The College Football Playoffs are the holy grail for the 130 teams competing in the FBS. Since its inception in 2014, just four teams earn the right to battle for a national championship each year. It is truly an exclusive society, selected by a committee of 13. However, like all establishments of that nature (like the NFL), newcomers have to permeate the ranks. Which teams could break through and challenge the College Football Playoffs elite in 2021?
Before diving into the five teams most likely to break into the College Football Playoffs this season, who are the teams that have frequented the final four since 2014? Just 11 teams have made it to the holy land in that time, with Alabama and Clemson leading the way with six appearances. Ohio State (4), Oklahoma (4), and Notre Dame (2) are the only other teams to make multiple trips to the College Football Playoffs.
That leaves six teams that have made it to the final four just once. LSU parlayed their only College Football Playoffs appearance in 2019 into a national championship. All the others — Georgia, Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State, and Washington — were unsuccessful in their bid for a national title.
As a result of Alabama and Clemson’s dominance, the SEC and ACC are the most successful conferences of the College Football Playoffs era.
As you can see, breaking into the College Football Playoffs is no easy task. However, these five teams could be in with a chance this year.
Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies have potentially the best case of any team to make the College Football Playoffs for the first time this year. They narrowly missed out on inclusion last year as the fifth-ranked team in the nation. They joined a list of one-loss teams that failed to make the final four, including the 2014 Baylor and TCU teams, the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers, and multiple Ohio State teams.
On paper, they have one of the best rosters in the nation as far as I’m concerned. The running back room has a devastating trio of Isaiah Spiller, Ainias Smith, and Devon Achane. In Jalen Wydermyer, they have the best tight end in the nation.
Furthermore, they have some intriguing pass catchers in the likes of Hezekiah Jones and Demond Demas. Although the offensive line lost some pieces to the NFL Draft, in Kenyon Green, they have potentially one of the best offensive linemen in college football.
Texas A&M also boasts one of the most underrated defenses in the country. DeMarvin Leal is a game wrecker on the defensive line. And Leon O’Neal and Demani Richardson create one of the best safety duos of any team in college football this season.
Cornerback Myles Jones adds further talent to that secondary, and the likes of Aaron Hansford and Jayden Peevy make for an impressive unit. Offense wins games, defense wins championships — and Texas A&M is strong on both sides of the ball.
Potential pitfalls on the path to the College Football Playoffs
So what’s stopping the Aggies this season? Like several teams that will be in contention in 2021, Texas A&M has uncertainty under center. With Kellen Mond departed to the NFL, they lose their four-year starting quarterback. Zach Calzada, Haynes King, and Eli Stowers are all unproven, and one will need to grab the starting job by the horns and prove they can lead this Aggies team.
Then you have the issue of the most successful program in College Football Playoffs history in your conference. Alabama stands in the way of the Aggies every year. To guarantee passage to the final four, they’ll need to beat the Crimson Tide. Otherwise, their route to the College Football Playoffs is out of their hands. It’s not impossible, but it will be challenging. Thankfully for the Aggies, they welcome Alabama to College Station, giving them a home-field advantage on October 9.
It seems ludicrous that one of the most storied programs in college football history has yet to make it to the playoffs. Despite ranking in the top four of the AP during two separate seasons and finishing third in 2016, they have been unable to make it into the final four. Is this the year that the Trojans finally fight their way in?
A potential challenge from the perennial Pac-12 protagonists begins with security under center. While several contenders deal with QB transitions this season, the Trojans bring back Kedon Slovis for his junior year. Slovis suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump amongst the disruption of the 2020 season. However, some of his struggles can be chalked up to not being 100% healthy. If he returns to the form he showed as a freshman, Slovis can be one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the nation.
The USC quarterback has a highly talented wide receiver room to work with. Drake London is a ridiculously uncommon athlete that combines the pass-catching skills of a big-bodied receiver with the athleticism of a smaller receiver — all wrapped up in a 6’5″ frame.
Furthermore, the unit boasts former highly regarded high school recruits in Bru McCoy and Gary Bryant. The defensive side of the ball is loaded, too. Drake Jackson is the headliner, but there’s talent from front to back, with Chris Steele an under-rated playmaker in the secondary.
Potential pitfalls on the path to the College Football Playoffs
Although they avoid Oregon in the regular season, the rest of USC’s schedule isn’t as welcoming. The Trojans have an out-of-conference road trip to South Bend to face Notre Dame. Although the Fighting Irish has suffered substantial roster losses, that is by no means an easy game.
Additionally, it comes following a fixture against Utah, which can surprise the Pac-12 this fall. Finally, they face a road trip to Arizona State who has the players to be a contender this year but could be hobbled by NCAA sanctions.
The Pac-12 itself could be a potential pitfall in USC’s bid for a seat at the College Football Playoffs table. The conference has only sent two teams to the final four since 2014, with Washington the most recent in 2016. The conference is renowned for eating itself alive, and USC’s one-loss season last year was the Trojans’ first since 2008. Thus, they’ll likely need to go unbeaten to make it to the playoffs.
While Slovis is a reason for hope in Southern California, he is also a potential stumbling block. If he doesn’t recover his 2019 form, the Trojans could be in trouble if 2020 wasn’t an outlier. Head coach Clay Helton’s future may depend on the young signal-caller.
In contrast to the teams above, let’s start with the pitfalls to Cincinnati’s bid to make the College Football Playoffs as they are rather substantial.
First, a champion from the Group of Five has never made the final four. Multiple unbeaten teams have failed to climb the walls of exclusivity and successfully infiltrate the college football elite. Famously, UCF’s 2017 and 2018 regular-season unbeaten teams couldn’t earn a spot, but neither could the 2016 Western Michigan Broncos.
Even in the most disrupted season in recent history, Coastal Carolina, San Jose State, and the Bearcats themselves couldn’t make it to the College Football Playoffs. It makes Mission Impossible look, well, extremely possible.
Although that will change with the potential expansion to 12 teams, that doesn’t help them this season. Neither does losing their starting left tackle and a key member of their secondary to the 2021 NFL Draft. James Hudson‘s loss is particularly damaging as he was the cornerstone of an offensive line that capitulated without him during the second half of the Peach Bowl loss to Georgia.
The Bearcats also have a demanding out-of-conference schedule to navigate if they’re to go unbeaten again in 2021. Cincinnati faces trips to Notre Dame and Indiana early on, which could see them out of College Football Playoffs contention before they head into conference play in October.
How can the Bearcats contend for a place in the College Football Playoffs?
However, if the Bearcats can beat the Fighting Irish and the Hoosiers, that gives them a powerful résumé — both teams will be ranked in the Top 25, giving Cincinnati quality wins. Their conference schedule sees them face their most formidable opposition — UCF and SMU — at home, both winnable games. If they go unbeaten again, they’ll be challenging to ignore.
“But you just said unbeaten non-Power Five teams still can’t get in,” I hear you cry, and I do listen to you.
That said, Cincinnati is likely to start the season ranked higher than any Group of Five teams before them. Their jump to make it into the upper echelons of the College Football Playoffs won’t be as high as, say, the 2017 UCF team or any of the undefeated 2020 teams. Furthermore, Cincinnati has proven with their performance against Georgia that they can stand with the big boys.
This team, led by quarterback Desmond Ridder, has the potential to be legit. Although he has some accuracy issues, Ridder’s arm strength and magical ability to conjure up plays with his legs make him a potential game-winner at any level.
Additionally, the defense that ranked eighth in the nation last fall returns its best players. Myjai Sanders and Ahmad Gardner are genuine 2022 NFL Draft prospects and don’t overlook Gardner’s partner in the secondary, Coby Bryant.