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Ranking of potential first-time college football playoff teams

A total of 13 different schools have advanced to the semifinals over the past eight seasons of the College Football Playoffs. No school has appeared more often than Alabama (seven times) and no conference has qualified more than the SEC (ten times).

(Insert yawn here.)

While Alabama, Clemson (six), Ohio State (four) and Oklahoma (four) have dominated the field of four teams, it’s often forgotten that Michigan State, Oregon, Washington and Florida State have also achieved the sport’s greatest stage.

And of course, last season’s undefeated Cincinnati gave hope to everyone everywhere. Here are four teams who could follow the Bearcats and crack the top 4 for the first time, in order of who has the best odds:

Preseason FPI: #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 an experienced head coach – plus the confidence of last year’s win over Alabama. They also have a schedule balanced enough to both impress the selection committee (three straight road trips on SEC opponents in October) and pick up some easy wins (Sam Houston, Appalachian State and UMass). If the Aggies can beat Miami and their SEC opponents, the committee will overlook these gimme games. For the past four seasons, Jimbo Fisher has landed a top seven draft class, including the No. 1 group in the nation this year. At some point, that talent has to be translated into a CFP performance.

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

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

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Aggies have a 1.9% chance of making the playoffs.

Trainer language: “[Last year’s win against Alabama] gives you the confidence that you know what you are capable of. But what this league challenges you to do – and I try to tell you every day – all games are big games. You circle every game and you’re only as good as your last game. When you win these games and it shows you what you’re capable of, you have to finish. And that was a disappointing thing to think about last year. … We are not finished yet. But there is still a lot to grow here and hopefully we will grow from it. And some of our lackluster things we did last year with inexperienced guys I think will be our strengths this year if we have to play those guys.” – Fisher


Preseason FPI: #13

Why it’s realistic: The defending Pac-12 champions are coming off their first Rose Bowl appearance in school history, and they’re bringing back 14 starters from this 10-win team. Starting quarterback Cameron Rising returns, along with five of his top six passcatchers, and running back Tavion Thomas, who rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns. With USC and Oregon both under new head coaches, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham has the experience lead, and he’s proven himself in the last four seasons with three Pac-12 South titles.

It will only happen if: Utah can win away. Utah can lose their opener in Florida and still finish in the top four – a Pac-12 title can make up for a tough opener failure – but the Utes will be under pressure to win and repeat themselves as Pac-12 champions In this case. You’ll need to beat the Gators to gain some cushion in league play, especially when Lincoln Riley USC can raise quickly. It starts in Gainesville, but Utah has a total of six road games, including particularly difficult trips on Oct. 8 at UCLA, a Thursday night game on Oct. 27 in Washington State and Nov. 19 in Oregon. Utah’s inability to win road games at BYU, San Diego State and Oregon State last year cost the Utes a historic season.

ESPN’s FPI says: Utah has at least a 50% chance of winning every game except for their season opener against Florida and November 19 in Oregon.

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: Utah has a 6.3% chance of making the CFP.

Trainer language: “I think we’re still fighting for it [respect] in a way. We’re a program that’s still building our brand and trying to become a national presence, but you’ve got to earn that – nobody’s going to give it to you. They do it in such a way that every time you get a chance to prove it — national television, bowl games, that kind of situation — you have to play your part in that regard. We’ve made progress. Are we where we want to be? Not yet.” — Whittingham


Preseason FPI: No. 35

Why it’s realistic: Riley quickly assembled a roster brimming with championship-caliber talent. He has made excellent use of the transfer portal beyond the Caleb Williams headline and has added a total of 13 players so far. The offense was upgraded with the addition of former Oregon running back Travis Dye along with receivers Mario Williams, Brenden Rice and Terrell Bynum. Caleb Williams won’t be short of opportunities, and Riley has the experience of leading a program to the playoffs before.

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

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

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: USC has less than a 0.1% chance of making the playoffs, behind 29 other teams who have at least a 1% chance.

Trainer language: “You don’t come to USC and you don’t come to Los Angeles to do small things. You have to set big goals. I do not think so [the expectations are] too much of. I don’t I believe in what we do. I believe in what we teach. I believe in the people we have in there. Obviously it will evolve over the years. I haven’t come here for a season. I didn’t come here to do this on short notice. In some respects, it keeps an eye on the long game. The people we brought here, the staff we brought here, we didn’t come here to play for second place. We’re not wired that way. We came here to win championships, to win them now and to win them for a long time. That will always be our expectation.” – Riley


Preseason FPI: #14

Why it’s realistic: The Cowboys have a more favorable schedule than Texas (which faces Alabama) and Baylor (which heads to BYU, Iowa State and West Virginia for hard travel). With non-conference games against Central Michigan, Arizona State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff — three games Oklahoma State favors by at least 80%, according to ESPN’s FPI — the Cowboys should go 3-0 into the Oct. 1 game against Baylor. They will also have home field advantage against the Longhorns on Oct. 22, and ESPN’s FPI predictions see them going into this game undefeated. Unlike Baylor, Oklahoma State also has home field advantage against West Virginia to end the season.

It will only happen if: Quarterback Spencer Sanders remains healthy and cutting interceptions, and the Cowboys can continue to grow on defense despite 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 40 times (31 interceptions, nine fumbles), the most of any player in FBS in that span. He threw a career-high four interceptions in the Big 12 championship game loss to Baylor. While defense was one of the best in FBS and school history, Knowles is gone, and the Cowboys return the third-lowest experience as a returning FBS on defense, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information research.

ESPN’s FPI says: Oklahoma State is favored in each of its games except on October 22 against Texas (Longhorns have a slight advantage at 53.1%) and on November 19 against Oklahoma (Sooners have a 63.9% chance of winning).

Allstate Playoff Predictor says: The Cowboys have the 12th best chance of making the playoffs at 4%, behind Texas, which has the sixth best chance at 18%.

Trainer language: “We have a foundation. The team has to commit. Coaches don’t play in the games, the team does. Our responsibility is to lead them; their responsibility is to come together as a group, to create an identity. It needs to matter to be for them. Then go play. That’s the direction we’re going to take in a couple of weeks.” – Gundy

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