Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond, or a guppy in a vast ocean inhabited by great white sharks named Alabama, Ohio State and USC?
That’s the question schools that occupy the lower rungs of college football’s caste system are asking themselves as the gap between the sport’s haves and have-nots widens into a yawning chasm.
Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier recently accelerated the discussion when he told ESPN.com it was time for the Group of Five conferences to “have a realistic conversation” about holding their own playoff, separate from the one that has Alabama playing Clemson on Monday night in Tampa, Fla., for the national championship.
“There is absolutely no ability for (teams outside the Power Five) to be in that national title conversation,” Frazier said to Brett McMurphy. “That’s just reality. Anyone who says we can, that’s a flat-out lie.”
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First, Frazier should be congratulated on his candor. It isn’t every day the athletic director of a Football Bowl Subdivision school speaks the unvarnished truth.
Every division of college football has a national championship – Power Five, FCS, Division II, Division III, NAIA – every division, that is, except the Group of Five.
Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier
I, too, don’t believe any team from the Mountain West, AAC, Conference USA, Mid-American or Sun Belt will ever reach the four-team College Football Playoff as currently constructed.
Even if one with a Fresno State 2001 nonconference résumé comes along (wins over Colorado, Oregon State, Wisconsin, all of whom were ranked during the season) and goes undefeated, the gate-keepers (i.e. the CFP committee) would still find a way to raise the drawbridge and justify their decision.
“Their focus is on the national championship for the Power Five teams and not focused on getting Group of Five (teams) in the national conversation,” Frazier said.
Again, give the man plaudits for truth-telling.
Still, just because have-nots don’t get a fair crack at that sleek, golden trophy doesn’t mean they should go off to the side and forge their own.
Just because have-nots don’t get a fair crack at that sleek, golden trophy doesn’t mean they should go off to the side and forge their own.
Because that’s all a Group of Five playoff would ever be: a sideshow. One that would only further marginalize those programs. Only this time, they’d be doing it to themselves.
There are currently 128 schools competing at the FBS level: 65 in Power Five conferences (including Notre Dame) and 63 in Group of Five leagues (including independents BYU, Army and UMass).
Split the FBS in half for playoff purposes and you’re essentially creating two divisions: varsity and JV.
Of course, you can argue those divisions already exist. Athletic departments at Power Five schools raked in a record $6 billion last year, according to ESPN. Those in the Group of Five collected $2 billion.
The richest schools have used those revenues to build opulent facilities – Clemson’s $55 million football complex includes a bowling alley, laser tag, mini golf and a barber shop – charter private jets, stay in five-star hotels and pay lavish salaries to their coaches. But they haven’t completely neglected their poorer brethren.
Even without a team in the semifinals, Group of Five schools currently split about $85 million for having a guaranteed representative (this year Western Michigan) in one of the New Year’s Six bowls (this year, the Cotton).
$85 million amount divided among Group of Five schools this year under the CFP
That may be a pittance compared with the $55 million each Power Five conference receives, but it’s still significant.
If the Group of Five says “No, thanks” to the CFP, would it still get that $85 million? Hard to see how. And even though McMurphy reported there is interest from NBC, CBS and ESPN to televise a Group of Five playoff, I’m skeptical of how much a network would be willing to pony up for Boise State vs. Central Florida or Houston vs. Toledo.
What makes me say that?
Look at the evidence. While television packages for Power Fives have skyrocketed (the Big Ten this year nearly tripled its revenues from a previous deal), those for the Group of Five are shrinking.
Last summer, when Conference USA negotiated new TV contracts with ESPN, CBS Sports Network, beIN Sports and the American Sports Network, each member school saw its annual revenues plummet to $200,000 – down from $1.1 million in the previous deal.
Conference USA had the misfortune of being the first league to renegotiate its contracts since revenues for cable TV networks began to decline. Unless the cord-cutting trend stops, the Mountain West will find itself in similar straits when its deals with ESPN and CBSSN expire in 2019-20.
The playing field between the Power Five and Group of Five will always be slanted. That’s the law of the jungle.
The playing field between the Power Five and Group of Five will always be slanted. That’s the law of the jungle. But Group of Five schools are still better off playing out this poker hand instead of cashing in their chips too soon.
Only three years into the new system, the hue and cry for expanding the four-team playoff is already being heard. Even though the CFP is contracted to run through 2025, it’s only a piece of paper. Easily torn up if the new pact benefits both parties.
Sooner or later, four teams will become eight – or even 12, with the top four getting byes. It’s inevitable. And when that happens, access for a Group of Five team having a stellar year won’t be so forbidding.
Of course it’s possible the Power Fives may decide to sever from the Group of Five. But that doesn’t mean little brother should hand them the ax.