Since the inception of the CFP, we have known that it will always be difficult for a team from the Group of 5 to get into the Playoff. Many assume it’s impossible. But with enough seasons, over time, eventually we will have a season where a team not from the power conferences will have a resume worthy of inclusion in the Top Four.
Coming into this season, it looked like Boise State might have a chance to be that team. The most famous of the BCS Busters was coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory, a Top 15 ranking, and returned almost all of their starters. Unfortunately, a last-minute loss to BYU ended Boise State’s dreams of being the first Playoff Buster. Which is too bad for Boise because this year looks like there might really be a chance.
Can We See a College Football Playoff Buster This Year?
Remember, for a team from outside the power conferences to have a real chance, we need to have less than four teams from power conferences who are really worthy. Once that criteria is met, we need a Group of 5 team who has an exemplary resume. If they have quality wins and dominated competition, we would see a serious debate between them and a second-tier team from a power conference. So the first question we need to answer is what the status of the power conferences is so far.
Six weeks into the season, it definitely looks like there might be an opening. Utah is at the head of the Pac-12, but the conference as a whole is down to just four teams with one loss or less, and Utah, Stanford, and UCLA still all have to play each other. The ACC still has two undefeated teams, but Clemson and Florida State end the year with tough rivalry games and neither has looked overly dominant so far. The Big Ten has three undefeated teams, but both Ohio State and Michigan State have been very underwhelming so far and Michigan, while looking dominant, already has a loss. The Big XII has two very good teams at the top, but if Baylor wins the conference with a loss, their schedule might not be able to compete with a Group of Five team.
If two of those conferences end up with teams that aren’t up to an elite level, a team from another conference will at least be in the conversation. So are any G5 teams good enough this year?
There are four undefeated teams currently from the Group of Five conferences. Toledo, from the MAC, has the best combination of wins so far, with two wins over Power Five teams. The MAC is not strong enough to provide quality wins in conference, and neither Arkansas nor Iowa State are the quality nonconference wins that can put a G5 team into the Playoff race. Toledo may very well earn themselves a New Years Six bowl if they run the table, but we won’t be seeing them in the semifinals on New Year’s Eve this year.
Which brings us to the American Athletic Conference. Two years ago, as the Big East, this conference (well, the parts of it that weren’t swallowed up by the bigger conferences) was still a “power conference,” back when there were six Automatic Qualifiers to the BCS. Of course, the three teams currently at the top of AAC weren’t in the Big East before it was broken up, but we’re getting off topic here.
The AAC currently has three of the best Group of Five teams in the country and all three other undefeated teams. Temple has the best resume of the three so far, with a nonconference win over Penn State to open the year. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, haven’t lost since and have a huge game against top-ranked Ohio State coming up. Even if Penn State has a mediocre end to the season, though, it is still a good win for the Owls. And, of course, Temple has a home game coming up in three weeks against Notre Dame. If Temple is still undefeated when that game comes around, Philadelphia will be rocking.
The single biggest game for the AAC is this week, when Memphis hosts Ole Miss. If the Tigers can win that game, they will have one of the biggest nonconference wins any team in the country has this year. If Memphis is undefeated with nonconference wins over Ole Miss and Bowling Green and some good wins in conference, the resume will be up there. Memphis also played a second Power Five team, Kansas, but for resume purposes the Jayhawks may as well be a cupcake win this year.
The third AAC team in the mix is Houston. The Cougars beat Louisville already this year. While the Cardinals aren’t great, it’s still a nonconference win over a Power Five team. They will play a second team from a major conference, Vanderbilt, later in the year. The Commodores have not done so well so far this year, but if they pick up a few wins in the SEC this win will pick up value.
So what do any of these three need to have a chance at the CFP? First of all, all three really shouldn’t lose to anyone but each other. It would have been even better for the conference if Navy had managed to beat Notre Dame, but three potentially ranked teams is still strong.
The best-case scenario for any G5 conference trying to bust into the Playoff would be for there to be a conference championship game with two undefeated teams. Preferably for the AAC, it would be the two with the strongest resumes, which in this case would be Memphis and Temple. Unfortunately, Memphis and Temple play in the regular season, which means that both can’t be undefeated coming into the game.
Memphis, with a win over Ole Miss, would definitely be the conference’s best shot (unless Penn State goes on a crazy run in the Big Ten). Memphis also has the chance to end the year with four ranked wins, including two wins over Temple and one over Houston. Temple is probably the next best chance, as they could have in-conference wins over one-loss Houston and Memphis.
It all starts this week for the AAC, though. If we want to see a Playoff Buster this year, noon Saturday will be the beginning of the determination. If Memphis loses, it will be almost impossible for anyone to have a resume good enough. If Memphis wins, though, the chase is on and everyone in the country will have to pay attention to the American Athletic Conference.