Group of Five Playoff: Declaring the final four teams and a 2018 national champion
The College Football Playoff may not respect many of these teams, but we believe they are deserving of more
With the regular season now complete and the 2019 College Football Playoff determined, we are here to break down the top four teams in the Group of Five for our playoff field. There's always talk this time of year about expanding the CFP field with the idea that a Group of Five team would be guaranteed an opportunity to play for the national championship, particularly in the eight-team concept. But with that four-team field not changing anytime soon, it's time for Group of Five programs to understand once and for all that if they do not set themselves up with a strong enough schedule -- including at least a pair of ranked Power Five teams -- they do not have a realistic shot of making the CFP.
The idea was floated a few years ago about the Group of Five creating their own version of the CFP; it was dismissed at the time, but that idea actually has merit. If Group of Five teams are not going to compete for the CFP National Championship, why not make one of their own -- and not simply rely on claiming a "national championship" that many outside the teams' own fan bases will mock. Earn it on the field and make some money in the process.
It is with that in mind that we here at CBS Sports set out to determine such a playoff. Our 11-person selection committee rated and ranked the top Group of Five teams -- plus non-Notre Dame independents -- just like the CFP Selection Committee. We followed the protocol of evaluating teams individually and relied on these four criteria when discussing comparable teams: championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition (if applicable) and comparative outcomes of common opponents (not including margin of victory). The only difference: After compiling our field of eligible teams by each voter ranking their top six, we filled the spots one-by-one rather than in in groups of three.
There were some strange parallels between our four-team field and the CFP field this season. For example, our No. 3 seed is an independent team as opposed to a conference member. We also had a heated debate about the No. 4 spot and whether a team that lost an overtime game on conference championship Saturday should get in despite having one more loss than its competitors.
With that, we present to you the final edition of our Group of Five playoff rankings with our work shown below. All rankings utilize the weekly CBS Sports 129. We also play out the matchups and championship game at the bottom of this story.
1. UCF Knights
Record: 12-0 | S&P SOS: 83 | Sagarin SOS: 89
Best wins: Cincinnati (25), Temple (34), Pitt (35) | Losses: None
The Knights are the only undefeated Group of Five team, but maybe just as importantly, they proved they could win without star quarterback McKenzie Milton. Redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. was superb in the AAC Championship Game vs. Memphis, throwing for 348 yards and scoring six total touchdowns in the 56-41 win. To go two full seasons without a loss is rare, no matter what conference a team belongs to or what its schedule is like. UCF may not get the consideration it deserves in the College Football Playoff race, but this is without a doubt one of the better teams in the entire landscape. It deserves the No. 1 spot without a second thought. (Last week: 1) -- Ben Kercheval
2. Fresno State Bulldogs
Record: 11-2 | S&P SOS: 105 | Sagarin SOS: 81
Best wins: Boise State (20), San Diego State (66) | Losses: Boise State (20), Minnesota (61)
Fans were outside the building welcoming the team back after its outlasted Boise State 19-16 in overtime to win the Mountain West title, and they'd be ready to hit the road to follow the Bulldogs to whatever destination our Group of Five Playoff would send you to as the No. 2 seed. In beating the Broncos, Fresno State avenged one of its two losses on the season. Now that 21-14 loss to Minnesota looks like an outlier, and Jeff Tedford can prove it. (Last week: 3) -- Chip Patterson
3. Army West Point Black Knights
Record: 10-2 | S&P SOS: 98 | Sagarin SOS: 102
Best wins: Buffalo (43) | Losses: Oklahoma (4), Duke (47)
Army isn't just a triple option team that is a nuisance to its opponents, it's a complete team with a stout defense that can compete with anybody in the Group of Five. It has only given up 400+ yards twice this season, controlling most games from the outset. Coach Jeff Monken has done a tremendous job building off his success year after year. The Duke loss doesn't look as great after the Blue Devils got smoked by Wake Forest to end the season, but the overtime loss to Oklahoma is the best loss of any of the Group of Five front-runners. There isn't a signature win on the resume, but that shouldn't take away from what the overall body of work that the Black Knights put up in 2018. (Last week: 4) -- Barrett Sallee
4. Appalachian State
Record: 10-2 | S&P SOS: 112 | Sagarin SOS: 132
Best wins: Troy (46) | Losses: Penn State (16), Georgia Southern (41)
We saw a CFP committee this year held good losses in high esteem. Oklahoma topped the one-loss rankings because of a three-point rivalry loss. Georgia's loss to Alabama nearly propelled it into the playoffs. Ohio State was virtually disqualified by nature of its 29-point loss to Purdue. So against that backdrop, the Mountaineers have a strong case to present. They've lost to two teams this year. They outgained Penn State in an overtime loss that required a score with no time left in regulation for the Nittany Lions to even get an overtime shot. The other loss was to conference rival Georgia Southern after starting quarterback Zac Thomas went down on the game's opening series. The Mountaineers are 15th in the country in yards per play on offense and fourth in the country in yards per play on defense. This is one of the most consistent Group of Five teams in the country and has already shown that it can compete with the big boys. (Last week: 6) -- Barton Simmons
5. Boise State Broncos
Record: 10-3 | S&P SOS: 49 | Sagarin SOS: 70
Best wins: Fresno State (16), Utah State (21) | Losses: Fresno State (16), Oklahoma State (48), San Diego State (64)
I did my best impression of Kirk Herbstreit and tried to convince my fellow committee members that Boise State still belonged in the top four despite its three losses, but it didn't work. In my opinion, the Broncos have more impressive wins than either Army or Appalachian State, and it would beat both of them more times than not. Unfortunately, the rest of the committee couldn't overlook that third loss ... that came to a Fresno team the Broncos have a win against, too. (Last week: 2) -- Tom Fornelli
6. Utah State Aggies
Record: 10-2 | S&P SOS: 128 | Sagarin SOS: 114
Best wins: BYU (69) | Losses: Boise State (20), Michigan State (38)
Utah State won a lot of games this season, mostly by huge margins, but the Aggies did not win the right ones, which is why they find themselves sixth in these rankings. The loss at Michigan State was a missed opportunity to make a statement, and the loss at Boise State cost them a shot at the Mountain West title. They only played one other team with a winning record: Utah State won at Hawaii 56-17. The Aggies' biggest loss of the season may have been after the games were over when coach Matt Wells left for Texas Tech. (Last week: 5) -- Jerry Palm
We enlisted SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh to project the outcomes of our Group of Five Playoff. He ran 10,000 simulations on each game to determine not only the winner but the average final score of the games.
1. UCF (12-0) vs. 4. Appalachian State (10-2)
As one would expect, this game was not tough to predict. UCF won 77 percent of its matchups with Appalachian State by an average score of 35-23. That would move the Knights to 13-0 on the season with 26 consecutive wins entering the first Group of Five Playoff National Championship.
2. Fresno State (11-3) vs. 3. Army (10-2)
Army certainly had a chance in this one, but Fresno State again won an important game by a field goal margin. The Bulldogs beat the Black Knights in 59 percent of simulations by an average score of 25-22. Will Notre Dame meet a similar fate as an independent ranked No. 3 in the CFP?
Championship: No. 1 UCF (13-0) vs. 2. Fresno State (11-3)
The Knights prove to be the cream of the crop in the Group of Five -- as if we did not know that already -- with a decisive average victory of 37-24 over the the Bulldogs. UCF won a whopping 80 percent of the simulations and would be able to claim a real national championship following consecutive undefeated seasons.
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