The Group of Five commissioners have a previously scheduled conference call today. According to this article by CBS Sports, Sean Frazier’s playoff idea is going to be a topic of conversation, if not THE topic of conversation.
To sum it up, the Group of Five are the “lesser” division one conferences, the MAC, Mountain West, American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt. Sean Frazier, the athletic director of Northern Illinois, has been floating the idea of a playoff for the champions of those 5 leagues, and 3 at large teams. It’s been met with a lukewarm reception, at best. Quite frankly, the only reason it has garnered any attention is because most of the G5 schools are struggling financially.
My initial reaction was absolutely not. The factors were many. Pride is right at the top of that list. I don’t think of the MAC as a lesser division one conference. Sure it doesn’t pull in the money or recruits like the bigger conferences, but that could change. Reports said Western Michigan was prepared to offer P.J. Fleck 2 million or so per year. While Frazier claims no G5 school would be invited to the playoffs, it is possible, if highly unlikely. Maybe it’s just a handful of teams that could pull it off, and only if the stars aligned just right, but it could happen.
Another fear is that a G5 playoff would be the gateway to FCS-ville. The truth is, that gateway was opened long ago. The bribing of G5 schools to play one off games in the non-conference schedule that are always on the home field of the P5 isn’t just about money. It’s also about the near guaranteed win for the big boys. The conference tie-ins during bowl season almost guarantee that the G5 plays one another, and that’s partly to avoid the embarrassing loss by a P5 cash cow.
While I didn’t want to give the separate playoff much thought, in the back of my mind I kept wondering how sustainable the current model is. The answer is, not very. For better or for worse, ESPN is the worldwide leader in sports. They invested a lot of money in the “real” college football playoffs, and they are going to pound home their product. They pump out weeknight #MACtion and a million bowl games, not as a favor to the little guy, but as a vehicle to promote their cash cow. They make a point of subtly, and not so subtly, letting the viewer know they are watching lesser football, simply because they know human nature will not allow everyone to root for a lesser team. In the same way the NFL has passed college, they know people will stop following the MAC. Maybe I am giving ESPN too much credit, and they are just riding the wave. In either case the point stands. As the playoff rises in popularity, the MAC will continue to lose viewers.
So the multi-million dollar question is, how can the G5 maintain it’s integrity, while keeping up with the P5 and their playoff? The first thing we have to ask is what does the G5 bring to the table? Money and losses. Specifically, the non-conference schedule. We line up to play the Ohio States and Michigans of the world, at their house, for a big paycheck. They get an even bigger paycheck, and a near guaranteed win. Deep down in their cold black hearts, the P5 knows that if they are forced to play one another all season, it’s going to muddy the playoff picture. Two and three loss “national champions” will become the norm, and that isn’t good for business. Along with P5 fodder, the G5 does have a lot of fans. Not nearly as many in comparison, but they are there. If they are incentivized to watch more football, that’s good for the bank accounts of everyone.
So how do we tie all this into a G5 playoff? The first thing is to have the playoff in December before the “real” one starts. Get it out of your head right now that the winner should get a spot in the big dance. It’s not going to happen, and a lot of years the winner probably wouldn’t be as good as the top 4 teams anyway. But what it could be is a play-in for a New Years 6 bowl. The G5 is already guaranteed a spot, so the P5 would be giving up nothing on that point. That will get at least one P5 fan base watching, to see who they will be playing. For drama, and on the off chance that the G5 champion could be a top 4 team, have the playoff committee hold off their last spot until after the G5 playoffs. That would generate a lot of buzz and keep a lot of people watching. It would also naturally allow ESPN to promote their “real” playoffs during the G5 one.
The key for the P5 in this scenario is that it isn’t competing with their cash cow. What the G5 should demand in return for not throwing the billion dollar industry into chaos is a slightly bigger chunk of the pie. Right now, a lot of people complain there are too many bowl games. 5-7 teams don’t belong in bowl games they say, and they are right. Simply have the G5 playoff as bowl games. Where the G5 can make up some financial ground is to then have the playoff teams play P5 teams in a bowl game. Instead of having 5-7 Indiana play 8-4 Cal, ship a 9-3 Toledo squad out there. Not only would it increase the G5 revenue, it would give the G5 a chance to showcase their talents against a P5 opponent. Eventually the “real” playoffs are going to move to 8 teams, and if the G5 plays their cards right, they could position themselves into a guaranteed spot, or at least the increased chance of a spot some years. It will take vision and chutzpah from the G5 commissioners, things I feel they are currently lacking. I hope they prove me wrong.
This is the ideal scenario for me, because it keeps the G5 “in their place” while at the same time giving them a chance to change their stars. It leaves the pecking order determined on the field to a certain extent, and for sports fans, that should be the ultimate goal.
I know one argument will be that they are only college kids, and it will be too many games. While I can agree with that on some levels, let’s face it, most of these kid’s careers are over at 22. Is an extra game or two per year, that they likely want to play in, all that big of a deal? They can always make up the class time missed for one more shot at glory.