Ready or not, the 12-team Playoff is here.

The start of the 12-team Playoff era means that the entire conversation about being in contention will shift. A more inclusive field doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’re about to see more variety with national champs. For this discussion, we’re not focused on who’ll win a national championship; we’re just focused on who’ll play for one.

The goal for this series is to predict the first 12-team Playoff with 100% accuracy. It’s never been done before. I’d like to think I can become the first person in human history to do that.

Every day of this series, I’ll unveil 1 of my 12-team Playoff picks, starting with the No. 12 seed and working all the way down to the No. 1 seed. Remember these parameters with the seeding of the 12-team Playoff:

  • ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC champs get an automatic bid
  • The top-ranked Group of 5 conference champ also gets an automatic bid
  • The 7 remaining teams are selected and receive at-large bids
  • The 4 highest-ranked conference champs are seeded 1-4 with a first-round bye

Need any other clarifications? I think we’re good.

So far, here are the teams I have in the field:

Let’s continue with the No. 5 seed … Texas.

Why the Playoff path exists

Strip the name for a second here. Forget about whether Texas is “back” and just consider this: A 12-win team that ranks in the top 1/3 in percentage of returning production that doesn’t have any major coaching changes — I’m not trying to diminish Bo Davis’ return to LSU, but that’s different from having an entirely new coaching staff — absolutely has a path to the Playoff. I would say that if the field were still at 4 and not triple the size.

But what about the new SEC gauntlet, you ask? Uh, Texas didn’t get the memo. Texas instead got a Year 1 SEC schedule that includes 2 conference foes that won 8 games last year (Oklahoma and Georgia). Half of Texas’ SEC foes failed to make a bowl game in 2023. The Longhorns’ lone SEC road trip before mid-November is to Vanderbilt. That mid-November road trip is at Arkansas, which is trying to bounce back from a 4-8 season that put Sam Pittman’s job in jeopardy. A gauntlet? Not in SEC play.

Related: Looking to place a bet on the 2024 Heisman Trophy? SDS has you covered with all the latest odds!

On paper, a trip to Ann Arbor won’t be a picnic. Michigan earned the right to be the defending national champs. But if there’s ever a time to face the Wolverines, this is it. It’s a September matchup against a first-time head coach with a team that has a new quarterback and ranks bottom 5 in America in percentage of returning production.

Nothing about Texas’ schedule is a roadblock. Outside of Notre Dame, there might not be a contender with a more favorable path to the Playoff. There’s a reason DraftKings Sportbook set the Longhorns over/under win total at 10.5.

The potential roadblock

There’s a chance that I’m overlooking the fact that this will be a new-look Texas defensive line with the aforementioned Davis off to LSU, and Byron Murphy and Outland Trophy winner T’Vondre Sweat off to the NFL. If the Longhorns struggle to get off the field in key spots against SEC competition, we’ll point to the defensive line transition in Year 1 of the SEC as a roadblock.

But I’ll instead point to star quarterback Quinn Ewers’ injury history as a potential roadblock. The preseason Heisman Trophy favorite missed multiple games in his 2 years as a starter. Texas overcame that in 2023 because Maalik Murphy filled in well enough to keep Playoff hopes alive.

I know what you’re thinking — why can’t Arch Manning do the same? And even if he can’t, isn’t there more margin for error?

Related: Who will win it all in 2024? SDS has the latest betting odds for who’ll win the next national championship!

Manning can do the same job that Murphy did. Maybe better. Steve Sarkisian praised Manning’s spring performance, and then we saw him explode in his redshirt freshman spring game. Manning certainly looks the part. But as we know, there are no guarantees with that. He could play well for 95% of a game and have a performance like Mac Jones did in the 2019 Iron Bowl where he was excellent, but 2 pick-sixes proved costly for Alabama.

Yes, the schedule and the expanded Playoff are forgiving. That’s the good news, as is an offensive line with 4 returning starters and perhaps the best blindside protector in America in Kelvin Banks, Jr.

The bad news is that the timing of another potential Ewers injury could still be devastating if it happens in early October. Oklahoma and Georgia are back-to-back weeks. Those should be 2 elite defenses that could fluster a first-time college starter, even one as decorated as Manning. If the Longhorns stumbled in those 2 games, they could need to win out to get to 10 wins and that might not even be enough to get to Atlanta to play for a first-round bye.

Granted, 10 wins should still be enough to reach the Playoff. It’ll be stunning if Texas runs into a roadblock and is on the outside looking in with a 9-3 regular season.

Odds that they win a Playoff game

Is 87% too high? Don’t care.

I’m basing this on the projection I have for Texas as the No. 5 seed with a home Playoff game against a likely Group of 5 team. Remember that. This isn’t necessarily Texas’ odds of beating Oregon or Ohio State. That’s big.

Let’s also remember that Texas’ real strength should be that offensive line. This team will be built to play in December with a potentially dynamic running back duo of CJ Baxter and Jaydon Blue. It’s got a defense that has less turnover than some might think with Sweat and Murphy gone. But perhaps most important, it has a quarterback with Playoff experience and a head coach who called plays in 3 Playoff games (2 as Alabama’s OC and 1 as Texas’ head coach).

Texas should be able to beat you in a variety of ways in 2024. That’s why the Longhorns are — dare I say — returning.

Predicting the Playoff will continue on Friday with No. 4 … Oklahoma State.