The 2023-24 college football season could be looked back on as a “farewell season”. From the 2024-25 season and onward, the College Football Playoff will be expanding its field of qualifying teams from four to twelve. Since its inception back in the 2014-15 season, the College Football Playoffs have featured fourteen different teams. Not surprisingly, the teams with the highest number of appearances includes the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Georgia.
If you want a good bet to place on which teams will make the playoffs, go check out each of the last few years of recruiting rankings. The top teams are typically ones that will have success, particularly in CFP appearances. There are exceptions to every rule (looking at you, Texas A&M), but in a sport that has been dominated by just a select handful of teams, how do we find the next “sleeper team”?
This past season, the TCU Horned Frogs were that team. According to Sports Reference, TCU’s preseason odds to win the title were a staggering +23000. Teams with better odds included Iowa State, Nebraska, and Arizona State, who had a combined win/loss record of 11-25. While the Horned Frogs came up short in the title game to the Georgia Bulldogs (58 points short, to be exact), the odds were truly stacked against TCU to make it as far as they did. So, how do we find the next TCU? College football is truly unpredictable, but here are my five best guesses at who some “sleeper” teams could be.
1. Head Coach
Not every coach is going to be as productive as Nick Saban or Kirby Smart, but that doesn’t mean only the best coaches make the final four. However, a good coach in college football can elevate or drown a program very quickly. Coaches like Ed Orgeron, Jimbo Fisher, and Mark Helfrich have each taken their teams to the playoffs. None of them are with those same teams today, but these coaches show that with the “right pieces”, a steady hand leading the way can take a team far.
I’m not the one that needs to tell you that the quarterback position is pretty important. Every college football program in America knows this. The TCU Horned Frogs had Max Duggan, the Oregon Ducks had Marcus Mariota, and the Florida State Seminoles had Jameis Winston. Each of which were Heisman Trophy winners or finalists in their respective years. For a team to make the CFP as a “sleeper team”, history says they’ll need some stellar play from their quarterback.
The 2018 UCF Golden Knights are a perfect example of why schedule matters. The 2021-22 Cincinnati Bearcats are (somewhat) the exception to this rule. The Bearcats are the only team in CFP history to make the final four as a non-Power Five conference team. Historically, losing one game in the regular season doesn’t necessarily kill a team’s chances to make the CFP.
The Bearcats needed to beat Notre Dame and go onto have a perfect record, having future NFL draftees such as Sauce Gardner, Desmond Ridder, and Coby Bryant. There’s a reason that the Bearcats are an exception. Essentially, you want to have a hard schedule, but not TOO hard of a schedule. Wins against Top 25 teams are often the difference between making the playoffs and not, so a potential CFP team would need some marquee wins.
This probably isn’t the first time you’ve seen the Nittany Lions on a list like this. Expectations for this program have been high, despite having a lack of playoff appearances. With the recent dominance of Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, it can be hard to imagine a third team breaking through. Here’s why I believe the Nittany Lions have the tools to do so.
James Franklin has seen a great amount of success as the head coach of the Nittany Lions. Franklin is the poster child for sustained success, posting an impressive 64-24 (72.7% win percentage) career record at Penn State. Only five other FBS coaches have a higher win percentage than Franklin.
With Sean Clifford graduating, the Nittany Lions turn to sophomore Drew Allar. Allar is the most prestigious quarterback recruit Penn State has had in the time that Franklin has been the coach. A five star prospect coming out of high school, he was the number four overall quarterback in the 2022 class (via 247Sports). If Allar can live up to his ranking, the Nittany Lions offense could be very dangerous.
Penn State has the blessing and the curse of being in the Big Ten conference. The curse being the fact that they have to play juggernauts Michigan and Ohio State every year. The blessing is wins in one or both of those games become a key piece in a potential CFP argument. The path to the playoffs is simple for the Nittany Lions. Win and you’re in.
4. Florida State Seminoles
The last time the Seminoles made the College Football Playoffs was when Jameis Winston was the quarterback, Dalvin Cook was the running back, and Jalen Ramsey was in the secondary. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a drought for FSU since their last CFP appearance. Can they make it back for the first time since the 2014-15 season?
How does a coach go from coaching at Central Arkansas to Florida State? That’s a question for Mike Norvel, current head coach of the Seminoles. Before his latest stop with FSU, Norvell led the 2019 Memphis Tigers to an 11-1 record, the best in school history. Norvell has been on the uptick lately, going from a 3-5 record his first year with the Seminoles to a 10-3 record this past season, with marquee wins against Florida and Oklahoma in the Cheez-It Bowl. If Norvell continues this ascension, it’s quite possible he could have FSU in the CFP.
The highest graded Power Five quarterback last season according to PFF may not be who you thought it was. It wasn’t 2023 NFL Draftees Bryce Young or CJ Stroud. It wasn’t highly-rated 2024 NFL prospects Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. Florida State’s very own Jordan Travis had the highest grade last season with a 91.7. Travis has been electrifying for sure, and if he continues on his ascension, he could be the engine to the Seminoles playoff berth.
Jordan Travis to Johnny Wilson will be absolutely electric next season🏹
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 3, 2023
The Seminoles open the season with a showdown against the LSU Tigers. Likely a Top 25 ranked team going into the season, the Tigers could be the kick-start the Seminoles need to strengthen their resume. A win over the Tigers could also provide a bit of a cushion, allowing for a possible slip up down the road to a team like Clemson or Pitt. FSU will likely have multiple Top 25 matchups on their schedule, which bodes very well for a chance at a playoff spot.
Like the aforementioned Seminoles, the Washington Huskies haven’t been to the CFP in quite some time. The Huskies one and only appearance in the playoffs came in 2016, This team was littered with NFL draft picks. such as Budda Baker, John Ross, Byron Murphy, as well as other players who would end up in the NFL. That team would go on to lose their first round matchup, but can they make it back?
Kalen DeBoer isn’t exactly a household name for CFB coaches, but don’t discount the success he’s had recently. DeBoer cut his teeth in the NAIA, winning multiple national championships and coach of the year honors. In 2020, he became the head coach of Fresno State, leading them to a 3-3 record that year, and a 9-3 record in 2021. In his first year as the head coach of the Huskies, he led them to a 11-2 record, with impressive wins over Oregon, Oregon State, and Texas in the Alamo Bowl. DeBoer has gotten off to a hot start, and if he can keep it up, the Huskies could be sitting pretty.
One of the biggest transfers of the past couple of years involved the signal caller for the 2023 Huskies. Michael Penix Jr. transferred from Indiana to Washington, where he put on a show. Penix threw for an impressive 4641 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns and only 8 interceptions, all of which were career bests. Penix has the potential to take the Huskies offense far.
Allow us to reintroduce… Michael Penix Jr. for Heisman.https://t.co/TOxnGuWXEu#Penix4Heisman #BeLikeMike pic.twitter.com/w7DKxbRMeB
— Washington Football (@UW_Football) March 31, 2023
Washington opens off the season playing Boise State and Tulsa, but then goes on to have some marquee matchups later in the season. Games against Oregon, USC, and Utah will give the Huskies multiple chances to get that key win to help their CFP argument. Oregon and USC will likely be fighting for their own CFP chances, so the Huskies will have to be ready to fight for their CFP ticket.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels
This is the one that may raise the most eyebrows. The Tar Heels haven’t been very close to making the CFP. Despite this, UNC finished at a very solid 9-5 last season, with an impressive win over 22nd ranked Pitt. Clemson has been the ACC’s one and only college football playoff participant since the tournament’s inception. Here’s why I believe that could change this year.
Needless to say, Tar Heel head coach Mack Brown has been around the block a few times. Brown started his coaching career at Florida State in 1973, exactly 50 years ago. Since then, he’s racked up quite the list of accomplishments, with a Coach of the Year award in 2008, two Big 12 conference titles, and a National Title with the University of Texas in 2005. That Texas team is considered one of the greatest college football teams ever, so Mack Brown knows what it takes to win at the highest level.
It’s safe to say that Mack Brown hasn’t had a quarterback with as much talent as Vince Young since that 2005 Texas team. Current Tar Heels QB Drake Maye is looking to change that. In 2022, Maye’s sophomore campaign, he threw for 4,321 passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns to only seven interceptions. Maye is considered to be the main challenger to Heisman Trophy Winner Caleb Williams for the title of QB1. He surely has the talent, but if his personal success leads to team success, the Tar Heels signal caller could have his team in the hunt for a playoff spot.
The Tar Heels out of conference schedule won’t blow anyone away, with teams like Campbell and App State on the list. However, their inner conference schedule should provide some good matchups. UNC plays Pitt, Clemson, and NC State, all of which could very well be ranked matchups. The Tar Heels don’t necessarily have to be perfect, but running the table would sure help their playoff bid.
It’s safe to say that expectations have not been met for the Aggies as of late. Coming off a historically high recruiting class (First in the nation according to 247Sports), the sky was the limit for the 2022 Texas A&M team. The Aggies finished the 2022 campaign a devastating 5-7, tied with Vanderbilt for the worst record in the SEC. Here’s why I believe the Aggies can turn things around in the 2023 season.
Jimbo Fisher is no stranger to college football. Fisher started his coaching career in 1988 with Samford, before landing his first head coaching gig in 2010 with the Florida State Seminoles. Fisher led his star studded FSU team to a national title in 2013, the year before the inception of the CFP. Fisher was hired as the Aggies head coach in 2018, and while last season was a disappointment, he still boasts a 39-21 record with A&M. Fisher has had success, no doubt. He’s dealt with a high level of talent before, so there’s reason to believe he can do it again.
The Aggies are in a transition period of signal callers, with newcomer Conner Weigman being the favorite to start week one. A five star prospect, Weigman was the second ranked high school quarterback in the 2022 class (via 247Sports Composite). Weigman is inexperienced for sure, but inexperience hasn’t stopped other highly-touted quarterbacks from making the playoffs in the past. If the talent can translate from high school to the college game, look out for Weigman and the 2023 A&M offense.
For most teams in a Power Five conference, it’s a win, and you’re in mindset. The Aggies are no different, but they do have their own tough matchups. Games against Tennessee, LSU, and the almighty Alabama will put the Aggies to the test. This is all before a potential showdown with Georgia in the conference title game, should they make it so far. If the Aggies somehow win out, they’d likely be the number one seed in all of college football. They could even survive one loss against one of the aforementioned teams, but likely not more. The table is set this season for Texas A&M, and if they impress, don’t be shocked if they’re vying for their first CFP appearance.