There’s plenty of truth in the belief that the College Football Playoff has been dominated by four teams – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. The quartet combined for 20 of the possible 28 spots in the field since the system started in the 2014 season.
However, there has always been space for newcomers hoping to make the field for the first time.
Last year was the first of the seven playoffs in which the field was entirely made up of previous participants as Notre Dame made the field for the second time and was joined by the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes.
It’s likely last season was an anomaly. This year’s playoff race seems more wide open with several top teams facing questions. And there’s plenty of quality candidates capable of joining the select group that often has been part of the field.
Eight teams that could finally break through.
Entering 2019, the idea of the Cyclones being anywhere near the College Football Playoff would have brought disbelief as the program had never been ranked in the preseason coaches poll. Now Matt Campbell’s team will be comfortably in the top 10 when the first rankings come out, and it won’t be a fluke. Breece Hall was Big 12 offensive player of the year after running for 1,572 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Mike Rose was the conference’s defensive player of the year after compiling 96 tackles from his linebacker spot. A veteran secondary leads the defense, and Will McDonald is back in the front seven after leading the country with 101/2 sacks. The season likely comes down to how Iowa State handles a late road game at Oklahoma and then a possible matchup in the Big 12 title game. Brock Purdy is now a senior, but his play at quarterback has included too many bad decisions at critical times. If Purdy rises to the moment then, there is no reason this team can’t win its way in.
There’s only one hurdle for the Aggies to overcome as they try to finally live up to their potential in Jimbo Fisher’s fourth season. Unfortunately, that hurdle is Alabama. The bright side is that the Crimson Tide come to College Station and do have some questions about their offense. There are similar questions for the Aggies, who will be breaking in a new quarterback after relying on Kellen Mond for the past four seasons. Haynes King looks like the heir apparent. The concern is that he had four attempts last year as a freshman. Isaiah Spiller should be among the country’s best running backs, and there’s enough talent at receiver – led by game breaker Ainias Smith – and the line to make this a good offense. Whether it is good enough likely comes down to whether the defense can jump to elite status because more is going to be required from that unit in big games. DeMarvin Leal is the star of the line that also includes Tyree Johnson (four sacks last year). A veteran secondary is capable of defending against the passing attacks it will face.
Yes, no Group of Five team has made the playoff in the seven years of the system, but the table is set for the Bearcats after an unbeaten 2020 regular season. Desmond Ridder’s return gives them one of the nation’s top quarterbacks who can hurt defenses with his running and throwing ability. There’s enough playmakers on offense that last year’s 37.5 points per game is repeatable. The real strength of the Bearcats, however, will be on defense. Even with the loss of coordinator Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame, the unit should again be one of the best in the country. Myjai Sanders (seven sacks in 2020) and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant (seven combined interceptions) are three of the standouts from the group. Putting together an unbeaten regular season would virtually guarantee a spot. It will be much harder, however, with road games against Notre Dame and Indiana on the non-conference schedule. The positive? Cincinnati controls its own destiny.
Losing last year’s leader in passing yards might seem like too much of an obstacle for the Gators to overcome. However, a new-look offense might provide benefits to their overall success. Dual-threat Emory Jones will take over for Kyle Trask and his running ability will provide another dimension. More reliance on the ground attack will also take pressure off a defense that allowed 370 points in 12 games. That unit has enough talent returning to make a major improvement. The biggest challenge may be managing an SEC schedule that includes Alabama, Georgia and LSU. But if the Gators can get to the conference championship game with one loss, they’ll be one win from punching their ticket to the semifinals.
Doubters critical of the hiring of Mack Brown for his second tenure with the Tar Heels have been silenced in two short years after the program nearly beat Clemson in his first season and reached the Orange Bowl in his second. Now comes the possibility of challenging the Tigers for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Their bid starts with quarterback Sam Howell, who enters his third season after already throwing for 7,227 yards and 68 TDs. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler should help fill the void at running back. Josh Downs looks to emerge as the top receiver among an inexperienced group. More options will be needed for the offense to reach its full potential. No matter how good the offense is, the defense will need major improvement if UNC is going to knock off Clemson. The unit allowed 147 points in UNC’s four losses. On the plus side, Brown has filled the roster with talent through his recruiting acumen. Tony Grimes and Storm Duck give the secondary optimism. Up front, brothers Tomani and Tomon Fox are among the returners who give the group a chance to make the requisite gains to get the Tar Heels where they want to go.
It’s easy to overreact to last year’s results if you look at them without consideration of the season being played during a pandemic. The Nittany Lions saw All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opt out and their best offensive player – running back Journey Brown – forced to retire before the season. A controversial loss to Indiana in the opener was followed by a respectable defeat to Ohio State that seemed to sap the life out of a team that had playoff aspirations. Three more losses followed before the ship got righted. Penn State won its last four and showed it still is a group with enough talent to be among the best in the Big Ten, especially with Ohio State transitioning to a new quarterback. Sean Clifford becomes the key after the junior quarterback was benched midway through the year. His rebound helped lead the late-season resurgence. A stable of running backs and wide receivers is as good as any in the Big Ten with Noah Cain and Jahan Dotson the respective leaders. The defense took a step back in 2020, though young players got experience that should pay dividends. The biggest addition could be Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, who brings the potential of an elite pass rusher that’s needed.
The Badgers went 34-7 in the first three years under head coach Paul Chryst with two appearances in the Big Ten title game and New Year’s Six bowls. The last three years, they’ve been 23-12 with the downturn tied to reduced productivity from the offense. That’s Chryst’s specialty and his ability to reverse the trend will be key to putting Wisconsin back at the top of the Big Ten West. The tools are there. Graham Mertz arrived two years ago with much fanfare as one of the program’s top quarterback recruits. He was handed the job last season due to injury and had the expected bouts of inconsistency. It didn’t help that the team’s running game was slowed and his top receivers were injured. Those issues should be resolved this season as wideouts Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis decided to return, giving Mertz outside options with talented tight end Jake Ferguson a threat in the middle. Assuming Mertz develops in his second year as starter, the offense could have its best passing threat since Russell Wilson’s one season in 2011. The defense is again going to be great after finishing in the top 10 in scoring for the sixth time in seven seasons. Any run to contention will require a fast start with Penn State and Notre Dame among the first three games.
Oregon and Washington have already been part of the playoff, so if a new team is going to break through from the Pac-12, it will likely be from the South Division. Arizona State and UCLA will be contenders. However, it is the Trojans who have the best opportunity with a schedule that avoids the Ducks and Huskies from the North. Much will be on the shoulders of quarterback Kedon Slovis. Among the Heisman favorites, the junior is capable of carrying the offensive load. He has thrown for 47 TDs in 18 games across his first two seasons. Slovis will need to get help from his offensive line and a young receiving group that has talent yet lacks experience. The points will be there, so really it comes down to how good USC’s defense will be. The unit was much better in 2020 as the Trojans quietly went unbeaten in the regular season. Building on that success will put them in playoff contention.