Wouldn’t it be peak 2020 if a non-Power Five team made the College Football Playoff?
No team from outside one of the Power Five conferences (and Notre Dame) has come close to sniffing the playoff since its inception in 2014. And a Group of Five team likely isn’t going to make the playoff this year.
But with BYU and Cincinnati currently ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll, 2020 at least presents the best chance for a team outside of the usual suspects to knock on the playoff door. Here’s a look at all of the undefeated non-Power Five teams who are currently in contention for either a playoff spot or a New Year’s Six Bowl game.
*MAC teams excluded since each team in the conference has only played two games so far
No. 7 Cincinnati (7-0)
The Bearcats have been phenomenal so far this season. Cincy has given up fewer than 20 points in six games and that other game was a 55-20 win over Austin Peay to start the season. Cincy’s average margin of victory is 29 points and a win against UCF on Saturday will go a long way to boosting the Bearcats’ hopes of being guaranteed at least a New Year’s Six bowl game as the top Group of Five team. If Cincinnati beats UCF, Temple and No. 25 Tulsa to close the season and wins the AAC, it should be — at least — on the periphery of playoff discussion.
No. 8 BYU (8-0)
The Cougars are not eligible for the Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Six bowl games since they aren’t a part of a conference. So BYU’s best chance to get into a top bowl game if it misses out on the playoff is through an at-large bid. Can the Cougars get it? It’s very possible. This Zach Wilson-led team has games vs. North Alabama and San Diego State left on the schedule. A 10-0 season is very doable. But that also presents a problem. BYU’s pandemic-modified schedule is incredibly weak. The playoff committee will likely hold that against the Cougars.
No. 15 Coastal Carolina (7-0)
The Chanticleers are one of the most fun stories of the season. The surprise Sun Belt team beat Kansas to start the season and has reeled off five wins in conference play. Coastal’s biggest test of the year comes on Saturday with a game against App State at Noon. A win there and at Texas State the following week means Coastal could be 9-0 before playing Liberty on Dec. 5. If Coastal beats both App State and Liberty and runs the table it should be next in line behind an undefeated Cincinnati team for a Group of Five spot.
No. 15 Marshall (7-0)
Marshall produced one of the bigger stories of Week 11 with a 28-point win over Middle Tennessee State on the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed 37 Marshall players and eight coaches. The Thundering Herd beat Appalachian State in Week 3 but other than that have played a really soft schedule. And there’s not much left to gain traction on. Marshall’s remaining games are against Charlotte, Rice and Florida International. A 10-0 Marshall is a fun story. But it’s not a team that will have a shot at a New Year’s Six game barring losses from Coastal Carolina, Cincinnati and others.
No. 21 Liberty (8-0)
We can’t ignore what Liberty has done this season under coach Hugh Freeze. The Flames have beaten both Syracuse and Virginia Tech and play NC State on Saturday night. A win there pushes Liberty to 9-0 with three ACC wins. But much like BYU, Liberty is ineligible for the New Year’s Six berth for Group of Five conference teams because it is an independent team. The chances of Liberty making the playoff are closer to none than slim, so the Flames will likely have to settle for a non-top tier bowl game.
It’s not too early to start thinking about the Mountain West’s chances for a New Year’s Six game. The Wolf Pack sit at 4-0 after beating New Mexico on Saturday. With games against Hawaii and Fresno State over the next two weeks, Nevada could be at 6-0 ahead of what could be a huge game against San Jose State on Dec. 11. That game could end up being for a spot in the Mountain West title game.
San Jose State (4-0)
Yes, San Jose State is undefeated. Powered by former Arkansas and Texas A&M QB Nick Starkel, the Spartans have beaten both Air Force and San Diego State this season. The biggest test of the year looms on Nov. 28 when SJSU travels to Boise State. A win there would be huge for the Spartans’ Mountain West chances and could potentially set up a battle of unbeatens against Nevada on Dec. 11.
- Nick Bromberg
Oregon’s new offense off to a promising start
Even though it lost quarterback Justin Herbert to the NFL, the early returns on Oregon’s offense so far in 2020 have been very promising.
As a matter of fact, the Ducks, now 2-0 after Saturday night’s win over Washington State, look far more creative than they ever did during Herbert’s time running the offense. And this has nothing to do with Herbert, who is thriving as a rookie for the Los Angeles Chargers. It has more to do with an upgrade at offensive coordinator.
Marcus Arroyo called plays for the Ducks for the past three seasons but left after the 2019 campaign to become the head coach at UNLV. A few weeks after Arroyo departed Eugene for Las Vegas, Joe Moorhead was fired as the head coach at Mississippi State.
Moorhead wasn’t much of a fit in Starkville, but his work transforming the offense at Penn State vaulted him to the top of the offensive coordinator market. Oregon and head coach Mario Cristobal pounced and brought Moorhead to Eugene.
Like many other programs across the country, Moorhead and the Ducks dealt with the challenges of installing a new offense amid a pandemic. There have been kinks to work out through two weeks, but it’s hard not to be very encouraged by Moorhead’s approach to play-calling if you’re an Oregon fan.
It always felt like Herbert was being hindered by Oregon’s old offensive approach. Arroyo’s play-calling had grown predictable. The Ducks were constantly running on first down, and it felt like Herbert had to play hero ball on third-and-long far too often.
Through two games, Moorhead’s creativity and aggressiveness even while playing a first-year starting quarterback in Tyler Shough has been on display. The Ducks fell behind WSU mainly due to turnovers in the first half on Saturday night in Pullman, but they got into a rhythm in the second half and Shough was able to deftly spread the ball around to eight different receivers. Shough’s legs were also on display, as he rushed for 81 yards on nine attempts after putting up 85 yards and a TD rushing the previous week vs. Stanford.
At Penn State, Moorhead always found creative ways to get the ball into the hands of star running back Saquon Barkley. Oregon has one of the country’s top running back duos in CJ Verdell and Travis Dye. While Verdell rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown, Dye had two touchdown receptions off of excellent play designs.
Watch Oregon use the speedy Jaylon Redd in motion as a decoy here, allowing Dye to leak out of the backfield on a seam route. Shough hit him in stride to put the Ducks ahead late in the third quarter.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) November 15, 2020
In the fourth quarter, Moorhead wasn’t afraid to send Dye downfield on third down even with Washington State showing blitz. The design of Washington State’s blitz got Dye singled up out of the backfield with edge rusher Ron Stone Jr. Shough correctly identified the mismatch and hit Dye in stride just as the free rusher got to him. The result was a 71-yard touchdown that extended Oregon’s lead to 36-22 with 8:25 to play.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 15, 2020
Oregon went on to win 43-29, putting up 581 yards of offense in the process.
Oregon, ranked No. 11 in the AP poll, is the defending Pac-12 champion and has the looks of the North division’s top team so far. With such a condensed schedule, it’s hard to know if there is any realistic chance for a Pac-12 team to be considered for the College Football Playoff. If any team is going to force its way into the conversation, I think it’s going to be Oregon.
- Sam Cooper
Matt Corral rebounds in a big way for Ole Miss
Matt Corral has done more than bounce back from a couple of horrendous weeks.
The Ole Miss QB had one of the most infamous performances of the season on Oct. 17 when he threw six interceptions in the Rebels’ 33-21 loss to Arkansas. He followed that game up by throwing two interceptions against Auburn a week later.
That’s eight interceptions in two games. That could be a confidence-killer for a lot of quarterbacks. And worthy of a change in starters for many coaches.
But Lane Kiffin stuck with Corral and it has paid dividends. Corral threw for 412 yards and six touchdowns against Vanderbilt a week ago. And on Saturday, Corral set an Ole Miss record with 513 yards and threw four touchdowns in the Rebels’ 59-42 win over South Carolina.
A key to Corral’s success has been his connection with WR Elijah Moore. Moore has caught 27 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns over that span. Moore now has 74 catches for 1,054 yards and eight scores on the season.
Ole Miss’ offense has been one of the best in the country and is a big reason why the Rebels could be a trendy upset pick at No. 5 Texas A&M in Week 12. Though if Ole Miss is to pull a top-five shocker, the defense is going to have to play much better than it has.
The Rebels’ 54-21 win over Vanderbilt is the only time all season where Ole Miss has allowed fewer than 30 points. And given that Texas A&M is averaging over 30 points per game in 2020, it seems likely that Ole Miss won’t hold an opponent under 30 for a second time this season.
That means Kiffin’s offense will have to perform once again. If Corral keeps playing like he has over the last couple weeks, that shouldn’t be an issue.
(Update: The Ole Miss vs. Texas A&M has been postponed due to COVID-19 issues at Texas A&M)
- Nick Bromberg
The most disappointing teams in each conference
While some conferences have teams that have played as many as eight or nine games, other conferences are just beginning their 2020 campaigns. Such is life in the world of college football amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the disparity, it’s worth examining some of the programs that have fallen well below expectations.
The Owls were expected to be a middle of the road team in the American, an expectation that at least calls for some level of competitiveness. At 1-5, Temple hasn’t even been that. The Owls have dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak along the way, but losing their last three games by a combined 84 points is not a good look.
The fact that Scott Satterfield somehow inherited the program Bobby Petrino left behind and won eight games in 2019 was an incredible accomplishment. So perhaps we should have all realized there might be a fall before Satterfield could really overhaul the roster. Still, a 2-6 record with the level of talent on the UL offense has been unexpected.
Big 12: TCU
It sort of feels like TCU is treading water as a program. After Saturday’s 24-6 loss to West Virginia, the Horned Frogs have a combined 15-17 (10-15 Big 12) record over the past three seasons. Gary Patterson has been TCU’s head coach since 2001, but his program is now entrenched in the mediocre middle of the Big 12.
Big Ten: Penn State
Who could have seen this 0-4 start coming? PSU won 11 games in three of the last four seasons, but hadn’t quite been able to crack the College Football Playoff. This year, PSU has been plagued by poor quarterback play. James Franklin has recruited well at PSU, but the lack of elite QB play has been a major hindrance on the ceiling of his program.
C-USA: Western Kentucky
After two losing seasons under Mike Sanford, WKU surprised by going 9-4 in its first year under Tyson Helton. That success has not carried over to 2020. WKU is 3-6 with one of the worst offenses in the country. WKU averages a measly 276.2 yards per game, which ranks No. 121 in the country.
MAC: Bowling Green
The combination of Scot Loeffler as head coach and Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator isn’t working very well at Bowling Green. BGSU went 3-9 last year and is off to an 0-2 start in 2020. In its two games, the Falcons have scored 27 points while allowing 100.
Mountain West: Utah State
The second go-around with Gary Andersen as USU’s head coach crashed and burned. The Aggies went 7-6 last year and moved on from Andersen after an 0-3 start. That start is now 0-4 and a program that played in seven bowl games in its last eight years is looking at a really rough 2020 season.
Stanford, once a perennial Pac-12 title contender, has lost 10 of its last 14 games and is currently on a six-game losing streak that dates back to last season. The team’s 4-8 record in 2019 was a shock, and David Shaw’s group does not appear to have improved much in the offseason. The Cardinal are now 0-2 with losses to Oregon and Colorado.
While Tennessee is worthy of consideration here, it’s hard to be more disappointing than a 2-3 start for the defending national champions. LSU lost its opener to what has proven to be a terrible Mississippi State team; it also lost 48-11 to Auburn. The departure of talent from 2019 was massive, but nobody expected the Tigers to be this bad.
Sun Belt: Arkansas State
In the Sun Belt preseason poll, Arkansas State was predicted as the second-place team in the West Division, not far behind Louisiana. While UL is 7-1 and ranked in the top 25, Arkansas State is 3-5 overall and has just a 1-4 record in Sun Belt play. The Red Wolves have lost three straight.
- Sam Cooper
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