As long as the College Football Playoff remains at four teams, we can confidently pencil in at least three of these teams: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma. This year it’s safe to include Georgia among the top group that wouldn’t surprise anyone if it played for a national championship.
Yet expansion might not happen until 2026, if at all. What we can do in the meantime each August is fantasize about teams who could crash the playoff party and give the country someone to rally behind.
Here are five teams that have a combination of a favorable schedule, a bunch of returning starters, a dependable quarterback and that little something extra to potentially take us on a fun ride.
The Cyclones start the season No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and are coming off a breakthrough year under Matt Campbell, so this might not seem like a bold choice. But this is still Iowa State, so to call out the Cyclones as a legitimate national title contender in the preseason feels as scintillating as the prospect of kegs and eggs on a chilly Saturday morning in Ames.
Iowa State returns quarterback Brock Purdy, All-America tailback Breece Hall and 20 starters total. If the Cyclones don’t repeat their 2020 misfortune and drop an early one, they can stay around the top five until a late showdown at No. 2 Oklahoma. Even if they lose that one, they’d get another shot at the Sooners and the Big 12 championship a few weeks later on a neutral field.
The Bearcats went unbeaten last year and hardly sniffed the playoff field because of bias against the Group of Five that was buoyed by Cincinnati having no chance to win an impressive nonconference game. The fact that Cincinnati gained enough respect to start the year ranked No. 8 gives it a fighting chance to become the first G5 team to make the playoff.
Skeptical? You have every reason to be. But this year Cincinnati plays at No. 17 Indiana and No. 9 Notre Dame, which are winnable games with star dual-threat quarterback Desmond Ridder running the offense. Take both of those while running the table, and it’s going to be extremely hard for the committee to keep the Bearcats out if one of the top teams falters, especially when there is already a cry for more inclusivity from the CFP in the form of an expanded playoff.
It feels like the Badgers are always there, hovering around the top 10, just doing what they do but never truly threatening for the sport’s big prize. Why should this year be any different? For the first time since Wisconsin’s one season with Russell Wilson, the Badgers have a quarterback who can go win them a game in sophomore Graham Mertz.
Mertz’s undeniable talent forced the transfer of Jack Coan, who is now the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. Sure enough, the Badgers and Fighting Irish play Sept. 25 at Soldier Field in Chicago in one of the most intriguing games of the first month. No. 12 Wisconsin has Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan early and should build a ton of momentum. Then, the Badgers have to finish the job and upset Big Ten bully Ohio State in the league title game to punch their first playoff ticket.
It’s easy to forget after four seasons without a Pac-12 team in the CFP that the Huskies were the last to do it in 2016. Chris Petersen is gone, and his defensive coordinator, Jimmy Lake, is in as head coach, which you might have missed during the insanity of 2020.
You also may have missed the fact that Lake’s first Washington team had the best record in the Pac-12 North but could not play rival Oregon or represent the division in the league title game due to issues with COVID. The Ducks went on to beat USC and take the crown, which should give Washington a giant chip on its shoulder in 2021. The Huskies return 20 starters and have the slate to stay on the playoff radar if they can beat Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sept. 11.
The Rebels, who are starting the season outside the AP top 25 but snuck into the coaches’ poll at No. 25, are the least likely of this quintet to make the playoff, but they’re by far the most exciting team to watch of the group.
Quarterback Matt Corral, a graduate of Long Beach Poly, is a trendy preseason Heisman Trophy pick after throwing for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. Ole Miss is going to score a ton of points, but there’s no guarantee it will stop anyone. The Rebels should beat Louisville in a Monday night opener and maybe, just maybe, they will have the firepower to put a scare into Alabama in Tuscaloosa a few weeks later as quarterback Bryce Young finds his footing as a starter for the Crimson Tide. Ole Miss also benefits from having No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 16 LSU at home.
Five games that will shape the season
Clemson vs. Georgia (in Charlotte), Saturday — The winner of this titanic showdown would have to really implode to miss the playoff. The rest of the country would thank Georgia for handing Clemson an early loss and putting the Tigers on the ropes.
Oregon at Ohio State, Sept. 11 — The Pac-12 has been waiting years to win a game like this. The Ducks get their shot at the Buckeyes with Rancho Cucamonga’s C.J. Stroud making his second college start for the Buckeyes.
Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 9 — Kyle Field will be shaking for this one. The Aggies have to win it to make their first trip to the playoff, and it should be Alabama’s toughest test of the year.
North Carolina at Notre Dame, Oct. 30 — The Tar Heels avoid Clemson on their schedule, so if they win in South Bend, they will be able to dream of a playoff berth.
Iowa State at Oklahoma, Nov. 20 — It would not come as a surprise if both teams are 10-0 and in the top five entering this game.
Five coaches who must win
Scott Frost, Nebraska — Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback, is 12-20 as the head coach in Lincoln. The pressure only grew with recent allegations of an NCAA investigation into Nebraska improperly using analysts and consultants.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech — The Hokies are falling fast from the consistency they enjoyed under legendary Frank Beamer. Virginia Tech has two losing seasons out of the last three, and Fuente has to bounce back.
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan — After going 2-4 in 2020 and bringing an 0-5 record against Ohio State into his seventh season, Harbaugh needs to lead the Wolverines back to respectability quickly.
Herm Edwards, Arizona State — The NCAA investigation into recruiting improprieties related to hosting visits during the pandemic has eliminated the goodwill Edwards built up in Tempe. Now would be a good time for the Sun Devils to break through in the Pac-12 South.
Clay Helton, USC — It’s hard to know how to view Helton given that he’s survived three straight “hot seat” years. He could make it through another mediocre campaign, but at some point he’s going to have to win a Pac-12 title again to stay around.
J. Brady McCollough is a sports enterprise reporter for the Los Angeles Times, focusing on national college football and basketball topics. Before joining the Times in May 2018, he was a projects reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a 2017 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.