From the College Football Playoff website:
Q: Can a team automatically qualify for the College Football Playoff?
A: No team automatically qualifies. Every FBS team has equal access to the playoff based on its performance.
That is a nice sentiment. There are a whole lot of people in Orlando who would disagree with that, and perhaps some with longer memories in Western Michigan and houston who are not quite sure of the accuracy of it either.
Setting aside the seemingly harmless FAQ buried on the CFP website, the facts that there was no path for the only undefeated team in the FBS to compete for a national championship, and in what should have been an unrelated matter, two SEC teams met – again – for the title, the background chatter about expanding the CFP from four to eight teams rose to a roar for a while at the beginning of the year.
To a person, anyone connected with the CFP made it clear that there was no plan to expand the playoff at this time or in the future. Among the big reasons there is no urgency by the five autonomy conferences (Power 5 in common vernacular: ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC) are, of course, revenue distribution and the matter of contractual bowl relationships. Those five conferences have both a disproportionate split of the CFP revenue and also have contracts for their champions to play in the “New Year’s Six” bowls not designated as part of that year’s playoff, with contingencies if the champion makes the playoff.
The annual revenue distribution is spelled out on the CFP website, and the disparity between the P5 schools and “Group of 5” schools (American, Conference USA, Mid-Atlantic, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) is substantial. Before the playoffs and New Year’s bowl games are assigned, and assuming every school hits the NCAA’s APR for participation in the postseason here are the baseline numbers: Big 12 schools, $5.4M; Pac-12, $4.5M; ACC, Big 10, and SEC, $3.86M; Notre Dame, $2.65M; Group of 5 schools, $1.31M, and other independents $309K (it is unclear if they receive an additional $300K APR bonus).
Making the semifinal nets the school’s conference an additional $6M, with no secondary payment for advancing to the final. Conferences receive $4M for each team playing in one of the non-playoff New Year’s bowl games. It is up to the individual conference to determine how to distribute these funds, what percentage goes to the school playing in the game and what gets distributed across the rest of the members. For each of the six CFP bowl games, including the national championship game, a conference will receive an additional $2.25 million per team per game to cover travel expenses.
For 2017, the SEC can expect to receive two of the $6M semifinal payouts, one of the $4M payouts, plus the travel expenses ($2.25 million per team, per game, for a total of $11.25M) for $17.25M in addition to the standard $54M distribution. If the playoff were to expand to eight teams, either the quarter-final round would be held earlier in December, potentially devaluing the “New Year’s Six” bowls, or the national championship game would be pushed further into January, running into the NFL playoffs. Devaluing bowl games and splitting the money pie more ways without baking a bigger pie are reasons enough to keep the playoff at four teams. Any argument about the length of the season (as many as 15 games) and/or classroom time is easily dismantled. Football players have the fewest game dates of any student-athlete by far, and miss the least amount of class time. As for the length of the season, the Division II playoff is a 28-team bracket which runs five weeks. If a team doesn’t have a first-round bye and plays for the national championship, those players could have a 15 or 16 game season depending on their conference schedule. When there is outrage over that, the FBS contingent can speak to an overly long season.
Having conceded that there are only going to be four seats at the table, does the CFP’s claim that every FBS team has “equal access” ring true?
Since the very first CFP ranking was published on October 28, 2014, there have been only 11 teams from the 62 in the Group of 5 conferences to appear in a ranking, sometimes for as briefly as one week. Of those teams, six have been from the American Athletic Conference, two from the Mountain West, two from the Mid-Atlantic Conference, and one from Conference-USA. The highest any of these teams has been ranked is 12th; this past year, when the only undefeated team in FBS, 12-0 UCF, climbed to their highest ranking for the final poll of the season. In 2016, when Western Michigan finished the season 13-0, including two wins over Big 10 teams (Northwestern and Illinois), they were ranked 15th in the final CFP poll, with four Big 10 teams in front of them, none lower than 8th.
Given the evidence of the way the CFP Committee has ranked teams over the four years of the playoff system, there is no realistic way a school from a Group of 5 conference can play for the championship in the foreseeable future. According to the CFP, “The members use conference championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head results and comparison of results against common opponents to decide among teams that are comparable. Selection committee members examine statistical data, and they also review a significant number of games on video. CFP has retained a firm, SportSource Analytics, to provide statistical information for the committee's use. This platform allows the committee members to compare teams on every possible level.” In short, a team needs quality wins and no bad losses to have a chance at a top-four ranking. The way for a school outside of the Power 5 conferences to get quality wins in a strong schedule is to play those schools, and beat them, in their limited non-conference opportunities. This is where programs like UCF, Houston, Boise State, Navy, and Western Michigan lose control of their own destiny.
The Power 5 conferences, more specifically teams at the top of the P5 conferences, have to “play ball” with the Group of 5 teams for them to have an opportunity to play for quality wins beyond the top of their own conference and have a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff. It is not going to happen in 2018. It is probably not going to happen in the next five years.
In the upcoming 2018 season, there are 101 games scheduled between a Power 5 school (including independents Notre Dame and BYU) and a Group of 5 school. That may sound promising. However, given that there are over 200 opportunities for non-conference match-ups between P5 and G5 teams, and many of those 101 scheduled match-ups will not help one team or the other in terms of CFP consideration, there are only a handful of games that will likely matter. Of the 62 G5 teams, 48% (30 teams) have only one or no P5 games on their schedule in 2018. Another 24 teams have two Power 5 games scheduled, and eight teams have three P5 games on the docket. None of the teams with three P5 opponents have ever been ranked in a CFP poll (Middle Tennessee, UTSA, Akron, Bowling Green, Kent State, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Colorado State).
In the four years of the CFP, there have been 20 teams ranked in the top eight on selection day, 19 teams from Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame. There are 220 ways to combine those 20 teams with the 11 Group of 5 schools which have ever been ranked by the CFP Committee. Of the announced non-conference games scheduled for the next five years, there are 17 between those two groups of schools. Five of those games are the annual match-up between Notre Dame and Navy. That leaves 12 games over the next five years between top performing Power 5 teams and the top Group of 5 teams. There are still some open non-conference dates from 2019-2022 among these schools; even if the number of games between top-tier P5 and G5 teams is doubled, will it be enough to matter to the committee?
During the aftermath of UCF’s perfect season, one in which they beat the only Power 5 opponent in front of them (Maryland), as their game with Georgia Tech was cancelled due to the hurricanes that hit Florida in the fall, a former member of the CFP Committee took exception to their claim that they were disrespected by the committee. As told to Heather Dinich at ESPN, retired Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, former Superintendent of the Air Force Academy and member of the inaugural CFP Committee, said, “There's no question in my mind that there's a difference between going up against the big bodies week in and week out. In the Mountain West, American Athletic Conference, C-USA, it's just not the same as playing against the Power 5 big, human beings week after week. ... If they had to play Georgia next week, and Alabama the week after that, I just don't think you'd see the same results. I think others on that committee probably share my feelings on that.” Gould would know if others on the committee are like minded. During his two years on the committee, the American Athletic Conference was his bailiwick, as each of the 10 FBS conferences are assigned two point persons from the committee to ensure that complete and accurate information for each team is communicated. Clearly, he wasn’t impressed.
If having more Power 5 versus Group of 5 games is the solution to ensuring access for all, Nick Saban is leading the campaign to keep the G5 schools out of the picture entirely. During SEC media day this past July, Saban added an interesting twist, saying, "We should play all teams in the Power 5 conferences. If we did that, then if we were going to have bowl games, we should do the bowl games just like we do in the NCAA basketball tournament -- not by record but by some kind of power rating that gets you in a bowl game. If we did that, people would be a little less interested in maybe bowl games and more interested in expanding the playoff." So, he has a plan to both box-out the Group of 5 and expand the playoff. Apparently Greg Byrne hasn’t gotten Saban’s memo because Alabama has just Louisville (2018), Duke (2019) and Miami (2021), confirmed on their non-conference schedule over the next four years. They have none of the 11 G5 schools that have ever been ranked by the CPF committee; they do have two FCS schools scheduled (The Citadel, 2018; Mercer, 2021).
Perhaps it is time for the CFP to amend its FAQ page. For the Q: Can a team automatically qualify for the playoff? A: No team automatically qualifies.
Every FBS team has equal access to the playoff based on its performance.
That second sentence is misleading at best, untrue at worst. This may be the case in a utopian sense; it is not practical or attainable under the current construct of FBS college football scheduling and CFP committee selection criteria. For it to even carry a shadow of truth, P5 teams that see the light of the CFP poll need to play top-tier G5 teams early and often as part of their non-conference schedules. Meanwhile, the CFP Committee should examine its philosophy and criteria for ranking teams, as even among the 65+ P5 teams, head-to-head and common opponents and not always options.