Only 13 programs have reached the College Football Playoff in the format’s eight years of existence. Last season, Cincinnati and Michigan became the two newest teams to join the club.
While there was plenty of justifiable skepticism that a Group of Five program like Cincinnati could ever reach the CFP, the Bearcats were expected to be very good and at least be in the playoff conversation. Michigan, on the other hand, came out of nowhere.
The Wolverines went 2-4 during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, putting immense pressure on Jim Harbaugh’s group to rebound in a big way. And that’s exactly what the Wolverines did.
Michigan had its best season in decades. The Wolverines put together an 11-1 regular season that was capped off by beating rival Ohio State for the first time since 2011. From there, UM won its first outright Big Ten title since 2003 and earned a CFP berth.
Who could be this year’s Michigan? Here are some long-shot contenders who, if everything goes right, could end up as this season’s surprise entry into the playoff field.
(National championship odds via BetMGM)
ACC: NC State (+15000)
Is NC State poised for a breakthrough? The Wolfpack have won at least eight games in four of the last five seasons, including a 9-3 mark in 2021. NC State lost to Mississippi State and then went 6-2 in ACC play. The Wolfpack’s two conference losses — at Miami and at Wake Forest — came by a combined four points. Those two close losses, plus the team’s bowl game vs. UCLA (and the chance to reach the coveted 10-win mark) getting canceled has left an already accomplished group hungry for more.
Entering 2022, the team returns 17 starters, including one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country, Devin Leary. The Wolfpack must replace first-round tackle Ikem Ekwonu, leading receiver Emeka Emezie and their top two running backs, but there’s still good depth at those positions. Meanwhile, nearly the entire defense from last fall is back and there are reinforcements in the form of All-ACC linebackers Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson returning from injury.
The toughest thing to do in college football is go from good to great. That’s especially true for a program with a track record of coming up short in big moments. But with questions about Clemson’s offense still unanswered, NC State has an opening to seize the ACC Atlantic and potentially put itself in position for a playoff berth if it can withstand the expectations being bigger than ever.
Big 12: Texas (+4000)
The Big 12 feels wide open. Baylor is the league’s defending champion but has to replace a lot of production at the skill positions and in the secondary. Oklahoma will be relying on a bunch of new faces as it transitions from the Lincoln Riley to the Brent Venables era. There’s also Oklahoma State, which won 11 games a year ago but is a team we’re projecting to take a step back.
Does that open the door for Texas? Don’t laugh. We’ve been down this road before. For over a decade, every time it’s anticipated that the Longhorns can get back near the top of the sport they’ve fallen flat on their faces. Last year, Texas started the season 4-1, was ranked in the Top 25 and had a three-touchdown lead over No. 6 Oklahoma. But the Longhorns blew the lead and lost six of their final seven games.
Even after that disappointment, there’s still reason for optimism entering 2022. Admittedly, a lot of this is based on projection — but Texas has a lot to like.
Let’s start with the known commodities. Bijan Robinson and Xavier Worthy are stars at running back and receiver, respectively. At those positions, Texas is loaded with top-tier talent. UT also has Ohio State transfer Quinn Ewers at quarterback. Ewers is one of the most-hyped QB recruits in recent memory and is going to have every opportunity to back up his lofty recruiting rankings.
If Ewers is as good as advertised and the offensive line play is better, this offense could be special. There’s also an abundance of experience on defense. The unit struggled last year, but Pete Kwiatkowski has a track record of assembling strong defenses.
The potential is there, but Texas just needs to get out of its own way.
Big Ten: Penn State (+8000)
Penn State went 42-11 over the four-year stretch from 2016 to 2019, but is 11-11 over the last two seasons. Last year, Penn State started 5-0, was ranked No. 4 in the country and led No. 3 Iowa 14-3 on the road when quarterback Sean Clifford got injured. Without PSU lacking a capable backup QB, Iowa was able to storm back and win the game 23-20. PSU’s season was never the same.
Clifford was banged up for the rest of the year as PSU limped to a 7-6 finish that included losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State by single-digit margins.
With Ohio State among the favorites to win the national title and Michigan and Michigan State coming off such strong seasons, Penn State is flying under the radar entering 2022. But this is a dangerous team. Clifford is an above-average quarterback when he can use his mobility. After the injury, he became a sitting duck behind a lackluster offensive line. Improvement up front is a big key for the Nittany Lions, as is a better overall ground game. Five-star freshman running back Nick Singleton should help that cause.
Defensively, PSU may not have the marquee pass rusher it had in 2021 with Arnold Ebiketie, but the line is much deeper and the secondary is arguably the Big Ten’s best. Aside from the O-line, linebacker is the biggest question mark.
This program is hungry to get back into playoff contention after two down years. If the Nittany Lions can get through early-season road tests at Purdue and Auburn, they will have the chance to make their mark on the CFP race.
Pac-12: Oregon (+6600)
So much of the focus in the Pac-12 this offseason has been devoted to USC, but what about Oregon?
On the heels of winning 12 games in 2019 and another 10 a year ago, Mario Cristobal has left behind an excellent roster for new coach Dan Lanning, particularly on defense. Lanning is no stranger to coaching up defensive talent as his unit at Georgia last year will go down in college football history. At Oregon, he’s got two of the best linebackers in the country in Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. The defensive line is also very strong, while the secondary has some inexperience but is full of blue-chip prospects.
Offensively, Oregon’s line is stellar and Bo Nix represents an upgrade at quarterback. Nix may not have lived up to his recruiting hype at Auburn, but he still brings three years of starting experience in the SEC over to the Pac-12. Nobody denies his athleticism and play-making ability, and his familiarity with offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham is a plus. And let’s face it, Nix won’t face the same level of defensive talent in the Pac-12 that he did in the SEC. He could be in for a really strong season as long as the young receivers are ready to step into prominent roles.
From a schedule perspective, Oregon has to face Georgia in Week 1 but could be favored in every game from there. The Ducks avoid USC and get defending Pac-12 champion Utah at home on Nov. 19.
SEC: Arkansas (+8000)
With Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M all in the top five in national championship odds, you have to dig a little deeper to find a realistic dark horse in the SEC. Plenty of media members are high on teams like Kentucky and Tennessee. I think Arkansas has more all-around talent.
K.J. Jefferson is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country and I trust this coaching staff to best utilize its players. Sam Pittman is going to make sure this offensive line gels into one of the SEC’s best, and OC Kendal Briles is going to make sure the loss of Treylon Burks at receiver won’t be felt too severely (watch out for Malik Hornsby and Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood).
Barry Odom is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. He has transformed what was one of the worst defenses in the Power Five a few years ago into a continually improving unit. The biggest question mark for the defense is up front, particularly at nose tackle. The secondary is solid and the linebackers should be strong with the return of Bumper Pool and the addition of Alabama transfer Drew Sanders.
Another concern is the schedule. The Hogs host Cincinnati in Week 1, have a road trip to BYU in October and a stretch of more than a month without a home game. Alabama comes to Fayetteville on Oct. 1 and then the Hogs will face Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium a week later. The draw from the SEC East is favorable, with South Carolina and Missouri on the schedule.
Group of Five: Houston (+25000)
It took a while, but Dana Holgorsen finally got the Houston program rolling last year with a 12-2 record. UH dropped its opener to Texas Tech before winning 11 straight and losing to Cincinnati in the AAC title game. The Cougars then knocked off Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl.
This year, the Cougars could be even better and move past Cincinnati to the top spot in the AAC. The offense should be excellent, with Clayton Tune back at quarterback and a strong group of skill position players, led by receiver Nathaniel Dell. Last year’s defense was underrated nationally. The Cougars limited teams to just 20.4 points per game and had a really strong pass rush. There’s production to replace, but this is one of the stronger rosters in the AAC.
Cincinnati had the benefit of wins over Notre Dame and Indiana to bolster its CFP case last year. For UH, the non-con consists of UTSA, Texas Tech and Kansas. Both UTSA and TTU are road games, but those games may not move the needle.
Another Group of Five team that’s worth keeping an eye on is Fresno State (+50000). Jeff Tedford is back at head coach with Jake Haener as his quarterback. The Mountain West has the chance to be quite good this year and Fresno State could be the best of the bunch. Notably, Fresno will face both Oregon State and USC in September. After an upset over UCLA last year, would it be a big shock if Fresno won those games?