BYU is marching toward a showdown with the College Football Playoff selection committee
What does the College Football Playoff accomplish if small schools can never qualify?
Perhaps it’s too early, with a difficult road game at Boise State looming and a pandemic laying siege to scheduling certainty, to talk about BYU as a title contender.
But when a team hasn’t been nationally relevant for so long, the temptation to look ahead beckons. And if you indulge yourself and take a peek, you’ll find BYU on a potential collision course with the College Football Playoff. More particularly, the Cougars could be poised for conflict with the playoff selection committee.
BYU, at least in part, can thank the pandemic for its reemergence on the national stage. With the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences shut down, BYU has been the only team west of the Rocky Mountains playing this season, and with a 5-0 record, it’s taken advantage.
“They’ve had basically two months as the only player on the stage,” said Val Hale, BYU’s athletic director from 1999 to 2004, “so they’re getting a lot of attention. And fortunately, they’ve played really well. They’ve showed well on TV.”
But even if it remains undefeated, the 13 people comprising the playoff selection committee can stop BYU’s ascent before it really gets started. Their subjective power to determine who is worthy of competing for a national title raises questions about what the playoff actually accomplishes if schools outside of the Power Five are preemptively excluded.
“It’s just almost impossible for one of those teams to make it,” Hale said. “Occasionally, it might happen — once every 20 years or something. But they don’t really want someone who’s not in their club, so to speak, to get that kind of publicity and exposure and, of course, the money.”
As an independent with a rich football history and tradition, BYU occupies an unusual space in the lingo of conferences and a landscape of haves and have-nots. It could present a unique challenge for the committee. And while much can change between now and when those decisions are made, it’s almost appropriate that BYU would — ahem, could — be at the forefront of challenging the power structures involved in deciding who can compete for college football’s national championship.
BYU has certainly been there before.
A history of challenging the status quo
Is BYU’s 1984 national championship legitimate?
It depends on who you ask, and that’s the problem.
It’s certainly legitimate in the college football record books. Back then, champions were chosen by The Associated Press Poll and the Coaches Poll, and when the season concluded, BYU was the only undefeated team left, and was ranked No. 1 in both. Yet on modern lists of the most questionable championship in college football history, the Cougars almost always come up.
While they stood alone as the sport’s only undefeated team, BYU also didn’t play anyone who finished the season ranked in the top 25. They vaulted to national prominence with a season-opening win over No. 3 Pittsburgh, then sealed their season with vaunted national power Michigan in the Holiday Bowl. But Pittsburgh finished the season 3–7–1, and Michigan finished the season 6–6. It took a perfect convergence of factors for BYU to win that title, and it wasn’t without protest.
“The playoffs — or, a number of years ago, the lack of a playoff — was about two things: No. 1, money, and No. 2, power, or prestige,” Hale said. “When BYU broke in and won the championship in 1984, I think it caused a lot of consternation among their group. And they made it increasingly difficult for a team like BYU to be able to accomplish that again.”
Since 1984, no school outside the Power Five conferences has won or competed for a national championship.
The playoff system has evolved, though, most notably with the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) in 1998 and the College Football Playoff starting with the 2014 season. And like Hale said, each evolution has found ways to keep the playoff closed to nontraditional powers. He should know. In 2001, he helmed BYU’s athletic department when Gary Crowton led the Cougars to a 12-0 record. They had one regular-season game left, at Hawai’i, when the BCS bowls were announced. Not only were they left out of the national championship, but they weren’t even offered a spot in a big-money BCS bowl game; those spots were reserved for the traditional powers. BYU lost at Hawai’i, as well as in the Liberty Bowl, but who knows how the BCS snub affected the team’s motivation.
“It’s almost like they want you to be demoralized,” Crowton said ahead of the Hawai’i game, “so you don’t win and it takes pressure off them.”
”If we’re going to let computers rule the game, let’s quit playing and quit risking injuries to the athletes,” Hale added at the time. “To have a subjective way to choose the participants is wrong. You have to play on the field.”
Twenty years later, despite a new playoff system with more eligible teams, little has changed.
“Programs that aren’t in a Power Five conference are at a systematic disadvantage,” said Orlando Sentinel sports columnist Mike Bianchi. Having covered the University of Central Florida, he would know better than anyone.
Meet the Knights
The University of Central Florida, or UCF, became somewhat of a national laughing stock when it claimed a national title in 2017 — complete with full payment of coaching incentive bonuses, a parade, rings and a banner in the school’s stadium — that it didn’t win. At least not in the way offered legitimacy by the College Football Playoff.
The Knights did, however, win all their regular-season games plus a conference championship, and they beat Auburn — which itself had beaten playoff invitees Georgia and Alabama — in the Peach Bowl. They did everything they could do, yet they were excluded. As Joel Beall observed for The Loop, “the College Football Playoffs are ridiculously tilted, and beholden, towards the big conferences, to the point it renders existence moot to those on the game’s outskirts. It truly, sincerely does not matter what you do: if you’re not in the “Power Five,” you ain’t getting to the semifinals. The setup is an abomination, and goes against the very principles of meritocracy inherent to sports.”
Crowning college football’s champion has never been a meritocracy. It’s supposed to be in theory, but it’s never really functioned that way. So UCF rebelled, and despite Alabama winning the College Football Playoff, the Knights declared themselves champs. The NCAA record book did eventually recognize UCF’s title, kind of — one ranking system, the Colley Matrix, ranked the Knights first, leading to an asterisk for UCF in the “Final National Poll Leaders” section. But that didn’t stop the mocking.
For Bianchi, the “aha!” moment was realizing that in the latter half of the 2017 season, UCF had a similar strength of schedule to Wisconsin. Both teams were undefeated, but the committee ranked the Knights 18th, while slotting the Badgers 8th. “This,” he wrote at the time, “is why UCF coach Scott Frost teed off on the committee after the Peach Bowl and said there seemed to be a ‘conscious effort’ to keep UCF out of playoff conversation.”
It’s still very likely that Alabama would have clobbered UCF had they played. But the point of sports is to settle such arguments on the field, and college football’s championship infrastructure prevents that. So much so that a year after UCF claimed its national title, the Knights once again went undefeated and were once again left out of the playoff.
Would BYU claim a national title if it were undefeated and left out? It’s definitely too early to ask coach Kalani Sitake and athletic director Tom Holmoe a question like that. The larger issue is a system that makes such questions necessary.
“It sends the message,” Bianchi said, “that there’s no room in the end for the little guys.”
Which begs another question: Is BYU a little guy?
The ultimate tweener
During the BYU-Houston game, the announcers pondered the very same question: As an independent, should BYU be considered a Power Five or Group of Five team? “They’re kind of a tweener,” Hale remembers one announcer saying. “And I think that’s legitimate,” Hale added.
BYU isn’t Notre Dame, but it also isn’t Liberty or UMass. The school’s typical, non-pandemic scheduling reflects that tweener status. Take next year, for example, when the Cougars (pandemic pending) will play Arizona, Arizona State, Baylor, USC, Utah, Virginia and Washington State — seven Power Five schools. Even the non-Power Five schools on the schedule, like Boise State, Utah State and South Florida, have traditionally been on the more successful end of the Group of Five. But seven Power Five opponents still isn’t on par with a regular Pac-12 or Southeastern Conference schedule, so where does that leave the Cougars?
Debate has long swirled. BYU, after all, wasn’t in a prestigious conference even before it became an independent. It does, however, have a national title and a Heisman trophy. “BYU is more of a national brand than UCF,” Bianchi said. “Especially the UCF of three years ago.” Could that benefit the Cougars in a playoff selection that often feels like a popularity contest?
Perhaps, and the Cougars will need it to if they hope to overcome their pandemic-weakened slate. BYU’s strength of schedule ranks 94th, “and to me,” Bianchi said, “that hurts these Group of Five teams.” Here, in a 2020 scheduling context, BYU is absolutely closer to a Group of Five team. But, “I think by reputation,” Hale said, “BYU could easily be considered a Power Five team.” And this season, that reputation has only grown with the massive exposure boost that’s accompanied BYU’s status as the only team playing in the West.
With the Pac-12 and the Mountain West returning to competition in the coming weeks, that exposure could fade, but the school has already milked it for a spot in the national conversation. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, a longtime college football reporter, ranked the Cougars No. 4 — behind only Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — in his latest personal top-10 list. The list features only teams that have actually played, but still, Feldman placed the Cougars ahead of Notre Dame, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
His list will likely change substantially when the Big-10 and Pac-12 start playing, but some hope remains for the Cougars. Because of the pandemic-shortened Pac-12 and Big-10 schedules, a few timely upsets could open the door for BYU and make 2020 feel like 1984. “There is no room in the playoff system for a Group of Five team,” Bianchi said. “But maybe this year is the one it could work.”
If it remains undefeated, BYU should at least have a very strong chance at a New Year’s Six bowl game, which would benefit the school’s athletic department in a unique way. Almost all other schools would have to share their bowl payout with their conferences, but as an independent, BYU would be able to keep it all. “It would be a windfall for the program,” Hale said.
But he knows that even a big bowl game isn’t guaranteed for an outsider like BYU. The Cougars may not be little, but they’re also not as big as Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and the like. That, Hale said, is part of their appeal. “You’ll have, obviously, a lot of people pulling for an outside team,” he said, “and a lot of people, in very powerful positions, against bringing in an outside team.”
And when the criteria is subjective, BYU — and other non-elite football schools — are prone to exclusion. “It’s not a championship for all of college football,” Hale said. And that’s a shame. Perhaps BYU or UCF or whatever other non-power would get dismantled by Alabama. But it would sure be fun — and fair — to watch them get their chance.
“And if somehow, someway there was an upset,” Bianchi said, “that would be an incredible story. People would gravitate toward that. And I just think college football is missing the boat by locking Cinderella out of the ball.”