This year, Clemson and Georgia open the season in Charlotte, North Carolina, a game that will have immediate and lasting implications on the CFP race. The questions surrounding the playoff field run deeper, though, than who wins in September. Here's a look at how the top 10 teams in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25 can finish in the top four -- and what might hold them back in 2021.
Statement game: Sept. 4 vs. Georgia. It's one of two games against SEC opponents, along with rival South Carolina, that could help cement a top-four finish for Clemson. Going 2-0 against the SEC could also give the Tigers some wiggle room if they were to slip up along the way in the ACC. Of course, that assumes Georgia wins the East and first-year South Carolina coach Shane Beamer has a respectable debut.
Reason for optimism: Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. He held his own in 2020 when starting in place of Trevor Lawrence, who was out with COVID-19. Uiagalelei threw for 781 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in wins against Syracuse and Boston College.
Cause for concern: A surging Coastal Division. With North Carolina and Miami both primed for preseason top 25 spots, the ACC championship game could be more difficult. Clemson won't face either team during the regular season, but if the Tigers don't win the conference title, a top-four finish becomes a much bigger debate -- which circles back to why a win against Georgia could be critical.
Storyline to watch: How the offense develops. Clemson has recruited at a championship-caliber level, so the talent isn't the question, but can it come together fast enough to beat Georgia? The focus will be on finding a starting running back to replace Travis Etienne, along with getting better protection from the offensive line, which returns three starters.
Statement game: vs. Texas A&M. Yes, the Tide has a marquee nonconference game against Miami this year, but the bigger statement can be made by beating a Texas A&M team that spent the bulk of 2020 on the playoff bubble. The path to the CFP runs through the SEC West, and this game could determine who goes.
Reason for optimism: Recruit and reload. Over the past five recruiting classes, Alabama has had the No. 1 class three times and the No. 3 class once. While quarterback Mac Jones will be missed, the Tide signed the No. 1-ranked dual-threat quarterback in 2020 with Bryce Young.
Cause for concern: Significant departures. It's not only the starting lineup that has holes to fill -- DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris, Jaylen Waddle and Alex Leatherwood to name a few -- it's the coaching staff, starting with former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who was hired as head coach at Texas. Alabama associate head coach/running backs coach Charles Huff was hired as Marshall's head coach. Alabama offensive line coach Kyle Flood and special-teams/tight ends coach Jeff Banks followed Sarkisian to Texas.
Storyline to watch: How all of the new personalities come together. The 2020 LSU team was a blueprint for what not to do after winning a national championship, but Alabama coach Nick Saban knows how to surround himself with players and assistants who buy into The Process. The question is what the Tide actually looks like with all of those pieces in place, and how long it takes before transforming from new to familiar.
Statement game: vs. Iowa State. The Sooners' most interesting nonconference game is Sept. 18 against Nebraska, but until the Huskers are a consistent top-25 team, Oklahoma has a better chance to impress the committee with a win against a surging Iowa State team. OU lost to Iowa State last year, but was able to beat the Cyclones 27-21 to win the Big 12 title.
Reason for optimism: Defensive improvement under coordinator Alex Grinch. Eight starters are expected to return to a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring defense (21.7 points) and run defense (105.1 yards) and third in total defense (350.6).
Cause for concern: A relatively weak nonconference schedule. With games against Tulane, FCS program Western Carolina and Nebraska, the Sooners need to hope the committee ranks several Big 12 teams. If OU finishes as a one-loss Big 12 champion, it could lose a debate to a team that played a stronger schedule.
Storyline to watch: Can Oklahoma win the College Football Playoff? The Sooners are 0-4 in CFP semifinals. It's not getting there that's the problem.
Statement game: Sept. 4 vs. Clemson. This is the kind of win that can help Georgia finish in the top four even if it doesn't win the SEC. If Georgia can manage to win the East, but loses in the SEC championship game, a win against the ACC champs could go a long way in the committee meeting room.
Reason for optimism: Continuity on offense. One of the biggest differences for Georgia in the second half of the season was the offensive progress with JT Daniels at quarterback in the final four games. He completed 67% of his passes for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and two picks during that span, and Daniels will have eight projected starters returning around him.
Cause for concern: A loss to Clemson. No, the Bulldogs won't be eliminated from the CFP with a season-opening loss to what should be a top-five team, but it would change the picture and put enormous pressure on Georgia to win the SEC.
Storyline to watch: Can Kirby Smart put it all together to win it all? He has won the SEC. He has made it to the national championship, only to lose to Alabama in overtime on Jan. 8, 2018. Georgia has a schedule conducive to returning to the SEC championship game. On paper, Georgia is in a better position than Florida, and the Bulldogs don't have to worry about a regular-season trip to Tuscaloosa. It seems inevitable, though, that the path to winning a national title will go through Alabama. If they meet in the SEC championship game, can Smart find a way to beat his old boss?
Statement game: Sept. 11 vs. Oregon. There shouldn't be any complaints about the Buckeyes' schedule this year, as the nonconference lineup includes what should be a top-25 team in Oregon and a respectable Tulsa team that played for the AAC title. The value of a win against Oregon can increase with the Ducks' success, and ultimately a win against a Pac-12 champion could pay dividends if Ohio State were to lose at IU or stumble somewhere else along the way.
Reason for optimism: Ryan Day's recruiting. Over the past five recruiting cycles, Ohio State has lured in the No. 2-ranked class three times and the No. 5 class once. The staff has loaded up on offensive linemen and receivers, and there is plenty of young talent at quarterback. They'll need it, as Justin Fields and Trey Sermon have announced they are entering the NFL draft, and more could follow. The Buckeyes got a boost with the announcement earlier this week that Chris Olave will return.
Cause for concern: Indiana. Ohio State was fortunate to beat the Hoosiers 42-35 last year, and IU will be motivated to avenge a season in which it felt snubbed from a New Year's Six bowl. Indiana is a program on the rise, but in order for IU to take the next step in 2021 and make it to the Big Ten title game, the Hoosiers need quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to return from a 2020 season-ending knee injury. IU will get the Buckeyes at home.
Storyline to watch: The quarterback battle. Freshman Jack Miller III, who set the Arizona high school record with 115 career passing touchdowns, was Fields' backup this past season. C.J. Stroud was the No. 2 pocket passer in the 2020 ESPN 300, and incoming freshman Kyle McCord was the No. 4 pocket passer in 2021.
Statement game: vs. Alabama. If the Aggies want to crack the top four, winning the West is the way to do it. Texas A&M tried to make its case with an 8-1 record in 2020, but couldn't escape the 52-24 loss to Alabama. This game will again be the benchmark to measure how close Jimbo Fisher is to closing the gap with Nick Saban and elevating the Aggies to the national stage.
Reason for optimism: Time. It's Fisher's fifth season, which means he has had plenty of time to recruit his players, and he's brought in enough talent that the Aggies should be able to replace quarterback Kellen Mond and at least three starters on the offensive line. The return of tailbacks Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane will help take some pressure off the new quarterback.
Cause for concern: The nonconference schedule. With nonconference games against Kent State, Colorado, New Mexico and Prairie View A&M, Texas A&M needs to avoid getting into a résumé debate with another team that played a tougher schedule. If the Aggies win the SEC, they won't have to worry about it, but if it's a rerun of 2020 and they're trying to make their case without winning the SEC West, this nonconference lineup won't make it any easier.
Storyline to watch: Can the Aggies win the West? That's what it all boils down to, and Fisher is earning $75 million to find a way to beat Saban.
Statement game: Oct. 30 at Notre Dame. No, the Irish aren't a member of the ACC anymore, but this game will give UNC an opportunity to impress the committee and further raise its national profile with a top-25 road win -- just like it did for the Irish last year. Notre Dame's 31-17 win at UNC on a Friday was a factor in the Irish finishing No. 4 last year, even after losing convincingly to Clemson in the ACC title game. Can a win carry the same clout for UNC?
Reason for optimism: Eighteen projected returning starters, including all five offensive linemen and quarterback Sam Howell. UNC's young defense should also take another step forward, as six starters were freshmen or sophomores last year.
Cause for concern: Inconsistency. A win against Notre Dame will matter only if North Carolina can avoid losing to the likes of Florida State and Virginia. Extracting the same effort from week to week is something Brian Kelly has been able to do with time at Notre Dame, and is the sign of maturity within a program. It's still early in Mack Brown's tenure, but to contend for the ACC title and more, UNC has to understand how to avoid letdowns in addition to winning the statement games.
Storyline to watch: UNC or Miami, who ya got? Both Brown and Manny Diaz will be entering their third seasons, and are on similar upward trajectories. Expectations for the Canes will be cemented once D'Eriq King's status is certain. The game in Chapel Hill could determine the Coastal Division winner this year.
Statement game: Sept. 11 vs. Iowa. Here's a secret: Iowa might be better than Indiana in 2021. After an 0-2 start, the Hawkeyes closed the season with six straight wins and are poised to build on that success. This rivalry game could have major playoff implications, because both Iowa and Iowa State could play for their respective conference titles. It's not unreasonable to think Iowa State could earn a win over the eventual champions of the Big Ten's West division, and that would go a long way in the committee room.
Reason for optimism: Continuity. Somehow, Matt Campbell is still the head coach and hasn't been lured away elsewhere in spite of his success. He also has the offensive stars to continue building something special in 2021, as quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall both return -- along with five starters on the offensive line.
Cause for concern: Oklahoma. As far as Iowa State's roster goes, fans have every reason to believe the 2021 team can be just as good if not better than it was in 2020, but to actually graduate from good to great, Iowa State has to dethrone Oklahoma. The Cyclones won the regular-season game last year, but came up short against OU in the Big 12 title game. Campbell has clearly closed the gap.
Storyline to watch: Does Iowa State really have two Heisman hopefuls? Purdy and Hall certainly have a chance. Purdy finished with 2,750 passing yards, 382 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns last year, while Hall accounted for 1,572 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.
9. USC Trojans
Statement game: Oct. 23 at Notre Dame. The Trojans avoid Oregon and Washington in crossover league games this year, but the rivalry game against the Irish will give USC an opportunity not only to impress the committee, but to gain some national respect both for the program and the Pac-12.
Reason for optimism: Defensive improvement. Clay Helton made a good hire in coordinator Todd Orlando, who helped USC rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (26 points) and run defense (153.3 yards). There's still room for improvement, as evidenced by the loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, but 2020 was a good start.
Cause for concern: The running game -- or lack thereof. USC ranked last in the league and 120th in the FBS, averaging 97.3 yards per game. The Trojans ranked last in the Pac-12 and 114th in the country with just 3.17 yards per attempt. It was painfully obvious to anyone who watched USC that they couldn't run the ball, and often failed to protect Kedon Slovis and give him time to make plays in the passing game. Helton fired offensive line coach Tim Drevno and strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus.
Storyline to watch: The Helton hot seat. Helton guided the Trojans to their first South division title since 2017, but it has been overshadowed by his 18-13 record over the past three seasons. Helton is a well-liked, down-to-earth coach, but USC fans expect him to do more with the talent he has brought in. The pressure is on to get back to the Pac-12 title game -- and win it this time.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
Statement game: vs. Ohio State. The Hoosiers have an important nonconference game against Cincinnati, but there's no bigger opportunity to impress the committee than the chance to beat the Buckeyes. Even if IU were to slip against Iowa or Cincinnati, winning the Big Ten East would position the Hoosiers for a Big Ten title and therefore a chance at a top-four finish. They get the Buckeyes in Bloomington.
Reason for optimism: Potentially 19 starters return on offense and defense, including Big Ten receiver of the year Ty Fryfogle and receiver Whop Philyor, who led IU in total receptions with 54. Indiana's defense held Big Ten opponents to 20.3 points per game last year, but will have a new coordinator in Charlton Warren, who was previously the defensive backs coach at Georgia. He'll inherit a talented secondary.
Cause for concern: The health of quarterbackMichael Penix Jr.He tore his ACL against Maryland and did not play in the final three games of the season. It was the third time in three years he was sidelined, as Penix suffered a season-ending collarbone injury in 2019. His true freshman season in 2018 was cut short by his first ACL tear in his right knee. When healthy, Penix led Indiana to wins against Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State for the first time in a single season.
Storyline to watch: Can the Hoosiers keep it up? It would be shocking to see both Penn State and Michigan suffer through consecutive seasons as disastrous as 2020. So can Indiana hold the upper hand against the conference blue bloods? Road games at Iowa are never easy, and a win against Cincinnati isn't coming easily for anyone these days -- including Georgia. Tom Allen has done a terrific job putting the program in position to contend for the Big Ten's East division, but the Hoosiers are staring down a difficult schedule against what should be a stronger conference.
The Way-Too-Early 2021 college football rankings
Mark Schlabach looks at the Way-Too-Early college football rankings with Alabama and Clemson seemingly poised to make another run at a CFP opportunity.