Friday Five: Group of Five teams best positioned to take advantage of a possible UCF loss
Who could take the Knights spot if they slip up at the end of the season?
UCF has won 19 straight games. It's 6-0 this season, and with a 2-4 East Carolina up next, odds are the Knights are a few days away from extending that win streak to 20 games. They're ranked No. 10 in the AP Top 25, and as of right now, the Knights are the clear favorite to earn the Group of Five's automatic berth in one of the New Year's Six bowls just like they did last year.
Hell, they might even earn a spot in the College Football Playoff at this rate. I don't think it'll happen, but you never know.
But what if something goes wrong? Last week we saw UCF fall behind Memphis 30-14 only to come back and win by the thinnest of margins. With a schedule that includes tough games against Temple, Cincinnati and South Florida -- three teams that are currently a combined 16-3 -- what if the Knights slip up along the way?
Which Group of Five team would be the one most likely to earn UCF's spot in the New Year's Six? That's the premise of this week's Friday Five, as I try to figure out which five teams are currently in the best position to take advantage of a possible UCF drop off.
Writer's Note: Dear UCF fans, I am not predicting a UCF drop off. I am merely doing a thought exercise to determine what might happen if such an event were to occur. Please leave my mentions and inbox alone. I don't hate your team and want to see it fail because I'm part of the Power Five Conspiracy Against Your School or whatever.
5. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have certainly been one of 2018's bigger surprises. They're currently one of only eight unbeaten teams remaining and are ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25 poll. There are some doubts remaining about this team, however, because the schedule it has faced hasn't been daunting. The season-opening win over UCLA seemed like a bigger deal at the time, but now that the Bruins are 1-5, it's not so impressive. This team's next-best win is either Miami (OH), Ohio or Tulane. I'll let you argue that one amongst yourselves. Still, this team is 6-0 and has a chance to make some noise in the American, starting with a tough road game against Temple this weekend. That game begins the portion of the schedule when life gets more difficult, as the Bearcats still must face South Florida and UCF as well. Should they come through those games unscathed, they'll only climb higher in the rankings.
4. Fresno State: I don't know if you've paid much attention to Fresno State these last couple of years, but the Bulldogs are proving to be worth your time. After winning their division last season -- they lost to Boise State 17-14 in the MWC Championship a week after beating the Broncos 28-17 -- and finishing the season 10-4 with a win over Houston in the Hawai'i Bowl, Fresno is off to a 5-1 start this year. The lone loss was a 21-14 loss on the road against Minnesota, which in retrospect, is a game Fresno State not only had a chance to win -- it led 14-13 in the fourth quarter -- but should have. Still, even with the loss, the Bulldogs have been dominant in Mountain West play. After going 7-1 in the conference during the 2017 regular season, the Bulldogs are currently 2-0 and have outscored their opponents 48-6. There are still a couple of difficult games left on the schedule against Boise State and San Diego State, as well as a prospective conference title game, but this is a team that should continue making some noise the rest of the season.
3. Utah State: Should Fresno State reach the Mountain West Championship, the team it's most likely to meet there right now is not Boise State, but this Utah State team. Remember the first weekend of the season when Michigan State was struggling against Utah State, but eventually beat it 38-31? Well, it turns out it wasn't a case of Michigan State struggling as much as it was that Utah State's pretty good! Now, to be fair, the Aggies haven't faced a team as good as the Spartans since, but they've been dominant during their five-game win streak, winning by an average of 34.8 points per game. The defense is salty, and quarterback Jordan Love might prove to be better than the great Chuckie Keeton was for the Aggies. I can't put them higher on this list, though, because the schedule still includes difficult road games against Hawaii and Boise State.
2. South Florida: The Bulls are a hard team to get a read on because they seem determined to make every game they play as close as possible. They win the game more often than not -- they're 16-2 since Charlie Strong took over last season -- but they've yet to win a game by more than 20 points this season, and that was a 34-14 win over Elon to start the year. They beat Georgia Tech in a crazy game that saw the Bulls score two touchdowns on special teams, needed a fourth-quarter comeback to take down Illinois, sleepwalked through a 20-13 win over ECU, gave up 42 points to UMass, and then last week they escaped Tulsa with a 25-24 victory. At some point, I would like to see USF crush a team it should crush instead of playing down to it. Still, it keeps winning, so it's hard to stay too mad at it, but at some point, you need to win impressively. Road games against Houston, Cincinnati and Temple will undoubtedly provide opportunities to do just that, as well as the regular season finale at home against UCF.
1. Houston: I don't know that I'd consider Houston to be the best team on this list, but I think it's in the best spot. The Cougars are 5-1 on the season with their lone loss being a 63-49 defeat against Texas Tech. Their five wins have all come easy, as they've won by an average of 27.6 points per contest. So it's a good team, even if it isn't a team I consider great. What gives the Cougars the advantage in my mind is that they don't share a division with UCF. If you assess the state of the AAC right now, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than that the East seems to be the better of its two divisions right now. Yes, Houston still has to play South Florida and Temple, but both of those games are in Houston. And while a regular season finale at Memphis won't be easy, Memphis has already lost three conference games, including a couple against Navy and Tulane -- teams that are currently 4-8 on the year. So I have Houston here merely because its path to the AAC Championship has fewer obstacles on it than those of USF and Cincinnati in the East, and there's a chance that should it reach the AAC title game, it won't even have to play UCF. So if this Cougars team can manage to get through the regular season without another loss and then win the conference title game, it's likely going to be the highest-ranked G5 team in the country, and that means it'll get the New Year's Six spot.
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