Northern Illinois athletic directory Sean Frazier made some waves last week when he told ESPN that the “Group of Five” conferences (MAC, Conference USA, American, Sun Belt, Mountain West) should set up their own playoff system. Frazier proposed an eight-team bracket. The idea was denounced by commissioners from Frazier’s own Mid-American Conference, along with the American hierarchy. But I think Frazier is on to something and the Group of Five (hence referred to as “G5”) needs to take his words to heart.
Frazier is willing to say what to many of us is obvious—that the G5 teams have no shot at making the College Football Playoff. Western Michigan, the G5 representative in the Cotton Bowl, went undefeated this year and finished #15 in the final committee rankings.
Moreover, there is nothing the G5 can do. Even if Western Michigan beats Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl set to kick off in a few hours—and I think they’ve got a real shot—it isn’t going to change the minds of the college football establishment. Did it change anyone’s mind when Houston beat Florida State decisively in last year’s Peach Bowl? Or the year before when Boise State knocked off Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl? Or when TCU, then in the Mountain West, beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl in 2010? Or when Boise stunned the world in 2006 when they upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl?
The simple fact is that as long as the predominant line of thinking is that the Playoff must produce “the four best teams”, G5 schools are going to be left out in the cold. They don’t recruit the same level of talent as their Power Five (P5) counterparts. If you want to tell me there are at least 20 other teams in the P5 better than Western Michigan this season, I really don’t consider that an unrealistic statement.
I want to be clear in something—I like the G5. I love watching the MAC in particular and have come to thoroughly enjoy Tuesday and Wednesday nights in November when they get a national stage. Living in southeastern Wisconsin, I’ve made a couple trips to DeKalb in recent years to watch Northern Illinois. If I were choosing the four-team Playoff, Western Michigan would have been in and playing Alabama on New Year’s Eve.
But that’s because I believe the Playoff should be about who has earned the opportunity. As noted, it’s well possible WMU might not truly be a Top 20 team in the P5. But maybe they would be. To me, that’s what a national playoff is about—to find out just how good teams really are when they step outside their neighborhood. Until the College Football Playoff Committee adopts this line of thinking, that phrase “get the four best teams” is going to be code for taking the teams with the 4-star and 5-star recruits up and down their roster.
Sean Frazier is in tune with reality. Right now, the G5 is settling for one major bowl bid to be shared among five conferences, plus BYU. The G5 is treated like a separate level of college football—and in all honesty, it probably is. It’s also a level of football that’s a lot of fun. Let them play for their own championship.