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Challenges facing successful mid-majors

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Now called G5 programs, mid-majors have always been shunned by mainstream college football. UCF is challenging the perception of these programs, but they’re not the first to run into issues.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - TCU v Boise State Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

UCF is only the most recent school, and fan base, to take up arms against the oligarchy that is college football. Before them came a string of other programs to find that they’re not allowed into the party. Boise State is undoubtedly the most prominent of the group to come before the Knights, and the Broncos find themselves still fighting the good fight to this day.

That fight is long, complicated, and always changing. UCF is now finding that there are tons of challenges along the path to earning respect from the Power 5.

Look at scheduling. This off-season has been exhausting to hear all the arguments for and against UCF’s scheduling policy. Florida publicly said they’d be willing to play a series with UCF. It was two games in Gainesville, and one at a neutral site. In private, they never offered UCF a series. Still, the public jumped on the headline, and discredited UCF over it.

Supposedly, UCF was ducking playing ‘real’ competition. They didn’t want to do it the ‘right way.’ UCF wanted it handed to them, and fans agreed with the narrative. The Knights were the new kids, and didn’t want to work for their success. People said they should act more like Bobby Bowden’s Florida State teams, and play at LSU for five straight seasons.

This ignored some obvious issues. The first is that Florida State was an independent, and not in a conference which was perceived as worse than at least five other conferences. There was also over thirty independent teams in the late 1970s, which made it much easier to fill in a full schedule.

In the modern age of mega conferences, teams only have three or four out of conference games to schedule. For Power 5 schools, why would they schedule a good Group of 5 team? They get credit from voters for their conference games, whether their conference games are challenging or not. By playing a team like UCF, or Boise State they can only get hurt. Winning means nothing, but if you lose then your chances of making the College Football Playoff, or previously a BCS bowl, are shot.

Boise State v Virginia Tech Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images

This means that to get a good game scheduled, the G5 school must make it worthwhile for the P5 school. Typically, this means playing more games at the home of the P5 school, and often never receiving a return game in the series. Boise State has been willing to play some of these games, but have preferred to play neutral site games, which is usually more of a home game for the P5 school. This season they’ll play Florida State in Jacksonville. That’s hardly halfway between Boise and Tallahassee.

UCF has preferred not to schedule like this. Instead, UCF AD Danny White has a fairly strict policy. He wants to schedule two P5s a season, one other G5, and a FCS opponent. The FCS team will only play at UCF, but every FBS school UCF will look to play an even series against. There’s two main reasons for this. This first is that UCF wants to play ‘equable series’ against everyone. If everyone is FBS, then they should give the same level of respect to one another.

Cincinnati v Central Florida Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

More importantly, UCF can’t afford to give up home games to P5 schools. Under their current media deal, UCF makes $2 million a year. Under their new media deal, which begins next season, they’ll make closer to $7 million. Overall, the AAC makes significantly more than any other G5 conference in their media deal. Boise State, who receives $1.8 million more than other Mountain West schools, will be blown away by the new media deal coming to the AAC.

Still, UCF estimates that a home game is worth $2 million to them. That’s considering ticket sales revenue, advertising, and everything else that comes with hosting a football game. That means they double their media revenue with every single home game. G5 schools can’t afford to give up that much revenue.

That’s why UCF stays away from playing a series against Florida, but schedules a home and home with FIU.

UCF’s rival, USF, has taken the opposite policy. They’ve managed to get deals with teams like Florida, Miami, and Alabama to come to their rented stadium. This had added another layer of complexity to the scheduling struggle for UCF. Detractors are saying, ‘If your in-state, conference rival does it, then you should too.’

The issue, however, is that UCF and USF are in completely different positions. UCF is playing to sold out games, while USF struggles with attendance in an off-campus stadium. For USF, the amount of money made off of filling Raymond James Stadium once a year is worth signing up for a likely loss. UCF fills up their stadium regardless of whether they play a major program or a G5 school.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind what really matters. Money. Major programs are just programs that have money. They have money because they have more fans. They have more fans because they’ve been around longer. UCF has only been an FBS program since 1996. If they’d been around longer, UCF would be in a power conference by now. The same can be said of Boise State. They just weren’t around soon enough to get the call up to a power conference.

A school like UCF is like Jay Gatsby. They’re handsome, young, like to have a good time, and are hard to look away from. They also don’t really belong. They were poor, and that’s all the old money oligarchs will see them as, a poor nobody. Now, even though they have money, that isn’t good enough. They’re new money. You’re not really rich, or important, unless you’re also old money.

This is why every great G5 program seems so desperate for the call up to a major conference. Their media deals would explode, often to over $30 million a year. With that money they can build facilities to recruit the same level of high school talent as traditional powers.

Being in a P5 conference also gives programs a realistic shot at winning a national championship. By playing in, say the the Big 12, you automatically have games against Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and whichever other teams happen to be strong any given season. If TCU goes undefeated, they’ll make the College Football Playoff. Two seasons in a row, UCF has proven they won’t make the Playoff after an undefeated season.

It wasn’t that long ago that TCU was a mid-major themselves. When Gary Patterson took over the Horned Frogs they were champions of the WAC. From 2001-2004 TCU finished ranked twice, and only missed a bowl game once. Then, they got the call up to the Mountain West. TCU stayed in the Mountain West from 2005-2011. They finished ranked in the AP top 10 three times. After their undefeated season, and Rose Bowl win, they finished second. One season later, TCU was in the Big 12.

Rose Bowl Game - Wisconsin v TCU Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

TCU’s time in the Mountain West was one of the main reasons that the BCS system was removed, for a playoff system. Too often, the BCS system kept out undefeated teams. It didn’t give programs a fair shot to win a national championship. The 2010 Fiesta Bowl pitted two mid-majors against one another (Boise State and TCU), and didn’t let them show what they could do against a power program. That Boise State team went 14-0, yet they still weren’t given a shot at the BCS Championship Game. TCU’s 13-0 Rose Bowl winning team finished second, behind an Auburn team who was given a chance to win it on the field, unlike the Horned Frogs.

The BCS was always about keeping the money in place. It was never about giving everyone a fair shot, or letting anyone new come to the table. In the 2010 season the power conferences were given $120.5 million more than the non-power conferences.

Government employees in Utah even launched an anti-trust lawsuit against the BCS. They felt Utah deserved a shot at the National Championship after they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They weren’t given a shot at the crystal ball trophy, though. Instead, they got a claimed title, and a lot of legal posturing. Eventually, Utah would leave the Mountain West for the PAC 12, and little issues like Mountain West schools who go undefeated but don’t make the championship game went by the wayside.

That’s why the College Football Playoff came around. So these undefeated teams would have a shot to win it all. That was a lie, however. The CFP hasn’t given G5 programs a chance to win a National Championship. It gives teams like Alabama a chance to win the national championship, without even winning their conference.

Instead of giving a one loss Houston team a shot at a championship, the same way a one loss P5 school almost always gets a chance at the Playoff, they gave them the Peach Bowl. When Houston won the Peach Bowl they gave them a pat on the back, and said ‘Maybe if you’re perfect next season, then we’ll think about giving you a real shot.’ When Western Michigan went undefeated, the selection committee rolled their eyes at the thought of having to let a MAC team into a New Year’s Six game.

No undefeated G5 team has been treated seriously by the rankings since the College Football Playoff’s inception. Under the BCS they’d at least be ranked in the top 10. Now, it seems deliberate that these programs are ranked low intentionally. If chaos happens, they still won’t crack the top four. Former UCF coach Scott Frost said he felt the committee made a “conscious effort” to keep an undefeated UCF team lowly ranked.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - Auburn v Central Florida Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Frost was right. In 2017 an undefeated UCF team was sent to the Peach Bowl. All four teams in the College Football Playoff had lost a game. The eventual winner of the College Football Playoff, Alabama, hadn’t even won their conference. UCF beat Auburn in that Peach Bowl. Auburn was the only team that beat Alabama. Everyone patted UCF on the back and said, ‘Maybe if you’re perfect next season, then we’ll think about giving you a real shot.’

Unlike Houston, UCF didn’t accept that answer. Instead, they shrugged off the pat on the back, and said, ‘No. We are National Champions.’ They got laughed at. Hate for them grew. How dare they say that they won a championship? We have a system in place, so there’d be no controversy, and everyone has a fair shot!

Florida Atlantic at Central Florida Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

Except, UCF simply saw the model as rigged. The CFP didn’t make the championship selection more fair. It actually made it harder to finish ranked in the top 5. That’s why they declared themselves National Champions.

Luckily, for UCF, a recognized selector, the Colley Matrix, agreed with Danny White. Furthermore, the College Football Playoff isn’t run by the NCAA. Instead, the NCAA has a list of groups that they recognize to decide a FBS National Champion. Typically, all those groups agree on the winner of the CFP as National Champion. This time, though, Colley revolted.

Alongside Alabama, the NCAA recognizes UCF as 2017 National Champions. It’s real, and no one can take it away from them. They have it, because they were bold enough to take it. They haven’t tried to play they game, like Boise State has. UCF is willing to be the heel. With that has come criticism, and rewards. They’ve sold out their season ticket allotment for 2019, been to three BCS/New Year’s 6 games, gained notoriety, invited College Gameday to their campus, and they have their National Championship sign on the press box.

UCF was dismissed as demanding a trophy for everything, even if they didn’t earn it. After all, they only won every game, including against the one team to beat the eventual College Football Playoff Champions, Alabama.

Others dismissed UCF as not having enough history of success to be considered a national champion. You know? Because a single season champion needs to have been good in previous seasons too. Otherwise it doesn’t count. That argument ignores 2013, when UCF went 12-1 and beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. It ignores the Knights’ six conference titles since 2007.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Central Florida v Baylor

Oh, and after another undefeated regular season in 2018, it turns out they were never actually going to be invited to the CFP. Instead, they were sent to the Fiesta Bowl.

UCF was the first mid-major to win a National Championship in nearly a decade. One of the early mid-majors to win it all, BYU, did so in 1984. Back then, the Cougars were in the WAC. They managed to go undefeated, including a week 1 win over then #3 Pitt. They got a little help, though. The only traditional power to have 1 loss and no ties, Washington, lost their conference. The number three team, Florida, had a loss and a tie. BYU was the only option for voters when naming a National Champion.

Robbie Bosco - Brigham Young University

Despite getting the help they needed from the Colley Matrix, UCF still lost their head coach following the 2017 season. Scott Frost went to his Alma Mater, Nebraska, to revive the program.

Frost probably would have left for Nebraska no matter what. He’s from Nebraska, they have a great atmosphere, and he won a National Championship as their starting quarterback. It’s a special place to Frost. However, good G5 schools lose their coaches to P5 schools all the time. This is generally for prestige, and money. Again, coaching for an oligarch school means that there’s more fans, and pressure. Winning at the P5 level is how you become recognized as an elite coach.

Look at Utah. Like TCU, they found themselves with a great coach, but on the outside looking into the BCS. Unlike TCU, they lost their coach, Urban Meyer, after going 22-2 in two seasons. It set the Utes backwards. Kyle Whittingham took over the program. He didn’t do terribly, at first, but Utah did go from a top 5 finish to a 7-5 record.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Pittsburgh vs Utah - January 1, 2005 Photo by Gene Lower/Getty Images

Utah had to take a stumble and regain its balance before Whttingham got them firing on all cylinders again. By 2008, Utah went undefeated, won the Sugar Bowl, and finished 2nd in the AP Poll. Utah claimed a National Championship, and were selected as such by the Anderson & Hester rankings which was recognized by the BCS as an official selector. Like UCF, they find themselves in the NCAA record book as National Champions.

Like UCF, Utah would have lost their head coach had it not been for the Utes’ move to the Pac 12. A couple years later, Whittingham was able to get a pay raise, up to $4.1 million a year. Remember, Mountain West teams only make $1.1 million a year on their media deal. Utah could never afford to keep Whittingham if they didn’t move up a conference.

So, UCF, Boise State, Houston, and the rest of the aspiring new money college programs just need to join a new conference to solve all of their problems, right? Of course it isn’t so easy to make the jump.

First, you need to consistently win. Second, you need to have good enough facilities that it wouldn’t be embarrassing for the conference. This includes an on-campus stadium, which you consistently fill, and holds at least 50,000 people. Third, you need to be a geographic fit. Boise State will never be a SEC school due to the travel constraints. Fourth, a conference needs to want to expand.

The Big 12, which is UCF and Houston’s most logical fit, is adamant they don’t feel the need to expand. Why should they expand? They consistently make the CFP, if not two NY6 games. Adding another team or two would simply divide the pot up more than its already split.

The Pac 12 might be feeling pressure to expand, so they can start garnering more respect again. Boise State would make sense for them to add. However, the Pac 12 needs its institutions to meet certain research criteria. Boise State doesn’t reach that criteria yet, though they are working towards it.

The other three P5 conferences are all at 14 teams. It’s, frankly, too many teams already. They’re bloated, and certain teams don’t play one another for years at a time. It’s not right, and they aren’t looking to get any bigger, especially not with a G5 call up. For UCF, the SEC and ACC make the most sense geographically, but everyone knows Florida’s ‘Big 3’ would block them from joining either conference.

Personally, I don’t think conferences will be expanding anytime soon.

So, where does that leave the mid-majors of college football?

In a dog fight. They have to scratch, and claw their way towards respect. They have to build their fan bases, even if it’s hard to convert people who have been longtime fans of another program. It’s going to be a long and slow process.

Boise State is respected as a G5 power, but an undefeated Boise State would never make the CFP. UCF has chosen to be loud, and demand respect. An undefeated UCF would never make the CFP. At least, under the current structure of college football. Both programs are looking to change their playing field by switching conferences. However, only one’s current conference is campaigning to change how it is seen.

The AAC continues to push its ‘Power 6’ narrative. Of course, no one takes this seriously outside of the AAC. Even though they are competitive enough for this claim to have some validity, the stands and TV ratings tell a different story. The tradition isn’t there. The money isn’t there, and won’t be for a very long time.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 28 Missouri at UConn Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now, there’s plenty of people out there who would tell you that it doesn’t matter if a G5 school goes unbeaten. The talent gap is too big. They’re inherently not good enough to keep up with the best P5 teams.

To that, I say, Division 1 was already split for that reason. Originally, it was called Division 1-A, and Division 1-AA. Now, it’s called FBS and FCS. If you say there should be an additional split, fine. However, until another split comes, then all FBS programs should have an equal opportunity to play for a national championship.