The College Football Playoff has been great for the sport’s Power Five teams. But do Group of Five programs need a playoff of their own?
Despite its loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, which delivered Western Michigan its lone loss in the 2016 college football season, the Broncos enjoyed the best year in program history. Architect P.J. Fleck, who helped raise the talent level in Kalamazoo and further improve the reputation of the MAC, parlayed that success into the head gig at Minnesota without leaving the cupboard bare for new Broncos head coach Tim Lester.
A trip to a New Year’s Six game was quite the reward for a MAC team that finished the regular season 13-0. But would it have been better for everyone associated with the Broncos—and non-Power Five teams with similar résumés moving forward—to have an alternative postseason path?
Late last December, ESPN reported that some athletic directors at Group of Five schools had interest in a separate playoff from that of the College Football Playoff, which ended this year with Clemson beating Alabama in a last-second thriller to claim its first national title since 1981.
Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier was one of those Group of Five officials who came out in favor of a separate playoff, stating that there is “absolutely no ability” for non-Power Five teams to be in the national title conversation. It has been 32 years since a non-Power Five squad won a national championship, with BYU being the last to pull off the feat in 1984. Fleck and Western Michigan had a 13-0 regular-season mark but were ranked No. 15 in the final CFP rankings, behind six Power Five teams carrying three losses and one with four losses. It’s safe to say that a non-Power Five team has no ability to play for a national title in the current CFP format. The highest a Group of Five team has ever climbed in a set of CFP rankings was been Memphis, which was briefly slotted at No. 13 by the selection committee in the 2015 initial rankings.
So is it a good idea for the Group of Five to conduct its own playoff?
The Group of Five consists of schools from the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt, along with independents such as BYU, Army and UMass. Even in a down year for Power Five schools—let’s say, each conference champ has multiple losses—there doesn’t appear to be an avenue in which a team from one of those non-Power Five leagues could make a legitimate Playoff push.
Looking back on some of the Boise State squads under Chris Petersen that excelled year in and year out, a few of those Broncos teams flirted with a BCS title game appearance. However, how much did Boise really have a legitimate shot under the old system?
In his first year as head coach in 2006, Petersen led the Broncos to an undefeated regular season and the program’s first-ever BCS bowl game, finishing as the only undefeated team in the FBS that year. While the 43-42 overtime win over Big 12 champ Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl was a tremendous moment for college football—complete with a hook-and-lateral play on 4th-and-18 for a tying touchdown with just 7 seconds left in regulation as well as the Statue of Liberty misdirection play for the two-point conversion to win the game in overtime—the fact is that Petersen and Co. did not play for a national title.
After enjoying another unbeaten season in 2008, being one of only two teams (Utah) to finish the regular season without a loss, the Broncos had to settle for a date with TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl, which saw the Horned Frogs take home a 17-16 win.
The same thing happened to Boise in 2009, going through the regular season undefeated at 13-0 and gaining a rematch with fellow unbeaten TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The 17-10 win over Gary Patterson’s squad allowed the Broncos to, at the time, become only the second team in FBS history to finish a season 14–0, after Ohio State in 2002.
While the Broncos were ranked No. 4 in the final AP Top 25 poll for their highest ranking in school history to finish a season, they were unable to compete for a national title. And while it was a real treat to see two “mid-major” teams compete in a high-profile bowl game (at the time, TCU was not yet in the Big 12), the current Playoff system is not set up for two Group of Five teams to meet in a New Year’s Six showdown. That’s why a Group of Five playoff increasingly makes sense.
According to industry sources in the ESPN report, NBC, CBS and the Worldwide Leader have shown interest in televising a Group of Five playoff. If true, this can be a financially rewarding endeavor for these smaller schools. Moreover, it would further help the exposure of leagues that have standout teams unable to earn the automatic NY6 berth in a given year.
As of now, the highest-ranked Group of Five champ is under contract through the 2025 regular season to play in either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach. But what if a four-team playoff featuring the best from the Group of Five/indies was conducted?
Looking at the results from the 2016 season, Western Michigan’s 13-0 mark netted it a trip to the Cotton Bowl to face Wisconsin, which fell to Penn State in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers had a very strong season despite their close losses to Michigan, Ohio State and the Nittany Lions. While the Broncos couldn’t complete an unbeaten season, the experience for a MAC team playing in Jerry World was once-in-a-lifetime.
But what if the Broncos were able to host a playoff game against, say, AAC champion Temple with a shot at a Group of Five playoff trophy? Fans in Kalamazoo would have the chance to rally around such a scenario, and Fleck would have had a chance to bring a championship trophy to the school he helped ascend to a Group of Five power.
However, if the current system remains in place and the highest-ranked Group of Five team continues to go to a New Year’s Six game to face a Power Five foe, or if the selection committee ever rewards an unbeaten Group of Five squad with a berth to a CFP semifinal, what about being replaced by another Group of Five team for its own playoff?
In this new postseason format, a selection committee similar to the CFP’s would pick the best four teams from the respective conferences. On-campus matchups would prevent concerns about these teams being able to fill up bigger stadiums. The atmosphere would be even more intense than FCS playoff games, which are already exciting year in and year out.
If we exclude Western Michigan from this list because of the current contract in place to send the highest-ranked non-Power Five team to a NY6 game, there would be a plethora of top contenders for one of the four playoff spots based on last year’s results. AAC champ Temple, Mountain West champ San Diego State, USF (with just two losses) and Boise State (with wins over Pac-12 foes Washington State and Oregon State) would have been strong candidates. Houston (with wins over Oklahoma and Louisville) and C-USA champ Western Kentucky could have easily been in the discussion as well.
Imagine semifinals of Temple vs. Boise State at Lincoln Financial Field and USF vs. San Diego State at Qualcomm Stadium, with the winners facing off at the highest-ranked team’s home for a playoff trophy. While I am a supporter of each and every bowl game, those matchups are more intriguing than Temple-Wake Forest in the Military Bowl, Boise State-Baylor in the Cactus Bowl or South Florida-South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
While it’s an exciting prospect, the outlook for a potential separate Group of Five playoff is murky at best. Count AAC commissioner Mike Aresco as having no interest in changing the current postseason format.
“We [Group of Five programs] compete for national championships like anyone else in FBS, including the Power Five, and have no interest in any kind of separate championship,” Aresco said.
Currently, there are many questions that would need to be resolved for a separate playoff to be more deeply discussed. How much the package would be worth to TV networks? How many teams would be involved? And how would it affect the other bowls—especially the automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl? There is also the notion that a Group of Five playoff would further underscore the gap between the Power Five and the rest of the teams filling out the FBS.
Since change in the current postseason structure doesn’t seem imminent, Group of Five schools that enjoy special Boise State or Western Michigan-type seasons in the future must remain content with a possible New Year’s Six game. And if two teams have exceptional campaigns? Unfortunately, the one left out of a New Year’s Six game will likely suffer the same fate of Boise State in 2010 and 2011: a team that enjoyed an 11-1 regular season yet still ended up in the Las Vegas Bowl.