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The College Football Playoff will expand to feature 12 teams this season. While greater access for more schools brings with it the promise of a Cinderella story and unexpected title chase, reality will pour cold water on those hopes more often than not. Truth is, while more teams will reach the CFP, the eventual champions will come from a pool of familiar programs. The parity we're more likely to see is the kind that makes a dynasty similar to the one under Nick Saban at Alabama or the burgeoning one under Kirby Smart at Georgia difficult to form.

If we're looking for Cinderella in this new age, she'll be found in the regular season. She'll be the team that exceeds preseason expectations to grab an at-large berth out of nowhere.

Since it's June, and I felt a tinge of excitement when the CFP announced its broadcast schedule for 2024-25, I couldn't imagine a better time to identify the possible Cinderella stories for the upcoming season. I wanted to find the teams that, whether it be the perfect timing of a veteran roster, a few breaks in the schedule or just dumb luck, could be that team from each of the Power Four conferences. The only parameter I set for eligibility was that the team had a preseason win total of 7.5 or lower.

Plenty of teams met the criteria, but in the end, these are the four I feel not only fit the bill of being considered a Cinderella if they reached the CFP, but also have a chance to slide into that glass slipper.

ACC - Syracuse (Win total: 7)

I considered Pitt as another possibility from the ACC. While I have some trepidation about Syracuse in Fran Brown's first season as a head coach at any level, everything else seems like a perfect fit. The Orange are coming off a 6-7 season and have played in a bowl game in each of the last two years. While the Dino Babers era was up and down (10 wins in 2018, one in 2020), the team found a level in the last three seasons, going 18-20. The gap between fighting for bowls and a 10-win season worthy of an at-large is wide, but not nearly as wide as it is for teams coming off three- and four-win seasons.

Brown has injected a lot of energy and excitement into the program, which is great, but he's also enhanced the talent level. Ohio State fans may have a wide range of opinions on Kyle McCord, but there's no question he's an upgrade at the QB position compared to what Syracuse had last year, particularly in the passing game. Garrett Shrader was useful as a battering ram in the run game, but 'Cuse finished 13th in the ACC last season in EPA per dropback, and its Whoopsy Daisy Rate (fumbles and interceptions divided by dropbacks) of 4.61% was the worst in the ACC by a wide margin. 

Enter McCord, who will not be used in the run game as much but won't need to be. Oronde Gadsden will be a plus at tight end, while newcomers like Justus Ross-Simmons and Zeed Haynes will round out a deeper receiver corps. Then there's LeQuint Allen, who finished third amongst ACC running backs last season with 1,064 yards rushing. The offense is positioned to score more than the 23.5 points per game they did last season.

Then there's the schedule. The most difficult games appear to be at NC State in mid-October and the regular-season finale at home against Miami. While there will be other tricky games (vs. Georgia Tech, at Pitt, and vs. Virginia Tech come to mind), there is no Florida State or Clemson. In the ACC, you cannot ask for a friendlier schedule break than that.

Big Ten - Rutgers (6)

It will be fascinating to follow the new-look Big Ten in the years to come. With four new programs of varying levels of success joining the league and the removal of divisions, some programs have the chance to improve their station in the league, while others may find themselves going the other direction. Five years from now, I have no idea what the league will look like (hell, it might have two more schools by then), but as for 2024, Rutgers strikes me as the school best positioned to take advantage of the changes immediately.

The Greg Schiano Era Part 2 has been a slow, steady climb that saw the Scarlet Knights make a bowl game last season due to winning at least six games for the first time since 2014. Their win total of six this season suggests they're expected to return to the postseason, and perhaps they can do something they've yet to do under Schiano: post a winning conference record. Transfer WR Dymere Miller could be the dynamic playmaker this offense has lacked in the passing game, and while I'm not especially high on new starting QB Athan Kaliakmanis, he should be an improvement over Gavin Wimsatt in the passing game. Considering Rutgers finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every passing category that matters, it'd be hard to get worse. (2023 Iowa did exist, so it is possible.)

Like Syracuse, the biggest boost could be the schedule. The nonconference features a tough trip to Virginia Tech, and the Knights will be on the road against Nebraska and USC. They also have to deal with Washington and Wisconsin in New Jersey. But you know who they don't have to deal with anywhere? The three teams that have stomped on their heads every year since Rutgers joined the Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Rutgers also avoids Oregon, which I argue is the strongest of the four Big Ten newcomers in 2024. It's not crazy to believe that Rutgers could be the 2024 version of what Iowa has been in the Big Ten. Ugly wins are wins all the same.

Big 12 - Iowa State (7.5)

Speaking of the Hawkeye State, how about that other power-conference team in Iowa? Trying to find a Cinderella in the Big 12 isn't easy. Not because there aren't teams capable of doing it, but because you could realistically list the entire league. Saturdays this fall in the Big 12 will be filled with coin-flip games, and I won't be shocked if Iowa State ends up on the winning side of plenty of them.

First of all, it's not like it would be anything new for the Cyclones to surprise people. Things have tapered off a bit in recent seasons, but it was only a few years ago when Iowa State went 9-3 and reached as high as No. 6 in the CFP Rankings, finishing the season at No. 10. That season, Brock Purdy and Breece Hall lead the Cyclones to a Fiesta Bowl. If you squint a little bit, Rocco Becht and Abu Sama look like they can be a similar combination.

Becht flew under the radar as a freshman last season, and while we've seen players regress in their sophomore seasons plenty of times before, I like Becht's chances to maintain a level of play that saw Iowa State rank fourth in the Big 12 in EPA per dropback last season -- at a minimum. Furthermore, this is a team that returns a lot of its key contributors from last season, which could provide an edge in a league where the top and bottom aren't separated by a lot. 

If there's a concern, it's the schedule. Not only is there the road trip to Iowa in Week 2, but the Cyclones will be on the road for big games against Kansas and Utah in November before finishing the regular season with Kansas State the week after the Utes. That's a rough home stretch.

SEC - Auburn (7.5)

I'll get this out of the way right now: based on my criteria for selecting a Cinderella, I feel safe saying there will not be a Cinderella at-large out of the SEC this season. The league is too deep at the top. While I've chosen Auburn for this project, the truth is nine other teams in the league have a better shot at making the playoff than the Tigers. But it's not impossible! Auburn has been a chaos agent for a while, and it's won a national title and played for another in the last 15 years.

Plus, it's a talented team. The Tigers don't have the depth of talent others in the SEC have, but if they get lucky with injuries, they have enough to compete with just about anybody they'll face during the regular season. I'm not overly high on Payton Thorne -- Auburn's passing attack was pretty bad last year -- but I've learned over the years to give coach Hugh Freeze the benefit of the doubt with his QBs. He does a good job of wringing every ounce of ability out of them.

Ultimately, the rest of the league and the schedule will likely keep the Tigers from reaching their Cinderella potential. They're on the road for both Georgia and Alabama this season, plus Missouri and Kentucky. Toss in some home dates with Oklahoma and Texas A&M, and maybe they could squeeze into the CFP with a 9-3 record, but it won't be easy.