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Who will crash the College Football Playoff semifinals? A look at five contenders

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Which four teams will play for a trip to SoFi Stadium, the host of the College Football Playoff national championship game in January?

Alabama, we can go ahead and book. Defending champion Georgia, given its capability to reload and a favorable schedule, we can reasonably pencil in. The winner of Ohio State-Michigan, we can consider a near lock. Theoretically, that leaves one spot open in the highly contentious four-team format, and I’d like to think it will be someone bringing new blood to the CFP semifinals.

Of course, there could be more unpredictability. Last year, because Clemson and Oklahoma fell off from their dominance over their leagues, Cincinnati broke through as the first Group of Five team to receive an invite. Michigan also upset Ohio State to take the Big Ten’s assumed reservation and make its first CFP appearance.

Last preseason, I picked the Bearcats as one of five potential party crashers to keep an eye on, so I am brimming with confidence assessing this season’s group of potential first-timers.

The five teams I pick this season aren’t necessarily the best of the large group of contenders that lives below the triumvirate of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State. They’re the teams that have the best combination of talent, quarterback play, coaching and schedule.

Utah Utes

Kyle Whittingham’s Utah program, while incredibly consistent for years now, feels as if it has fully arrived as a national threat entering the 2022 season. Millions watched on New Year’s Day as the Utes backed up a Pac-12 Conference championship season with a performance that nearly toppled Ohio State in the Rose Bowl — and possibly would have if not for a late injury to quarterback Cam Rising.

Rising is back to lead the Utes’ offense, along with workhorse tailback Tavion Thomas and chain-moving tight ends Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid. Seventeen starters return.

Utah should field a playoff-worthy team. But can it navigate a tough schedule featuring Saturday’s opener at Florida and a late-season trip to Oregon? If it wins one of those games and takes care of business where it should — including a home tilt against USC on Oct. 15 — then it will be playoff-bound.

Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies were a trendy pick last season to surprise and advance to the playoff, but their season quickly went haywire after starting quarterback Haynes King sustained a season-ending injury. Texas A&M struggled with backup Zach Calzada yet somehow upset Alabama at Kyle Field, a bright spot in a disappointing 8-4 season.

King won the starting job in preseason camp over Louisiana State transfer Max Johnson, and the Aggies’ offense should be much improved. Running back Devon Achane should emerge as one of the top tailbacks in the Southeastern Conference by year’s end. Defensively, the Aggies have been recruiting at an extremely high level and should recover from the loss of six starters.

Texas A&M plays at Alabama this season and the Crimson Tide are likely to avenge last year’s hiccup in College Station. But the Aggies should be favored in every other game they play. An 11-1 record with the lone loss to Alabama would put them in position to claim that No. 4 spot. Still, my gut tells me coach Jimbo Fisher’s program remains a year or two away from bursting through the playoff wall.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

With 149 career wins, Mike Gundy enters the season with the seventh most among active Power Five coaches, but one accomplishment continues to elude his feisty Oklahoma State program. It actually became tragic last season in the Big 12 championship game against Baylor when running back Dezmon Jackson’s stretch of the football on fourth and goal fell just short. Oklahoma State was inches away from a 12-1 record and holding a very convincing argument that it should have been in the playoff over Cincinnati.

The Cowboys lose their top three tailbacks and star wide receiver Tay Martin, but they return four-year starter Spencer Sanders at quarterback, who will help young playmakers such as running back Dominic Richardson and wide receiver Jaden Bray.

Oklahoma State has a path to 11-1 if it can split road games against Baylor and Oklahoma. This time, the Cowboys would have to finish the job and get to 12-1.

Brigham Young Cougars

BYU’s last year as an independent before joining the Big 12 will be a fascinating season to watch. The Cougars will be racking up the frequent flier miles, playing at South Florida, Oregon, Liberty, Boise State and Stanford and against Notre Dame in Las Vegas. The home slate is stacked too with games against Baylor, Arkansas and a quality Utah State team.

For BYU to make the playoff, it needs multiple opportunities to make a statement, and it certainly has them in 2022. Go 11-1 against this gantlet, especially if that record includes a win over Notre Dame, and the Cougars will be knocking on the playoff door.

But are they truly good enough? Coach Kalani Sitake has built a tough and physical program in Provo, and quarterback Jaren Hall presents a threat with his arm and his legs. Helping the Cougars’ cause is that Oregon and Notre Dame are breaking in rookie coaches.

USC Trojans

Last but definitely not least are the darlings of Vegas oddsmakers, Lincoln Riley’s USC Trojans. Despite a 4-8 record last season and not sniffing a semifinal berth in the history of the CFP, USC is receiving the fifth-lowest odds to win the national championship behind Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson.

We all know the reasons: Riley’s pedigree in coaching three Oklahoma teams to the CFP, the tantalizing talent of transfer quarterback Caleb Williams and the proven playmaking of fellow transfers Jordan Addison, Mario Williams and Travis Dye.

USC going 12-1 and winning the Pac-12 in Year 1 of the Riley era is going to be a monumental task, though. It’s hard for a program to grow that kind of backbone in one offseason.

But the schedule is favorable, giving the Trojans a shot. Beat Utah or Notre Dame and take care of the rest and they’re in the Pac-12 title game with a shot to reach the CFP.

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