The CFP and the Demise of the Cinderella Story
The creation of the College Football Playoff (CFP) was hailed by many, including myself, as a fantastic decision. Among the many reasons why the playoff was lauded was the notion that it would widen the access to the National Championship. Fans of Boise State — as well as other “Group of 5” teams — cheered the decision on the basis that the Broncos would now only have to finish as one of the top four teams — as opposed to one of the top two.
However, since the CFP came into existence, they and the other G5 teams have paradoxically seen their chances of competing for a National Championship diminish. Since the presence of two additional spots should increase the likelihood of a cinderella team earning the chance to play for a title, this new reality seems somewhat counterintuitive. That said, there are in fact a myriad of factors that account for this paradox.
In the BCS era, Utah (2004, 2008), Boise State (2006, 2009), and TCU (2009, 2010) were all undefeated regular season conference champions that were ranked in the top 8 before the bowl games, and who finished the year undefeated (except for 2009 TCU who lost to Boise in the Fiesta Bowl). Although the 2009 & 2010 TCU teams were the only ones ranked in the top four before the bowl games, the others were all ranked respectably. This, of course, has not been repeated in the CFP era. Undefeated teams like Western Michigan (2016) and UCF (2017) peaked at #15 and #12, respectively, and the future doesn’t look any brighter for the have-nots.
Why, then, have the “have-nots” started to suffer in the rankings? There are several reasons. First, two of the three teams mentioned earlier — Utah and TCU — no longer reside in their previous non-AQ conference, the Mountain West Conference.
Thus, the pool of available teams from the G5 that would potentially have the talent, coaching ability, resources to pull a miracle, and earn a CFP berth, has shrank. Second, the BCS rankings were based on computer formulas & polls that seemed to favor the fewest number of losses.
Conversely, the CFP committee places more emphasis on additional factors, including strength of schedule. In direct contrast to the BCS rankings, the committee has shown that it has no problem ranking one team ahead of another despite having more losses — something that stands in stark contrast to the BCS rankings. While I fully agree with this method of analysis, it has the effect of disadvantaging G5 teams who generally play weaker schedules.
Increasing revenue disparities
But most importantly, the increased amount of money the CFP has injected into college football has diminished the chances of a G5 team making a serious push for a National Championship. In 2013, the last year of the BCS, the payouts were ~ $28 million each for the six AQ conferences, with the four non-AQ conferences splitting ~ $13 million. Note that the Big East, which essentially turned into the American Athletic Conference, was an AQ conference under the BCS but is now considered a G5 conference in the CFP era. For this year, each Power 5 conference will receive ~ $54 million (not including any extra payments based on CFP semifinal berths) while the G5 conferences will split ~$81 million amongst themselves.
The existing revenue disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, accelerated by the creation of the CFP, is harming G5 teams in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is the physical resources provided for the players, as Power 5 schools make extravagant purchases on things such as slides, miniature golf courses, barbershops, and movie theaters which G5 schools clearly cannot afford. Thus, the ability to attract talent to G5 schools has become even more difficult as their available resources have effectively diminished, relative to their Power 5 peers.
The second, and perhaps less obvious, reason is that this great influx of money has rapidly escalated coaching salaries at the Power 5 schools. This has, in turn, caused the best G5 coaches to leave their schools at a much quicker rate than in the past. The hottest G5 coaching candidates the last two years, Tom Herman and Scott Frost, each left for big-time Power 5 jobs after being head coaches for only two years. The increasing amounts of money that Power 5 schools now have at their disposal for coaching hires means that the “stepping stone” aspect of G5 jobs will only accelerate. There’s almost no reason for an aspiring head coach to stay at a school where he will make 25-50% of what he could make at a larger Power 5 job, while simultaneously having no chance of competing for a National Championship.
It seems clear that this is the single biggest reason why the CFP has decreased the chances of a G5 team earning a playoff berth. Related to this, both Boise & TCU both benefitted from a reputation that was built up over several years in advance of their spectacular seasons, and, more importantly, from established coaching staffs that were in place for years. Although 2006 was Chris Petersen’s first year as the Head Coach at Boise State, he had been with the team as the Offensive Coordinator since 2001. Gary Patterson, similarly, has been the Head Coach at TCU since 2000 and started there in 1998 as Defensive Coordinator. Thus, situations where a top-level coach will stay at a G5 school for enough time to build up the program’s reputation — and schedule to the point that they could possibly compete for a CFP berth — seem rarer and rarer.
Although the creation of the CFP has been widely hailed as an excellent decision that greatly improved the sport of college football, it has exacted a negative impact on G5 teams in terms of their access to the CFP itself. Sure, these teams have profited immensely from extra television revenue, but that same revenue has also caused Power 5 teams to come after their coaches with larger contracts much more frequently. While the CFP does guarantee one G5 team a berth in one of the New Year’s 6 bowls regardless of ranking, which is a vast improvement over the BCS, the ultimate goal of playing for a National Championship has unfortunately slipped further and further away from the game’s have-nots.