Column: It’s time for the Group of 5 to start its own playoff


I’ve been thinking about this whole UCF national championship thing for the past few days. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time for the Group of 5 conferences plus the non-Notre Dame independents to create their own College Football Playoff.

But, first, some context.

Back in 1997 I wrote a column for the Corsicana Daily Sun in Corsicana, Texas. The idea of the column was a creation of a college football playoff that served everyone in FBS — a 16-team, four-week playoff that used bowl games as playoff sites and invited all 11 conference champions, plus five at-large berths. It seemed the fairest way to apply some kind of logic to the complicated task of selecting a national champion. The Bowl Championship Series was to begin the following fall (Tennessee would win the first title), but even then I was convinced the BCS made little sense. And it didn’t. But because college football moves at such a glacial pace, nothing changed for more than a decade. Of course, when compared to the bowl system that served major college football for more than 75 years, less than 20 years between the BCS and the College Football Playoff represents putting the accelerator on the floor.

About eight years ago I wrote an expansive piece on the previous version of our RoadTripSports.com site. The idea of that piece was again to bring some logic to major college football. With 120 teams at the time, I created 12 ten-team conferences, each of which would receive an automatic berth into a 16-team college football playoff for its champion, plus four at-large berths. This was before the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 went into poach mode and expanded.

So, the College Football Playoff came four years ago and I don’t think any college football fan believed the CFP would completely solve the problem of determining a national champion. But at least it made a little more sense to pick FOUR teams to compete in a playoff instead of two. I think most of us saw it as a gateway to an eight-team playoff at some point down the line.

Every year there is controversy. This year, to many it’s UCF, an undefeated 13-0 conference champion that beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl. One of my colleagues at HeartlandCollegeSports.com, Cameron Brock, wrote a piece about UCF’s decision to claim a “national championship” as a result (he’s all for it).

Ultimately, I think what UCF athletic director Danny White is doing is brilliant. I heard some ESPN commentators the other night say that White’s drive to claim a “national title” minimizes what the Knights have done this season. For the first few days I actually thought to myself, “What is this former Dallas Cowboys quarterback doing?” (it’s not actually THAT Danny White, I came to find out). But I came around. White is playing this for all it is worth. It will help his school’s profile, help his new head coach Josh Heupel’s recruiting and help the Knights’ potential drive to join a Power 5 conference, should the opportunity ever present itself.

But let’s not kid ourselves. UCF didn’t win a “national championship” in Atlanta last weekend, just like Auburn didn’t win a national championship when it went undefeated in 2004 and was left out of the BCS (even though they handed out rings), and just like Tulane didn’t win a national title in 1998 when it went undefeated in the first year of the BCS and went to the Liberty Bowl (but there are T-shirts!).

UCF may have beaten Auburn, and Auburn may have beaten Alabama and Georgia, but six degrees of separation only works for me in Will Smith movies. UCF’s non-conference schedule doesn’t measure up. Its best win was over Florida International. Its only win over a Power 5 team before Auburn was Maryland. I can’t get on board with that being any sort of equivalency for a berth in a national title playoff or consideration for a recognized national championship. You don’t just get to give yourself a national title, just as I’m not able to just give myself a date with Anna Kendrick.

But the problem is FAR deeper than that.

Major college football is the only playoff system that doesn’t respect the division or conference championship throughout its sport. Look at every other playoff system out there — heck, look at every other NCAA playoff system out there — and you’ll see that all division or conference champions get a berth in the playoffs, with rare exceptions (for instance, in FCS the Ivy, MEAC and SWAC have all taken a pass on automatic playoff berths, though MEAC and SWAC teams are still eligible for at-large berths).

This year just three conference champions in FBS received a CFP berth — Georgia (SEC), Oklahoma (Big 12) and Clemson (ACC). The Pac-12 and the Big Ten were left out. So were all five Group of 5 conferences. No other sport shows such a lack of respect for its conference champions as a whole the way major college football does. They do it in the name of preserving the importance of the “regular season,” as if a few extra playoff games would break college football.

And, in breaking news (not really), that won’t change.

Bob Bowlsby

College football changes glacially, as you well know. The current CFP contract goes for another decade. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that the people that run it are going to see the light and start inviting Group of 5 teams to the playoffs next year. They’ve circled the wagons this week, digging on UCF’s schedule. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby took some heat for providing vocal support for the committee’s decision to leave UCF out. I don’t blame him because it isn’t Bowlsby’s job to wear a “Go UCF” pin, yell “Go Knights” and plead their case. His job is to zealously represent the interests of the Big 12 Conference, and if adding a team like UCF to the playoff means one of his Big 12 teams will be eliminated, he isn’t going for that. Same goes for the other Power 5 conference commissioners.

The schedule is always going to be a problem for the Group of 5 teams. It’s darned near impossible to ask a Group of 5 program to schedule like a Power 5 school for a couple of reasons. First, you’re still going to end up playing eight Group of 5 teams in your conference, so you’re highly dependent on your conference being good that particular year to help your strength of schedule. Second, Group of 5 teams don’t schedule FBS teams with the idea that they’re going to contend for national championships every year, in my opinion. Those are “money games” for them (I prefer to call them Happy Meal games). They have to play those games to help support their athletic department. You think a team like Kent State wants to go get drilled by Power 5 teams each year? I doubt that. But it’s necessary to their bottom line. Kent State played at Clemson and at Louisville this year and lost by a combined score of 98-6. But Kent State made $800,000 off that Clemson game, according to the Greenville News. In 2016 Kent State played Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and took home $1.5 million. That’s a lot of MAC charter bus trips during basketball season.

Most Group of 5 teams are hoping for three things in games like that — a paycheck, 60-70 game reps and no major injuries. I went to an FCS school, Stephen F. Austin, and we play an FBS school every year (we have Mississippi State in 2018). I’m under no illusions that we’re going to beat MSU in Starkville.

Houston’s Ed Oliver and his fellow Cougars were unable to capitalize on a potential playoff run in 2016.

The Group of 5 missed out on a massive opportunity in 2016. By sheer alignment of the stars, the Houston Cougars had a great team and had scheduled two Power 5 teams — Oklahoma and Louisville. The Cougars beat them both. The Cougars still would have needed to go undefeated and win their conference (which they did not do). But would the committee have given serious consideration to a 13-0 American Athletic Conference champion with wins over the eventual Big 12 champion and a Cardinals team led by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner? Maybe. That was the “Barbarians at the Gate” moment missed by the Group of 5. I would have had FAR more issues with the committee leaving Houston out in that scenario last year than UCF this year.

What UCF did was special, and I’d rather not minimize it. But, in the current playoff structure, it will never be enough because the REAL issue is this — we have one playoff system that is attempting to serve two distinct audiences.

We have 65 teams in the Power 5 (that includes Notre Dame). Those schools have the vast majority of the money and the vast majority of the power in college football, and that allows them to impose this system on the Group of 5 schools. Sure, it’s BETTER than the BCS I suppose, but it’s still a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. To get an idea of the chasm, read Forbes contributor Kristi Dosh’s piece on the CFP payouts to each conference (and follow her at @SportsBizMiss; she’s a great source of college football business info):

Yet, these two distinct bodies have a symbiotic relationship. The Power 5 teams need the Group of 5 teams to fill out their schedules. The Group of 5 teams need the Power 5 teams’ money for their athletic programs. So, they play, and 99 times out of every 100 the Power 5 team goes home happy. We’ve known this for years. The CFP may have written a rulebook that allows for “everyone” to have access to the CFP, but we also know that rulebook isn’t worth much when there are only four spots. Plus, it isn’t worth much when a Group of 5 team’s margin for error to get into the CFP is tissue-paper thin.

The Group of 5 already has a seat at the table for one of the New Year’s 6 Bowl Games. Yeah, but at the root, that bowl berth is meaningless. Your coach gets his 15 extra practices, your players get a nice trip to a nice place and, if you win, you get a nice trophy. But it isn’t a national championship and it never will be.

So, you say, expand the playoff? Expand it now and give the Group of 5 a seat at the CFP table by allowing their best team to have a playoff berth? That sounds great … in theory. But I’ve grown old and cynical and I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. Here’s why.

In about 10 years I believe college football is going to undergo another seismic shift when it comes to realignment. The ACC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the SEC are going to decide it’s time to count to 16 (teams) and will likely try to tear the Big 12 apart like a 10-cent piñata. (which would stink because it will likely put myself and my colleagues at Heartland College Sports out of a job). Even if those four leagues don’t succeed in ripping the Big 12 apart, there will be a shift toward 16-team leagues, further leaving what is left of the Group of 5 out in the cold.

Why? Let’s say those leagues are successful in creating four 16-team leagues (plus Notre Dame). What’s to stop those leagues from saying, “You know what? We have four conference champions for four playoff spots. We don’t need to expand the playoff. We’re good.”

Now what is the Group of 5 left with? Diddly-squat. Some nice bowl games. Maybe continued access to a New Year’s Bowl game (those aren’t going away). But that’s it.

There was a time, when I was younger, when I thought there were some in college football that cared about creating a level playing field. The NFL has been a great model for that since the 1960s. But it’s clear no one does. Not at this point. Not in the future. Not ever.

So, today, I challenge the Group of 5 to create your own College Football Playoff.

P.J. Fleck guided Western Michigan to a major bowl bid before leaving the Group of 5 school for Minnesota and the greener pastures of the Big Ten.

Last year, I covered the Cotton Bowl between Western Michigan — which at the time was 13-0 and finished No. 15 in the final CFP rankings — and Wisconsin. In case you’re wondering, the Broncos beat two Big Ten teams during that season — Northwestern (7-6) and Illinois (3-9). After WMU won the MAC, a MAC athletic director floated the idea of a “Group of 5” championship game and then-WMU coach P.J. Fleck, who is now at Minnesota, was asked about it.

Fleck said he felt the current system was fine (of course, he left for Minnesota a few days after that loss to Wisconsin, which gives him a far better chance of reaching the CFP). But he did say something really interesting:

“If you’re in the Group of 5 and you can do undefeated two years in a row, then you deserve to be in the national championship.”

No Power 5 team is held to that standard. Why should a Group of 5 team be held to that standard? So, if UCF does, indeed, go undefeated next year, does anyone really think the committee is going to take them? If you look at the criteria for the CFP, by no means is a Group of 5 team guaranteed anything if it goes undefeated two years in a row. Plus, right now, UCF’s “best” non-conference game on their 2018 schedule is against Conference USA champion Florida Atlantic. The Knights have two Power 5 teams on their schedule, but it’s a pair of non-bowl ACC teams — North Carolina and Pittsburgh. The Knights need to hope both of those teams are better in 2018 for the sake of their quality of schedule. The Knights appear have an open spot on their schedule (per FBSchedules.com) and I’m interested to see what they do with it.

But, really. You think the committee next year is going to turn away a one-loss Alabama team in favor of taking a UCF team on a 26-game winning streak? Only if they want to see Nick Saban’s head literally explode (which I’m not saying no to…).

You can’t put all of this on UCF. These programs make schedules years in advance. There is no way UCF could have timed its rise as a program with a schedule that would be good enough to get the committee’s attention. Remember — the Knights were winless two years ago. Our RTS editor Chuck Cox and I were there for the loss to East Carolina in 2015. That was an awful team. You have to get incredibly lucky to match the schedule with the talent needed to win those games. Plus, there’s still the need to be undefeated and to get some breaks.

I looked at every CFP ranking from 2014 to 2017. No Group of 5 team has cracked the Top 10 in any week. UCF’s No. 12 ranking this season is the highest anyone from the Group of 5 has gotten. Good lord, at least Boise State cracked the Top 4 in the BCS rankings a couple of times.

You call this respect? I don’t.

So, I challenge the Group of 5 to take that respect back and create their own playoff. I mean, what do you really have to lose? In my mind, absolutely nothing.

You have “access” to the CFP. But it’s in name only. By creating your own playoff, you can write your own ticket, have your own tournament and have your own fun.

Those money games you need to survive? They’re not going anywhere because the Power 5 needs YOU for those games as much as you need them (why do you think those checks are so big?). Why? No Power 5 team wants to play a non-conference schedule filled with Power 5 teams. Alabama loves its mid-November breather against Charleston Southern or Coastal Carolina before the Iron Bowl. They won’t give that up. Plus, your playoff hopes aren’t dashed by mid-September when you, most likely, lose those games. In the CFP, if you lose two games you’re done.

You think you’ll lose an edge in recruiting? I doubt it. You’re not competing with the Power 5 in that area anyway. But you can tell a recruit they have a legitimate shot at a national title and not feel like you have to put an asterisk next to the statement. Recruits know what’s going on in college football. They know what the system looks like.

You think ESPN is going to walk away from their TV contracts with you? Please. They need the inventory (and the need gets bigger every day). You’re still going to get your MAC week (and it is high time we got a Sun Belt/Fun Belt week). And if ESPN doesn’t want to broadcast the Group of 5 playoff, then guess what? I think Fox will be happy to step up.

The bowl games will step up, too. Maybe not the New Year’s games. But a Holiday Bowl championship game sounds like a lot of fun to me.

Plus, you can show the Power 5 how it’s done. Create an 8-team playoff system — all of the Group of 5 conference champions (my God, what a concept) and three at-large berths. Or, if you’re feeling really ambitious, invite three of the best conferences from FCS and to join you (probably some combination of the Big Sky, the Colonial Athletic, the Missouri Valley or the Southland). Then you have eight conferences and every champion gets in.

An actual, logical national championship. Just like everyone else. Except for the guys that won’t let you into theirs.

Stop waiting. Stop hoping. Get to it. It’s time.

What I think a Group of 5 College Football Playoff would look like in 2017

No. 1 UCF (American champs) vs. No. 8 San Diego State (at-large)

No. 2 Memphis (at-large) vs. No. 7 Toledo (MAC champion)

No. 3 USF (at-large) vs. No. 6 Troy (Sun Belt co-champs)

No. 4 Boise State (Mountain West champs) vs. FAU (C-USA champs)

Note: I determined seeds using the RPI rankings as of Jan. 6, 2017. I would use campus sites for the quarterfinals games and then rotate the semifinal games through several second-tier bowl games, with the championship game in a warm-weather or dome bowl game.


 

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