Commentary

Five potential playoff spoilers

Originally Published: August 15, 2014
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

As college football heads into its first season with a four-team playoff, nearly everyone associated with the sport -- coaches, players, administrators and fans -- is anxious to see how the selection process turns out.

How much weight will strength of schedule carry? Which Power Five conference champion gets left out?

How many SEC teams will be selected -- one, two or even three?

What about teams from outside the power conferences? Their odds of making the four-team playoff seem slim at best, but who had UCF winning the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl the past season? Who had TCU winning the 2011 Rose Bowl? Or what about Utah stunning Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl?

Here's a look at five teams from the non-Power Five conferences that might be spoilers in 2014:

BYU Cougars (Independent)

The good: The Cougars have been one of the country's most consistent programs. They have played in nine consecutive bowl games and have won at least seven games in the past eight seasons.

BYU will once again rely on its running game, which was fantastic the past season -- just ask Texas' defense. Taysom Hill is one of the sport's best dual-threat quarterbacks; he passed for 2,938 yards with 19 touchdowns and ran for 1,344 yards with 10 scores. Tailback Jamaal Williams is also coming back after he ran for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. Even better, the Cougars expect to have back each of their five starting offensive linemen.

The bad: On paper, at least, BYU's schedule doesn't seem too demanding. The Cougars will play at Texas on Sept. 6, which figures to be a big revenge game for the Longhorns, and at UCF on Oct. 9. They'll also play road games at Boise State and California and home games against Virginia and Utah State.

But what figures to make BYU's schedule so difficult is the travel. The Cougars open the season at Connecticut, finish in California and will travel more than 15,000 round-trip miles to six states during the regular season. Talk about jet lag.

The ugly: BYU, perhaps more than any other program, seems to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the new postseason. The sport's power brokers only protected the highest-rated champion of the non-Power Five conferences (AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt) and Notre Dame (which has a partial tie-in with the Orange Bowl) when it wrote the selection rules for the playoffs and the other four New Year's Day bowl games. BYU, which became an independent in 2010, obviously doesn't belong to a conference.

The ACC and SEC also didn't include BYU as a potential "power" conference opponent for their member schools, which is going to make it difficult for the Cougars to put together a schedule demanding enough in the eyes of the selection committee.

Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC)

The good: The Bearcats, coming off a 9-4 record in coach Tommy Tuberville's first season, should be among the best offenses in the AAC -- if Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel plays well at quarterback. UC has to replace quarterback Brendon Kay (3,302 passing yards with 22 touchdowns the past season) and top receiver Anthony McClung (72 catches for 939 yards with five scores).

Kiel was one of the country's highest-rated prep quarterbacks when he signed with Notre Dame. He redshirted there in 2012 and then sat out the past season under NCAA transfer rules. Kiel has a very strong arm and seems like a great fit for offensive coordinator Eddie Gran's system. Even with McClung moving on, UC brings back four of its top five receivers, as well as tailbacks Ralph David Abernathy IV (518 yards), Hosey Williams (655 yards) and Tion Green (442).

The bad: The Bearcats have won at least nine games in each of the past three seasons, but they struggled to beat anybody of real consequence last year. Their best victory was a 24-17 win at Houston late in the season, but then they lost to Louisville in overtime and to North Carolina in the Belk Bowl. Can UC get over the hump this year?

The ugly: With Louisville moving to the ACC and Rutgers leaving for the Big Ten, the former Big East has lost its seat at college football's main table. Unfortunately, adding teams such as East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa isn't going to do much for the AAC's stock. The Bearcats and UCF are favorites to win the AAC this season, but how much weight would a league title carry with the playoff's selection committee?

But if the Bearcats can somehow win one (or both) of two challenging nonconference road games -- at Ohio State on Sept. 27 and at Miami on Oct. 11 -- and go unbeaten in the AAC, the committee would have to strongly consider them for a spot in the playoff.

Marshall Thundering Herd (Conference USA)

The good: Quarterback Rakeem Cato is back after throwing for 3,916 yards with 39 touchdowns and nine interceptions the past season. Marshall has launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Cato, who guided the Thundering Herd to top-25 rankings in scoring (42.1 points), passing (294.4 yards) and rushing (205.9 yards) last year.

Receiver Tommy Shuler, who was Cato's teammate and favorite target at Miami Central High School, caught 216 passes with 16 touchdowns the past two seasons. Tight end Gator Hoskins, a red zone weapon, will have to be replaced.

The bad: Cato, who ran 99 times for 294 yards with six scores the past season, might have to carry an even bigger load in the running game this season. Leading rusher Essray Taliaferro (1,140 yards with 10 touchdowns in 2013) is gone, along with Kevin Grooms (503 yards in 2013), who was dismissed on July 28 after his third arrest in two years.

Junior Steward Butler ran for 777 yards with eight touchdowns the past season, and he'll be the featured back this year. Remi Watson and freshmen Tony Pittman and Brandon Byrd might carry some of the load too.

The ugly: Marshall plays arguably the softest schedule among FBS teams, so there's absolutely no margin for error. The Thundering Herd don't play an opponent from a Power Five conference, and four of their opponents -- Miami (Ohio), Florida International, Southern Miss and UAB -- won two or fewer games the past season. Only five of the Herd's regular-season foes (Ohio, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee State, Rice and Western Kentucky) had winning records in 2013.

Even if Marshall goes undefeated and wins Conference USA -- or loses one game along the way -- its soft schedule might preclude it from getting a spot in the four-team playoff and, perhaps, even keep it out of one of the New Year's Day bowl games.

UCF Knights (AAC)

The good: George O'Leary hasn't built a flash-in-the-pan kind of program in Orlando. The Knights have won 10 games or more in three of the past four seasons, and they went 22-5 the past two.

The past season, UCF proved it's one of the best non-Power Five conference teams out there and finished with a 12-1 record. The Knights beat Penn State and Louisville on the road and upset then-No. 6 Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. UCF's only loss was a 28-25 defeat at South Carolina, in which it had a 10-0 halftime lead.

The bad: The Knights are going to have to move on without star quarterback Blake Bortles, the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft, and tailback Storm Johnson. Bortles passed for 3,581 yards with 25 touchdowns the past season, while Johnson ran for 1,139 yards with 14 scores.

On Sunday, O'Leary named redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo as his team's starting quarterback. DiNovo, from Tarpon Springs, Florida, hasn't taken a snap in a college game and beat out sophomore Justin Holman for the starting job.

William Stanback, who ran for 443 yards with six touchdowns on 105 carries the past season, takes over as UCF's primary runner.

The ugly: Like Cincinnati, the Knights are going to be fighting the perception that the AAC isn't any good. Much like the Bearcats, UCF will have to prove its worth out of conference. The Knights open the season at home against Penn State on Aug. 30 and play at Missouri on Sept. 13. The Bearcats and Knights won't play during the regular season.

Utah State Aggies (Mountain West)

The good: Quarterback Chuckie Keeton is back for his senior season and might be a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The past season, Keeton was well on his way to a fantastic campaign, until he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in a 31-14 loss to BYU on Oct. 4. He has fully recovered from the injury and is expected to start under center in the Aug. 31 opener at Tennessee. Even better: Backup Darell Garretson went 6-2 in Keeton's absence last year and helped the Aggies finish 9-5 in coach Matt Wells' first season.

The bad: The Aggies lost four starting offensive linemen, including All-Mountain West selections Jamie Markosian, Eric Schultz and Tyler Larsen. Larsen was one of the country's top interior linemen in 2013 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy as the country's top center.

Senior left tackle Kevin Whimpey is the lone returning starter, with 26 career starts, and has emerged as the leader of the unit. Seniors Joe Summers, Bill Vavau and Bryce Walker have combined for playing time in only 28 games in their playing careers; the other candidates have played even less. Protecting Keeton is going to be a point of emphasis this coming season, even while breaking in a new offensive line.

The ugly: The Aggies will play 13 regular season games this season, and their final month might not be easy. Heck, the first six weeks certainly won't be a cakewalk. Along with the trip to Rocky Top, Utah State plays at Arkansas State on Sept. 20 and at BYU on Oct. 3.

After playing at Hawaii on Nov. 1 (the reason for the additional regular season contest), the Aggies travel to Wyoming the next week, play New Mexico and San Jose State at home, and then close the regular season at Boise State on Nov. 29.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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