Playoff is a problem for the little guys

Originally Published: August 15, 2014
By Andrea Adelson | ESPN.com

Boise State worked its way into college football lore with a little bit of trickery and a whole lot of gumption, pulling an upset for the ages over Oklahoma to start 2007 and completing a perfect 13-0 season in the process.

At the time, the Broncos were the lovable upstarts, the plucky underdogs nobody really knew much about. They were Butler before Butler.

Only, Boise State did not take all the love and walk quietly out the door. Boise State kept winning and winning, threatening to disrupt a BCS system that rewarded teams from only the biggest, most powerful conferences with national championship game appearances.

Over a few short years, Boise State became the most polarizing team in college football. Lines were drawn: You were either for the little guys from the smaller conferences, or you raged against them. There was no room to appreciate their style of play or the talent assembled nor the hard work and preparation necessary to actually go undefeated.

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Steve Grayson/WireImageIan Johnson's two-point conversion run in overtime propelled Boise State over heavily favored Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

There was no more room to embrace Boise State. But there was plenty of room to try to tear the Broncos down. Arguments erupted about their weak schedule, the pitiful WAC and how they would never survive in a tougher league.

Utah (2004) and TCU (2009), playing outside the Power Five in that era, also made BCS bowl games and won. But those programs never got the same vitriol of Boise State. In fact, those programs cashed in on their Mountain West and BCS success, earning safe harbor into the Power Five.

Boise State did not. So where does that leave the Broncos and all their small-conference brethren now that the College Football Playoff era begins?

Almost assuredly, out of the mix.

Again.

Is it any coincidence the College Football Playoff selection committee will put a premium on strength of schedule? All those knocks against Boise State in the BCS era will be magnified and scrutinized in a much bigger way now.

That criterion makes it feel as if half the programs in college football are completely disqualified from playoff contention before the season even begins. There are only 64 tickets into Power Five conferences at this time. Add into the mix the recent autonomy ruling, another striking blow to the Group of Five (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt), and a clear message has been sent.

Those in power are trying to permanently stack the deck in their favor. Yet those on the outside maintain hope. Because without hope, there is no real way to believe in a system that, in the words of San Diego State coach Rocky Long, makes it "almost impossible" for the little guy to hold up a championship trophy in January.

"One of our coaches said it best -- we've been out-housed, out-clothed and out-fed for a long time, but we've won bowl games, we've won regular-season games and we're playing these guys from the [power] five 20 times a year," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. "It's up to us, then, to win those games and achieve and build our résumé."

Thompson, who presented an eight-team playoff proposal -- that was ultimately denied -- to his fellow commissioners in 2009, said he believes expanding the field gives his teams the best chance at getting into a national championship game. He has a point. Under the BCS system, no unbeaten team outside the Power Five ever finished in the top two. Four spots create two more opportunities.

"I will say that my feeling is that those teams have a better opportunity through the playoff," said Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff's executive director. "For one thing, there's two more slots available. For another, they'll be considered by a committee of human beings that will know every detail about all the teams."

But how likely are those two extra opportunities to go to an unbeaten team from the Mountain West or American or Sun Belt or MAC? BYU, even? Between 2004 and 2013, eight teams from non-automatic-qualifying conferences went unbeaten. Only TCU finished in the BCS top four, in both 2009 and 2010. Cincinnati, now outside the Power Five structure, finished No. 3 in 2009.

"We're going to be in the conversation. Will we be selected? I can't answer that," Thompson said.

Forget being in the conversation. That almost sounds like a concession. Doesn't an unbeaten team deserve to be in a playoff?

"The point of all this is to go out and win every single game," Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. "If you do that, you've accomplished something really special. In order to be rewarded for that, here's an opportunity to go out there and win the whole thing. If it's not that way, if you've got one-loss teams making their way in there and so on, we're giving everybody a mulligan."

We can look back at 2009 for a perfect case study. Five teams finished the regular season unbeaten: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State. Thanks to a weak conference schedule, Boise State finished No. 6 in the BCS standings behind a one-loss Florida team. Cincinnati came in at No. 3. TCU came in at No. 4.

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AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCollege Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock (left) said teams outside the Power Five have a better chance at playing for a national championship than they did in the BCS.

If the same scenario unfolded this season, it seems highly unlikely Cincinnati or Boise State would finish in the top four based on conference affiliation alone. TCU, now in the Big 12, would almost assuredly be in the playoff. But back in 2009, its chances would have been dicey with 12-1 Tim Tebow-led Florida right behind.

"The conversation for us is the 12-0 Boise State or the 11-1 Florida. What about the 12-0 Michigan State and the 11-1 Florida?" Thompson said. "There's going to be some tough calls for the committee."

What remains nebulous is how strength of schedule will be judged. Teams like Boise State must prove themselves with challenging nonconference schedules. The Broncos have not shied away from challenges, having beaten Oregon, Georgia and Virginia Tech over the past five seasons. They already have future games set with Washington, Oregon State, Florida State, Michigan State and Oklahoma State. This year, they open against Ole Miss in Atlanta.

The question then becomes, how tough does a team outside the Power Five make its nonconference schedule to impress the committee? Fresno State, for example, opens the season at USC, at Utah, then at home against Nebraska. If the Bulldogs win those and run the table in the Mountain West, will that be enough? Does overscheduling even matter when the conference schedule does not measure up?

"People are still waiting to see how they define strength of schedule," Boise State athletic director Mark Coyle said. "Does that vary year to year? You can have a schedule set for four, five years out and a team may look like they're going to be an asset to your schedule and then they may go through a difficult period where their strength of schedule is not so good. So it still has to be defined. It's amazing there's so many questions about this College Football Playoff and we haven't played a season yet. We'll know more as we go through the process."

At the very least, the Group of Five does not have to hit certain benchmarks to make one of the elite bowl games, the way it had to in the BCS era. Now, the highest-ranked champion among them is guaranteed a spot in one of the six access bowls.

"Their access into one of the top-tier bowl games is much better than before because in the BCS, they had to meet a threshold. Here, their champion does not have to meet a threshold," Hancock said. "They have a guaranteed spot in either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowl that they never had before."

Although that can be classified as progress, teams in the American, MAC and Mountain West have made those games in the past. True progress would be making it into a playoff.

"If we do what we're supposed to do, which is win your games and play the right type of schedule, hopefully you're a part of that conversation, you're a part of that playoff system," Coyle said.

Hopefully.

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