Memo to all Power 5 athletic directors: Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick is waiting for your call.
The Thundering Herd will play anyone, anywhere.
“My problem is, people don’t want to play us because we can beat them,” Hamrick said. “When I get on the phone -- and I’ve been in this business a long a time -- a lot of my friends who are ADs at Power 5 schools say, ‘Hey, great talking to you. We’re not playing you guys.’ … It makes it very difficult for a school like Marshall to get a schedule that in the eyes of the committee is worthy of that one spot.”
If there was one lesson for the Group of 5 schools in the first season of the College Football Playoff, it was to schedule aggressively. Marshall, a program that unlike Boise State has yet to earn that elusive "benefit of the doubt" that often accompanies winning, was the test case. The Herd were 11-0 before it finally cracked the committee’s poll at No. 24 -- right behind two-loss Boise State.
Marshall’s weak schedule explained the snub. None of the Herd’s wins came against teams ranked in the committee’s top 25, and its nonconference opponents finished a combined 14-34 -- including a 1-11 FCS team, Rhode Island. The 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky (not to mention a lack of defense) was the final dagger in Marshall’s playoff hopes. It quickly ended any controversy surrounding the program’s ranking; there was nothing else on the schedule to help compensate for it.
“I do think the challenges are how they evaluate schedules and nonconference schedules,” said C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky. “For Marshall, the criticism was they didn’t play a strong enough nonconference schedule. The truth is, they scheduled the games they played this year years ago. You can’t say, ‘You should’ve done better in scheduling for the first year of the College Football Playoff,’ because none of this was even a thought at the time. We all learned a little bit about how to position from a nonconference scheduling standpoint. I know Marshall did.”
It was a playoff storyline that was buried behind the drama of the top four, but fans quickly learned the importance of the Group of 5’s place in the poll after Boise State earned a trip to the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl and knocked off No. 10 Arizona 38-30. The highest-ranked conference champion from a Group of 5 school (the MAC, C-USA, AAC, Sun Belt and MWC) is guaranteed a spot in one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowls. Not only did Boise State prove the committee right, it was a humbling reminder to college football’s elite that the Group of 5 schools remain relevant in the new system.
“I thought it was fantastic in one simple regard: that a two-loss Boise State made a New Year’s Eve bowl,” said Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson. “In the past, you literally needed to be undefeated, unscored upon, unscathed, unblemished -- whatever adjective you throw at it. To be able to get into a New Year’s Eve game with two losses, I think, was the most promising thing about the system from a Mountain West perspective.”
Boise State and Memphis both lost to Ole Miss, which was ranked at the time and considered a “good loss.” While Boise State also lost to Air Force, Memphis lost to No. 11 UCLA, leaving AAC commissioner Mike Aresco with a few questions about just how much strength of schedule is rewarded. Memphis also lost to Houston.
“I look at us and say we really did play a tough schedule and unfortunately that caused us to lose a few games,” he said. “Look at Memphis … by losing two nonconference games, they had very little margin for error in the conference, and they lost a conference game. Would I like to see strength of schedule matter even a little more? Yeah, I think I probably would.
“One of the things we’re going to look at down the road, as you know people said, ‘Well, it’s going to be tough for the Group of 5 to crack that top 25, and to really be relevant, and will we ever have a shot at cracking the playoff?’” Aresco said. “I’ve said to my membership and I know the other guys have said it to theirs: Win those nonconference games, especially those really high-profile ones, and you’ll be right there in the conversation. Then let’s see what the committee does.”
MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said “perceived strength of schedule” is something his conference leaders spent time talking about after the playoff, and it’s a delicate balance. The MAC played more Power 5 programs last year than any other Group of 5 conference.
“You want to schedule the best team you can beat,” he said. “We have one year’s worth of data, but a so-called good loss is not necessarily going to hurt you. Boise played one Power 5 opponent and they lost to them and yet they ended up in a host bowl. You step back and look at that a little bit. But at the same token, you can’t go out and schedule three of those things and be 0-3. That doesn’t do you any good, either.
“They clearly sent a message about looking at the nonconference strength of schedule,” Steinbrecher said. “Marshall had a whale of a team. They looked really good. Now, how much of a look they got, I don’t know. You don’t overreact, but one of the takeaways from this first year is strength of schedule.”
Hamrick has already made some necessary adjustments, but said Rhode Island was the best he could do on short notice last season after Louisville backed out because it joined the ACC and had to play Notre Dame.
“We’re going to have to do everything possible to schedule up, and we’ve done that,” he said. “We’ve got Purdue coming here next year. We’re going to do a home and home with Pittsburgh. We’re going to do a home and home with NC State. We’ve got the back end of the home and home with Louisville.”
ACC teams Wake Forest and North Carolina recently announced their intent to play each other as nonconference opponents -- a move that concerns Hamrick for the future if it becomes a trend.
“If conferences do that, that will take away more opportunities from the Group of 5 to play the Power 5 conferences,” he said. “Scheduling for the good teams from the Group of 5 is going to continue to get more difficult.”
In spite of Boise State’s success in the new system, and the scheduling lessons learned, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson said one thing hasn’t changed:
“It still behooves a team of the Sun Belt or the other four conferences to be perfect,” Benson said. “I’m not saying that’s fair or unfair, but that’s kind of the reality.”
Marshall almost pulled it off. Almost. Want a shot at the Herd? Hamrick will take your call.