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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | August 18, 2021

The 9 schools that have appeared in the CFP rankings the most without making the playoff

Preseason AP football poll: Breaking down the first 2021 rankings

The school names atop the preseason AP Top 25 poll for the 2021 college football season look familiar: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Clemson, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Georgia. The first four programs have combined for 20 of the 28 total appearances in the College Football Playoff and six of the seven national championships during the CFP era. Georgia has also made the playoff, when it lost in overtime of the CFP national championship in the 2017 season.

While the Crimson Tide, Sooners, Tigers and Buckeyes are responsible for most of the CFP berths through the first seven years of the playoff, it's not a monopoly. LSU was a first-time CFP participant during the 2019 season, which ended in the Tigers becoming a 15-0 national champion.

Who could potentially become the next first-time playoff participant?

Well, let's look to the programs that have been ranked most in the CFP era, entering the 2021 season. Here are the nine FBS programs that have spent the most weeks in the CFP rankings without making the playoff.

Jeffrey Swinger | USA TODAY Sports Images Utah is the team that has been ranked the most in the CFP rankings without making the playoff.

1. Utah

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 30
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 5
Best final CFP ranking: No. 11

Just to provide context, Utah has spent the same number of weeks in the CFP rankings (30) as Georgia, which nearly won the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship and almost won the SEC championship 11 months later, but it fell to Alabama both times. The Utes were in playoff contention in 2019, when they won the Pac-12 South with an 11-1 record — a seven-point road loss to USC was their only blemish — but they ultimately lost by 22 points to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Oregon finished at No. 6 in the final CFP rankings that season, while Utah dropped from No. 5 to No. 11 after the loss. That No. 5 ranking — earned after Utah went 11-1 in the regular season — is the highest CFP ranking in program history during the playoff era.

The next step for Utah is to take an undefeated or one-loss record into the Pac-12 championship, then win. In seven years of the CFP, Utah's final CFP rankings have been, in order from 2014 through 2020: No. 22, No. 22, No. 19, not ranked, No. 17, No. 11 and not ranked. The Utes have been a consistent presence in the CFP rankings, appearing there in 30 out of a possible 42 weeks (roughly 71 percent of the time), but they hadn't been ranked better than No. 10 until the second half of the 2019 season. They had been ranked No. 10 for one week during the 2015 season.

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Raymond Carlin III | USA TODAY Sports Images Oklahoma State has been ranked the second-most in the CFP rankngs among teams that haven't made the playoff.

2. Oklahoma State

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 29
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 6
Best final CFP ranking: No. 12

Oklahoma State's rival, Oklahoma, has appeared in the College Football Playoff four times in the first seven years of the playoff, while winning the conference championship in each of the last six years. But the Cowboys have appeared in the CFP rankings the second-most often of any Big 12 team and the ninth-most nationally, entering the 2021 season.

Oklahoma State peaked at No. 6 in the CFP rankings after starting 10-0 in the 2015 season. At that point in the season, Clemson (No. 1), Ohio State (No. 3) and Iowa (No. 5) were also undefeated with a 10-0 record. However, the Cowboys lost their final two regular-season games to Baylor (45-35) and Oklahoma (58-23) to finish the regular season 10-2, which resulted in Oklahoma State finishing at No. 16 in the CFP rankings.

In the first seven years of the CFP era, Oklahoma State's final CFP rankings since 2014 have been: not ranked, No. 16, No. 12, No. 19, not ranked, No. 25 and No. 21, respectively.

Adam Hagy | USA Today Sports Among teams that haven't made the playoff, Florida is tied for third in terms of most weeks ranked.

T-3. Florida

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 28
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 6
Best final CFP ranking: No. 7

In each of the last three seasons, Florida has finished in the top 10 of the final CFP rankings, while improving its final CFP ranking year over year, so the Gators certainly belong on the short list of FBS programs that could be the next to break through and make the playoff for the first time. They've peaked at No. 6 in the CFP rankings, where they spent three weeks last season, when the Gators improved from 6-1 to 8-1 on the season.

Since the start of the CFP, Florida has finished not ranked, No. 19, No. 17, not ranked, No.10, No. 9 and No. 7, respectively, in the CFP rankings since 2014.

Last season, Florida pushed SEC champion and eventual national champion Alabama in the SEC title game, which the Crimson Tide won 52-46. Florida also fell to Alabama in the SEC championship in 2015 and 2016, but the margin of those games were larger in favor of the Crimson Tide.

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Mary Langenfeld | USA TODAY Sports Images Among teams that haven't made the playoff, Wisconsin is tied for third in terms of most weeks ranked.

T-3. Wisconsin

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 28
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 4
Best final CFP ranking: No. 6

Through the first seven years of the playoff era, Wisconsin has finished in the top eight of the CFP rankings as many times (three) as it has finished unranked in the final CFP rankings of the season. So while the Badgers' status in the rankings can fluctuate from season to season, they've put themselves in about as strong of a position to make the playoff as any team that has never been selected to compete in the four-team field.

After winning the first two Big Ten championship games in 2011 and 2012, under the previous Leaders and Legends divisions format, Wisconsin has fallen in the championship game four times in the last seven years — and three times to Ohio State. So you can make the case that the biggest hurdle between it and the playoff is Ohio State, just like many other Big Ten schools.

Wisconsin lost to Ohio State 27-21 in the 2017 Big Ten championship, one season after it lost to Penn State 38-31 in the conference title game, and the Badgers went 13-1 in the former season, so they've been on the precipice of being a Big Ten champion (and a playoff team), but they haven't finished the job yet.

Jake Crandall | USA TODAY Sports Images Among teams that haven't made the playoff, Auburn is fifth in terms of most weeks ranked.

5. Auburn

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 27
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 2
Best final CFP ranking: No. 7

Auburn played in the SEC championship three times last decade, including two conference titles in 2010 and 2013, so the Tigers have proven they can play with, and beat, the best in the country, but they're still searching for their first playoff bid. In 2017, they arrived in Atlanta for the SEC championship with a chance to become the first two-loss team to make the playoff (they had already beaten No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in a three-week span, but Georgia won the rematch. Auburn peaked at No. 2 in the CFP rankings in Week 14 of the 2017 season, when the Tigers finished the regular season 10-2 after beating Alabama.

Auburn has finished the season ranked in the final CFP rankings four times in the seven years of the playoff era, including No. 7 (2017), No. 12 (2019), No. 14 (2016) and No. 19 (2014).

The biggest hurdle for Auburn to make the CFP is that it shares a division with rival Alabama, which has won three of the seven national championships during the playoff era and it has made the playoff in six of the seven years. The Tigers have beaten the Crimson Tide in two of the last four years and four times the last decade, so they can compete with their powerhouse rival, but the SEC West also includes strong programs such as LSU and Texas A&M, which makes the path a difficult one.

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Kirby Lee | USA TODAY Sports Images Among teams that haven't made the playoff, USC is sixth in terms of most weeks ranked.

6. Southern California

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 26
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 8
Best final CFP ranking: No. 8

Southern California, winner of nine national championships (one was later vacated), is still searching for its first College Football Playoff appearance. The Trojans have finished in the CFP rankings six times in the first seven years of the playoff era, including three top-15 finishes and two finishes in the top 10. Southern California finished at No. 9 in 2016, then at No. 8 in 2017. From 2014 through 2020, the Trojans' final CFP rankings were as follows: No. 24, No. 25, No. 9, No. 8, not ranked, No. 22 and No. 13.

In 2016, Southern California started the season 1-3 after losing to Alabama on a neutral field, and Stanford and Utah on the road, but the Trojans won eight games in a row to end the season.

The next year, Southern California started 4-0, including a double-overtime win over Texas, and the Trojans went 10-2 in the regular season before winning the Pac-12 championship.

The Pac-12 as a conference is still searching for another CFP appearance after four seasons in a row without being represented in the four-team field, following Washington's playoff appearance during the 2016 season.

Rick Osentoski | USA TODAY Sports Images Michigan has four top-15 finishes in the CFP rankings.

7. Michigan

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 25
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 3
Best final CFP ranking: No. 6

While Michigan has yet to make the College Football Playoff, the Wolverines have finished in the top 15 of the final College Football Playoff rankings four times: No. 6 (2016), No. 7 (2018) and No. 14 (2015 and 2019).

Ohio State has won its last eight meetings against Michigan and 15 of the last 16, meaning the Wolverines will have to get back on the right side of the rivalry in order to make the Big Ten championship, let alone the CFP.

In 2016, Michigan started 9-0 but finished 10-2 after losing to Iowa and Ohio State on the road by a combined four points, including a double-overtime defeat to the Buckeyes. That matchup was No. 2 versus No. 3, with Ohio State ranked one spot ahead of Michigan, when the Wolverines had earned their program-best No. 3 ranking in the CFP rankings four weeks in a row.

Then in 2018, after a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, Michigan rattled off 10 wins in a row but lost to Ohio State 62-39 in its season finale to once again finish the regular season 10-2.

Matthew O'Haren | USA TODAY Sports Images Penn State has peaked at No. 4 in the CFP rankings.

8. Penn State

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 24
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 4
Best final CFP ranking: No. 5

From the 2016 season through 2019, Penn State finished at No. 5, No. 9, No. 12 and No. 10, respectively. In 2016, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship after beating Ohio State 24-21 during the regular season. However, Penn State lost to Pitt and Michigan, meaning it finished with an 11-2 record when the final CFP rankings were released and Ohio State ultimately made the playoff instead, after going 11-1 in the regular season.

Penn State's best ranking ever came in the initial CFP rankings release in Week 11 of the 2019 season, when the Nittany Lions started 8-0 and earned the No. 4 ranking. That 8-0 start included wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa, but Penn State finished the regular season 10-2 after losing on the road to Minnesota and Ohio State.

Dale Zanine | USA TODAY Sports Images Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the first-ever CFP rankings.

9. Mississippi State

Weeks in the CFP rankings: 22
Highest-ever CFP ranking: No. 1
Best final CFP ranking: No. 7

Only six schools have been ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings — Alabama (23 weeks), Clemson (eight weeks), Ohio State (three weeks), LSU (three weeks), Georgia (two weeks) ... and yes, Mississippi State (three weeks).

During the first season of the playoff era, Mississippi State debuted at No. 1 after a 7-0 start and the Bulldogs held that position for three weeks as they improved to 9-0. That season, Mississippi State finished No. 7 in the CFP rankings after going 10-2. The Bulldogs also finished in the CFP rankings in 2018 (No. 18) and 2017 (No. 23).

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