The 2016-2017 AP preseason college football poll was released last week, and while there are some interesting nuggets throughout the 25 team ranking, one storyline in particular sticks out for fans of the college football middle class.
24 out of the 25 teams ranked by the AP reside in the “Power-Five” conferences. The Power-Five includes the ACC, Big-10, Big 12, SEC and the Pac-12. Meanwhile, there is only one representative from the other five college football conferences, also known as the “Group of Five”, which covers the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, MWC, and the Sun Belt.
The lone Group of Five team in the top twenty-five ranking is the AAC’s Houston. Houston comes into this season ranked as the No. 15 football team in the country. Last season, the Cougars were able to finish ranked No. 8 in the country after a 13-1 season that included a major bowl win over Florida State.
This year’s version of the Cougars offers college football fans an interesting case study. When the College Football Playoff era was ushered in and the BCS was kicked to the curb, a common line of thinking was that the playoff would create an avenue for Group of Five championship contention. In the old days of the BCS, in years when TCU and Boise State were rampaging through the Mountain West Conference, there were always murmurs of a non-power conference school breaking into the championship game.
Those whispers were never based in reality though, mostly because the voters and computers would never reach a point where an undefeated team from a weaker conference would make the BCS title game over a one-loss conference champion from a Power Five conference. This, even when Boise State beat traditional college football blue blood, Oklahoma in what is widely considered one of the greatest college football games of all time in 2007 and TCU when took down Wisconsin in the historic Rose Bowl game in 2011.
When the Playoff finally expanded the shot at a title to four teams as opposed to two, many believed this would become the chance the college football middle class needed in order to compete for a national championship. But the question remains, is the current construction of the College Football Playoff actually inclusive for college football’s second-tier?
That question brings us back to this season’s Houston Cougars. The Cougars are led by one of the most respected football minds in the country with former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman. Herman’s 2016-2017 Houston squad will open the season with a top 25 match-up against No. 3 Oklahoma, a team coming off a College Football playoff appearance themselves.
So what would it take for Houston to make this year’s playoff? Its playoff dreams begin with the result of the game against Oklahoma. If Houston is able to win that game opening week, it cracks open the door for them to burst onto the playoff scene, theoretically. A win against Oklahoma would only be the beginning however.
For the Cougars to be taken seriously at all, even after beating a top three team in the opening week, they would have to go without a loss for the rest of the season. A non-Power Five team cannot afford a loss at all if the playoffs are in their sights.
Houston would also likely need Oklahoma and Louisville, the two best opponents on their schedule, to be very good against the other teams on their schedule in order to solidify Houston’s strength of schedule in the eyes of the playoff committee. Even though Oklahoma and Louisville enter the year with strong reputations, a loss to Houston on top of other disappointing losses could easily weaken Houston’s case for making it in.
It doesn’t even stop there though, because even if Houston goes undefeated, it may still end up on the outside looking in.
One of the biggest issues regarding Houston would be how they would look as an undefeated team with their resume stacked up against a one or even two loss Power Five conference champion. Is it really plausible that the committee in charge with selecting the four playoff teams would slate a spotless Houston team over say, a two loss Alabama or one loss Michigan?
The real problem with seeing Houston, or any non-Power conference team in the playoff, is the big conference bias that goes along with the evaluation of these teams. The playoff committee hasn’t really been given a scenario where they have a Group of Five team looming with a playoff-caliber resume.
The selection committee only has two people involved who would be seen as advocates for the mid-major teams, with Jeff Bower, former Southern Mississippi head coach, and Herb Deromedi, former head coach at Central Michigan, who could pound the table for a team like Houston.
Houston could be the catalyst in spawning the much clamored for playoff expansion. Many hope and believe that the future of the college football national title will be determined in an eight team playoff. In its current construction of only four teams, the College Football Playoff as we know it now is not inclusive to the sports middle class.
This is why we see so many teams, UCF and Houston included, doing whatever they can to get into one of the power conferences. In a sport with five major conferences, and only four spots in the bracket for the championship, the only possibility of an outsider breaking through would be utter chaos breaking loose.
Of course, this is college football, and crazier things have happened.