Those rankings are going to depend on whether the teams on that list can reach their best-case potential or worst-case scenario. The College Football Playoff semifinals are Dec. 28, and this year’s national championship is Jan. 13 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.Which teams have a chance to get there? We look at the best- and worst-case for each top 25 team:
Best case: The hype is real heading into Scott Frost’s second season. Adrian Martinez emerges as a Heisman Trophy finalist, the Huskers have a consistent running game behind him and the defense improves in big games. It comes together with an upset against Ohio State on Sept. 28, and the Huskers win two of three against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa at home. That’s enough to earn Nebraska a 10-win season en route to Indianapolis, where it faces Michigan or rematches against Ohio State in the conference title game.
Worst case: The Huskers lose to Colorado again, and the defense falters late in a shootout with the Buckeyes three weeks later. The Huskers make progress, but they lose two of three to the Wildcats, Badgers and Hawkeyes. A 7-5 finish results in a second-tier bowl matchup against Tennessee, and the Vols beat the Huskers by three touchdowns while honorary captain Peyton Manning stares Frost down from the other sideline.
Best case: Brandon Wimbush exceeds expectations at quarterback, and the Knights make more statements by knocking off Stanford and Pitt in back-to-back weeks. Greg McRae makes a case for the Doak Walker Award, and the defense doesn’t miss a beat. The Knights finish unbeaten in the regular season for the third straight season and get a New Year’s Day Six matchup against Alabama, which fails to make the College Football Playoff for the first time.
Worst case: Wimbush is inconsistent, and the defense is exposed in losses to the Cardinal and Panthers. UCF drops to 3-3 after a loss at Cincinnati on a Friday night special Oct. 4, and the program’s momentum fizzles with second-half losses to Houston and USF. The Knights finish 7-6 after losing to UAB in a bowl game.
Best case: EWU transfer quarterback Gage Gabrud continues where Gardner Minshew left off, and the Cougars make another run in the Pac-12 North. Washington State moves into the top 10 after impressive September wins against Houston and Utah, and despite splitting trips to Arizona State and Oregon, head into the Apple Cup with a 10-1 record and a chance to advance to the Pac-12 championship game. Mike Leach wins — kicking the Playoff politicking off the charts.
Worst case: The road schedule is too much. Washington State finishes 3-2 in September after a loss to UCLA, and Oregon knocks the Cougars out of the Pac-12 race before November. Washington beats Washington State for the seventh straight season. The Cougars still finishes 8-5, and Leach begins to take a few offers from Power 5 schools seriously.
Best case: Stanford’s offensive line is dominant around future first-round pick Walker Little. Dorian Maddox and Trevor Speights both break out at running back. K.J. Costello takes the next step at quarterback, and a senior-laden defense leads a Pac-12 championship run. Stanford finishes the first half of the season with a 4-2 record, but gets hot in the second half of the season and is 9-2 with the Pac-12 North title in hand when Notre Dame visits. The Cardinal are in place for a fringe Playoff case.
Worst case: Stanford can’t get out of September. That row of Northwestern, USC, UCF and Oregon leads to a disastrous 1-3 start, and Washington ends any hopes of a Pac-12 championship run two weeks later. Stanford recalibrates for a bowl win after losing to Notre Dame, but the program’s first sub-nine-win season since 2014 doesn’t sit well.
Best case: Graham Mertz emerges as a freshman phenom at quarterback, and the difference in the passing game puts Wisconsin back in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West Division. The offensive line is dominant again, and Jonathan Taylor finishes runner-up in the Heisman race after another 2,000-yard season. Wisconsin sweeps Northwestern, Michigan and Michigan State at Camp Randall. Despite a loss at Ohio State on Oct. 26 and a November bruise in the Big Ten West, the Badgers finish 10-2 and get a rematch with the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. The Rose Bowl is still in play
Worst case: The quarterback question does not get answered. It’s Groundhog Day for Paul Chryst and Co. Michigan and Northwestern both win at Camp Randall in September, and Wisconsin simply can’t find the extra gear in a wide-open Big Ten West race. The Badgers lose two of three to Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota in November. Wisconsin loses six games for the first time since 2012.