It’s possible Oklahoma State was just “inches short” of the College Football Playoff last fall — but it’s also a rather grand assumption that had Dezmon Jackson managed to grow a few inches on a desperate fourth-down dive against Baylor in the Big 12 title game, the selection committee would have chosen the Cowboys over Cincinnati.
The only certainty is that a great debate would have ensued. What we do know is the late loss eliminated then-No. 5 Oklahoma State from the conversation — an equally important lesson that will continue to resonate in the era of a four-team field.
“If you lose from the first of November on, it’s got to be in a championship game in most cases, and it’s got to be to a team in the top four,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “Other than that, you’re really out, is what percentages tell you.”
While it’s not a written rule, there’s some merit to Gundy’s theory, especially if it’s the second loss of the season, as it was for the Cowboys. It underscores just how difficult it is for teams to finish undefeated or with one loss — especially if they make it to the conference title game, which many coaches have unofficially deemed a quarterfinal in this system. The Cowboys came painstakingly close last fall, but they’re in good company with several teams that flirted with a top-four finish — or at least won their conference — and have the potential to build on that this season.
“It drives all of us,” Gundy said of the Cowboys. “But we have to understand it’s a step-by-step process to get to that point. And hopefully we can meet the criteria, [and] with the team playing hard and not having letdowns and being healthy, we can be there.”
Here’s a look at a handful of hopefuls that came up short, along with two teams that were in the playoff but might have some trouble staying there. They’re ranked in order of the best chance to make a playoff push:
Can they take the next step?
Notre Dame (11-2)
Final 2021 CFP ranking: No. 5
The case for: Defense, defense, defense. First-year coach Marcus Freeman made a home run hire with former Miami coach Al Golden as his defensive coordinator, and they will have one of the best defensive fronts in the country. Eight of the 10 linemen who played at least 100 snaps last fall return. End Isaiah Foskey and tackle Jayson Ademilola combined for 19 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks. That should help with some growing pains on offense as the Irish search for a new starting quarterback.
The case against: It’s only Year 1 under a rookie head coach. The pressure to win at Notre Dame is immediate, but the reality is that Freeman will have a learning curve just like his new starting quarterback. The former Ohio State linebacker has skyrocketed through the coaching ranks since he began as a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes in 2010. Now he’s expected to win a national title? Freeman hired seven new assistant coaches, so while there is a foundation of winning at Notre Dame they can build on, they also want to establish their own culture. A major part of that, which has been missing, is finding an identity on offense. Notre Dame changed as the season progressed last fall, and the Irish improved, but offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can use this upcoming season as an opportunity to put his stamp on some consistency. While Freeman is winning the news conference, nobody knows how he’ll fare as an in-game coach beyond the bowl game loss to Oklahoma State.
Season-defining stretch: Sept. 3 at Ohio State. That’s right, one game. Are you playoff-worthy or not, Irish? This is the game that will go a long way in revealing that. Notre Dame can lose and still make the playoff, but it’s an all too familiar pressure-packed situation with no guarantee. The Irish would likely have to run the table and look good in the process. Last year that wasn’t enough to overcome the loss to Cincinnati. This year, Ohio State is likely to be competing for a top-four spot, too. That head-to-head win over the Irish helped Cincy all the way through Selection Day. Unlike other teams that have back-to-back games against some of their toughest competition, Notre Dame’s schedule is a little more forgiving in that its two toughest game are bookends to the regular season — the opener against the Buckeyes and the finale at rival USC.
Final 2021 CFP ranking: No. 11
The case for: This is about teams from last fall that finished strong and are capable of garnering more serious playoff consideration, and while the shiny new object in L.A. has everyone’s attention, the Pac-12’s playoff hopes should start with Utah — not USC or Oregon, which are both under new head coaches. Utah is more proven heading into the fall, and the defending Pac-12 champ should be favored again to win the league. The Utes are coming off a memorable Rose Bowl, and the expectations should increase in spite of the loss to Ohio State. Coach Kyle Whittingham said 70 of 85 scholarship players from that Rose Bowl game will be underclassmen. Whittingham has put his program in position for a playoff spot before, and the foundation is set to do it again. They also know what it takes to defeat Oregon and win the league. There’s only one thing left.
“We have had an obvious absence in the playoff for several years now as a league,” Whittingham said. “I don’t believe that we feel any pressure or onus as a program to be the team that does it. We’re just trying to be the best team we can be. You can’t get in the playoff unless you’re able to take care of business within your own conference. Our goal each year is to try to win the Pac-12. If we can get things beyond that, that’s great. I don’t think we’re putting any extra expectations or pressure on our guys.”
The case against: #pac12afterdark is one place to start. This league is notorious for beating each other up. It’s going to have the same problem again when Utah and USC face each other on Oct. 15. The Pac-12’s parity doesn’t mean it’s not good football. It means there’s still no proven great team to dominate the rest. Utah has fallen flat on the big stage before. In 2019, the one-loss Utes entered the Pac-12 title game against Oregon with playoff hopes on the line. With the entire selection committee watching, Utah lost to Oregon 37-15. This time, the Utes beat the No. 10 Ducks but were already out of the picture. In order to put it all together, they have to develop consistency. It has to start on Week 1, as a loss at Florida will put the Utes in a must-win situation for the rest of the season.
Season-defining stretch: Oct. 8-29 (at UCLA, vs. USC, at Washington State). If the preseason predictions are right (and they’re never wrong), the Utes’ home game against USC will determine which team is the league’s best hope at being a playoff contender. Both USC and Utah have difficult games after this — USC ends the season Nov. 26 against Notre Dame, and Utah has a tricky trip to Oregon on Nov. 19. The loser on Oct. 15 has little, if any, margin for error the rest of the way. That game, though, is sandwiched between two tough road trips, especially at UCLA. If Utah is going to finish in the top four this fall, it has to win on the road — something it failed to do last year at BYU, San Diego State and Oregon State.
Oklahoma State (12-2)
Final 2021 CFP ranking: No. 9
The case for: With so many questions at rival Oklahoma following the departure of Lincoln Riley to USC, it appears to be the perfect time to capitalize on last year’s Bedlam win and possibly shift the balance of power in the state. Oklahoma State beat the Sooners and Notre Dame, but it lost two games by a combined eight points last fall, painfully close to the Big 12 title and playoff consideration. They have a veteran quarterback in Spencer Sanders to lead six other returning offensive starters and what should be one of the best defensive lines in the country. As inconsistent as Sanders has been, Gundy said his QB has what it takes to get the Cowboys to the CFP — if they can keep him on his feet.
“If you look at his numbers when we protect him well, he has terrific numbers,” Gundy said, “but in the championship game, we were awful. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. We can blame coaches, we can blame linemen, we can blame backs, whoever — but we didn’t protect him.”
The case against: Losing defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was significant, but the Cowboys also have to replace the production of two of their top linebackers and four of the top five defensive backs. In addition to the defensive transition, the Cowboys also need to be concerned about their overall schedule strength. With nonconference home games against Central Michigan, Arizona State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Oklahoma State should hope it doesn’t get into a résumé battle with another Power 5 conference champion. If Oklahoma State goes undefeated, it’s probably a moot point, but one loss opens the door for a real debate.
Season-defining stretch: Nov. 12-26 (vs. Iowa State, at Oklahoma, vs. WVU). If the Cowboys are in the playoff conversation, November will make or break their chances. It could become a must-win stretch if the Cowboys lose at Baylor on Oct. 1. They should be undefeated going into that game, but considering the recent history with Baylor, and the fact the Bears have home-field advantage, it’s a coin toss. That will be Oklahoma State’s most difficult game before hitting this November stretch.
Final 2021 CFP Ranking: No. 7
The case for: Coach Dave Aranda was able to showcase what he’s capable of last season — a school-record 12 wins, a Big 12 title, five wins against ranked opponents and a New Year’s Day bowl win for the first time since 1957. Momentum, Aranda said, is real, and he hopes to harness that with the progress he has made getting the players to buy into his personality and his philosophy. Aranda went 2-7 in his first season in 2020, a year that was further complicated by COVID-19. Investing time in building relationships and character were the main results.
“I think the way we went about that in 2020, even taking the hits and never really losing yourself and having blow-ups, not doing any of that, I think that laid the groundwork for ’21,” he said.
Even with some significant departures, Aranda said he’s confident in the returning talent, particularly at wide receiver. It might be the Bears’ most talented offensive position group. Baylor also has four starting offensive linemen returning, which will help ease the burden of whoever takes over the lead role at running back.
The case against: Untested players at key spots won’t have much time for a learning curve. Two of the first three games are on the road (Sept. 10 at BYU and Sept. 24 at Iowa State). Baylor has to replace its top two rushers from 2021, and Taye McWilliams is next in line, but he had only 17 carries last season. Defensively, they’ve got to replace their leading tacklers in Terrel Bernard and Jalen Pitre, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Aranda called linebacker Matt Jones a “budding star,” who will take over the position Bernard played. Outside linebacker Garmon Randolph‘s role will also be “much, much bigger,” Aranda said.
Season-defining stretch: Sept. 24-Oct. 13. Baylor has an extremely difficult schedule with six road games, including particularly tricky trips to BYU, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas. There’s no guarantee the Bears will open with a win against future Big 12 opponent BYU. Even if they do enter the Sept. 24 game at Iowa State undefeated, the Bears need to survive this stretch that also includes Oklahoma State and a Thursday night game against West Virginia in Morgantown. Baylor will have a bye week to prepare for the Mountaineers, but it’s one of the most difficult places to play in the country. They have to survive that in order to have some cushion against OU and Texas in November.
Do they have staying power?
Final 2021 CFP Ranking: No. 2
The case for: Jim Harbaugh’s ability to laser-focus on the task at hand. At the moment, it’s winning a national title — not the Super Bowl.
“We can win college football’s greatest trophy, that we could win a national championship; that’s plenty good,” Harbaugh said. “That would be great to win the Super Bowl, but completely focused on winning a national championship.”
That Harbaugh went so far as to say “it’s scary good” at Michigan should put the rest of the Big Ten on alert. Michigan got a taste of the CFP last season when it won the Big Ten, and the Wolverines return four starters from a unit that won the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in college football.
The case against: The nonconference schedule and questions on defense … ooooh, and Ohio State. Michigan opens the season with four straight home games against Colorado State, Hawai’i, UConn and Big Ten foe Maryland. If the Wolverines aren’t 4-0 heading into October, stop the CFP fodder yesterday. The Big Ten champion should finish in the top four, even with one loss, but … if Notre Dame and the Pac-12 champion are also hovering around the top five, along with the SEC, Big 12 and ACC champion, this nonconference schedule could come back to haunt Michigan. The good thing about the schedule? There’s plenty of time to answer the questions on defense. No Aidan Hutchinson. No David Ojabo, Josh Ross … or defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. The list goes on. It’s on first-year coordinator Jesse Minter to plug the holes.
Season-defining stretch: Oct. 15-29 (vs. Penn State, vs. Michigan State). Yes, it almost always boils down to The Game, but if Michigan can’t beat Penn State and Michigan State — at home and with a bye week to prepare for the rival Spartans — the Wolverines are going to need Ohio State to lose twice in order to win the division. They’ll also cast doubt on their playoff potential within the selection committee — again bringing that nonconference schedule under the microscope. Michigan needs to win its home games against the East Division before hitting the road to Columbus.
Final 2021 CFP ranking: No. 4
The case for: Luke Fickell stuck around following the most successful season in school history. Fickell racked up eight national coach of the year awards for a reason. He led the Bearcats to a school-record 13 wins and the AAC title. The most difficult part — breaking the stigma of the Group of 5 in the CFP — is behind them. With an unblemished season that includes a win against an elite opponent, it is possible for a Group of 5 conference champion to finish in the top four. Cincinnati has another such opportunity this fall when it opens the season against an Arkansas team that has a good chance to finish in the top 25.
The case against: A revamped roster, particularly on defense. A combined nine starters on offense and defense return from that historic season, seven on offense and just two on defense. The defense, which was the Bearcats’ identity, is arguably the biggest question, though they also have to replace starting quarterback Desmond Ridder. Cincinnati has to replace cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant, leading tackler Joel Dublanko and top pass-rusher Curtis Brooks.
Season-defining stretch: September. No, the Bearcats should not lose at home to Kennesaw State and Miami (Ohio), but if they’re not 4-0 heading into October, they’re not in the playoff. Cincinnati has to win its opener at Arkansas, and it has to finish September with a home win against Indiana. Cincinnati earned its spot in the top four last season — but the reality is it also got some help along the way, right up until the very end when Baylor beat Oklahoma State and Notre Dame ran the table. In order to repeat as a semifinalist, Cincinnati will need to follow the same blueprint, this time beating the Razorbacks and hoping it has a respectable winning season.