College football’s national championship will be awarded over the next two weeks and, for the 32nd consecutive season, the FBS mid-majors are not a part of the process. The last program from outside a major conference to claim a FBS national championship was BYU way back in 1984. Before that? Army in 1946.
Programs from the Group of 5 — the American, MAC, Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt conferences, plus independents Army, BYU, Massachusetts and (beginning in 2018) New Mexico State — are playing a different game than the Power 5, whether they admit it or not. The BCS was kinder to the mid-majors — TCU, then a member of the Mountain West, finished the 2009 season ranked No. 4 and finished No. 3 in 2010 — but the College Football Playoff has pushed the Group of 5 even further away from the focal point.
In 19 individual sets of rankings to date, no Group of 5 team has climbed higher than No. 13, as Memphis did for one week in the 2015 season. This year’s Western Michigan squad, unbeaten and with two wins over Big Ten opponents, is the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion in the 3-year history of the system — and they’re No. 15. Under the current system, Group of 5 teams are playing for their respective conference’s championships and a greater “championship” of winning a New Year’s Six bowl game over a Power 5 opponent — which, to be fair, the Group of 5 has done in each of the first two years of the system, as No. 20 Boise State beat Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl and No. 18 Houston upended Florida State in the 2015 Peach Bowl.
ESPN’s Brett McMurphy has a story today about the “growing” number of Group of 5 officials that would support a Group of 5-specific playoff. It’s unclear exactly how many commissioners and ADs are for or against the idea, given that McMurphy quoted five officials and three of them were against it.
Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier, a strong proponent of the idea, was one of the few willing to go on record. “Every division of college football has a national championship — Power 5, FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA — every division, that is, except the Group of 5,” Frazier told ESPN.
The decision to create a Group of 5 playoff would fall to those respective commissioners — it was the Power 5 commissioners who created the College Football Playoff — and one has come out strongly against the idea. “The answer is an emphatic no,” American commissioner Mike Aresco told ESPN. “We compete for national championships like anyone else in FBS, including the Power 5, and have no interest in any kind of separate championship.”
Aresco and his like-minded peers may be swayed from that position if the money was big enough, and McMurphy wrote that, “NBC, CBS and ESPN have interest in televising a Group of 5 playoff, an industry source said.” What that support means, though, remains unclear.
The Group of 5 playoff is currently in its embryonic, bar-room debate, “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” stage, so details of how a hypothetical Group of 5 playoff would work still need work. Would, say, this year’s Western Michigan team drop out of the Cotton Bowl to play in the Group of 5 playoff, or would the event continue without them while the Broncos remained in the Cotton Bowl. The Group of 5 contract with the CFP runs through 2025, so how easy would it be to break out of that?
Regardless, there’s no question a Group of 5 playoff would be a success. The best teams at that level play at a tremendously high level — as their 7-2 record against Power 5 teams in BCS/CFP bowls can attest.
But still the glass ceiling for mid-majors exists, and a Group of 5-specific playoff would provide an opportunity to showcase the football at that level as a worthy brand of football in and of itself, rather than a counter-argument to a question against Power 5 dominance that will never be answered. The bowl system gave us two such games in the past dozen years to prove a Group of 5 playoff would work — the 2004 Liberty Bowl that saw No. 10 Louisville (then a C-USA member) beat No. 9 Boise State in a 44-40 thriller and the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, a 17-10 win by No. 6 Boise State over No. 4 TCU. Both games sold out their respective venues, and the Fiesta Bowl drew an 8.2 TV rating.
A hypothetical playoff of, say, Western Michigan versus Western Kentucky and Temple against San Diego State would be a fantastic celebration of Group of 5 football. Let’s hope it happens.