For Group of Five fans, 2024 feels like a light at the end of a tunnel. After this season, the College Football Playoff is set to expand to 12 teams, which means Group of Five programs will have access to the most prestigious postseason event in college football.
The current iteration of the playoff features just four teams, and Cincinnati’s 2021 squad is the lone G5 program to qualify for the playoff. The Bearcats struggled offensively in a loss to Alabama, for what it’s worth.
While 2024 will bring with it unbridled optimism for Group of Five fans, there’s still one season left of the four-team playoff. Can any G5 team crash the party one final time before it expands? Let’s take a look at the top candidates, in no particular order.
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To make the College Football Playoff as a Group of Five team, it takes a strong reputation entering the season, an undefeated record, and a respectable strength of schedule. That’s not out of the question for UTSA in 2023.
With Frank Harris returning at quarterback, the Roadrunners are expected to boast a dynamic offensive attack. They’ve won 30 games in three seasons under head coach Jeff Traylor, and they’re recruiting quite well. UTSA is a top-tier Group of Five team entering the 2023 season.
UTSA’s schedule also features road games against Houston, Tennessee, and Tulane. If UTSA runs the table, the Roadrunners will have a wildly impressive resume. Going undefeated, however, will be a massive test.
The Green Wave enters 2023 with a strong reputation after pacing all Group of Five teams last season and beating USC in the Sugar Bowl. The 2023 schedule is tough enough that an undefeated Tulane team would deserve consideration to make the College Football Playoff.
Tulane plays South Alabama, Ole Miss, and Southern Miss in the first three weeks of the season. A 3-0 start could have Tulane in the top 10 of the AP Poll, generating strong national buzz after a stellar 2022 campaign.
The regular-season finale could hold major AAC title implications, as Tulane hosts UTSA. Both teams are projected to start the year inside or near the top 25.
SMU is loaded with talent, and like UTSA and Tulane, the Mustangs are expected to contend for the AAC Championship. Even with Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF leaving for the Big 12, the AAC still feels like it’s in the best position to send a team to the CFP among Group of Five conferences.
If SMU runs the table, the Mustangs will have wins over Oklahoma and TCU, as well as a possible victory in the league championship game over UTSA or Tulane. It would be hard for the committee to overlook those top-tier victories, especially if the Mustangs dominate lesser opponents the rest of the season.
Boise State is the Mountain West favorite, and the Broncos have a loaded non-conference schedule that includes games with Washington, UCF, and Memphis. An undefeated Boise State would not only be a deserving playoff selection, but the Broncos would be a dangerous out if they can somehow make it through their gauntlet of a schedule.
Like other teams on this list, actually going undefeated is the hard part. The path is there for Boise State to make the CFP should it go undefeated, but the dream of an undefeated season may very well die in Week 1 against the Huskies.
Sun Belt teams, largely due to schedules that don’t jump off the page, are a step behind AAC teams vying for a spot in the four-team playoff. If any program from the Sun Belt can make the playoff in 2023, I’ll take Troy.
The Trojans play Kansas State, James Madison, and Western Kentucky before September ends. If they win those games and start 4-0, they’ll be well within the top 25 and generating major hype. It’ll be an uphill climb after that to make noise given the schedule, but if there’s chaos across college football and Troy meets a top-25 team in the Sun Belt title game, the Trojans could be floated as a contender.