The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, SI.com will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. So far, we’ve covered the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the SEC. But what about the teams outside the Power 5?
Going into the fourth season of the College Football Playoff, we have yet to see a Group of Five team grab one of the four spots. It’ll certainly happen someday, for a squad that likely goes undefeated through a tough enough schedule; the latter half of that requirement seems especially crucial after undefeated Western Michigan was sent to the Cotton Bowl instead of a semifinal after a perfect regular season a year ago.
This season, several Group of Five programs have fringe shots at the playoff. Some have stronger schedules than others, and most will need to be undefeated going into December to have a shot at a selection. Here’s a look, in no particular order, at the seven teams—two independents, two from the American Athletic Conference, two from the Mountain West and one from the MAC—that have the best chances, however slim they may be.
Group of Five (American, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt) and independent teams
2016 highest ranked team: Western Michigan
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Three
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Seven
Boise State: Going into 2017, the Mountain West looks strong, which should be a boon for Boise State’s strength of schedule. In nonconference play, it gets Virginia, Washington State, Troy and BYU—not exactly a gauntlet, but certainly a challenging draw. The Broncos’ playoff hopes in part hinge on BYU being as good as I’ll lay out later, but those teams’ midseason meeting will double as a playoff race elimination game.
The Broncos lost a ton of starters from last season’s 10-win team, but quarterback Brett Rypien is back and the team should have enough talent to reload with ease. Last year, the Boise State offense led the conference in total yardage, but if the Broncos are going to think about a playoff berth, their scoring needs to keep pace with that production. They have a ton of question marks on defense, too, which could doom their playoff chances early on.
In the end, this will come down to efficiency and a perfect performance in Mountain West play—two things Boise State has struggled with in recent seasons.
BYU: A season ago, the Cougars went 9–4, with losses to Utah, UCLA, West Virginia and Boise State—four good teams, three from the Power 5. What’s more interesting is the margin of those defeats: All four were by three points or less. After coming eight points away from an unbeaten season, BYU has just as much talent this fall, if not more. Plus, the 2017 schedule is laid out with enough obstacles that if a few breaks go BYU’s way, a 13–0 or 12–1 finish could make for a pretty attractive playoff case.
The Cougars’ toughest opponents come early, too. It faces LSU in Week 1 at NRG Stadium in Houston, then Utah and Wisconsin come to Provo in back-to-back weeks. Catching the Tigers and Badgers, two top-25 teams, on the front end of the season is an added bonus; LSU has a new head coach and offensive coordinator, Wisconsin a new defensive coordinator, meaning BYU could catch them while they’re still working out the kinks.
Working against BYU is one reality it can’t change, though: Even if it goes undefeated in the regular season, as an independent it won’t have a conference title game win to make one last statement in the final week of the season.
Houston: Houston’s prospects seemed dimmer after it lost coach Tom Herman to Texas last winter, but a look up and down the roster gives more than a glimmer of hope. Defensive tackle Ed Oliver may be the best defender in the nation, and new quarterback Kyle Allen, a Texas A&M transfer, was once one of the top recruits in the country at his position. Still, Houston’s depth is somewhat suspect, and even Allen isn’t really a known quantity. With a schedule that lacks a big-name nonconference opponent, the Cougars look like they certainly have a chance to rise to the top of their conference, but it seems unlikely they’ll go much further barring every uncertainty on the roster breaking Houston’s way.
Notre Dame: Notre Dame is one of the biggest question marks in college football this season after last year’s 4–8 finish, and many think coach Brian Kelly could be on the hot seat. That said, to leave the Irish off this list would be shortsighted. Sure, they are coming off a down year and lost quarterback DeShone Kizer to the NFL, but that doesn’t mean 2017 couldn’t see a massive turnaround. Will it? That’s hard to say, but Notre Dame always seems to have the weapons to hang with the nation’s best.
New quarterback Brandon Wimbush was a top recruit who threw a few passes two seasons ago and redshirted in 2016, and he’ll lead a stacked offense with a deep receiving corps and one of the country’s best lines. Plus, he’ll be working under a new coordinator, Chip Long. There’s more uncertainty on the other side of the ball, where Mike Elko was brought in to run the defense. Notre Dame made wholesale changes last winter knowing another mediocre season would be unacceptable.
Coming out of their schedule 13–0 or 12–1 would automatically lead to playoff contention, but like BYU, the Irish won’t have a conference title game to put a bow on their season. They get Georgia at home in Week 2, go to Michigan State in Week 4, play USC at home in October and go to Stanford to end the season. A win over the Trojans would put Notre Dame squarely in the mix.
San Diego State: Since opening the 2015 season 1–3, Rocky Long’s team is 21–3, and last season it won 11 games. Granted, there were some disheartening performances among the Aztecs’ three losses last year—they lost to South Alabama by 18 and Colorado State by 32—but generally, they did well in Mountain West play and beat a Pac-12 team, Cal, in Week 2.
Their playoff chances are slim, but find a way to beat Stanford and Boise State and things get interesting. Still, there may be just too little quality competition on the schedule to make that dream a reality.
South Florida: The Bulls are the favorite in the American Athletic Conference and the conference’s most likely New Year’s Six bowl representative. Getting to the next level and making the playoff would be a big ask, and it’ll require the Bulls to go undefeated. The schedule is quite manageable, with Temple and Houston looming as the biggest obstacles. But that’s a double-edged sword when it comes to the playoff; like P.J. Fleck’s undefeated Western Michigan team a year ago, that relatively weak schedule could relegate USF to a lesser bowl even if it goes undefeated.
Toledo: The reality of the situation is that it will be extremely difficult for a MAC team to make the playoff—Western Michigan proved that a year ago. That said, Toledo is one of the most well-rounded teams in the Group of Five, with an explosive offense and an experienced and talented defense. As the presumptive favorite in the MAC, there’s reason to believe the Rockets could go undefeated in conference, and unlike Western Michigan a year ago, they have a likely top-25 team on their nonconference schedule in Miami. Again, though, this is a long shot.