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Path to the College Football Playoff for Group of 5 tricky but possible

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Will the Group of 5 ever get a playoff berth? (3:25)

The American Conference made strides with this year's College Football Playoff committee. ESPN's Heather Dinich joins Adrienne Lawrence to explore what it would take for a non-Power 5 team to finish in the top four. (3:25)

It is possible for a team from a Group of 5 conference to crack the code into the College Football Playoff semifinals, it just has to have the perfect season, the perfect schedule and the perfect storm.

(So you're saying there's a chance ...)

"I won't say there's a glass ceiling," said Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, "but you wonder."

The Group of 5, comprising the American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt, fared far better in the selection committee's Top 25 rankings than it did a season ago but is still perceived as a collection of second-tier teams that has to beat the sport's heavyweights on a consistent basis to earn national respect.

It definitely made some dents.

Toledo beat Arkansas. Memphis beat Ole Miss. Temple beat Penn State. Houston beat Louisville and Vanderbilt.

The American carried the banner with three ranked teams -- No. 18 Houston, No. 21 Navy and No. 24 Temple -- with Houston earning a spot in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Florida State because it was the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5.

"For the American, the strength at the top really helped them," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. "To have those four quality teams, four teams that the committee clearly respected because they had them in the Top 25 at one point or another, that was absolutely what carried them, four teams of that caliber and the way they performed in their nonconference."

The G5 commissioners agree that the automatic spot in a New Year's Six Bowl makes this system vastly more favorable than the BCS was, but it's still on the outside looking in when it comes to finishing in the top four.

"I think it certainly has to be the right set of circumstances," said former Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who was hired at Virginia Tech in November. "Is it possible? Sure. Is it very likely? I don't know. Your nonconference schedule has to pretty good, obviously you've got to win them. You're going to have to run the table, and then your league has to help you out. I thought this year our league was good enough that if you had the right nonconference schedule and you made it all the way through that league, then you certainly deserved some serious consideration. It will certainly be difficult, but if you run the table and the dominoes fall the right way for you, you at least have a shot."

It's going to take a Herculean effort to unseat the likes of an Alabama or Oklahoma, but there is a formula for it:

1. Schedule aggressively: Bowling Green, which opens at Ohio State next year, and Toledo are two MAC teams that got the memo. The Falcons' nonconference schedule included Tennessee, Maryland, Memphis and Purdue. The Rockets caught the country's attention when they upended Arkansas, and they also beat Iowa State. Those two MAC teams went 4-1 against their Power 5 opponents, with the lone loss coming to a ranked Tennessee team.

"Early on we titled our schedule 'Fiesta Bowl or bust,'" said Bowling Green athletic director Chris Kingston, who didn't hesitate to plug in Tennessee after UAB temporarily shut down its program. "Specifically in the nonconference portion, to have success in that puts us in the national conversation."

Kingston said he wants to schedule at least two Power 5 teams and two Group of 5 teams annually in the future.

"I listen to [CFP chairman] Jeff [Long]," he said. "I listen to the committee."

2. Go undefeated: A two-loss Boise State team played in the Fiesta Bowl last season (and beat Arizona), but any G5 team with aspirations of a semifinal seed simply has no margin for error. Had Memphis gone undefeated and won the American, it absolutely would have been at least considered for a top-four spot -- especially if Ole Miss had gone on to win the SEC.

"I think this year the Ole Miss-Memphis game was probably the most important game we played," American commissioner Mike Aresco said. "It was the one that galvanized things for us. We got a lot of attention from that."

3. Depth in the conference (the American): This is an underrated key to the puzzle, because while athletic directors can control their nonconference schedules, they have zero influence over how good the league might be in any given year. The American carried the banner this season for the Group of 5, with just as many teams as the ACC ranked in the final Top 25.

"The rising tide in that conference did lift all the boats," Hancock said.

The Mountain West Conference can attest to the benefits of it.

"Last year we had four 10-win teams and we were a much stronger league," commissioner Craig Thompson said. "This year we had one 10-win team. The American kind of fed off itself. We had that when we had TCU and Utah, and BYU on occasion, all three in the Top 25. You've got to get help from your league schedule, you've got to play the right nonconference schedule and no question -- you have to be 12-0."

See? It's possible.