Making a Playoff Case for Every Non-Power 5 Team in the Top 25

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2020

Making a Playoff Case for Every Non-Power 5 Team in the Top 25

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    Raise your hand if you find the prospect of an Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Clemson field for the 2020 College Football Playoff to be yawn-inducing.

    In the first six years of the current playoff format, just 11 different programs have earned a spot in the four-team field. With the exception of independent Notre Dame two years ago, they have all come from one of the five major conferences.

    It's time for a shakeup.

    With Cincinnati (AAC) and BYU (independent) currently ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll and six total teams from non-major conferences earning a spot in the Top 25, there may never be a better opportunity for one of them to steal a spot.

    Ahead, we've taken a closer look at the non-Power Five landscape and made the case for each of the top potential playoff contenders.

No Chance but Worth a Mention

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    Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum
    Kent State quarterback Dustin CrumAndy Manis/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bulls (3-0)

    The MAC is only playing six conference games this season, so there's no chance one of its teams is going to sneak into the playoffs even with an undefeated season. That said, the Bulls are at least worthy of a mention after showing up on a handful of AP Top 25 ballots this week. A tough test awaits Saturday when they host fellow unbeaten Kent State.


    Kent State Golden Flashes (3-0)

    Speaking of Kent State, senior quarterback Dustin Crum is off to a great start after throwing for 2,625 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions while adding another 707 yards on the ground last season. The Golden Flashes have scored 60-plus points in back-to-back games and outscored opponents 158-82 on the year.


    Western Michigan Broncos (3-0)

    The Broncos are not far removed from a 13-1 season in 2016 when head coach P.J. Fleck rowed the boat to a Cotton Bowl appearance. The team went 20-18 in the three years following his departure for the Minnesota job, but it is 3-0 in 2020 and averaging 50.3 points per game in typical MAC fashion.


    Nevada Wolf Pack (5-0)

    The Wolf Pack is knocking on the door for a spot in the Top 25. If they break through, it would be their first time ranked since Colin Kaepernick led the 2010 team to a 13-1 season. However, the Mountain West is also playing only conference games, so building a compelling case for a playoff spot is borderline impossible.


    San Jose State Spartans (4-0)

    San Jose State is one of the best stories of the 2020 season. Brent Brennan slogged his way to a 3-22 record during his first two seasons as head coach before taking a step forward with a 5-7 showing last year. The Spartans are now positioned for their first winning season since 2012, and their Dec. 11 matchup with Nevada is shaping up to be one of the biggest Group of Five games of the year.

The 1-Loss Ranked Teams

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    Louisiana running back Trey Ragas
    Louisiana running back Trey RagasTyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    Considering no undefeated Group of Five team has ever crashed the playoff party, it's fair to assume that a one-loss team from a non-major conference stands no chance of earning a spot.

    Still, these two teams have clawed their way into the Top 25 rankings and are at least worth highlighting in this rundown of Group of Five contenders.


    No. 24 Tulsa Golden Hurricane (5-1)

    Tulsa went 10-3 in 2016 and then crashed back to earth with a 2-10 season the following year. They have been an afterthought in the AAC in the seasons since—until now. With victories over then-No. 11 UCF and then-No. 19 SMU, they have one of the better Group of Five resumes.

    However, a season-opening loss to Oklahoma State basically eliminated them from the playoff debate.

    They may not have their own path to the playoffs, but they can certainly shake things up on Dec. 12 when they host undefeated Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.


    No. 23 Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns (7-1)

    The Cajuns went 11-3 last season, with their only losses coming to Mississippi State in their opener and twice to a good Appalachian State squad by a combined 17 points.

    They kicked off 2020 with a convincing 31-14 victory on the road against Iowa State, and their only loss on the year has come by three points to undefeated Coastal Carolina.

    Don't be surprised if head coach Billy Napier is a popular target to fill one of the high-profile coaching vacancies this offseason. The former Clemson and Alabama assistant inherited a Louisiana team in 2018 that had posted three straight losing seasons.

No. 17 Marshall Thundering Herd (7-0)

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    Brenden Knox
    Brenden KnoxEmilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Allstate Playoff Predictor: 0 percent chance of reaching playoff

    After opening the season with a 59-0 shutout of FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky, Marshall made a statement with a 17-7 victory over then-No. 23 Appalachian State.

    That will be their toughest game of the season, and therein lies the biggest argument against their inclusion in the playoff.

    However, there's a lot to like about this Thundering Herd team.

    Running back Brenden Knox is a load out of the backfield, averaging 5.0 yards per carry with 744 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the year. They also have more balance offensively with redshirt freshman Grant Wells taking over under center. He has completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 1,674 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.

    On the defensive side, they have not allowed more than 17 points in a game this season, and they rank second in the nation with 259.7 total yards surrendered per game.

    At this point, it would be surprising if the Thunder Herd doesn't finish the season undefeated with Rice (1-2) and Florida International (0-5) all that remains of their schedule.

    They are on their way to the team's highest finish in the AP Poll since Chad Pennington led them to a 13-0 record and the No. 10 spot in 1999.

No. 16 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (8-0)

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    Grayson McCall
    Grayson McCallRichard Shiro/Associated Press

    Allstate Playoff Predictor: 0 percent chance of reaching playoff

    The Coastal Carolina football program has come a long way since moving up to the FBS level and joining the Sun Belt Conference in 2017. After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the Chanticleers were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt East Division in the preseason coaches poll.

    They kicked off the season with a 38-23 victory over Kansas. The Jayhawks are horrible, but it was still a win over a Power Five opponent and enough to open some eyes. Three games later, they upended then-No. 21 Louisiana and subsequently moved into the Top 25 for the first time in school history.

    They passed another tough test this past weekend with a 34-23 win over Appalachian State, and one major hurdle remains in 8-1 Liberty on Dec. 5. If they close out the year undefeated, they'll have four wins that can be pointed to as quality victories since a 28-14 defeat of 6-3 Georgia Southern is also worth mentioning.

    Offensively, they are balanced with four players who have tallied at least 275 rushing yards on the year, including quarterback Grayson McCall. Along with his scrambling ability, the redshirt freshman has completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,593 yards and 18 touchdowns against one interception. Not bad for a 2-star recruit.

    The defense has forced 16 turnovers, and the pass rush is averaging 3.5 sacks per game with players at all three levels putting together impressive seasons.

    Defensive back D'Jordan Strong (five interceptions), linebacker Silas Kelly (61 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception) and defensive linemen C.J. Brewer (46 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Tarron Jackson (38 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, six sacks) are among the clear standouts.

    With a well-balanced roster on both sides, this team has the potential to hang with anyone.

No. 8 BYU Cougars (9-0)

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    Zach Wilson
    Zach WilsonAssociated Press

    Allstate Playoff Predictor: 14.1 percent chance of reaching playoff

    To put the above odds into perspective, BYU checks in with the eighth-best chance of reaching the playoff, according to the predictor, just behind Oregon and USC teams that have looked anything but dominant.

    That's life for an independent that wasn't able to latch on with a major conference the way Notre Dame did with the ACC. The Cougars' cobbled together schedule has included three games against Conference USA opponents not named Marshall or Florida Atlantic, two games against Sun Belt afterthoughts Troy and Texas State, and a 66-14 blowout of FCS North Alabama.

    Their best win is a 51-17 blowout at then-No. 21 Boise State, and that will be the game they have to build their case around without a conference championship tilt to bolster the resume.

    Despite the lack of quality opponents, it's hard to ignore just how dominant BYU has been.

    The offense is averaging 538.3 yards per game, good for seventh in the nation and sandwiched between title contenders Alabama and Ohio State.

    Quarterback Zach Wilson is a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate with 2,724 passing yards and 26 touchdowns against two interceptions and has completed 74.3 percent of his passes. He's also added another eight scores on the ground. He's flanked by a running game averaging 204.9 yards per game and led by Tyler Allgeier, who has 851 yards at 7.2 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns.

    On defense, the Cougars are one of just eight teams allowing less than 300 yards per game, and they have won all but one game by no fewer than 17 points.

    They had a chance to add a game against Washington to their schedule but turned down the opportunity to instead gauge where they stand in the CFP rankings that will be released Tuesday.

    It's hard to project how BYU would fare against a higher caliber of competition, and that game could have answered a lot of questions. It was a bad look to sidestep that measuring stick, and the Cougars' playoff chances remain slim at best.

No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats (8-0)

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    Desmond Ridder
    Desmond RidderJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    Allstate Playoff Predictor: 35.3 percent chance of reaching playoff

    As it stands, the Playoff Predictor has Cincinnati narrowly ahead of Clemson (33.5 percent chance) for the No. 4 spot in the playoff field.

    That said, if Clemson wins out and beats Notre Dame in the ACC title game, it's hard to see how the Tigers would be excluded from the playoff field, and the same goes for the Fighting Irish, whose only loss would be to a team they beat.

    Florida also has a compelling case if it can beat Alabama in the SEC title game, with the Crimson Tide unlikely to slip out of the playoff and the Gators' loss to Texas A&M easier to overlook with a win over Alabama also on the resume.

    It's clear that if the Bearcats want to have a real chance of reaching the playoff, they need both Clemson and Florida to lose in their conference title games. Even then, their path would be a cloudy one.

    One-loss Texas A&M, 5-0 Northwestern and Pac-12 undefeateds Oregon and USC stand in the way.

    The thing is, this Cincinnati team could give the blue bloods a run for their money.

    It beat then-No. 22 Army on Sept. 26, smashed Shane Buechele and then-No. 16 SMU in a 42-13 blowout, beat Memphis by 39 the following week and survived a tough road test against UCF this weekend.

    The well-balanced offense is averaging 238.9 passing yards and 234.3 rushing yards per game, and the defense is one of the best in the nation with 15.0 points allowed per game. The Bearcats do a great job controlling the run (3.1 yards per carry allowed, 12th in FBS), have held opponents to 195.6 passing yards per game and have forced 17 turnovers in eight games.

    How would all that translate against a team such as Alabama?

    There's only one way to find out.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.