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USC, Penn State look to take next step into CFP

Saquon Barkley is the centerpiece of a Penn State team that hopes to take the final step toward a College Football Playoff berth in 2017. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There was possibly no greater tease to the 2017 season than the Rose Bowl's fantastic finish, which left fans begging for more after USC's last-second, 52-49 win over No. 5 Penn State -- a game that featured two of the hottest teams in the country that were locked out of the College Football Playoff.

The question now is if they can pick up where they left off.

"[Penn State is] a really good team," USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, "they're going to be back next year."

USC should be, too.

"Having been in situations like this before, when I was a player and now as a coach -- I've been here at USC when we were preseason ranked No. 1, and we ended up 7-6," Martin said. "A lot of things have to happen. Even if you have so much going for you, it's not as easy as saying we have all these things, you've still got to play the game."

Several programs are on the cusp of cracking the selection committee's top four, but work still needs to be done to join the sport's elite. Here's a look at who is poised for the playoff this fall, listed in order of their 2016 CFP ranking:

Penn State

Final 2016 CFP rank: No. 5

2017 playoff position: The Big Ten champs could have been in the CFP last year, after beating Ohio State, but the Buckeyes were chosen instead, in spite of the head-to-head result.

"Whenever seasons don't end exactly the way you want them to, there's motivation for the following year," coach James Franklin said. "We did have a good year and gain from those experiences and playing on those stages, but there's only one team at the end of the year that's truly happy. The fact we have so many returning players who played in those settings and played on those stages, I do think that's going to be a motivator, a confidence-builder, a lot of those things."

With only one senior on offense, and three on defense, PSU was one of the youngest teams in the country last year. That bodes well for 2017, especially with the returning one-two punch of quarterback Trace McSorley and tailback Saquon Barkley.

"We can take the experiences that we had last year and use those experiences, but for us to think we're entitled now to success, that's not how it works," he said. "We have to make sure we keep our identity, which is blue-collar, hard-nosed, prepare like crazy and be ready for when opportunities come."

More specifically, they can't squander opportunities. Last year, PSU had a total of nine turnovers in its three losses (three vs. USC, four vs. Pitt and two vs. Michigan).

"The games that we won the turnover battle, I think we were 8-0," Franklin said. "That's an area we need to get better and be more consistent at, the other is third down. Those two areas are going to be real areas of focus."

Playoff path: Win three straight games -- Oct. 21 vs. Michigan, Oct. 28 at Ohio State and Nov. 4 at Michigan State. That stretch will determine Penn State's season.

Michigan

Final 2016 CFP rank: No. 6

2017 playoff position: It's time for the Harbaugh Effect to kick in, and the recruiting to pay dividends.

Michigan has to replace a whopping 17 starters from last season -- including a school-record 14 who went to the NFL combine. Harbaugh is entering Year 3. He has lured in three straight top-10 recruiting classes. He's 20-6. He has depth at quarterback, starting with Wilton Speight, who completed 61.6 percent of his passes last year in his first season as the starter. The question now is if the staff can translate the off-field success into a Big Ten title.

Playoff path: Beat Ohio State. Harbaugh is 0-2 so far, but the Wolverines will get the Buckeyes at home, and won't forget last year's 30-27 double-overtime loss in Columbus that left Harbaugh "bitterly disappointed" in the officiating.

USC

Final 2016 CFP rank: No. 9

2017 playoff position: With quarterback Sam Darnold returning, anything is possible -- as long as his supporting cast continues to execute.

One of the main priorities, agreed both Martin and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, is turnovers. Pac-12 champ Washington led the nation with 33 turnovers gained last year and was No. 2 in the country in turnover margin, while USC lost the ball 20 times (nine fumbles, 11 interceptions) and was tied for No. 67 in turnover margin.

"With the style of defense we play, the turnovers come in bunches a lot of times," Pendergast said. "That's something we need to get better at."

Pendergast, who is in his second season as the coordinator, said the players have grown more comfortable in the communication-driven defense. He said now that they know what's expected of them, spring practices have been spent on fundamentals and techniques.

"I knew it was going to take some time," he said. "When you put in a system and you put in a scheme you have to have some base principles of fronts and coverages that you believe in. We're a pressure-oriented team, but you can't pressure all the time. I've been a coordinator six different places. The guys have to get comfortable doing certain things I believe in before you can move on and start doing more of the pressure type things."

Playoff path: A September to remember. The Trojans play five straight weeks, including home games against Stanford and Texas, followed by back-to-back road games against Cal and Washington State. Sure, there's that Oct. 21 road trip to Notre Dame, and the regular-season finale against UCLA, but if USC can't assert itself in September, it won't matter.

Florida State

Final 2016 CFP rank: No. 11

2017 playoff position: Even without Dalvin Cook, the Noles should enter the fall as a top-five team.

FSU will have the nation's attention from the start, as its season-opener against Alabama will highlight Week 1, but it's not a make-or-break game for either program. Instead, it will be the first glimpse into how FSU stacks up against a program that has played in the national title game each of the past two seasons -- and it will earn the Noles some scheduling credit in the eyes of the committee. FSU returns QB Deondre Francois, but the return of defensive back Derwin James from a knee injury can't be understated.

Playoff path: Beat Clemson. The winner of that game has gone on to win the ACC every year since 2011 -- and has been in the playoff each of the past three seasons.

Big 12

Top contenders: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State

Playoff position: After a six-year hiatus, the Big 12 will add its conference championship game this season -- a move built to strengthen the league's position in the eyes of the selection committee.

After extensive analytical studies, the Big 12 learned its chances of appearing in the top four increased by about 10 percent with a title game.

"Oklahoma has been a good representative for us," commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "With all of the turmoil in Waco, it's hard to tell how they'll be in the future, but we expect Texas will continue to improve, and there are others that likely can compete. TCU has been right on the brink. We feel like we're competitive nationally, and yet we've been the odd man out, so we need to win some games."

Ironically, the Big 12 is bringing back its championship game one season after Ohio State was awarded a spot in the top four without even winning its division. Bowlsby said he spoke with "a number of different people," including CFP executive director Bill Hancock, about the system's inconsistencies.

"I think it's clear, and there were some things that were somewhat inconsistent from one year to the next, but that's just the nature of it," Bowlsby said. "We ask 13 honest people to do as good a job as they can. I'm part of a process that put them in place, so I'm not going to spend time questioning their judgment. I do think as we find our way, and we're three years into a 12-year package, us and others need to know what to expect. From Year 1 to Year 3, it didn't seem consistent, but my questions were satisfactorily answered."

Playoff path: The Big 12 is at its best when Texas and OU are at their best. Getting those two teams back into the national spotlight on championship weekend would be ideal, but the league could get an instant boost with an OU win in Columbus in Week 2, and a Texas win at USC in Week 3.