Will the exclusive College Football Playoff club admit new members in 2022?
The CFP had two first-time participants in 2021 in Michigan and Cincinnati. In its eight seasons of existence, however, only 13 schools have made the four-team playoff. Only six schools — Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Clemson, Ohio State and Oregon — have played in the CFP championship game, and half of those schools are in the SEC.
So, a list of true national championship contenders heading into the 2022 season does not have to run that deep. That’s not to say there aren’t a few teams who can be this year’s version of Michigan and Cincinnati. We sorted out this list into three categories.
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A national title contender are the ones who will be playing in Los Angeles. A playoff contender could make the field, but we’re not sure they are ready to break through. Wild cards are teams we just don’t want to leave off the list in case they make that run.
The College Football Playoff semifinals will be on Dec. 31 this season. Those semifinals will be played at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. The College Football Playoff championship game is on Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium in Glendale, Calif.
A conference-by-conference look to find the national title-worthy teams, playoff contenders and wild cards that might just throw some chaos into the 2022 season:
National title: Clemson
Playoff contenders: NC State
wildcards: Wake Forest, Miami
why? Clemson lost three games last season, but a 10-win season is hardly the end of the program. The Tigers still ranked second in the FBS in scoring defense (14.8 points per game), and future first-round picks Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy and Trenton Simpson are back. We trust the offense will be back at an ACC-championship level, but there will be competition. NC State beat Clemson 27-21 last season, and the Wolfpack have been looking for that playoff breakthrough with Dave Doeren. Wake Forest has an elite offense, and Miami is a cycle or two away under new coach Mario Cristobal. We left defending ACC champion Pitt off the list. It’s going to be difficult to offset the loss of first-round pick Kenny Pickett at quarterback and Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison, who transferred to USC.
National title: Ohio State
Playoff contenders: Michigan, Michigan State
wildcards: Penn State
why? Why the disregard for the Big Ten West? The Big Ten West division winner is 0-8 in the Big Ten championship game, and they have lost the last four by an average of 21.3 points per game. That makes it tough to put Iowa, Wisconsin or Nebraska on this list. We’ll believe it when one of those teams wins the Big Ten championship game. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State take turns chasing the Buckeyes, and each school has one Big Ten championship in the CFP era. Ohio State still has a combined 20-3 record against those three schools since 2014, and this year’s Buckeyes’ team could have the best offense in the FBS with a cast that includes CJ Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson.
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National title: None
Playoff contenders: Oklahoma, Baylor
wildcards: Texas, Oklahoma State
why? Baylor is the defending conference champion, and the Bears finished No. 7 in the final CFP rankings last season. A Week 2 trip to BYU is a good early test to see if the Bears truly are a playoff-caliber team. Oklahoma will be back in the mix with new coach Brent Venables, but this is the same program that is 0-4 in CFP semifinals. Oklahoma State is coming off a 12-win season, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles left for Ohio State. Yes, we know Texas finished 5-7 last season, quarterback Quinn Ewers hasn’t even won the starting job yet and it could be crossed off this list after the Week 2 matchup with Alabama. The Longhorns still have enough returning offensive firepower to win the wide-open Big 12. Could they do it with one loss?
National title: None
Playoff contenders: Utah, USC
why? The Pac-12 hasn’t had a team advance to the CFP since 2016. Utah made the program’s first Rose Bowl run last season, but the Utes still had three losses in the regular season. The opener at Florida won’t be easy. USC probably should be considered more of a wild card given the Trojans went 4-8 last season. Lincoln Riley’s transfer portal magic brought in Caleb Williams, Travis Dye and one of the nation’s best receiving tandems in Addison and Mario Williams. Dan Lanning has talent to work with at Oregon, but even Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly lost three games in their first season with the Ducks. This could be a little bit of a honeymoon season for the Ducks, who could be fighting uphill after that opener against Georgia.
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National title: Alabama, Georgia
Playoff contenders: Texas A&M
wildcards: Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss
why? Alabama and Georgia will be the overwhelming picks to have yet another rematch in the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs are a combined 59-6 against the rest of the SEC since 2018. There is a good chance both teams end up in the CFP again. Texas A&M will start the season in the top five in most preseason polls, but it’s time for Jimbo Fisher to back it up. Arkansas and Ole Miss are SEC West sleepers, and both get Alabama at home this season. Tennessee is becoming the chic sleeper despite going 7-6 last year, and there are reasons to buy in. The Vols had a top-10 offense last season, and Hendon Hooker returns at quarterback. Just keep in mind Tennessee has not beaten Alabama, Florida and Georgia in the same season since 2004. That Vols team still lost three games.
Independents/Group of 5
National title: None
Playoff contenders: notre-dame
wild cards: None
why? Notre Dame has made the CFP twice, and they could get in as an independent with an 11-1 record this year. The Irish can prove it in the opener against Ohio State, and they should be 7-1 heading into a November that features a home game with Clemson and road date at USC. This is a tough first-year schedule for new coach Marcus Freeman. There will be no Group of 5 sleepers in the CFP this year. Cincinnati lost nine players to the NFL Draft, and Houston will be their chief competition in the AAC. It’s tough to see either team going undefeated. Remember, getting to the CFP is a two-year project for a Group of 5 school.
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the final count
When you total up the numbers, it adds up to 22 teams. That is 16.7% of the 131 schools in the FBS that will be in the mix for the College Football Playoff.
That’s just four true national championship contenders. Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and Ohio State have combined for seven of the eight CFP championships. It would be better for the sport if someone – like LSU in 2019 – broke through, but these are the four teams that have built the best rosters through elite recruiting.
Of the nine teams listed as playoff contenders, Notre Dame and Texas A&M would be the closest to that national championship contender label. The Irish have to go through two of those contenders in Ohio State and Clemson. Texas A&M faces Alabama in one of the most-anticipated games of the year on Aug. 8, which has been heightened after the offseason beef between Fisher and Nick Saban.
Oregon is the only team listed among our nine wild cards who has been to the CFP, and that was in 2014 with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Which one of those wild card teams has a legit Heisman contender? Keep an eye on Miami with quarterback Tyler Van Dyke. They play at Texas A&M on Sept. 17 and at Clemson on Nov. 19. If the Hurricanes can get a split in those two games, then Van Dyke could get that kind of attention and they will have a chance in the ACC.