Something that became very clear a year ago was that the selection committee is still committed to limiting championship access to the “power five,” blue blood programs of college football. The original BCS system was always designed to maintain and protect the tradition of college football and when the process kept forcing the system to include G5 schools the response was always to shunt them sideways in any way possible.
No one quite foresaw the way in which increased TV exposure would be a boon to the smaller schools and allow them to commit the resources necessary to build some impressive teams. First we saw 2004 Utah go undefeated and win a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where they drew an 8-3 Pittsburgh team they clobbered 35-7. After the 2006 season the Fiesta Bowl got Boise State and matched them up with Oklahoma to produce one of the most exciting and consequential games of the century, a 43-42 overtime win for Boise.
The following year Hawaii went undefeated and got in, only to be demolished by Georgia 41-10, but there was increasing pressure to put undefeated G5 teams in the championship game, especially after the undefeated 2008 Utah Utes beat Alabama 31-17. The 2008 season was a particularly interesting one in college football as there were four major programs with a case for inclusion in a playoff between 11-1 Texas, 11-1 Oklahoma, 11-1 USC, and then 11-1 Florida. You’d have to assume that if we’d had a four-team playoff in 2008 that those four teams would have been given the nod over Utah.
2009 had the most famous incident of G5 shunting, college football had five undefeated teams and pitted Alabama against Texas for the title, undefeated Cincinnati against 12-1 Florida, and then a pair of undefeateds in TCU and Boise squared off in the Fiesta Bowl. When the dust settled, Boise State and Alabama remained as the only undefeateds left but Alabama was the champion.
So when UCF won the AAC conference in an undefeated season and then convincingly defeated near-SEC champion and playoff contestant Auburn, it wasn’t anything particularly new for college football. It’s been well established that no run of victories will allow a G5 team with a great season to get the benefit of the doubt over a traditional power playing in a P5 conference.
The holiday bowl schedule
For all the concern over how the playoff has destroyed the bowl season in college football, a closer look at the ratings for the games reveals that the devastation is limited. There’s little doubt that for some P5 programs, particularly the ones that expect to compete for titles, fans and viewers were less interested in watching them square off with each other in bowl games with little to no consequences. Particularly as some of the better players with NFL aspirations for the offseason determine to sit out the bowl game to avoid injuries that could cost them millions of dollars.
It’s hard to blame them either, if your league season is over and you’re out of the running for any kind of title, how much do you owe your teammates in terms of competing in an exhibition game? Particularly when you have so much on the line, personally?
There’s some hope that interest in the P5 bowl games could be restored with the new redshirt rules, which would allow teams with players that have played in three or fewer games to compete in the bowl game without losing their redshirts. That may be useful for the P5 schools as they try to generate fresh interest in their postseason games in a playoff era but it ignores the reality of the bowl schedule.
That reality is this, the Christmas and New Years games fill an important void in holiday programming, people like to tune into football games when relaxing with the family, even when watching unknown, quirky G5 programs. The weekends bookending Christmas in particular can be a ratings bonanza for college football, but it doesn’t offer its best potential product in that window.
An opportunity for a G5 playoff
Considering how consistently the G5 gets locked out of the postseason process and then factoring in the way in which they’ve managed to generate some TV ratings with cross-conference exhibition games in the bowl season, there’s an obvious opportunity here for the G5 to make a big move that would change the landscape of college football.
People have long assumed that a potential outcome of college football’s money obsession and spiraling costs is the division of the FBS division into two separate leagues with the P5 consolidating into something like four super conferences and then leaving out the rest.
Well what if the G5 anticipated that and withdrew themselves from the FBS postseason in order to make a G5 playoff that crowned a national champion?
The construction of the playoff could be pretty straightforward and would work much like a high school or FCS system. One possible way to handle it would be to send the division winners of each conference into the playoffs plus the top two teams from the Sun Belt. Or, because the Sun Belt has much lower expenditures on football than the rest of the G5 on average, they could send just one Sun Belt team and then an additional at-large team from the rest of the G5 into the playoff.
They could time the games so that the semifinals and title game took place around Christmas and draw up the bracket in a number of other ways if they wished. My bracket here aims to avoid lots of rematches while utilizing a hierarchy based on football expenditures and previous rankings. They could incorporate the bowl games as sites for these games if that makes sense politically and then try to protect higher seeds with the location choices.
The teams could also shorten their non-conference seasons if the length of the season was a concern, after all the playoffs would be based entirely on conference resume rather than if they were able to convince a P5 school to play them in a year where a victory was both achievable and meaningful for their resume. With conferences like the Big 12 mandating that each school play at least one P5 opponent in their non-conference, these sorts of schisms are already occurring as a result of the existing playoff structure.
This would essentially be an early shot at the P5, a pre-emptive strike and move towards further division in college football with the aim of trying to get out ahead in creating a postseason structure for the G5 that could protect their investments into college football. It’d also produce a fantastically entertaining slate that the vast majority of college football fans would tune into.
The alternative is that the G5 schools could continue to hope for a future where the football playoff both expands to eight or 16 teams and also includes one or two of their squads. But with this format they could maintain the integrity of their conference series and championships while also adding a postseason structure that would allow a school like UCF the opportunity to hang more national championship banners on their stadium.