You only need to see the tie between Wisconsin (0-0) and North Carolina (3-1) at #14 to know that the AP Top 25 is just as weird and confusing as the rest of 2020. The AP started its season allowing voters to include any team in the preseason poll, then said it was only counting teams playing games, then reversed course again and said teams planning to play later could get votes … though some voters aren’t ranking those schools yet.
My @AP_Top25 ballot (I'm only ranking teams that have played):— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) October 18, 2020
This is how we got Ohio State going from #2 to unranked to #5 without taking the field for a single snap. But it’s also given an opportunity for one surprising set of beneficiaries: The Group of Five, which has five teams in the most recent ranking. I went back to the fifth poll of the 2014-2019 seasons to see how that representation compares to normal years.
Group of Five teams in the fifth AP Poll of the season
|Year||G5 Teams Ranked||Highest G5 Rank|
|Year||G5 Teams Ranked||Highest G5 Rank|
Not only does the G5 have more teams in the top 25, they’re more spread out. The increased representation is a little easier to explain. Big Ten and Pac-12 teams aren’t appearing on as many ballots (or aren’t being ranked as highly as they might normally be when they do), which leaves space for undefeated G5 teams. And undefeated G5 teams are easier to find this year because they’ve got almost no matchups with Power Five conferences. The three top-ranked G5 teams in the poll, Cincinnati, BYU, and SMU, all faced a P5 opponent in their first month of 2020, and the Mustangs were the only one to win that matchup.
This is the cruel paradox G5 teams usually face: they have to schedule P5 teams to garner national attention, but if they lose, they’ve got a long climb ahead if they want to crack the top 25. Take Tulsa, who had a fourth-quarter lead on current #6 Oklahoma State in Stillwater before losing 16-7. The Golden Hurricane followed that loss with an upset of #11 UCF (also on the road), but they’re not in the rankings and likely won’t be without help.
Where the ranked G5 teams fall in the top 25 is a little trickier to explain. In the College Football Playoff era, only two G5 teams have made it into the top 10 before November. 2016 Houston was the first after a Week 1 win over #3 Oklahoma, and 2018 UCF was the second after a 5-0 start that included a win over Pitt. But both really got there in large part because of their previous seasons; 2015 Houston won 13 games and beat FSU in the Peach Bowl, and 2017 UCF went undefeated, ending their year with a win over Auburn in … also the Peach Bowl.
Cincinnati, who’s presently the ninth-best team in the nation, had a solid 2019 – though not as good as either of those seasons for UCF and Houston – and made it into the top 10 on the strength of wins over FCS Austin Peay, Army (a good win), and 1-4 USF. That’s it. That’s a number nine resume. To be clear, I have no problem with the Bearcats benefitting from some name recognition; this is a good program that flirted with a BCS Championship spot, has a bunch of fairly recent double-digit win seasons, and had its mascot arrested for disorderly conduct during a game.
BYU, #12 in the current poll, hasn’t been ranked that high since 2009, when they beat Oklahoma in Week 1. (Oklahoma’s long history of helping out the little guy doesn’t just apply to bowl games, as it turns out.) The 2020 Cougars, by comparison, are 5-0 with wins over a bunch of good-but-probably-not-great G5 colleagues. In a normal year, that might get BYU ranked, just not nearly this high. Or look at Marshall, who entered the poll for the first time this year at #22 with a record of 4-0. The 2014 Thundering Herd didn’t get ranked until they went 6-0, and they barely got higher than where they’re at now, topping out at #19 after 11 straight wins.
I’m not particularly interested in whether these rankings make sense or are deserved; I would much rather the voters recognize and reward the G5 teams enjoying good seasons than figure out where they’re going to put Pac-12 teams that aren’t playing for weeks. But the return of the other two P5 conferences makes me wonder: How much will these rankings stick? Is inertia going to keep Cincinnati and BYU in or around the top 10 as long as they keep winning, or are they doomed to slide once the Michigans and Wisconsins and Southern Cals of the world start winning two or three games?
If the rankings hold close to what they are now, there’s a ton of G5 intrigue left in the year. Cincinnati’s due to play #16 SMU, a Memphis team that’s just barely outside the Top 25, and that Tulsa team that gave Oklahoma State a run. BYU will play Boise State and San Diego State. Neither is ranked (or even receiving votes) right now, but they’re both regular faces in the Top 25. And #25 Coastal Carolina, who just got ranked for the first time in program history, ends the year against currently-undefeated Liberty, a team that, if it runs the table, would have three wins over ACC schools.
Perhaps foolishly, I’m choosing to hope the boosted G5 presence in the polls isn’t temporary, that voters won’t decide to vault the winner of Iowa-Purdue or Michigan-Minnesota way up the rankings off the strength of one game. But I’m also prepared to be disappointed, because that’s really the most 2020 thing to do, isn’t it?