It may be hard to believe, but we’re just three years removed from Scott Frost accepting a national championship bonus from UCF, bailing to Nebraska (where he’s since gone 11-19), and then publicly denouncing the Golden Knights’ claim to the 2017 title.
“I do think it was almost criminal how low they kept UCF in the rankings [12th], and I think it was intentional,” he said, “But at the end of the day, the playoff system is that the national champion is the team that wins the playoff.”
The selection committee was kinder to UCF’s undefeated 2018 squad, ranking them as high as eighth. This, of course, was not enough to get them into the playoff. Instead, they went bowling against yet another three-loss SEC West team, this time losing 40-32 to the LSU Tigers. Perhaps if their two-year starting quarterback had not suffered a harrowing injury in late November, they’d have been ranked higher, but alas.
What we do know is that undefeated Group of 5 schools have gradually become more appreciated as a general commodity in the past five seasons. P.J. Fleck’s 13-0 Western Michigan team finished 15th in 2016; the aforementioned UCF squads slotted in at 12th and 8th in 2017 and 2018, respectively; and now Cincinnati (8-0, 8th) and Coastal Carolina (10-0, 13th) are trying to crash the party.
We could spend all day mapping hypothetical scenarios or philosophizing ad nauseam about what the criteria for making the playoff should be, but that might feel rather tired. Instead, it might be more interesting to compare the best G5 teams since 2016. And as a bonus, we’ll throw in any Independent not named Notre Dame.
This inclusion ends up being rather important. It turns out that this year’s BYU team is the most efficient non-Power 5 team of the last five years (min. 8 games played). This is calculated by summing a team’s net offensive expected points added (EPA) and their net defensive expected points saved, and dividing it by the total number of offensive and defensive snaps they’ve played. BYU’s net EPA/play of 0.19 is the best among 286 qualifying G5 seasons since 2016. It also ranks third among all teams this season alone, just below Clemson (0.20).
And speaking of teams from South Carolina that are better than BYU, Coastal Carolina just ousted the Cougars 22-17 in an impromptu matchup of non-Power 5 undefeateds. The Chanticleers net EPA/play of 0.15 is the sixth-best mark this season and seventh-best among non-Power 5s since 2016.
Wedged between BYU and Coastal is Cincinnati, who has had the second-most efficient season during that time (0.19 net EPA/play). The Bearcats’ defense has played a considerable role in this, as it’s been the third-best defensive unit (0.25 net EPA/play) among G5s and Independents in the last five years. This is not the first time Luke Fickell has produced a stout defense; the 2018 rendition ranked first over this span (0.27 net EPA/play).
Some other notable teams are below:
|School||Season||Final Record||Net EPA/Play (Rank)|
|Utah State||2018||11-2||0.17 (3rd)|
|Western Michigan||2016||13-1||0.16 (5th)|
|Appalachian State||2018||11-2||0.16 (6th)|
Those UCF teams are probably better remembered because of their offenses more than anything. The 2017 (0.20 EPA/play) and 2018 (0.19 EPA/play) offenses ranked fourth and fifth in offensive efficiency, but were relatively pedestrian on defense, ranking 62nd and 87th respectively. The Western Michigan team that has been alluded to several times clocked the best offense of any of these teams (0.23 EPA/play) before hanging just 16 points on Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
Perhaps that is an encapsulation of how EPA/play is partially a function of which teams you play. Strength of schedule is an important part of the discussion and must be considered when assessing a team’s playoff-worthiness. However, we thought it might be fun to stack some of these teams against each other from a statistical perspective. Of course, it’s likely that chaos will need to unfold in order for a G5 to crack the playoff bracket, but it’s nevertheless interesting to see how the committee has regarded these campaigns more favorably as they’ve become more efficient.