Three teams that can make the playoff for the first time, and three looking to return

Three teams that can make the playoff for the first time, and three looking to return

Last fall, Tennessee beat No. 3 Alabama, earned the No. 1 ranking for a fleeting moment, lost a close game to eventual national champion Georgia and came within a whisper of making the College Football Playoff for the first time.

Had it not been for the Nov. 19 loss at unranked South Carolina — an ugly 63-38 drubbing while playing without SEC Offensive Player of the Year Hendon Hooker — the Vols would have had a chance to make some history.

In 2023, they have that chance again.

Tennessee, USC and Penn State are strong candidates to become first-time playoff participants. They would extend a streak of first-time CFP schools, following Cincinnati and Michigan in 2021 and TCU in 2022.

While expectations are soaring at those programs, history isn’t on the side of newcomers. During the playoff’s nine seasons, only 14 programs have participated in a possible 36 semifinal slots. Seven have reached the playoff only once, while the other seven — Alabama (7), Clemson (6), Ohio State (5), Oklahoma (4), Georgia (3), Notre Dame (2) and Michigan (2) — have each had multiple semifinal appearances.

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said he doesn’t talk to the team specifically about the CFP — just surviving an SEC schedule that includes both Alabama and Georgia is difficult enough.

“The outside noise and expectations are greater,” Heupel said. “That’s great for our fan base. At the end of the day, our work habits are gonna dictate what we can accomplish next fall. The thing that I’ve loved this offseason so far is that our sense of accountability to ourselves and to this program has been heightened. We have tangible evidence of that. It’s a group that’s been extremely mature, and for those reasons, we do have great expectations next year.”

While the Vols are looking for their first top-four finish, three other programs can prove they aren’t one-hit wonders and return to a semifinal for the second time. Florida State hasn’t been to the CFP since its inaugural season in 2014. LSU won the SEC West last year but hasn’t finished in the top four since winning the national title in 2019.

And yes, Washington was in the playoff. Remember? 2016?

Below, we take a look at reasons for optimism and concern as preparations begin this spring for three teams trying to make the playoff for the first time — and three trying to make a comeback.