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Mike Lopresti | | October 3, 2023

9 historic football powers still waiting for their first CFP bid

The most successful walk-ons in recent college football history

Here’s the philosophy question of the week. If the College Football Playoff is held every year and you’re never there to play in it, does it make a sound? Or something like that.

Anyway, that brings us to the Still Waiting Nine.

Eligible teams for this list must meet two qualifications: Be a genuine traditional football power with at least one undisputed national championship in the past 40 years, and still be waiting to get invited to the playoff.

The CFP is in its 10th year, and between Clemson, Ohio State and the SEC hogging so many spots, only 14 teams have known the experience so far. But as September spills over into October, the road this year seems especially open.

So far, this college season has had about everything needed for proper football intrigue, except maybe Taylor Swift. Clemson appears to have lost a step, and the SEC is not quite the monolithic steamroller as is custom.  Georgia has been pushed, Alabama lost and LSU has given up 45 and 55 points in defeats.

So here is the No-Berth Nine who have never seen the CFP. And boy, would they love to boldly go where TCU and Cincinnati have gone before. Their current prospects vary widely.

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No. 9 Nebraska 

Five national championships, 914 wins, and a sellout streak that goes back to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Cornhuskers went 42 years, from 1962-2003, without a losing season. Yep, there’s a bone fide blueblood in red.

But, alas, that was then and this is now, and Nebraska is 2-3 and quite possibly headed for a seventh consecutive sub-.500 record. Clearly, new coach Matt Rhule is searching among the cornfields for answers, having already started 35 different players in five games. The Huskers are 4-16 in Big Ten play the past 2 ½ seasons. To put that in perspective, Tom Osborne lost 22 regular-season conference games at Nebraska in 25 seasons. So it’ll be a while for any CFP thoughts.

No. 8 BYU

Looking back, that 1984 national championship — featuring one victory over a ranked opponent and secured with a 24-17 Holiday Bowl win over a 6-6 Michigan team on Dec. 21 — seems rather inexplicable. But the 13-0 record and title are in the history books to stay. Besides that, the Cougars pretty much owned either the WAC or Mountain West, with 22 conference titles in 34 years.

Life as an independent ended such things, but now the Cougars are new neighbors in the Big 12, and just won their home debut over fellow league rookie Cincinnati to start 4-1. Time must tell how they do in a higher weight class.

No. 7 Auburn

Cam Newton came and went just a few years before the College Football Playoff was born, so the Tigers’ 2010 national title was already in the bank. Since then, grabbing a CFP berth has not been easy when you’re just down the highway from Tuscaloosa and Nick Whatsisname. Auburn has lost 11 of its past 15 games with Alabama, watching the Tide play in seven CFPs while the Tigers saw none. And a disturbed Bama fan killed their famous oak trees.

They’re 3-2 this season and just played Georgia tough, but the 5-13 SEC record since 2020 must be aggravating. That first berth, whenever it happens, will come with blessed relief. Especially if Auburn beats Alabama to get it.

No. 6 Florida

Oh, for the heady days of Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer. The Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008, with the first one in 1996 from Steve Spurrier. That’s a lot of hardware.

But they have stumbled a bit lately and there is no mercy for that in the SEC. They’re coming off consecutive losing records for the first time in 43 years and instead of winning BCS championship games, the Gators have been losing the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl to Central Florida.  Coach Billy Napier is planning a revival and the 3-2 record so far includes a heartening win over Tennessee that got the Gators ranked for a few minutes. But the 24-11 loss to Utah and 33-14 pounding at Kentucky last week — which makes Florida 1-13 in its last 14 games away from Gainesville — suggests the distance yet to go.

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No. 5 Tennessee 

The football history in Knoxville includes quite the oddity. Peyton Manning enchanted the masses and piled up the records for four marvelous seasons. A truly golden era.

Then the Volunteers won the national championship the year after he left. Go figure.

Tennessee has often been entertaining in the 25 years since but something always seems to get in the way of a CFP berth — usually its SEC peers. Take last season. The Vols finished No. 6 in the Associated Press poll and that’s awfully close to playoffville, but there was the 27-13 loss to Georgia and the 63-38 track meet of a defeat at South Carolina.

They’re 4-1 this season, fourth in the nation in rushing offense and first with 22 sacks. They’ll need all that for the brutal road to come: Surging Texas A&M next and later Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia in a five-week slog — all ranked and only Georgia at home. Tennessee is annually good enough that you’d think sooner or later the Vols will crash through to the CFP. Of course, in Knoxville, they’ve been saying that about the men’s basketball team and the Final Four for decades.

No. 4 Miami

Remember how it was? Between 1983 and 1992, the Hurricanes were ranked No. 1 at some point during nine of the 10 seasons, a remarkable dynasty through three different coaches. And they were hotter cultural icons than Deion Sanders in coaching headphones. Four national championships were punched out during the streak and a fifth was added in 2001. Miami has had some good moments since then but seldom has been relevant in the title race, something unimaginable over the last two decades of the 20th century.

Mario Cristobal has been brought in to revive the good ol’ days and his second team is 4-0 and big on defense, leading the nation by allowing a paltry 48 yards rushing a game. The Canes have scored 38 or more points in each of their first four wins, something they hadn’t done in 21 years. Tyler Van Dyke has completed 74.7 percent of his passes.

Could they make a run at the CFP? Beat Clemson and Louisville at home and North Carolina and Florida State on the road, and then we’ll talk.

No. 3 Southern Cal

All those national championships (the Trojans claim 11). All those Heisman winners (seven, including the latest in Caleb Williams). All those Rose Bowls (34, or 31 percent of the Granddaddy of Them Alls ever played). And still, Traveler has never been able to gallop across CFP grass.

With Heisman winner Williams back and an offense averaging 53.6 points after five games to lead the nation, this could be the year. But the defense melted while nearly blowing a big lead over Colorado last week and that can’t happen again, especially with four ranked opponents — Notre Dame, Utah, Washington and Oregon — yet to play. The Oct. 14 visit to the Irish will be massive. USC is 98th in the nation in total defense and 104th in passing yards allowed. Ugh. Still, the Trojans have never trailed one second this season and Williams has already thrown 21 touchdown passes with only one interception. The defense doesn’t have to be great, just not a sieve.

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No. 2 Penn State

It has been 12 years since the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State to its very core and nearly sent the football program into the dark ages. Suddenly, those two national championships and 409 Joe Paterno wins didn’t matter very much. A CFP berth one day would be an extraordinary reminder of how far the Nittany Lions had to come back.

One day soon, perhaps this December? The offense is averaging nearly 41 points a game and has one turnover in five wins. Penn State has broken 30 in 12 consecutive games going back to 2022 and won 10 in a row by at least 14 points. No one else in the nation can say that, not even Georgia. The defense leads the nation in total defense and has forced six more turnovers than it has allowed touchdowns. Lots of things seem possible, but the moment of truth comes in late October, with a trip to Ohio State. Three weeks after that, Michigan will be in Happy Valley.

No. 1 Texas

The Longhorns have won or shared 32 conference titles, but can this be true — none in the past 13 years? It can. They played in the BCS title game for the 2009 season but lost to Alabama. Things have sometimes been difficult since — they went a pedestrian 61-54 in conference games from 2010-2022.

But the eyes of Texas are upon a CFP spot all the livelong day. The Longhorns are 5-0 and ranked No. 3 by the Associated Press this week, having won all five games by double digits. That includes, lest anyone forget, 34-24 at Alabama, the worst home whipping Nick Saban has ever taken in Tuscaloosa. Next up: Oklahoma. Win that, and the Texas playoff discussion gets very serious.

Bottom line, the CFP could well have a new face in 2023. Maybe even two, but that’d be asking a lot. Most of the Nine will still have to wait, and maybe all of them. But they can be consoled by one fact: Expansion is coming, and CFP berths will be a little less like winning Powerball tickets.


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