They come from every corner of the country. They have been ranked and unranked, bluebloods and doormats. They are the major-conference teams — from the Power Five conferences1 plus Notre Dame — that have fallen prey to an upset by an upstart from the lower tier of Football Bowl Subdivision schools (now called the Group of Five).2 In the past 15 years, among schools that have been Power Five members for all of that time, only Ohio State, Southern California, Florida and Texas have been spared.
But this year, the damage has been particularly consistent. Power Five schools are just 69-18 (.793) against Group of Five opponents, their lowest collective winning percentage since 2008, when they went 60-17 (.779). And this is after a wave of conference realignment earlier this decade, when the major conferences snatched up some of the lower ranks’ most consistent winners, such as Utah, Louisville and Texas Christian. If two more Power Five teams lose to Group of Five foes this season, the 20 losses will mark the most since at least 2004. Nonconference games are mostly over, but some chances remain. Arkansas-Western Kentucky, Tennessee-UAB and South Carolina-Appalachian State are three to watch down the stretch.
The American Athletic Conference may generate the most cries for Group of Five respect — the league has tirelessly campaigned for the term “Power Six” to catch on — but this year, the most successful giant killers have come from the Mountain West, which has eight of the 18 Group of Five victories with just 10 losses. Those eight wins come from seven different teams,3 meaning that more than half of the league has knocked off a Power Five opponent. That’s especially impressive considering that just five of those 18 Mountain West wins came at home.
And yes, the oft-maligned Pac-12 has been the most susceptible this year, responsible for six of the Power Five’s 18 losses with just eight wins. The league’s 8-6 record this season and 9-6 record in 2018 are the worst marks for a major conference against the Group of Five since at least 2014.
This trend is paradoxical: The disparities between the bigger and smaller conferences are wider than ever before. The Big Ten’s massive media-rights contracts with Fox, ESPN and CBS are worth $440 million per year, and each school that receives a full share of revenue from the league gets more than $50 million. The full SEC revenue share per school is $43.7 million a year. The AAC, meanwhile, just signed a new 12-year TV deal with ESPN for $83.3 million per year, or about $7 million per school annually. That money can make a big difference in areas like head coaching compensation, where Memphis was the only Group of Five school to rank in the nation’s top 50 last year, according to USA Today’s database.
The five major conferences distanced themselves further from the rest when they obtained the right in 2014 to create their own rules while remaining part of the NCAA. Five months later, those conferences passed a rule allowing their schools to provide marginal cost-of-attendance stipends to athletes, another perk of attending an upper-tier school.
It’s not as if the Group of Five teams are making strides in recruiting — after last season’s national signing day, only Boise State and Central Florida beat out any Power Five team in Bill Connelly’s weighted recruiting rankings from the past four classes. Yet those smaller schools are making up ground, except in the only place it matters to some teams: the College Football Playoff.
Since the start of the playoff after the 2014 season, there’s been no clear way for a Group of Five contender to compete for a national championship, a drumbeat that grew louder with UCF, its 25-game winning streak and its self-proclaimed 2017 “national championship.” Boise State is this year’s UCF, or rather UCF was last year’s Boise State. The original Cinderella is back to its undefeated ways, 5-0 this season and likely to be favored in each of its seven games left in the regular season. But when the CFP committee unveils its rankings, barring mass chaos in the SEC, it’s almost inconceivable that Boise State will get near the top four.
An undefeated Boise State team snubbed from the national-championship picture would make 2019 feel a lot like 2009, but this year there’s justification for it. As much success as Group of Five teams have had in stealing nonconference guarantee games, they’re arguably no closer to the top of college football, for the competitive-balance reasons mentioned earlier. Boise State is currently No. 31 in ESPN’s Football Power Index, 23.7 points worse than Alabama on a neutral field, and UCF faced similar realities last year, even before quarterback McKenzie Milton’s horrific knee injury ended his season.
The current college football landscape offers those teams few windows of opportunity. UCF saw Power Five chances against Georgia Tech in 2017 and North Carolina in 2018 canceled because of hurricanes. Boise State scheduled a season opener against Florida State in Jacksonville when it seemed like that could be a resume-bolstering win. Plenty of voices are calling for the CFP to expand to eight teams and include the best Group of Five champion, but the current CFP contract doesn’t expire until 2025. Until then, in all likelihood, the Group of Five’s September upsets may be their ceiling.
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