The Alabama-Clemson championship game was relatively exciting, if you watched just the fourth quarter. Sure, the TV ratings were down a bit, and sure, those ratings continue to dip a bit year after year. But there’s a new champion of college football, and ESPN paid an awful lot of money for the right to air that game.
Imagine, though, that it’s not Alabama and Clemson. Imagine instead that it’s Appalachian State playing San Jose State at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas before 20,000 fans. And imagine that’s a playoff game and these two teams are playing for an NCAA Championship
Yeah, just imagine how bad the TV ratings would be for that game.
Well, if some of the folks involved with the Group of 5 have their way, there just might be a new round of college playoffs soon to come. The Group of 5 consists of the American Athletic Conference (home of UH), Conference USA (home of Rice), Mountain West (home of Boise State), Mid-American (home of Western Michigan), Sun Belt (home of Appalachian State), BYU, Army and UMass. And it’s been 32 years since a team from the so-called Group of 5 won the national title (BYU in 1984).
“There is absolutely no ability for us to be in the national title conversation,” Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier told ESPN. “That’s just reality. Anyone that says we can — that's a flat-out lie.”
Which means that he probably considers American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco to be a liar.
“The answer is an emphatic no,” Aresco told ESPN. “We compete for national championships like anyone else in FBS, including the Power 5, and have no interest in any kind of separate championship.”
There’s no real plan for the Group of 5 playoff, yet. Frazier of Northern Illinois envisions an eight-team contest featuring the Group of 5 conference champs and three at-large teams. But that essentially means the possibility of three extra games following the conference title game, and the two teams playing for the Group of 5 title would end up playing more football games than any other FBS school, including the power conference schools, and would likely end up playing as many games as NFL teams.
Then there’s the whole bowl game structure. Do the bowls become part of the playoff structure? Which ones? What if they want nothing to do with it? What about those bowls that feature the power conferences and the Group of 5?
But to those like Frazier who support the playoff idea, these are just minor concerns.
“As long as the financial agreement that currently exists with the CFB Playoffs remains and we have the opportunity to package a Group of 5 championship, why wouldn’t we do it?” an anonymous Group of 5 official told ESPN. “It would spread the exposure to all five conferences, rather than just the one conference champion that plays in a New Year’s Six bowl.”
That sounds good until other, bigger issues are considered. Like the fact that the Group of 5 is contracted through 2025 to send its highest-ranked team to one of the New Year’s Six bowls, as when UH played at the Peach Bowl or Western Michigan played at the Cotton Bowl. There’s also the fact the American Athletic Conference doesn’t really consider itself part of the Group of 5. Then there’s the fact that conferences like the American and Mountain West make lots of money when their schools make one of the New Year's Six bowls.
Industry sources have apparently told an ESPN reporter that CBS, NBC and ESPN would be interested in airing the Group of 5 playoffs, which would hopefully mean the start of a bidding war for the right to air the games. And that bidding war would hopefully mean lots of money which could then be distributed to the participating conferences. This would undoubtedly seem like a good idea to Conference USA or the Sun Belt, two conferences with anemic TV rights deals. But that number gets reduced without the American’s participation, and it’s doubtful that the American, which already thinks the idea is a bad one, would be willing to sacrifice the chances of UH or Navy or Temple going to a New Year’s Six bowl so that Rice or Texas State could get more money.
Then there’s the basic pride factor. What does being the champion of the Group of 5 really mean? Can it mean as much as going to a bowl game in Hawaii or the Bahamas?
“You mean compete for the junior varsity championship?” an anonymous Group of 5 athletic director told ESPN. “No thanks.”
And isn’t that essentially what’s going on? Isn’t this just basically saying these schools aren’t good enough to compete against the big schools, and that the only way they’re ever going to accomplish anything is to carve out their own championship?
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