You can call me a pessimist if you want. You can tell me “never say never.” But it’s time to face it: a Group of Five team will NEVER make the College Football Playoff, even if they expand to eight teams. Period. And no amount of complaining or tweeting is going to change that.
Image by Kareem Elgazzar via cincinnati.com
I could give you the in-depth history of how we got to where we are now. I could tell you how five conferences and Notre Dame joined with specific Bowls to create the Bowl Coalition, all to make sure that the members of the Coalition played in high level bowl games and were pitted against each other in the National Championship game. I could go into the evolution to the Bowl Alliance, and how a split National Championship and contract renegotiations with the Pac-10, Big 10 and the Rose Bowl, along with the threat of antitrust action led to the creation of the BCS and the ridiculous formula of computer and human polls used to determine the top two teams to play in the National Championship. I could highlight how the current College Football Playoff was created as a way to give the fans the illusion of a playoff, but in reality, it was just an opportunity to make even more money with two extra games leading into the National Championship. I could go on about how the selection committee is nothing more than a secret society, comprised mostly of Athletic Directors and Presidents of Power Five schools, with just enough token representation of the Group of Five to keep from getting in trouble. But instead of a history lesson, let’s look at this from a business standpoint.
The fact of the matter is, the Power Five doesn’t want a Group of Five team in the playoffs. If they did, we wouldn’t have even started with this weird four team format – a format that automatically creates issues since there isn’t even a place at the table for all five conference champions, let alone any outsiders. With huge payouts to conferences for making the playoffs (and the New Year’s 6 games), it makes more sense to make sure the rich conferences stay rich, while occasionally sending a scrap down to the little guy to keep them thinking they can make it one day.
And they all know it. Every coach, every AD, every school President…they all know the deal. It’s why the Group of Five schools are filled with coaches trying to move up, or failed Power Five coaches trying to make their way back to the big show. They know the game. And they dare not cross the mighty Power Five – because at the end of the day, the Group of Five schools need the money. Whether that comes from the early season beat downs they take from the likes of Clemson and Alabama, or the payout the conference gets for getting the coveted New Year’s 6 Bowl invite for the top ranked Group of Five team, they need that cash. And like Wu-Tang taught us: cash rules everything around me.
Would they love to get an invite to the playoffs? Of course. But they know that they will always be passed up. And there really isn’t much they can do to change that status quo.
But Mike, what about March Madness? There’s mid-majors that make that tournament. And it’s one of the best playoffs ever.
Well, imaginary voice in my head asking questions, you’re absolutely right. But have you ever looked at the trophy the winner gets at the end of the March Madness tournament? Have you ever looked at the trophy that is given to every other champion in college athletics? Have you ever wondered why the trophy for FBS (or as we called it back in my day, Division 1A) looks different? It’s because it’s not an NCAA tournament. Since 1869, the NCAA has never recognized a National Champion in the highest division of football. Oh sure, they’ve notated that organizations have named certain schools as National Champions. But there has never, in the history of the sport, been an NCAA Division 1A (errr, FBS) National Champion. There’s been AP National Champions. There’s been Amway Coaches Poll National Champions. There’s been BCS National Champions. But there’s never been an NCAA National Champion. If the NCAA were to be the ones that organized the playoffs, it would be simple: every member conference is represented with their Champion getting a bid, and then as many at-large teams needed to fill out the bracket. But the NCAA doesn’t organize it. The College Football Playoff committee does. And the College Football Playoff Committee is a product of Power Five schools. So the playoffs end up being made up of Power Five schools.
And think about the impact to recruiting. Can you imagine the bump a Group of Five school would get if they reached the playoffs? It would be huge…which is why the Power Five schools won’t let it happen. Ohio State has to recruit against the rest of the Big 10, along with the other major players from across the country. Do you think they really want to also have to compete against a Cincinnati team that just had a magical upset over Alabama in the playoffs? Do you think Miami and Florida State really wanted to elevate UCF and have to compete against them to sign the talent in Florida? The Pac-12 didn’t want to legitimize Boise State a few years back. Instead, the Power Five plays the waiting game. Every time there’s a Group of Five team that pops up and starts to make waves, all the Power Five has to do is wait it out. They downplay the schedule, they ignore the margins of victory, they contradict things they’ve sad in the past – all to keep that team from getting to the playoffs. And eventually, the coach gets hired on at a Power Five school, and his former team fades away like they got hit with the Thanos snap.
Can anything be done to get a Group of Five team in the playoffs?
I started this by saying a Group of Five team will never make the playoffs. I lied. There is one way: The Group of Five needs to create their own playoffs. The downfall of every single iteration of the college football postseason, the thing that moved us from the AP to the Bowl Coalition, to the Bowl Alliance, to the BCS and, finally, to where we are now has been the idea of a split National Champion. It’s the one weakness of the Power Five: they don’t like to share. The Group of Five needs to capitalize on that. There is enough support among college football writers and analysts that could drive the discussion on split championships. All it would take is a few years of an undefeated Group of Five team winning their own playoff, and taking the shine off of Alabama’s or Clemson’s trophy for things to get re-evaluated.
There are plenty of bowl games that would be willing to come together for a Group of Five playoff, mainly because there is no shortage of companies willing to slap their name on something for some quality advertising. And getting it on TV wouldn’t be too difficult, either. CBS is currently out of the college football game after losing the SEC contract to ESPN. If they were willing to broadcast Alabama vs. The Citadel in week 11 each year, they damn sure would have no problem broadcasting undefeated Cincinnati take on undefeated Coastal Carolina for the Group of Five National Championship. But it’s a huge gamble. The Group of Five would have to forego their New Year’s 6 invite, along with the money that goes with it (usually around a $4 million payout to the conference of the team that makes it). But it could end up paying out HUGE dividends in the long run.
So what’s more important to these conferences, a yearly payout of a few million? Or a real seat at the table?
And that’s how it starts. A few years of an undefeated Group of Five team, winning a playoff format and claiming a National Championship, taking some focus away from the big boys a bit and by the time the College Football Playoff contract with ESPN is up in 2025, things would get re-worked to include the Group of Five conference champions going up against the Power Five conference champions along with some at-large teams in a 16-team ratings-fest money raining bonanza of a true college football playoff.
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