For once, there is minimal controversy heading into the College Football Playoff. Undefeated LSU continues to soar above the nation’s elite teams week after week, Ohio State dominates each opponent with the highest scoring margin over FBS teams, and Clemson throttles its challengers by at least four touchdowns in nearly every contest. For the fourth spot, Oklahoma was the practical choice as the nation’s lone 1-loss Power 5 team.
But what if there were four undefeated teams? That was the scenario last season with Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, and UCF attaining regular season perfection, and it was nearly the case this season. While UCF didn’t qualify for the 2018 College Football Playoff despite 25-straight wins and back-to-back undefeated conference championship seasons, the Knights sparked discussion about inclusion of the teams from the American Conference and the rest of the Group of Five.
All of a sudden, this very discussion has quelled as there are no undefeated Group of Five programs heading into bowl season for the first time since 2015. The 12-1 Memphis Tigers were the deserving recipient of the Cotton Bowl bid after handling Cincinnati twice, Navy, and SMU this season en route to a conference title. But Memphis nearly rejuvenated chatter about the value of an undefeated record and how it pertains to a team’s worthiness in college football’s 4-team tournament. All it took was one play and one surprising decision.
October 12, 2019 — Philadelphia, PA
The No. 23 Tigers are on the road in the City of Brotherly Love, battling a feisty Temple team that had already taken down a ranked Maryland squad. Memphis’ high-powered offense could not have experienced a more disastrous start, turning the ball over on three-straight drives to allow Temple to claim a 16-0 lead.
Memphis spent the entire second half playing catch-up to the Owls but sliced the deficit to 30-28 thanks to a fourth quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Brady White with 10 minutes remaining. After a clutch defensive stop on 4th and short, the Tigers took over, one field goal away from a 6-0 start. Several plays later, they faced a 4th and 9 from the Owls’ 43.
Right before a Temple defender registered a sack on 4th down, White fired the ball to his wide-open tight end, Joey Magnifico, who hauled in what appeared to be a diving catch for a 13-yard gain and a crucial first down. Magnifico’s reception pushed Memphis into field goal range with reliable kicker Riley Patterson warming up.
But time is stopped and the play was reviewed. Initially ruled a catch, the play was overturned, signaling the officials saw clear evidence of the ball hitting the ground before Magnifico secured it. Suddenly, a probable win for Memphis turned into a gut-wrenching loss. While the Tigers’ suffered early offensive mistakes, a controversial call proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
Here is the play, frame-by-frame. The ball appears to make slight contact with the ground. That contact is permissible only if the receiver maintains control throughout the process, which is difficult to clearly determine.
@Isaac_Rivals @_JonahJordan @DrewHill_DM Here is video evidence I guarantee you the refs can’t see as well as I can at 2160P resolution. This is very slo mo. Notice Joey’s arm under the ball a spit second before it he goes down. Some explain how this call could be overturned? pic.twitter.com/WWpe6392ZU— Tigers (@tigersgrizz07) October 12, 2019
Per Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, American Conference commissioner Mike Aresco supported the decision. “They have the clearest angles and a ton of things that the average fan doesn’t see,” Aresco said, per the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “They said it was clear the ball hit the ground.”
Despite disagreement, Mike Norvell’s team responded in a mature manner. Memphis’ players moved the game to the back of their minds and won seven in a row to conclude the most successful season in program history. With a late comeback to defeat Cincinnati in the American Conference Championship Game, Memphis finished as the highest rated Group of Five team and landed in the Cotton Bowl. They’re the third-straight team from the American Conference to earn a New Year’s Six bid and the fifth team from the AAC in the league’s 7-year history to wind up in a BCS/NY6 Bowl.
The Aftermath and The What-Ifs
If Magnifico’s catch was never overturned and Memphis kicks a game-winning field goal in Philadelphia, the postseason result likely stays the same. Memphis plays Penn State in the Cotton Bowl, while LSU, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma compete for the College Football Playoff. However, with UCF opening the door for Group of Five inclusion and even receiving an NCAA-recognized national championship and four No. 1 votes in the final 2017 AP Poll, it seems likely that Memphis would gain more prevalence in national discussion regarding the CFP.
After all, the Tigers hail from an AAC West division which has a higher Sagarin rating than both divisions of the ACC. While Memphis didn’t dominate opponents quite like the Tigers from Clemson, Memphis’ strength of schedule ranks 70th according to the Jeff Sagarin’s metric, while Clemson’s checks in not too far ahead at 60th. Strength of schedule has been the primary roadblock to Group of Five teams’ inclusion to the dance, but Memphis’ case for the CFP sharpens given the increased strength of the AAC in 2019. Temple finished 8-4 while defeating two Power 5 teams and Memphis, and still sports the sixth best record in the conference behind 12-1 Memphis, 10-2 SMU, 9-2 Navy, 10-3 Cincinnati, and 9-3 UCF.
In the hypothetical scenario of an undefeated Memphis, Oklahoma slipping up just once against the nation’s 15th ranked schedule still makes the Sooners a prime candidate for the 4-seed. Assuming an undefeated conference champion would be snubbed three years in a row, perhaps the discussions shift to playoff expansion rather than inclusion. A common format, one recently presented by Bill Connelly, involves all Power Five conference champions, the highest ranked conference champion in the Group of Five, and two at-large bids. That scenario would involve Memphis battling LSU this season.
Btw, here's what the 8-team (P5 champs + G5 + 2 at-large) playoff would have produced so far in the CFP era:— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) December 9, 2019
* G5 champ would've been dang competitive in 2015 and 2017, at the very least
* At least 2 dynamite QFs in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018; maybe FOUR in 2017 pic.twitter.com/uhYnoxQWCm
Overall, one controversial call did not define Memphis’ season. However, if that call was never overturned, it’s hard to predict where No. 17 Memphis would be ranked. It is currently the second-highest ranked 1-loss program behind the Sooners, and only three other teams own unblemished records.
With a win at Temple, the Tigers could be on the verge of completing just the third undefeated season in the College Football Playoff era, raising increased national awareness and posing as this year’s poster child for playoff expansion or AAC inclusion.
Memphis won the AAC outright for the first time ever and is headed to its first New Year’s Six bowl in school history. Throw in a College GameDay visit, a new conference attendance record at the Liberty Bowl, and a school-record 12 wins, and Memphis’ 2019 season will go down as a resounding success for the conference and for Tiger faithful everywhere.