The narrow, nearly impossible playoff path for the AAC

Tom Herman and Houston are looking for more that just a Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl trophy in 2016, but can the Cougars even make it to the playoff from the Group of 5? John Bazemore/AP Photo

There is no convoluted formula or secret access code into the College Football Playoff. It is, however, an exclusive club -- one that so far has been reserved for the big boys of college football, the conference champions from the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and SEC.

The only common denominator between the haves and have-nots chasing a spot in the playoff is the one question every team must answer for the selection committee: Who did you beat?

Last year, Houston beat Florida State, Louisville and Vanderbilt. Memphis beat Ole Miss. Cincinnati beat Miami. The entire American Athletic Conference went 6-4 against the ACC and won a total of 10 games against Power 5 opponents. It finished with three 10-win teams in Houston, Navy and Temple.

New Year's Six bowl? Definitely. Top four? Not a chance.

"I talked to the committee and I talked to the chair," said American Conference commissioner Mike Aresco. "We were able to talk to them at the College Football Playoff, and I said, 'I just think there might be this bias toward teams that have always been there, teams in the P5 with the big names, but these teams can play, and Houston could've been a very worthy playoff team.'"

It still might be.

The American raised its profile in the eyes of the committee last year, but in order for the group to even consider a team from the Group of 5 -- comprised of The American, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt and C-USA -- it would likely have to be undefeated, including at least one win over a ranked Power 5 opponent, and the entire league would have to have a few top 25 teams like the American did last year.

It's not impossible.

It's just not probable in this system.

"I think the landscape needs to be evened out and made fair," said former Oregon offensive coordinator and first-year UCF coach Scott Frost. "I think from our perspective, an eight-team playoff would be a lot better. Then you can take the top Group of 5 team and throw them in with the seven best Power 5 teams.

"I think the number of conference games needs to be standard throughout the leagues," he said. "I'm coming from the Pac-12, where we had to win nine straight conference games, and whatever nonconference you had, and a playoff if you get there. We'd be playing Arizona State or USC in Week 10, watching the SEC play The Citadel or Georgia Southern. Those kinds of things aren't equitable. If we're going to get to a point where everything is fair, then they need to even out the scheduling with everybody and give everybody a fair shake."

Temple coach Matt Rhule hasn't forgotten what it feels like to be undefeated and left out. He was on the 1994 Penn State team that went undefeated and didn't win the national title.

This system? It's "sooo much better," he said.

"That team would've killed for this opportunity," he said. "I think it's a step in the right direction, but I look forward to the day we open it up to eight teams. I'm hoping that some day that happens, because I think the teams in this league, if they put them in the playoff, people would be really surprised at what we would do. I think we'd have some really great games."

There will be several chances to prove it this season.

Houston has gotten the bulk of the attention as the Group of 5's best playoff hope, but ESPN's Football Power Index gives Boise State the best chance of any Group of 5 team to win out, at 7.9 percent - the fourth-best chance of any team in the country behind Oklahoma, Florida State and Clemson. FPI projects Houston to win just 8.6 games, but the Cougars will face Oklahoma and Louisville.

South Florida also has a monumental opportunity at home when it faces Florida State, but it's unlikely the selection committee could ignore a season opener against Towson. Memphis once against faces Ole Miss, Tulsa travels to Ohio State, and SMU has TCU and Baylor. One of the more underrated difficult schedules is ECU's three-game stretch against NC State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech.

Lining up against Power 5 opponents is one thing. Winning those games is another.

"If you become the conference champion in the American conference and you win those games," UConn's Bob Diaco said, "I don't know how you're not going to be a part of that group of four, I really don't."

The highest-ranked champion from the Group of 5 is guaranteed a spot in a New Year's Six bowl, which Houston earned last year, when they beat Florida State 38-24 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. If the Cougars can beat the Sooners in Week 1, they should immediately be taken seriously in the CFP race.

"If they went undefeated and win those games," Aresco said, "I don't know how you keep them out."

Maybe you don't.

It's going to take perfection, though, to find out.