Seven best bets to make College Football Playoff for first time in 2020

LSU made good on its first College Football Playoff appearance this season.

The Tigers steamrolled through Oklahoma and Clemson for their first national championship of the CFP era. That freshened up the Playoff — at least for a year.

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It’s still worth knowing that Clemson (5), Alabama (5), Oklahoma (4) and Ohio State (3) have combined for 17 of 24 possible Playoff appearances, and those four schools will be popular picks to win their conferences in 2020.

So, which schools could follow LSU’s lead and make their first Playoff appearance next season? We look at the seven best bets:

1. Penn State

The Nittany Lions have been close — they won the Big Ten championship in 2016 only to watch the Buckeyes get in anyway. Penn State has been the closest competition to three-time defending Big Ten champion Ohio State, and James Franklin brings back a talented roster next season with starting quarterback Sean Clifford and the nation’s best returning defensive player in Micah Parsons. The Oct. 3 trip to Michigan — where Frankin is 0-3 — and the inevitable “Whiteout” against Ohio State on Oct. 24 will determine whether Penn State can take the next step.

2. Florida

Dan Mullen has built on back-to-back New Year’s Day Six victories, and now it’s time to chase down Georgia — which had heavy losses to the 2020 NFL Draft — in the SEC East. Kyle Trask returns at quarterback, and the Gators have just four true road games next season. Assuming this team can avoid a pot-hole in the SEC East and knock off LSU in a series in which the teams have split the past four meetings, then the Georgia game will be there for the taking Oct. 31.

3. Auburn

Gus Malzahn has a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, and it doesn’t matter who is calling the plays. Bo Nix — who beat Oregon and Alabama this season and made it interesting against Florida and LSU — will take the next step as a sophomore. The losses on the defensive interior line are a concern, but defensive coordinator Kevin Steele can work with the talent around him. The schedule is never easy — and next year they travel to Georgia and Alabama.

4. Texas

Yeah, we’re back. We did this last year, and we're taking another home run swing with the Longhorns, who return Sam Ehlinger around a roster Tom Herman has built through recruiting. Eight of Texas’ losses are by eight points or fewer the past two seasons. They aren’t that far off in a Big 12 conference that has seen Oklahoma run unopposed for far too long. They get to run back the games against LSU and Oklahoma in the first six weeks of 2020. All it takes is a split there to stay in the hunt.

5. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys are going to be the chic sleeper team next season based on the returns of FBS leading rusher Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace. Quarterback Spencer Sanders can work with that, and now it’s on Mike Gundy to get this team back to double-digit wins after compiling a 15-11 record the past two seasons. Looking at the schedule, there is no reason why Oklahoma State should not be 6-0 when it travels to Oklahoma for an Oct. 24 edition of Bedlam. The finale against Texas could determine whether Oklahoma State gets in the Big 12 championship game, too.

6. Michigan

Michigan’s stock is low after double-barrel losses to Ohio State and Alabama to end the 2019 season. Jim Harbaugh enters year six still looking to break through to the Big Ten championship, and that might hinge on which quarterback wins the starting job between Dylan McCaffrey and Joe Milton. The roster is still talented enough to make a run in the Big Ten East, and you’ll get a feel for whether that’s possible in the opener at Washington. A three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State is brutal, but everything revolves around the trip to Ohio State on Nov. 28. The Wolverines have not won at Ohio Stadium since 2000 — when Drew Henson was the quarterback. The psychological toll of that eight-game losing streak to the Buckeyes must be broken before we can talk Playoff.

7. Texas A&M

Texas A&M is 17-9 in Jimbo Fisher’s first two seasons, and seven of those losses were to top-10 teams. The Aggies have improved through recruiting, and Kellen Mond returns at quarterback. The schedule is friendly both in nonconference (Abilene Christian, North Texas, Colorado, Fresno State) and SEC East crossover games (South Carolina, Vanderbilt). It comes down to that SEC West meat-grinder against Auburn, LSU and Alabama. Fisher is 1-5 against those teams since arriving in College Station.