How each Top 25 team makes the College Football Playoff next season

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Thursday, February 16, 2023

Spring practice is only a few weeks away for most college football teams, so what better time than now to spring hope for teams across the country.

Using Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25, we look at 25 possible paths to the 2024 College Football Playoff. For teams like Georgia and Ohio State, the road is simple, while for others it requires a little more creativity.

Regardless, each team from No. 1 to No. 25 has the same goal right now, and this is how they could make a run to the sport's biggest stage.

1. Georgia Bulldogs

If Georgia is going to get back to the CFP and have a chance to win three straight national titles, it will have to find a quality replacement for quarterback Stetson Bennett. A former walk-on, Bennett had a storybook career and was the engine behind Georgia's transformation on offense. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken left for the Baltimore Ravens, and former OC Mike Bobo, an analyst last season, was promoted to replace him. Carson Beck, who attempted 58 passes in the past two seasons combined, probably has the edge heading into spring practice. Beck led two late scoring drives in Georgia's 65-7 rout of TCU in the CFP National Championship in January. He has a stronger arm than Bennett but isn't quite as mobile. Brock Vandagriff, who is probably more dynamic than Beck, and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton will also be in the mix. -- Mark Schlabach

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

The defense must start to become a big-game asset again, not a liability, after struggling to contain Michigan and Georgia in its past two games. Coordinator Jim Knowles is entering his second year, and his true value as a playcaller and a tactician should be more on display this fall. Ohio State's offense will always be potent with Ryan Day (and now Brian Hartline) at the controls, even though a quarterback change after C.J. Stroud's exit could create some initial turbulence. But the Buckeyes won't get past Michigan on the road -- or perhaps Penn State and Notre Dame -- if they don't start limiting big plays and making more of their own. There's enough experience in all three levels of the defense -- J.T. Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams and Jack Sawyer up front;Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers in the middle; and Denzel Burke and Lathan Ransom in the secondary -- to avoid the breakdowns that showed up against Michigan and Georgia. Transfers such as Ja'Had Carter should help with overall depth. -- Adam Rittenberg

3. Michigan Wolverines

The Wolverines have made back-to-back CFP appearances, but they will truly be viewed as the team to beat in the Big Ten for the first time in recent years. Michigan won't sneak up on anyone and must continue to augment its clear strengths at running back and both lines of scrimmage. The Wolverines return arguably the nation's top running back tandem in Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, but quarterback J.J. McCarthy likely must upgrade his game for Michigan to extend its CFP streak. McCarthy operated a mostly safe passing game last season until Corum's injury, when he showcased his big-play skills but also threw three of his five interceptions, including two pick-sixes in the CFP semifinal loss to TCU. He needs to improve his overall accuracy against opponents loading up to stop the run. Michigan also will need a talented group of incoming transfers to contribute, especially linebacker Ernest Hausmann and offensive linemen LaDarius Henderson and Myles Hinton. -- Rittenberg

4. Florida State Seminoles

The pieces are in place for the Seminoles to make their first playoff run since 2014. As ESPN's Bill Connelly noted, Florida State returns 87% of its production off a 10-win team, hence the Seminoles are sitting here at No. 4. But to be able to get there, Florida State needs three things to happen. (1)Jordan Travis must stay healthy. His development from Wildcat quarterback to savvy passer has happened with a lot of hard work and perseverance, and this is the season for him to put everything together. The Seminoles do not have much experience behind him, and he is the key to making everything work as well as it needs to. (2) The receivers need to play more consistently. Florida State had far too many drops a year ago, so getting that squared away will be huge. (3) The run defense must be better. The last two games of the season are perfect examples, as Florida and Oklahoma each ran for over 250 yards. -- Andrea Adelson

5. Alabama Crimson Tide

It's not just the search to replace Bryce Young at quarterback that will determine whether Alabama returns to the playoff. Remember, the Crimson Tide had Young and his 36 touchdowns and they didn't make it last season. So whether it's Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson or one of the freshmen, Dylan Lonergan or Eli Holstein, at quarterback, let's set that aside for the time being and talk about the offense overall, which needs to improve at all levels after a disappointing 2022. Up front, the line has to improve dramatically, cutting down on pressures and creating bigger running lanes, while the running game needs to be more consistent, especially when it comes to running with power between the tackles and in short-yardage situations. The good news is that Alabama signed the No. 1-rated offensive tackle, Kadyn Proctor, and the Nos. 1- and 2-rated running backs in Richard Young and Justice Haynes, respectively. Outside at receiver, the drops have to stop and a deep-ball threat must emerge to keep safeties honest. If that happens, the defense is good enough to hold its own. -- Alex Scarborough

6. Penn State Nittany Lions

The path to Penn State's first CFP appearance starts with examining what went wrong in the team's two losses in 2022. Penn State caved at the line of scrimmage against Michigan, surrendering 418 rushing yards in a game that stuck out as an outlier for a solid defense under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz. The Nittany Lions played much better two weeks later against Ohio State but were doomed by an awful fourth quarter filled with mistakes on both sides of the ball. Penn State ultimately needs to get stronger at the line of scrimmage, building on progress with its offensive line and solidifying the defensive front against power-driven teams like Michigan. The team must claim the big-play edge against the Big Ten's top competitors, which means new starting quarterback Drew Allar cannot endure too many growing pains. Allar, ESPN's No. 51 overall recruit in 2022 and Penn State's most decorated quarterback prospect since Christian Hackenberg in 2013, has the talent to make an immediate impact. Penn State returns top offensive lineman Olu Fashanu and gifted running backs Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton. So the pieces are in place for a CFP run, if PSU's line play and quarterback performance take the next step forward. -- Rittenberg

7. USC Trojans

The answer for USC is both simple and incredibly complicated: defense. The offense is one of the most known quantities in college football with Caleb Williams back under center after a Heisman season. The defense, however, is what plagued the Trojans from Game 1 to their final matchup -- a high-scoring loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has his work cut out for him for a second year in a row, and though he has been nothing but forthright in how much the defense -- which ranked 112th in passing defense last season -- needs to improve, the results need to be there from the get-go. What's unique about the Trojans' situation is that given their offensive firepower, to be a playoff team, the defense doesn't need to be elite. It just needs to be enough. -- Paolo Uggetti

8. LSU Tigers

The path to the playoff is wide open with Alabama in a state of flux and Auburn breaking in a new coaching staff. The thing that worries you about LSU isn't the level of talent. There are plenty of good players on both sides of the ball. Outside linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. has the look of an All-American in the making and standout defensive tackle Maason Smith is back after a season-ending injury. And on offense, you get Jayden Daniels back at quarterback, a more established Malik Nabers at receiver and an offensive line that is no longer breaking in multiple true freshman starters. The thing that worries you about LSU isn't the roster, it's consistency. On defense, that means creating pressure on the quarterback every week. On offense, that means generating a more reliable passing game. Do that and the schedule sets up nicely for a return trip to the SEC championship game.-- Scarborough

9.Oregon Ducks

Put the opening blowout loss to Georgia aside, and both Ducks losses last season came after they held leads heading into the fourth quarter. Whether that was a product of a new coach, a new quarterback or just poor execution, Oregon needs to do a better job finishing in Year 2 of the Dan Lanning era. A big part of that comes down to offensive execution, which seemed to stall late in those two losses. Although Bo Nix will have a new offensive coordinator in Will Stein, another year of familiarity in Eugene should pay dividends as the Ducks try to make the CFP. And if there's anything Oregon -- as well as the whole Pac-12 -- has learned throughout the CFP years, it's that the margin for error when it comes to making the playoff field is slim. --Uggetti

10. Tennessee Volunteers

As much as it hurts to lose Hendon Hooker at quarterback, Joe Milton III provided a lot of hope with the way he played in the Orange Bowl win over Clemson. Few, if any, players in college football possess his arm strength, and if he can play with the same efficiency as Hooker (which is asking a lot), Josh Heupel has proved the Vols can score points in bunches. Clearly, Tennessee's pass defense has to improve after finishing 127th nationally last season. It cost the Vols a chance at the playoff a year ago after giving up 453 passing yards and six touchdown passes during a 63-38 loss to South Carolina in the next-to-last game of the regular season. The schedule also gets a bit tougher in 2023 with SEC trips to both Florida and Alabama, although two-time defending national champion Georgia has to come to Knoxville in late November. -- Chris Low

11. Washington Huskies

Much like with USC, the answer is defense. The Huskies ranked 100th in passing defense last season, and though they were able to overcome inconsistent play on that side of the ball with elite offense in 11 of their 13 games led by Michael Penix Jr., when the offense slowed down even just a little bit, the two losses (back-to-back, no less) happened. In both losses to UCLA and Arizona State (woof), the Huskies gave up 40 and 45 points while losing by only a score. Kalen DeBoer's debut season in Seattle was as impressive as anything that happened in college football last year, but a big leap needs to be made on defense for Washington to truly become one of the top teams in the conference and the nation. -- Uggetti

12. TCU Horned Frogs

The Horned Frogs can say they know how to get there, having just crashed the CFP and the national championship game. But, as they saw in the blowout loss to Georgia, there's a big difference between being the lovable overachiever and a national champion. That doesn't take anything away from a magical season, but TCU lost so much offensive production with the departures of Max Duggan, Kendre Miller, Quentin Johnston and center Steve Avila, not to mention coordinator Garrett Riley. Sonny Dykes landed some big-time transfers, but the Frogs will have a lot of work to do, starting with finding a starting quarterback and adjusting to new OC Kendal Briles. If Joe Gillespie's defense can improve in Year 2, and Chandler Morris, or whoever wins the QB job, can get up to speed quickly, the schedule is fairly backloaded. But beginning Oct. 21, the Frogs have a crucial stretch starting with a trip to Kansas State, then to Texas Tech, with consecutive home games against Baylor and Texas followed by a road trip to Oklahoma. All TCU has to do to repeat history is get everything just right again, beginning with an opener against Colorado in Deion Sanders' first game.-- Dave Wilson

13. Utah Utes

The Utes need to win on the road. Everyone knows going into Salt Lake City and winning is a treacherous feat, so it's no surprise that the Utes have struggled going away from home. Kyle Whittingham's team has six regular-season losses over the past two years. All of those have come away from Rice-Eccles Stadium. If the Utes want to capitalize on Cam Rising returning to school for another season and what will likely be another strong season on both sides of the ball, they're going to need to win on the road to even have a shot at the CFP. It won't be easy. In 2023, the Utes will travel to Oregon State, USC and Washington as well as Arizona and Baylor early in the season. -- Uggetti

14. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

The Irish need quarterback transfer Sam Hartman to be the player he was at Wake Forest, or an even better version, in order to return to the CFP. Notre Dame's limitations in the passing game have held back the program from taking the next step as a national contender. Although the Irish have reached the CFP twice, they did so navigating easier schedules than the one they face this fall, which features Ohio State (home), USC (home) and Clemson (road), not to mention NC State (road), Pitt (home) and Hartman's reunion with Wake Forest (home). Hartman had 7,929 pass yards and 77 touchdowns in the past two seasons. He must elevate the entire offense, and especially a largely unproven group of receivers, for Notre Dame to get through its challenging schedule and back to the CFP. -- Rittenberg

15. Clemson Tigers

The answer is obvious here: If quarterback Cade Klubnik and the offense find their groove, the Tigers will absolutely be a playoff team. History says as much. In six playoff appearances, Clemson had elite offensive play every year except 2017 -- and even then, that season was not as bad statistically as 2021 and 2022, when the Tigers clearly took a step back. With Klubnik now the quarterback in charge and Dabo Swinney bringing in offensive coordinator Garrett Riley from TCU, the expectations are set now for the offense to return to what we have come to expect -- lots of points, lots of big plays behind a quarterback maximizing his potential. For all of this to happen, Klubnik cannot be alone. The receivers must play better than they have over the past several seasons, and finding better, more creative ways to use standout running back Will Shipley is a must. -- Adelson

16. Texas Longhorns

The Longhorns have the talent to contend for a Big 12 championship but will have a few key issues to solve. First, there's the matter of replacing Doak Walker Award winner Bijan Robinson and running backRoschon Johnson. Then there's the matter of the QB position, where Quinn Ewers showed some flashes in his first year as a starter but also had plenty of struggles. Will he be able to hold off all-everything recruit Arch Manning? With the addition of Adonai Mitchell from Georgia to pair with Xavier Worthy and Jordan Whittington, who could have a big year, the passing game has a chance to be stellar -- with tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders as a budding superstar. The offensive line returns all five starters and will be a key. So if the defense can come together by Week 2 when the Horns travel to Alabama, there's a chance for a huge statement that could set the tone for the rest of the season. -- Wilson

17. Oregon State Beavers

There's a lot to like about what Jonathan Smith has done in Corvallis throughout his tenure. The dividends of a slow build paid off big last year when the Beavers finished 10-3 with losses to the three of the four best teams in the conference and a win over rival Oregon. There are certainly areas where OSU could improve in order to make another leap next season, but the reality is that the Beavers are banking on combining a sound foundation with a reclamation project. When the Beavers nabbed former Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in the transfer portal, it was a sign they were ready to make their case for being in the Pac-12's top tier. Quarterback hasn't been a position of strength for the Beavers in recent years, but they have succeeded in spite of that. If Smith is able to revitalize DJU's career in Corvallis, it could change the course of Oregon State's season and transform its status from up-and-coming team to one that could truly make some noise. -- Uggetti

18. Kansas State Wildcats

Reaching the CFP from the Big 12 requires you to win a ton of close games against pretty even competition. Just ask TCU (6-1 in one-score finishes in 2022). Kansas State is just 11-10 in one-score games in four seasons under Chris Klieman. While the Wildcats managed to win the conference last fall, seven-point losses to Tulane and Texas and a blown lead and 10-point loss at TCU kept them out of the playoff discussion. What were they missing? More than anything else, it was offensive consistency. They could trade big plays with almost anyone thanks to the likes of Deuce Vaughn and Malik Knowles (who are both gone in 2023) and Phillip Brooks (who returns), but they went three-and-out and allowed negative plays a bit too frequently and battled all-or-nothing tendencies. Quarterback Will Howard, Brooks, FSU transfer Treshaun Ward & Co. must stay on schedule and score more consistently to take the next step in 2023. -- Bill Connelly

19. Tulane Green Wave

Cincinnati provided the formula for non-Power 5 schools to receive consideration by the committee in 2021 -- an undefeated season. There's not much room for error for Tulane, which is coming off a 12-win season (first time since 1998) and an upset of USC in the Cotton Bowl -- its first major bowl game appearance since 1939 (Sugar Bowl). A Sept. 9 meeting with Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss within the friendly confines of Yulman Stadium in New Orleans serves up a similar opportunity to the one the Bearcats used -- a road victory over Notre Dame -- to catapult themselves into breaking that ceiling for the Group of 5 two years ago. Quarterback Michael Pratt must pick up where he left off last season, when the offense averaged 441.4 yards and 36 points. That task is going to be difficult with running back Tyjae Spears and wide receivers Shae Wyatt and Duece Wattsdeparting. -- Blake Baumgartner

20. Ole Miss Rebels

Granted, Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC championship since 1963, which is typically a must (but not always) if an SEC team is going make the playoff. The Rebels won 10 regular-season games as recently as two years ago, so they were at least swimming in those waters during Lane Kiffin's second season in Oxford. To take that next step in 2023, the Rebels will need transfer quarterback Spencer Sanders to stay healthy and play at the same level he did in 2021, when he earned first-team All-Big 12 honors at Oklahoma State. Ole Miss has added some offensive firepower in the transfer portal, and Quinshon Judkins led the SEC in rushing a year ago as a freshman. The second "if" revolves around first-year defensive coordinator Pete Golding. The Rebels need to find a way to be better against the run, keep opposing offenses off the field and give that offense a few more possessions per game. Even then, it would take an incredible season to even be in the playoff conversation. The Rebels have road games at Alabama and at Georgia. -- Low

21. North Carolina Tar Heels

It is obvious the Tar Heels already have a quarterback in place to make them playoff contenders with Drake Maye returning. But the biggest issue if UNC wants to finish in the top four is addressing its defense, one of the worst units in college football a year ago. North Carolina gave up a whopping 6.1 yards per play and 57 touchdowns in 2022 -- fourth worst among Power 5 schools and eighth worst among all 131 FBS schools. North Carolina had six players hit the transfer portal from its secondary and brought in a new cornerbacks coach, Jason Jones, to help improve that unit. But perhaps more than anything, North Carolina must be better along its defensive line, which failed to generate much -- if any-- pressure at all last year. The Tar Heels had 17 total sacks, tied for fourth worst in the entire country. Bringing in Amari Gainer from Florida State to play on the edge is big, in addition to four other transfers coming in to boost the secondary. -- Adelson

22. UTSA Roadrunners

The challenge for the Roadrunners will be that they'll be expected to be perfect, all the while adjusting to a new home in the American Athletic Conference after moving from Conference USA -- where they won the past two titles -- while also replacing offensive coordinator Will Stein, who left for Oregon. Jeff Traylor is 23-5 in the past two years and returns star quarterback Frank Harris for an unbelievable seventh season. It can be done -- Cincinnati made the playoff from the AAC two years ago. If UTSA can shock Tennessee on Sept. 23 in Knoxville, there's a chance. Otherwise, it would be tough for the Roadrunners to earn the CFP's respect. -- Wilson

23. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The key for the Red Raiders will be the defense. QB Tyler Shough returns after going 5-0 in games he started, and in Zach Kittley's offense, they'll put up points. But Tech finished 93rd in scoring defense last year, loses star pass-rusher Tyree Wilson, and has a tough schedule, beginning with a Week 2 home game against Oregon and a season ender on the road in what could be the Red Raiders' last game against SEC-bound Texas for a while. There's a great deal of excitement around what Joey McGuire is building in Lubbock. This year will reveal how much work is left to do.-- Wilson

24. James Madison Dukes

Without power-conference membership and previous years of top-10-level success, JMU's odds of earning a CFP berth before expansion to 12 teams are almost nil. The Dukes will have to go 13-0 with a number of dominant score lines -- especially at Virginia, their only power-conference opponent, on Sept. 9 -- and hope lots of other teams suffer multiple upsets. If they've got a quarterback to match their past two, though, they could at least fulfill the 13-0 part. Cole Johnson threw for 3,779 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2021, the Dukes' last season at the FCS level, and Colorado State transfer Todd Centeio ushered them to FBS by throwing for 2,697 yards and 25 touchdowns in just 10 games. Now it's up to the winner of a four-way battle between sophomores Billy Atkins and Alonza Barnett III and incoming transfers Jordan McCloud (Arizona) and Brett Griffis (Wake Forest) to see who can take JMU to an even higher level in 2023. -- Connelly

25. Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa came tantalizingly close nearly eight years ago, only to see L.J. Scott's 1-yard touchdown run for Michigan State with 27 seconds left in the 2015 Big Ten championship game deny it the opportunity of parlaying a 13-0 season into a College Football Playoff appearance. In the Big Ten West, it's all about who you don't play in your crossovers in the East. The Hawkeyes' 2023 schedule doesn't have Michigan or Ohio State on it, so that's a good start in terms of building a potential one-loss or undefeated season. On the field, the offense simply has to be better to complement and support a defense that is usually strong year in and year out. The Hawkeyes' offense struggled extensively on the way to finishing last in the Big Ten (251.6 YPG). A lot will be asked of former Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara immediately with road games at Iowa State (Sept. 9) and Penn State (Sept. 23) within the season's first month. -- Baumgartner

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