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Can the Group of 5 reach “bunch-level” scheduling status?

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How much is a bunch and will any team ever accomplish it?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start by saying: I don’t like the terms “Power 5” and “Group of 5”, but that’s what will be used in the article for the sake of simplicity.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, UCF announced themselves co-national champions this week following their Peach Bowl victory over Auburn. That has gotten Twitter into quite a frenzy, which was the goal (or at least one of the goals). This stunt declaration has gotten people to talk about the Group of 5 and where or if they belong in the playoff discussion. Possibly lost in all the jokes and debates was this statement from Jerry Palm, who spends copious amounts of time covering the playoff committee and their mysterious ways:

To review, when the BCS was thrown off a cliff and left to die a painful death and the CFP rose from the ashes, one of the major changes was a spot was reserved for the top Group of 5 conference champion each and every year. They no longer had to jump through hoops of being undefeated and in the top 12 of computer rankings (or the top 16 if higher than a conference champ from a top conference, or in the top 18.5 when the groundhog sees his shadow during odd years, or... you get the picture).

The CFP and NY6 bowls cut away the red tape and made easy access. On one hand, this was a great win for the Group of 5. Annual access to the big money that comes from big bowls, as well as a matchup against one of the best teams in the country gives them a chance to prove they belong by going up against “the big boys”.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to look at the arrangement as the college football version of throwing table scrapes to your dog after you eat everything you want. The dog gets what it wants and it stops bothering you. By allowing one Group of 5 team in to the NY6 every year, the Power 5 probably believes that giving the Go5 a seat at the “adult table” will stop them from clamoring for additional things: like multiple teams getting into big bowls (think TCU and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, only not being regulated to playing one another) or worse yet, a spot in their sacred 4-team playoff (Not that a mid-major team ever made the championship game in the BCS era). In the eyes of the Power 5, they didn’t have to save a spot, and something is better than nothing.

Going back to the tweet, and in light of the first undefeated Go5 champion in the CFP era, is crashing the playoff possible in its current format? And how are we defining bunches? (Hint: it’s vague for a reason)

First of all, this is clearly just an excuse to immediately dismiss any hopes of a talented team crashing the party. It’s also a dumb argument because it’s mostly out of a team’s control. They are told to play a tougher schedule but tough teams don’t always want to schedule them. They are told to play in a tougher conference but no one is extending invitations anytime soon. It’s almost as if the top conferences are purposefully keeping the other conferences at arm’s length (spoiler: this is exactly what’s happening). But let’s play this out a bit, just for fun. There are only so many openings on the schedule. When taking out conference games (which, in case you didn’t know, don’t include any Power 5 teams), that leaves a maximum of 5 potential slots for games against P5 opponents. One of those would be a bowl game, so really there is a maximum of 4 games to work with in the hope of reaching “bunch-level status”.

Also, scheduling Power 5 teams isn’t as easy as it sounds. This may come as a surprise, but Power 5 teams aren’t knocking down the door to play what they deem as lower level teams. When they do schedule Group of 5 teams, it’s for two main reasons 1) an easy win to offset the potential losses in conference play 2) it gives them an extra home game on their schedule to boost revenue. For their troubles, the victims opposing teams receive a nice pay-out and the small chance at an upset. Alabama (among many others) has been using this strategy for years. The moral of the story is Power 5 teams don’t like scheduling home-and-home arrangements and they don’t like scheduling games where they have an average chance of losing. This is an issue for the top Group of 5 teams, the ones who are favorites of playing in a NY6 bowl, as they often want home and home games and are good enough to beat a number of P5 teams.

However, in the defense of many P5 teams, more evenly-matched games do happen. Just this season, Boise State played Washington State and Virginia, while SDSU played Stanford and Arizona State. There are opportunities, especially when some Power 5 conferences designate certain schools as “Power 5-like” (such as BYU, Army, Navy) which is silly, but advantageous. It allows the P5 schools to fill out their schedule while also hoping to steal some wins. Rarely, though, does a school who has a chance to play in a NY6 bowl also have an opportunity to play 4 Power 5 schools. Boise State has gotten into a routine of playing two Power 5 teams, BYU, and a Group of 5 team for it’s non-conference schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, Colorado State played Oregon State, Colorado and Alabama (plus Abilene Christian) but wasn’t expected to compete for the NY6 bowl. Those examples are brought up to show that P5 schools have a tendency to want to schedule teams they can beat and for those which are more evenly matched/competing, it’s tougher to schedule more than two teams.

All of that to say, it’s hard for a team to reach the lofty “bunch-status” when it comes to scheduling. If a team was somehow able to only schedule teams from the top conferences for its OOC, it would probably sacrifice quite a few home games. But say they did. And then say they managed to beat all four of those teams (maybe 1 overtime loss would be ok, but doubtful). They would also have to go undefeated in their conference, because losing a conference game to ____ after beating 4 P5 teams would still go against them, proving that they couldn’t handle the pressure and demands week in and week out. Assuming they did that and then won their conference championship game, which isn’t required for their Power 5 peers by the way, and it’s starting to sound like the type of hoops they had to jump through back in the BCS.

Even so, would it be enough to make the 4-team playoff? Would an undefeated MWC team who beat 4 Power 5 teams hold the same weight as 4 undefeated Power 5 teams? How many games would a Power 5 team have to lose before an undefeated Group of 5 team with “bunches of P5 teams” on their schedule be considered by the playoff committee?

Again, its all hypothetical because 1) it is extremely unlikely the playoff committee would ever let it happen 2) so many things would have to line up to even meet the demands of being considered. But this is the place for hypotheticals, so again, let’s play out some scenarios:

  1. Boise State playing their 2018 schedule: The Broncos are being used as examples because they have crashed the party multiple times (twice in the BCS, once in the new format) and schedule-wise, put themselves in a position every year to be considered for the NY6 spot. Looking at next season’s schedule, their out of conference slate is Troy, Oklahoma State, BYU, and UConn. Oklahoma State should be ranked, BYU and UConn probably won’t carry much weight, but Troy might after two good seasons and marquee win over LSU last year. In conference play, it would probably be safe to assume either Fresno State or SDSU is ranked, with the other being a solid team. There’s also a good chance they play one of them twice assuming (once in the regular season, once in the MWC championship). Add it all up and best case scenario is they go undefeated while beating 3 ranked teams (Oklahoma State, the best team in the West division twice) in the high teens/low twenties plus two very good teams (Troy, the other good West division team). That’s very good resume, but would the almighty committee see it as a top 4 resume? Even if Boise State runs the table and knocks off ranked teams on the way, it’s safe to assume the committee doesn’t put them in the top 4, unless by some stroke of fortune there are only 3 P5 undefeated or 1-loss teams. I believe that resume is strong enough to overtake a 2-loss Power 5 team, although maybe not a team like 2017 Ohio State.
  2. Boise State playing a “bunches” schedule: Purely for argument’s sake, let’s pretend the year is 2018 and the Broncos have a non conference schedule of Oregon State, Washington State, and Oregon. BYU is a team many P5’s pretend as P5 status for their benefit and Boise State should be able to do the same, but if they aren’t, sub in Rutgers, Kansas, Illinois or some other bottom dweller who doesn’t deserve to reap P5 benefits instead. The former 3 are teams the Broncos have all scheduled in the past and have played very good games against, so it would be within the realm of realism that they could play one another. As far as Group of 5 non-conference schedules go, this one is phenomenal. It would be safe to assume that Washington State is ranked, Oregon is seen as an above average team and Oregon State and random bad P5 school are pretty much cupcakes (but don’t that to tell them, because of P5 status and all). Again, assume either Fresno State or SDSU is ranked, with the ranked one also being who the Broncos would play in the MWC Championship, and the other is an above average team. Also assume they run the table. What does their resume look like now?

Interestingly enough, their schedule doesn’t look all that different from their actual one. Washington State is more or less on par with Oklahoma State. The 2017 Cougars may be better than the 2018 Cowboys, but the 2017 Broncos almost (and should have) beat WSU last year. BYU is the same as BYU/random bad P5 team and UConn may be able to beat Oregon State. The only real difference is Oregon and Troy, but on the other hand, Troy played Boise State much better than Oregon did this year.

If all that were to happen, it would be extremely interesting to see if the committee would weight “the bunches schedule” as better than their actual schedule strictly going off of P5 status. The pessimist argument would be the Broncos probably still couldn’t bust into the top 4 off of this schedule without the help of a few other top teams losing. The optimist argument would be the committee would almost have to put them in, mainly because they did everything that could be done in this scenario, outside of scheduling and beating 4 ranked P5 teams, which would be highly unlikely to happen. However, the most likely result of this scenario would be the Broncos probably get in ahead of every 2-loss team, and perhaps even a 1-loss team or two depending on schedule.

The take home points of this little exercise are:

  • It’s very unrealistic for a Group of 5 team to have a “bunches schedule”
  • Even if they did, their resume would most likely not be strong enough on it’s own to get into the playoff without help, unless they scheduled all ranked teams.
  • Also, the Bronco’s 2018 is arguably on par with their most realistic “bunches schedule”, even though the 2018 real one would not be perceived as being as strong.
  • The CFP, in it’s current form, is not designed to benefit the Group of 5 (shocking, right?). They carve out a spot for them in the NY6 and pat themselves on the back for taking care of the little guys while they compete with the championship. But there does not seem to be a clear path for a Go5 team to find a way into the playoff.

So what would be a clear path for the Group of 5?

There is a popular and somewhat simple expansion floating around twitter that would give the Group of 5 (and Power 5) larger access. Expand to 8 teams. They would be made up of: the champions from each of the top 5 conferences, the top Group of 5 school, and two at-large selections. The biggest debates would be the at-large picks and of course some years would be easier than others to decide, but actually, it couldn’t be harder than it is to decide the 4 at-large teams, which is pretty much what they do now (since they didn’t care about Alabama not winning their conference championship, it was basically all at-large selections).

Taking 2017 as an example, Georgia, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, USC, and UCF are locks. Alabama would definitely get one at-large big (seeing as how they won the championship and all), and Wisconsin probably gets the other one. Seeding could go the traditional 1v8, 2v7 and so on. The issue would be the Group of 5 team would most likely always be the 8 seed. If you’re a P5 school and don’t feel they should be in the playoff, then you’re basically giving the #1 team a glorified bye (in their eyes), so it shouldn’t be a huge issue. If you’re a G5 school, you’re in the playoff but again getting the little brother treatment. On the other hand, upsets do happen. If anyone has a more creative/fair way to do the seedings, please share it!

At the end of the day, the current set up is undeniably better and more consistent than the old BCS era. It’s not a bad spot to be in, but it has shown itself to be limiting. If there is ever another version of the playoff down the line, the Group of 5 needs to be fully involved in some way in order for the playoff to be a true representation of the college landscape. A way that doesn’t include the word “bunches” would be preferable.