• Fri. Jun 2nd, 2023

Group of 5 schools that could reach 2022-23 College Football Playoff

BySean Clark

Sep 1, 2022
Jake Haener celebrates a touchdown

Photo courtesy of Michael Owens | Getty Images

Last season, the Cincinnati Bearcats made history by becoming the first Group of 5 school to make the College Football Playoff. Led by long-time quarterback Desmond Ridder and a shutdown defense led by cornerback Sauce Gardner, the fourth-overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft by the New York Jets after not allowing a single touchdown in coverage in his college career, the Bearcats stormed through their regular season schedule. 

To achieve a spot in the College Football Playoff from the American Athletic Conference, Cincinnati needed a landmark win, which came in a 24-13 win at No. 9 Notre Dame. While they lost to Alabama 27-6 in the semifinal in the Cotton Bowl, Cincinnati showed they can compete with the best of college football and bolster elite talent, which will be needed when they join the Big 12 in two years. It did help, however, that they were preseason ranked eighth in the AP Poll. 

This begs the question, will there be a team among the Group of 5 conferences that can repeat what Cincinnati did and reach the College Football Playoff? A good place to start is to look at the preseason AP Poll Top 25 rankings. There are only two teams that are from a Group of 5 conference, which are Cincinnati at 23 and Houston at 24. The two teams that met in the AAC Title game last season are two of the best options for this unlikely scenario to occur once again. For this to happen, upsets would need to galore in the Power 5 conferences and each G5 team would need a landmark win on top of going undefeated. 

Here are the top five teams most likely to not only be the Group of 5 representatives in the New Year’s Six Bowls, but also have an outside shot to crash the CFB Playoff Party once again. 

5. UCF Knights (2021 record: 9-4)

UCF flexed their muscles in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl last season as they took out in-state rival Florida 29-17 during a tumultuous first year under head coach Gus Malzahn. He has the pedigree to get the most out of his skill players (had a national championship appearance with former cornerback/quarterback Nick Marshall at Auburn in 2013) and still won nine games after a bevy of injuries to his QB room. 

While Gasparilla Bowl starter Mikey Keene returns, UCF replaced former star QB Dillon Gabriel (now at Oklahoma) with Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee. The former Rebel nearly had 1,000 yards in both rushing and passing in 2019 with Ole Miss and with the coaching talent of Malzahn, Plumlee should thrive in UCF’s offense. Last season, Isaiah Bowser Jr. split carries with Johnny Richardson, but will now be the feature back after Richardson’s departure. 

The Knights will be a dangerous team in the AAC and compete with Cincinnati and Houston for the title. They must defeat Cincinnati at home on Oct. 29 (30-2 at home the last five years) and take care of business against the explosive playmaking QB Malik Cunningham at Louisville and Georgia Tech in their out-of-conference schedule. Regardless, it is always a treat to watch a Malzahn-led team. 

4. Appalachian State Mountaineers (2021 record: 10-4)

Yes, you are reading this correctly, a Sun Belt Conference team has a better chance to make the CFB Playoff than the team that self-proclaimed themselves as national champions in 2017. However, the hype for the Mountaineers is real this season and are a strong favorite to win the conference in 2022 after coming up just short in 2021. Their conference title aspirations were denied twice by Louisiana and narrowly lost by two to Miami (FL) in Week 2. 

Chase Brice returns for his senior season after throwing for 3,327 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2021. To support him is the return of their two dynamic running backs, Nate Noel (1,153 rushing yards) and Camerun Peoples (14 rushing touchdowns). Shawn Clark (I swear I’m not biased because of the name) is running an electric offense in Boone, NC and should win the conference. 

For their CFB aspirations, they have two opportunities early to make a statement as the school is no stranger to shocking upsets (2007 anyone?). App State faces in-state foe North Carolina before traveling to College Station in Week 2 to face the currently No.6-ranked Texas A&M Aggies. Winning both games and sweeping the Sun Belt Conference would send shockwaves throughout the CFB landscape. 

3. Houston Cougars (2021 record: 12-2)

With Houston being in the preseason AP Poll, they already have an advantage over almost every other G5 school in their pursuit of a berth in the CFB Playoff. Last season, Houston went 8-0 in conference play before losing to Cincinnati in the AAC Title game and defeated Auburn 17-13 in the Birmingham Bowl. 

Running the show for Dana Holgorsen’s offense is QB Clayton Tune, who threw for 3,544 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. The good news for Tune is that he gets back his favorite target in Tank Dell, who torched defenses for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns on 90 receptions. He will be a player to watch for the Fred Biletnikoff Award as one of the nation’s most dynamic receivers. 

The issue for Houston is their lackluster schedule, ranking 102nd in CFB. They have an opening trap game against the UTSA Roadrunners in Week 1 and will attempt to get revenge on Texas Tech for their opening loss to begin the 2021 season. If they can look impressive to begin the season and sweep through the conference again, they have an opportunity to climb through the AP Poll. 

2. Cincinnati Bearcats (2021 record: 13-1)

It’s only natural that one of the most likely teams to repeat what the Bearcats did in 2021 is Cincinnati themselves. While they lost nearly every key piece from their 2021 team, they are still one of the favorites to win a loaded AAC conference. 

Ben Bryant Jr. will replace legendary QB Ridder. He started 13 games for Eastern Michigan last season and tossed 14 touchdowns to go with 3,121 yards. Ryan Montgomery should be the lead back after sitting behind Jerome Ford last season (had two touchdowns with Ford injured in their 45-28 win at USF). Nick Mardner should fill in for Alec Pierce nicely after 1,270 yards in 13 starts at Hawai’i. 

Cincinnati’s landmark game will occur Week 1 at No.19-ranked Arkansas. If the Bearcats can win that game, they have an opportunity to make another run toward the CFB Playoff, providing they go undefeated once again in AAC play. The question will be how well Luke Fickell can mesh together the new talent right out of the gate. 

1. Fresno State Bulldogs (2021 record: 10-3)

While Fresno State is not ranked in the preseason poll and plays in the less-prolific Mountain West Conference, the Bulldogs are the best Group of 5 team in CFB this season. They have the best chance to represent the G5 in the CFB Playoff and will play in a New Year’s Six Bowl. Yes, they lost head coach Kalen DeBoer to Washington, but return previous head coach Jeff Tedford (Aaron Rodgers’ college coach). 

QB Jake Haener is the key piece to this team and returns after nearly following DeBoer to Washington after the regular season ended. He helped lead the Bulldogs to a 31-24 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl on short notice after just returning to the team. Last year, Haener showed his prowess by tossing 455 yards in a thrilling 40-37 win at No.13 UCLA, which included a last-second game-winning touchdown pass. With his top-two targets back in Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly, Haener will have an electric season that will see him being a Heisman Finalist. 

On top of needing to go undefeated in conference play, Fresno State’s best chance to make a push comes Week 3 at currently No. 14-ranked USC. With USC having an explosive and revamped offense under first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, the game will be a shootout. If Fresno State can prevail and defeat Oregon State in Week 2, expect the Bulldogs to be a factor in the race for the CFB Playoff.

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