No team in the Group of 5 conferences has a College Football Playoff shot in 2018. That would probably be true even if not for the facts that:
- UCF might win the AAC and go undefeated, but if that happens, the Knights’ best regular season win will be against Cincinnati or UCF. They’ll have Houston in the league title game, unless they wind up playing someone like SMU or Tulane. This is more of a top-20 case than a top-10 one.
- Utah State’s awesome but has a loss.
- Fresno State’s awesome but has a loss.
- Buffalo, Cincinnati, and UAB are a bit less awesome, and each has a loss.
But this would be a great year for the committee to give mid-majors more than the ceremonial scraps it usually does.
Since the Playoff system took hold in 2014, the New Year’s Six bowls have had to set aside one spot for the committee’s top-ranked Group of 5 conference champ, similar to the BCS era beforehand. Because of conference ties, that’s never the Rose, Sugar, or Orange, the three most historic bowls.
The token mid-major gets to play in the Peach, Cotton, or Fiesta, and has usually won:
- 2014 Fiesta: Boise State 38, Arizona 30
- 2015 Peach: Houston 38, Florida State 24
- 2016 Cotton: Wisconsin 24, Western Michigan 16
- 2017 Peach: UCF 34, Auburn 27
We already know the best mid-majors can beat good power conference teams. This year, even more could pull that off.
After Week 10, Group of 5 teams made up two of the top eight and three of the top 14 in the 130-team S&P+ rankings. S&P+ is a forward-looking stat that’s designed to predict performance and regularly outperforms the Vegas spread in predicting game outcomes — and yeah, it picked UCF to beat Auburn straight up.
In 2018, Fresno State’s No. 7, UCF’s No. 8, and Utah State’s No. 14. The two Mountain West teams had close Week 1 losses on the road in the Big Ten, but have since blasted their opponents to bits. Any one of these three teams could end up deserving a top-12 slotting and NY6 berth on merit, whether the committee agrees or not.
This is unusual in the Playoff era, but an extension of last year. In 2014, the best non-power team finished 22nd in S&P+. In 2015, the top two were 12th and 23rd. In 2016, they were 16th and 19th. But in 2017, there were mid-majors at Nos. 7, 11, and 15.
The committee doesn’t need to put UCF, Fresno State, or Utah State in the top four. But it might be reasonable to rank two of them in the final top 12.
They’d have to keep racking up big style points, and a couple of not-quite champs from the power conferences would have to lose more games. For instance, a one-loss Fresno isn’t grabbing an at-large bowl slot from a theoretical two-loss LSU.
But why shouldn’t a 12-1 Fresno that’s destroyed almost everything in its path get a bid over, say, a 9-3 Kentucky or Texas with several close wins, whether UCF’s already taken up a spot or not? The difference between Fresno and Kentucky isn’t the difference between Fresno and Notre Dame.
Of course, there’s a way to include mid-majors in the biggest games without crowding out potentially deserving Power 5 teams.
Quarterfinals around December 17, semifinals on New Year’s Eve/Day, and finals around January 15. If you want to get bowls involved, fine, but giving early home-field advantage to the top four seeds would make regular-season games as meaningful as possible.
Here’s an example, using the 2016 season.
-8 Western Michigan (G5 rep) at 1 Alabama (SEC champ)
-5 Penn State (Big Ten champ) at 4 Washington (Pac-12 champ)
-6 Michigan (at-large) at 3 Ohio State (at-large)*
-7 Oklahoma (Big 12 champ) at 2 Clemson (ACC champ)
That’d be great. Until then, there are ways to not give elite mid-majors the middle finger even when the committee doesn’t think they’re Playoff-caliber.