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Every single 2018 Power 5 title game could include a WTF team

Which of college football’s surprise success stories has the best chance of finishing strong?

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2018 college football season can’t quite decide what it wants to be when it has grown up. Get your MBA, move to New York, and wear a suit to work every day? Maybe. Start a band, commune with nature, and sell homemade soap? Absolutely still on the table.

On one hand, it has been a straightforward year.

Alabama, your preseason No. 1, has yet to take on a serious challenge. Preseason No. 2 Clemson is unbeaten, still No. 2, and appears to be improving drastically. Preseason No. 3 Georgia is a disappointing 7-1 and fifth; preseason No. 5 Ohio State is in crisis mode, having dropped [checks notes] one game and fallen all the way to eighth.

Right now, your most likely College Football Playoff bracket is something like No. 2 Clemson (its fourth straight CFP bid) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (blue blood) and No. 1 Alabama (dynasty) vs. either Oklahoma, Michigan, or Ohio State (blue bloods) at No. 4. That’s as stable as it gets.

On the other hand, with barely a month left in the regular season, a whole bunch of not-so-blue-bloods still have huge aspirations.

Washington State is the Pac-12’s favorite and final CFP contender. Kentucky holds its destiny in its own hands. Northwestern leads the Big Ten West, Virginia leads the ACC Coastal, Utah leads the Pac-12 South, and Iowa State is very much in contention in the Big 12.


Let’s unpack some of these surprises and see which are more sustainable than the others.

Washington State, Pac-12 favorite and CFP contender

NCAA Football: Washington State at Stanford
Gardner Minshew
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 7-1 and 10th in the AP poll (4-1 in the Pac-12 North, a half-game ahead of Washington)
  • Remaining schedule (S&P+ win probabilities in parentheses): California (71 percent), at Colorado (63 percent), Arizona (77 percent), Washington (40 percent)
  • Odds of winning out: 14 percent

Wazzu just survived the toughest kind of hangover test. After hosting College GameDay, TKO’ing Oregon, rushing the field, etc., they had to not only go on the road, but go face Stanford. The Cardinal aren’t that great, but they’re still big and physical and exactly the kind of opponent you don’t want to see if you are having focus issues.

No worries. Eventually. The Cougs trailed 28-14 late in the first half but charged back to win on a Blake Mazza field goal. That, combined with Washington’s upset loss at Cal, gave them sole possession of first place in the North and at least another week of the “Wazzu’s the Pac-12’s last playoff hope!” narrative.

The Cougs are pretty legit — not in a “threat to Bama” kind of way, but in an “it’s not an accident that they’re 7-1” kind of way. They are 23rd in the S&P+ rankings and have risen at least slightly in said rankings for five straight weeks. Granted, they’ve only played one S&P+ top-40 team (Utah, which wasn’t particularly good until after the Wazzu game), but hey, they’ve only got one more of those games left anyway.

They will be favored by at least six or seven points in each of their next three games before Washington comes to town. Their odds of winning out and holding onto CFP hopes aren’t great because the Huskies are still S&P+ darlings, but Wazzu’s Pac-12 North odds are quite strong.

Kentucky, SEC East and CFP (or at least NY6 bowl) contender

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri
Lynn Bowden Jr. (1) and Jordan Jones (34)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 7-1 and 11th in the AP poll (5-1 in the SEC East, tied for first with Georgia)
  • Remaining schedule: Georgia (30 percent), at Tennessee (67 percent), Middle Tennessee (78 percent), at Louisville (78 percent)
  • Odds of winning out: 12 percent (41 percent if they beat UGA this week)

Stat folks aren’t supposed to believe in “team of destiny” stuff, but how else do you describe Kentucky at this point? In the last two weeks, the Wildcats have ...

  • ... beaten Vanderbilt despite being outgained by 0.5 yards per play, losing two fumbles, completing only three passes, and needing a fourth-and-1 stuff in the fourth quarter.
  • ... beaten Missouri despite turning the ball over on downs three times in Mizzou territory, trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter, getting almost nothing out of the run game that has bailed out the passing game all year, and needing a punt return score, a blocked field goal and [dons Mizzou fan hat] an absolutely atrocious pass interference penalty [takes off Mizzou fan hat] with no time left to bail them out.

The Wildcats are up to third in Def. S&P+ and have yet to allow more than 20 points all season. That 20-point barrier has become like a forcefield — Mizzou scored 14 and gained 200 yards in the first half, then went three-and-out eight consecutive times — but UK knows its identity. Knowing exactly how you’re going to win (in this case, with defense, special teams, and only the timeliest of bursts) is a massive benefit.

That’s all well and good, but it’s still going to take one hell of an upset to beat Georgia. Get past the Dawgs, however, and the path to 11-1 and the SEC title game — despite maybe the worst offense of the Mark Stoops era — is awfully clear.

Utah, Pac-12 South leader

NCAA Football: Utah at UCLA
Mike Tafua (42) and Javelin Guidry (28)
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 6-2 and 16th (4-2 in the Pac-12 South, a game ahead of USC and Arizona)
  • Remaining schedule: at Arizona State (69 percent), Oregon (76 percent), at Colorado (70 percent), BYU (84 percent)
  • Odds of winning out: 31 percent (37 percent in conference games only)

To be fair, Utah only somewhat belongs on this list. The Utes have, after all, finished ranked in three of the last four seasons and have twice won BCS/NY6 bowls with Kyle Whittingham on the sideline.

Still, they’re somehow the only Pac-12 South team not to have won a division title — an impressive feat for a division that has only existed for seven years — and trust me, the fan base noticed.

A month ago, this was a pretty disappointing team. The Utes were 2-2 with losses to both Washington schools and a lackluster win over Northern Illinois. But they flipped a switch. A 4-0 October saw them outscore conference foes by an average of 41-17 and move to the top of the division. Everyone else is only one loss behind, but Utah already holds three tie-break advantages.

Things look good from both a standings perspective and from the perspective of, well, Utah looks like a buzzsaw right now.

Virginia, ACC Coastal leader

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 6-2 and 23rd (4-1 in the ACC Coastal, a half-game ahead of Virginia Tech and Pitt)
  • Remaining schedule: Pitt (69 percent), Liberty (86 percent), at Georgia Tech (52 percent), at Virginia Tech (48 percent)
  • Odds of winning out: 15 percent (17 percent in conference games only)

Virginia went 6-7 in 2017, Bronco Mendenhall’s second season in Charlottesville, and it was a massive sign of overachievement. This time, they’ve settled into their niche as a barely-top-50 team — they’ve ranked between 43rd and 48th in S&P+ for each of the last six weeks — but that’s still better than every remaining Coastal opponent.

Like Kentucky, UVA knows itself. They play strong defense, and while they stay on schedule offensively, the moment they’re off-schedule, they punt and lean on the defense some more. They couldn’t keep up with a peaking NC State, but after eking by Miami, they’ve looked increasingly confident, beating Duke by 14 in Durham and UNC by 10 at home.

A “beat Pitt and split the two late road games” scenario could get them the division title, but the specter of Virginia Tech still looms, not only because the game could decide the Coastal, but also because the Hoos haven’t beaten the Hokies since The Lillywhite Sessions controversy was still dividing Dave Matthews Band fans. (For non-Dave-heads, that’s an early-2000s reference. Go with it.)

Also, if Virginia loses to Pitt, then this list just gets weirder, because a 5-4 Pitt would then lead the Coastal.

Northwestern, Big Ten West leader

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern
Kyric McGowan
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 5-3 and 27th (5-1 in the Big Ten West, 1.5 games ahead of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Purdue)
  • Remaining schedule: Notre Dame (22 percent), at Iowa (27 percent), at Minnesota (42 percent), Illinois (81 percent)
  • Odds of winning out: 2 percent (9 percent in conference games only)

Barely beat 2-6 Nebraska one week, barely beat 1-7 Rutgers the next, then seize control of the Big Ten West the next. Even for a program that routinely defies S&P+ norms — the Wildcats have on three different occasions won 10 games while ranking in the 40s or worse — 2018 is shaping up to be Pat Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

Northwestern ranks 64th in S&P+, and I mean, of course. This is a team that beat Nebraska and Rutgers by a combined six points, lost to Akron, and lost to Duke at home by two touchdowns. But the Wildcats rode a brief explosion to a Week 1 win over Purdue and, on Saturday, turned three fumble recoveries in Wisconsin territory into 17 points in a 31-17 home win.

I pad my language with platitudes whenever possible, but on Sunday’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, I basically called this team an outright fluke.

On paper, this team should be about 3-3 in conference play. In reality, though? 5-1 with a couple of key tie-breaker advantages. You get to keep your wins, fluke or no.

Trips to Iowa and Minnesota should end the fun. Don’t put anything past Fitzgerald, but going 2-0 in those two road trips would mean an even further trip into Statsaremeaningless Land, and losing to Iowa might make winning a division tie-breaker pretty difficult.

Iowa State, Big 12 title game contender

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Iowa State
Greg Eisworth (12) and friends
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
  • Record and ranking: 4-3 and 31st (3-2 in the Big 12, one game out of a tie for first)
  • Remaining schedule: at Kansas (80 percent), Baylor (72 percent), at Texas (46 percent), Kansas State (80 percent) — if the Cyclones don’t make the Big 12 title game, they’ll also play Incarnate Word (99 percent) on championship weekend
  • Odds of winning out: 21 percent

I nearly talked myself into thinking of ISU as a Big 12 contender this year, but the Cyclones threw any optimist off the scent with a 1-3 start that included a listless loss at Iowa and an increasingly-bad-in-hindsight loss at TCU. But as has become an almost annual custom at this point, a mid-season QB change reversed ISU’s course.

With Brock Purdy behind center, ISU is 3-0 and averaging 39 points per game. The Cyclones’ beat Oklahoma State, WVU, and Texas Tech by a combined 31 points and have risen from 76th to 37th in S&P+. That they are receiving fewer poll votes than Northwestern is, frankly, inexcusable.

Of the Cyclones’ four remaining conference games, three are against the lowest-rated teams in the conference. Because of a trip to Austin, their odds of winning out aren’t amazing — and they’ll probably need to take that one to have a shot at the conference title game — but that game is by no means out of reach. For this group of teams with loftier-than-normal goals, I’d say that ISU’s chances are as good as anyone’s of reaching them.