11 College Football Teams That Are 1 Piece Away from Making the CFB Playoff – Bleacher Report

As we gear up for spring practices and start our projections for next college football season, one thing is clear: Everything is murky in the race for the College Football Playoff.
Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State should be the three best teams in the country next year, but everything else is a crapshoot beyond that. So many teams could turn into immediate contenders if they find the one final piece to their respective puzzles.
We're here to sift through those title hopefuls and what they need to rise closer to the defending champion Bulldogs, runner-up Crimson Tide and loaded Ohio State Buckeyes.
In some cases, it's a player or position. In others, it's something intangible. They're all massively important, though.

Given how sturdily Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has built his powerhouse program, there are no excuses for last year's offensive blip on the radar.
The Tigers managed to go 10-3, but they missed out on the ACC championship game because of their offense. After Trevor Lawrence left for the NFL, they couldn't get what they needed at quarterback.
Former 5-star recruit D.J. Uiagalelei looked nothing like the promising prospect he was 2020 when Lawrence missed games with COVID-19. Instead, he completed only 55.6 percent of his passes for 2,246 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Clemson had a dearth of receiving playmakers, and the running game was inconsistent at the beginning of the season, but Uiagalelei has to play better regardless. The Tigers ranked 103rd nationally in passing offense.
That won't be good enough for new offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter. With former coordinator Tony Elliott now the head coach at Virginia, Streeter is tasked with authoring a massive improvement. If Uiagalelei can't do it, 5-star prospect Cade Klubnik is on campus ready to compete.
There's no questioning Uiagalelei's talent. The 6'4", 250-pound California quarterback is a big man with a big arm. If things start clicking the way they seemed to be toward the end of last season, a turnaround is likely.
If Uiagalelei plays up to his potential, Clemson should be right back in the championship mix.

If you want a Cinderella candidate for 2022, look no further than Cincinnati's AAC title game foe, the Houston Cougars.
Perhaps BYU could rise to the occasion again, but Dana Holgorsen's team is built to compete for big things this season as Cincinnati rebuilds.
With veteran Clayton Tune back to run a stellar ship at quarterback and star running back Alton McCaskill IV helping to carry the load, Houston has weapons on that side of the ball. The Cougars somehow got through the offseason without another team stealing defensive coordinator Doug Belk, too.
But no matter how good Tune and McCaskill are on offense, they need the time and space to do their thing. Houston's offensive line was putrid last year, allowing 38 sacks (tied for 111th nationally).
In the ACC title game, the Cougars ran the ball 47 times and averaged less than two yards per carry. The Bearcats also sacked Tune eight times.
Even though the Cougars lost three seniors on the offensive line, a shakeup on the depth chart may be just what they need. A huge season could catapult them into preparing for their foray into the Big 12. But Holgorsen and Co. need to rebuild the O-line in a hurry, and where are the reinforcements?
Houston has only three offensive linemen entering in the 2022 class and no transfers. If the answers are in-house, they'll need to show up early.

With its tumultuous offseason finally settled, Michigan can now turn its attention back to the field. It has just as many question marks there, too.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh flirted hard with the NFL before returning to Ann Arbor and signing a new five-year contract. Michigan also endured the PR fallout from offensive coordinator Josh Gattis heading to Miami and defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald returning to the NFL.
Despite the uncertainty on the sideline, the Wolverines need to get things squared away on the field to return to the College Football Playoffs. They have a quarterback battle between the two incumbents who shared snaps last season, but the bigger issue is on the other side of the ball.
Michigan terrorized quarterbacks with Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, but both of those guys are now off to the NFL. Where does that leave the Wolverines?
Jaylen Harrell is a talented option who could be a force. Braiden McGregor could blossom if he clicks with the new defensive regime. Taylor Upshaw has promise, too.
Perhaps the biggest X-factor is incoming freshman Derrick Moore, who was the Under Armour All-America Game MVP and showed the type of burst the Wolverines are used to seeing at the position.

When it came to contenders in 2021, no team had as glaring of a deficiency as Michigan State did in the defensive backfield.
Head coach Mel Tucker has quickly rebuilt the Spartans, which is why they offered him such a massive contract to stay in East Lansing. But he has to fix the secondary for them to become Big Ten contenders.
Out of 130 FBS teams, the Spartans were dead last in passing yards allowed per game last season at 324.8. They did have 10 interceptions, but they were also tied for 111th in passing touchdowns allowed (27).
Despite that, Michigan State finished 11-2 with a Peach Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Think about how much better the Spartans could have been with a passable secondary?
Georgia transfer Ameer Speed should help as Band-Aid, and incoming freshman Caleb Coley has elite potential. Freshmen nickelback Dillon Tatum and safety Jaden Mangham have a lot of talent as well.
Upperclassman safety Xavier Henderson could take a big leap, and other veteran pieces are returning as well. If they put everything together, the Spartans may wind up Ohio State's biggest competitor in a Big Ten that appears up for grabs if the Buckeyes falter.

If you want an ACC surprise like Wake Forest and Pittsburgh from last season, the North Carolina State Wolfpack may just be your huckleberry.
The Demon Deacons and Panthers could contend again, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Clemson right back in the mix at the top. Miami head coach Mario Cristobal is also off to a great start with a lot of puzzle pieces in Coral Gables, but NC State is sturdy and established.
The Wolfpack went 9-3 last season, and with a veteran-laden team led by quarterback Devin Leary, they should be right back in that mix in 2022. There are upperclassmen all over the defense who could fortify that side of the ball, so there's a lot to like about NC State.
But head coach Dave Doeren has to find a bell-cow running back.
Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. both left for NFL, so the Pack need to replace essentially all of their production at the position. Jordan Houston, Delbert Mimms III and Demie Sumo-Karngbave are some on-campus options who could help, but Houston led that trio with only 83 yards last season.
NC State's top recruit is top-300 prospect Michael Allen, who is on campus and ready to compete right away. Doeren has done well recruiting runners over the past few years, and Allen needs to be a big-time hit who can make an impact right away.
If he does, the Pack may be ticketed for the ACC title game or even bigger things.

When Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees elected not to follow Brian Kelly to LSU and instead stayed in South Bend, it was a huge deal. He now must fix the most important position on the field.
The quarterback derby in the transfer portal came and went without the Fighting Irish landing anybody. With Jack Coan gone after his one year in South Bend, it's now Tyler Buchner's job to lose.
Can he throw well enough to do the job, or will he be inconsistent like a young Ian Book?
There is a lot to love about Buchner's game, and he is a big threat running the ball, but passing is another story. The Irish let him throw only 36 times last season, and three of those were intercepted.
Drew Pyne will battle for the job this spring, but it remains to be seen if he's a viable candidate. Pyne has been beaten out for jobs his entire time on campus. Freshman Steve Angeli has a ton of talent, but he looks more like a long-term developmental prospect.
Will the Irish be players for a transfer after the spring, when more guys may leave their current schools after realizing that they're losing their jobs? Big prizes like Arizona State's Jayden Daniels and Georgia's JT Daniels (who has been rumored as an Irish option) are still in the portal, too. Could Notre Dame give them looks?
The Fighting Irish are set up for a title run if they can find an answer to their questions under center.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Oklahoma State Cowboys need in 2022.
On one hand, they have a lot of players who could rally a title run the way they did in 2021. But some veteran leadership needs to emerge considering the playmakers they lost on both sides of the ball.
That's most evident with their offensive skill-position talent. But the Cowboys also have some young, intriguing players who could help head coach Mike Gundy and senior quarterback Spencer Sanders take the leap forward as the Big 12 champions and College Football Playoff contenders.
With Oklahoma trying to find its footing again, Texas down and Baylor losing a ton of talent, Oklahoma State could take advantage. But the Cowboys need to fill the huge cleats of running back Jaylen Warren and receiver Tay Martin, among others.
Veteran runner Dominic Robinson should be a weapon this year, but incoming 6'1", 210-pound tailback Ollie Gordon looks like a future star. CJ Brown is another incoming 4-star running back who could factor in the mix.
Freshman receiver Talyn Shettron is the highest-ranked player in the Cowboys' class, and he should help draw attention away from fellow wideouts Brennan Presley and Blaine Green. Oklahoma State has the potential to field a dynamic offense if everything falls into place.

Ole Miss has lost a ton of star players from last year's team. Quarterback Matt Corral is off to the NFL, and so are a lot of his weapons on offense, including the Rebels' top receivers.
But Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin has rebuilt a Frankenstein of a roster through the transfer portal. If he can piece together the right ingredients, the Rebels could be a monster again in the SEC West, and perhaps Alabama's biggest threat on that side of the conference.
Quarterback Jaxson Dart was perhaps the biggest recruiting coup of the transfer portal. The former USC signal-caller may have more upside than any player who left his former program.
Tight end Michael Trigg joined Dart from USC, and he could be a major weapon to slot in alongside returning receivers Jonathan Mingo and Dannis Jackson. Transfer wideouts Jordan Watkins (Louisville) and Malik Heath (Mississippi State) and tight end J.J. Pegues (Auburn) could help, too.
On defense, the Rebels could continue to take massive steps as they turn the page from the D.J. Durkin era. Kiffin got reinforcements on that side as well, led by linebacker Troy Brown, a Central Michigan transfer.
Players may need to wear name tags this spring, but the Rebels have the talent to do big things.

In October, Texas A&M upset Alabama in College Station in one of the biggest upsets of the college football season. However, the Aggies also lost to Mississippi State and LSU en route to an 8-4 record.
Either way, Jimbo Fisher's program took a huge leap in building toward the future this offseason with the nation's top-ranked class.
The incredible haul included seven 5-star prospects: quarterback Conner Weigman, receivers Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall, defensive linemen Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, Walter Nolen and Shemar Stewart and cornerback Denver Harris. Throw in 19 4-star prospects and LSU quarterback transfer Max Johnson, and the infusion of new, elite players is ridiculous.
The Aggies should be much-improved with all of this incoming talent. If they can find a great signal-caller between Weigman, Johnson and Haynes King, who was the starter over Zach Calzada before he suffered a season-ending leg injury only two games into the season, they could have a big year.
A dozen or more of A&M's newcomers could be ready to play right away. Though they're sure to go through some growing pains, this is the kind of recruiting class than can lead to a championship.

Last year, the Utah Utes were inconsistent early before catching fire. They won the Pac-12 by whipping Oregon twice and came within an otherworldly performance by Jaxon Smith-Njigba from beating Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
In 2022, they'll need to play with the same intensity and drive they were at the end of the year.
Kyle Whittingham is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. He could have his best team in 2022, but he must replace several defensive leaders, including Devin Lloyd.
Britain Covey and TJ Pledger will be hard to replace at receiver, too. But quarterback Cam Rising, running back Tavion Thomas and a bunch of young defensive players could help guide the Utes to back-to-back Pac-12 titles. Florida linebacker transfer Mohamoud Diabate is another potential star who could keep the defense on an upward trajectory.
The key for Utah in 2022 is starting the season strong. Whittingham's teams consistently get better and tougher throughout the season, and this group could continue to thrive.
While the Utes have tough out-of-conference, early-season games at Florida and home against San Diego State, this schedule is navigable. Win those, and this team could contend for it all.

Sam Hartman gives Wake Forest a chance to win every game it plays. The rising senior quarterback can make things happen with his arm and his feet, and he can churn out a ton of points.
Although Pittsburgh dragged them in the ACC title game, the Demon Deacons had an otherwise magnificent season. They finished 11-3 and had one of the best records in school history.
With Hartman back for his final season in Winston-Salem and leading receiver A.T. Perry returning as well, the Deacs could be in for an exciting year. But they desperately need to improve their defense.
Their three losses last season were 58-55 to North Carolina, 48-27 to Clemson and the 45-21 loss to the Panthers. They gave up 34 or more points seven times. They finished 88th nationally, allowing 28.9 points per game, but the bad ones were truly terrible. The Deacs also couldn't stop teams they beat like Army, Syracuse and North Carolina State.
Head coach Dave Clawson hired veteran defensive coordinator Brad Lambert to try to fix things. This is Lambert's second stint at the school after he previously coached there under Jim Grobe.
Though the offense put the Deacs in poor position in the ACC championship game, they had major holes throughout the year on defense. If they fix those, they can score points with basically anybody.
Are they a long shot for the College Football Playoff? Probably the longest of any school featured here. But they have a championship-caliber offense.
            
All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Player and recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.
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