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Temple of the Dogs: Can a Mid-Major Make the College Football Playoff?

After beating East Carolina, the Owls are one of four undefeated mid-majors ranked in the Top 25 – but will any of them get a shot at the national championship?

robby anderson

Robby Anderson of the Temple Owls rushes against East Carolina.

Cal Sport Media/AP

In roughly two weeks, the oligarchy that controls college football will begin its latest attempt to quantify that which defies quantification: On November 3, the College Football Playoff committee will issue the first of its weekly rankings, and given the joyous and unpredictable clusterfuck that this season has become, it will no doubt engender tremendous gales of message-board fury.

This is shaping up to be the kind of logic-less year that people like me relish and the 13-member College Football Playoff selection committee no doubt dreads. Eight of the top 10 teams in this week’s Associated Press poll are currently undefeated (the other two are Alabama and Stanford); some of that will sort itself out in this back half of the season, when conference rivalries and championship games and unforeseen upsets weed out the field. But there is one major question the committee will almost inevitably face this season, a problem they managed to avoid last year when a surging Marshall team wound up losing late: What do you do with an undefeated team outside of the Power Five conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12)?

There are currently four undefeated non-Power Five teams ranked in the Top 25. Again, some of this will sort itself out through attrition: Three of those teams play in the American Athletic Conference, and matchups between Houston and Memphis (November 14), as well as Memphis and Temple (November 21), will help cull the committee’s conundrum. But this is a real dilemma, no matter who emerges: Temple – which, admittedly, must figure out a way to beat Notre Dame next weekend – opened the season with a decisive win over Penn State, Memphis beat Ole Miss last week and Houston, which already beat Louisville, should thrash Vanderbilt on October 31. And there is also Toledo, a potential Mid-American Conference powerhouse which has already defeated an SEC program (Arkansas) on the road and appears destined to cruise through conference play undefeated. Which means it is increasingly possible that two non-Power Five programs will not only go unbeaten, but that they will do so with resumes worthy of legitimate playoff consideration.

The easy solution here, of course, is for the committee to do nothing about this. The easy solution, if several Power Five schools remain undefeated or muddle through with a forgivable loss, is for the committee to offer one of those secondary teams the designated mid-major slot in a major bowl game, and to presume that the other will wind up in a high-profile bowl game of its own – just not a playoff game. The easy way out for the committee is to pass on the idea that these non-Power Five schools belong in the playoff at all. But that would confirm everything we already suspected all along, which is that the whole damned system is rigged in favor of the powerful.

Listen: I’m not exactly a neutral party here. I’m biased in favor of the underdog; I always have been, and I always will be, because I think it makes college football and a better and richer sport. Sometimes, those underdogs will fail miserably against superior competition, but every so often, they won’t. This is why college basketball, for all its inherent problems, is redeemed every year by the NCAA tournament. And this is why, if the playoff committee chooses to pass over a worthy mid-major in favor of a one- or two-loss major-conference team with holes in its resume, it is setting a dangerous precedent.

Here’s the obvious problem with leaving the decision-making in this sport to a closed committee: It is fodder for vast conspiracy theories. So let me throw one out there: Who’s going to be the advocate in that room for Toledo, or Houston, or Memphis, or Temple? Will it be one of the five athletic directors from Power Five schools? Will it be the former major-college coaches? Will it be Condoleezza-fricking-Rice?

I don’t know how it worked in that room last year. Maybe I should presume that the committee, composed of largely ethical humans, will give all those teams a fair shake, if it gets to that point. This Saturday is one of the dullest weekends of the college football season (with the potential exception of Alabama-Tennessee, which mostly affords me an excuse to repost this video), but after that it all begins to ratchet up, and as I said, some of these things will resolve themselves organically. But some of them won’t. And that’s where we could potentially learn a great deal about the unavoidable political biases of a committee attempting to impose order on college football’s untamable chaos: Either they believe there’s a place for the little guy, or they plan to squash the little guy under their feet.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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