The Group of Five Case for a 16 Team Playoff

Shortly after watching the Alabama v Cincinnati matchup in the CFP semifinals, I did something I knew I shouldn’t do.  I went out to Twitter and started reading the tweets on the game.  Inevitably the tweets started about how “Cincinnati didn’t belong” and how it proved the “Group of Five didn’t deserve a seat at the big boys table.”  The people tweeting these opinions were mostly SEC fans with a few assorted other Power 5 fans sprinkled in. 

These fans seemed to ignore the fact that Alabama’s previous 5 semifinal opponents before Cincinnati had lost by an average of . . . . 21 points.  They also seemed to ignore the fact that Alabama had beaten Georgia by 17 a few weeks earlier.  In short, the Tide is good.  Cincinnati’s resume included being unbeaten, the #3 rated non-conference strength of schedule in 2021, CFP top 10 road win, second largest average margin of victory, and a narrow (3 point) loss to Georgia in the season-ending bowl game from 2020.   No one else could match that resume.  Cincinnati deserved their spot, period.   However, to be assured of that spot, Cincinnati needed Baylor to beat Oklahoma State in the Big12 Championship.  Had Oklahoma State won, it is entirely likely a one-loss Cowboy team would have jumped Cincinnati for the fourth spot, despite the Cowboys bad loss to 6 loss Iowa State team.  Despite Cincinnati’s breakthrough and respectable showing against Alabama, it will continue to be extraordinarily difficult for Group of Five teams to crack the CFP under the current format. 

CFP Proposed Playoff Model

The playoff model formally presented to the CFP in November 2021 calls for expanding the number of teams in the CFP Playoff from 4 to 12.  The proposed 12 team playoff scheme that is being debated will ensure at least one G5 team makes the playoff each year but is still HEAVILY slanted toward the Power 5.   Under the proposed model, the winner of each Power 5 conference would receive an automatic bid.   The top ranked (CFP) Group of Five Champion would also receive a bid.  There would be 6 at-large bids to be decided by the CFP.  While this is better than nothing, consider the following facts.  In the 8 seasons of the CFP, the Big12 has sent four teams to the playoff.  They are 0-4, losing by an average of 18 points.  Notre Dame has made the CFP two times, losing both games by an average of 22 points.  The PAC12 has sent only two teams to the playoff, with a record of 1-2.   In summary, nothing from their history in the CFP indicates these conferences are any more deserving of spots that many of the G5 conferences.  

G5 Gurus Proposed Playoff Model

G5Gurus would advocate for a 16-team playoff that provides an automatic bid for each of the FBS conference champions and 6 at-large bids.   We understand there would be a major outcry from fans of the P5 saying how the Group of Five “couldn’t compete”.   We also understand that those fans would be right for a few years. 

Comparison to NCAA Basketball Tournament Expansion

However, let’s draw some comparisons to what has occurred in college basketball since the expansion to 64 teams in 1985.  There are 32 conferences and 350 teams in Division 1 basketball.  Since 1985 (36 seasons), 8 different conferences and 19 unique teams have won national championships in basketball.  Duke leads with 5 championships, followed by North Carolina and Connecticut (both with 4).   The equivalent to the Group of Five in basketball is called a “Mid-Major”.   25 of the 32 conferences are informally labeled “Mid Major”.  Since the tournament expanded, the Mid Major conferences have won 32% of their NCAA Tournament games.  The Top 11 Mid Major conferences have won 42%, while the Top 5 Mid Major conferences have won nearly 47%.   In other words, the Mid Majors have proven to be quite competitive in the tournament and have been a big reason for the tournament’s identity to become known as “March Madness”. 

With expansion in basketball, players know they can go to any of several top-quality programs and have an opportunity to play on the national stage.  Programs such as Gonzaga, Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, Wichita State, George Mason, Memphis, and Loyola-Chicago have made runs to the final four.  By expanding the opportunities for teams to make the tournament, talent has become less consolidated to a select few big programs and the competitive landscape is much more open. 

CFP/BCS History

Might the same happen for college football?  Consider since the CFP was instituted 8 years ago there have been 32 opportunities for teams to earn spots.  Through this season, only 9 unique teams have appeared in the CFP.   Alabama has appeared in 7 of the 8, winning 3 championships and finishing as runner-up on two occasions (with this year’s game with Georgia yet to be played).   In the 16 years of the BCS prior to the CFP, the SEC won 9 championships (including one for this year), with the ACC and Big-12 winning 2 each.   The Big East (prior to current alignment), the Big-10, and PAC-12 all won a single championship.  The result, since 1998, the SEC has won nearly 60% of the national championships (14 of 24).  The ACC has 4 championships, followed by the Big-10 and Big-12 with 2 each.  The tables below show performance by conference and teams for the life of the CFP.

ConferenceAppearancesChampionshipsRunner-upsCFP Record
BIG124  0-4
PAC122 11-2
Notre Dame2  0-2
Group of Five1  0-1
TeamAppearancesChampionshipsCFP Record
Ohio State413-3
Notre Dame200-2

This is all great if you are an SEC fan, but not so much for the other 9 FBS conferences and independents.  SEC pundits will say “recruit better”.  As Captain Obvious would say, that is good advice. 

However, if you are a top high school football player, where would you go if you wanted maximum exposure and to play for a championship?  Obviously to one of the top SEC schools.  At this moment, the SEC gives you the maximum opportunity for exposure.  By expanding the playoffs there are more plausible choices for players.  Having players opt for emerging programs closer to their recruiting home could result in the emergence of regional powers outside of the SEC.

Why Should the Group of Five have a chance?

A critical part of our argument is on the worthiness of the Group of Five to be considered in the national championship equation.   Naturally, we will hear from those that will point to the P5 vs G5 records over the years.  However, let’s break that down for just a moment.  80% plus of P5 vs G5 games are played in the P5 team’s home stadium.  In 2021, the G5 hosted 20 of the 199 G5-P5 matchups.  In those 20 games, the G5 was 8-12 (40%).  However, when the G5 team home team was bowl eligible at season-end, the record improved to 7-4.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of bowl games.  Bowl games are played on neutral fields.  Each of the teams will have won 6 or more games.  In other words, the teams are playing on a more equal footing.  Since the current conference alignment evolved in 2013, the G5 is 24-35 in bowl games versus P5 opponents (41%).  While it isn’t a winning record, it is very competitive. 

In 2021, the G5 was 6-1 in bowl games versus the P5.  The lone loss was Cincinnati’s loss to Alabama in the CFP. 

How Would a 16 Team Playoff Work?

Our proposal would be each FBS conference champion would be give an automatic bid.  The top six ranked teams without a conference championship would round out the field.   The field would be rated 1-16, with #1 opening with #16.  For 2021, the matchups would have looked like this (based on the 2021 Season Ending CFP Rankings):

  • (1) Alabama vs. (16) Northern Illinois
  • (2) Michigan vs. (15) UT San Antonio
  • (3) Georgia vs. (14) Utah State
  • (4) Cincinnati vs. (13) Louisiana
  • (5) Notre Dame vs. (12) Pittsburgh
  • (6) Ohio State vs. (11) Utah
  • (7) Baylor vs. (10) Michigan State
  • (8) Ole Miss vs. (9) Oklahoma State

Assume all the favorites won their first round games. The Quarterfinals would be:

  • (1) Alabama vs. (8) Ole Miss
  • (2) Michigan vs. (7) Baylor
  • (3) Georgia vs. (6) Ohio State
  • (4) Cincinnati vs. (5) Notre Dame

All around, these are some pretty compelling games. Could there be upsets in the first round? Absolutely. Would there be an upset in the quarterfinals? We sure think so. In other words, it is a more compelling championship even before some of the Group of Five conferences strengthen.

To support the expanded playoff, the regular season should be shortened to 11 games from the current 12.  I.e., to make a bowl game, a team would need a winning season, not just a .500 season.   This means a team playing for the National Championship would likely be playing only one more game than they currently play under the current system.          

The first two rounds of the playoffs would be played at the higher-rated team’s home field.  The final two rounds would be incorporated into the bowl schedule and played on neutral fields. 

A 16-team playoff isn’t perfect, but it brings college football into a similar format as the highly successful NCAA basketball tournament.   Conference championships mean even more.  Every conference champion gets a chance to play for a national championship.  Imagine a top recruit considering playing for local college team that is a perennial contender for their conference championship, and who has appeared in multiple national championship playoff games.  Might he want to stay closer to home and help take them to the next level?  We can only hope that at some time the powers-that-be recognize the need to expand the opportunities for all conferences.  If not, then the G5 should consider breaking off and playing for their own national title, just like FCS.

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