NEWPORT, R.I. — While most of the attention to the College Football Playoff has rightfully been centered on the process for selecting the four semifinalists, there’s a lesser-known prize that was of great interest here Tuesday.
That’s the berth for the highest-ranked conference champion out of the Group of Five (American, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt) in one of the three access bowls (Peach, Cotton or Fiesta).
It’s what we used to call the BCS Buster spot, although now it’s guaranteed rather being dependent on getting high enough in the standings. That’s what denied Tulane a BCS berth in 1998, when the Green Wave went 12-0.
It also presents a challenge for the 13-person selection committee which will do the rankings. While picking the top four teams should be easier than some people seem to think — look at how little controversy over the top two there was in most years of the BCS — it will be a challenge to determine the best team from a group in which a two-loss team might have better credentials than an undefeated team.
Complicating things: The team has to be a conference champion (the desire of the Group of Five), something not required to be one the four semifinalists (thank Alabama in 2011 for making that possible). That means a team can be undefeated up to its conference championship game, but is out if it loses.
Starting next year, all but the Sun Belt will have a championship game, and the SBC is only one school away from having the necessary 12 members for that.
Also, Brigham Young, potentially the best of the bunch, is ineligible for the Group of Five spot because the Cougars are a football independent. Notre Dame can’t take the spot either, although the Fighting Irish could be in the playoffs, the Orange Bowl or qualify for an access bowl berth as an at-large team.
Got that? You didn’t really think this was going to get any simpler, did you?
“Maybe difficult is the best word to describe it,” said CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock, who here for the AAC media day. “The committee knows how important it is, and I can tell you that there’s going to be as much attention will be paid to is as there is at picking the top four.”
The AAC is intensely working to establish its bona fides in the new pecking order of college football, and there’s no better one than beating out its supposed peers to have a shot at one of the big boys.
“If we run the table, we should be in the final four,” said Central Florida coach George O’Leary, whose team made the Fiesta Bowl last year thanks to the leftover automatic berth from the BCS, then made the most of it by beating Baylor. “But if not, then the committee should be looking at who you play and who the teams in your conference play.
“If you go 13-0 and haven’t played anybody, what does that prove?”
O’Leary has a good point, even though a Louisiana-Lafayette team that goes unbeaten or maybe 11-1 can always make a solid case that the Ragin’ Cajuns are as deserving as anyone else.
Still, the old BCS formula — or at least the last incarnation of it that put more emphasis on the polls than the supposedly impartial computers — tended to reward teams just for remaining unbeaten than considering a nonconference loss to a power conference team.
Last year, UCF upset AAC favorite (and ACC-bound) Louisville on the road in early October, but it wasn’t until the next-to-last week of the season before that head-to-head victory was reflected in the BCS standings.
That didn’t matter last year because UCF was the league champion. But it still reflected badly on the poll voters.
“I don’t know if they weren’t paying attention or just thought we got lucky that night,” said O’Leary, who obviously doesn’t pull many punches. “I guess they didn’t take into account we might have been the most talented team that night.”
Hancock is insistent that the committee will use every available analytical formula in determining the rankings, which will also pick the at-large teams for the three access bowls.
Also, the committee will meet in person every Monday and Tuesday starting in late October, and members will have video of every game so that they can put the eyeball test to the numbers.
Obviously that won’t end controversies.
What made the No. 4 team better than the No. 5? What makes the AAC champion more deserving than the Sun Belt winner?
But after 16 years of arguing about the BCS, we’re used to it by now.
It’s always kinda fun, too.