Cincinnati and Michigan in 2021 and TCU in 2022 were all first-time college football playoff teams. Who could crash the party in 2023-24 that has never made the playoffs? Today we will look at three teams that appear on the cusp of being a College Football playoff team for the first time.
Biggest Reason for Hopefulness: Young offensive talent returning from a Rose Bowl win. Penn State fans eagerly await sophomore quarterback Drew Allar to take over full-time as he was the No. 2 pocket passer in 2022, along with running backs Nicholas Singleton (1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Kaytron Allen (867 yards and ten touchdowns). Also helping pave the way is offensive tackle Olu Fashanu who chose not to enter the NFL draft but instead returns for one more season at Penn State. A solid running game will help ease Allar’s transition into the spotlight more smoothly than expected
Biggest obstacle: The East Division. Since 2013, Penn State has faced off against Ohio State and Michigan in the same season, never going 2-0 against them in the same season. While Michigan has defeated Penn State four times since 2013, Ohio State only once (2016), so if PSU wants to impress the selection committee, it must win at least one of those games to end as either one-loss Big Ten runner-up or conference champion. Two of Penn State’s most challenging division games are away at Ohio State on Oct. 21 and Maryland on Nov. 4 before hosting Michigan on Nov. 11. This Penn State team has the raw talent to get this done but beating Ohio State and Michigan in the same year will most likely have to happen for the Nittany Lions to make it to the playoffs.
Primary reason for optimism: Even with its dismal defense last year, USC managed to impress the selection committee enough for a No. 4 ranking heading into the Pac-12 Conference championship game. The Trojans can counter with another impressive offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, who helped USC rank No. 3 in the nation with 506.6 yards per game. Coach Lincoln Riley’s offense should once again have the Trojans in the playoff hunt in 2019, as ten players who caught passes last season return. Williams will have reliable receivers in Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice to work with. Furthermore, the Trojans added talent from the transfer portal (again), including Dorian Singer, who led Pac-12 receiving yards with 1,105 at Arizona last season.
Biggest obstacle: Defense, or lack thereof. Teams can finish in the top four without great defenses but rarely make it past the CFP semifinals without one. Riley’s Oklahoma teams were an example (0-4 in the CFP semifinals). While selection committees are aware and leery of poor defenses, they overlook them if an offense is potent and their teams keep beating quality competition despite it. Unfortunately, opponents expose weak defensive units at some point along the way. If USC hopes to compete against teams like Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and even Utah, then USC must demonstrate significant improvements starting with fundamental tackling skills alone.
Biggest Reason for Hopefulness: Offensive Identity. Heupel’s high-flying offense will remain unchanged, even if personnel changes have occurred. While Tennessee will lose some significant names (offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, quarterback Hooker and receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt), there is plenty of talent waiting in the shadows. Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton could emerge as a reliable playmaker, while Joe Milton III should once again lead one of America’s fastest, most productive and most entertaining offenses.
Joey Halzle, newly promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, “will play with tempo.” We will go vertical on people and dictate the pace of play. We will dictate when and how defenses can sub and when not. With our aggressive attack style, we try and score from everywhere – one of our mantras being it’s hard to score when you don’t try! So whenever we get it, we anticipate crossing the goal line.” That is who we are; attack is part of who we are and won’t change.”
Biggest Challenge: Defensive Growth. Tennessee’s defense made progress throughout the season, but to beat Georgia and avoid an upset like South Carolina, it needs to improve further. Last season they had zero defensive touchdowns and ranked No. 117 nationally with 155 missed tackles; Heupel said he particularly wants his unit to improve in third-and-long situations and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks (Tennessee ranked No. 127 in opponent passing yards per game with 289.5 yards, as well as No.96 in average time before a pass (2.8 seconds).
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