With a global pandemic playing havoc with schedules and attendance, 2020 was an unprecedented year for college football. The Group of Five Conferences and Independents (G5) found unprecedented success with Cincinnati reaching #6 in the final regular season AP poll. Coastal Carolina’s magical run yielded a #9 ranking. The final AP rankings after the CFP Championship found 8 Group of Five Teams in the Top 25. This is an all-time high!!
Yet, for all the unprecedented success, we suspect the G5 will once again struggle for relevancy in 2021. COVID-19 ravaged schedules throughout the college football year, with many conferences greatly reducing (or eliminating) non-conference games. As a result, there were only 16 regular season games featuring G5 team against Power 5 (P5) opponents. The P5 dominated, winning 10 of the 16 matchups. The two bright spots were the Sunbelt winning all three matchups against the Big 12 (including Louisiana’s 17 point trouncing of Big 12 runner-up Iowa State) and Liberty winning 2 of 3 against the ACC (with their loss being by 1 point on a final play blocked FG).
The G5 had three opportunities to improve the record in the abbreviated 2020 bowl season. However, in their three games against the P5, the G5 teams came up just short. Cincinnati led the majority of their Peach Bowl game with Georgia, but couldn’t hold on in the end, losing 24-21. Despite outgaining Mississippi State by over 200 yards, Tulsa could not overcome mistakes and lost 28-26 in a contest marred by an ugly brawl at the end of the game. Army, much like Cincinnati, led the majority of the Liberty Bowl, but dropped a close game to West Virginia 24-21.
Undoubtably, many of the media pundits will cite these setbacks as evidence the G5 isn’t ready to compete on the same level as the P5. However, this would be short-sighted. While there were four notable blowouts (Notre Dame over South Florida, Duke over Charlotte, Texas over UTEP, and TCU over La Tech), the majority of the G5-P5 games were very competitive. In fact, removing these blowout wins from the P5 ledger, the G5 actually outscored the P5 in total in the remaining fifteen games. In the 2020 bowl games, the largest margin of victory for the P5 was 3 points.
A major point of contention for the Group of Five in 2020 is the extreme bias demonstrated by the College Football Playoff Committee. Cincinnati, despite being undefeated and possessing more Top 25 wins than team in front of them, was never given a chance for the playoff. A closer examination of the CFP Rankings highlights the preferences afforded the P5 schools. Of the 19 P5 schools in the final CFP, 10 received a ranking equal to their highest ranking in either the AP or Coaches poll. 6 received a higher ranking. Only 3 (Indiana, Northwestern, and NC State) received a lower rating. All six of the Group of Five Schools in the final CFP were rated lower than their highest ranking. In fact, all G5 schools were at least 2 slots lower than their highest ranking.
Finally, while the final AP poll contained an unprecedented number of G5 teams, we have to wonder about some of the choices by the media. Florida was awful in the Cotton bowl, losing by 35 to Oklahoma. Yet, the writers dropped them only 3 slots. Conversely, Coastal Carolina dropped a three point decision in OT in the Cure Bowl and was dropped 5 slots. One could easily argue that Coastal, Liberty, Louisiana all should be ranked in front of Florida. We also wonder why Liberty (10-1 with two P5 wins and a narrow 1 point loss to NC State) wasn’t ranked in front of a 6-2 Iowa team that didn’t play in a bowl. Then, of course, there is media darling North Carolina that finished #18 despite 4 losses (including an awful showing against Florida State). Ball State, with a seven game winning streak and an impressive win over undefeated MWC champion San Jose State in the Arizona bowl finished 5 spots behind the Tarheels at number 23.
While 2020 was special for the G5, there is still much work to do to. We created G5 Gurus to be an advocate for the G5 Conferences and Independents. Our website is focused on covering the G5, and only the G5. During the season we will have weekly predictions on all G5 games and articles, along with up-to-date statistics. We are adamant about data and analytics. We will strive to add more data (and seasons) to the site as we move forward.
We hope 2021 will see COVID-19 under control and a return to a form of normalcy for college football with fans in the stands.
2021 will be another opportunity for the G5 teams to make statements. Notable early games we will be watching include:
BYU at Arizona
Louisiana at Texas
San Jose State at Southern Cal
Nevada at California
Ball State at Penn State
Appalachian State at Miami (FL)
Nevada at Iowa State
Keep checking back here at G5 Gurus for the latest on the Group of Five!