There was a time when independent schools ruled college football. Less than three decades ago, before television money had escalated the stakes, the national championship was regularly hauled in by a school striking out on its own. In every year during the 1980s, at least one independent school ranked in the top five of the final AP poll. Miami, Florida State, Penn State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, East Carolina, Notre Dame, and Boston College were all powerhouses without a league during this period of college football history.
Then several factors led to the rapid diminution of the field of independent schools and the proliferation of conference affiliation. First, the decision by the Big East to sponsor football in 1991 brought together eight of the 25 schools that had been operating as independents, immediately creating a new power conference to challenge the established leagues. Second, the SEC’s creation of divisions and a championship game in 1992 raised the financial incentives that came with conference membership.
By the dawn of the BCS in 1998, only eight schools were operating as independents. The designation had become the provenance of the Fighting Irish and a slew of smaller schools transitioning to the I-A level. The MAC and the WAC both expanded to form divisions, the former bringing together a dozen smaller Midwestern schools and the latter taking an ill-fated chance on creating the first superconference in college football. The Big 8 and Southwest Conferences had vanished, merging together into the new Big 12.
The BCS era created a clear divide in the sand among I-A football teams. Membership in one of the six automatic-qualifying conferences conferred upon a team a cachet that even the strongest schools outside the power structure could ever hope to enjoy themselves. Membership in the right league yielded the college football equivalent of champagne wishes and caviar dreams; falling on the wrong side of the line yielded a perpetual-motion device of diminishing returns.
Yet independent schools persisted through the era. Notre Dame, obviously, held stubbornly on to its status throughout several courtships even as its product backslid on the field. After a seven-year stint in Conference USA, Army withdrew back to independent status alongside fellow service academy Navy. And, most surprisingly, BYU forfeited its membership as a charter member of the Mountain West to strike out on its own in 2011 — the belief being that the Cougars could arrange a stronger schedule to impress pollsters than a MWC that was absorbing the remnants of the WAC could offer.
The enduring popularity of independence has waned in recent years, though it continues to linger on in a select few pockets of the FBS. That could all be changing rapidly with the introduction of the new College Football Playoff.
I talked a bit about this topic a bit in the mid-major power rankings, so if you want to see a longer rant on the subject please click the link. But a few things bear mentioning before we start looking at the status of the four independent schools entering the College Football Playoff Era:
- There is no automatic stipulation for independent schools in the framework of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s guidelines. The Group of Five (mid-major, BCS Buster, Little Sisters of the Poor, call them what you wish) conferences have the benefit of at least being guaranteed one of the dozen spots in a CFP-affiliated bowl each year. In the CFP era, merit ostensibly will factor into the equation when the panel of 13 selectors deliberates. But independence could soon enough be an anachronism that fades into the recesses of football history.
- Not all independents are created equal. Notre Dame is always going to have a spot at the table of blueblood schools, and its alliance with the ACC only bolsters the claims of the Irish to inclusion. Navy will become a member of the AAC in 2015. That will leave only an odd couple, a service academy and a religious institution, to shoulder the burden of independence. Though both are former national champions and boast Heisman winners among their alumni, neither Army nor BYU will garner the respect one would anticipate for schools of their pedigree.
- The ongoing discussions about autonomy for the power conferences and the movement for player rights over their likenesses and the money it creates will only serve to muddle the position of independents further. Notre Dame’s quasi-affiliation with the ACC is likely to increase rather than decrease over time in the era soon to commence. If and when that domino topples, one could easily envision a case where BYU has either played its way into a league like the Pac-12 or Big 12, or has regressed and is forced to slink back to the Mountain West. Army was previously a Conference USA member and would almost certainly be welcomed back into that ever-morphing loop.
Those things said, the independent teams do still exist, even if it is in an ill-defined holding pattern at the FBS level where they are neither offered nor guaranteed a damn thing. So let’s look at these schools and rate their various chances of forcing the CFP selection committee’s hand in 2014 and garnering one of the lucrative bids to a big-time bowl game.