In an interview with ESPN's Heather Dinich, Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick revisited the Thundering Herd's highly successful 2014 season, and how the near-undefeated run was received nationally.
According to Hamrick, the CFB playoff committee's emphasis on strength of schedule essentially excluded Marshall from a national championship from the get-go. We discussed Marshall's viability as a title contender at length, but at the end of the day, the verdict seemed fairly universal:
"Hey Marshall, play somebody."
To which, Hamrick doesn't necessarily disagree. But strength of schedule is not something that all schools have absolute control over. Hamrick makes this problem very clear,
"When I get on the phone -- and I’ve been in this business a long a time -- a lot of my friends who are ADs at Power 5 schools say, ‘Hey, great talking to you. We’re not playing you guys.’
And why should they? Power 5 schools are being judged on their strength of schedule as well. It behooves a national title contender to book a non-conference series with another Power 5, never mind bothering with a G5 school. This is particularly true when the school calling is a Marshall, Georgia Southern, or Boise State, where the potential for an upset is very real.
The elite Group of 5 teams are stuck. The committee won't let them sniff a national title because they don't play anybody. But when they try to schedule heavy hitters, no one will play them. Comparing resumes side by side, an undefeated season in the Sun Belt won't carry the weight a one loss SEC season will.
Most of the time this is fine. Most of the time, the top four teams will come from the Power 5. But not every time. When we're comparing resumes, we aren't really comparing football teams. The only way to compare football teams is to play it out on the field. To which point, there are enough G5 upsets throughout September and the Bowl Season to warrant the inclusion of the G5 elite in some capacity. Yet, the Group of 5 is currently institutionally blackballed from the College Football Playoff.
This should make you, the college football fan, very angry! You are being cheated out of what has kept you glued to your television all weekend. The beauty of March Madness, the NCAA basketball championship tournament, is the narrative. You're not rooting for teams, you're rooting for Underdog vs Favorite; or Coach and His Son vs. Walk-on Uber Driver.
Furthermore, these narratives are prepackaged and ready for mass consumption. Broadcasters have done the work for us fans by putting little numbers next to each team, we don't even need to read what school is playing.
"Oh look! its #13 v #4! And #13 is winning! Go 13!"
Neutral fans gravitate towards the underdog. Casual fans gravitate toward the underdog. Moms gravitate toward the underdog. Wouldn't college football be fun with underdogs, too?
The inaugural CFB Playoff championship was won by its lowest seed. The underdog, if you will. Yet, somehow, I don't think the nation was moved to tears by Urban Meyer's third National Championship. Georgia State's Hunter family? A different story.
The aesthetic appeal of a cinderella run is obvious, but emotional pull created by a G5 school in the playoff isn't enough to warrant them a spot in the football Final Four. What is enough to warrant a spot in the playoff is an undefeated season.
If we're going to call all 125 schools "Division 1 FBS", and if the champion of the playoff is going to be crowned 'best in Division 1 FBS', all 125 schools must have a reasonable expectation to make it into that playoff and compete for the championship.
An undefeated season by a G5 school (or really, any school) ought to earn an automatic bid. Otherwise, what are we even doing here? If this isn't the case, we need to cut the division in half and let the haves and have nots compete for their own titles.
Option 1: Copy the NFL's playoff model.
A committee selects 6 teams instead of the current 4. The top two teams will get automatic byes into the semi-finals. Seeds 3-6 play in a "wild card round." Should a G5 school go undefeated, they earn a bid. Otherwise, the top 6 schools are selected based on committee evaluation.
Option 2: Copy NCAA Basketball's play-in game.
Instead of selecting 4 teams, the committee selects 5. Seeds 4 and 5 play in a 'play-in' game to earn a spot in the semi finals. Again, should a G5 school go undefeated, they would earn the 5 seed. Otherwise, the top 5 schools are selected by committee evaluation.
Neither option upsets the apple cart entirely. We are maintaining the integrity of the regular season at the Power 5 level, and encouraging them to continue to schedule up. G5 schools such a Boise State and Georgia Southern would be discouraged from playing Power 5's in September, but these games are going to become less frequent as the incentive from the Power 5 side disappears.
And what happens if two G5 schools go undefeated? Great question. But instead of seeing this as a problem, G5 commissioners would be smart to see it as an opportunity get creative. Selecting the winner of the automatic bid can be handled through a super-conference championship game, a Group of 5 committee, or on away goals, just so long as that team is undefeated.
This should not be ground breaking or controversial, particularly in the shadow of March Madness. If Arizona can beat Oregon, Boise State can beat Arizona, and all three teams are in the same "Division," then surely all three teams should have an opportunity to play for the same championship.