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College Football Playoff tiers: Where all 130 teams fit for 2021

When asked last month about the possibility of a 12-team College Football Playoff, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was blunt in his disapproval.

“Our team isn’t for it,” he said. “They don’t want to play more games. And to be honest with you, I don’t know if there’s 12 teams good enough.”

How many are?

Certainly more than the current four-team field can accommodate. Eight teams (Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Texas) enter the season with at least a 10% chance to reach the playoff, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. Still, CFP executive director Bill Hancock has made it clear that the earliest the playoff could expand is 2023 — and recent realignment conversations could delay it further or even change the current proposal.

So here we are, heading into another fall with a crowd of contenders elbowing each other for four coveted spots. Swinney is right in that there is a measurable drop-off between elite programs with a realistic chance and most others.

How much separation lies between them, though, is debatable, which is why we’ve decided to take a closer look and categorize all 130 FBS teams according to their playoff potential this fall.


The usual suspects

Alabama Crimson Tide

Clemson Tigers

Ohio State Buckeyes

Oklahoma Sooners

Four schools have combined to earn 20 of the 28 semifinal spots in the CFP, and they’re the favorites to do it again.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, nobody has a better shot to win its conference than ACC favorite Clemson at 81%. It’s not the Tigers’ ACC opponents that will present the greatest challenge — it’s the season opener against SEC East favorite Georgia. While the Tigers can lose that game and still reach the playoff (especially if Georgia goes on to win the East), they would have to avoid an upset along the way or in the ACC title game and a playoff spot wouldn’t be a guarantee. Without a win against Georgia, a one-loss Clemson might not have the résumé, depending on what other Power 5 conference champions do and what happens in the SEC. A Georgia win over the eventual ACC champs could help catapult the Bulldogs into the top four with Alabama — and at the expense of Clemson, given the head-to-head result.

Alabama lost a significant portion of its offensive production to the NFL — not to mention four offensive assistant coaches – but the Tide remain the team to beat because their 2021 recruiting class was the program’s second No. 1-ranked class in the past three seasons. Projected starting quarterback Bryce Young will be tested immediately in the opener against Miami, but the Tide don’t leave the state over the final six weeks of the season.

Like Alabama, Ohio State will be relying on a rookie quarterback, C.J. Stroud, to lead the offense. There’s enough talent returning at running back and on the offensive line to help relieve some pressure, but coach Ryan Day knows they must be ready early with a tough opener against Minnesota.

“As we head into preseason camp, this is something that is going to be very, very important for us because we start right away,” Day said at Big Ten media days. “And I think the easy thing to do is coming off of last year, is to focus on what would happen in the game at the end of the year, how do we get back to the national championship game. But more importantly this year it’s going to be how do we win that first game at Minnesota with a young team, we’re going to have a young quarterback, and we have to start the season really strong.

“So this preseason’s going to be very, very important to us,” he said. “We have to really come out of the gates strong and harden ourselves as we head into the first game.”

Oklahoma has been to the playoff four times in seven seasons but is 0-4 in the CFP. The Sooners again are expected to flourish on offense, but the lofty preseason expectations are because of the significant strides made on defense under coordinator Alex Grinch. OU finished fifth in defensive efficiency last season and is projected to again have a top-10 defense.

“It’s hard to win the Big 12 championship,” OU coach Lincoln Riley said at Big 12 media days. “It’s hard to get in the playoffs. It’s hard to win in the playoffs. You have to be at your very best to do it. We have a team that believes in themselves but also fully understands and appreciates the long, tough road ahead.”


Can they beat Bama?

Georgia Bulldogs

Texas A&M Aggies

Alabama isn’t the only team in the SEC worthy of top-four consideration, but it is blocking the path to the national title. The Aggies have lost eight straight to the Tide. Consider this: In Texas A&M’s past 19 games, it’s 0-2 against Bama and 15-2 against everyone else, with the losses coming to LSU and Georgia in 2019.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has won three SEC East titles and has four straight top-10 finishes — but he has yet to beat Nick Saban. He’s in good company, as Saban is 23-0 against his former assistants, including Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher. The Aggies will have home-field advantage against the Tide on Oct. 9 in a game that will likely determine the leader in the West division. According to ESPN’s FPI, Alabama has a 66% chance to win the West, followed by Texas A&M at 25%.

Georgia doesn’t have to worry about Alabama during the regular season, but if it’s going to win a national title, Georgia will likely face Alabama in the SEC championship game — and maybe even again in a CFP semifinal. It’s not impossible — Georgia has led Alabama at halftime in each of the past three games under Smart. Alabama and Georgia have also both made the playoff before in the same season.


First-time hopefuls

Iowa State Cyclones

North Carolina Tar Heels

Cincinnati Bearcats

Any Power 5 team with a legitimate chance to win its conference should be considered a playoff contender, and both Iowa State and North Carolina are talented, well-coached teams with additional opportunities against what should be top-25 nonconference opponents.

The question is whether they can win those games.

Iowa State faces rival Iowa on Sept. 11, and a win over the Hawkeyes could help Iowa State edge out another contender for a semifinal spot if the Cyclones go 1-1 against Oklahoma, losing either during the regular season or in the Big 12 title game.

North Carolina’s Oct. 30 trip to Notre Dame could have a similar impact for the Tar Heels, giving them a cushion if their only loss is a close one to Clemson in the ACC championship game. It’s not unreasonable to think the selection committee might consider both teams in that circumstance, if Clemson beats Georgia. The Tar Heels need to make the most of that opportunity against the Irish, though, because wins against nonconference opponents Georgia State and Wofford won’t help their playoff case. Without the Notre Dame win, they’d have to win the ACC for serious consideration.

Cincinnati has no margin for error, but an undefeated season against a schedule that includes back-to-back trips to Indiana and Notre Dame would give the Bearcats a résumé comparable to those of other playoff contenders. According to ESPN’s FPI, Cincinnati is the clear favorite (47%) to win the American Athletic Conference again.


Need the 12-team playoff now

Oregon Ducks

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Pac-12 has gone 16 straight seasons without a national title, the longest drought among the Power 5 conferences, and that trend is expected to continue this fall. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, Oregon has an 8% chance to reach the playoff — trailing nine other teams. That could change quickly if Oregon can win at Ohio State in Week 2, but the Ducks have only a 15% chance, according to FPI.

If Oregon doesn’t beat the Buckeyes and finishes as a one-loss Pac-12 champion, it might not have the résumé to unseat another contender with the same record or a second SEC team. Oregon would need to hope the Pac-12 has several teams in the selection committee’s top 25, because wins against Fresno State and Stony Brook won’t cut it.

Under the proposal for a 12-team playoff, the six highest-ranked conference champions would earn a spot in the field — a more forgiving system that would at least give the Pac-12 champion a shot.

Notre Dame should again be a top-25 team, but the Irish are adjusting to a younger group with a new starting quarterback and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who spent the previous four seasons in the same role with Cincinnati. Coach Brian Kelly recently named Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan the starting quarterback for the game at Florida State on Sept. 5.

“When you have the kind of success we’ve had over a long period of time, it’s not just a flash, it’s been five out of six years that’s we’re involved nationally as a top-10 team, you’ve built your program where your expectations are to compete for a [playoff] berth again,” Kelly said. “Those are clearly the expectations. We have young players that have seen it, know what it looks like and have to live up to those standards that are within a winning program at a high level. Yes, there will be new faces, yes there will be a new quarterback, but it will be exciting and fun because there will be new faces we haven’t seen before nationally but very talented players.”

While the Irish continue to embrace their independence, the lack of a conference championship game leaves them with one fewer chance to impress the selection committee against a ranked opponent. Notre Dame knows the best way to reach the CFP in this system is to go undefeated, and that’s a tall task this fall with a younger team lined up against Wisconsin at Soldier Field, Cincinnati, USC and North Carolina.

Under the 12-team proposal, though, the Irish aren’t missing anything without a 13th game, as they could get in on a consistent basis as one of the six other highest-ranked teams, as determined by the committee.


Blue bloods that need a lot to go right

LSU Tigers

Michigan Wolverines

Penn State Nittany Lions

Miami Hurricanes

USC Trojans

Recent history has plagued these programs to the point where they have been overshadowed — and in some cases dismissed completely — in the national title conversation. The brands and traditions are still powerful enough in the recruiting world and the coaching circles, though, that they can lure enough talent to make a comeback. The question is when?

USC is in arguably the best position, but it’s still looking up at Oregon in the Pac-12 pecking order and must reverse the three-game losing streak against rival Notre Dame. The roster is oozing with talent — which is why the pressure is mounting on Clay Helton to do something with it.

Penn State is coming off a season in which it finished below .500 for the first time since 2004. The sense within the program is that it was an anomaly, but the offense will have to improve under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, and quarterback Sean Clifford will have to cut down on his Big Ten-leading nine interceptions last fall.

Michigan was just 2-4 last season, and the quarterback position has been at the heart of the Wolverines’ struggles. The task this summer is to name a starting quarterback and develop him into a consistently accurate passer.

LSU failed on the field and off it, as a scathing investigative report on the university’s mishandling of Title XI complaints ultimately resulted in coach Ed Orgeron being added as a defendant in a pending lawsuit. Earlier this month, quarterback Myles Brennan had surgery on his left arm, leaving Max Johnson as the undisputed starter heading into the fall.


Stranger things have happened

Indiana Hoosiers

Wisconsin Badgers

Florida Gators

Washington Huskies

Iowa Hawkeyes

Texas Longhorns

This is a group of top-25 teams nobody should be surprised to see win their respective divisions (or, in the case of Texas, earn a spot in the Big 12 title game). All it takes after that is one upset against the conference heavyweight and any of these teams is suddenly in contention for a semifinal spot.

Yes, there are three Big Ten teams listed here, and the league should be better this fall from top to bottom, as 2020 was a disaster for several reasons. Considering that Indiana was on the brink of beating Ohio State last fall, an upset isn’t inconceivable — especially if quarterback Michael Penix Jr. can stay healthy. According to ESPN’s FPI, though, Wisconsin has the second-best chance to win the Big Ten at 11%. The Badgers have a 44% chance to win the West, but Iowa might be a sneaky-good team with running back Tyler Goodson returning.

While Georgia is the heavy favorite to win the SEC East, Florida is second at 20%. The Gators must improve significantly on defense and will have to replace the offensive output of Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts.

Texas and Washington are mysteries. The Longhorns got an overhaul with the hiring of coach Steve Sarkisian and are talented enough to make it to the Big 12 title game, but they also face a lot of questions with a new quarterback and coaching staff. Washington would have represented the Pac-12 North last year in the conference championship game in coach Jimmy Lake’s first season had the Huskies been able to field a team. Now they’ll have a new quarterback while still trying to figure out their identity.


Have stranger things happened?

Utah Utes

TCU Horned Frogs

Arizona State Sun Devils

Oklahoma State Cowboys

NC State Wolfpack

These are your true long shots, teams nobody is talking about that have the potential and opportunity to shake up the playoff picture — albeit with a few miracles along the way. NC State has 19 returning starters, but it also has one of the most difficult schedules in the country. Clemson is hardly the only obstacle, as the Wolfpack travel to Mississippi State on Sept. 11 and have crossover games against Miami and North Carolina, arguably the two strongest teams in the Coastal Division.

Utah knows what it takes to get into the playoff conversation, but it needs to learn to win the big games in order to stay there. Arizona State is a talented team that returns 95% of last year’s production, the highest total in the Pac-12 and fourth in the FBS. But the program is under NCAA investigation regarding recruiting violations, including hosting recruits during the extended dead period because of the pandemic. It’s unclear whether that will impact the team.

At TCU, this might be Gary Patterson’s best team since 2017, with 18 returning starters. The Horned Frogs have to win on the road, as trips to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State will determine their success. They also need quarterback Max Duggan to stay healthy.

As for Oklahoma State, there’s no shortage of motivation right now against Texas and Oklahoma, is there?


Spoiler alert

Northwestern Wildcats

Virginia Tech Hokies

Pittsburgh Panthers

Ole Miss Rebels

Auburn Tigers

These are respectable programs that aren’t playoff material right now but are still disciplined and talented enough to derail a team that is.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald returns only eight starters, the fewest in the Big Ten, but ESPN’s FPI still gives the Wildcats better than a 50% chance to win every game except the trips to Michigan and Wisconsin. If Northwestern can win in Ann Arbor, though, and beat Iowa at home, there’s a great chance the Wildcats are heading into the Nov. 13 game at Wisconsin undefeated.

The ACC’s Coastal Division is again wide open, and while North Carolina is the rising star, both Virginia Tech and Pitt can be trap games. Pitt hosts the Tar Heels on a Thursday night in November, and the Hokies will welcome UNC to Lane Stadium for the season opener, which will be the first time since 2019 the unforgiving home crowd is back at full capacity.

In the SEC, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin might have one of the league’s most explosive offenses, as returning quarterback Matt Corral could be one of the best in the SEC. The Rebels’ defense will need to make major strides for a complete game. Auburn is similar to Ole Miss in the expectations it’s facing but also a year behind while entering a coaching transition with Bryan Harsin. He inherits veteran quarterback Bo Nix, though, along with 14 other starters, including running back Tank Bigsby and the entire offensive line.


So you’re saying there’s a chance …

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

UCF Knights

Appalachian State Mountaineers

Cincinnati is the Group of 5’s best hope at a playoff contender right now, and while even that is a long-shot scenario, it’s not the only one. (It’s just the least far-fetched.)

In addition to talent, what separates these Group of 5 teams from the others below is that there is at least one statement game on their schedule that would help legitimize their case. The selection committee has made it clear repeatedly that weak schedules will hold undefeated Group of 5 teams out of the top four.

What if they beat an ACC champ along the way? Or a Big 12 champ?

Yes, it’s a stretch, but … Louisiana opens the season at Texas, and while ESPN’s FPI gives the Ragin’ Cajuns only an 11% chance to win, if they did pull off the upset and ran the table — and Texas wins the Big 12?! — the committee might have a real puzzle to figure out.

Louisiana would also have a win over what would likely be a ranked Appalachian State team.

App State has stunned college football before (see: Michigan), but this time it needs to win at Miami on Sept. 11, and ESPN’s FPI gives the Mountaineers a 20.5% chance to get it done. If that happens, along with an Oct. 12 win at Louisiana, followed by a home win against Coastal Carolina the following week, Appalachian State would be in the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl. If Miami were to pull off its own stunner and win the ACC, it would be another historic win for the Mountaineers — and an interesting discussion in the committee meeting room.

UCF could also impress the selection committee with a Friday night win at Louisville, but it won’t carry much weight if the Cardinals aren’t ranked. The bigger win would arguably be Oct. 16 at Cincinnati. The more probable end result with that, though, would be the elimination of the AAC in the playoff entirely.


Power 5 teams that aren’t ready for the big stage

Rutgers Scarlet Knights, West Virginia Mountaineers, Louisville Cardinals, UCLA Bruins, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Boston College Eagles, Arkansas Razorbacks, Colorado Buffaloes, South Carolina Gamecocks, Kansas State Wildcats, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Virginia Cavaliers, Maryland Terrapins, Kansas Jayhawks, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Illinois Fighting Illini, Syracuse Orange, Kentucky Wildcats, Michigan State Spartans, Duke Blue Devils, Vanderbilt Commodores, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, California Golden Bears, Arizona Wildcats, Oregon State Beavers, Texas Tech Red Raiders, Tennessee Volunteers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Washington State Cougars, Purdue Boilermakers, Stanford Cardinal, Baylor Bears, Florida State Seminoles, Missouri Tigers

Many programs lumped into this sad category are historically not competitive, but that doesn’t mean some can’t or won’t eventually ascend into relevance — especially those with the resources to compete and recruit on the national stage, like South Carolina, Tennessee, Baylor, Nebraska, Florida State and Michigan State.

First-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer doesn’t even have a full set of scholarship athletes to work with right now. The Vols are trying to pick up the pieces after Jeremy Pruitt was fired following an investigation into potential recruiting violations. Several schools listed here, including Baylor and Michigan State, had first-year head coaches in 2020 who should get mulligans on trying to put their stamp on a program during the height of the pandemic.

It wasn’t too long ago that Minnesota was an undefeated top-10 team that thought it was going to “row the boat” right into the CFP under coach P.J. Fleck. Anything is possible with the right players and personnel.

These categories are about current playoff position, though, and right now, these teams are better served focusing on getting better this summer and continuing to try to build toward the future.


Independents and Group of 5 teams

UConn Huskies, Old Dominion Monarchs, New Mexico State Aggies, Akron Zips, UL Monroe Warhawks, UMass Minutemen, Bowling Green Falcons, UNLV Rebels, South Alabama Jaguars, Charlotte 49ers, UTEP Miners, Texas State Bobcats, Northern Illinois Huskies, Temple Owls, FIU Panthers, Utah State Aggies, Buffalo Bulls, North Texas Mean Green, Arkansas State Red Wolves, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Navy Midshipmen, Army Black Knights, South Florida Bulls, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, New Mexico Lobos, Rice Owls, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Eastern Michigan Eagles, Colorado State Rams, Miami (Ohio) RedHawks, Kent State Golden Flashes, Ohio Bobcats, Georgia Southern Eagles, Troy Trojans, Georgia State Panthers, Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors, Western Michigan Broncos, Central Michigan Chippewas, Fresno State Bulldogs, UTSA Roadrunners, Air Force Falcons, Ball State Cardinals, Tulane Green Wave, East Carolina Pirates, Tulsa Golden Hurricane, UAB Blazers, Wyoming Cowboys, SMU Mustangs, Toledo Rockets, San Diego State Aztecs, Memphis Tigers, San Jose State Spartans, FAU Owls, Marshall Thundering Herd, Nevada Wolf Pack, BYU Cougars, Boise State Broncos, Liberty Flames, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Houston Cougars

Even this category could be further divided, as there are programs like Boise State, Buffalo, UAB, San Diego State, Memphis, Houston, Coastal Carolina, Air Force and Liberty that will have a chance to earn a spot in the playoff as one of the six highest-ranked conference champions — if and when the field expands to 12 and a Group of 5 program is guaranteed a spot.

Most of these teams, though, won’t be that fortunate — which exemplifies the very real inequities that exist not only between conferences but also athletic departments and budgets.

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