Every year, a team from a Non-Power Five conference has a good run and tries to make it to the College Football Playoff. However, time and time again, they seem to miss it by the smallest margin. From a loss, to a weak schedule or not enough convincing wins, they are looked over.
However, with some of the FBS conferences canceling fall sports, there’s less competition in the way of the remaining conferences. Could this be the year a Non-Power Five conference team earns a playoff bid? How and who will have the best chances to make it?
American Athletic Conference
The American conference finally might have a chance to get a team in the College Football Playoff (CFP) this year. Although American is not a Power Five, there are still a good amount of talented programs that can play with the big dogs. Every year it seems like they have at least three or four teams that go on a winning streak and usually one of them makes it to a New Year’s Six Bowl.
Teams that could have a chance this year from this conference are UCF, SMU, Memphis, Cincinnati and Navy. Over the last couple of seasons, these teams have been ranked at some point in the top 25. These programs have won bowl games and competed for the conference championship, mostly alternating seasons. However, UCF and Memphis have been good consistently for a while now.
Best Chance: UCF
UCF has the best chance out of the pack. Since 2017, the Golden Knights have won 10-plus games in every season, have three bowl trips and two conference championships. Their most memorable season came in 2017 where they went 13-0 while winning the Peach Bowl as well.
UCF has a talented roster with key returning seniors on the defensive side of the ball such as defensive back Antwain Collier and defensive lineman Kenny Turnier. Their leadership on the field will be pivotal to their success on defense, especially with some players opting out this season due to Coronavirus.
The next man up will have big shoes to fill, especially with the loss of starters Tay Gowan and Kaila Davis. Therefore, the defense will have to play twice as hard when going up against high powered offenses at Memphis and Navy.
On the other end, the Golden Knights’ offense could be scary this year. The offense will look to create the same magic last year where they averaged 317 passing and 225 rushing yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel returns after a great season where he led his team to 10 wins and a bowl victory ( 29 TD, 3,653 yds passing). Also, quarterback McKenzie Milton could possibly return this year after his knee injury during the 2018 season. UCF stands as the only team on this list with a ranking in the AP poll. As long as the Golden Knights can stay undefeated, their chances of a playoff bid will remain.
Sun Belt Conference
The Sun Belt does get a lot of slack. Although they may not have as much talent as other conferences, that doesn’t change the fact they have great football programs as well. Arkansas State, Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette and Appalachian State have proven to be the best teams in the conference. However, the strength of schedule will definitely be an Achilles heel for the Sun Belt. Especially with out of conference teams canceling games, a Sun Belt team have to have some pretty impressive wins to get any type of recognition.
Best Chance: Appalachian State
Appalachian State has been dominating the conference for a while now. Since 2016, the Mountaineers have either been co-champions (16-17) or won the conference outright (18-19). Last season was their best yet, ending with a 13-1 record, a Sun Belt Championship and a New Orleans Bowl victory.
The Mountaineers earned the highest ranking in Sun Belt history, placing 19th in the coaches poll. Sadly, their record didn’t go unblemished due to a 24-21 loss to Georgia Southern. However, that doesn’t take away from the stellar season they had. They even defeated Power Five teams such as North and South Carolina in very convincing wins.
Appalachian State lost a couple of players to the NFL, but the biggest hole to fill will be at running back. Darrynton Evans, 2019 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, was drafted in the third round by the Titans after his studded career in Boone, North Carolina.
With Evans gone, all eyes will be on Senior quarterback Zac Thomas. Thomas had a career year, finishing with 28 touchdowns and more than 2,700 passing yards. It will be up to the offense to put up big numbers to go undefeated this year. Thomas will have to depend on running back Marcus Williams Jr. to catch the ball out the backfield to move the ball on drives.
The Mountaineers only have 11 games on their schedule so every one counts if they want to be considered for the playoffs.
Conference USA probably will have the biggest longshot for playoff hopes this year. One thing that differentiates the C-USA from the other conferences is the lack of teams that make the top 25. The last team to make the top 25 in C-USA was Western Kentucky in 2015. Some teams in this conference had decent runs in the past. The most recent run was about two years ago.
North Texas were on their way to a top 25 ranking in 2018 after a blowout win against Arkansas. The Mean Green were riding high on a five-game winning streak, led by quarterback Mason Fine, but ended up losing to LA Tech next game. They ended up finishing the season with a 9-4 record and a New Mexico Bowl invite.
Marshall had a run in 2014. At the time, Marshall had a talented quarterback Rakeem Cato who went on a tear, leading the Thundering Herd to a 13-1 record. He broke many school records, passing for 40 touchdowns. Since then the excitement for the conference has dried up. The question is who will be the next underdog story for the C-USA?
Best Chance: FAU
FAU seems to have the best odds at a run in the C-USA. The defending conference champions will try to recreate their success last year with a bowl win and an 11-3 record. However, there have been many changes for the squad since the end of last season. FAU lost some top dogs on both sides of the ball such as tight end Harrison Bryant (fourth round- Browns) and defensive back Meiko Dotson, who led the team in interceptions (transfer to FSU). Also, their starting quarterback Chris Robison was left off the roster due to undisclosed reasons. This will be a big blow for the offense, especially with the season around the corner.
Coaching staff moves were made as well. Head Coach Lane Kiffin departed from the school and will be coaching Ole Miss. Willie Taggart, former FSU Head Coach, will look to keep the winning tradition going for the Owls.
Expectations for the Owls will be low, but that could help them out in the long run. There are still talented players that can will bring leadership on both sides of the ball. Furthermore, Taggart’s leadership ability will be on full display this season. Can Taggart go back to its winning ways or will the Owls fold under pressure?