3 Under-the-Radar Teams Poised to Make a Run at the College Football Playoffs

While Michigan is rightfully garnering the national attention, a series of other teams outside the top 5 must use Week 7 to prove they are contenders.

I couldn’t help but chuckle this offseason when I first heard that Vegas sportsbooks were taking a lot of bets on Michigan to win the national championship.

The Linemakers on Sporting News reported in September that the famed Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s largest liability in college football futures was the Jim Harbaugh-led Wolverines. According to Linemakers, the SuperBook opened the Wolverines with 100-to-1 championship odds and took a lot of money thanks to the Harbaugh Hype.

“I mean, if he couldn’t win a championship at Stanford, it’s hard to think his first year at Michigan he’s going to go win the national championship,” Westgate SuperBook manager Ed Salmons told Linemakers. “But people are more than happy to bet it at 100-to-1. We wrote a lot of money on Michigan at 100-to-1, and we were happy to do it.”

Well, I am not laughing anymore. And neither, I’m sure, are the Vegas oddsmakers.

Behind three consecutive shutouts, Michigan has vaulted to second in our team efficiency -- or nERD -- rankings. That puts Michigan alongside the likes of playoff favorites Baylor, Clemson, and Alabama.

Despite a respectable loss to Utah to open the season, the upcoming schedule sets up well for Michigan. The team’s only two legitimate tests will come at The Big House against Michigan State this weekend and Ohio State to close the regular season.

Consider this as an indication of how far Michigan has come in just six weeks: in its game-of-the-year lines released June 26, the Golden Nugget opened Michigan State a 4.5-point favorite. The consensus line is now Michigan as 7.5-point favorites. And as it stands today, the our efficiency ratings would project Michigan to hold a double-digit advantage over the Buckeyes on a neutral field, as Michigan's nERD score of 27.18 trumps Ohio State's 14.13, which ranks 28th in the country.

Not bad for a team that started the year as 100-to-1 longshots.

While the Michigan faithful should be optimistic about their team’s path to a New Year’s Eve semifinal game and their championship odds (now 10-to-1), the Wolverines are not the only team outside the AP Top 5 that could make a serious run at the college football playoffs.

Here are a few other teams -- with pivotal Week 7 contests -- to watch out for.

Stanford (20-to-1 to win the national championship)

If Michigan stumbled out of the gate in 2015, Stanford fell face-first. In a 16-6 snoozefest, Northwestern held Stanford’s anemic offense to just 155 yards passing from quarterback Kevin Hogan and only 3.1 yards per carry.

But since then Stanford has rebounded, and the Cardinal now own the nation’s second best offensive efficiency rating. The success is one-part Kevin Hogan. Over his last four games, the rejuvenated Cardinal quarterback has nine touchdowns to just one interception and has helped Stanford move to sixth in the country in yards per pass attempt, with 9.6. They rank third in adjusted yards per attempt at 10.68. In three Pac-12 contests, Hogan has thrown only 12 incompletions.

The second part has been a dominant offensive line opening holes for running back Christian McCaffrey. After only 124 yards in first two weeks, McCaffrey has exploded in Pac-12 play, rolling up 115, 206, and 156 yards against USC, Oregon State, and Arizona, respectively. McCaffrey will be a key in Thursday night’s game against one-loss UCLA and in every other game left on its schedule. In fact, of the Cardinal’s remaining seven games, six feature opponents who rank 74th or worse in rush defense.

Importantly, the Cardinal get every other quality regular season opponent this year at home. Stanford travels only to Washington State and Colorado, barring a trip to the Pac-12 title game. And it all starts with the Bruins this week, a team Stanford has manhandled during every meeting in the Jim Mora Jr. era.

Stanford’s season could come down to its final regular season game, a quasi play-in game with...

Notre Dame (25-to-1)

Yes. The Irish. It would be easy to look at Notre Dame’s 2015 campaign as “what might have been.” Injuries have plagued the Irish all season, losing starting quarterback Malik Zaire, starting running back Tarean Folston, and a host of other contributors.

But Notre Dame is stocked with talent and depth. You pair those attributes with a stellar coach in Brian Kelly, and it makes sense why Notre Dame is still hanging around the playoff picture even with a loss. The Irish stand at 6th in nERD thanks to a balanced approach offensively. Notre Dame is ranked 15th in the nation behind the 12th best rushing attack and 27th best passing offense, according to our measures. The Irish will need to improve their rush defense, but there are not a lot of weak spots on this team.

Notre Dame is saddled with a single loss, but it was at Clemson (third in nERD). The Irish’s playoff resumé will hardly be tarnished if they could run the table, a prospect that is not-so-far-fetched. The Irish will need to take care of business on Saturday with USC visiting South Bend. The game has lost a little luster with USC in a downward spiral. On paper, the matchup should be close, but Notre Dame needs to make a statement with USC on the ropes on and off the field.

Following USC, the Irish get a series of middling opponents, including two teams -- Wake Forest and Boston College -- who played to a 3-0 final last weekend. Without a conference championship game to play, a visit to Stanford in Week 13 may determine Notre Dame’s 2015 fate.

Texas A&M (12-to-1)

Let’s play a little preseason blind resumé.

Team A: High-powered spread offense. Promising young quarterback. Loads of talent on both sides of the ball. Very high-profile new defense coordinator. Finished 2014 8-5.

Team B: High-powered spread offense. Promising young quarterback. Loads of talent on both sides of the ball. Very high-profile new defense coordinator. Finished 2014 8-5.

So Team A and Team B appear identical, but there is one distinguishing feature: Team A was AP-ranked sixth in the preseason, while Team B was unranked.

Team A is Auburn. Team B is Texas A&M.

Auburn is scrapping just to get to a bowl game. Texas A&M has gone from off the national radar to a true playoff contender. The Aggies have already racked up key wins against Arizona State, Mississippi State, and Arkansas, all top 45 teams according to nERD.

Texas A&M’s playoff hopes largely hinge upon this week’s battle against Alabama. The good news for the Aggies is that Alabama has struggled with spread offenses, and with Kevin Sumlin-Johnny Manziel teams, specifically. It should be more of the same this year. The Aggies come into the game with the 17th-rated pass offense. And don’t be fooled by the Tide’s second-rated pass defense: Alabama has dominated pro-style offenses run by Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arkansas, not the spread attacks that have historically torched Saban.

Ironically, just a couple of years after comparing the dangers of up-tempo offenses to smoking cigarettes, Saban hired Lane Kiffin to pick up the pace and bring the stagnant Tide offense into the 21st Century. This year, Alabama ranks 31st in plays per game, and against Ole Miss, the Tide ran 100 plays.

But Texas A&M has an answer for that too: new defensive coordinator, John Chavis. No coach has had more success against the up-tempo spread than Chief, whose defenses at LSU stifled Johnny Football and A&M.

The Aggies will travel to Ole Miss on October 24 and then to LSU on Thanksgiving weekend to close out the season. Those are tough-but-winnable SEC West games. Winning even two of three against Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU could be enough to get A&M into the Final Four.