For each of the first six years of the College Football Playoff, the four-team group selected to compete for the sport's national championship included at least one newcomer to the playoff format. It became an annual offseason activity to try and predict, should the trend continue, the next programs to be a first-timer in the College Football Playoff.
Then in 2020 the streak came to an end, with the four College Football Playoff participants -- Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame -- all making a return visit to the playoff. No one expected the streak to go on forever, especially when you consider that the combination of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have accounted for 20 of the 28 possible slots in the College Football Playoff. It's a sport that inherently and historically sets up for perennial powers to continue high-level success on a year-in, year-out basis and these are ruling families of the modern era.
But when you consider the strength of the programs that have yet to make it to the College Football Playoff and the ebbs and flows of dynasties in the sport over time, it's more likely that we see programs continue to break through with their first playoff appearance in the coming years. So now we want to know: who will be the next team to make its first College Football Playoff appearance?
That's the question that we posed on this week's Cover 3 Podcast, with the intention of not only creating a ranking but casting a wide net of possibilities. So we set up a draft, with Bud Elliott, Danny Kanell, Tom Fornelli and myself each filling out a five-round squad of programs with College Football Playoff potential.
Now it's important to note that our bar for success is making the College Football Playoff and not winning the national championship. So while roster talent is certainly a high consideration when making our picks, it does not carry the same weight as it does for picking eventual champions. If Michigan State and Washington, two teams with talent on the roster but not loaded up with more four-star and five-star prospects than not, can make the College Football Playoff, it is fair to assume that the "blue chip ratio" calculations need not apply for this exercise -- though again, talent should be ignored.
We've listed the first two rounds (eight picks) below with some analysis from the episode, though we encourage you to go and check it out to hear all 20 picks plus the programs that didn't make the cut from our draft boards. The exercise proved a balance of looking at teams that could make a playoff run in 2021 and the programs that have the pieces in place to do so in 2022 or beyond.
Round 1, Pick 1: USC (Bud)
After winning the Pac-12 South with a 5-0 regular season record and coming one touchdown shy of a Pac-12 championship, USC is a legitimate pick to make the College Football Playoff in 2021 even against a field that includes former playoff participants. Quarterback Kedon Slovis in Year Three headlines a roster that will likely be among the 10-15 most talented in the country and a full offseason will help further solidify some of the coaching changes that Clay Helton made after 2019 on the defensive side of the ball. Any nitpicking about the weaknesses of USC as a national title contender are overshadowed by an enormous advantage in terms of path to the playoff when compared to its counterparts in other conferences.
Round 1, Pick 2: Texas (Danny)
Here we see the Steve Sarkisian hype in full effect as Danny buys in on the idea that we could see some real steps forward in the first years of this new era in Austin. Casey Thompson's bowl performance was mentioned as a notable reason for excitement on the field, along with Bijan Robinson's projected ascension to stardom as a featured weapon in Sarkisian's offense. Texas has been able to assemble a strong staff of assistant coaches and the roster is certainly talented enough to compete against Oklahoma in the Big 12, so now we wait to see if Sark can accomplish what no Texas coach has done since Mack Brown in 2009: win the conference championship.
Round 1, Pick 3: Texas A&M (Tom)
While winning the conference comes as an assumed prerequisite for making the College Football Playoff from the Pac-12 and Big 12, there is precedent for two teams from the SEC. That's where Texas A&M, coming off a top-four finish in the final AP Top 25 poll, has a path to the playoff without having to jump ahead of Alabama in the SEC West. Now there's no Aggie fan around that wants to enter a season etching an "L" next to the Tide on the schedule but it is possible, as we saw in 2020, for Texas A&M to lose that game and still be very much in the mix for a playoff spot on Selection Day. The Aggies' success this past season was powered in part by a strong sophomore class that makes them a very intriguing team for 2021, but there's also value in Jimbo Fisher's group as the program best positioned to take a step forward should Alabama take a step back. LSU has its national championship and Auburn has an SEC West title in the last four years, but Texas A&M has more continuity heading into next season.
Round 1, Pick 4: Florida (Chip)
The Gators lost to Texas A&M by three, lost to LSU by a shoe and pushed Alabama until the very end in a six-point defeat in the SEC Championship Game. There is a mass exodus of playmakers in Gainesville, but Dan Mullen has already delivered on the promise of bringing Florida back into SEC championship contention. Like Texas A&M, you're not hanging your hat on the prospects of only winning the SEC crown to make the playoff, as even Notre Dame showed us this year you can lose on conference championship weekend and still hold on to a top-four spot in the rankings. After three New Years Six appearances in three years, the Gators are knocking on the door and close to a breakthrough with their first playoff appearance in program history.
Round 2, Pick 1: North Carolina (Chip)
Is this a reach? Probably, but picking on the turn meant I had to stake my claim in the sleeping giant for fear the Tar Heels wouldn't be available when the draft snaked back my way. North Carolina had one of its best seasons in program history in 2020 with an offense that ranked among the best in the country and a quarterback in Sam Howell who will enter 2021 as a part of the Heisman Trophy conversation. For 2021 prospects I look no further than the Orange Bowl against Texas A&M, where the Tar Heels were down more than 4,000 yards of offense due to opt outs and still had a fourth quarter lead against a consensus top-five team. Nearly every starter from that Orange Bowl is back for next year, making North Carolina the answer when searching for non-Clemson playoff options from the ACC. But while I picked North Carolina mostly for 2021 reasons, I look at the commitment of Drake Maye and Mack Brown's work on the recruiting trail to see more ACC championship contention in the future that will ultimately lead to being a part of the playoff conversation.
Round 2, Pick 2: Iowa State (Tom)
As Tom described it on the show, this is a pick with 2021 in mind as Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and what seems like a dozen All-Big 12 picks will be back for the Cyclones in hopes of finishing the job and winning the Big 12. Iowa State has proven it can beat Oklahoma and deserves a spot in the College Football Playoff conversation, even garnering more respect from the selection committee with two losses than undefeated and one-loss teams who were ranked lower heading into championship weekend. If Iowa State can be in striking distance with two losses this season, then that same crew should be ready to make another run at its first-ever playoff in 2021 and could have even better positioning if it can avoid a non-conference slip-up early in the year.
Round 2, Pick 3: Wisconsin (Danny)
"Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, that's the saying right?" Danny said in his introduction to the pick of the Badgers, pointing to the three Big Ten West titles in six years under Paul Chryst. If Wisconsin keeps getting to the Big Ten Championship Game on an every-other-year average, then at some point it's going to win, right? The Badgers showed up to Indianapolis in 2017 with a 12-0 record and No. 3 ranking, so if they were just one win from the College Football Playoff then, it's not a terrible bet to think a similar situation won't be lurking around the corner. There is that whole issue of beating Ohio State and snapping what is currently an eight-game losing streak to the Buckeyes, but again if you're looking for consistent winners in the College Football Playoff era without a playoff appearance, this is a solid pick.
Round 2, Pick 4: Penn State (Bud)
It is interesting that Wisconsin was selected before Penn State, as I'd argue that the Nittany Lions have been as close to the playoff with arguably more talent and less of a perceived gap when compared to Ohio State. Penn State actually has a Big Ten championship and a win against Ohio State in the playoff era to go with three top-10 finishes and three New Years Six appearances. The struggles of the strange 2020 season certainly cloud the immediate outlook for 2021, but in terms of recruiting and recent success this has been one of the top programs in college football since the start of 2016.