Running the Gauntlet: Why Not Let Every Team Get A Go At Glory?

Running the Gauntlet: Why Not Let Every Team Get A Go At Glory?

Steve Barnes

March Madness this year was a special tournament. Not only did Maryland-Baltimore County upset top-seed Virginia, but Loyola-Chicago captured the hearts of sports fans on its run to the Final Four. In years to come, people might be hard pressed to remember who Villanova beat for the title, but the Ramblers will be in folks’ memories forever.

Too bad this will never happen in the Football Bowl Subdivision playoffs.

In the beginning of each college basketball season, every team has at least a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

In the beginning of each college football season, if a team is not from the SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12 or Pac 12, a team has no shot at the national title. That leaves the AAC, MAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and Sun Belt with no title to ever realistically imagine winning. Central Florida proved that last season by going undefeated, including beating Auburn – the team that beat both participants in the national title game.

Instead, the Knights got the NCAA crumb of a New Year’s Six bid.

All other levels of college football have a playoff. The FCS had its tournament last year and it even featured an upset or too. In Division II, West Florida, in only its second year of existence, made a run all the way to the championship game. Division III and the NAIA have tournaments as well.

This leaves only those group of five conference teams with no chance for a title.

But why? If it is understood those schools are excluded, why not let them have their own tournament. It might even serve as a model to show the so-called big boys how an eight-team format might be conceivable.

Simply take the five conference champs, add three at-large, and voila, there it is.

Last year, it would have been a cool field.

UCF would have been the top seed at 13-0. Boise State second at 11-3, Troy third at 11-2, Florida Atlantic at 11-3 and Toledo at 11-3. Boise got the nod at number two by virtue of a regular-season win against Troy and the Trojans third after a huge win at LSU. That takes care of the five conference champs.

That leaves three at-large bids.

Mostly likely, in order, it would have been South Florida (10-2), Memphis (10-3) and Army (10-3) because the service academies will never get into the college playoff either.

To play these games, simply use the bowl games that feature group of five formats already. Just give the top four seeds games closest to home.

So last season, UCF would have hosted Army in the Care Bowl in Orlando, Boise State would have stayed at home in the Potato Bowl against Memphis, Troy would have to travel 45 miles to Montgomery’s Camilla Bowl where it would face USF and FAU would get a home game in the Boca Raton Bowl versus Toledo.

Play the semifinals in two nicer locales: New Orleans and Arizona Bowls.

The finals could have been in Atlanta either the week before or a few days before Alabama played Georgia in the power five title game.

There would be a few drawbacks to this system. First, it will knock some teams out of bowl bids. But would fans rather see a group of five playoff matchup or a couple of 6-6 teams playing for a winning record?

Next, it would cause some group of five schools to not play as many “money” games. If a team thinks it has a shot at a national title, it may not want to risk a loss for a paycheck. Yet money is the bottom line, so those schools will play at least one big game on the road to get paid. It does give some of the other group of five schools access to those games. For example, and no offense to New Mexico State, but if the Aggies think they would not have a shot at the playoff, perhaps they get the money game instead of UCF.

The big boys would not mind much. There are plenty of teams willing to play those sacrificial lamb games and not just in the group of five. Both Alabama and Auburn played FCS Mercer last season.

This system not only gives the group of five schools a shot at a championship, it also shows the power five schools an eight-team format can work. No more complaining about one conference champion being left out or one conference getting two teams in the final four.

It is good for the teams, good for the fans and good for the game.

But, the NCAA would still have to sign off on the idea and it does go against one of its ideals – it makes sense.


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Steve Barnes brings the trifecta to sports journalism. He has served in the sports information departments at three universities and in media relations for three professional franchises, he has written for several newspapers, including having been a college football beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser, and he has been a broadcaster for both college and professional sports. He resides in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., because he has good taste.

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