Can a Non-Power Five Program Crash College Football Playoff?

irish

Jay Pryce

Wednesday, June 13, 2018 12:58 PM UTC

Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2018 12:58 PM UTC

Bettors have yet to see a non-Power Five team nab one of the four College Football Playoff spots. However, the climate may be changing following Central Florida’s undefeated run in 2017.

The Knights finished last season 13-0, topped by a 34-27 win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. They owned the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation (46.2 ppg), beat a Tigers team that went 2-1 SU against national championship participants (wins over Alabama, Georgia), and regularly played above expectations, covering the spread (8-3 ATS) by 8.6 points per game. Central Florida athletic director Danny White claimed the program 2017 national champ following its win in Atlanta, including ordering celebratory merchandise, dropping a banner at Spectrum Stadium, planning a parade, and even giving coaches a title bonus.

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The biggest head-scratcher, outside of the Knights going all-in on the title claims, is the fact the committee ranked never ranked them higher than 12th. It is the highest rating ever for a non-Power Five program in the College Football Playoff’s short history, but several well-respected models placed the Knights inside the top 10 nationally as early as November. The committee is feeling pressure to change its archaic rating system by introducing more relevant metrics, much like college basketball officials are implementing. Although the CFP has done an admirable job picking the semifinal teams, its undervaluation of Group of Five programs during the bowl season is evident. They are 3-1 in their New Year’s Six bowl opportunities since 2014.

Every year, at least one non-Power Five program emerges to make the committee’s job harder. They are often overlooked, too. In 2016, Western Michigan went 13-0 before losing 24-16 to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. In 2015, Houston went 13-1 SU with wins over Oklahoma and Louisville, reaching as high as No. 13 in the AP Top 25 poll in December. It embarrassed Florida State 38-24 as a touchdown underdog in the Peach Bowl. In 2014, Marshall went 11-0 SU to begin the year and didn’t even crack the committee’s top 25 until Week 12. It lost to Western Kentucky in Week 14, erasing the committee’s unwanted December discussion.

In order for non-Power 5 team to seriously threaten the top four, it will have to go undefeated, play a very competitive schedule, win by healthy margins, and hope some of the big conference champs have at least two losses. Here are the best contenders for the upcoming season:

Notre Dame (+4000 national title odds)

2017: 10-3 SU, 8-5 ATS

Notre Dame will always be the first of the non-Power 5 teams considered for the CFP. Offensive coordinator Chip Long figured things out last season. The Fighting Irish put up 34.2 points per game and return starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush under center. Defensively, the secondary is one of the best in the country. Analytics show these two areas correlate strongest to retuning production the following year (receiving yards, passes defended).

The Irish rank 19th in ESPN’s FPI strength of schedule forecast. Only one SEC team (LSU) ranks in the top 25. Oddsmakers unexplainably opened Michigan a 2.5-point favorite at South Bend in the season opener. The line has since adjusted to -1.5 and could cross the fence by kickoff. Notre Dame is currently favored in several other Game of the Year advanced lines, including at Northwestern (-7, Week 9) and USC (-1, Week 12) and hosting Stanford (-8, Week 5) and Florida State (-9, Week 10).

Central Florida (+20000)

2017: 13-0 SU, 8-3-1 ATS

The Knights are the top mid-major team in national championship futures. They lost head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska, but see a similar spread-and-tempo leader take the reigns in Mike Leach protégé and former Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. UCF’s strength of schedule is weak, ranking 86th overall. It’s toughest tests are at UNC in Week 3 and at Memphis in Week 7.

Boise State (+30000)

2017: 11-3 SU, 8-5-1 ATS

Like Central Florida, Boise State is saddled with a weak schedule (80th). If it can top Oklahoma State in Stillwater in Week 3 it has a real chance to run the table. It will also have a real shot at cracking the CFP semifinal with the brand it has created over the years. They will get a lot more media attention then the Knights and place added pressure on the committee if undefeated in December. The Broncos should kick off betting favorites in every game outside of the Cowboys. They have won 88.6 percent of contests (187-24) since 1997 when laying points.

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