Is this the year a Group of 5 team can make the Playoff? Probably not, but these 4 teams intrigue me
I’m not saying it’ll happen.
A Group of 5 team hasn’t made the Playoff yet, and 2018 UCF was the only team to really sniff contention, though a down year in the AAC didn’t do the Knights any favors. Even as an undefeated team following an undefeated season in 2017, they were ranked No. 8 in the final Playoff poll before losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl.
People also forget about 2016 Houston squad with Tom Herman. That team was No. 6 in the AP Top 25 in October with a neutral-site win against Baker Mayfield’s Oklahoma squad under its belt. Go figure that after that ranking, that Houston squad actually smoked Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, as well. The problem, of course, was that a 4-3 finish to the regular season spoiled what absolutely had potential to be a Playoff-worthy year.
So why then, in a year in which Group of 5 opponents are almost exclusively playing one another, would this be the year that one of those squads could finally break through and make the Playoff?
While it’s still unlikely, let’s break down the basics here. As of right now, there are 2 Power 5 conferences that aren’t competing for a Playoff spot. On top of that, the loudest independent, Notre Dame, is in the ACC. The Irish have a regular-season matchup against Clemson, and then potentially a conference title game against the defending runners-up.
We have no idea what these rankings are going to look like without 41% of the Power 5 teams. All I know is that the biggest roadblock facing the Group of 5 has been the Power 5. If there was ever a year for a 2-loss Power 5 conference champ to make the field, it’s this one. On the flip side, the SEC and ACC are playing 2 more conference games than normal, which could certainly create a scenario in which the undefeated and 1-loss teams are few and far between.
Of course, if a Group of 5 team is going to get there, I think they’d need several things in their favor just to have an outside shot at a Playoff bid:
- Undefeated (duh)
- All wins by double digits (double duh)
- No 1-loss non-Power 5 champs
- Start in preseason Top 25
Again, that’s just to be in the conversation. For all I know, the College Football Playoff selection committee already made a subconscious decision to strictly focus on the Power 5. If we see something like a 2-loss Texas ranked ahead of an unbeaten Cincinnati, that’s probably a bad omen for the Group of 5’s Playoff chances.
But nonetheless, in a year that couldn’t be any weirder, it’s at least worth keeping a few teams on notice. Here are my top 4 candidates from the Group of 5 level to make the field (note that Boise State would be part of this if the Mountain West hadn’t canceled its fall season):
Cincinnati (No. 20 preseason AP Poll)
Why it could make it — Luke Fickell staying at Cincinnati didn’t get enough attention this offseason. Besides the Ohio State loss, the Bearcats’ only 2 blemishes on the year came in consecutive weeks to end the regular season to the Group of 5’s eventual representative in the New Year’s 6, Memphis. Those losses were on the road by 10 and 5 points, respectively. What got lost in the shuffle was that Cincinnati beat a pair of Power 5 teams by double digits to bookend the season.
That team lost valuable All-AAC tight end Josiah Deguara and stud tailback Michael Warren, but it still ranks No. 31 in percentage of returning production. Former Alabama running back Jerome Ford is set to take Warren’s place after receiving immediate eligibility. He and 3rd-year starting quarterback Desmond Ridder should form a capable 1-2 punch.
But it’s Fickell’s defense that’ll really make the Bearcats an intriguing team to watch. A top-25 unit returns 76% of its production from a year ago, including a loaded secondary led by safeties Darrick Forest and James Wiggins (Wiggins actually doesn’t count much on the returning production stat because he tore his ACL in last year’s season’s opener against UCLA, but he was a second-team All-AAC player in 2018).
This should be Fickell’s best defense yet. Coming off the program’s first streak of multiple Top 25 finishes since 2009, Fickell made headlines when he said that being ranked No. 22 in the Coaches Poll to start the year was “disrespectful.” Fickell might only have 9 regular-season games (as of now) to make his team’s case, but a preseason Top 25 squad with talent and a chip on its shoulder seems like a good place to start.
Memphis (No. 26 preseason AP Poll)
Why it could make it — I make a lot of dumb calls on this website. I try to own them. But perhaps the best call I made in 2019 was predicting that Memphis would win the Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s 6 bowl. That’s exactly what happened. A Cotton Bowl loss to Penn State didn’t spoil what was a historic season in Memphis. Now without Mike Norvell, some might assume the Tigers are due to fall off the face of the earth.
Not to take anything away from Norvell, but yes, I do think he inherited a heck of a foundation that Justin Fuente established. Ryan Silverfield should be a relatively seamless transition after 4 years as an assistant on Norvell’s staff. That offense got a huge boost to bring back quarterback Brady White, who was at his best in 2019 after a rocky start. Perhaps equally important, go-to receiver Damonte Coxie returned after his 2nd consecutive 1,000-yard season and the versatile Kenny Gainwell returns is back after posting a ridiculous 2,069 scrimmage yards.
But the real kicker is what Memphis did on defense. Hiring Mike MacIntyre to run the defense was one of the best FBS assistant hires of the entire offseason. All MacIntyre did in his lone year at Ole Miss was turn that defense around, and he did that in the nation’s toughest division. MacIntyre now gets to work with an experienced defense that returns 79% of last year’s production after it made significant improvements in 2019.
Memphis also has the benefit of 11 regular-season games. A schedule that includes preseason No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 21 UCF should provide a few opportunities for quality wins, which is that much more important without those Power 5 matchups in 2020.
UCF (No. 21 in preseason AP Poll)
Why it could make it — I believe that if a Group of 5 team is going to make the Playoff, it’ll very likely be one that already has a national reputation. UCF is 35-4 in the past 3 years, all of which ended with Top 25 finishes. You better believe the Knights have a national reputation. Of course, no Group of 5 team banged the drum louder for a Playoff push, and understandably so.
Besides all of that, there are on-field reasons to believe that UCF could make more Playoff noise. The Knights rank in the top 1/3 in FBS in percentage of returning production, which certainly explains why they also started at No. 21 in the Coaches Poll (remember that also was with Big Ten and Pac-12 teams in the mix). Leading receiver Gabriel Davis is gone, but a healthy Greg McCrae could be game-changer in the UCF backfield.
Of course, the big question in Orlando is what McKenzie Milton’s 2020 future will hold. After missing all of 2019 with that devastating knee injury, which required 5 surgeries, he’s hoping to return this year. In case you forgot what he’s capable when he’s healthy, well, here’s a little reminder:
— Kevin Trainor (@KTrainor24) November 25, 2018
But even if the guy who twice finished in the top 8 of the Heisman Trophy voting can’t give it a go, Dillon Gabriel should be ready to make the Year 2 jump after a (mostly) successful freshman campaign leading Josh Heupel’s offense, which still finished No. 5 in FBS.
The Knights also return 75% of their defensive production from a unit that quietly finished in the top 1/3 nationally. UCF, unlike some of its fellow AAC foes, actually have a Power 5 matchup scheduled. Unfortunately, beating a 3-win Georgia Tech team wouldn’t exactly scream “we’re Playoff-worthy,” but for a Group of 5 team with just 9 regular-season games, the Knights will need all the schedule help they can get.
Why it could make it — Before you laugh me out of the room for suggesting that a service academy could start with anything but a 0.0% chance to make the Playoff, hear me out.
Fast forward to Labor Day. It’s 8 p.m. ET on that Monday night, and you flip on ESPN for the first real college football weekend of 2020. What’s there? Oh, it’s Navy taking on BYU. Don’t mind if I do. Wait. Navy is coming off its 3rd Top 25 finish since the John F. Kennedy administration? And how did I not know that the Midshipmen had the nation’s No. 12 offense last year?
Just like that, Navy is officially on your radar. That’s easily a situation in which Navy could leap into the Top 25 after Week 1, and a schedule that includes 11 games ending with the all-important showdown with Army could certainly captivate the nation’s attention. Building off last year’s massive defensive improvement would certainly help.
Obviously replacing single-season FBS quarterback rushing record-holder Malcolm Perry is the biggest priority for Ken Niumatalolo. There are 5 candidates to do that. The good news? Six of the team’s top 7 non-quarterback rushers are back from the nation’s No. 1 ground game. That’ll be the foundation for a team that also has 3 new starters on the offensive line.
If Navy were to somehow remain unbeaten going into that Memphis game on Nov. 14 — something that’s not crazy with that schedule — you can bet there would be a whole lot of public support on the side of the service academy. In a year of weird, why not?
And 1 long shot I’m bringing up for fun … Louisiana
Why it could make it — Want to get super weird? How about suggesting a Sun Belt team could have a crazy, outside Playoff chance?
Let’s get the obvious limitations out of the way here. The Sun Belt isn’t about to do Louisiana any favors. Oh, and even more important, the Ragin’ Cajuns have never finished inside the AP Top 25. Ever. There’s no preseason household name like Milton or Coxie, either. If there’s a team that could go undefeated and still not even sniff the Playoff, it’s probably Louisiana.
But let me float a few things past you.
Quietly, Louisiana was the only Group of 5 team to finish in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense and scoring defense (only 6 Power 5 teams accomplished that). The 2020 season is set to open against Iowa State, which was No. 23 in the preseason poll. I tend to think that if there’s a good time to catch a Power 5 team, it’s coming off what’s been as bizarre of an offseason as any. Louisiana just recorded its first double-digit win season. Back from Billy Napier’s squad is Levi Lewis, who had a 26-4 TD-INT ratio for the nation’s No. 10 offense. That group also returns the dynamic backfield duo of Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, who combined for 2,097 scrimmage yards and 29 touchdowns last year.
In Year 3 of the Napier era, the fall started in tragic fashion after assistant offensive line coach D.J. Looney died of a heart attack in practice. There’s no telling how that’ll impact a group of 18-22 year-old men. But could a talented Louisiana team have one of those inspired, magical seasons in a year when it seems like anything is possible?
At this point, a Sun Belt team making the Playoff would be peak-2020.