Teams outside of the Power 5 have difficult climbs to crack football's final four
Initial College Football Playoff rankings drop on Nov. 24 in a moment perfectly indicative of this strange year. The rankings come almost a month later than usual, but just three weeks into the Pac-12 campaign and a month to the day that the Big Ten returned.
Yes, the timing of playoff rankings releases is odd in and of itself. What the first rankings reveal about committee members' view of Group of 5 conference programs and FBS Independents could be even weirder.
The first six years of the College Football Playoff established a clear precedent that the status quo of the Bowl Championship Series era would very much remain, if not strengthen its hold on the postseason.
The word invoked more than any other in 2020, however — unprecedented — suggests norms can all be scrapped when the committee convenes over the coming weeks. A collection of five Group of 5 teams and independents remain alive heading into games the weekend of Nov. 21, albeit with varying likelihoods for inclusion.
(Note: Teams listed based on ranking in current AP Top 25)
Record: 7-0 (5-0 American Athletic Conference)
AP Top 25 Ranking: 7
Sagarin SoS: 105
Best Win: 42-13 at SMU, Oct. 24
Remaining Games: Nov. 21 at UCF; Nov. 28 at Temple; Dec. 4 at No. 25 Tulsa; Dec. 19 AAC Championship Game (if qualified)
Had the playoff been introduced before the 2009 season, Cincinnati may very well have secured one of four berths. The Bearcats concluded Brian Kelly's last regular season at UC ranked fourth in the BCS standings and parlayed the Big East's automatic BCS berth into a Sugar Bowl appearance.
Cincinnati is playing outstanding football, building off the program's 22-5 record the previous two seasons. The defense is third nationally in points allowed per game, and playmakers Coby Bryant and Myjai Sanders are studs.
Because of its weak strength of schedule, Cincinnati is left in the awkward position of having to run up scores. That didn't sit well with the Bearcats' most recent opponent, East Carolina. Mike Houston might instead take his concerns over the fake punt Cincinnati ran to the playoff committee instead of Luke Fickell, however.
Cincinnati's and East Carolina's head coaches had a lengthy exchange after the Bearcats ran the score up to 55-17 in the final minutes. pic.twitter.com/shmABfqiSD— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 14, 2020
The Bearcats may have to rely less on style points down the stretch and instead tack on more substance. Cincinnati has the best chance of breaking the playoff glass ceiling based both on its current ranking; the overall reputation of its conference, which has landed four of the six Group of 5 invites to the New Year's Six since the system's inception; and the strength of its schedule down the stretch.
2017 national champion* UCF, the poster program for Group of 5 plight in the playoff era, welcomes Cincinnati to the Bounce House this week. The Knights can be found in the "Others receiving votes" section of the AP Poll, and have built up cachet in recent years. Tulsa getting to the Dec. 4 matchup still in the Top 25 is a possibility that helps the Bearcats, and the potential American Athletic Conference Championship Game should have UC adding another ranked opponent to its resume.
AP Top 25 Ranking: 8
Sagarin SoS: 97
Best Win: 51-17 at Boise State, Nov. 6
Remaining Games: Nov. 21 vs. North Alabama; Dec. 12 vs. San Diego State
Heading into its penultimate game, BYU is one of only two outsiders ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25. While that has no direct bearing on the Cougars' College Football Playoff ranking, it does offer a barometer for where they might appear come Tuesday. Likewise, the release of a new AP Poll on Sunday could foreshadow BYU's standing two days later.
In both instances, Power 5 members of the Big Ten and Pac-12 joining the fray threatens the Cougars' standing. Reigning Pac-12 champion Oregon, for example, is No. 11 at 2-0 and has more upward mobility with its schedule. BYU has just two opportunities to make final cases, the first of which is against a winless opponent new to Div. I football, North Alabama.
BYU benefits from brand recognition, including a national championship won recently enough to still resonate with committee members today. The Cougars also have the most viable Heisman Trophy candidate of the outsiders, quarterback Zach Wilson. The prospect of pitting a playmaker like Wilson opposite a traditional powerhouse like Alabama would seem to appeal to the intentionally subjective nature of the committee's ranking.
Record: 7-0 (4-0 Conference USA)
AP Top 25 Ranking: 15 (tied)
Sagarin SoS: 131
Best Win: 17-7 vs. Appalachian State, Sept. 19
Remaining Games: Dec. 5 vs. Rice; Dec. 11 at FIU; Conference USA Championship Game Dec. 18 (if they qualify); Nov. 21 game vs. Charlotte was postponed
This year marks 50 years since the horrific plane crash that killed 75 from the Marshall football program and athletic department. This dark day in American history almost marked the end of the team, but the Thundering Herd's resilience brought Marshall football back in resounding fashion. A Div. I-AA powerhouse in the 1990s, Marshall's seamless transition to present-day FBS included the Heisman Trophy candidacy of Randy Moss in 1997, and very nearly the first-ever BCS buster in 1999.
Marshall's current No. 15 ranking is the program's best since that era, when Chad Pennington and then Byron Leftwich powered some of the most exciting offenses in the nation. The Thundering Herd are different now, evolving even from six years ago when Rakeem Cato led an explosive bunch that peaked at No. 18 in the AP Poll (and snuck into the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 24).
At 10.1 points per game, Marshall's defense is second in the nation in scoring. Darius Hodge has been a backfield nightmare with six sacks, and linebacker Abraham Beauplan's three forced fumbles contribute to the team's plus-six turnover margin.
The Herd's outstanding season on this somber anniversary is the kind of story that makes sports special. While Marshall has arguably the longest shot of cracking the playoff, finishing up with two games in the regular season (Nov. 21 home date against Charlotte has been postponed and may not be rescheduled) against lower-tier competition before presumably playing for the Conference USA title, an undefeated run with the 1970 team's memory front-and-center is a milestone worth celebrating.
Record: 7-0 (5-0 Sun Belt)
AP Top 25 Ranking: 15 (tied)
Sagarin SoS: 107
Best Win: 30-27 at No. 24 Louisiana, Oct. 14
Remaining Games: Nov. 21 vs. Appalachian State; Nov. 28 at Texas State; Dec. 5 vs. Liberty; Dec. 12 at Troy; Dec. 19 Sun Belt Conference Championship Game (if they qualify)
A milestone game awaits Coastal Carolina this week, as the Chanticleers seek their first-ever win over reigning Sun Belt Conference champion Appalachian State. The Mountaineers head into the Nov. 21 meeting among the "Others receiving votes" mentions; had they crept back into the Top 25, it would have been a huge boon for Coastal Carolina's admittedly long-shot playoff prospects.
Nevertheless, beating Appalachian State would mark both a historical milestone in the fast growth of this program since its move to FBS, and a necessary step toward the Sun Belt Championship Game.
Outside of Cincinnati, the Chanticleers have the most upward mobility of the remaining outsiders thanks to a potential Top 25 showdown with Liberty and the possibility of winning the Sun Belt title. Louisiana winning out to set up a Top 25 rematch would provide some boost, particularly if it comes off of a win against fellow ranked and unbeaten outsider Liberty. The Chanticleers have a steep hill to climb regardless, representing one of two Group of 5 conferences to never land a New Year's Six bid — say nothing of contending for the playoff.
AP Top 25 Ranking: 21
Sagarin SoS: 136
Best Win: 38-35 at Virginia Tech, Nov. 7
Remaining Games: Nov. 21 at NC State; Nov. 27 vs. UMass; Dec. 5 at No. 15 Coastal Carolina
In the earliest days of college football, the University of Chicago sought to establish its academic identity through gridiron prowess. The school famously hired its legendary coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, to the first tenured position in the fledgling sport. UChicago thus became something of the prototype for what is today a common practice: leveraging sports to improve the standing, number of applications, and donations to a university.
Liberty isn't unique in that regard. However, the school's been among the more aggressive in the past decade in terms of investment into sports. The program's move from the FCS and Big South — a lower-level conference within the subdivision — to the FBS came with the splashy and controversial hire of Hugh Freeze. Adding Freeze was itself a microcosm of Liberty's football ambitions, betting on success superseding controversy.
And Freeze is successful. Just five years ago, Freeze had Ole Miss on the brink of a playoff bid that was spoiled in one of the wildest plays in recent memory.
If his Flames were to improbably make the playoff, they could thank their own incredible, end-of-game play.
If Liberty's in the conversation at all, though, it will take developments far more outlandish than the ridiculous conclusion to the Virginia Tech game.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.