College football is divided into two groups; the haves and have-nots. Interestingly, not all the haves are good, and not all the have-nots are bad. In fact, some of the best teams in the country each year are among the have-nots, although they often struggle to maintain staying power. This article will focus on how mid-major teams can survive in the world of college football that seems to be working against them.
Note: I am purposefully avoiding using the term Group of 5 of G5 as this term will become outdated once the new playoff structure goes into effect. I will begin using the term mid-major.
Lack of opportunities.
It’s no secret that mid-major teams are often denied the opportunities their power 5 counterparts get with regularity. For instance, Mountain West teams are rarely able to schedule out-of-conference games against teams similar in talent level. It seems they usually fill their schedule with lower-level FBS teams or FCS teams. Or, they accept pay-day games against the blue bloods of the college football world to help pay their athletic budget.
This pattern leads to teams accumulating big losses and unimpressive wins during their first month of the season. For teams that need statement wins, especially in their non-conference schedule, mid-majors are at a disadvantage unless they pull the unlikely upsets against some of the best teams in the country. It is clear they have fewer opportunities than other schools.
Also, this pattern extends into opportunities for bowl games. Power 5 schools receive more guaranteed spots in higher-tier bowl games, compared to mid-majors. Whether it is the New Year’s Six or other tie-ins that offer better competition and better payouts. This leads to the next point below.
Lack of money.
This one is obvious, but it is a big deal. Mid-majors lack the lavish riches that the top football programs enjoy due to their massive number of donors and boosters, as well as their earnings from continued winning. Teams in the Mountain West may have years of history, although many do not, and regardless, that history probably isn’t full of storied success that brings lots of money.
Mid-majors are usually starved for money, which has quite a ripple effect on other aspects of the program. Not enough money for stadium and facility improvements on a regular basis. Not enough money to keep head coaches or assistant coaches. Not enough money for additional support staff. Not enough money to gain an edge in recruiting, and not enough money for player compensation through NIL deals.
In the world of college football, money is a huge factor in building a winning program, and keeping up with proven winners is a tall task for mid-majors.
Losing coaches and players to bigger schools.
Mid-major programs like those in the Mountain West Conference struggle to stay competitive against schools that have more opportunities and more money, but sometimes everything aligns, and they produce a special season resulting in upset wins, conference titles, or bowl wins. However, the price of success can be costly, especially for a mid-major.
Every school loses coaches and players each offseason. Ask Nick Saban how often he has to hire new coordinators. The difference is that it’s much easier for a school like Alabama to make a quality replacement hire than it is for a mid-major. When they lose a head coach, it often changes the entire trajectory of a program. When they lose key assistants, it’s not a certainty their replacement is as talented on the field or on the recruiting trail. And when they lose key players to the transfer portal, they usually are not able to reload. These departures are also the difference between whether or not a team makes a bowl game or whether or not they win a conference championship. Look back at how often teams go from ten wins to five wins.
Now that the main problems of mid-majors have been identified, take a look at the potential solutions.
All of these potential solutions are easier said than done, but a concentrated effort in each category may end up paying dividends.
If a mid-major is to gain more control in recruiting, coaches will need to identify and begin recruiting players before bigger schools do. Relationships are key in recruiting, and building them early can help smaller schools even the playing field. The Mountain West has had some good fortune with talented players over the years, and this would be a chief strategy to continue doing so. The other aspect they can gain an edge is to recruit locally. Although not every local player wants to play for their hometown school, identifying the ones that do and building a presences so that the local school becomes a dream destination for recruits can increase their chances of landing some.
If mid-majors need more money to succeed, then the question becomes how to get more money. Schools will need to rely on their fanbases, and that usually involves fans showing up. Investing in the game-day experience is a good starting place. Make each stadium the place to be for fans so that stands are packed. Also, the programs need to find ways to celebrate and invest in their core fans and boosters to give back to them. If these teams can have lower fanbases that are steadily growing, an impact can start to be made.
Like it or not, name, image, and likeness deals are here and don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Mid-majors aren’t going to sway players with million-dollar deals anytime soon, but they don’t have to. Most players aren’t commanding those kinds of offers. If smaller schools can break a tiebreaker or gain an advantage by swaying recruits by the potential to be a marquee player at a mid-major rather than just another player at a bigger school, they may have a chance at landing more of them. Recruiting pitches should be built around being a big fish in a small pond and providing NIL deals to demonstrate that.
Control transfer portal
Remember, the transfer portal works both ways. Mid-majors should build a transfer portal identity. Teams can become the program that can offer more playing time or the program that offers second chances, or the program that welcomes local plays back with open arms. Smaller schools will lose their fair share of players, which will sting. However, they can add just as many players and can have success if they have an identity.
Mid-majors will never be on the same level as college football blue bloods. However, if they focus their time and attention on some specific areas, they may be able to level the playing field a bit.