5 teams able to follow TCU’s surprise run to College Football Playoff
At this point last year, the very idea that TCU would go unbeaten until the Big 12 championship game and reach the College Football Playoff would’ve been laughed away as an offseason fever dream.
About nine months later, the Horned Frogs would beat Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl before getting swamped by Georgia for the national championship.
This goes to show: Almost anything can happen in any given year.
While the odds of another Power Five program surging from nowhere to the top of the Bowl Subdivision remains extremely low, there are a few teams capable of climbing out of relative obscurity to contend for the playoff.
To qualify for this list, teams must have won fewer than nine games last season or finished the season unranked in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.
One easy benefit to naming Quinn Ewers the starting quarterback coming out of the spring game is the ability to focus on building around the sophomore instead of dragging out his competition with true freshman Arch Manning. After improving in his second season — admittedly, Texas couldn’t get much worse — coach Steve Sarkisian hopes to deliver a breakout year behind a roster that doesn’t lack for talent but has holes to fill at running back and on each level of the defense.
Replacing likely first-round pick Bijan Robinson will be a group effort built around Jonathon Brooks, the Longhorns’ leading returning rusher. One player to watch in this competition is true freshman CJ Baxter, who was on campus for spring drills. The defense will need immediate help from true freshman linebacker Anthony Hill and Arkansas safety transfer Jalen Catalon. But if the pieces come together, Texas can win a final Big 12 crown and compete for a playoff berth before leaving for the SEC.
The program’s first losing finish since 1998 should yield a noticeable rebound in Brent Venables’ second season. But how high can the Sooners climb? Venables has flipped the roster with a top-five recruiting class and another dozen transfers, including huge pickups such as offensive tackle Walter Rouse (Stanford), hybrid linebacker Dasan McCullough (Indiana) and edge rusher Trace Ford (Oklahoma State). But Oklahoma needs to beef up an average pass rush, develop a go-to receiver for quarterback Dillon Gabriel and sort out a rotation at running back and in the secondary. If Venables has things pointed in the right direction, the Sooners will benefit from a schedule has just four games outside of Oklahoma, one the neutral-site rivalry in Dallas against Texas.
Despite all the question marks around Iowa’s offense — all very timely after an absolutely putrid season on that side of the ball — a bigger factor might be the state of an historically strong defense that loses potentially irreplaceable starters such as linebacker Jack Campbell, lineman Lukas Van Ness and cornerback Riley Moss. That several returning underclassmen keyed the shutout of Kentucky in the Music City Bowl partially eases these fears; even if not among the best in program history, the Hawkeyes’ defense should stick near the top of the Big Ten and FBS.
On offense, Iowa will land noticeably stronger quarterback play from Michigan transfer Cade McNamara, who led the Wolverines to a conference championship and playoff berth in 2021 before losing a competition for the starting job to J.J. McCarthy last September. Another Michigan transfer, tight end Erick All, earned all-conference honors in 2021 and will step in for former starter Sam La Porta.
This might feel two years overdue for UNC, which was a trendy playoff pick heading into 2021 after reaching the Orange Bowl in coach Mack Brown’s second year. The Tar Heels went 6-7 in 2021 but rebounded to win nine games and the ACC Coastal last season. This year’s team has one of the nation’s top players in sophomore quarterback Drake Maye, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, and added in key transfers to bolster depth and production at wide receiver and in the secondary. But there are some big changes on offense with former coordinator Phil Longo off to the same position at Mississippi, and the Heels have to rebound from four losses in a row to end last season.
The Aggies went from preseason contenders to the bottom of the SEC West in one of the biggest flops in recent FBS history. What’s changed? Maybe new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino will improve an offense that ranked 101st nationally in scoring but has a promising young quarterback in Conner Weigman. Several loaded recruiting classes might come together to form one of the most talented depth charts in the country. With some transfer help in the secondary, a more experienced defense could do a better job getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers after ranking near the bottom of the SEC in sacks and interceptions. As a member of the SEC, the Aggies could lose twice during the regular season and still make the playoff by reaching and winning the conference championship game.