We're less than three months away from the opening weekend of college football and people are already beginning to speculate about what the playoff will look like. And with so much talent returning to the gridiron in 2016, the possibilities are endless.
Understanding how each program operates and ultimately succeeds gives us enough insight into the future to determine which programs are positioned for success far beyond the upcoming 2016 college football season.
A number of things come into play when determining this: how a program recruits, rebuilds and reloads talent is paramount, but it's not everything. Coaching, culture and conference also play major roles in a program's outlook.
With this in mind, it's worth taking a shot at predicting what the next five College Football Playoff foursomes will look like.
The 2016-17 College Football Playoff
After falling just short of a national title in 2015, the Clemson Tigers, led by Heisman Trophy-winner Deshaun Watson, fight their way back to the College Football Playoff - with redemption on their mind. The Tigers are loaded with talent to help Watson reach this position, featuring a backfield and wide receiving corps that can holds its ground against any defense in the country.
The Volunteers live up to the hype and take advantage of a favorable schedule on their way to a victory over Alabama in the SEC title game and a trip to the College Football Playoff. Tennessee has to strike while the iron is hot and does just that behind a plethora of talent in Knoxville, led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd.
Taking advantage of an Ohio State team recovering from a mass departure of talent to the NFL during the offseason, Michigan captures the Big Ten title and earns a playoff berth during Jim Harbaugh's second year at the helm of the ship. The Wolverines have struggles of their own on the way, but eventually get it done. The return of Michigan to college football title contention is a welcomed scene, even beyond Ann Arbor.
Baylor's off-field distractions make the journey a little easier, but it's the Sooners' talent that gets Oklahoma back to the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season. Led by quarterback Baker Mayfield and the best running back duo in the country in Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Bob Stoops' bunch enters December with tons of momentum.
The 2017-18 College Football Playoff
After missing out on the College Football Playoff during the 2016 season, Ohio State, led by now-senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, is right back in the mix of things, taking the Big Ten back from Jim Harbaugh's Michigan. Barrett was key for the Buckeyes in 2016, and nothing changes in 2017. A season-long Heisman campaign is only part of the story as he leads the Buckeyes back to the playoff.
The Seminoles fell just short of a talented Clemson team in 2016, ending their playoff hopes. But 2017 is a different story as FSU regains control of the ACC and moves on to the College Football Playoff for the first time since 2014. Jimbo Fisher's group is as talented as any team in the country, led by second-year starting quarterback Deondre Francois on offense and star safety Derwin James on defense.
Tennessee took advantage of the perfect opportunity during the 2016 season, knocking Alabama off its SEC throne thanks to a loaded roster, but you can't keep the Tide down forever. Star running back Bo Scarbrough leads Alabama to another conference title on the way to the College Football Playoff. An always-stout defense helps Scarbrough along the way, and Nick Saban continues his dominance in the SEC.
Despite finding itself just outside playoff contention for the past few years, Notre Dame finally builds enough of an argument to earn one of four playoff spots in 2017. Who needs a Power 5 conference when you have senior quarterback DeShone Kizer lighting up the scoreboard, making a solid case for the Heisman Trophy?
The 2018-19 College Football Playoff
The Mighty Ducks return to title contention in 2018, thanks to finally having a starting quarterback who has grown up in the system run in Eugene. Junior quarterback Terry Wilson helps lead an always-speedy Oregon team through a difficult Pac-12 schedule on the way to the College Football Playoff. A talented defensive line only adds to their threat, shutting down just about every offense they come up against during the regular season.
LSU has found itself fighting Alabama for position in the SEC West for years now, falling just short of the Tide in terms of conference hierarchy. That changes in 2018, though, as the Tigers take down the Tide on their way to a playoff berth. The nation's top defense does most of the work, finally taking advantage of elite recruiting class after elite recruiting class in Baton Rouge. Senior wide receiver Tyron Johnson puts on a show all season long.
For the second consecutive season, the Florida State Seminoles capture the ACC title on their way to the College Football Playoff. Thanks to an exciting freshman campaign from freshman running back James Cook, younger brother of former FSU star Dalvin Cook, the 'Noles run away with things in their own conference. A stellar defense deserves most of the credit, though, as Jimbo Fisher's back-to-back top-5 recruiting classes in 2015 and 2016 prove to be as valuable as ever.
The dance continues between Michigan and rival Ohio State, as the Wolverines bounce back after missing out on the fun in 2017 and reclaim the Big Ten and earn a trip to the College Football Playoff in 2018. Head coach Jim Harbaugh's work on the recruiting trail is finally beginning to pay off, giving the Wolverines the ability to actually compete with Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has built something special, too.
The 2019-20 College Football Playoff
One of the most talented teams in the country returns to college football title contention in 2019, a long-awaited result for the seniors who have been so close in years past. The Trojans are stacked at the skill positions, led by senior wide receiver Michael Pittman who has to be the top wide out in the Pac-12. While the offense has been fun to watch, it's USC's menacing defense that has led to this playoff berth.
It's almost as if Michigan and Ohio State have been playing leap frog over the last few years, and it's been fun to watch. Two of the best coaches in college football have resurrected one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. In 2019, it's all about the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten. Senior quarterback Dwayne Haskins lives up to the hype he received coming in as a recruit in 2016, making a run at the Heisman Trophy on the way to the College Football Playoff.
After watching the Seminoles control the ACC for the past couple of years, the Clemson Tigers make their way back to the College Football Playoff. It's all about quarterback play for the Tigers in 2019 and junior Hunter Johnson, a key member of the 2017 recruiting class, is everything they hoped for and more. His arm, paired with the freakishly athlete skill talent on the roster, makes for a dangerous combination.
It may have taken four seasons to get it done, but Kirby Smart finally leads the Bulldogs through the SEC and onto the College Football Playoff during his fourth season at the helm of the ship. Every player on the roster is now from one of his four recruiting class at UGA, allowing his vision to finally come to fruition. The Dawgs are stacked at every position. Jacob Eason decided to return for his senior season and is rewarded with a chance to play for a title.
The 2020-21 College Football Playoff
The Bulldogs may have lost senior quarterback Jacob Eason to the NFL Draft, but redshirt junior Jake Fromm is ready to step in and take the reins. To help the transition, Georgia is still absolutely loaded at the skill positions and it shows on the football field. The SEC title game was no cake walk, but it only provides the Dawgs with much-needed momentum heading into the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season.
It's no surprise the Wolverines are back in the College Football Playoff, thanks to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, who has done nothing short of living up to the hype. McCaffrey does it all for Michigan in 2020, leading his squad to an epic overtime victory against Ohio State to pretty much seal their fate in the Big Ten. The conference title game would prove to be a scrimmage by comparison.
After finding itself on the outside for the past three seasons, Oklahoma fights its way back to the College Football Playoff in 2020, giving head coach Bob Stoops a chance at another title in Norman. Running back Trey Sermon and wide receivers Jalen Reagor and Charleston Rambo have been tremendous all season long, making things easy for quarterback Chris Robison. Back on top of the Big 12, the Sooners enter the playoff with plenty of confidence.
Led by one of the best running backs in the country in James Cook, the Seminoles manage to get a key victory over the Clemson Tigers and then take full advantage of a manageable schedule on their way to the College Football Playoff. As it has done for years, FSU feeds off its stellar defense throughout the regular season, taking some of the pressure off the offense. Senior quarterback Bailey Hockman has all the help he needs as the 'Noles turn their attention to the playoff.