Group of Five Playoff: Ranking the top four and opening the field for more college football teams

With just two weeks left in the regular season -- plus conference title games still to be played -- we are almost near college football's version of Selection Sunday when the official field for the 2019 College Football Playoff will be determined. But let's face it: We already have a good idea of the teams with a legitimate opportunity to play for this year's national championship.

There's always talk this time of year about expanding the CFP field -- generally from four to six or eight -- 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 no matter how well they play in a given season.

When the idea was floated a few years ago about the Group of Five creating their own version of the CFP, it was discussed a bit but largely dismissed. Well, 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 what such a playoff would look like with three weeks left in the season. Our self-appointed 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 relying 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.

With that, we present to you the first edition of our Group of Five playoff rankings, which will surely change over the next few weeks as things get sorted out with the regular season coming to a close. Oh, and we also show our work below. All rankings utilize the weekly CBS Sports 129.

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Graphic by Michael Meredith

1. UCF Knights

Record: 10-0 | S&P SOS: 104 | Sagarin SOS: 106
Best wins: Pitt (33), Temple (43) | Losses: None

For once, UCF goes in as the favorite to win it all. In our Group of Five playoff, the Knights finally have a (digital) field on which to win a championship. This is a place where a 22-game winning streak counts, where UCF going out and scheduling Power Five teams counts, where the eye test counts. Led by quarterback Milton McKenzie, the Knights can play with any team above them in the traditional polls. For now, they are a Group of Five powerhouse. How many teams change entire coaching staffs and keep plugging along? -- Dennis Dodd

2. Utah State Aggies

Record: 9-1 | S&P SOS: 128 | Sagarin SOS: 124
Best wins: BYU (69) | Losses: Michigan State (28)

Matt Wells has done a fantastic job at Utah State, and 2018 is the year that he's getting recognized for it. Quarterback Jordan Love has been money all year with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and he threw for 319 yards against Michigan State in a 38-31 loss -- the only one of the year for the Aggies. They lead the nation in scoring offense with 51.3 points per game and are third nationally in point differential at +29.5. That's better than Michigan, UCF, Fresno State and every team other than Alabama and Clemson. Even with the loss to the Spartans on its resume, Utah State can make a legitimate claim that it is the best Group of Five team. Only time will tell if the dominoes fall to a point where the Aggies make a New Year's Six bowl. -- Barrett Sallee

3. Cincinnati Bearcats

Record: 9-1 | S&P SOS: 117 | Sagarin SOS: 99
Best wins: South Florida (65) | Losses: Temple (43)

Cincinnati deserves the No. 3 spot. It has the No. 1 defense in the country according to S&P+ in marginal efficiency. It has knocked off two good MAC teams and an admittedly down UCLA. Its only loss was on the road in overtime against a very respectable Temple team. Offensively, Desmond Ridder is a very capable dual-threat quarterback, and Michael Warren is one of the best running backs in the Group of Five ranks. This weekend, Cincinnati will get a chance to state its case for the No. 1 spot with a visit to UCF. -- Barton Simmons

4. Army West Point Black Knights

Record: 8-2 | S&P SOS: 76 | Sagarin SOS: 93
Best wins: Buffalo (41) | Losses: Oklahoma (6), Duke (32)

Colleague and CFP guru Jerry Palm made a great point during our committee meeting that you can't judge Army by statistics like point differential and many advanced analytics because the style of play is so different to everyone else we're comparing from the Group of Five. So I'll revert back to a phrase from the early days of the playoff era: game control. Since taking Oklahoma to overtime in September, Army has been tied or had the lead against its opponent for all but 15:58 of regulation game time. The only two instances where Army has been behind in that span were both in the first quarter, in a 42-13 win against 9-1 Buffalo and in a 52-3 win at San Jose State. It's in Army's style, it gets control of the game and then it wins. Last time I checked, we were looking to award winning football, not style points. -- Chip Patterson

5. Boise State Broncos

Record: 8-2 | S&P SOS: 64 | Sagarin SOS: 71
Best wins: Fresno State (24), Troy (45) | Losses: San Diego State (54), Oklahoma State (55)

Boise State has had a good season, even if it is has not been up to its typical standard. The CFP Selection Committee took notice, ranking the Broncos 25th. However, Boise State has lost at home once this season to San Diego State and were a rare underdog at home to Fresno State, a game it ultimately won. The Broncos were also blown out at Oklahoma State, a game in which we would normally expect them to be more competitive. Everything is still in play for Boise State, though. The Broncos will host Utah State for the division title and can still win the Mountain West championship.  If UCF falters somewhere, they could be in position for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl and/or our No. 1 ranking. -- Jerry Palm 

6. Fresno State Bulldogs

Record: 8-2 | S&P SOS: 118 | Sagarin SOS: 87
Best wins: Nevada (71) | Losses: Boise State (27), Minnesota (75)

While our voters decided to put a two-loss Army at No. 4 this week, I don't believe Army is the best two-loss team in the Group of Five. That honor falls to Fresno State. The Bulldogs are 8-2 on the season and have outscored opponents by 246 points in the process, and that includes their two losses. And those losses aren't bad. They've lost to Minnesota by seven on the road early in the season and by seven on the road against Boise State last week; the latter loss is why the Bulldogs are ranked behind the Broncos. But Fresno State remains respected by advanced metrics like S&P+, which has it at No. 9 in the country. UCF is No. 7 and Utah State is No. 10 in those same rankings. In my opinion, this Fresno State team is better-equipped to beat UCF or Utah State than either Cincinnati and Army. My colleagues disagree, and I respect their opinions, even if they're wrong! -- Tom Fornelli

Also received votes: UAB, Buffalo

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