The College Football Playoff is an annual postseason tournament to determine the top college football teams in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
The ncaa football playoffs is a list of the 130 teams that will be in the College Football Playoff for the 2021 season.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney expressed his disdain of a 12-team College Football Playoff when questioned about it last month.
He said, “Our team isn’t for it.” “They don’t want to participate in any more games. To be honest, I’m not sure there are 12 teams that are good enough.”
How many are there?
Certainly more than the four-team field can handle right now. According to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, eight teams (Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and Texas) have a 10% chance of making the playoffs this season. Nonetheless, CFP executive director Bill Hancock has said that the playoff would not be expanded until 2023, and recent realignment discussions may further postpone or possibly alter the present plan.
So here we are, going into another fall season with a slew of candidates vying for four precious slots. Swinney is correct in that there is a discernible difference between top schools with a genuine chance and the majority of others.
However, how much difference there is between them is arguable, which is why we’ve chosen to take a deeper look and classify all 130 FBS teams this fall based on their playoff prospects.
Who are the typical suspects?
Crimson Tide of Alabama
Tigers of Clemson
Buckeyes of Ohio State University
Sooners of Oklahoma
Four schools have combined to win 20 of the 28 CFP semifinal berths, and they are the favorites to repeat.
Clemson, the ACC favorite, has an 81 percent chance of winning its conference, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The season opener versus SEC East favorite Georgia will be the biggest test for the Tigers, not their ACC opponents. While the Tigers might lose that game and still make the playoffs (particularly if Georgia wins the East), they’d have to avoid an upset along the road or in the ACC championship game, and a postseason berth wouldn’t be guaranteed. A one-loss Clemson may not have the résumé without a victory over Georgia, depending on what other Power 5 conference champions do and what happens in the SEC. Given the head-to-head outcome, a Georgia victory against the eventual ACC champions may help propel the Bulldogs into the top four alongside Alabama — and at the cost of Clemson.
D.J. Uiagalelei will attempt to follow in the footsteps of Trevor Lawrence and return Clemson to the College Football Playoff. USA TODAY Sports/Josh Morgan
Alabama’s offensive production was lost to the NFL, along with four offensive assistant coaches, but the Tide remain the team to beat since their 2021 recruiting class was the program’s second No. 1-ranked class in the last three seasons. Bryce Young, the Tide’s projected starting quarterback, will be put to the test right away in the season opener against Miami, but the team won’t leave the state for the remaining six weeks.
Ohio State, like Alabama, will depend on freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud to lead the attack. There’s enough skill returning at running back and on the offensive line to take some of the burden off, but coach Ryan Day knows they’ll have to be ready early against Minnesota.
“This is something that is going to be very, very crucial for us as we go into preseason camp because we start right away,” Day said at Big Ten media days. “And I believe the easiest thing to do, coming off last year, is to concentrate on what will happen in the game at the conclusion of the year, and how we can return to the national championship game.” But, more significantly, how do we win that first game against Minnesota with a new squad, a rookie quarterback, and a good start to the season?
“As a result, this preseason is going to be very crucial for us,” he said. “As we go into the first game, we have to really come out strong and harden ourselves.”
Oklahoma has made the playoffs four times in the last seven seasons, but is 0-4 in the College Football Playoff. The Sooners are anticipated to have another successful season on offense, but the high preseason expectations stem from the substantial improvements made on defense under coach Alex Grinch. Last season, OU ranked sixth in defensive efficiency and is expected to repeat as a top-10 defense this season.
At Big 12 media days, OU coach Lincoln Riley stated, “Winning the Big 12 title is difficult.” “It’s difficult to make the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs is difficult. To accomplish it, you must be at your very best. We have a group that believes in itself, but also recognizes and respects the long, difficult path ahead of them.”
Will they be able to defeat Alabama?
Bulldogs of Georgia
Aggies from Texas A&M University
Alabama isn’t the only SEC club deserving of top-four consideration, but it stands in the way of a national championship. The Aggies have now dropped eight games in a row against the Crimson Tide. Consider the following: Texas A&M is 0-2 versus Alabama in its last 19 games and 15-2 against everyone else, including defeats to LSU and Georgia in 2019.
Coach Kirby Smart of Georgia has three SEC East championships and four consecutive top-10 finishes, but he has yet to defeat Alabama’s Nick Saban. Saban is 23-0 versus his former assistants, including Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, so he’s in good company. On Oct. 9, the Aggies will host the Alabama Crimson Tide in a contest that will likely decide the West division leader. Alabama has a 66 percent probability of winning the West, according to ESPN’s FPI, while Texas A&M has a 25 percent chance.
During the regular season, Georgia won’t have to worry about Alabama, but if it wants to win a national championship, it’ll have to play Alabama in the SEC championship game — and perhaps again in a CFP semifinal. Georgia has led Alabama at halftime in each of the last three games under Smart, so it’s not impossible. In the past, Alabama and Georgia have both reached the playoffs in the same season.
Those who are making their first attempt
The Cyclones of Iowa State University
Tar Heels of North Carolina
Bearcats of Cincinnati
Both Iowa State and North Carolina are talented, well-coached teams with extra chances against what could be top-25 nonconference opponents.
The issue is whether or not they will be able to win those games.
If the Cyclones go 1-1 versus Oklahoma, losing either during the regular season or in the Big 12 championship game, a victory against the Hawkeyes may help Iowa State beat out another candidate for a semifinal berth.
After guiding Iowa State to a Fiesta Bowl victory last season, Brock Purdy is back as quarterback for the Cyclones. Getty Images/Christian Petersen
The Tar Heels’ trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 30 might have a similar effect, providing them a buffer if their lone defeat is a tight one to Clemson in the ACC title game. If Clemson defeats Georgia, it’s not unrealistic to believe the selection committee will take both teams into consideration. However, the Tar Heels must take advantage of this opportunity against the Irish, since victories against nonconference foes Georgia State and Wofford will not aid their playoff chances. Without Notre Dame’s victory, they’d have to win the ACC to be considered seriously.
Cincinnati has little room for error, but an unbeaten season against a schedule that includes back-to-back visits to Indiana and Notre Dame would put the Bearcats on level with other postseason hopefuls. Cincinnati is the overwhelming favorite (47 percent) to win the American Athletic Conference again, according to ESPN’s FPI.
Now is the time for the 12-team playoff.
Ducks of Oregon
Fighting Irish of Notre Dame
The Pac-12 has gone 16 seasons without winning a national championship, the longest streak among the Power 5 conferences, and that streak is likely to continue this autumn. Oregon has an 8% chance of making the playoffs, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor, behind nine other teams. That might change fast if Oregon wins against Ohio State in Week 2, but FPI gives the Ducks just a 15% probability of doing so.
If Oregon fails to defeat Ohio State and ends as a one-loss Pac-12 champion, it may not have the resume to upset another Pac-12 competitor or another SEC club. Oregon would have to hope that the Pac-12 has many teams in the top 25, since victories against Fresno State and Stony Brook would not enough.
The six highest-ranked conference champions would win a place in the field under the 12-team playoff plan, a more lenient system that would at least offer the Pac-12 champion a chance.
Notre Dame should be a top-25 team again, but the Irish are adapting to a younger bunch with a new starting quarterback and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who spent the previous four seasons with Cincinnati in the same position. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan was just designated the starting quarterback for the game against Florida State on Sept. 5.
“You build your program where your expectations are to fight for a [playoff] spot again,” Kelly said. “When you have the type 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 we’ve been engaged nationally as a top-10 club,” Kelly added. “Those are, without a doubt, the expectations. We have young players who have seen it, know what it looks like, and are expected to live up to the high expectations that come with a successful program. Yes, there will be new faces, and yes, there will be a new quarterback, but it will be exciting and entertaining because there will be new faces that we haven’t seen before nationally, but who are very good.”
While the Irish maintain their independence, the absence of a conference championship game means they have one less opportunity to impress the selection committee against a rated opponent. Notre Dame understands that the only way to reach the CFP in current system is to go undefeated, which will be a tough challenge this fall against Wisconsin at Soldier Field, Cincinnati, USC, and North Carolina.
The Irish, on the other hand, aren’t missing anything without a 13th game under the 12-team plan, since they might get in as one of the six other highest-ranked teams selected by the committee on a regular basis.
Blue bloods who need a lot of things to go correctly
Tigers of LSU
Wolverines of Michigan
Nittany Lions of Penn State
Hurricanes of Miami
Trojans of USC
These programs have been afflicted by recent history to the point that they have been eclipsed – and in some instances entirely ignored – in national title discussions. However, in the recruiting industry and coaching circles, brands and traditions are still strong enough to entice enough talent to make a return. When is the question?
USC is in probably the best position in the Pac-12, but it is still behind Oregon in the standings and must snap a three-game losing skid against Notre Dame. The roster is brimming with potential, which is why Clay Helton is under pressure to do something with it.
Kedon Slovis is in his third season as the Trojans’ quarterback. As the Trojans’ starting quarterback, he is 12-5. Kirby Lee is a sports reporter for USA TODAY.
Penn State is coming off its first season since 2004 in which it ended below.500. It was an aberration, 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.
Last season, Michigan went 2-4, and the quarterback position has been at the center of the team’s problems. This summer, the goal is to identify a starting quarterback and develop him into a reliable passer.
LSU failed both on and off the field, with coach Ed Orgeron being named as a defendant in a pending lawsuit after a damning investigation into the university’s treatment of Title XI allegations. QB Myles Brennan underwent surgery on his left arm earlier this month, leaving Max Johnson as the unquestioned starter going into the fall.
Stranger things have occurred before.
Hoosiers from Indiana
Badgers of Wisconsin
Gators of Florida
Huskies of Washington
Hawkeyes of Iowa
Longhorns of Texas
Nobody should be shocked if any of these top-25 teams win their respective divisions (or, in the case of Texas, earn a spot in the Big 12 title game). After that, all it takes is one upset against a conference heavyweight to put any of these teams in contention for a semifinal berth.
Yes, there are three Big Ten teams on this list, and the conference as a whole should be better this fall, since 2020 was a catastrophe for a variety of reasons. Given that Indiana came within a whisker of defeating Ohio State last season, an upset isn’t out of the question — particularly if quarterback Michael Penix Jr. stays healthy. Wisconsin, on the other hand, has the second-best chance to win the Big Ten, according to ESPN’s FPI, with an 11 percent probability. The Badgers have a 44 percent chance of winning the West, but with running back Tyler Goodson back, Iowa may be a surprisingly strong team.
Georgia is the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East, with Florida coming in second at 20%. The Gators must substantially improve their defense and replace Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts’ offensive production.
The states of Texas and Washington are enigmas. With the appointment of coach Steve Sarkisian, the Longhorns have gotten a makeover and are good enough to compete for the Big 12 championship, but they also have a lot of concerns with a new quarterback and coaching staff. If the Huskies had been able to field a squad last year, they would have represented the Pac-12 North in the conference title game in coach Jimmy Lake’s first season. They’ll have a new quarterback now, and they’ll still be trying to find out who they are.
Stranger things have occurred, right?
Horned Frogs of TCU
Sun Devils of Arizona State
Cowboys of Oklahoma State
Wolfpack of NC State
These are the real long shots, the teams that no one is talking about but who have the ability and chance to completely change the postseason landscape — although with a few miracles thrown in for good measure. NC State has 19 starters back, but it also has one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Clemson isn’t the Wolfpack’s only challenge; the Wolfpack play Mississippi State on Sept. 11 and have crossover games against Miami and North Carolina, perhaps the Coastal Division’s two best teams.
Utah has what it takes to make the playoffs, but it has to learn how to win important games in order to remain there. Arizona State has a quality squad that returns 95 percent of its output from last season, the most in the Pac-12 and fourth in the FBS. However, the NCAA is investigating the program for recruiting infractions, including hosting prospects during the pandemic’s prolonged dead time. It’s unknown whether or not this will have an effect on the team.
With 18 returning starters at TCU, this may be Gary Patterson’s strongest squad since 2017. The Horned Frogs must win on the road, since their success will be determined by visits to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State. Max Duggan, the quarterback, must also remain healthy.
Is there any lack of motivation for Oklahoma State right now versus Texas and Oklahoma?
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Northwestern University Wildcats
Hokies of Virginia Tech
Panthers of Pittsburgh
Rebels of Ole Miss
Tigers of Auburn University
These are solid schools who aren’t now postseason contenders but are disciplined and skilled enough to disrupt a team that is.
Despite the fact that Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald returns just eight starters, the fewest in the Big Ten, ESPN’s FPI gives the Wildcats a better than a 50 percent probability of winning every game except those against Michigan and Wisconsin. However, if Northwestern can win at Ann Arbor and beat Iowa at home, there’s a good possibility the Wildcats will be undefeated going into their game against Wisconsin on Nov. 13.
Last season, Pat Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to the Big Ten championship game, but he’ll have to replace a lot of talent from one of the greatest teams in school history. Darron Cummings/AP Photo
While North Carolina is the emerging star in the ACC’s Coastal Division, both Virginia Tech and Pitt may be trap games. On a Thursday night in November, Pitt will host the Tar Heels, and the Hokies will welcome UNC to Lane Stadium for the season opener, which will be the first time the unforgiving home crowd has been back at full capacity since 2019.
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin may have one of the most dynamic offenses in the SEC, with returning quarterback Matt Corral being one of the best in the conference. For a full game, the Rebels’ defense will have to make significant improvements. In terms of expectations, Auburn is comparable to Ole Miss, but it is also a year behind and in the midst of a coaching change with Bryan Harsin. However, he inherits experienced quarterback Bo Nix, as well as 14 other starters, including running back Tank Bigsby and the offensive line as a whole.
So you’re implying that there’s a possibility…
The Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana
Knights of UCF
Mountaineers from Appalachian State University
Cincinnati is now the Group of 5’s best chance for a playoff berth, and although it is a long shot, it isn’t the only one. (It’s simply the most improbable.)
Aside from quality, what sets these Group of 5 teams apart from the others is that they have at least one marquee game on their schedule that will help them prove their case. The selection committee has made it plain that unbeaten Group of 5 clubs would be kept out of the top four due to poor schedules.
What if they defeat an ACC champion in the process? Or maybe a Big 12 champion?
Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but… The Ragin’ Cajuns begin the season against Texas, and although ESPN’s FPI gives them an 11 percent chance of winning, if they pull off the upset and run the table — and Texas wins the Big 12?! — the committee may be in for a big headache.
Louisiana would also have a victory against an Appalachian State squad that is likely to be rated.
App State has shocked college football before (see: Michigan), but it must win against Miami on Sept. 11, according to ESPN’s FPI, and the Mountaineers have a 20.5 percent probability of doing so. Appalachian State would be in the race for a New Year’s Six bowl if that occurs, coupled with a victory at Louisiana on Oct. 12 and a home win over Coastal Carolina the following week. If Miami pulls off its own upset and wins the ACC, it will be another another historic victory for the Mountaineers, as well as a topic of conversation in the committee meeting room.
A victory against Louisville on Friday night may potentially impress the selection committee, but it won’t mean much if the Cardinals aren’t ranked. The greater victory, however, would come on Oct. 16 in Cincinnati. However, the most likely outcome would be the AAC’s removal from the playoffs altogether.
Teams from the Power 5 that aren’t ready for the big stage
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, MSU Tigers
Many of the programs lumped into this unfortunate category have never been competitive, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t rise to prominence in the future, particularly those with the resources to compete and recruit on a national level, such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Baylor, Nebraska, Florida State, and Michigan State.
Shane Beamer, the first-year coach at South Carolina, doesn’t even have a complete roster of scholarship players to deal with right now. Following an inquiry into possible recruiting infractions, Jeremy Pruitt was dismissed, and the Vols are attempting to pick up the pieces. Several of the institutions mentioned here, notably Baylor and Michigan State, had first-year head coaches in 2020, and they should be given mulligans for attempting to make an impact on a program during the pandemic’s peak.
Minnesota had an unbeaten top-10 team that believed it could “drive the boat” straight into the CFP under coach P.J. Fleck not long ago. With the proper talent and people, everything is possible.
These categories, however, are about current playoff position, and these clubs would be better served concentrating on improving this summer and continuing to work for the future.
Independents and teams from the Group of Five
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, Florida International Panthers, Utah State Aggies, Buffalo Bulls, North Texas Mean Green, Arkansas State Red Wolves, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Navy Midshipmen
Even this category could be divided further, as programs like Boise State, Buffalo, UAB, San Diego State, Memphis, Houston, Coastal Carolina, Air Force, and Liberty 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 is expanded to 12 and a Group of 5 program is guaranteed a spot.
However, the majority of these teams will not be so lucky, highlighting the very real inequalities that exist not just across conferences, but also between athletic departments and budgets.
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