Over the next five days, Sporting News will analyze the outlook for the Group of 5 conferences in the new college football landscape. That includes the odds for reaching the four-team playoff, strength of schedule, financial benefits and exposure. We'll even take a crack at what the FBS might look like if the Power 5 and Group of 5 ever split.
Should the Power 5 conferences break away from the Group of 5?
That's the most popular multi-layered question in college football today, but perhaps the question needs to be reversed. Should the Group of 5 (American Athletic Conference, Conference-USA, Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt Conference, Mountain West Conference) split from the Power 5 (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) instead? The Power 5 conferences want autonomy. Strength of schedule is the chic catch-phrase. Alabama coach Nick Saban made his feelings known at the Regions Tradition Pro-Am on May 13.
"If it was totally up to me," Saban said. "I'd say you've got to play all 12 games in the top 5 (conferences)."
SEC commissioner Mike Slive took it a step further with talk of a "Division IV" at the SEC meetings on May 30 if the Power 5 doesn't get that autonomy.
“We don't want to disrupt the championships, even if we went to Division 4," Slive said. "But it would be an alternate to creating autonomy in certain areas. We think the NCAA and college athletics are better served if we all stay together in Division I.”
One-sided agendas like that from college football's most-influential voices makes it clear the Group of 5 — formerly known as non-AQ conferences or BCS busters — is stuck in a dead-end relationship with the Power 5. The dream for the smaller schools is making a Cinderella run to the four-team College Football Playoff. That's an almost-impossible task.
Schools in the Group of 5 for the 2014 season finished 0-35 against ranked Power 5 conference teams in the regular season last year. UCF broke the drought against No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, but that proved the lone exception.
ACC Network analyst Tommy Bowden knows how both sides feel. He coached at Tulane (1997-98) and Clemson (1999-2008). He sees more change coming.
"Twenty years ago there was talk about the top 60 schools breaking off, and step by step that's happening now," Bowden said. "I don't want to say kowtow, but the NCAA is being major-school friendly these days. If the NCAA isn't careful, those five power conferences are going to want to break off. I can definitely see a break in classification coming at the Division I level."
Bowden lived out the end game for a non-BCS school at Tulane in 1998. The Green Wave — led by quarterback Shaun King — finished 11-0 in the regular season, but that was only good for 10th in the BCS standings. Undefeated Tennessee played one-loss Florida State — coached by Tommy's father Bobby — for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl. Tommy, however, held no resentment. Did Tulane have a right to be there?
"When we went undefeated I got asked that question a lot," Bowden said. "I said our strength of schedule simply was not good enough. I'm a big advocate of strength of schedule."
There's that catch-phrase again. Without strength of schedule — or if Saban gets his wish — the Group of 5 might never get that chance at a national championship.
"Realistically looking at it, any team in the (Group of 5) would have to run the table to be in that Top 4," Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth said. "Anybody that thinks otherwise might not be realistic. If you do have one loss, you're going to have to have some wins against some pretty good opponents."
Coming Tuesday: Part II — Running the Table