In 2016, Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars gave Playoff exec Bill Hancock a trump card to use a year later.
Had Houston gone undefeated that year, it could have been at least considered for a top-five finish, but the Cougars stumbled, losing to Navy, SMU and Memphis. Hancock said he hears people say the system is unfair to the Group of 5 teams, “but I don’t buy it.”
”I don’t believe it,” he said. “Look no further than Houston. Everything was teed up for them, a good schedule, a good conference schedule, and I just disagree with those people.”
All the Cougars had to do was create a track record in the previous season, return most of their difference-makers, and luck their way into a perfectly timed non-conference slate! Then they had to go unbeaten, and they could have finished in the top five.
But the committee only chooses four teams, and I guess one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington would have still gotten that nod. In another recent interview, Hancock gave away the game.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and CFP executive director Bill Hancock both said the Knights should not have been considered for the top four.
”It all comes down to who you play,” Hancock told reporters.
After years of pretending they’re choosing the best teams, pretending they care about how you play, the committee’s spelled out its opinion of teams outside the Power 5 conferences.
To reach the Playoff, Group of 5 teams have to master four steps.
1. Go unbeaten, blowing away almost everybody.
That’s yet to get any G5 teams all that close to the committee’s top 10, but it’s all you can do on the field.
2. Do it two years in a row.
Houston’s 2016 street cred was burnished by its 2015 wins over powers. The same often went for TCU and Boise State a few years back. If the Coogs began 2016 as afterthoughts, would even wins over Oklahoma and Louisville have allowed them to make up enough ground to make the Playoff?
In theory, having the committee begin ranking teams only midseason (instead of using preseason polls as a guideline) should decrease the two-year issue. But Houston was a topic throughout the 2016 offseason because of 2015.
Memphis, which established the committee’s previous highest G5 ranking, No. 13, did so only after winning 10 games and remaining unranked throughout 2014.
The Knights were foolish enough to think they could get involved in the conversation in just one year. Sure, Auburn went from 3-9 to the national title game in 2013, but that’s a power-conference team. According to this theory, UCF’s rise from 6-7 to 13-0 was too quick.
3. Luck into an impressive non-conference slate.
Not only must you get a couple of power conference foes, you must hope they’re pretty good once you play them, which might be three years after you signed the schedule agreement.
UCF scheduled an FCS opponent and a team ranked in the S&P+ triple-digits. You can’t do that!
- But the FCS game (Austin Peay) came about because a game against the ACC’s Georgia Tech (scheduled in April 2015, three months after the Yellow Jackets won the Orange Bowl) was canceled due to hurricane.
- And the triple-digit opponent was the Big Ten’s Maryland, which won at Texas and then cratered throughout the season after losing to UCF, mostly due to injury.
So how much more ambitious could they have been when they were drawing up their 2017 schedules back in 2014-16 (while they were going 0-12 in 2015)?
4. Hope for a weak field.
If you’ve done all that, you have to hope the power conferences don’t produce four Playoff locks. And since No. 4 seed Alabama won the Playoff, it’s safe to say the four choices were untouchable.
Of course ... Alabama didn’t even win its own SEC division. And the Tide had only two wins against teams in the final CFP rankings, same as UCF. They had one of the weakest résumés of any team selected thus far.
Still, UCF’s timing was obviously bad. I’m sure it will be better in the future.
So for the Knights to get involved in the title race, they must go unbeaten again next year, without head coach Scott Frost, all-world linebackers Shaquem Griffin and Chequan Burkett, or top receiver Tre’Quan Smith. They must hope North Carolina (scheduled in Aug. 2016) and Pittsburgh (scheduled in Jan. 2017) play at a top-25 level. They must also hope for total chaos in the Power 5.
The Playoff’s been even more tilted toward the Power 5 than I expected.
When the system was announced, I simulated how a CFP would have played out in each year of the BCS era (1998-2013), and I only had three mid-majors reaching the semifinals. But now that we’ve seen how the committee treats these teams every year, I would reduce this number, possibly all the way to zero.
- In 2004, I now bet either one-loss Cal or one-loss Texas gets in over unbeaten Utah.
- In 2009, I think one-loss Florida has a very good chance of getting the bid over unbeaten TCU or unbeaten Boise State.
- In 2010, the odds of both one-loss Stanford and one-loss Wisconsin getting in over unbeaten TCU are decent.
The field broke the 2010 Horned Frogs’ way a little, and they had a track record — they were unbeaten in the 2009 regular season, too. That might have been enough to keep them above Andrew Luck’s Stanford and Russell Wilson’s Wisconsin, but it would’ve been really close.
How might we actually fix this?
The short answer is that we won’t. This sport’s decision-makers clearly don’t see a problem.
Even though the Group of 5 is basically the only group in the entire sport that doesn’t have a path toward a potential title (along with some lower-level conferences that elect to pass on tournaments), Hancock said the system is working as planned. Given a chance to add more diversity to the committee and give every FBS conference representation, they elected to do the bare minimum.
Such is life in a sport that created an unfair definition of “student-athlete” six decades ago and still defends it.
But if we were to attempt to make this sport fair, I have four proposals. I addressed a lot of this in my 2017 commissioner platform.
A. Expand the CFP to eight teams
The most direct way is to expand the playoff and give the Group of 5 guaranteed representation. Don’t tell me that, with the way that each team played in their postseasons, an eighth-seeded UCF wouldn’t have had a chance against a top-seeded Clemson.
There is a moral argument against an FBS team playing a 16-game season. With the extra money and physical punishment, we should make progress on players profiting off of their likenesses and a student-athletes’ bill of rights first. The former would help assure money from a third playoff round doesn’t just go into coaches’ increasingly ridiculous salaries or more waterfalls in football offices. The latter would address the health risks of playing more.
Otherwise, an eight-teamer crosses every box. Knowing this sport, however, we’ll expand to an eight-teamer but refrain from a G5 provision.
B. Time for a scheduling czar?
For every other league with a huge-money regular season, schedules are made for the teams, not by the teams.
In college football, there is often a two- or three- (or more) year delay between when teams schedule non-conference games and when they play them. It is both ridiculous and inconvenient. Schools do it because it’s how things are done.
So maybe we take that power away? Maybe we legislate that everyone leave a non-conference slot open until the offseason prior? Perhaps that might lead to more relevant matchups? Should teams get to pick annual rivalries and otherwise take what they’re given? Or perhaps a scheduling czar just takes over everything?
C. BracketBuster Saturday
A central authority could take partial control with a BracketBuster Saturday idea.
* Before the season, 64 of 128 teams are designated as Bracket Buster home teams, the other 64 as road teams. Home-road status will flip the next year.
* As part of your team’s schedule, there’s a national Bracket Buster Saturday event in November, just after the first Playoff rankings.
* Two weeks before Bracket Buster Saturday, computer rankings split the country into 16-team groups. The first group includes the top eight home teams and the top eight road teams. The second group follows.
* The draw is made: the top-ranked home team plays the eighth-ranked road team, Home No. 2 plays Home No. 7, etc.
* Of that Tier 1 group, one game’s on Bracket Buster weekend’s Thursday night, one on Friday, two during the Saturday early session, two on Saturday afternoon, and two on Saturday night.
What might this have done for 2017? If we imagine home-road designations are based on the alphabet — the first 65 teams play on the road, the bottom at home —then creating these pods with Week 9 S&P+ rankings would have resulted in matchups like the following (for context, Week 9 poll rankings are listed below):
- No. 1 Alabama at No. 9 Notre Dame
- No. 7 Clemson at No. 4 TCU
- No. 3 Georgia at No. 18 UCF
- No. 8 Miami at No. 11 Oklahoma State
- No. 19 Auburn at No. 5 Wisconsin
- No. 16 Michigan State at No. 12 Washington
- No. 25 Iowa State at No. 21 USC
- No. 23 LSU at No. 13 Virginia Tech
- FAU at No. 20 Stanford
You think that might have added clarity to a four-team race?
If we don’t have the stomach for scheduling games midseason, we could use one year’s rankings to produce pairings for the next year. That wouldn’t help UCF, but it would add some recency to non-conference pairings.
D. Make FCS matchups a preseason thing.
FBS vs. FCS games are part of the circle of life. Since these games are one of the only ways for money to actually flow downward, I maintain that they are necessary. But they don’t have to be part of the regular season. What if everybody scheduled what amounts to a Week 0 preseason game?
This would be a way to maintain the circle of life, but also open up more FBS non-conference scheduling opportunities. And since some conferences have moved to nine-game conference slates, we could use some more such slots.
There’s no guarantee that a top P5 team would use that opening to schedule a G5 team, but it would make it more likely.