<
>

Top teams should avoid these roadblocks on the way to the CFP

play
Can TCU slow down Rudolph, Oklahoma State? (0:35)

David Pollack previews TCU's matchup against Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State. (0:35)

College football doesn't always follow the script, and that's why we love it. San Diego State has already knocked off two Pac-12 teams and it's only September. The teams in the AP top 10 have shown some signs that they're good enough to be in it to win it, but here's how (and where) they could be derailed on the way to the College Football Playoff:

1. Alabama (3-0, No. 4 in FPI)

Why they're for real: "The Process," of course. Early losses from both LSU and Auburn have made clear that the gap between Alabama and the rest of the SEC still looms large. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has been one of the best in the country, ranking fifth in the FBS with a QBR of 90.1. He continues to have an elite supporting cast with players such as running back Bo Scarbrough and receiver Calvin Ridley and hasn't turned the ball over since last year's Iron Bowl.

Potential pitfall: Injuries. The Tide's defense wasn't at full strength and allowed Colorado State 391 yards and 10 of 17 on third-down conversions. Alabama has been nursing five injured linebackers, including two season-ending surgeries. Three -- Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses - are expected to return to practice this week. The Tide hasn't pressured opposing quarterbacks to Nick Saban's liking so far, and ranks fifth in the SEC in defensive efficiency (82.2), 19th in FBS. While Alabama is the clear-cut frontrunner in the SEC, it still has four road games looming. It's going to have to stay healthy and play better defense to win them all, especially Nov. 11 at Mississippi State. ESPN's FPI gives the Tide a 64.4 percent chance to win that game.

2. Clemson (3-0, No. 3 in FPI)

Why they're for real: It's reload, not rebuild. It's possible the defending national champs might be even better than last year. Junior quarterback Kelly Bryant has already proven himself with back-to-back wins over ranked opponents in Auburn and Louisville, and the defense has been suffocating. Just ask reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who was sacked four times in a 47-21 loss to Clemson. Clemson also had 11 sacks in the win against Auburn. The minute Florida State starting quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against Alabama, the spotlight turned to Clemson as the ACC's top CFP contender, and the Tigers have owned it.

Potential pitfall: Virginia Tech's "Lunch Pail D." Clemson travels to Blacksburg on Sept. 30, where it is likely to face an undefeated Hokies team in one of the ACC's most unforgiving stadiums. ESPN's FPI still gives Clemson a 77.5 percent chance to win, but Virginia Tech's veteran defensive coordinator, Bud Foster, could find a way to force even the most poised rookie quarterback into a game-changing mistake.

3. Oklahoma (3-0, No. 1 in FPI)

Why they're for real: The veteran quarterback and the rookie coach. Baker Mayfield might be the best quarterback in the country, and we can stop talking about how old (or young) head coach Lincoln Riley is (he's 34). Not only did Oklahoma get arguably the most impressive nonconference road win to date at Ohio State, but it avoided a letdown against Tulane after an underwhelming first half. OU scored 49 unanswered points, which stems from leadership, but it also took the defense some time to figure out Tulane's option game. The Sooners are ranked No. 13 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 12.3 points per game.

Potential pitfall: Bedlam. OU and Oklahoma State are on a collision course, seemingly destined to meet twice this year, with the Big 12 title game determining the league's best hope at the CFP. As good as OU's defense has been, it hasn't -- and won't -- face a quarterback as good as the Cowboys' Mason Rudolph. The win at Ohio State proved OU is to be taken seriously as a CFP contender, and right now it appears Oklahoma State is the only thing standing in the way.

4. Penn State (3-0, No. 5 in FPI)

Why they're for real: The cast of characters, plus some added motivation from last year's snub. After finishing fifth last year in spite of winning the Big Ten title, the Nittany Lions are determined to leave no doubt in the selection committee's mind that they're one of the top four teams. While they have yet to face an unranked opponent, they've certainly looked the part of a CFP contender. The dynamic duo of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, coupled with a defense that has allowed just one touchdown, has the Nittany Lions earning style points early.

Potential pitfall: The schedule. Penn State plays Michigan and Ohio State -- potentially two top-10 opponents -- in back-to-back weeks (Oct. 21 and Oct. 28, respectively). The only game FPI doesn't project Penn State to win is at Ohio State (23.7 percent). This week, the Nittany Lions visit Iowa, which has beaten each of its past three visitors who arrived ranked in the top three.

5. USC (3-0, No. 12 in FPI)

Why they're for real: Statement wins over Stanford and Texas. The Trojans have done what they couldn't last year: start strong and one step ahead in the league race with a win over Stanford. Although Texas was unranked, the double-overtime win showed championship-caliber guts and gave them a little bit of wiggle room heading into the heart of Pac-12 play. USC can also take solace that on a night when the offense made glaring mistakes, the defense was the difference in the game. If USC can put it all together, it should look like a top four team.

Potential pitfall: Inconsistency. One week after racking up 623 yards against Stanford, USC's offense had to overcome a largely uneven performance from Sam Darnold. He threw three touchdowns and two interceptions, and the Trojans had just 71 rushing yards. Darnold has thrown six picks in three games this season after throwing nine in 10 starts last season. Texas' defense deserves credit for flustering the USC offense, but the Trojans have some work to do.

6. Oklahoma State (3-0, No. 8 in FPI)

Why they're for real: A phenomenal passing game. The Cowboys looked flat-out dominant in their road win against Pitt, which had no answer for Mason Rudolph and his plethora of options at wide receiver. Oklahoma State had four different receivers with at least 100 receiving yards for the first time in school history, and they compiled 252 yards after the catch overall. The Cowboys lead the FBS in offensive efficiency (97.8), but the defense is also holding opponents to just 17.3 points per game.

Potential pitfall: Strength of schedule. The Cowboys went 3-0 against a nonconference lineup that included three unranked teams that are now a combined 3-6 -- none rank in the top 65 of FPI. As of now, TCU and Oklahoma are the only ranked teams on their schedule. If the Big 12 follows the script and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State face each other in the conference title game, that would obviously give the Cowboys an impressive win to punctuate their résumé. If they are compared against another Power 5 champion with a stronger résumé, though, that nonconference schedule could come back to haunt them.

7. Washington (3-0, No. 7 in FPI)

Why they're for real: The returning stars. Quarterback Jake Browning, running backs Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman, and receiver Dante Pettis all know what it takes to get to a CFP semifinal after finishing No. 4 last year. The problem is we haven't seen them truly tested yet, as the Huskies looked average in their season opener against Rutgers and racked up back-to-back lopsided wins against unheralded Montana and Fresno State. We need to learn more about Washington, but the talent is proven and the defense has snagged seven turnovers so far.

Potential pitfall: The running game. Even with the dynamic duo of Gaskin and Coleman, Washington needs to extract more from its running game than the 92 rushing yards on 30 carries it had against Fresno State. Last year, the Huskies averaged 230 rushing yards and 5.7 yards per play.

8. Michigan (3-0, No. 18 in FPI)

Why they're for real: Well, the jury is still out. Michigan has won three straight, including the season opener against Florida, but fans are booing the hum-drum offense that can't quite seem to finish. Quarterback Wilton Speight has faced criticism each of the past two weeks, as some of his throws have been off or missed his target entirely. Michigan entered this season with just five returning starters -- the fewest in the FBS -- but the younger players haven't been the problem; it's getting them the ball and making something of it. Michigan's defense has been a strength, but the entire team has to improve if Michigan is going to contend in the Big Ten. FPI is not projecting the Wolverines to beat Penn State (19.1 percent), Wisconsin (23.1) or Ohio State (21.1).

Potential pitfall: Red zone ineptitude. Michigan entered Saturday's game against Air Force last among Power 5 schools in the percentage of red zone trips that ended in touchdowns and was shut out on its four attempts inside the 20 Saturday.

9. Wisconsin (3-0, No. 6 in FPI)

Why they're for real: They're the best in the West. Any team with a shot at winning the Big Ten has a shot at finishing in the top four, and until proven otherwise, Wisconsin looks like the team to beat in its otherwise mediocre division. It starts with QB Alex Hornibrook, who threw just one incomplete pass (18-of-19) in the win at BYU. Wisconsin has played well on both the offensive and defensive lines and completely overwhelmed BYU.

Potential pitfall: Strength of schedule. The downside to being the best in the West? The same reason you don't want to buy the nicest house on the ugliest block. Everyone else brings your value down. After facing three unranked nonconference opponents that have a combined 3-7 record so far, Wisconsin plays just one ranked opponent all season -- No. 8 Michigan on Nov. 18. Of course, it would face another ranked opponent in the Big Ten title game, but that's the kind of schedule that could leave the Badgers on the CFP bubble.

10. Ohio State (2-1, No. 2 in FPI)

Why they're for real: They still have to prove they are. They have true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins, who will be a household name by the end of the season. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who can handle all of the criticism you throw at him. And an athletic defensive line capable of anchoring a Big Ten title run. Give first-year coordinator Kevin Wilson one more game to get comfortable (a home game against UNLV before diving into the heart of the Big Ten schedule) before piling on the playcalling. Oklahoma exposed plenty of Ohio State's weaknesses, but the Buckeyes have been in this position before.

Potential pitfall: Complacency. Ohio State has to get better -- in its passing game, in the secondary, in special teams. It can't live on its brand name alone, not after losing the one nonconference game that could have separated its résumé in the eyes of the committee. Ohio State earned its spot last year because the committee truly believed it was a better team than Penn State. It hasn't looked the part yet this year.