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Is gap between Group of 5 and Power 5 growing? What’s the MAC’s future? G5 mailbag

We’re in the dog days of the college football offseason, and yet the sport feels as busy as ever. It’s time for another Group of 5 mailbag.

What’s the point of fielding a team for a Group of 5 school in the NIL era? There is no hope of being competitive. — John D.

This century, the gap between P5 and G5 has grown. With the facilities arms race and now NIL and the transfer portal, I can’t even squint my eyes and pretend that G5 schools play in the same universe or for the same national championship as P5. I think it’s time to end this charade and have a separate division and national championship for G5. Thoughts? — Phil E.

This feels like a weird thing to say six months after a G5 school made the College Football Playoff for the first time, and then that same team had NINE players picked in the NFL Draft. Folks, relax.

NIL has not reshaped college sports the way it’s sometimes hyped up. The best teams still get the best players. It’s the way it always has been and always will be. Massive NIL deals are not common in the grand scope of things. We just talk about it more because it’s juicy. Yes, there are some big deals for recruits. Yes, there are some huge transfer moves like Jordan Addison. Yes, coaches have a lot more work to do. But in the big picture, the forces are generally the same.

At the Group of 5 level, there’s no doubt that the one-time transfer rule has caused teams to lose key players they wouldn’t otherwise. I spoke to a Group of 5 coach the other day who lost multiple starters to teams where those players probably won’t crack the starting lineup. But there is opportunity in the other direction to get P5 players who didn’t consider G5 schools coming out of high school but are suddenly looking for playing time. The teams that can handle this movement best will have the most success.

But step back even more and remember why we like college football. It’s not about who wins the national championship. It’s about rivalry games, like the crazy 2017 UCF-USF game. It’s about conference championships, like last year’s C-USA shootout. It’s about a ridiculous score or finish to a midweek MACtion game we’re all watching. There are 131 FBS teams. This isn’t like a corporate pro sports league and we don’t want it to be.

We don’t need to pretend the G5 (or non-BCS back in the day) conferences were ever really on the same level as those playing in the national championship game, but we also don’t need to voluntarily split them up. I’ve said this a million times, but the G5 is not going to break away to make its own championship. It wouldn’t bring in as much money. It would lead to a decrease in payouts for regular-season games. It would decrease fan interest. There’s a reason teams are moving up from the FCS and not down to the FCS (Idaho, excluded). Programs want to think (and sell) that they’re competing at the highest level. You can root for a G5 team and realize you’re not going to play for the national championship. There are more things to play for.

And hey, the people in charge will eventually smarten up and get around to expanding the CFP, and when that happens, there will be even more to play for.


Before it leaves the AAC, Cincinnati became the first G5 Playoff team. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

Will NIL allow any G5 programs the ability to eventually “buy” their way into the P5? — Chase H.

Similar to what I said above, schools are not reshaping their programs with NIL. Before landing the No. 1 class at Texas A&M, Jimbo Fisher was already signing top-five and top-10 classes annually. This is not changing all that much.

As for the question as to whether or not a G5 team could use this kind of money to move up, it was sort of already the case. If you have boosters and people willing to spend ridiculous amounts of money, you’re already trying to get them to pay for coaching salaries and facilities. A school that comes to mind is SMU. It has plans for major facility upgrades and hoped to hold onto Sonny Dykes with that and more money. It also famously had players on a payroll in the 1980s, leading to the NCAA’s “death penalty.” The Mustangs were passed up by the Big 12 in last year’s realignment in part because it’s a small private school, while Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are large public schools with huge alumni bases. If SMU’s resources can help it dominate the future AAC, perhaps something could happen down the road.

But could G5 schools use NIL to pull top-100 players away from Power 5 schools? No. The top players want to go to the NFL, and that remains Nick Saban’s strongest recruiting pitch at Alabama, not whatever amount of money is on the table.

For more on how Group of 5 teams are managing NIL, read The Athletic’s story here.

What is the MAC leadership doing and what are their plans for the future? They weren’t involved with any of the shuffling of teams and ultimately didn’t add any new teams. It was also reported that they haven’t talked about getting rid of divisions. What is the future of MAC football and why haven’t they been more aggressive in this ever-changing time period of college football? — Jordan W.

You don’t need to make changes for the sake of change, and that’s where the MAC finds itself. Remember, the Mountain West also didn’t make any realignment changes and felt comfortable where it was. The MAC opted against adding Western Kentucky once Middle Tennessee decided to stay in C-USA, though the Hilltoppers very much wanted to go.

Ultimately, the MAC knows what it is and knows what its limitations are. It’s mostly a bus league for travel with nearby schools, largely in rural and suburban towns. It’s also the most subsidized FBS conference, with 79 percent of athletic department revenues coming from institution/government support or student fees, according to the Knight Commission database. Adding more schools would further dilute conference revenue while adding to travel, and it just doesn’t have the money to do that.

Since the realignment news last fall, C-USA schools heading to the AAC have announced ambitious facilities and fundraising goals. Time will tell if that is actually attainable. Several G5 ADs I talked to during that period said they simply couldn’t match the athletic budgets in the AAC. That’s not a bad thing. Don’t spend money you don’t have. It’s good to know who you are and lean into that. The Sun Belt expanded, but in a way to lean into local rivalries, which is why it’s keeping divisions. The MAC is about local rivalries, and there’s nothing else in the footprint. There’s not much else to actually do, but that’s OK.

How would you rank the G5 conferences as far as football goes? — Jeff S.

Things will change when realignment goes through, but here’s how I tentatively rank the leagues for 2022:

1. AAC
2. Mountain West
3. Sun Belt
4. Conference USA
5. MAC

Cincinnati, Houston and UCF could all contend for the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six spot, while SMU and ECU should be solid, so the AAC remains at the top. The Mountain West, which often wins the G5’s computer formula that determines CFP payouts, might be the deepest conference from top to bottom, but will it contend for a New Year’s Six spot? That’s not clear at the top of the league yet.

The Sun Belt may take a step back with Louisiana losing a lot, while Coastal Carolina and App State do as well, but it does add Marshall to the conference. Conference USA has a lot dragging it down, but it also has a lot at the top with UTSA and UAB expected to be very good once again. The MAC will be competitive like always, but the question with the league is always whether or not someone can emerge from the pack. Maybe that’s NIU. The MAC has a better bottom than C-USA, but I largely judge a conference by the teams at the top.

Probably overreacting, but it sure seems Jay Norvell has changed the whole vibe in Colorado State’s program (embracing football alums, community outreach, etc.). Short- and long-term prospects for the Rams, after years of wandering in the wilderness? — Bob H.

The future looks bright at Colorado State. To grab a coach from within your own conference, one who seemed primed for a Power 5 job, really was a coup. It took a couple of years to get going in Reno, but Norvell guided Nevada to its best seasons since the Mountain West move and the staff showed a knack for finding overlooked offensive stars in recruiting like QB Carson Strong. Now he leaves a place where he had to help shovel snow in order to practice to go to a program with some of the best facilities in the G5.

Norvell has coached everywhere, including at the highest levels, and his track record is good. Bringing offensive coordinator Matt Mumme and several offensive assistants will also help. It won’t be an immediate turnaround, especially given that the current roster has only freshman quarterbacks, but if there was ever a time to buy into the Rams’ future, it’s probably right now.


Colorado State last won a conference championship in 2002. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Will conferences moving to nine conference games force Navy and Air Force to reconsider their conference affiliations? Navy plays their eight AAC games, then three games against annual rivals Air Force, Notre Dame and Army. If the AAC plays nine, that would be their schedule every year. For Air Force, the MWC plays eight games with Army/Navy and two open dates. A move to nine would leave them with Army/Navy each year and only one OOC/rivalry game available. — Phil D.

First, I do not see any situation in which the three service academies don’t play each other. Back in 2020, when it looked like the entire season could be canceled, they still planned to play each other. Air Force planned to have a two-game season when the Mountain West postponed its season. Army and Navy considered the possibility of being the only game played that fall. They are going to play those games.

I’m also not certain the AAC will move to nine conference games. The league has opted against it to this point because it wants to allow the scheduling of more games with Power 5 opponents. Not having divisions moving forward will allow teams to rotate through conference opponents and play everyone. The Mountain West has considered nine games, but only as an option if Power 5 teams cut back on their G5 games.

Air Force considered a move to the AAC last fall but didn’t make the move. With the AAC now at 14 teams, it may not be so open in the future. Navy’s administration remains pleased to be in a football conference, though the recent struggles on the field have hurt. At this point, I don’t see that changing.

As a UConn fan, all I really want at this point is to watch us get to a bowl game. But do you think the long-term plan should be to stay independent? Is that actually viable in today’s landscape? Or should they consider possibly joining C-USA or even the MAC? — Matt C.

Personally, as a fan of the sport, I would like to see UConn in a conference, because conferences are just more fun. A team develops rivalries, competes in conference/division races and has weekly and annual player awards. Being an independent outside of Notre Dame or Army is largely boring for an outside observer. There’s little reason for anyone to pay attention to independents because they don’t impact anyone else.

I understand the CBS Sports Network deal and some more local-ish games are valuable and appealing to fans. But personally, I want a reason to pay more attention to UConn football, and a conference does that.

UConn had talks with C-USA last year about becoming a football-only member, but the school has opted against it so far. The AAC is not taking it back as a football-only member. The MAC has an iffy track record with schools outside its footprint. C-USA has no local connections as a southern conference now, but shoot, it’s something, you know? Independence feels like purgatory.

The Sean Lewis story at Kent State has been positive — first bowl win in school history, won the MAC East and other marked improvements. Now that Kent State under Coach Lewis has won, does the fan base enjoy the moment or worry about him leaving? — Michael L.

Always enjoy the moment. Never worry that winning is a bad thing. This goes for all fans. Especially for a place like Kent State and its lack of success, any success should be enjoyed for as long as possible.

As for Lewis’ future, I think Kent State fans have been worried about losing him for a few years now. He’s still one of the youngest FBS coaches at 36 years old. There is a long career still ahead of him. It’s been interesting to see how the MAC isn’t the coaching launching ground it used to be. Since 2017, the only coach to leave for a bigger job was Lance Leipold going to Kansas. I still think it has very good head coaches that P5 schools should look at. But Lewis’ career record is 19-24 and he hasn’t won more than seven games, which will scare P5 ADs. It’s the same situation Chris Creighton has at Eastern Michigan. In both cases, they have the longest sustained success a school has seen in decades, but the big overall number without context isn’t as shiny.

Is there an overlap between the three AAC teams joining the Big 12 and Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC? Could we really see Cincinnati at Oklahoma or Texas at UCF as league games in two seasons? — Barry F.

We very well could. The AAC is still at an impasse with Cincinnati/Houston/UCF regarding an exit fee for 2023, commissioner Mike Aresco told me recently. Most people around the situation expected it to be resolved weeks ago. At this point, I still expect them to be in the Big 12 in 2023. As for Texas/Oklahoma, it is a massive cost to get out early, and the Big 12 is going to hold on as long as it can. There is a real chance that we could see Texas travel to Houston for a conference game once again, or Oklahoma travel to UCF, and I would love to see that.

(Top photo: James Gilbert / Getty Images)

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