While Alabama fans are still basking in the glory of a triumphant 2021 season, every other school hopes that the coming year will look much different. With the return of out of conference games, filled-out schedules, and the end of practice time disparity, college football should be more competitive next season.
Although the usual playoff suspects such as 'Bama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma will all be in the mix for a CFP spot, there are plenty of teams to account for. Here are four programs set to make a run at their first appearance in the College Football Playoff.
*All rankings and statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CFB
We can hear the groans now. Another offseason hype piece for the Trojans? To be fair, it's hard to envision any Pac-12 team reaching the final four. The conference has been stuck in a perpetual cycle of mediocrity for years, failing to send a representative to the CFP since the 2016 Washington Huskies.
This year, things may be different. In a shortened 2020 season, USC went 5-0 before losing to 4-2 Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship. While the Ducks will pose a threat, they don't face off against the Trojans in the regular season next year. However, USC does get to face quality non-conference opponents in Notre Dame, San Diego State, and BYU. Since all three teams finished the 2020 season ranked in the AP Poll, these games will be crucial for USC's postseason chances.
Given the weakened state of their conference, it will likely take an undefeated, possibly one-loss season to get the Trojans into the playoffs. However, the return of star quarterback Kedon Slovis, a potential Heisman candidate and the league's leading passer, will stabilize the offense. A top-ten recruiting class for head coach Clay Helton should ensure that any offseason departures won't hurt the team's depth. With a winnable Pac-12 and the chance to nab some quality wins from outside of their conference, USC has a wide-open path to CFP contention.
Cincinnati won over America with an undefeated season in 2020, only to have their hopes for a miracle playoff berth dashed by a CFP committee that penalized their schedule due to a lack of quality opponents. The perceived slight gave rise to another discussion on college football's power structure and claims of Power Five elitism keeping mid-majors from competing against the best of the best.
As a member of the AAC, the Bearcats are always at a disadvantage when it comes to playing high-level foes. With that being said, the 2021 season could be a perfect storm for Cincy. Superstar quarterback Desmond Ridder and head coach Luke Fickell return to the Queen City for another go at it. This year's schedule also opens up opportunity to gain impressive wins. Back to back road games against Indiana and Notre Dame will prove to the nation if Cincinnati is for real. While those two games alone may not be enough, a strong season from a conference rival such as UCF or Tulsa can propel the 'Cats to contender status.
Cincinnati will always be a CFP long shot, but it would spark outrage if another undefeated season goes ignored by the committee, considering the team has made a legitimate effort to schedule difficult road games against stiff competition. With numerous players entering the draft, as well as the loss of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to Notre Dame, there are a ton of questions about this year's Bearcats that need to be answered early in the year. Still, the talent is there, and unlike previous seasons, this Group of Five powerhouse should control its own destiny.
Mack Brown's arrival at Chapel Hill has changed perceptions about the Tar Heels. Winning just two games in 2018, UNC ended last season ranked #18 in the country, capped off with an appearance in the Orange Bowl, their first New Year's Six game in twenty years.
Now, the hard part: can the Heels become title contenders? If there was ever a time for them to make a run, this would be the year. The ACC landscape should look drastically different next season; Clemson has lost stars in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, while Notre Dame will leave the conference and return to independent status. The schedule shouldn't be too difficult either; UNC's three toughest games are against in-state rival NC State, at home vs. Miami, and a trip to South Bend to face the Irish. Otherwise, the team should have no difficulty racking up wins.
North Carolina's offense should be loaded yet again in 2021. Sam Howell, a Heisman favorite, enters what may be his last season at school as the ACC's top passer. The loss of top targets Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome to the NFL will hurt, but there are more than enough skill position prospects, including Dazz's brother Kafre, to keep the chains moving. Both the offensive line and defense will return almost all of their starters next year as well. While neither unit was exceptional, an added season of experience and a more normal offseason schedule should result in some improvement.
With a top quarterback and a young, improving roster around him, North Carolina is a dark-horse contender in the ACC. An offseason of uncertainty for Clemson could create just enough wiggle room for Brown's boys to nab a conference victory and a spot in the CFP.
Of all the teams on the list, none got as close to the College Football Playoff as did Iowa State. Finishing the season at #9 in the AP Poll, a seven-point loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship ended any dreams of reaching the postseason Cyclone fans may have had. However, Matt Campbell's crew finished out the year strong, dominating Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.
Campbell, one of the nation's best coaches, brings back most of the key pieces from the 2020 roster, namely his two offensive superstars. Quarterback Brock Purdy may already be the greatest passer to ever suit up for ISU; his mix of arm stregnth and athleticism was a nightmare for defenses to prepare for. He returns for a senior season in Ames instead of declaring for the NFL Draft. Junior Breece Hall could be the best running back in the nation following a 1,500 yard, 20 touchdown campaign that saw him win Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. On the opposite side of the ball, the nation's 25th best scoring defense returns their three best tacklers, and enters the offseason as the most talented unit in an otherwise porous Big 12.
Like any other year, Iowa State's fortunes will hinge upon their success in the regular season. Games against Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma State will determine who controls their destiny in the Big 12. With a record of 2-2 against these three last season, Campbell's squad must up their game against rivals in order to make a legitimate push towards the CFP. Beating Cy-Hawk rival Iowa for the first time in ten years at home would also go a long way in boosting the Cyclones' resume.
While Oklahoma will be considered conference favorites this offseason, don't be surprised if Iowa State knocks off a blue blood or two on their way to securing a spot in the CFP. Matt Campbell has assembled one of the most talented rosters in the nation, a unique blend of talent and experience that will prove difficult for any opponent. With Purdy and Hall poised to dominate in 2021 while accompanied by the Big 12's best defense, the sky is the limit for ISU.