Beginning this year, the College Football Playoff is expanding from 4 to 12 teams. With the breakup of the Pac-12, the format was also modified from a 6+6 model to a 5+7 model that will award automatic bids to the 5 highest-ranked conference champions and then 7 at-large bids to the highest-ranked teams.

The Core 4 (a phrase I’m co-opting from my colleague, Connor O’Gara, to replace the no-longer-applicable Power 5 designation) will all send their champs to the CFP. That leaves 1 guaranteed spot for a non-Core conference team to reach the CFP.

For the first time in its existence, non-Core schools have a legitimate and defined path to the Playoff. We had a 13-0 Western Michigan that was excluded in 2016, then a 12-0 UCF that claimed its own national championship after being left out in 2017.

Memphis, Boise State, and App State were all 12-1 during the 2019 season, but none were ranked higher than 17th in the consequential CFP rankings.

It took Cincinnati winning 21 consecutive regular-season games for the Group of 5 ranks to earn its first CFP participant in 2021, and the Bearcats got properly pushed around in the semifinals by Alabama.

Liberty went 13-0 last year against a cupcake schedule and didn’t even crack the final CFP rankings’ top 20.

There’s a healthy amount of skepticism, and that might only grow as the financial gap between the SEC/Big Ten/Big 12 triumvirate and everyone else widens.

But none of that matters. The American’s conference champion can get in if it is ranked high enough. A CUSA team can earn an auto bid. A Mountain West school could crack the CFP. Maybe the MAC or the Sun Belt has a lurking contender. Coaches can step in front of their players and realistically outline a path to the CFP.

So, which school is actually a fair bet to make the 12-team field?

That was a question posed to me recently by O’Gara on the Saturday Down South Podcast(Subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts. It’s an essential listen for college football fans.) Here are some of your options.

Liberty (+550 at FanDuel)

The Flames have the best odds of any non-Core program to reach the CFP thanks to a Charmin soft schedule. My advice? Avoid this team.

Liberty will face only 1 team in the regular season that is projected higher than 70th in Bill Connelly’s preseason SP+ numbers — and none inside the top 50. Liberty returns do-it-all quarterback Kaidon Salter after a brief soirée in the transfer portal, and he could lead another undefeated regular season.

But Liberty went 12-0 last year in the regular season — scoring at least 38 points in each of its final 6 games — and then won its conference title game by 2 touchdowns and the CFP selection committee slotted them 23rd in the final rankings. It was a sign to the school that its unbeaten record was not enough to overcome such a weak schedule. And what did Liberty do in its best-ever bowl game? Laid an egg against a full-strength Oregon team.

That game will come back to bite the Flames. Had Oregon dealt with a significant degree of opt-outs, maybe a 45-6 beatdown could be excused. But the Ducks came at Liberty in a strength-on-strength game and dismantled the CUSA champs. With another weak schedule — dead last in FPI’s preseason strength of schedule metric — I imagine the committee would have that game front and center in any discussion about a 12-1 or 13-0 Liberty team. If there’s a 1-loss champ elsewhere (and there very well could be), Liberty isn’t getting the nod.

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Boise State (+700 at FanDuel)

The Broncos have one of my favorite players in the country in 2024 and a schedule that features Oregon, Washington State, and Oregon State. It’s the exact opposite of Liberty, which is to say 1 or maybe even 2 losses might not be a death knell for the program’s CFP dreams. Among non-Core schools, I like Boise State’s path the best.

They’re a brand-name school outside the Core 4, which is something very few other programs can claim. And the Chris Petersen days should still provide some sweat equity for Boise even though the program is coming off an 8-6 season.

Andy Avalos opened 5-5 before being fired and replaced with Spencer Danielson. Danielson went 3-1, won Boise its first MWC title since 2019, won the locker room, and then had the interim tag removed from his title.

In the offseason, he added a former 5-star quarterback in USC transfer Malachi Nelson and the No. 1 junior college recruit in the 2024 cycle in Kilgore wide receiver Chris Marshall. If this pass game is anything resembling respectable, Boise State should have a pretty high floor.

Tailback Ashton Jeanty, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound junior from Jacksonville, is back after earning All-America recognition from multiple outlets last year. He led the country in scrimmage yards per game (159.7) and ranked fifth in the country with 19 total touchdowns. A threat to break tackles (FBS-leading 106 missed tackles forced) and catch passes out of the backfield (FBS RB-leading 621 yards after the catch), Jeanty is an offensive engine all on his own.

Boise also boasts edge rushing star Ahmed Hassanein. Last year, Hassanein produced 12.5 sacks and 53 quarterback pressures in 14 games. I trust defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to put a good group on the field.

If Boise does the unthinkable in Eugene on Sept. 7, get ready to see a ton of the Smurf Turf. But even if the Oregon Ducks win that matchup, it shouldn’t be held against Boise. I’d take a 10-2 or an 11-1 Mountain West champion Boise State team before a 13-0 CUSA champion Liberty team. The Broncos face 4 teams projected inside the top 70 in SP+.

Appalachian State (+1500 at FanDuel)

If we were to construct a Fun Index, the Mountaineers would be near the top. They ran over 1,000 plays in 14 games last season and have a dynamite quarterback coming back to lead a Sun Belt title charge.

Joey Aguilar, a 6-foot-3 senior, won the Sun Belt’s Newcomer of the Year award in 2023 after spending 2 seasons at the junior college level. Aguilar began the season as a backup before an injury in the season opener thrust him into action and he completely took over. He started the final 12 games while breaking single-season program records for touchdown passes (33), passing yardage (3757), and total offense (4,002). Each of App State’s top 4 receivers return in 2024, as do the top 2 tight ends, so this could turn into one of the best offenses outside the Core 4 leagues.

App State has a Sept. 7 trip to Clemson on the schedule. It hosts Liberty 3 weeks later. It also gets James Madison at home on Nov. 23 — on the other side of a bye week. The Mountaineers can make some noise in 2024.

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