Outside of Orlando, where the University of Central Florida anointed itself the 2017 national champion, college football hasn’t built much momentum toward allowing a team that isn’t in a Power Five conference1 a chance to compete for a title. In six years of the College Football Playoff, the lower-profile Group of Five conferences have been shut out, most notably in 2017 and 2018, when UCF entered selection day at 13-0 and 12-0, respectively. When the Knights entered their bowl game at 13-0 in 2017 and never moved higher than 12th in the playoff rankings, and then went 12-0 in 2018 and still never moved higher than eighth, it was fair to wonder whether a Group of Five team would ever gain access to the four-team showdown.
So what would it take? Perhaps the answer is a season-altering pandemic. The novel coronavirus has upended the 2020 schedule, and the Power Five’s Big Ten and Pac-12 are just now beginning their seasons.2 But most of the Group of Five teams have been playing for weeks, and a couple of them — BYU and Cincinnati — may have their best cases yet to join the playoff.
A look at the résumés of BYU and Cincinnati so far reveals typical profiles of mid-major teams that have been dominant against admittedly weak competition.3 On the field, both have looked like the BCS-busters of old: BYU rolled into Houston and beat a decent Cougars team by 17 points, and Cincinnati pounded a previously unbeaten SMU team on the road Saturday. In the past six seasons, no team outside the Power Five has entered the playoff selection show ranked higher than 21st in ESPN’s Football Power Index. As of Wednesday, BYU was No. 18 and Cincy was No. 31.4
There’s just that one significant flaw: strength of schedule. When the cancellations mounted over the summer, independent BYU scrambled for all the opponents it could find, no matter where they came from; as a result, the Cougars have played just the 87th-most-difficult schedule so far. Cincinnati, meanwhile, has only its American Athletic Conference foes plus Army and Austin Peay on its slate, for a strength of schedule ranked 84th.5 If UCF couldn’t get into the playoff in 2018 after winning 11 of 12 games by double-digits and beating Pittsburgh 45-14,6 it’s fair to wonder what chance BYU and Cincinnati have.
When the playoff selection committee members release their first ranking on Nov. 17, they’ll have quite a mess to sort out. Behind the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State, there could be an 8-0 BYU team, a 7-0 Cincinnati team, a handful of 2-0 Pac-12 teams and very few unbeatens elsewhere. The SEC and ACC champions have made the playoff every year, and there’s no reason to expect that streak to end. But elsewhere in the country, postseason résumés have yet to take shape.
Using recent history as a guide, the Group of Five’s best playoff chance came in 2018, when UCF reached No. 8 in the final ranking. Even at 12-0, the Knights finished behind an 11-2 Georgia team that lost in the SEC championship and a 10-2 Michigan team whose last game was a 62-39 loss at Ohio State. In a normal year, that might be the ceiling for a Group of Five team. But what if, come December, the committee is choosing between an 11-0 AAC champion in Cincinnati, with three wins combined against Memphis and SMU, and an SEC runner-up at 8-2 or 7-3? Or a Pac-12 champion at 7-0 or 6-1? That might require some explanation.
At the very least, it might amplify calls for the playoff to expand once the current deal ends after the 2025 season. In the past, college football’s championship system has changed only when its flaws have been exposed. Michigan and Nebraska contested the 1997 national title, and that was the end of the poll system. Computer rankings produced a 2011 championship game between two SEC teams, and that was the end of the Bowl Championship Series. UCF put pressure on the new four-team playoff, and if the playoff leaves out more deserving unbeatens this December, surely those teams will join the chorus.
Any team outside the major conferences needs an influx of chaos to have any hope of the playoff. And this is 2020 — chaos is undefeated. A top-10 Florida team has not played since Oct. 10 due to a coronavirus outbreak that infected at least 26 players and halted all activities. A top-10 Wisconsin team saw its breakout starting quarterback Graham Mertz test positive for COVID-19, and the team has now canceled its Week 9 game against Nebraska because of a high number of positive tests on the team, including head coach Paul Chryst. Who knows what the next seven weeks have in store? Nothing — not even an outsider in the playoff — can be counted out.