ESPN introduced the phrase “Bracket Buster” into the basketball lexicon in the early 2000s when it unveiled a unique concept for mid-major basketball conferences. BracketBuster Weekend pit teams from such leagues against each in other in mid-February games, aimed to provide potential NCAA Tournament teams national exposure and a potential boost to their postseason resumes.
In the first year of the College Football Playoff, the gridiron offers a tangible brass ring to similar conferences, the so-called “Group of Five,” vis a vis an automatic berth into one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. The first year of the Group of Five’s competition within the competition was relatively free of controversy: Mountain West Conference champion Boise State stood as the only logical choice by season’s end, and validated its place in the Fiesta Bowl with a win over Arizona.
But the Broncos got an assist in the final week of the regular season. The Group of Five access bid was very nearly a source of real controversy, but Marshall’s loss to Western Kentucky and Colorado State’s defeat against Air Force solved that problem before it could arise.
Who would have played in one of the top-tier bowl games had Colorado State and Marshall won those games? CSU would have been 11-1, better than Boise State’s 10-2 record at the end of the regular season, but the Broncos beat the Rams head-to-head.
Marshall was undefeated before the Western Kentucky loss, and the Thundering Herd claimed the Conference USA championship over Louisiana Tech the following weekend. Marshall also played a notoriously soft schedule; is running through a weaker schedule undefeated of greater value than losing to a team the caliber Ole Miss, as Boise State did, or even dropping an early conference game to 10-win Air Force?
While college football thrives on controversy, eliminating needless controversy whenever possible should be the game’s decision-makers’ No. 1 priority. That’s the entire reason the Playoff exists now, after all.
Any potential controversy that may loom over the Group of Five’s access bid — if not a spot in the College Football Playoff — can be addressed if football adopted the Bracket Buster concept.
Execution is as follows: Every Group of Five program has an open nonconference date in mid-November. The entire Group of Five, including independents BYU and Army, would have this flex date, rather than a pool of projected candidates being chosen preseason. Choosing ahead of time likely would have precluded breakout Memphis a season ago, for example.
UAB’s hiatus leaves the Group of Five with an odd number this season, but C-USA newcomer Charlotte is an FBS transitional member. Thus, the 49ers are out for 2015.
As the date draws near, a subcommittee working with the Playoff committee crafts the schedule based on team strength and positioning in the various polls. Struggling teams are matched up accordingly, with preference given to geography: For example, New Mexico State and UTSA would have played last year.
For the marquee matchups, however, pairing is based solely on quality of matchup. Last year’s top games would have been Boise State vs. Marshall and Colorado State vs. Memphis, veritable bowl games before Thanksgiving. High-profile games pitting the best the Group of Five has to offer against one another is a win for fans, and it’s also added attention for programs in need of it.
Of course, there’s a matter of home-field advantage — no small matter, to be sure. There are a number of possibilities for determining home-field: highest bidder, ticket-sale guarantees, or a decision made either by the subcommittee or presenting television network.
While some of these schools’ athletic departments depend on substantial paychecks from playing power programs, the idea isn’t to eliminate these dates from their calendar. On the contrary: By replacing a perhaps weaker nonconference opponent, the Bracket Buster adds another, quality opponent to the docket. This year, for example, Boise State’s game against Idaho State would be replaced with Bracket Buster Weekend.
It’s a tougher game, sure, but also more exposure for these programs — and could be the difference in making a Playoff case for a Group of Five championship competitor akin to the great Boise State, TCU and Utah teams of last decade.