When the initial College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled it confirmed what many have observed in the first three seasons of the relatively new college football championship system. If you are not in a Power Five conference, your team is going to be on the outside looking in on the College Football Playoff. Despite being looked at favorably in both the AP and Coaches Polls, UCF came in at No. 18, a few spots lower than the weekly polls put the Knights.
There is little margin of error for Group of Five teams to even make a New Year’s Six bowl game. While the Group of Five is guaranteed a spot in one of the major bowl games, more often than not it is going to be awarded to an undefeated team.
It did not help matters that UCF was coming off a matchup against Austin Peay, a game that was added after the season started to make up for a canceled Georgia Tech game because of Hurricane Irma. UCF was likely dinged by the committee for a weak strength of schedule. The Sagarin ratings ranked UCF’s schedule 99th heading into Week 10.
When the current College Football Playoff system was announced, one of the big debates was whether a Group of Five team could ever make the College Football Playoff under the new format.
Let’s take a look at what history tells us.
Can a Group of 5 Team Make the College Football Playoff?
By the looks of things, 2017 will not be the season where the debate is put to the test. Since the inception of the playoff, the 2016 Houston team had the best chance of slipping into the final four teams.
The Cougars were coming off a dominant Peach Bowl win over Florida State. Houston started the 2016 season with a win over Oklahoma. Unfortunately for Cougars fans, Houston was upset two times before the initial College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled. Had Houston stayed unbeaten they likely would have been the highest ranked Group of Five team ever under the current system.
The committee says the AP and Coaches polls do not impact the playoff rankings, but it is hard to imagine the committee does not look at these rankings for the first two months of the season. Last week’s College Football Playoff rankings were full of similar teams that were ranked in the two polls. Fans often dismiss pre-season college football rankings, but it absolutely matters for Group of Five teams.
USF started the season ranked in the polls, and it would have been interesting to see how high they would have started in the playoff rankings had they not lost last week to Houston.
The silver lining for UCF and Memphis fans is Group of Five teams have climbed up the polls in past years. Last season, Western Michigan started No. 23 in the initial poll, and moved up to No. 15 before their Cotton Bowl matchup with Wisconsin. UCF still has plenty of time to climb with an upcoming matchup against USF as well as potentially the AAC championship game.
When the initial 2015 rankings were revealed, Memphis was ranked 13th, Temple was 22nd and Toledo was 24th. How were the Tigers able to start so high in the rankings? Memphis had a win over Ole Miss that helped propel them forward. When the final 2015 rankings were unveiled that decided the bowl pairings, Houston (12-1) was the highest non-Power Five team ranked at 18. Navy was ranked 21st at 9-2, while Temple was 10-3 and ranked 24th.
In the first ever College Football Playoff rankings in 2014, ECU was ranked 23rd, and Boise State became the inaugural team to represent the Group of Five after being ranked 20th in the Selection Day rankings.
What does all this mean? History shows it is hard for a Group of Five team to even come close to being in the conversation. Yes, part of this is the system, but part of the difficulty is teams have crumbled under the weight of expectations. Since the College Football Playoff started, Memphis and Houston had the best chance to challenge, but both teams ended up with multiple losses by season’s end. No matter what conference a team plays, it is difficult to run the table.
For whatever reason, we have come to accept this reality for Power Five teams, as last season three of the four playoff teams had one loss. This season two of the top four teams already have a loss, while Georgia and Alabama appear on a collision course to playing each other in the SEC championship that will add a blemish on one of these teams.
The Group of Five’s Best Chance Is Expansion
Remember when Boise State and TCU were competitive nearly every year in the old BCS system? Although both teams came close, they never had the opportunity to play for a title. The argument was the two teams played in a weak conference (Mountain West), and were not tested every week like the Power Five teams were.
After years of striking out, TCU took the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach. The Horned Frogs accepted an invitation to join the Big 12, because TCU was so inferior fans knew it would take the Horned Frogs decades to compete against the big boys. Except it did not, as TCU was competitive from the start, and has now overtaken Texas as the best team in a football-rich state. Since joining the conference, TCU has won five of their six matchups with Texas, including the last four games.
TCU proved what many in underdog conferences have known for years, college football is about resources and opportunity. TCU had been competitive for years, and their addition to the Big 12 merely gave them a seat at the table they should have already been able to eat at.
Ask yourself whether players in smaller conferences should be penalized by a conference system where many universities were given spots in Power Five conferences before they were even born. This year, it is hard for me to imagine the top of the AAC (American Athletic Conference) is not at least competitive with the top teams in Power Five leagues.
The AAC already has wins this season against Illinois, Maryland and UCLA. While these teams are far from elite, it shows the top AAC teams can compete against teams from any conference. In past years, the AAC (via Houston and UCF) also defeated Florida State and Baylor in postseason play.
The argument against a Group of Five team making the College Football Playoff is they have not had to endure the same sort of schedule of Power Five teams. While this is true in most cases, the Group of Five teams have also not had the benefit of some of the additional resources that Power Five schools have that enable them to become elite football teams.
The reality is in the current system it is extremely difficult for a Group of Five team to ever have a chance at making the playoff. Despite the chaos that happened this past weekend, UCF is unlikely to move up more than a spot or two when the latest rankings are unveiled.
UCF still has a massive Black Friday matchup against rival USF, and if it is victorious will advance to the AAC championship in a likely rematch against Memphis. This will boost a strength of schedule that currently ranks 92nd, but it is unlikely to catapult the Knights much higher than a top 10 showing if UCF wins out. In this scenario, UCF is likely headed to the Peach Bowl as the highest ranked Group of Five team.
In the current system, UCF could help themselves have an outside chance in 2018 with a strong finish to this season. Next season, UCF returns the majority of their team (pending Scott Frost), and has non-conference matchups against Pitt and North Carolina. If UCF could start the season as a perceived top-caliber team, they stand a much better chance of being higher in the College Football Playoff rankings on Selection Sunday.
The truth is we do not know if UCF or any other Group of Five team could compete on the big stage against college football’s elite. We don’t know, because Group of Five teams are unlikely to ever be given the opportunity in the current system.
For the AAC and other G5 conferences, the best chance of ever setting foot in the College Football Playoff would be for it to be expanded to eight teams. Under the new system, a playoff birth could be awarded to each of the Power Five champions along with the highest ranked Group of Five team. This would still leave two at-large spots for the highest ranked remaining teams.
Even if the committee voted to move to eight at-large spots with no guarantees for conference champions, it still leaves the tournament a much more attainable goal than the pie in the sky Group of Five teams are being offered in the current system.
Don’t think teams like UCF and Memphis could compete against Power Five champions? Only one way to find out, and there’s plenty of room on the field.
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