Last fall, Tennessee beat No. 3 Alabama, earned the No. 1 ranking for a fleeting moment, lost a close game to eventual national champion Georgia and came within a whisper of making the College Football Playoff for the first time.
Had it not been for the Nov. 19 loss at unranked South Carolina — an ugly 63-38 drubbing while playing without SEC Offensive Player of the Year Hendon Hooker — the Vols would have had a chance to make some history.
In 2023, they have that chance again.
Tennessee, USC and Penn State are strong candidates to become first-time playoff participants. They would extend a streak of first-time CFP schools, following Cincinnati and Michigan in 2021 and TCU in 2022.
While expectations are soaring at those programs, history isn’t on the side of newcomers. During the playoff’s nine seasons, only 14 programs have participated in a possible 36 semifinal slots. Seven have reached the playoff only once, while the other seven — Alabama (7), Clemson (6), Ohio State (5), Oklahoma (4), Georgia (3), Notre Dame (2) and Michigan (2) — have each had multiple semifinal appearances.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said he doesn’t talk to the team specifically about the CFP — just surviving an SEC schedule that includes both Alabama and Georgia is difficult enough.
“The outside noise and expectations are greater,” Heupel said. “That’s great for our fan base. At the end of the day, our work habits are gonna dictate what we can accomplish next fall. The thing that I’ve loved this offseason so far is that our sense of accountability to ourselves and to this program has been heightened. We have tangible evidence of that. It’s a group that’s been extremely mature, and for those reasons, we do have great expectations next year.”
While the Vols are looking for their first top-four finish, three other programs can prove they aren’t one-hit wonders and return to a semifinal for the second time. Florida State hasn’t been to the CFP since its inaugural season in 2014. LSU won the SEC West last year but hasn’t finished in the top four since winning the national title in 2019.
And yes, Washington was in the playoff. Remember? 2016?
Below, we take a look at reasons for optimism and concern as preparations begin this spring for three teams trying to make the playoff for the first time — and three trying to make a comeback.
Teams that can make the CFP for the first time
Mario Williams makes impressive 43-yard reception
Mario Williams makes impressive 43-yard reception
2022 record: 11-3, 8-1 Pac-12
Total appearances in CFP rankings: 32
Highest CFP ranking: No. 4 on Nov. 29, 2022
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 8 in 2017
Biggest reason for optimism: Even with its abysmal defense last year, USC impressed the selection committee enough for a No. 4 ranking heading into the Pac-12 Conference championship game. The Trojans can compensate again with another dazzling offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, who helped USC rank No. 3 in the nation with 506.6 yards per game. The offense should again have the Trojans in the playoff mix in coach Lincoln Riley’s second season, as 10 players who caught a pass last season return. Williams will have dependable receivers to work with in Mario Williams, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice. The Trojans also snagged some talent from the transfer portal (again), including Dorian Singer, who led the Pac-12 with 1,105 receiving yards at Arizona last season.
Biggest hurdle: Defense, or lack thereof. Yes, teams can finish in the top four without great defense — but they can’t seem to advance to the national championship without one. Riley’s Oklahoma teams were evidence (0-4 in CFP semifinals). While the selection committee is certainly aware and leery of poor defenses, it has shown a willingness to overlook it if the offense is phenomenal and the team is consistently beating quality ranked competition despite it. That weakness gets exposed at some point by opponents along the way, though. If USC is going to match up with the likes of Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and, apparently, Utah (twice), it’s going to need to show marked defensive improvement, starting with fundamental tackling skills.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have an extremely high level of defense very soon,” Riley said.
Nicholas Singleton makes 87-yard house call for Penn State
Penn State takes the lead as Nicholas Singleton takes the handoff 87 yards for a touchdown.
2022 record: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten
Total appearances in CFP rankings: 30
Highest CFP ranking: No. 4 on Nov. 5, 2019
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 5 in 2016
Biggest reason for optimism: Young offensive talent returning from a Rose Bowl win. Penn State fans have been clamoring to see sophomore quarterback Drew Allar take over full time, as he was the No. 2 pocket passer in the 2022 class. The Nittany Lions also return sophomore running backs Nicholas Singleton (1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Kaytron Allen (867 yards and 10 touchdowns). Helping pave the way for all of them is offensive tackle Olu Fashanu, who decided to return instead of entering the NFL draft. A strong running game will help ease Allar’s transition into the spotlight.
Biggest hurdle: The East Division. Every year since 2013, Penn State has faced Ohio State and Michigan in the same season and has never gone 2-0 against them during that span. The Nittany Lions have defeated Michigan four times since then and Ohio State just once (2016). If PSU is going to impress the selection committee, it has to win at least one of those games to either finish as a one-loss Big Ten runner-up or conference champion. Two of Penn State’s three toughest division games are on the road — Oct. 21 at Ohio State and Nov. 4 at Maryland — before it hosts Michigan on Nov. 11.
2022 record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Total appearances in CFP rankings: 12
Highest CFP ranking: No. 1 on Nov. 1 2022
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 6 in 2022
Biggest reason for optimism: Offensive identity. It’s Heupel’s high-flying offense and that isn’t changing, even if the personnel has. No question the Vols lose some big-time names (offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, quarterback Hooker and receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt), but there is plenty of talent lurking in the shadows. Tennessee is expecting Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton to emerge as a reliable playmaker, and the staff is confident in quarterback Joe Milton III. The Vols’ offense should again be one of the nation’s fastest, most productive and entertaining.
“We’re going to play with tempo,” said Joey Halzle, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. “We’re going to go vertical on people. We’re going to dictate the pace of play. We’re going to dictate what the defense can and can’t do, when they can sub and when they can’t. The aggression of which we attack, we try and score from all over the field. One of our biggest sayings is it’s really hard to score when you aren’t trying. So we try to score the ball. Whenever we get it, we anticipate crossing the goal line with it. That is who we are. We are going to attack, that isn’t changing.”
Biggest hurdle: Defensive growth. Tennessee’s defense showed improvement as the season progressed, but in order to beat Georgia and avoid an upset like South Carolina, it has to be better. The Vols had zero defensive touchdowns and ranked No. 117 in the country last season with 155 total missed tackles. Heupel said he specifically wants to see the defense get better in third-and-long situations and get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Tennessee last season ranked No. 127 in opponent passing yards per game (289.5) and No. 96 in opponents’ average time before a pass (2.8 seconds).
Three teams that can make a comeback
Jordan Travis’ sensational tackle-breaking run sets up Seminoles TD
Jordan Travis does a fantastic job to evade the heavy pressure in the red zone and tops it off with a Seminoles touchdown on the following play.
2022 record: 10-3, 5-3 ACC
Last CFP semifinal appearance: 2014
Total appearances in CFP rankings: 24
Highest CFP ranking: No. 2 (twice) on Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, 2014
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 3 in 2014
Biggest reason for optimism: Heisman hopeful quarterback Jordan Travis. The selection committee typically loves Heisman talent, and Travis was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country last season, accounting for 32 total touchdowns. He ranked No. 5 with 9.1 yards per pass attempt, No. 25 with 3,214 passing yards and No. 13 in completions of at least 20 yards. He also had 22 runs of at least 10 yards, and FSU’s entire rushing game should remain a strength, as long as the offensive line continues to show improvement.
Biggest hurdle: Consistency. There’s no shame in a 10-win season, but if FSU is going to garner any serious recognition from the selection committee, the Seminoles have to include more wins against ranked opponents on their résumé. For three straight weeks last season, FSU lost to ranked Atlantic Division opponents Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson.
“In each one of those games we had an opportunity to come out with a victory, but we weren’t consistent enough,” coach Mike Norvell said. “This is a team that is built on both sides of the ball and can have production and play at a very high level — we just need to do that consistently.”
In retrospect, the 24-23 win against eventual SEC West champ LSU was impressive, but it was rendered moot in the committee meeting room by the Noles’ inability to rise to the top of their own division. Wins against Florida and Oklahoma were important to FSU’s program, but they weren’t the formidable ranked opponents of the past. FSU again has a schedule that would impress the committee, but the Noles can’t beat LSU, Clemson and Florida and drop games to Wake Forest and the Pitt Panthers.
Michael Penix Jr. finds Jalen McMillan for 75-yard Washington TD
Washington QB Michael Penix Jr. connects with Jalen McMillan for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half.
2022 record: 11-2, 7-2 Pac-12
Last CFP semifinal appearance: 2016
Total appearances in playoff rankings: 23
Highest CFP ranking: No. 4 (three times) on Nov. 8, Nov. 29 and Dec. 4, 2016
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 4 in 2016
Biggest reason for optimism: Continuity. Offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb’s decision to stick with the Huskies despite an opportunity to take the same position at Alabama spoke volumes about the belief the program is heading in the right direction, but the same can be said for quarterback Michael Penix Jr. deciding to return for his final season.
“That was kind of the thing that kick-started everything moving forward and the momentum that we continue to carry on,” coach Kalen DeBoer said.
Grubb called plays for an offense that ranked No. 7 nationally in scoring and No. 10 in yards per play, drastic improvements from 2021.
Biggest hurdle: A more challenging schedule. Unlike last season, Washington faces USC and Utah — and in back-to-back weeks. The selection committee won’t like an 0-2 record against the teams that last played for the Pac-12 title. On the flip side, it’s an opportunity for Washington to assert itself as the league’s top CFP contender. The nonconference schedule is also more difficult, with Boise State, Tulsa and a road trip to Michigan State. The Huskies aren’t surprising anyone anymore. Last year’s 11-2 finish caught the nation’s attention, and now opponents have seen what DeBoer’s offense can do. While there’s plenty of talent returning, this year’s roster will be tested more.
2022 record: 10-4, 6-2 SEC
Last CFP semifinal appearance: 2019
Total appearances in CFP rankings: 39
Highest CFP ranking: No. 1 (three times) on Nov. 12, Nov. 19 and Dec. 8 2019
Highest playoff ranking finish: No. 1 in 2019
Biggest reason for optimism: Ten offensive starters who beat Alabama and won the SEC West under Brian Kelly return. Quarterback Jayden Daniels is back, along with all five starting offensive linemen, and LSU’s offense averaged 32.86 points per game last fall. In just one season, Kelly brought LSU back into the SEC championship game while he laid the foundation for bigger goals.
“I came down here knowing the expectations were to get this program back to playing for championships,” said Kelly, who is entering his second season at LSU. “That was the allure of coming here, playing in the SEC West, playing, in my eyes, against the very best competition in the country. I don’t think anything there has changed.”
Biggest hurdle: Winning on the road. LSU opens its season in Orlando against Florida State, which also has CFP aspirations (see above). The Tigers travel to Mississippi State on Sept. 16, Ole Miss on Sept. 30, and are at Alabama on Nov. 4. While they don’t have to face Tennessee this year, the Tigers travel to Missouri on Oct. 7 in their crossover game. If LSU is going to impress the selection committee and win the West again, it’s going to have to do it on the road.