Is it time for a Group of Five Football Playoff?

I may be in a unique situation as my crossover for football is not the FBS Power Five (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, & SEC, as well as Independent Notre Dame) and Group of Five (AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, & Sun Belt) schools like many college football reporters.  Rather, my take is both from the FCS ranks and the FBS Group of Five.

This announcement this week of all the bowl games involving Group of Five teams has me thinking if a G5 playoff might be a better solution as I compare this to both the FCS and the current FBS playoff.

How do the FCS playoffs work currently?

Right now, the FCS is in the midst of its playoffs and what a time it is in this do or die tournament that lasts the month of December and into January for the national title game.  For those unfamiliar with the FCS playoffs, 24 teams make the field set by a NCAA playoff committee—much like that of the NCAA basketball tournament.

The FCS playoffs start on the Saturday following Thanksgiving with four straight weeks of play and then the two national titlists are off for a couple of weeks to get ready for the national title game played in early January in Frisco, Texas.

The playoff field currently has 10 automatic bid conferences and then 14 at-large selections to make up the 24-team field.  The Top 8 seeds get a bye to the second round as well as the opportunity to host, while the bottom 16 teams play in Round 1.

The higher seeded team gets the home field advantage and if there are no seeds involved, the school with the higher bid—money sent to the NCAA for the game that is used for future travel— for that round will get the home field.  All teams need to send in a certain minimum bid if it wants to host a playoff game at all.

Frisco has been the host of the national title game now for now what will be ten years, but has not always been the host.  Chattanooga, Tennessee, Huntington, West Virginia, and Statesboro, Georgia, amongst others, were the prior locations for what was then called the I-AA championship game.  In those early years, some of the host cities have been Wichita Falls, TX, Orlando, FL, and Tacoma, WA.

What are the postseason possibilities for the Group of Five FBS teams?

The G5 teams arguably still have the same chance as the P5 teams to the College Football Playoff—the four-team playoff.  But this has never happened thus far in the six years of this structure and with just four teams in the playoff and five Power Five conferences, the chances are almost zero that one of the four teams would be outside of the P5.

The case in point happened to UCF the last two years.

Two years ago, the Knights and Alabama were the only two undefeated regular season teams in the FBS.  UCF like all prior G5 teams, however, were not granted a playoff spot in the final four but rather a trip as the top G5 team to the Peach Bowl, where the played and defeated Auburn.

Last year, UCF was also undefeated in the regular season but like the prior season, the Knights were given just a New Year’s Six game bid—the Fiesta Bowl against LSU.

I feel that the Playoff Committee has given the Group of Five teams just a little taste to keep them at bay and keep them at the same level as their Power 5 brethren by feeding them a small bone.   One of the six New Year’s Day top bowl games is contractually guaranteed to the top ranked G5 team in the final poll.

Even before the College Football Playoff and during the Bowl Championship Series years where just the top two ranked teams played in the national title game, if a G5 teams would get a bid if they were ranked in a certain range of the BSC polls (it ranged from when the BCS started in 1998 and ended a year before we got the Football Playoff following the 2013 season).

Teams like Boise State, TCU and Utah would get a major bowl bid but even with an undefeated record, would never get into the final two spots.

This year, AAC champion and one loss Memphis got this bid as the #17 ranked team overall in the CFP Top 25 and will take on #10 ranked Penn State from the Big 10 Conference in the Cotton Bowl.

Also, this past week the Group of Five teams got their announcement towards one postseason game—each school’s bowl bid.  Twenty-two games are to pit at least one G5 team in these bowl contests including Memphis’ Cotton Bowl bid.  A total of 30 G5 teams are making the postseason.

So, which is better, a single bowl bid or a national playoff?

There are arguments on both sides.

There are traditionalists that like just the one extra game and the extra time between the last regular season game and having time to prepare for a trip for that person’s favorite college team’s bowl destination.

There are others that like the true on the field test to really see who that level of football’s national titlist should be.  This is the way not only the FCS does to settle its national champion but also Division II, Division III, and NAIA football levels do a similar method.  All have a varied playoff system for the number of teams and how they select them, but all have a single elimination tournament to determine their division’s titleholder.

Now, even the FBS Power Five has this possibility, but at least one P5 conference champion will be left out.  As been shown with UCF and Western Michigan before them, a Group of Five team will always be shutout of this four-team field.

So that leaves the Group of Five schools basically as the only area of all of college football that does not have access to a playoff system.

So then to the title question now, should the Group of Five form its own playoff? 

I would answer this with a big YES .  The plan I have would be to include all Group of Five conference championship teams with an eight-team playoff as has been discussed in prior seasons.  This would mean all five G5 conference winners (like the FCS) would get a spot in the playoffs and then leave three at-large spots for teams that did not win their conference, as well as the G5 independents (BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, Massachusetts, and Army).

The eight-team playoff proposed would be one with the quarterfinals played this upcoming weekend (second Saturday in December).  These games would be at the four top seeded teams.

Then the semi-finals would be the third Saturday in December—again at the higher seeded team.

The two finalists then would play the Saturday before the College Football Playoff title game.  The location would be a neutral site like all other football divisions.  Like other divisions, the championship game would go out for bidding and the highest bidding city gets the title game.

This formula would be very similar to the FCS level and to be quite honest at a time when there is almost no football for the hungry college football fans.

The example for this weekend is there are three FCS quarterfinal games being played Friday night and then one on Saturday afternoon.  Then there is the Army-Navy game later in the afternoon, along with a couple Division II/Division III semifinals.

I think the field size at eight teams seems like a good compromise of the FCS and FBS current playoff systems and would still allow each of conference championship games to be played the week before.

What would the match-ups be this year? 

Using the five conference titlists and the three next best teams, I used the Sagarin rankings for this but there likely would be a playoff committee like other divisions to select the three at-large teams and order the seeding of the eight teams.  #1 hosts #8 , #2 hosts #7 and so forth.

  1. Memphis (AAC winner)
  2. Boise State (Mountain West winner)
  3. UCF (1st at-large)
  4. Appalachian State (Sun Belt winner)
  5. Navy (2nd at-large)
  6. Air Force (3rd at-large)
  7. Florida Atlantic (C-USA winner)
  8. Miami (OH) (MAC winner)

What this plan would this do to the Army-Navy game?

This game would be pitted on the first weekend of the proposed G5 playoff quarterfinals.  If both teams would want to participate (like Navy would in this proposed playoff this year & Army would have last year), the two teams would have to move their annual game to an earlier date.

But like within the FCS, the league champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) do not participate in the playoff.  Instead, the two champions play each other in in a bowl game.  Also, the Ivy League as whole does not participate in any postseason play at all for football.

I could see Army and Navy wanting to keep this final game of the regular season and keep it on this only Saturday.  And these two could still participate in a bowl game without the G5 playoffs like the FCS non-playoff participants.

The other bowl qualifying teams would still get their bowl bids but this plan would just add an additional seven games for the G5 playoff.

Who would broadcast these proposed G5 playoffs?

Much like other college athletic broadcasting rights, I could see the full eight team tournament opened for bids—just as the host city for the title game would be bid.

For three weekends without any major college football, this seems highly likely to me that networks would be drooling to cover this kind of playoff.

What is preventing such a playoff from happening?

There are arguments at some schools that state that there already part of the Football Playoff system and compete there while others have my similar thoughts.

“There is absolutely no ability for us [teams in the Group of Five] to be in that national title conversation,” then Northern Illinois Athletic Director Sean Frazier told ESPN three years ago. “That’s just reality. Anyone that says we can: That’s a flat-out lie.”

Of course, others think the current system is just fine.

“The answer is an emphatic no,” then AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said in the same ESPN article. “We compete for national championships like anyone else in FBS, including the Power 5, and have no interest in any kind of separate championship.”

When could such a movement to a separate G5 national title come to light?

Nothing is likely to happen before the current agreement with the College Football Playoff giving the top ranked G5 team a New Year’s Six Bowl bid.  This agreement is set to expire following the 2025 regular season.

Of course, the College Football Playoff four-team arrangement could also change to what many believe to eight teams in this arrangement as one Power Five conference is always going to be left out in this.  I could envision the top G5 team being thrown in as the eighth seeded team in such an arrangement.

Having covered the FCS level for over 15+ years, there is nothing like playoff college football.  You get the home field advantages in all rounds until the national title game and a neutral site championship game that has enough time between the semifinal round to national title game to allow fans to arrange travel and also for teams to heal those nagging injuries endured during the regular season and playoffs.

I know it will be another half decade before this likely could get done but it is time to start thinking how this could have more impact on the top G5 teams and how much more attention these postseason games can have for their schools.

Honestly, there may be some hardnosed football fans and those alumni of the schools playing in what most think are meaningless bowl games but to pit those top G5 teams together in a win or go home scenario in front of a full home field crowd would give more attention.  These kind of games also give even casual fans something more to watch in the down time between the conference championship game weekend to just before Christmas.

Face it, the opportunities for the Group of Five will not get any better.  These teams do not have anything but a seemingly meaningless bowl game to look towards even after a great regular season and no chance for a national title.

Let’s give these G5 student-athletes the opportunity to see who is best on the best place possible—on the field.

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