Necessary prologue to the following column: The College Football Playoff committee has proven its decision-making process to be fluid, thus rendering the weekly rankings mostly just filler content for ESPN to pad its college football coverage.
However, this week’s Top 25 reveal provides one worthwhile nugget: with its ranking of UCF at No. 18, the committee signals in no uncertain terms that a member of the Group of Five will never play in the College Football Playoff. Not with the current committee or in its current format, at least.
8-0 UCF checks in behind eight two-loss teams, including No. 11 USC, which jumped six spots after beating Arizona. Arizona was USC’s first Top 25 win since beating Stanford on Sept. 9 — with emphasis on was in both instances. The Cardinal dropped out following a loss at No. 19 Washington State, which peculiarly sports the same number of losses as USC, beat USC head-to-head, and sits eight spots behind the Trojans.
So, Stanford is out; so is Arizona, despite evidently being a good win enough to propel USC six spots. All of this that isn’t directly germane to the topic at hand is to illustrate that the College Football Playoff rankings are generally fluid. Just not in the case of a Group of Five contender.
I cite USC because, despite playing the eighth toughest schedule in the nation, the Trojans have zero current Top 25 wins. UCF’s strength of schedule is No. 92, not exactly glowing, but the Knights boast one more current Top 25 than the Trojans.
Using UCF as a case study, one can posit the question: What’s the point of playing a difficult schedule in College Football Playoff context if it produces no Top 25 wins?
Certainly a tougher all-around schedule presents more opportunity for losses, hence the lack of respect for UCF’s undefeated slate. So, it’s only fair to examine the Knights’ College Football Playoff ranking in a more one-to-one comparison, stacked up with another undefeated team.
Wisconsin sits at No. 8, not only as the sole unbeaten in the Big Ten, but it’s only team with fewer than two losses. The Badgers have a strength of schedule ranking not all that much ahead of UCF’s at No. 68; worthy of a better ranking, sure, but not 10 places’ worth. The two teams also have the same number of wins against current Top 25 competition.
Wisconsin’s schedule beefs up this weekend with Iowa, fresh off an upset of Ohio State. The Badgers are also likely bound for the Big Ten Championship, which would improve their resume exponentially. Essentially, Wisconsin can bank on getting into the College Football Playoff if it wins out; not the case for UCF, and not because the Knights do not also face a tougher schedule down the stretch.
UCF faces rival USF in the War on I-4 to cap the regular season. In their current standing, the Bulls are essentially an apples-to-apples comparison to Iowa, as both appear in the Associated Press Top 25, but not the College Football Playoff rankings.
A Big Ten East opponent will almost assuredly be higher ranked than the American Athletic Conference West division champion; Ohio State and Penn State are nine and eight spots higher in the Playoff poll than Memphis, respectively.
But the current rankings suggest UCF could beat USF, knock off Memphis a second time, and would likely still trail Wisconsin, even if the Badgers lost a hypothetical Big Ten championship. The Knights need to make up 10 spots worth of ground just to catch up to Wisconsin, say nothing of the College Football Playoff.
To elevate UCF from a point of No. 18 over the next month, with the Knights trailing a multitude of two-loss teams, would be a direct admission from the Playoff committee that it deems its own rankings meaningless on a week-to-week basis.
I was initially of the opinion that a Group of Five program could crash the Playoff with the right conditions: multiple two-loss teams across a variety of conferences. An undefeated Group of Five representative with a BCS or New Year’s Six track record (remember, UCF beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl four years ago).
But in a season that has been marked by chaos, with still more to come, the American has actually taken a step back comparative to 2015.
He would be incorrect. Memphis was No. 13 in the first ranking in 2015.
— Chuck Sullivan (@ChuckSullivan15) November 8, 2017
While I don’t glean much from the Playoff rankings every week, UCF’s current position made the committee’s position on one issue quite clear: The glass ceiling between the Group of Five and Playoff is, in fact, reinforced with concrete.