1. Cupcake Games Could Be Hazardous to Your (CFP) Health
Now, though, we can’t even be certain how the 13-person selection committee will come to its decisions about which teams play in which of the six bowl games that will have rotating importance in the structure of the new (college football) world order. One thing that has been reiterated, though, is the fact that strength of schedule is going to play a certain role in how teams are selected for both the four-team playoff and the other four bowl games. When that becomes the case, merely winning a game will not be nearly as important as who you beat.
Cupcake games have always been a part of college football, and they aren’t about to go completely out the window. But imagine the furor that will arise when, say, a two-loss SEC champion misses out on a top-four slating thanks to playing a non-conference schedule similar to what Alabama will face in 2014: West Virginia at the Georgia Dome in the season opener, and home games against Florida Atlantic, Southern Mississippi, and FCS Western Carolina.
The I-AA school will almost certainly be the first to go; though at the same time a game against schools like North Dakota State and Eastern Illinois are as good for your computer rankings as beating the bottom of the Conference USA or Sun Belt barrel and cost a whole lot less to bring to your backyard. The next to go would be either FAU or Southern Miss, either for a ninth SEC opponent or another cross-conference game against one of the other four AQ conferences. After all, the almost-certain reward of beating a team like the Golden Eagles is far worse than the small-but-still-existent risk of losing to a mid-major.
2. A Dearth of Challenges Could Deepen the Have/Have-Not Divide
With fewer opportunities against the beloved collegiate teams in their states and regions, mid-major teams will have a harder time recruiting the types of players that have fueled the ascent of BCS Busters over the last 14 years. The advent of wall-to-wall television coverage of the sport, coupled with scholarship limits, has opened the door for smaller schools to recruit some of these overlooked players as well as those that would be hidden for a year or two on the rosters of powerhouse programs.
Part of that ability to (somewhat) level the balance of talent has been predicated on those litmus tests against better-known teams. Take away those opportunities, and the impetus for talented recruits to flow toward tinier schools will be staved by the lack of exposure in big-time settings. Certain kids will still fall through the cracks. In general, however, the chasm between the whales and the minnows will only intensify.
3. The Widening Talent Gap Could Reduce Readiness for Cinderella Bid Winner…
Even when a mid-major school does land a diamond in the rough like Kellen Moore or Jordan Lynch, these programs will have less opportunity to offer elite competition to test and build experience to complement that talent. This will take two forms:
- First, the reduced talent pool will make ever conference opponent a less-formidable challenge than it otherwise might have been. Two- and three-star recruits will become one- and two-star recruits, and with the increased furor over concussions even those players could be less readily available in the near future. As the sheer quantity of talent available thins, and the money available for football programs continues to escalate, those with the most money will gain a larger share of the top players than even now.
- Second, because it is not only possible but plausible that fewer powerhouse schools will schedule games against mid-major competition in the new system, there will be fewer of those opportunities to forge a team’s mettle against top-tier opponents. When the schedule is exclusively made up of teams like New Mexico State and Idaho, which have already received one stay of execution at the FBS level, losing that opportunity against LSU or Alabama makes a team that much less ready for bowl season.
4. … but it Might Not Matter Anyway Given the Nature of Matchups
Even accounting for the fact that there is now an automatic berth available annually for at least one mid-major program, the system could theoretically offer fewer legitimate opportunities to open eyes across the country. This is due to the fact that the affiliations for the other four non-championship bowls in a given season will make it increasingly difficult for a Cinderella squad to get a matchup against a truly high-end opponent.
- Rose Bowl — Big Ten #1 vs. Pac-12 #1
- Sugar Bowl — SEC #1 vs. Big 12 #1
- Orange Bowl — ACC #1 vs. SEC #2, Big Ten #2, or Notre Dame
- Peach Bowl — at-large or “Group of Five”
- Cotton Bowl — at-large or “Group of Five”
- Fiesta Bowl — at-large or “Group of Five”
Looking at that list, a few things become obvious. First, so long to playing in the most famous bowl games; of the games that featured in the BCS era, only the Fiesta Bowl — the youngest of the four BCS bowls by a wide margin, having formed in the 1970s as a home bowl for the now-defunct WAC — is still available as a destination. Added to the mix are the Peach Bowl in Atlanta and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, but those destinations are hardly Pasadena or Miami in terms of bowl prestige.
Further, the opponents available are going to be far less formidable than they have been at other points in the BCS era. That iconic moment in 2006 when Boise State knocked off Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl would never have happened; instead, the affiliations show the Sooners playing Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.
So who would the Broncos have faced? It is highly likely that, under the new system, they would have squared off against a team like Louisville, Wake Forest, or Rutgers — far less prestigious than the Big 12 dynamo. The expansion of the affiliated bowls will mean a dilution of the teams available to play that “Group of Five” bid winner, and it is far more likely that the mid-major champion will receive the weakest opponent of the available selections and still be less prepared to play that team than they would have been under the BCS system.
5. Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Spiraling into Obsolescence
Ultimately, the aforementioned issues could all be byproducts of the College Football Playoff system. And once the snowball starts rolling down the mountain for mid-major teams, it is going to be even more difficult to arrest the momentum downward.
Fewer games against top teams will beget weaker recruiting classes will beget a reduced state of readiness for big games and lead selectors to insert mid-majors into the weakest of the elite bowl pairings. Playing a less prestigious partner in the bowl game will start the cycle anew, making other powerhouses shy away from scheduling contests and other recruits shy away from attending and other selectors shy away from designing marquee bowl matchups around even the best of mid-majors.
Ultimately it could result in the splinter of the top teams into an even more elite pocket of Division I football, relegating mid-majors to a second-tier status or even facilitating the swelling of the FCS ranks as teams become less sustainable under the College Football Playoff.
Perhaps these are just doomsday scenarios, and we are on the cusp of a golden era for mid-majors. Perhaps the College Football Playoff will provide the access for a team like Utah or TCU or Boise State. But here’s the rub… those teams that demonstrate continued excellence at the mid-major level are increasingly being swooped up by power conferences.
Neither the Utes nor the Horned Frogs are in the Mountain West any more. Boise State just lost the best coach in school history and plays in a league where the above issues are already playing out in the form of expansion; now, instead of Utah and TCU and BYU as challengers in the Mountain West, the Broncos play teams like Utah State and San Jose State and Nevada. In general, the former group is going to garner far more notice from the casual football-watching public than the latter.
And the signs point to an increased gulf between the top five leagues and the bottom five leagues. The money is flowing upward, and a token access point is going to do little to increase the legitimacy of the mid-major ranks. While there is little to lament about the end of the BCS era, we might just be looking back in a couple of decades and recognizing this paradigm shift in the way we select national champions as the demise of the Cinderella story in college football.