SMQ: Impact of new College Football Playoff system on Group of 5 teams

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Before 1992, there was no playoff mechanism in place to pit the best teams against one another for a shot at the mythical national championship. The Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance suffered from their incomplete membership, as the Big Ten and Pac-10 opted to maintain their exclusive ties with the Rose Bowl instead of joining other power conferences.

Eventually the two holdouts relented and the Bowl Championship Series was formed. For 16 years, the system purported to match the top two teams in the country against one another. It was a controversial system, especially early in its history when the BCS tinkered with its rankings formula every year and, more often than not, a team has fostered a legitimate gripe about being left on the outside.

(Consider, for example, the Miami team that was passed up for a Florida State squad it beat head-to-head in 2000, or Big 12 title game loser Nebraska getting in the following year ahead of both the Colorado team that took them down and Pac-10 champion Oregon.)

The problem with accessibility in a two-team playoff in college football was evident from the outset. When the College Football Playoff emerged out of the ashes of the BCS in 2014, doubling the number of playoff spots, it expanded rather than contracted the ire about who gets in and who gets out.

Why would increased opportunity lead to increased anger, though? Quite simply, four was still too few spots to effectively represent the playoff ambitions of a wide distribution of teams. Nominally increasing access while continuing to provide too little access only reiterated the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

With the announcement that a College Football Playoff subcommittee is now advocating to the full membership for a 12-team playoff, the frustrations of the past three decades can finally start to resolve themselves.

Nobody is more excited about this expansion than Group of Five teams

The impetus for expansion is more due to the diminished access of certain Power Five conferences than it is the perpetuated lack of access for Group of Five teams. In four out of the seven College Football Playoff seasons to date, only three conference champions made the field. The Pac-12 has been especially hard hit, with its champion missing the playoff in five of it first seven editions.

But the truest beneficiary of this new policy is the Group of Five (and the handful of independent programs not named Notre Dame), which will now have at least one guaranteed pathway into the national playoff for the first time in history.

Such a system was impossible to put into practice without the Big Ten and Pac-10 on board. Once the BCS came online, though, the focus was less on creating an equitable opportunity than it was about restricting who could make the big show.

After spending so many years closing the loopholes that allowed a team like BYU to win a national championship in 1984, teams like the Cougars will once again have a chance to swoop in and claim the crown. Had this access existed from 1998 onward instead of taking a quarter-century to implement, college football history would look rapidly different.

How different? We might very well see at least one more mid-major champion since BYU’s landmark title run under LaVell Edwards.

Would a non-AQ or Group of Five team have legitimate chance to win out?

The College Football Playoff working group has advocated for the top six conference champions to reach the 12-team field, with the top four highest-ranked conference champions (and presumably Notre Dame, though this is not articulated in their proposal) getting byes into the quarterfinals. This means at least one Group of Five team is guaranteed to make the playoff every season once the plan is finalized. More importantly, though, Group of Five access is not restricted to just one team.

Considering the stipulations proposed by the CFP working group, at least one mid-major team would have made a 12-team playoff in all but two years since 1998 — even when there were six automatic-qualifying conferences during the BCS era.

Instead of being relegated to a consolation-prize bowl game, not just Cincinnati but also Coastal Carolina would have been among the dozen teams included in the field last year. In fact, multiple Group of Five teams would have competed in the bracket on seven different occasions, including twice (in 2004 and 2011) where three teams would have made the cut. Group of Five conference champions would have landed in the top four conference winners and earned a bye straight to the quarterfinals three different times.

We have already seen a No. 4 seed win twice in seven years of the four-team College Football Playoff. In total, five different teams seeded No. 3 or No. 4 have reached the championship game. These, by definition, are teams that would have missed the opportunity entirely had the BCS top-two system remained in place.

Instead, increased access enriched the field of competitors and allowed a worthy champion to emerge from outside an arbitrary No. 1 versus No. 2 standalone title game. The same is just as possible with any team that makes the 12-team field. Group of Five teams are no exception to this rule.

To understand how this might play out on the field, let’s think about three hypothetical situations.

2004: How would the original BCS Buster have fared in a playoff?

Back in 2004, Utah broke through the original top-six threshold for non-AQ teams to qualify for a BCS bowl game. The Utes went to the Fiesta Bowl and trounced a mediocre Pittsburgh team by four touchdowns, earning accolades from across the country and showcasing the viability of a Cinderella story in college football.

What if a 12-team playoff existed back then, however? For starters, Utah would have been a top-four seed and two other non-AQ schools would have made the cut.

Utah be automatically slotted in the quarterfinals as the fourth-best conference champion in 2004. Just as intriguing is the inclusion of WAC champion Boise State and Conference USA champion Louisville. The Broncos reach the field as the sixth-highest rated conference champion, while the Cardinals would have snagged an at-large bid.

Big Ten champion Iowa would be in as the final seed, earning an at-large bid, but the Pittsburgh team that Utah took down in real life would be sitting on the outside looking in.

Louisville and Boise State boasted the top two scoring offenses in the country in 2004. Virginia Tech and Georgia respectively fielded the No. 2 and No. 9 scoring defenses in I-A football. Both non-AQ schools had the tools to present a real challenge to their ACC and SEC opponents.

The real story would have been Utah, though. Imagine the Utes getting the chance to churn first through the Texas-Iowa winner before squaring off against Pete Carroll’s juggernaut USC Trojans team. A championship for any of theses three teams would have been a longshot bid, but all three programs proved that they deserved more of a shot than they received under the system then in place.

2011: Another three-team chance for smaller programs

In real life, the 2011 season ended without any non-AQ team reaching a BCS bowl game. Houston had the best chance of any squad, entering the Conference USA championship game with a perfect record and a top-six ranking in the BCS standings. The Cougars, though, collapsed against Southern Miss in the title game and lost any chance to make the cut.

TCU won the Mountain West for the second straight year, but could not quite replicate the high of winning the Rose Bowl the previous season. Boise State finished with the highest rank of any mid-major team, but their head-to-head loss against TCU knocked the Broncos out of the Mountain West race and in turn out of BCS contention.

In a 12-team playoff, both the Conference USA and Mountain West champions would have reached the tournament along with at-large Boise State. Instead of wondering what might have been, these teams would have let the chips fall on the gridiron.

In this alternative reality, Boise State plays Kansas State for the right to square off against LSU. Southern Miss face Alabama in the first round — rather than the Crimson Tide getting an immediate pass to the finals as they did in 2011. TCU gets the chance to take on Andrew Luck and the Stanford Cardinal.

The likeliest candidates to move on were the two Mountain West schools. TCU had the blend of offense and defense that could have given both Stanford and Oregon fits. They were constructed well to face Oklahoma State or whoever emerged from the other quarterfinal. This doesn’t automatically presage a Horned Frogs championship, but a real playoff structure would have provided a legitimate field where we cannot automatically assume a mid-major rout.

2020: Expanded Group of Five opportunities in a pandemic

Nothing about the 2020 college football season was normal. Unbalanced schedules were even more unbalanced as the COVID-19 pandemic raged through the world. Some teams played nearly a full schedule’s worth of games, while other teams were left scrambling for just three or four games. It was the kind of opportunity that boded well for the Group of Five, as leagues like the Big Ten and Pac-12 initially opted to sit out the fall season before later reversing course and playing truncated slates.

The big talk in 2020 was about American Athletic Conference winner Cincinnati missing a chance to play for the College Football Playoff. Sun Belt champion Coastal Carolina also had a legitimate gripe as they were left out of the New Year’s Six games entirely. In a 12-team playoff system, both would have received a chance to play for even bigger prizes.

We saw the Cincinnati-Georgia gameplay out on the field at the Peach Bowl in a 24-21 Bulldogs victory. Imagine if the game had been played at Nippert Stadium instead of right down the road from Georgia’s campus in Atlanta. Imagine as well that the slew of players who sat out the bowl game decided to play with a national championship on the line. A three-point Georgia victory could easily have shifted in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina would have the chance to pull off an upset in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. For teams like the Chanticleers, booking a premier game at a place like South Bend is nigh impossible. Power Five schools don’t want to pay to play Group of Five teams that could actually beat them on their home turf.

Even if both schools would have likely fallen to real-life national champion Alabama — Cincinnati in the quarterfinals, Coastal Carolina in the semifinals — their inclusion would have presented challenges for plenty of teams.

Final thoughts on the shifting playoff landscape

A world where Group of Five teams had access even in the BCS era is a world where conference realignment looks very different. Teams like Utah and TCU would not have been forced to jump from the Mountain West to other conferences to have a legitimate title shot. Maybe the WAC doesn’t collapse, and maybe Boise State, Nevada, and Hawaii remain to anchor a second strong western mid-major league deeper into the 21st century.

At the same time, had a playoff existed even earlier, maybe that 1984 BYU team doesn’t run the table and claim the national championship. Perhaps Washington or Oklahoma or Nebraska demolish that Cougars team that struggled to put away a much less formidable Michigan squad in the Holiday Bowl.

Counterfactuals cannot offer us definitive answers, but they can show us the possibilities inherent in situations had we acted earlier. Playing the “What if?” game is valuable insomuch as it dispenses the myth that a Group of Five team has no business in an expanded playoff format. We fans of the sport are all richer for the more inclusive proposal now on the table.

Next. CFP Expansion: Reactions to committee recommendations. dark