable from all angles.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+3500)
A traditional FBS Independent sitting at +3500 to win it all? Notre Dame should be on your radar.
The schedule sets up beautifully for Brian Kelly’s team. They get Wisconsin at a neutral location and Stanford at home before hosting Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers on November 7. Even if they lose a close game, it seems like a tall task to leave the Irish out given the brand’s strength and the talent on the roster, especially if they finish the season with only one loss.
Ian Book decided to forego entering the NFL Draft and return in 2020 with a 20-3 record as the Irish’s starter. One of the most dominant defenses in the country last season — ND ranked 3rd in passing yards allowed, 4th in turnover margin, and 12th in scoring — returns a host of starters led by its top tackler, linebacker Drew White.
Solid along the trenches, skilled on the outside. Don’t sleep on Notre Dame next year.
Texas Longhorns (+4000)
Tom Herman’s arrival in Austin hasn’t brought national success like many hoped, but the silver lining is that the Longhorns have won three-straight bowl games and signed the third-ranked recruiting classes in both 2018 and ’19.
The problem with Texas is defense. Allowing 292.5 yards per game through the air sounds on par for the Big 12, but you don’t win national titles with the 127th-ranked pass defense. The offense is still strong, but winning on the big stage means having a complete team.
Still, with quarterback Sam Ehlinger returning for what feels like his 11th season, leading rusher Keaontay Ingram back for his junior year, and Joseph Ossai (13.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) back on defense, there’s no reason UT can’t win the Big 12 Conference and earn a trip to the College Football Playoff.
USC Trojans (+5000)
After a 3-3 start to last season, the Trojans won five of their last six regular-season games before falling to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. You’d think Southern California’s 8-5 record was a failure. Don’t forget that USC used three different quarterbacks last year and had 26 starters or key backups miss time with injuries.
There are 17 starters back from last year, including quarterbacks Kedon Slovis and JT Daniels, both of whom are thrown around with Heisman Trophy buzz attached to their names. The top six rushers, seven of the top eight receivers and three offensive linemen return to an offense that ranked 20th nationally in total offense (455.4 yards per game).
USC starts with a neutral-site game against Alabama, then faces a Pac-12 schedule with Arizona State, Utah, Oregon and Washington all ready to beat each other up. Should they survive, a final home game against Notre Dame is the resume booster USC needs to get them into the College Football Playoff with a conference title in hand.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (+12500)
If you’re not Rowing The Boat, it’s time to get on board.
Minnesota is hardly a traditional power. The Golden Gophers haven’t claimed a national title since 1960, but they won their first-ever division title in 2019. You have to start somewhere, and with head coach P.J. Fleck leading the charge with his new seven-year contract in hand, expect Minnesota to be around for a while.
Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman is back. Second-team All-Big Ten quarterback Tanner Morgan returns. The entire offensive line is back. The defense needs a makeover, especially losing All-American Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL Draft, but that unit allowed 306.6 yards per game, which was 10th-best in the country.
The Big Ten West division might as well be the Wild West. Minnesota could coast into the Big Ten Championship game for the second year in a row, and if they do, “Ski-U-Mah” might be chanted at a CFP Semifinal and title game come December.