SEC commissioner explains why Group of Five should 'be careful' about playoff idea
A second playoff for a lower-tier college football championship may be a slippery slope
ATLANTA -- SEC commissioner Greg Sankey urged advocates for a Group of Five college football playoff to "be careful" about an idea that could dramatically change NCAA divisions.
ESPN reported last week that a "growing number" of Group of Five officials favor adding a playoff specifically for those non-Power Five teams. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier told ESPN he believes a Group of Five playoff could be financially rewarding to those schools, and the article said NBC, CBS and ESPN have interest in such a playoff.
"There's been no one that has talked to me about that idea," Sankey said Saturday from the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Peach Bowl. "I don't want to overreact and say this is a hardened concept. That's not something that would be adopted in a vacuum. There would be a full conversation among all 10 [FBS] conferences. I would urge caution before people just run down that road. I'm not one who thinks we just add this on and life goes on as it is."
Right now, the highest-ranked Group of Five champion is under contract to play in the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowl through the 2025 regular season. There's little hope of the Group of Five champion ever reaching the College Football Playoff. Given its nonconference schedule, Houston would have been in the playoff conversation in 2016 by going undefeated, but the Cougars lost three conference games.
The ESPN article quoted an anonymous Group of Five official as saying, "As long as the financial agreement that currently exists with the CFB Playoff remains and we had the opportunity to package a Group of Five championship, why wouldn't we do it?"
Of course, the opposite question could be asked by the Power Five: If the Group of Five stages its own playoff, why would the Power Five keep them in the CFP? These are the same schools that during the Bowl Championship Series era only gave non-BCS schools a lucrative bowl spot due to antitrust legal threats.
How could the best Group of Five champion be in the CFP and the Group of Five playoff? What would the value of a standalone playoff be for Group of Five schools in relation to possibly losing their CFP share?
"We have separate subdivisions in football," Sankey said. "If institutions want to access a different championship level than afforded now, that's why I think there should be great care before we should adopt it."
If you play these logical questions out even further, there's also this: Why would Power Five teams continue to schedule Group of Five teams in the regular season or bowl games? Alabama coach Nick Saban has been saying for a while he prefers the Power Five play only itself.
The financial gap continues to grow between the haves and have-nots in college football. Some people think a Group of Five playoff would render those teams to be viewed as junior varsity. Others say it would simply reflect the reality of what's already happened.
Consider the cases of this year's two undefeated FBS teams. Alabama will play for the national championship after generating $149 million in athletic revenue during 2014-15. Western Michigan, which gets a spot in the Cotton Bowl as the top Group of Five champion, had $35 million in revenue during 2014-15 and no chance of making the playoff from the start of the year.
According to the USA Today salary database for 2014-15, the wealthiest Group of Five school was Connecticut ($72 million in revenue). That ranked UConn 48th nationally and $120 million behind No. 1 Texas A&M.
On average, athletic departments at public Group of Five universities get 57.5 percent of their revenue from public subsidies (student fees, direct and indirect institutional support, and state money). Athletic departments at public Power Five schools are subsidized at a rate of 5.3 percent.
During a Knight Commission meeting in October, former Tulane president Scott Cowen said "the entire ship is sinking" in college sports because increasing athletic costs are unsustainable for many universities. Cowen led the charge against the BCS for years, arguing that it excluded nonmembers from the big-money bowls and damaged their ability to build a fan base.
"Will [college sports] sink in five years or 10 years or 15 years? I don't know," Cowen said in October. "Where do you think this is all headed? Because I would suggest it's not headed in a good place for every one of us regardless. So do we just wait until we retire so it's the next person's [problem], or is there some ground-breaking solution we should be thinking about that would really change the dialogue on this thing and make it substantially different?"
Many people in college sports believe it's inevitable there will eventually be a split. In a way, there already is. The Power Five was granted autonomy a couple years ago to create some NCAA rules (such as cost of attendance stipends) that benefit athletes.
Autonomy occurred because of legal challenges and since Power Five schools have more money to spend. Other Division I schools are allowed -- but not required -- to provide those benefits. That has created an arms race, of sorts, for non-Power Five schools to pick and choose which sports to provide more benefits for athletes in order to recruit them.
If there are no Power Five vs. Group of Five football games, what would it mean to the Group of Five conferences' future television deals? For instance, one of the highest-rated games involving an American Athletic Conference team this year was Tulsa against Ohio State.
What would happen to budgets for those Group of Five teams that rely heavily on playing Power Five teams in the regular season and bowl games? If there's a separate national championship, why would Power Five vs. Group of Five bowl games exist, such as this year's schedule of Wisconsin-Western Michigan, Mississippi State-Miami (Ohio), Wake Forest-Temple, Baylor-Boise State and South Carolina-South Florida?
"Well, we're down a road there that I think is too far," Sankey said when asked if the Power Five would stop scheduling Group of Five teams. "I've seen [AAC commissioner] Mike Aresco say adamantly we're not interested. I've seen others say the same. That's why I would urge those who are advocates to be careful."
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck slammed the idea of a separate playoff.
"I absolutely love the way the Group of Five and the Power Five coincide and mix," Fleck said at a Cotton Bowl news conference. "Just because one AD makes a statement like that doesn't mean that the whole conference feels that way, because I don't feel that way at all. One person speaking for the Group of Five or the Mid-American Conference is now how we feel whatsoever. I don't speak for everybody else, but I know us, [we] are not in favor of this Group of Five national championship. I think that's ridiculous."
On the other hand, good luck seeing a Group of Five team ever compete for the CFP National Championship. Western Michigan went undefeated and finished No. 15 in the final CFP Rankings due to a weaker strength of schedule compared to Power Five teams.
"There is absolutely no ability for us [teams in the Group of Five] to be in that national title conversation," Frazier told ESPN. "That's just reality. Anyone that says we can: That's a flat-out lie."
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