There were reports this week by ESPN and others that the Group of Five college football schools were contemplating staging their own playoff. The reason is that the American, Conference USA, Sun Belt, Mid-American and Mountain West conferences, along with a handful of independents, including Army and BYU, don't believe they'll ever get a fair shot at making the college football playoffs in their current format. We need to look no further than undefeated Western Michigan out of the MAC, who despite defeating two Big Ten teams, couldn't even crack the top ten in the final CFP rankings. Currently, the highest ranked Group of Five conference champion gets a bid to one of the New Year's Day bowls. The last two seasons, the representative from that group has defeated a Power Five team. It's still difficult, however, to use that as justification for inclusion in the playoff. With only four teams qualifying, there's really no way for a Group of Five team to justify getting there, primarily because of the weakness of their conference schedules. Houston, had they remained undefeated this season, might have had about as good a case as anyone in recent memory, with big wins over Oklahoma and Louisville. But losses to Navy, SMU and Memphis illustrated just how far a team like that needs to climb to have a legitimate shot.
While an eight-team Group of Five playoff might seem compelling, it would in effect be creating a new classification within college football. What would it be called? Perhaps the FNGEFTPS, for the Football Not Good Enough For The Playoff Subdivision. Or how about the FOLIS for the Football Outside Looking In Subdivision? In all seriousness, I believe a more likely and realistic approach is simply to expand the current Power Five FBS conferences to include more schools that are serious about their football programs. Schools such as the aforementioned Houston, BYU (the last non-Power Five national champion in 1984), South Florida and East Carolina come to mind. If Rutgers can continually stink up the Big Ten, it's easy to make a case for some expansion, especially by the Big 12, which currently has only ten schools. Another change that should be made, especially since football tends to fund entire athletic programs, is to create football only conferences that don't necessarily impact other sports. One of the issues with expanding the Big 12 is that it makes it very expensive for non-revenue sports teams to travel to far flung conference opponents. The old Big East, which included Virginia Tech, Miami, Syracuse and West Virginia, among others, was an early example of that concept, which might make sense to revisit going forward.
Another approach would be for the NCAA, or another group, to actually develop guidelines and conferences that would more effectively level the playing field (no pun intended) when it comes to scheduling, number of conference games, etc. that currently makes it difficult to adequately compare teams. Some teams had ridiculously bad out of conference schedules. Boston College became bowl eligible with a six win season primarily because they played UMass, Wagner, Buffalo and UConn. Really? What were they playing for, the New England High School championship? Or how about Washington, who made the playoffs by defeating Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State to start the season. I understand the rationale to play a lower subdivision team that can spread the wealth a little bit, but when Oklahoma opened the season with games against Houston and Ohio State and then runs the table in the Big 12 and gets left out of the playoff seems a bit unfair to me. I believe every Power Five team should have to schedule at least one non-conference game with another Power Five team.
I've digressed a bit from the Group of Five playoff discussion, but all of these governance issues actually are related. What if Houston had gone undefeated this season? Is that accomplishment any less significant than Washington playing a bunch of patsies in the non-conference and failing to run the table in the Pac-12? So my solution is actually three-fold, because I also believe the playoffs should be expanded to at least six teams, which would allow for all Power Five conference champions a spot, along with an at large team that could include another Power Five team or the occasional Group of Five team that has a particularly strong season. So in summary, I think the Power Five conferences should expand (or add a football only conference), there should be more uniformity in scheduling and the playoffs should add at least two more teams. Would that solve all the flaws in the system? Probably not, but it would help get closer to an ideal system.
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