Ranking the potential first-time college football playoff teams

Over the past eight seasons of the College Football Playoff, a total of 13 different schools have reached the semifinals. No school has appeared more than Alabama (seven times), and no conference has qualified more than the SEC (10 times).

(Insert yawn here.)

While Alabama, Clemson (six), Ohio State (four) and Oklahoma (four) have dominated the four-team field, it’s often forgotten that Michigan State, Oregon, Washington and Florida State have also reached the sport’s biggest stage.

And of course, undefeated Cincinnati gave hope to everyone everywhere last season. Here are four teams that could follow the Bearcats and crack the top four for the first time, ranked in order of who has the best chance:

Preseason FPI: No. 12

Why it’s realistic: The Aggies have everything they need to succeed at the highest level, including financial resources, a passionate fan base, elite recruiting classes and a veteran head coach — plus the confidence of last year’s win against Alabama. They also have a schedule that’s balanced enough to both impress the selection committee (three straight October road trips at SEC opponents) and earn some easy wins (Sam Houston, Appalachian State and UMass). If the Aggies can beat Miami and their SEC opponents, the committee will overlook those gimme games. Over the past four seasons, Jimbo Fisher has landed a top-seven recruiting class, including the No. 1 group in the nation this year. At some point, that talent has to translate into a CFP appearance.

It will only happen if: The defense can sustain its success in spite of losing coordinator Mike Elko to Duke and the Aggies can find a healthy, consistent winner at quarterback. Over the past four seasons, the Aggies have allowed the third-fewest yards per game in the SEC (334). They allowed 15.9 points per game — third-fewest in the FBS behind Georgia and Clemson. Former Ole Miss defensive coordinator DJ Durkin was hired to replace Elko. Offensively, Fisher has a quarterback competition between Haynes King and LSU transfer Max Johnson.

ESPN’s FPI says: The Aggies have at least a 50% chance to win every game except for Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Aggies have a 1.9% chance to make the playoff.

coach speak: “[Last year’s win against Alabama] gives you confidence that you know what you’re capable of. But the thing this league challenges you with — and I try to tell ’em every day — all games are big games. You circle every game and you’re only as good as your last game. When you win those games and it shows you what you’re capable of, you have to finish. And that was a disappointing thing I thought of last year. … We didn’t finish. But again, there’s a lot to grow from there and hopefully we’ll grow from those. And some of our lackluster things with inexperienced guys last year, I think will be our strengths this year in having to play those guys.” — Fisher

Preseason FPI: No. 13

Why it’s realistic: The defending Pac-12 champs are coming off their first Rose Bowl appearance in school history and they return 14 starters from that 10-win team. Starting quarterback Cameron Rising returns, along with five of his top six pass-catchers, and running back Tavion Thomas, who finished with 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns. With USC and Oregon both under new head coaches, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has the edge in experience, and he is proven with three Pac-12 South titles in the past four seasons.

It will only happen if: Utah can win on the road. Utah can lose its opener at Florida and still finish in the top four — a Pac-12 title can compensate for a tough road loss in the opener — but the Utes will be under pressure to win out and repeat as Pac-12 champs in that case. They need to beat the Gators to give themselves a cushion in league play, especially if Lincoln Riley can raise USC quickly. It starts in Gainesville, but Utah has six total road games, including particularly difficult trips on Oct. 8 at UCLA, a Thursday night game on Oct. 27 at Washington State and Nov. 19 at Oregon. Utah’s inability to win road games last year at BYU, San Diego State and Oregon State cost the Utes a historic season.

ESPN’s FPI says: Utah has at least a 50% chance to win every game except its season opener against Florida and Nov. 19 at Oregon.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Utah has a 6.3% chance to reach the CFP.

coach speak: “I think we’re still fighting for [respect] in a way. We’re a program that’s still working on our brand and trying to become more of a national presence, but you’ve got to earn that — nobody’s going to give it to you. The way you do that is every time you have a chance to prove that — national television, bowl games, that type of situation — you’ve got to play your way into that respect. We’ve made inroads. Are we where we want to be? Not yet.” — Whittingham

Preseason FPI: No. 35

Why it’s realistic: Riley has quickly assembled a roster oozing with championship-caliber talent. He made excellent use of the transfer portal beyond the headline of Caleb Williams, adding a total of 13 players so far. The offense has been upgraded with the addition of former Oregon running back Travis Dye, along with receivers Mario Williams, Brenden Rice and Terrell Bynum. Caleb Williams will have no shortage of options around him, and Riley has the experience of leading a program to the playoff before.

It will only happen if: USC can avoid going 0-2 against Utah and rival Notre Dame. (That’s assuming, of course, the Trojans win all of their other games.) USC can afford to lose to Utah and still finish in the top four — especially now that the Pac-12 scrapped its divisions and the two best teams will play each other in the conference championship game. If it wins the Pac-12 and its only loss is to a ranked Notre Dame team, USC should also finish in the top four. If it drops both of those games, though, the Trojans will continue to be an afterthought in the playoff conversation.

ESPN’s FPI says: USC has less than a 50% chance to beat both Utah and Notre Dame, but the Trojans have more to worry about. In addition to those two opponents, FPI also gives UCLA the edge on Nov. 19, with a 54.3% chance to win the game.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: USC has less than a .1% chance to make the playoff, behind 29 other teams that have at least a 1% chance.

coach speak: “You don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do things small. You got to set your sights big. I don’t think [the expectations are] too much I dont. I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in what we are teaching. I believe in the people that we have in there. Obviously it’s going to continue to evolve through years. I didn’t come here for one season. I didn’t come here to do this in a short term. In some respects you keep the long game in mind. The people we brought in here, the staff we brought in here, we didn’t come here to play for second. We are not wired that way. We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time. That will always be our expectation.” — Riley

Preseason FPI: No. 14

Why it’s realistic: The Cowboys have a more favorable schedule than both Texas (which faces Alabama) and Baylor (which hits the road for a tough trips to BYU, Iowa State and West Virginia). With nonconference games against Central Michigan, Arizona State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — three games Oklahoma State is favored by at least 80%, according to ESPN’s FPI — the Cowboys should be 3-0 heading into the Oct. 1 game against Baylor. They will also have home-field advantage against the Longhorns on Oct. 22, and ESPN’s FPI projects they will be undefeated heading into that game. Unlike Baylor, Oklahoma State also will have home-field advantage against West Virginia to end the season.

It will only happen if: Quarterback Spencer Sanders stays healthy and decreases his interceptions, and the Cowboys can continue to grow on defense in spite of critical departures, including coordinator Jim Knowles. Sanders is on track to become the first quarterback to start all four seasons under Mike Gundy. Since 2019, he has turned the ball over 40 times (31 interceptions, nine fumbles), the most by any player in the FBS over that span. In the Big 12 championship game loss to Baylor, he threw a career-high four interceptions. While the defense was one of the best in the FBS and in school history, Knowles is gone, and the Cowboys return the third-lowest Returning FBS experience on defense, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research.

ESPN’s FPI says: Oklahoma State is favored in each of its games except Oct. 22 against Texas (Longhorns have a slight edge at 53.1%) and Nov. 19 against Oklahoma (Sooners have a 63.9% chance to win).

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Cowboys have the 12th-best chance to reach the playoff at 4%, trailing Texas, which has the sixth-best chance at 18%.

coach speak: “We have a foundation. The team needs to make a commitment. Coaches don’t play in the games, the team does. Our responsibility is to guide them; their responsibility is to come together as a group, create an identity. It needs to be important to them. Then go play. That’s the direction we’ll take starting in a couple weeks.” — Gundy


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