Column: Who will be this year’s four playoff teams?

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Over the past couple of weeks, the Eagle Sports team broke down our predictions on how the SEC teams would fare in 2020.

When the picks were all complete, there were three positions that were unanimously predicted by publisher James Phillips, sports editor Johnathan Bentley, social media coordinator Jeffery Winborne and myself — 13, 14 and the top spot.

Alabama being our top pick to win the SEC was fairly easy to predict, rightfully so with a boatload of talent returning in several positions and what everyone expects to be a much hungrier Crimson Tide after being shutout of both the SEC title game and the playoffs. The vast majority of the major college football prognosticators from the Vegas odds makers to the talking heads at ESPN through preseason magazines have labeled ‘Bama to win the conference championship and advance once again to the playoffs.

Now that’s settled, how about the other three teams who will vie for the national title as playoff teams? These may not be too shocking. Here’s my take on the other three to make the cut.

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CLEMSON TIGERS

For now, Clemson has almost no resistance in the ACC. Things could change next year with Mack Brown’s North Carolina Tar Heels building to be a quality program and there’s always a chance FSU and Miami could build themselves back to prominence, but for now, no one in the ACC is going pull Clemson from the top of the mountain. The Tigers have their own depth chart of experienced stars returning.

The challenge: Clemson’s lone challenge of the season won’t come from within the ACC, but rather in a Nov. 7 showdown with Notre Dame in South Bend. The Fighting Irish have been a stable team under head coach Brian Kelly, averaging 10 wins a season — good, but not great by Notre Dame standards. By this point in the season, Notre Dame will have had a fair number of tests with games against a very good Navy program and Wisconsin, while Clemson had been cruising. Though it may take them a while to get started, expect the Tigers to take down the Fighting Irish and blow through the rest of the season en route to the playoffs.

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OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

The Buckeyes went undefeated into the CFB playoffs before being taken down by Clemson. There’s no reason to believe that Ohio State won’t make it back to the playoffs once again, but the Buckeyes won’t have the easier path that Clemson does. The obstacles come with the schedule.

The challenge: There are three of them, starting with the Sept. 12 battle at Oregon. The question for both teams is who will have been more improved between Week 1 and 2. If Oregon has shown more progress it could be a long day for the Buckeyes. However, if Ohio State made better strides, look for the Buckeyes to win big on the road. Ohio State’s other two tests come from Big-10 opponents, on Oct. 24 at Penn State and to close the regular season at home against archenemy Michigan. Out of the two games, Penn State looks to be the more formidable contest for Ohio State and a win by the Nittany Lions wouldn’t necessarily be a big upset. And of course when it comes to season-ending rivalry games, strange things can happen. Out of the three, the Buckeyes could potentially lose against Oregon but be back to the playoffs if they win out.

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OKLAHOMA SOONERS

There’s no Jalen Hurts or Baker Mayfield for the Sooners this season, so a brand new quarterback will have to step in and take the reigns for Lincoln Riley’s offense. The Oklahoma defense has improved steadily since Riley added more emphasis on getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers. The quarterback position is the most glaring subject Oklahoma will have to address in order to lock-up a playoff spot.

The challenge: Texas. A year from now I would probably add Tennessee as a big test, but the Vols aren’t quite there yet. There also could be some difficulties with the annual Bedlam game against Oklahoma State. I expect the Sooners to come out on top in both. The Longhorns, who have been building since Tom Herman arrived in Austin, will be at a crossroads. Beating the Sooners could thrust Texas back into the national spotlight it’s been absent from since the 2009 national title game, while a loss will keep the Longhorns at second-tier status. The Sooners know this and know the implications of what an Oct. 10 loss to Texas would do for their playoff hopes.

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W. Brian Hale is the Sports Writer at the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at brian.hale@mountaineagle.com.