Which conference will be best represented in this year’s College Football Playoff?

The countdown to the inaugural 12-team College Football Playoff is on.

In exactly six months to the day, the opening round of the 2024-25 CFP will get underway as eight teams seeded 5-12 will play, with the higher seeds hosting the lower seeds on their respective campus (or other sites designated by the higher-seed team).

What would a late-December game in snowy Ann Arbor, Michigan, look like? How about a game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, overlooking the snow-capped mountains in Salt Lake City?

FOX Sports college football experts Michael Cohen and RJ Young take an early look at the 2024-25 CFP picture and examine which teams could be in the mix, which conference will have the most representatives, and of course, which campus they would most like to see host a CFP game in late-December.

Which team that finished outside the top 10 in last year’s final AP Poll has the best chance to finish inside the top 10 at the end of this season?

Michael Cohen: Notre Dame. 

The Fighting Irish won five of their last six games in 2023 to finish the season with their arrow pointing up and a No. 14 ranking in the final AP Poll, sandwiched between Penn State and Oklahoma. They won those five games by an average of 35.2 points to land among the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Now, there is plenty of optimism in South Bend entering Year 3 of the Marcus Freeman era thanks to another strong offseason of acquisitions and retention.

The most notable addition was former Duke quarterback Riley Leonard (No. 44 transfer, No. 8 QB), a true dual-threat player who threw for 2,967 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 699 yards and 13 additional scores in 2022, the last time he was fully healthy. Leonard will pair with new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, formerly of LSU, to lead an offense with an impressive one-two punch at tailback in Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love, plus several new wideouts from the transfer portal in Kris Mitchell (Florida International), Beaux Collins (Clemson) and Jayden Harrison (Marshall). 

The defense returns five starters from a group that finished fifth in the country last season under coordinator Al Golden, the former head coach at Miami. That includes a handful of upperclassmen who bypassed the NFL Draft for another year of college football, with defensive tackle Howard Cross III and safety Xavier Watts — who won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy — leading the way. Cornerback Benjamin Morrison, a junior, is also considered among the best in the country at his position. 

RJ Young: Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys finished No. 16 in the final AP rankings last season. Yes, they got destroyed in the Big 12 title game by Texas, 49-21 in Arlington, Texas, but they beat Oklahoma earlier in the season (who beat Texas). Even if you aren’t willing to call that a wash — a win against OU, a loss to Texas — neither of those teams are on Oklahoma State’s schedule for the first time since 1905.

The toughest opponent on OSU’s schedule will be “Stillwater self-sabotage” — like the team’s inexplicable 33-7 loss to South Alabama at home last season. This year’s Oklahoma State team will be as talented as any team they face all year — including Arkansas and Utah. The Pokes return the best tailback in the country in Ollie Gordon (1,732 rush yards), all five starters on that 2023 offensive line with 214 combined starts, a seventh-year QB who threw for 3,460 yards, a receiver who fell just 9 yards short of 1,000 yards receiving in Brennan Presley, and three 100-tackle performers, including Nick Martin, who notched 140.

OSU fans should begin the season believing the Big 12 Championship is not only within reach, but a 2024 campaign without one is a busted season.

Conversely, which top 10 team from last year will struggle to maintain that ranking by the end of the 2024 campaign?

RJ: Washington.

Jedd Fisch took over at Washington after Kalen DeBoer made like a duck in the winter and flew south. When Fisch, who a month earlier told Arizona fans he wasn’t going anywhere, left to step onto Montlake, he saw the cupboard not just empty, but fighting what felt like an oncoming famine. They’ve got two returning starters at UW from that Pac-12 title team, and neither is named “Penix” or “Rome,” though let me tell you, Fisch is doing his damnedest not to let the thing burn. He held onto 22 scholarship players and added Mississippi State transfer QB Will Rogers, who holds career records in Starkville for passing yards, completions and TDs, having played in the late Mike Leach’s air raid system for most of his career. In 2021, he threw for more than 4,700 yards with 36 TDs and nine INTs.

Of course, Fisch added other transfers. He had to field a team, but they aren’t playing in the Pac-12 anymore. They’re playing in the Big Ten, where warm and sunny weather goes to die a wintry death by Nov. 1.

Fisch hired Steve Belichick to coordinate the defense and brought Brennan Carroll over from Tucson to run the offense, while inviting their famous fathers, Bill and Pete, respectively, to come by to put the fragrance of the NFL over the program like a lemony Lysol a teenager uses to hose his favorite shirt down with. Texas Christian lost to Georgia in the previous year’s national title game, 65-7 — the worst bowl beating in history — and even the Horned Frogs didn’t smell this bad by summer.

Michael: RJ is spot-on with his Washington pick. The Huskies were the kind-hearted darlings of last year’s college football season, but no team experienced more destruction and devastation at the combined hands of the coaching carousel, transfer portal and NFL Draft than the final champions of the Pac-12. Washington is the obvious choice.

For variety’s sake, let’s take a look at Florida State, the reigning ACC champions whose undefeated regular season still wasn’t enough to crack the last edition of a four-team College Football Playoff. There’s no reason to think the Seminoles will regress quite as much as Washington, which could hover around .500 in the expanded Big Ten, but it’s important to consider just how much head coach Mike Norvell and his staff lost from their stellar 2023 campaign. Gone is starting quarterback Jordan Travis. Gone is starting running back Trey Benson. Gone are the three leading receivers: Keon Coleman, Johnny Wilson and Jaheim Bell. Gone is All-American edge rusher Jared Verse and his running mate, defensive lineman Braden Fiske. Gone are secondary standouts Renardo Green and Jarrian Jones. 

All of those players were selected in this year’s NFL Draft. 

Still, Norvell has stocked the Seminoles with enough talent and enough transfers — including five from Alabama alone — to where the ACC race should come down to Florida State and Clemson, with quarterback play likely to be the differentiator when everything is said and done. But the scheduling gods did FSU no favors with a back half of the season that includes Miami (away), North Carolina, Notre Dame (away) and Florida in the span of five weeks. It could be tough sledding for the Seminoles. 

Four schools will have the opportunity to host a College Football Playoff game in the new 12-team format this year. Which school/stadium would you most like to attend a CFP game at, and why?

Michael: Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. 

With all due respect to Michigan and Ohio State, there are many reasons why Penn State might be the premier northern college football program to host a game in the expanded College Football Playoff. Everything about a winter-time game at Beaver Stadium would make for an electric experience: from the topsy-turvy plane ride into a pint-sized State College Regional Airport to the natural grass playing surface that could be crispy with frost or ice or snow, from the non-circular stadium design that allows winds to whip and whirl in strange directions to a capacity crowd of more than 106,000 that vibrates the structure’s steel girders. And could you imagine if Penn State held a second “White Out” of the season for a prime-time playoff game? The energy level in that stadium would be enough to power small cities.

If the nature of head coach James Franklin’s tenure is any indication, then Penn State hosting College Football Playoff games seems like a pretty reasonable proposition. Save for 2016, the Nittany Lions have been unable to topple either Michigan or Ohio State and win the Big Ten Championship, and now Oregon will be joining the league’s upper echelon to form an additional roadblock. It seems more likely than not that if Penn State qualifies for the CFP in 2024, it would be doing so with an at-large berth. And that means the potential for a home game is firmly in play.

RJ: Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma.

I’ve given my adult life to writing and talking about college football because I loved that team and love people who love that team. I lived in Norman for six years, working and earning my master’s degree on campus. I hopped into my pickup truck and drove it back west to Moore, Oklahoma, when the 2013 tornado leveled the lives of people I love — neighbors and classmates I held and hold dear. I interact with folks all over who I will argue about anything else with, but we will align on Brent Venables being the guy who should be coaching Oklahoma. Winning double-digit games every season is the standard. Beating Texas is a year-round endeavor and every “Boomer!” receives a Sooner!”

The Sooners made the playoff three times in Lincoln Riley’s first four years, but they have yet to win a playoff game. Part of me has always wondered how Oklahoma might’ve fared if 2019 LSU, 2018 Alabama, 2017 Georgia or 2015 Clemson were forced to play in front of 84,000 people who believed, lived and died Sooner football. Should it fall that way for the Sooners, doubt us at your peril. In Oklahoma, it’s understood that you’re wearing your name across the back of your jersey and the hopes of four million across your chest.

Which conference do you believe will have the most representatives in this year’s College Football Playoff? How many teams?

RJ: The SEC.

The SEC has been represented 22 times in the CFP and is 16-6 in 10 years. That’s twice as many appearances as the Big Ten (11), a conference that is just 4-7 and has made one less appearance than the ACC (12), which is 6-6. 

In fact, Alabama alone has won more national titles since 2014 (three) than the entire Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 combined (two).

Now that there is one less power conference than there was, with the SEC, ACC and Big Ten each containing 18 teams, while the Big 12 has ballooned to 16, I don’t expect the wealth to get shared. I just expect more at-large bids to go to the conference the CFP selection committee has historically thought much more highly of than the rest. If you don’t believe me, ask 13-0 Florida State about being left out in favor of 12-1 Alabama just last year.

RJ Young breaks down House vs. NCAA and what it means for the future of CFB

RJ Young breaks down House vs. NCAA and what it means for the future of CFB

Michael: An argument can be made that a standout season for the expanded Big Ten could push a handful of teams into contention this fall. Ohio State and Oregon are probably in the top tier of potential qualifiers, with both teams feeling like locks to make the expanded field. Michigan and Penn State are probably behind them in the second tier. And then Iowa, USC and Wisconsin feel like fringe candidates depending on how their respective quarterback situations unfold. It’s within the realm of possibility that four Big Ten teams could gain entry to a 12-team field. 

But once again, RJ has made the correct pick here by turning his attention to the SEC. Georgia and Texas can mirror Ohio State and Oregon as top-tier teams whose eventual inclusion in the CFP feels largely inevitable. Ole Miss, Alabama and Missouri aren’t far behind in the second tier. What separates the SEC from the Big Ten is the collection of teams likely to be ranked in the teens of this year’s preseason poll, meaning they’re well within striking distance of cracking the top 12. This includes programs like LSU, Tennessee and Oklahoma, all of whom might be talented enough to finish 9-3 — or better — and earn an at-large berth. With at least eight teams in the conversation, it’s hard to imagine any league getting more teams into the playoff than the SEC. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.

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