10 College Football Teams That Are 1 Piece Away from Making the CFB Playoff

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2020

10 College Football Teams That Are 1 Piece Away from Making the CFB Playoff

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    Every season, there is a handful of teams that can make the College Football Playoff. Every squad that's not a favorite needs for major things to happen to get there.

    Some teams may be a single puzzle piece away from making it to college football's Promised Land, whether it be the performance of a player, a position group or improvement from a coach.

    In order to make a prediction like this, you have to weed out the four teams you think would be in next year's College Football Playoff. As of today, that would be Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia. So despite the imperfections on those teams, they are in as of now.

    So what do other squads need to build up to the level?

    The Pac-12 and ACC should continue to improve, but those Power Five conferences don't have many representatives here. There are some legit contenders, but the imperfections are noticeable.

    Even defending national champion LSU has a big enough question mark to keep it from being the favorite to defend the title, but an important answer could change all that in a hurry.

    Let's take a look at the Bayou Bengals and some impressive company who are one piece away from playing for next year's championship.

Florida Gators

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    Florida head coach Dan Mullen has squeezed the most out of the Gators roster in his first two seasons in Gainesville, and that should happen again in 2020.

    Several pieces of the puzzle need to come together for Florida to return to prominence and edge Georgia for the SEC East title. Win the conference, and anything can happen, right?

    Some may be concerned about UF's pass rush, but Florida is going to have plenty of weapons there, especially with the infusion of Georgia transfer Brenton Cox. The receiving corps could be a question mark, but pieces are in place, especially if Penn State transfer Justin Shorter is eligible.

    The biggest question mark remains at running back. Florida had the 13th-ranked rushing offense in the SEC a season ago, ahead of only Vanderbilt. It was 107th nationally out of 130 FBS teams. The Gators also lost leading rusher Lamical Perine.

    Florida is never going to be a championship contender without a drastically improved rushing attack.

    Between Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, Iverson Clement and Nay'Quan Wright, the Gators have options, but whether they're quality options remains to be seen. Pierce's upside is particularly strong, but he has never spent any time as the lead workhorse.

    The wild card is Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard, who arrives in Gainesville hoping to gain a waiver from the NCAA for instant eligibility. Lingard wasn't healthy as a freshman in 2018, and he redshirted a season ago. At 6'0", 200 pounds, he could become a game-changer for the Gators.

    Mullen is looking for somebody to be.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    This could be a big year for Notre Dame.

    With quarterback Ian Book returning, a bunch of young but talented running backs ready to break into the mix, a quality offensive line and an exciting defense that is the team strength, head coach Brian Kelly has a lot of elements for a championship-caliber team.

    The Irish are on the cusp of returning to the College Football Playoff after a one-year hiatus, but they must find some capable playmakers on the perimeter for Book to throw to. The quarterback isn't the best downfield passer, and the team needs guys who can help with yards after catch.

    Losing Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and tight end Cole Kmet is going to sting in a big way. The team's three leading receivers were the nucleus of the offense. 

    Yet junior wideouts Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Kevin Austin Jr. are ready for bigger roles, and incoming freshman Jordan Johnson could be a special prospect and make an instant impact.

    Tight end Michael Mayer is probably the most college-ready tight end coming out of high school, so he's an exciting playmaker who will have every opportunity to shine.

    Don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Tommy Rees finds a way to insert incoming freshman jitterbug athlete Chris Tyree into the passing game too, despite his coming in as a running back. He can make a difference with the ball in his hands.

    It's going to be an all-hands-on-deck scenario for the Irish as they try to cultivate a passing game and take advantage of Book's final season. How well they jell will determine how far they go.

LSU Tigers

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    It's only been a little over a month since LSU won a national championship, but get ready for another bazillion headlines regarding this question: Is Myles Brennan good enough to carry the Bayou Bengals to a title repeat?

    As if winning back-to-back national titles wasn't hard enough, head coach Ed Orgeron must do it without Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow, the core of 2019's talent, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

    Don't feel sorry for LSU. It still has plenty of talent to do a lot of damage—including cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr.—and maybe even get back to the College Football Playoff.

    But Brennan has to get the job done. In mop-up duty a year ago, he completed 24-of-40 passes for 353 yards, a touchdown and an interception. With just two freshmen expected to push him, you can bet this will be Brennan's job in 2020 barring a late transfer.

    If the Tigers enter the transfer portal, perhaps they could lure a guy like Indiana's Peyton Ramsey, Miami's Jarren Williams or Boston College's Anthony Brown. But this is Brennan's team for now, and it will be until further notice.

    Brennan has a ton of ability, and though he'll never be Burrow, he has enough talent around him that he doesn't have to be. If he takes a big step forward, LSU may not suffer too much of a drop-off.

Michigan Wolverines

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    Every year, we hear how Michigan has a bunch of fast playmakers on defense, but when the biggest games of the season arrive, there are lapses.

    Even if Michigan's defense is fast, it's not good at preparing for fast teams under head coach Jim Harbaugh's regime.

    Ohio State has shown way more speed than the Wolverines in each of the past couple of seasons, and even though Michigan seemed to upgrade that area last year, it had blunders, including Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler's wide-open 53-yard touchdown in the second half that killed an epic rally.

    The bottom line is if Michigan is going to compete for titles, it has to play faster on defense. Losing Lavert Hill, Josh Metellus and Josh Uche won't help, but the Wolverines still have a bunch of talent.

    Ambry Thomas eschewed the NFL and should be a strong returning cornerback. Safety Brad Hawkins performed well as a first-year starter in '19, and his absence in the Ohio State game was no doubt a big reason why the Buckeyes torched Michigan once again.

    There's no doubt the most exciting potential of any Michigan defender—outside of elite rising junior Cameron McGrone—belongs to Daxton Hill. If Hill can win a starting safety job, he'll immediately upgrade the defense's athleticism.

    Other unproven players who could help with more team speed are DJ Turner, Gemon Green, Michael Barrett and Anthony Solomon. 

    McGrone is on a one-way path to being one of the nation's best defenders, and the linebacker's sideline-to-sideline speed will continue to be an asset. Michigan needs other elite athletes like Hill to show out.    

Oklahoma Sooners

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    It's easy to look at Oklahoma's failure of a finale in which LSU handed out a 63-28 Peach Bowl beatdown and believe you just watched the "same ol' Sooners" who couldn't stop anybody.

    That wouldn't be fair, though.

    Oklahoma's defense wasn't going to be rebuilt in a day—or a season, for that matter. But defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was a good first step, as Kegan Reneau of Sooners Write wrote prior to the CFP semifinal spanking.

    The game against the eventual national champions showed just how far the Sooners have left to go.

    Unlike in years past, OU won't have a Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts in 2020 to bail it out of poor defensive showings. If the Sooners are going to get back to the playoff, they need to take another step forward defensively.

    Grinch's defense was good enough a year ago to get the Sooners to the semifinal. It has to get a little better this year to get them back, and it won't be easy after it lost playmakers like linebacker Kenneth Murray.

    Also, OU may have burned the benefit of the doubt in that LSU game—it was the second time the defense put up little resistance in recent playoff history (gave up 45 points to Alabama a year prior). The Sooners may need to go undefeated for a return.

    A recruiting class that included five defensive backs, four linemen and two linebackers should help, and JUCO nose guard Perrion Winfrey looks like an instant-impact difference-maker. Plucking defensive ends/outside linebackers coach Jamar Cain from Arizona State was a major offseason win too.

    Head coach Lincoln Riley is trying to do all he can do make strides on that side of the ball. Another step forward is the missing piece. 

Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    The definition of bedlam is "a scene or state of wild uproar and confusion," and it's unfortunately been that way for the Oklahoma State Cowboys defensively in recent years, just like the Sooners.

    Head coach Mike Gundy's Cowboys are going to be loaded on offense, and it's not a stretch to think they'll compete with rival Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas for the Big 12 title.

    Any time you've got guys like running back Chuba Hubbard, wide receiver Tylan Wallace and quarterback Spencer Sanders returning, there are plenty of reasons to think 2020 could be special, and putting up a ton of points will be the standard.

    But OSU must get a whole lot better on the other side of the ball, and that especially goes for the secondary. In 2019, Oklahoma State was eighth in the Big 12 and 102nd nationally in pass defense. It was a putrid showing despite the bevy of young talent.

    The Cowboys desperately need playmakers to stand up on the back end to help Kolby Harvell-Peel and Rodarius Williams. Graduate transfer and former Missouri cornerback Christian Holmes should help. The returns of Jarrick Bernard, Tre Sterling and Tanner McCalister will as well.

    Thomas Harper and incoming freshman Jabbar Muhammad—the cousin of former OSU corner A.J. Green—could also aid the unit.

    If the Cowboys are going to take one of the biggest leaps of any team on this list and make it to the College Football Playoff, the secondary has to at least cut that pass defense ranking in half.

Oregon Ducks

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    Much like the LSU Tigers, Oregon has quarterback uncertainty entering the 2020 season. 

    That doesn't mean the Ducks have poor options; as a matter of fact, they probably have a more capable stable of signal-callers than the defending national champions. But nobody has had the opportunity to prove himself yet because Justin Herbert was such a consistent force the past few years.

    Head coach Mario Cristobal has built a Pac-12 powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest, and the Ducks were a late-season Arizona State upset away from last year's College Football Playoff. They have the roster to take the next step in 2020 if they can find a capable signal-caller.

    With a stacked defense, another dynamic recruiting class coming in (ranked 12th nationally) and offensive playmakers like running back CJ Verdell, a lot of pieces are in place.

    The quarterbacks who will battle for the job should be last year's backup, Tyler Shough, and incoming midterm true freshman Jay Butterfield. Both are tall, lanky field generals (6'5", and 6'6", respectively) with big arms and a high upside. Another freshman, Robby Ashford, arrives this summer.

    Shough looked sharp in 2019 in limited action and garbage time. If he can seize the job, he will have three seasons of eligibility to lead the Ducks into an exciting era that could include championships.

    Butterfield was the nation's fifth-ranked pro-style passer in the '20 class, hailing from the quarterback-rich California. Plenty of signal-callers come out of that state ready to step into starring roles in college, and Butterfield will have his opportunity.

    Cristobal isn't the type to play favorites. With a lot of elements geared toward a championship, he has to find the best player to lead the offense. This spring, it will be fun to see who takes charge.

Penn State Nittany Lions

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    There may not be a college football program with a deeper, more versatile group of running backs than Penn State, which has to excite new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who has relied heavily on the ground game in the past.

    Rising junior Sean Clifford has a firm grip on the quarterback spot after a quality first year as a starter in which he tossed 23 touchdowns to seven interceptions. The Nittany Lions have a lot of bright spots defensively too.

    This almost certainly will be head coach James Franklin's most talented team since he's been in Happy Valley, and there are plenty of reasons for fans to be excited about playoff potential.

    But the Nittany Lions must find capable pass-catchers after KJ Hamler left for the NFL. While Ciarrocca relied on the run while coordinating Minnesota's offense, the electric pass-catching duo of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman put a ton of pressure on the defense.

    There's basically one experienced receiver returning at receiver for Penn State, and that would be Jahan Dotson, who has elite potential after a 488-yard campaign in 2019. Fellow juniors Daniel George and John Dunmore, along with incoming dynamic freshman KeAndre Lambert, are exciting options.

    All of those guys have the ability to make plays, and though Clifford was anything but exciting last year, he should be better in his second season as the starter, as long as he has players who can get separation from defenders.

    Penn State should rely on its terrific running backs to carry its offense, but there's no way the Lions can be one-dimensional and accomplish everything they hope to this year. The passing game must improve upon its No. 76 rank in 2019.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    The team that would have to make the second-largest leap to the College Football Playoff behind Oklahoma State would be the one the Cowboys lost to 24-21 in the Texas Bowl: Texas A&M.

    There's no sugarcoating the disappointment of head coach Jimbo Fisher's second season in College Station after such a promising first year. The Aggies found no offensive consistency and struggled at times on both sides of the ball while trying to navigate a grueling schedule.

    They wound up 8-5, and that's not going to cut it with the $75 million they're paying Fisher over 10 years.

    The Aggies have the pieces for a huge Year 3 jump, though. Quarterback Kellen Mond is entering his final season at the helm, so he should be a seasoned veteran. Exceptional recruiting classes—including top-six classes in 2019 and 2020—have outfitted the defense and passing game with exciting, young playmakers.

    But if A&M is going to compete with LSU, Alabama and Auburn in the SEC West, it must get drastically improved play along the offensive front.

    Much of its nucleus will return in 2020, including potentially elite guard Kenyon Green, but this unit paved the way for the nation's 68th-ranked rushing offense in 2019. It was also 106th in sacks allowed with 34 in 13 games.

    If Mond is going to realize his potential, he has to be able to quit running for his life. The Aggies must return to the type of success they had running the ball when Trayveon Williams—a 2019 sixth-round NFL draft pick—was taking handoffs too.

    You can't be a championship-caliber team with a poor offensive line, so A&M has to fix that in a hurry.

Wisconsin Badgers

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    Replacing Zack Baun and Chris Orr as linebacking terrors for one of the nation's top defenses is going to be a major point of emphasis for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2020, but they have several potential playmakers to do so.

    Losing the nation's top running back in Jonathan Taylor is going to hurt, but when have the Badgers struggled to run the ball?

    No, the biggest piece standing between Wisconsin and the College Football Playoff is the ability to be dynamic in the passing game.

    Rising senior Jack Coan is returning under center, but he isn't the guy who needs to be starting. When he drops back, he doesn't strike fear in secondaries' hearts. A season ago, he threw for 2,727 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions, but he hasn't shown the propensity to carry the offense on his back.

    Former elite blue-chip quarterback Graham Mertz has far more upside, can make all the throws and needs his chance to start right away after redshirting a season ago. An experienced and talented receiving corps could be a team strength in 2020.

    Quintez Cephus, Jake Ferguson, Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis and others return to anchor the unit, but they need a maestro to lead them. The passing game has to be a ton better without Taylor roaming the backfield.

    Mertz threw a record five touchdowns in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl before heading to Wisconsin in 2019. The Badgers don't have that type of potential under center often. If Mertz gets the opportunity to prove himself, Wisconsin may be a playoff team.

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