Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, no team outside a Power Five conference has been deemed worthy of the four-team bracket.
Central Florida made things interesting 2017 when it finished 13-0. The regular-season resume didn’t culminate with a playoff berth. Instead, the Golden Knights drew Auburn in the Peach Bowl and won outright as nearly double-digit underdogs.
Since then, and even before it, we have wondered what it would take for a Group of Five team to crack the top four in a given season. And although the playoff committee has consistently underranked these programs regardless of resume, the door remains slightly ajar.
In a year when nothing has been normal, Cincinnati and BYU are poised to give this a run. Cincinnati started the offseason at Westgate at 500-1. That number was trimmed to 100-1 before the Bearcats, currently No. 7 in the AP poll, started their season.
BYU both started and ended the offseason at 1,000-1. The Cougars, currently the only team in the country with eight wins, are No. 8 in the AP poll.
The teams are constructed differently. Cincinnati owns the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense, although the offense has averaged 43 points per game over the last three weeks. BYU, led by quarterback Zach Wilson, has the nation’s No. 8 scoring offense. Through eight games, Wilson has accounted for 30 touchdowns and thrown two interceptions.
And both teams aren’t just winning. The Bearcats are 5-2 against the spread. The Cougars are 6-2 ATS.
The path to the College Football Playoff for each is complicated. Clemson’s loss to Notre Dame on Saturday doesn’t help matters. The Tigers, playing without Trevor Lawrence, are still a likely candidate to fill one of the four vacancies.
Alabama and Ohio State are in position to secure two spots. Notre Dame should be in the mix. Texas A&M and Florida are surging. And what about an undefeated Pac-12 team if one emerges?
Cincinnati and BYU need help. In fact, they’ll need lots of it. BYU has only two games left on its schedule. The Bearcats have four games left, including trips to Central Florida and Tulsa, and will have more opportunities to impress.
Still, sadly, it likely won’t matter if the teams mentioned above don’t lose.
If there were ever a year to break through, why not now? In a season when nothing is given, these two are poised to at least make things interesting.
Those hanging on to those 500-1 and 1,000-1 tickets certainly hope so.
The Appetizer: Football Tidbits and Observations
1. Cancellations. Postponements. It’s hard to start anywhere else. The SEC slate is being gutted this week due to COVID-19, and this won’t be the last week that is severely impacted by positive tests and roster limitations. I said it weeks ago, and I’ll say it again: Gather as much information throughout the week as you can, even if the coaches make that information hard to come by. Every game and assumption should be written in pencil.
2. I played Michigan last weekend against Indiana. I felt good about it too. It felt like a good thought for the Wolverines to rebound as 3.5-point favorites. Goodness, was I wrong. And I can’t help but wonder just how much more of this Michigan can and will stomach. Jim Harbaugh is in his sixth season in Ann Arbor, 1-2 and still has Ohio State, a team he has never beaten, on the schedule. The Wolverines are underdogs this week, and we’ll explore that game momentarily. A few weeks ago, I expressed confidence in Michigan. Please delete that from the internet.
3. On the topic of coaches with cartoonishly large contracts, let’s talk about Jimbo Fisher. Texas A&M has quickly emerged as a fascinating storyline at 5-1. The Aggies have a win against Florida and a good loss to Alabama, and they were finding a rhythm before they were hit with positive COVID tests and their game Saturday against Tennessee was postponed to Dec. 12. They’re 3-1 against the spread in their last four, and they could’ve been 4-0 if not for a back-door gem by Arkansas. COVID obviously clouds the picture, but this is a fascinating team with a manageable schedule to close out. Stay tuned.
4. I told you last week that Clemson QB D.J. Uiagalelei was going to be a monster. And after throwing for 439 yards against one of the best defenses in the country, well, enough said. Trevor Lawrence is likely to be back for the Tigers’ next game after the bye, but Uiagalelei showcased what the future at Clemson will look like. Get those Heisman future tickets ready.
5. Kansas is 0-7 overall and 0-7 ATS. That’s wild (and not good), but here’s the weird part. Kansas has also hit the Over in all seven games. In Les Miles’ defense, the schedule has been brutal. Even the opener against Coastal Carolina, currently 7-0, was difficult. But the Jayhawks have been outscored 339-106, and it goes without saying that Miles’ future is one to keep an eye on.
The Buffet: The Five Best Games of the Weekend
Disclaimer: It’s not the best week of college football we’ve ever seen. Postponements and cancellations aren’t helping matters, but the week was already light. This is our attempt to make the most of it.
1. Wisconsin (-4, 54.5) vs. Michigan: It would appear, according to Wisconsin, that this game is on track to be played. Due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Badgers were unable to play the last two games after clobbering Illinois in the opener. And while the game will be played, the spotlight will turn to quarterback Graham Mertz and his availability. Mertz was brilliant in the opener and then tested positive for COVID. Saturday will mark 21 days, the exact number of days the Big Ten requires players to sit, since he tested positive. Michigan opened as a three-point favorite, although that number has moved a full touchdown since Wisconsin’s announcement was made. The total has also risen eight points. On Michigan’s side, the struggles over the last two weeks are well documented. The offense has struggled. The defense hasn’t played well. A ton of variables to consider with this game, and you might want to wait as long as possible to gather as much intel as you can.
2. Notre Dame (-13.5, 49.5) at Boston College: Do you believe in football hangovers? If so, this is the game for you. Notre Dame, fresh off its thrilling double-overtime victory over Clemson, will head on the road to take on a good (but not great) opponent in a pretty intriguing spot. With the exception of its blowout loss to Virginia Tech, Boston College has played well. The Eagles are 5-3 straight up and 5-3 against the spread. They pushed Clemson as 26.5-point underdogs and UNC as 14.5-point dogs. Beating Syracuse by only three points last week doesn’t exactly introduce a lot of confidence, but they’re plenty capable. The issue? Notre Dame was brilliant at the line of scrimmage against Clemson. The running game is superb. And quarterback Ian Book is coming off one of his best collegiate performances. But the timing is fascinating, to say the least, and Boston College has at least the necessary ingredients to make you think about taking the points.
3. Northwestern (-3, 51) at Purdue: So it’s not the sexiest game. I get it. But what this game lacks in football sex appeal it makes up for in ... well, there just aren’t a ton of high-profile games this weekend, so just go with it. That said, these are two of the better stories in the Big Ten. Northwestern is 3-0 (2-1 ATS) and coming off nail-bitter wins over Nebraska and Iowa. Purdue is 2-0 (1-1 ATS) and didn’t play Saturday because its game against Wisconsin was canceled. The Boilermakers opened as two-point favorites, although the line, like a handful of others this week, quickly swung to the other side. The biggest question surrounding this game is unquestionably the availability of Purdue wideout Rondale Moore. When healthy, he is one of the most explosive players on the planet. Thus far, Moore, who opted out and then opted back in before the season began, has yet to play. My lean? Moore plays. My other lean? Offense. I think we’ll see more of it than expected.
4. Tulsa (-2.5, 64) vs. SMU: I love this game. Sure, it won’t likely crack the screen rotation for the average fan seeking bigger football brands, but it’s a sneaky-good game between quality offenses. Both teams share one blemish apiece, and both are respectable blemishes. Tulsa is 3-1 (3-1 ATS) and lost a competitive opener to Oklahoma State. SMU will be playing its ninth game of the season, coming into this matchup with a record of 7-1 (5-3 ATS). The Mustangs were outclassed by Cincinnati but have played well otherwise. The Golden Hurricane have had three games postponed already, including last week’s matchup against Navy. In a year of oddities, this will mark only the team’s second home game of 2020. While SMU is ranked in the top 20, Tulsa has the respect from the oddsmakers. It’s a respect I feel as well, and please don’t let your friend call this an upset when Tulsa wins. They know better.
5. Virginia Tech (-2.5, 67) vs. Miami: In 2020, losing to Liberty isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not a great thing -- especially when you lose a game you could’ve won had you not taken a late timeout before blocking the game-winning field goal and returning it for a touchdown. Oof. But it’s by no means a bad loss. Virginia Tech could’ve (and should’ve) won a game it was favored to win by 17 points. Despite the loss, the host Hokies are favored against Miami, currently No. 9 in the AP poll. While the Hurricanes are 6-1, they haven’t covered a spread since late September. And since getting blown out by Clemson, the team hasn’t performed at the same level it did early in the year. Quarterback D’Eriq King is coming off a game of 400 yards passing and 100 yards rushing and has been as advertised. Despite the team’s struggles, he is thriving. This has a chance to be the highest-scoring, most exciting game all weekend. An 80-point output wouldn’t shock.
Last Call: Parting Shots on Other Games of Note
Ohio State (-25, 73) at Maryland: A few things to look out for. Ohio State’s defense was not particularly great against Rutgers, and I’m curious to see how it responds. On the other side, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Tua’s little brother, has scored eight touchdowns in the last two weeks. And Justin Fields? Well, he currently has 13 total touchdowns and 11 incompletions. Not bad.
Penn State (-3.5, 56) at Nebraska: This is a message-board game. The losing team (and coach) will not be viewed positively in the eyes of the fan base, and here’s why: The teams are a combined 0-5 straight up and 0-5 against the spread. That says it all, really.