- After falling short of the College Football Playoff in 2016, USC, Penn State, Florida State and Oklahoma State could all make college football's "Final Four" in 2017.
The four teams (South Carolina, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon) set to square off in Phoenix this weekend aren’t necessarily the top squads in college basketball. They reached the NCAA tournament's Final Four by navigating four rounds of a single-elimination gauntlet notorious for breeding great underdog stories and fomenting absolute chaos. By contrast, college football's "Final Four," the quartet of outfits chosen for the College Football Playoff, make the sport's national semifinals because they are, in the selection committee’s parlance, the best.
The next iteration of the playoff is a long way off; we’re still months away from the start of the regular season. But the four-team hoops arrangement soaking up national attention this week may have caused you to start thinking about football’s semifinals. With that in mind, here are four squads that failed to qualify for the CFP in the 2016 season but could make it in 2017.
2016 record: 10–3 (7–2 Pac-12)
Final CFP rank: 9
The Trojans were playing playoff-caliber football by the end of last season. After falling by four points in a tough game at Utah in quarterback Sam Darnold’s first start on Sept. 23, USC ripped off nine consecutive wins to close its campaign, including a three-point decision over Penn State in a gripping Rose Bowl.
Darnold’s return gives the Trojans an offensive centerpiece around which to build, and he’ll have a group of talented playmakers fanned out from sideline to sideline. USC shouldn’t have any trouble filling the production void left by tailback Justin Davis, considering junior Ronald Jones II is primed to rival Oregon’s Royce Freeman III for the title of the Pac-12’s top rusher (to say nothing of incoming five-star RB prospect Stephen Carr). The departure of leading wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers robs Darnold of two big-play threats, but the Trojans have promising reserves at their position ready for more, plus explosive pass-catching tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. While USC will have to reckon with life without offensive tackle tandem Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, defensive lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, safety Leon McQuay II and all-purpose ace Adoree’ Jackson, the Trojans’ abundance of talent returning throughout their depth chart overrides any concerns over those losses. The USC hype will crest as the calendar moves closer to the Trojans' Sept. 2 opener against Western Michigan, but that shouldn’t prompt you to jump off the bandwagon. The Trojans are going to be really good.
2016 record: 9–3 (5–3 ACC)
Final CFP rank: 11
The first weekend of the season should indicate whether the Seminoles were a smart choice here. Florida State will meet one of the four teams ineligible for this list, national runner-up Alabama, in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in the Mercedes-Benz Dome in Atlanta on Sept. 2. If quarterback Deondre Francois, running backs Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers and the rest of the Seminoles’ offense bulldozes the Crimson Tide defense, Florida State should pile up points with minimal fuss against most of the teams it faces in the ACC. And if safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden, defensive end Josh Sweat and the rest of Florida State’s defense shuts down the Alabama offense, it should stifle the majority of the attacks it meets in conference play. Don’t bet on either scenario. This should be a close, hard-fought battle between two juggernauts that’ll likely turn on a few late plays and could serve as a preview of a College Football Playoff semifinal or championship bout.
Getting past Alabama is the most daunting task the Seminoles will need to execute during the regular season, but it should be relatively smooth sailing after that until November, when they’ll travel to Death Valley for the annual de-facto Atlantic Division title tilt against Clemson. Florida State could well run the table, though that looked like a distinct possibility at this point last off-season, and then the Seminoles ran into Lamar Jackson. Don’t expect them to suffer another 43-point loss in 2017. Even a double-digit defeat would register as a surprise.
2016 record: 11–3 (8–1 Big Ten)
Final CFP rank: 5
The Nittany Lions arguably should have made the playoff last season. Not only did they go unbeaten from late September until losing to USC in the Rose Bowl, finishing with 11 wins, two of the selection committee’s points of emphasis (head-to-head results and conference championships won) pointed to Penn State as a more qualified candidate than Ohio State. Both teams should be in the hunt for a CFP bid again in 2017, but look for Penn State to get in at the Buckeyes’ expense. That sound you hear is Ohio State fans howling about how the Nittany Lions have to travel to Columbus for a game on Oct. 28. True, winning in the Horseshoe has been close to impossible since head coach Urban Meyer took over prior to the 2012 season, but Penn State could hear its name called on Selection Sunday even if it drops a close one to the Buckeyes.
The Nittany Lions host the Big Ten East’s other serious contender, Michigan, the previous week, and their toughest non-conference opponent, Pittsburgh, also comes to State College. Scheduling concerns aside, few teams across the country will be capable of trading blows with a Penn State offense that ranked eighth nationally in Football Outsiders’ S&P + metric last season and returns 79% of its production, according to SB Nation. Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley and conference championship game MVP Trace McSorley were nigh unstoppable as a backfield tandem toward the end of last season, and the duo could be even more effective in its second year fronting offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo system.
2016 record: 10–3 (7–2 Big 12)
Final CFP rank: 12
The Cowboys may seem like the odd man out in a group that includes a team that fell one spot short of the CFP cut a year ago (Penn State), a glamour program in a major media market with a rising star at quarterback (USC) and a recent national champion overflowing with future pros (Florida State). Yet it’s not hard to mount a case that Oklahoma State will make its first playoff appearance in 2017. It starts with quarterback Mason Rudolph, who rebuffed a shot at the NFL for another season of lighting up opposing defenses. His most electric pass-catching target, James Washington, joined him in spurning a jump to the professional ranks. That pair will be surrounded by an array of skilled perimeter weapons like running back Justice Hill and wideouts Chris Lacey, Jalen McCleskey and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. It’s unlikely any Big 12 offense will be able to keep pace with the Cowboys.
The round-robin conference schedule also looks manageable for Oklahoma State this year, with Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma (the Big 12’s other top CFP candidate) all visiting T. Boone Pickens Stadium. If a defense that, per SB Nation, loses almost half of its production, including first-team all-league honorees Vincent Taylor and Jordan Sterns, can get enough stops to put the Cowboys over the top in shootouts, it may not be long before reporters are asking one of the head coaches at the pre-playoff media day about his mullet.