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The real cost of a Group of Five Playoff

It’s not the money. Rather, it’s your happiness.

MAC Championship - Kent State v Northern Illinois Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk about playoffs this offseason. Not just any playoffs, but “small school” playoffs.

That isn’t a surprise given the meteoric success the College Football Playoff has been from a ratings perspective over the last three seasons. When actual stakes are attached and fans of teams that may not have had a chance under the old BCS system can suddenly traffic in hope as the season wears on (hello, 2016 USC,) it adds an element of drama to an otherwise predictable series of transactions. It takes a product that already has a cult following and makes it even more outsized. The perfect way to keep your audience hooked.

Recently, a scenario has been floated that would give a Group of Five school a little piece of that out sized action. Under Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun’s proposal, a guaranteed spot in the “real” playoffs under a potential eight-team system would be awarded to a Group of Five team that emerges victorious from a smaller, separate G5 “wild card” playoff for the slot.

Our own mothership put out a nice story about it, explaining how it would have looked in 2016 and what the logistics of that could look like moving forward. Hustle Belt’s James H. Jimenez also gave his opinion on why it’s a bad idea, if you want some background and opinions on the issue.

For me, I am on the fence.

As a football fan, I already had a playoff my entire life: the NFL Playoffs.

As a young child, when I first started watching football in the 80s, I rooted for the Browns and the Bengals. I tended to (and still do, really) root for all things Ohio. I was semi-blessed. Both the Browns and the Bengals were competitive, and I enjoyed most every season. The Bengals made 2 Super Bowls, and the Browns made multiple AFC Championship games.

But I realized, ultimately, something didn’t feel right every year. Neither team I rooted for ever won the damn thing. Most fans only root for one NFL team. Here I was rooting for two, and in 10 years, I never got to feel the euphoria of watching the team I invested so much time and emotion into finally lift that trophy.

That emptiness of unfulfilled expectations has a way of weighing on you. There are only so many championships to go around, and my teams didn’t manage to win a single one in the 30+ years that I have been watching the NFL. As a result, I gradually crawled away from the NFL.

Luckily for me, I follow college ball. I’ll admit to rooting for Ohio State. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the College Football Playoff was hardly even a gleam in anyone’s eye and National Champions were still determined by the AP and Coaches Poll at the end of the year. It felt like a true free-for-all.

When I first started watching football in the 80’s, I remember Ohio State winning the Fiesta Bowl and being on Cloud Nine. I remember the Buckeyes losing the 1984 Rose Bowl, and thinking that a win there would feel just like a Super Bowl win from the Browns or Bengals.

Sadly, National Championship talk became all the rage, and by the 1990’s, a Big Ten Championship didn’t really mean much. If we won, cool, but really what did it mean?

I was in the Rose Bowl when Ohio State beat Arizona State in 1997, and I hugged my buddy. I am not a huggy guy, so that just goes to show how awesome it was to win the Rose Bowl, even at that time. By the 2000’s, we had the BCS, and now we have a College Football Playoff to determine a “real” champion, and I can’t imagine hugging my buddy if “we” win the Rose Bowl.

If anything, the reaction would be more a sigh of relief.

So while the current playoffs may seem like a great idea, I don’t enjoy rooting for Ohio State like I used to. In my lifetime, Ohio State has won the national title twice. They have not won it 40 other times. Most seasons end in failure in this system.

How important are conference championships in this system? Apparently, not at all.

The Big 12 was unable to get a conference champion in the Playoff not once, but twice. Many other conference champions (think Penn State in 2016) were left out in favor of other teams. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of pride or concern on a national level regarding conference titles. As a G5 school, the most you can wish for after a conference title is a throwaway bowl game against a Power Five school that probably didn’t win its conference.

The College Football Playoff, in trying to determine a One True Champion, has ironically erased any such concept of what it means to be a champion.

That brings us to the MAC. Right now, the conference has it pretty great, even if there are those that speak about the conference’s prospects in apocalyptic terms. There are only 12 teams competing for our realistic title. I root for Toledo. I don’t go to sleep at night praying that Toledo can win the national title. I want to win the MAC. They have won it five times since I have been watching football. It’s been a while, so the next time they win it, I am going to feel a similar joy that I felt back in 1996-1997 when Ohio State won the Rose Bowl, and I actually hugged a dude.

That’s why a G5 playoff is a terrible idea. In order to make that work, you might have to get rid of the conference championship concept. Why would anyone want to do that?

I don’t know how much longer I have left on the planet, but let’s just pretend it is another 30 years. Playing the odds, Toledo will win five more MAC championships. I am OK with that.

Could they win a G5 Playoff in that time? Probably, but certainly no guarantee. Then you add in a chance at the national championship? That’s a terrible idea.

While the idea of playing for a “true championship” may seem like a good idea, it’s not.

There is almost no chance that a MAC team would win that “true championship” the rest of my life. Not only would it be difficult to be named the best G5 team, that team then has to go against the big dogs that have been resting up. And besides, there’s no incentive for the powers that be to add in the “small” schools.

The College Football Playoff is, in its barest form, a marketing ploy meant to create stakes and sell sponsorships and merchandise. Why risk the ruination of your product by adding in a team that doesn’t have any national cachet if what you have now is working just fine for those it intends to benefit?

There’s a reason odds-makers barely even bother with creating future odds for teams in the Group of Five for national title contention. Look now at Bovada or OddsShark and you’ll notice most teams with that designation are at 50,000/1 odds.

Sometimes, it’s ok just being a big fish in a small pond. It’s certainly understandable why fans at G5 schools want to have more recognition and competition, especially given that (technically) G5 and P5 schools play at the same level. But at some point, we have to recognize FBS football for the shell game it is and appreciate the opportunities we do have.

In a way, it’s almost easier to enjoy the sport itself when there aren’t any artificial or subjective stakes attached. The goal is easy: tilt the boat in the non-conference, win your rivalry games, win your division, win your conference. I would prefer we work to appreciate the pond that we are on, and just how difficult it is to be that big fish.

For that reason I am not opposed to a G5 playoff. If you’re not welcome to the party, you find something else to do. But any notion of making it a part of the current system is an insipid pipe dream at best and at worst, a thought that could have irreparable harm on the sport we love.

What I am more interested in is more slots in the New Year’s Six bowl game, and for those games to mean something. Or finding bowl partnerships feature more G5-P5 matchups. (Remember when the Motor City Bowl was bringing in 60,000 fans in the mid-2000’s?)

The point is this: there are other, more efficient ways to have a collective voice be heard and to prove your product belongs on a bigger stage. A G5 playoff isn’t a bad idea, but this iteration certainly is. Even if one was to get off the ground, we have to ask ourselves: is it really worth it if we have to give up the soul of what makes G5 sports special?