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College Football Playoff newcomers: Which team can make its debut in the top four?

With the return of FBS leading rusher Breece Hall (left) and QB Brock Purdy (right), FPI projects Iowa State to have the third-best offense in the nation this season Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

While history doesn't favor the odds, it is possible for teams other than Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma to compete in the College Football Playoff.

Oregon and Washington have done it. LSU won it all in 2020.

So why not USC? Iowa State? Texas A&M?

It's not complicated, at least for Power 5 teams (and starting with any team that has a realistic chance to win the conference), but it's far from easy to garner serious consideration. The typical playoff path: win a conference title, knock off a handful of ranked opponents, beat a respectable Power 5 nonconference opponent and finish undefeated or with one loss.

Even then it's not guaranteed -- one team is always left out.

The sheer difficulty of winning every week, combined with the varying opinions in a subjective system, plus some scheduling luck -- teams can only hope the selection committee thinks their opponents are top-25 material -- are why only a handful of elite teams have appeared in the top four. Four teams -- Alabama and Clemson at six apiece, and Ohio State and Oklahoma at four each -- account for 20 of 28 semifinal appearances.

"I think anybody that follows football even casually can figure out that the teams you mentioned, they probably start on the inside lane in August when we start, and a lot of us start in lane eight or nine," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's always been that way, but I'd also say ... over time, things can shift a little bit. Best advice: You gotta win every game. If you want to be in the final four, if you win every game, at least your chances are a hell of a lot better than they would be if you lost one. You probably have no chance if you lose one, if you're a school like Iowa."

What about a school like Iowa State?

Coming off a Fiesta Bowl win and a top-10 finish in the Associated Press poll, the Cyclones have a veteran team capable of winning the Big 12, and possibly more. They are No. 4 in ESPN's Preseason Football Power Index, behind No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Clemson.

"The reality for Iowa State is, it'll never be easy," coach Matt Campbell said. "... You know you have to really be clicking on all cylinders when it matters the most. We know that, we understand that. That's the great challenge, and there's joy of going up the rough side of the mountain. The reality here is, you're always going up the rough side of the mountain."

That doesn't mean reaching the top can't, or won't, happen.

Here are seven teams that have never made the CFP, but have true potential to shake up an otherwise predictable postseason: