Karl Benson likes to recall the night when, as commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference he advised Boise State’s Ian Johnson to run the Statue of Liberty play in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl that gave the BCS-busting Broncos a 43-42 overtime victory against Oklahoma and then to propose to his cheerleader girlfriend on national TV immediately afterward.
Instant fame for the Broncos and status as the enduring symbol for the overlooked little guys of college football.
Well, Benson really didn’t exactly do that. But now, as commissioner of the New Orleans-based Sun Belt Conference, not to mention a proud Boise State alum, he wouldn’t mind seeing some similar magic by the Broncos when they return to the Fiesta Bowl to face Arizona.
“You could say that game against Oklahoma put Boise on the map and created momentum for more teams like them in the BCS bowls,” Benson said. “Hawaii came here (the Sugar Bowl) and Utah beat Alabama (also in the Sugar).
“I think this game is as important as that one was.”
It might just be.
The schools once called non-BCS are now lumped into the Group of Five conferences — American, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt.
And in the new College Football Playoff system the highest ranked among them is guaranteed a spot in either the Fiesta, Peach or Cotton bowls as opposed to having to meet a qualifying standard as they did before.
That’s good because at No. 20 in the CFP rankings, Boise wouldn’t have made the cut in the BCS. Luckily for the Group of Five, Boise is a brand name that has most folks ignoring its ranking. MAC champion Northern Illinois wouldn’t get a similar pass.
But it’s also bad because if the Broncos aren’t competitive against the 10th-ranked Wildcats (they’re only 3½-point underdogs), it will solidify the impression that there’s a wide competition gap between the Group of Five and the Power Five leagues.
Actually, it’s not an impression. It’s a fact.
This season against bowl-eligible teams from the Power Five — the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC — Group of Five schools are 4-75.
That’s 4-75, with all of the victories coming against ACC teams, three of which were 6-6.
Against the Power Five teams that aren’t going to bowls, the record was only slightly better — 6-19.
“Ouch,” Benson said when given the numbers during Thursday’s Media Day for the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. “We already knew the economic gap was growing.
“I’m not sure if how this compares with other years, but our goal has to be to close this competitive gap, too.”
A good place to start would be in the bowls.
Besides the Fiesta Bowl, the Group of Five gets six more shots against Power Five teams in the postseason, all of which at least provide a neutral field setting instead of the usual road game disadvantage the Group of Five schools face.
And no matter what happens, the Group of Five’s berth in the CFP bowls appears secure.
There are just too many pitfalls to tightening the standards, such as pressure on the selection committee to put one of the teams into a CFP bowl, especially if it’s a borderline decision.
And while the public outcry has been muted since former Tulane President Scott Cowen led the charge that resulted in more access back in 2004, potential legal and/or legislative action just isn’t worth it.
The three access bowls might not like it (Boise’s tickets sales for the Fiesta Bowl reportedly are not good), but in the new CFP structure, the bowls have no leverage. That’s why the Allstate Sugar Bowl is happy that in non-semifinal years its game only will be between SEC and Big 12 teams.
There could be some tweaking, though.
When setting up the new system, the conference commissioners voted to have the Group of Five representative be the champion of its league.
But the champion might not be a conference’s best team. If Boise had lost to Fresno State in the Mountain West title game, 7-6 Fresno State would have been the only eligible team from that league, which also featured 10-2 Colorado State.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson wants to amend the rule to make the Group of Five CFP representative the highest ranked of the group without the championship stipulation. Benson said he is open to the idea as well, pointing out that being a league champion isn’t a requirement for any of the other CFP berths, including the playoff semifinalists.
Speaking of the semifinals, that seems to be a pipe dream for the Group of Five.
It would take beating at least two Power Five teams and then going undefeated thereafter. Impressively.
Fresno, which opened with games against USC, Utah and Nebraska, might have made a run. Instead, the Bulldogs lost those games by a combined 165-59.
That’s how hard it is.
Using the 16 years of the BCS as a guide, the only top-four finishes by a team from what is now a Power Five conference were by TCU in 2009 and 2010, and that was with more-forgiving polls and computers doing the ranking, not a committee that was using its own standards.
This year, no Group of Five team got higher than Boise’s No. 20 and for the first four weeks of the rankings the group had no representation at all.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by the way the rankings went,” Benson said. “Schools like East Carolina and Marshall and Northern Illinois and Colorado State deserved better recognition.”
But the best way to get recognition, Benson acknowledged is to beat somebody.
Got any more tricks up your sleeve, Mr. Commissioner?