Teams that could succeed for the first time
College Football Coach Survey: Analysis of the Pre-Season Top 25
SportsPulse: Paul Myerberg breaks down the Pre-Season Top 25 from AFCA Sports USA TODAY Coaching Survey.
UNITED STATES TODAY
There is a lot of truth to the belief that the college football playoffs were dominated by four teams – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. The quartet have combined for 20 of the 28 possible places on the pitch since the system began in the 2014 season.
However, there has always been room for newcomers hoping to step onto the pitch for the first time.
Last year was the first of seven playoffs in which the field was made up entirely of former entrants as Notre Dame was on the field for the second time and was joined by the Crimson Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes.
It’s likely that last season was an anomaly. This year’s playoff race looks more open with several top teams facing questions. And there are a lot of quality candidates who can join the select group that has often been part of the field.
Eight teams that could finally break through.
State of Iowa
In early 2019, the idea of the Cyclones being anywhere near the college football playoffs would have sparked disbelief, as the program had never been ranked in the preseason coaching poll. From now on, Matt Campbell’s team will be comfortably in the top 10 at the exit of the first rankings, and it will not be a coincidence. Breece Hall was the Big 12’s 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 recording 96 tackles from his linebacking position. A secondary veteran leads the defense, and Will McDonald is back in the top seven after leading the country with 101 / 2 sacks. The season likely depends on how Iowa State handles a late road game in Oklahoma and then a possible clash in the Big 12 title game. Brock Purdy is now a senior, but his play as a quarterback has included too many bad decisions at critical times. If Purdy goes up until the moment, there is no reason why this team cannot earn their place.
There’s only one hurdle for the Aggies to overcome as they finally try to unlock their potential in Jimbo Fisher’s fourth season. Unfortunately, that hurdle is Alabama. The upside is that the Crimson Tide comes to College Station and has a few questions about their offense. There are similar questions for the Aggies, who will be entering a new quarterback after relying on Kellen Mond for the past four seasons. Haynes King looks like heir apparent. The concern is that he had four attempts last year in first grade. Isaiah Spiller is expected to be among the best running backs in the country, and there is enough talent at the receiver level – led by playbreaker Ainias Smith – and the line to make him a good offense. Whether that’s good enough probably depends on whether the defense can upgrade to elite status, as more of that unit will be needed in big games. DeMarvin Leal is the star of the line which also includes Tyree Johnson (four sacks last year). A secondary veteran is able to defend himself against the passing attacks he will face.
Yes, no Group of Five team has made the playoffs in the system’s seven years, but the table is set for the Bearcats after an unbeaten 2020 regular season. The return of Desmond Ridder gives them one of the best quarterbacks in the country who can hurt defenses with his running and throwing ability. There are enough offensive playmakers to make last year’s 37.5 points per game repeatable. The Bearcats’ real strength, however, will be in defense. Even with the loss of coordinator Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame, the unit is set to once again be one of the best in the country. Myjai Sanders (seven sacks in 2020) and defensive backs Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant (seven interceptions combined) are three of the group’s stars. Having an unbeaten regular season would practically guarantee a spot. It will be much more difficult, 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 may seem too much for the Gators to overcome. However, a new offense could be beneficial to their overall success. Double threat Emory Jones will replace Kyle Trask and his running ability will take another dimension. Greater reliance on attacking on the ground will also lessen the pressure on a defense that has allowed 370 points in 12 games. This unit has enough Return Talents to make a major upgrade. The biggest challenge may be managing an SEC schedule that includes Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. But if the Gators can advance to the Conference Championship game with a loss, they’ll only have one win by netting their ticket to the semi-finals.
Skeptics criticizing Mack Brown’s hiring for his second term with the Tar Heels were silenced in just two years after the program nearly beat Clemson in his first season and reached the Orange Bowl in his second. Now comes the chance to challenge the Tigers for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Their offer begins with quarterback Sam Howell, entering his third season after already throwing 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns. Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler should help fill the void in the running back. Josh Downs looks to be 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, the defense will need a major boost if UNC is to take out Clemson. The unit allowed 147 points in UNC’s four losses. On the bright side, Brown has filled the talent list with his talent for recruiting. Tony Grimes and Storm Duck give secondary optimism. Up front, brothers Tomani and Tomon Fox are among the returns that give the group a chance to make the necessary gains to get the Tar Heels where they want to go.
State of pennsylvania
It’s easy to overreact to last year’s results if you watch them regardless of the season played during a pandemic. The Nittany Lions saw All-American linebacker Micah Parsons retire and their top offensive player – running back Journey Brown – forced to retire ahead of the season. A controversial loss to Indiana in Game 1 was followed by a respectable loss to Ohio State that seemed to undermine the life of a team with playoff aspirations. Three more casualties followed before the vessel was righted. Penn State have won their last four games and have shown that they are still a group with enough talent to be among the best in the Big Ten, especially with Ohio State’s transition to a new quarterback- back. Sean Clifford becomes key after the junior quarterback was benched in the middle of the year. His rebound helped lead the end-of-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 has taken a step back in 2020, although the young players have gained experience that should bear fruit. The biggest addition could be the transfer of Temple Arnold Ebiketie, who brings the potential of an elite pass runner that one needs.
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 all six New Years Bowls. In recent years, they have gone 23-12, with the slowdown related to reduced productivity in the attack. It’s Chryst’s specialty and his ability to turn the tide will be key to putting Wisconsin back on top of the Big Ten West. The tools are there. Graham Mertz arrived two years ago with great fanfare as one of the program’s top rookies for the quarterback. He was given 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 down and its top receivers were injured. Those issues should be addressed this season as spreaders Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis decided to return, giving Mertz away options with talented tight end Jake Ferguson a threat in the middle. Assuming Mertz develops in his second year as a starter, the offense could have its best passing threat since Russell Wilson’s season in 2011. Defense will be excellent again after finishing in the top 10. scorers for the sixth time in seven seasons. Any race to contention will require a quick start with Penn State and Notre Dame among the first three games.
Oregon and Washington have been in the playoffs before, so if a new team is to come out of the Pac-12, it will likely be from the South Division. Arizona State and UCLA will compete. However, the Trojans have the best opportunity with a schedule that avoids the Northern Ducks and Huskies. Much will be on the shoulders of quarterback Kedon Slovis. Among Heisman’s favorites, the junior is able to carry the offensive load. He pitched for 47 touchdowns in 18 games in his first two seasons. Slovis will need the help of his offensive line and a young receiving squad who are talented but lacking in experience. The points will be there, so it all depends on the quality of USC’s defense. The unit was much better in 2020 as the Trojans were quietly undefeated in the regular season. Building on that success will put them in contention for the playoffs.