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

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2021

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

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    When you look across the landscape of college football in 2021, there are several teams that stand on the brink of greatness.

    The sport needs programs to bust up the monotony of the same ol' teams at the top, and there is a group of squads that are just a piece away from making it to the College Football Playoff.

    Most are missing a player at a vital spot. If somebody could emerge and be a difference-maker, it would cause a ripple effect and take the teams from very good to great. Others must address a position group. For a couple of the representatives here, the one piece needed isn't tangible. 

    This list excludes teams that participated in last year's playoff because Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame should be considered favorites to get back there until somebody knocks them off.

    These are the best options that could.

    Whether the coaches of these teams can do what's necessary to take the leap forward remains to be seen, but fitting in this one puzzle piece would go a long way toward accomplishing that.        

Cincinnati Bearcats: Respect

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Head coach Luke Fickell has built a program fit for kings in the Queen City.

    But the College Football Playoff committee doesn't seem to be any closer to recognizing the American Athletic Conference. It didn't when UCF dominated opponents on the way to an undefeated in 2017, and it didn't reward the Bearcats for their undefeated regular season in 2020.

    Had Fickell's team been able to beat the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl, it might have earned the type of goodwill necessary to eventually get a nod. But UGA rallied for a 24-21 win.

    With a bunch of playmakers back on both sides of the ball, Fickell's program could be in the mix in '21. With a stacked out-of-conference schedule that includes Notre Dame and Indiana, the Bearcats could get more love if they navigate it.

    This team is built like a Power Five program, balanced and possessing a strong, fast defense. The biggest thing missing from Cincy's resume is the conference affiliation. Even if the Bearcats put together another undefeated regular season, there would still be detractors. Losing just one of those nonconference matchups would probably do the team in.

    The College Football Playoff seems to be set on Power Five programs, but if the Bearcats run the table, they could make things interesting again this year.         

Florida Gators: Electrifying Running Back

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    Credit: 247Sports

    This year's Florida Gators are going to look different than the offensively potent team from a year ago. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll take a step back.

    Just don't expect them to have as explosive of an air attack with quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and several other receiving weapons off to the NFL.

    With Emory Jones (likely) under center, Florida is going to look more like the read-option, run-first teams head coach Dan Mullen deployed during his time at Mississippi State and as the Gators' offensive coordinator in the early 2000s.

    Jones will have LSU transfer Arik Gilbert to throw to (if he's immediately eligible), but the major need will be a top-shelf running back who can help move the football now that the chunk plays won't be as bountiful.

    Florida has done well on the transfer market, landing Lorenzo Lingard from Miami in January 2020 and 5-star Clemson prospect Demarkcus Bowman in October. Both of those guys have elite potential and could be game-breakers. For Lingard, the name of the game is speed, and Bowman is a complete back. Don't forget leading rusher Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis and Nay'Quan Wright are returning too. 

    If one of that group emerges, watch out for the Gators in the SEC East.            

Georgia Bulldogs: Franchise Left Tackle

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Now that Georgia has found a quarterback in USC transfer JT Daniels, who transformed the offense and looked like he was finally going to live up to massive expectations out of high school, Bulldogs fans have high hopes their team will break the national title drought dating back to 1980.

    But the team's weakest link a year ago was the offensive line, and they are losing Trey Hill and Ben Cleveland, arguably the best two players in that unit. With the way head coach Kirby Smart has recruited, however, reinforcements are around.

    Returning starters Jamaree Salyer and Warren McClendon are strong players to anchor the group, but UGA needs a star. They may have found one in 5-star Amarius Mims, who is a 6'7", 315-pound prospect with a 7'1" wingspan, according to 247Sports.

    He is a top-10 player nationally who could solidify one of the two most important positions on the offense. If he can protect Daniels' blind side, learn the offense quickly and live up to his recruiting ranking right away, the Dawgs will be a title contender.        

Iowa State: Another Game-Breaking Wide Receiver

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    It's taken head coach Matt Campbell awhile to build the Iowa State program, but the work he's done is admirable. Though there were some disappointing moments in 2020, such as losses to Louisiana-Lafayette to open the season and a bummer of a setback to Oklahoma State, the Cyclones had a breakthrough year.

    Losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game caused the conference title hopes to fall short, but the Cyclones rallied with a 34-17 Fiesta Bowl drubbing of Oregon.

    Now, with a slew of stars back on both sides of the ball—like quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall—Iowa State could do big things. But Campbell needs to find receiver Xavier Hutchinson some help.

    Hutchinson wound up with 771 receiving yards last year but scored just four times. If Iowa State could find just one more explosive weapon who's capable of stretching the field, it would go a long way toward establishing balance.

    The top two options to do that are Tarique Milton and Daniel Jackson, who had an injury-shortened campaign. 

    Darren Wilson Jr. and Sean Shaw Jr. are two other options, though the latter is more of a possession receiver. If Purdy can find someone who is a threat to take it to the end zone every time he touches the ball, the Cyclones are in business.       

Oklahoma Sooners: Shutdown Cornerback

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Oklahoma lost twice during the 2020 regular season, which was news in itself considering head coach Lincoln Riley's team missed out on the playoff for the first time in three years. 

    But quarterback Spencer Rattler found his sea legs in his first season as the starter, and once Rhamondre Stevenson returned from suspension, the offense found balance and clicked. Though Stevenson is off to the NFL, the offense won't be a problem. The other side of the ball is where the questions lie.

    Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's unit was much-improved in 2020. It had speed, aggression and playmakers, a far cry from the unit that was embarrassed by LSU to end '19.

    The Sooners led the Big 12 with 37 sacks, and while that was huge, they could use a game-changer in the secondary.

    That player could be rising redshirt sophomore Woodi Washington, who improved throughout the year and was a dependable player at the end of the campaign. Tennessee transfer Keyshawn Lawrence will work his way into the rotation, and he has big-time ability.

    Jaden Davis, D.J. Graham and Joshua Eaton are all good-looking prospects too. JUCO transfer Justin Harrington should get on the field after suffering a torn ACL that cost him last season with the Sooners.

    Grinch will have a lot of possibilities, but many are unproven.              

Oregon Ducks: Justin Herbert's Heir

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There was a lot of hope surrounding Tyler Shough entering 2020, but Oregon's starting quarterback was just kind of average under center. It led to head coach Mario Cristobal cutting back on his playing time late in the abbreviated season and giving Boston College transfer Anthony Brown more action.

    Now, Shough has entered the transfer portal.

    Cristobal has to wonder if Brown is the future or was just a change-of-pace player who can give defenses different looks. The program needs a playmaker like Justin Herbert, who was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020.

    Enter Ty Thompson, who is the highest-rated signal-caller to ever commit to the Ducks. He is a 6'4", lanky player with a big, loose arm that can fling it around the field. He possesses excellent athleticism to tuck and run too. He's going to be a fun player for coordinator Joe Moorhead to develop.

    Then, Oregon has dual-threat Robby Ashford and pocket-passer Jay Butterfield, both of whom have been in the program for a year.   

    Cristobal has recruited at an elite level, and he has a deep, talent group of quarterbacks. With quality talent on both sides of the ball, finding a field general is the biggest missing piece to Oregon getting to the College Football Playoff for the first time since the 2015 edition.       

Texas A&M Aggies: Kellen Mond's Replacement

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    Credit: 247Sports

    There were plenty of people who felt like one-loss Texas A&M belonged in the College Football Playoff in 2020 instead of Notre Dame.

    The Fighting Irish's dismantling by Alabama and the Aggies' commanding victory over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl didn't do anything to quiet the talk either. 

    If head coach Jimbo Fisher is going to get the Aggies back in the conversation in '21, he's going to have to do it without playmaking quarterback Kellen Mond, who is off to the NFL. The way Fisher has recruited, he has a potent defense full of elite players and potential big-play guys at running back and receiver.

    They've just got to find a quarterback.

    It's possible, though, that the guys on deck will be better at moving the ball through the air than Mond. The best option appears to be Haynes King, though he didn't have a big sample size a year ago.

    King is a great athlete with a strong arm and can do a lot of things on offense. Zach Calzada and incoming freshman Eli Stowers will be in the mix too. Stowers, especially, is an intriguing quarterback with great athleticism.

    Fisher is known for his development of players at the position, so having a new signal-caller isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the coach can work out the perfect formula, the Aggies could be in the playoff.          

USC Trojans: Running Back to Add Balance

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Kedon Slovis is the player who makes offensive coordinator Graham Harrell's offense tick, and the USC Trojans are going to have plenty of receiving weapons, even with the losses of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns to the NFL.

    The biggest question mark is: Who is going to run the football with authority?

    With Todd Orlando coaching the defense, that side of the ball got a lot better in '20, and the Trojans added some dudes who can help the transition to a quality Pac-12 unit.

    But while the passing game is good enough to do big things, head coach Clay Helton has to find a playmaker at running back to balance things.

    Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr are not bad options, but neither is going to take over a game. Former Texas leading rusher Keaontay Ingram may be the guy after three productive seasons in Austin. He wasn't going to get playing time over Bijan Robinson, so he bolted to L.A.  Brandon Campbell is a midterm enrollee who could enter the mix too.

    But the biggest bet to take one to the house is Ingram, and he could provide something the Trojans have been desperately lacking.              

Wisconsin Badgers: A Killer Instinct

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Wisconsin enjoyed positive publicity after opening the year by trouncing Illinois and Michigan. But things crashed to the ground in a hurry.

    This team had so much promise, but with an inconsistent playing schedule amid the COVID-19 pandemic, first-year starting quarterback Graham Mertz regressed a bit after a strong start, and the Badgers never rebounded, going 4-3.                      

    They're better than that, and they could turn things around in '21.

    Last year, turnovers plagued Mertz significantly, especially in back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Indiana. Wisconsin's offense looked useless, and the Badgers scored just 13 points.

    They moved the ball well throughout the year between the 20s, but they failed from there. In the game against the Wildcats, they outgained Northwestern. But Mertz threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.

    Against the Hoosiers, the Badgers again outgained their opponent 342-217. But Mertz had two turnovers, and Wisconsin couldn't produce a touchdown in three red-zone trips.

    With a stout defense, a promising group of young receivers and a running back corps led by freshman Jalen Berger, there are a lot of reasons to like the Badgers' upside. But Mertz has to take care of the football and finish the deal. He needs to develop significantly between '20 and '21. If he does, big things await.    

North Carolina Tar Heels: Much-Improved Secondary

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    What Mack Brown has done in two years in his return to Chapel Hill has been remarkable.

    The North Carolina Tar Heels went from an ACC afterthought to making the Orange Bowl a season ago. Though they lost to Texas A&M, they were one of the most fun teams in the nation to watch with an explosive offense.

    Even with receivers Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown and running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams gone, quarterback Sam Howell will help ensure the offense can still generate points.

    The biggest question marks remain on the other side of the ball.

    The Heels secondary was awful a season ago, finishing ninth in passing defense and 10th in interceptions in the ACC. That has to change for UNC to be able to compete with Clemson, but 2020 5-star Tony Grimes, who had his hiccups yet showed major promise, could be a shutdown cornerback.

    There is a youth movement in the secondary, and the Heels could be much-improved at the position with guys like Storm Duck, Ja'Qurious Conley, Don Chapman, Kyler McMichael, Cam'Ron Kelly and incoming freshmen Dontae Balfour, Tymir Brown, Dontavius Nash and DeAndre Boykins.

    That's a whole lot of undeveloped talent that could blossom into a strong unit. 

                                                             

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.