Patrick Magee

Is separate Group of 5 playoff a realistic option?

Southern Miss defensive end Xavier Thigpen sacks Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Kluge at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg on Nov. 5.
Southern Miss defensive end Xavier Thigpen sacks Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Kluge at M. M. Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg on Nov. 5. ttisbell@sunherald.com

With the growing financial disparity between the Power 5 and the Group of 5, mid-major athletic directors are showing increased anxiety over the fate of their football programs.

The most recent sign of that fretting came on Thursday in an ESPN.com piece. The headline for Brett McMurphy's article is: “Group of 5 officials considering playoff for non-Power 5 teams.”

Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier was the most vocal in support of the new playoff.

“It's time to have a realistic conversation about creating a playoff for the Group of 5. Why not?,” Frazier was quoted as saying in the story.

The Power 5 conferences are made up of your typical powerhouse programs: SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and the Big Ten.

The Group of 5 conferences are made up of programs with fewer resources: Conference USA, Sun Belt, MAC, Mountain West and the American Athletic Conference.

Frazier wants an eight-team playoff made up of the Group of 5 conference champions and three at-large squads.

McMurphy's story does a good job of laying out the hurdles for such a playoff, including the fact that the top Group of 5 team is currently under contract to compete in a New Year's 6 bowl through the 2025 season. This year's top Group of 5 team is Western Michigan, which is undefeated at 13-0 and set to play Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

Eight-team playoff

It's reasonable to have a discussion, but the idea that a Group of 5 playoff is feasible prior to 2026 seems seems a little off. It's hard to see a team like Western Michigan turning down an opportunity to compete in the Cotton Bowl to participate in a new playoff.

If the top Group of 5 team is not involved in the playoff, it amounts to football's version of the NIT.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said this month that he supports expanding the current four-team playoff to eight. That would involve the champions from the five power conferences and three at-large bids.

If the playoff eventually expands to eight (which seems likely), the idea of a separate Group of 5 playoff doesn't have much traction.

In my opinion, there should be an eight-team College Football Playoff featuring the champions of the five power conferences (as long as they are ranked among the top 25 teams), two at-large bids and an automatic bid to the highest-ranked Group of 5 squad.

The idea of a G5 automatic bid seems unlikely to get support among the Power 5 conferences, but there needs to be some role in an eight-team College Football Playoff for the Group of 5.

Imagine basketball's NCAA Tournament without participation from mid-major conferences. There would be no memorable moments from programs like Butler, Valparaiso, Florida Gulf Coast or George Mason.

While a four-team playoff squeezes out the smaller programs, an eight-team field leaves room for at least one Group of 5 program. When you add an underdog, you add the potential of drama.

While the money gap is wide between the Group of 5 and the Power 5, the difference on the field isn't as dramatic as most would like to think.

Troy, which finished tied for second in the Sun Belt, fell 30-24 at Clemson on Sept. 10 in a game that could have easily gone the other direction. Clemson is the No. 2 seed in this year's College Football Playoff and set to play No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday.

A tough sell

Plenty of Group of 5 officials pushed back on the idea of a playoff in McMurphy's story, including AAC commissioner Mike Aresco.

You get the idea that Frazier is among a minority of Group of 5 officials, but outgoing USM athletic director Bill McGillis also sees some potential in a Group of 5 playoff.

McGillis likes the idea if the playoff winner gets an automatic bid to a New Year’s 6 bowl and remains eligible for the College Football Playoff. He would be opposed to the playoff if a major bowl bid and the potential of a CFP bid were off the table. He suggests that the Group of 5 conferences could eliminate conference title games in order to finish the playoff in time for the champion to be ready for a New Year’s 6 bowl bid.

There's the potential of getting a decent TV deal for a Group of 5 playoff. McMurphy listed NBC, CBS as ESPN as potential partners.

Some changes in the Group of 5 could be healthy, including the possibility of some programs following Idaho's lead and dropping down to FCS (I'm looking at you La.-Monroe). There's also a need for realignment in Conference USA and the Sun Belt in order to create something that makes sense geographically.

However, a Group of 5 playoff seems unlikely at the moment.

If 2026 arrives and the situation hasn't improved for the Group of 5, that's when you may significant changes.

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