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Why Didn’t Your Group of Five Team Make the College Football Playoff?

The Group of Five crashed the party in 2021— but that doesn’t mean it should be satisfied with just being acknowledged once.

Syndication: The Enquirer
The Group Five has finally broken the College Football Playoff. When will it happen again?
Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

This year, the impossible finally happened.

A Group of Five team in the the form of the Cincinnati Bearcats crashed the College Football Playoffs. It took an unusual set of circumstances but it finally happened. It seems like every year, there is a G5 team that goes undefeated (or close to undefeated) but they get snubbed by some Power Five team that has a better pedigree.

Last year, the Cincinnati Bearcats went undefeated, but they ended up at number 8 in the College Football Playoff Poll that determines the seeding. The year before, the Memphis Tigers went 12-1 and that was good enough for #17. Prior to that, it was UCF going 12-0 but that was only good enough for #8— and that was after going undefeated the prior year. In 2016, it was Western Michigan’s chance to shine at 13-0 but that was only good enough to get them in the Cotton Bowl. It was not considered good enough to crack the Playoff. In 2015, it was the Houston Cougars at 12-1 but again that wasn’t good enough.

Even this year, it seemed like the powers that be were doing everything to keep the Bearcats from crashing the party. And it always seems like it comes down to the same old tired excuses.

This all reminds me of a joke I once heard: a new guy was sent up the river and after spending a couple days in prison, he noticed that a prisoner would say a number and the other prisoners would laugh. He asked one of the other prisoners what that was about and the other prisoner said, “Well, we’ve been here so long and we only know so many jokes that we have them numbered. People know the joke and laughed.” So the new guy that that would be fun and one day he blurted out, “Seven”. Nobody laughed. So he asked the other prisoner was what wrong and he said, “Well, you didn’t tell it right”.

So in that spirit, I bring you the list of why your favorite Group of Five team didn’t make the playoff:

  1. Your team didn’t play anyone.

I feel that if a team goes undefeated, they did everything that they can control. A team can’t control what conference they are in. Nor can they control if a team they schedule has a bad season. So when a G5 team goes undefeated, the first thing that gets trotted out that they are in such and such conference and as such, they don’t play anyone. If anything, the lines between the elites of the G5 and the averages of the Power Five have been blurred. Eastern Michigan has beaten three Big 10 teams in a row. A few years ago, that would have been unheard of. It seems like every year, there is a slew of Power Five teams that get beat by Group Five teams. If one of those defeats leads to the Group Five team going undefeated, the “you didn’t play anyone” gets trotted out because the Power Five team must have been having an off year.

2. Power Five Team was having an off year.

The schedules are picked years in advance. Sometimes G5 teams will schedule what they think is tougher competition in the hopes they’ll still be tougher down the line. But when it comes time to actually play them, they have an off year and get beat by the G5 team. Clearly, it’s their fault for not performing to their expectation, as opposed to a credit tot the winning team for executing better.

3. If you are consistent, the playoff will come.

Usually, G5 teams are wildly inconsistent. One year, they are up and then next year they are down. The closest to consistency that we’ve had is the two years UCF went undefeated. You would think that would be enough to get them in the CFP picture. Nope.

Cincinnati had to play two seasons of near-perfect football to even be considered for the bracket, and there were still questions about their inclusion afterwards. It will always be this way when you’re trying to break in to the big shindig.

4. For the Power Five, it’s the CFP or nothing.

On the chance that a G5 team does beat a Power Five team in the bowl, the next excuse is that the Power Five team was upset they didn’t make the CFP and therefore didn’t play as well. It’s a mindset which is only allowed for Power teams from the top 10-15 in the collegiate rankings, and we all, more or less, have come to accept it implicitly, which detracts from the job most G5 teams put in on a consistent basis. It once again cheapens what should be considered a successful season.

So the question becomes: how do you fix it?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the answer is. With the Bearcats fighting admirably, but ultimately falling by double-digits to blueblood titan program Alabama, I’m not sure the next time a Group of Five team will be allowed in the playoffs again— if ever. If a team is lucky enough to play into consideration again, they could suffer the fate of being doubted like their peers in the Queen City, and left out as a result.

For as long as the CFP exists in its current format, G5 teams will have to continue pulling off multiple years of success to even be considered for the idea. And G5 teams in that position will have no choice but to try their best, as they will be doubted the whole way through the season and afterwards, regardless of the results.

It was nice that in 2021, almost a decade after what was supposed to be a “more fair” way to decide a champion, the G5 finally got an invitation. Alas, they shouldn’t be satisfied with just one appearance. As a unit, the conferences will have to force the committee to acknowledge their success and legitimacy every step of the way. Until it becomes commonplace for a G5 to be listed amongst the top spots, G5 teams and officials should never, ever be satisfied to just make the dance— just like their P5 brethren.

There aren’t perfect solutions to this problem. One of the things I like about the NCAA Basketball tournament is that everyone has a shot at the title on its face. Getting into the Dance is an honor in itself. But this is football, and it’s a whole different game. I’m not sure expanding the CFP is the answer though, and it seems the powers-that-be also doubt expansion could work at the FBS level.

Ultimately, the powers-that-be won’t really matter in the public eye. We all know what the deal is in modern college football, so in that sense, we are free to interpret who is atop the college football world until those in the suits with the proper authority do something to help make everything more equitable.

I know that for me, until everyone has a shot, I will not call the winner of tonight’s title game a true champion.