The Selection Committee Makes It Clear: There's Never Room for a Non–Power 5 Team in the Playoff

By ranking Iowa State ahead of Cincinnati and 12 spots above Louisiana—a team the Cyclones lost to—there's no doubting how the committee feels.
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It was foolish to hold out hope this long, but at least now we have clarity. The latest College Football Playoff rankings make clear that there is no hope, no hope at all, for a team outside the Power 5 conferences making the College Football Playoff. Ever.

The playing field is chronically slanted against those who are not part of The Establishment, no matter how good they are.

The final proof was presented in the following rankings: Iowa State No. 7, Cincinnati No. 8, Coastal Carolina No. 13, BYU No. 18, Louisiana No. 19. When the selection committee signs off on that, the cartel has won for the final time.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell walks out with his players for a game

Luke Fickell's Cincinnati team is 8–0 and heading to the AAC title game.

What those rankings say is that the Power 5 leagues (or four-fifths of them—sorry about your luck, Pac-12) will always have every advantage. This was the year to change that—a precedent-shattering year when one of the Power 5 conferences completely flopped and two others played only half schedules.

Theoretically, that presented a golden opportunity to someone from outside the power structure, if a team were good enough. Instead, Iowa State is rewarded for beating its fraudulent Big 12 colleagues in a brand-name echo chamber. Keep it all within the club, where members receive the most money, all the scheduling clout and every benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, undefeated Cincinnati falls out of any realistic contention; Coastal Carolina and Louisiana are blockaded by the Sun Belt ceiling; and BYU is harshly penalized for being stopped a yard short of a signature victory in one of the best games of the season. It’s quite a racket.

The Cyclones are unfortunate poster children for this scam. They’re having arguably the best season in school history and will play next week for their first Big 12 championship, which is very cool. So take this less as a slam on Iowa State than on the system that elevated the ’Clones beyond their worth.

Iowa State (8–2) lost its season opener to Louisiana by 17 points, 31–14. In a season handicapped by the near-total absence of significant nonconference games, this head-to-head result should matter immensely. Instead, it doesn’t matter at all to the committee.

The Ragin’ Cajuns (9–1) outscored the home team 21–0 in the second half. They made big plays (a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown, plus a 78-yard TD bomb). They committed no turnovers. Cyclones fans would like to simply award themselves a mulligan because it was the opener after a tumultuous offseason, but that’s not how college football is designed to work—every game matters, as they say.

But does every game really matter? Clearly not. Because two-loss Iowa State is 12 spots ahead of the one-loss team that beat it on the road by three scores.

Fact is, Iowa State’s ranking is solely attributable to leading a Power 5 conference that always is accorded respect. (Often undue respect.) Meanwhile, Louisiana and Coastal Carolina are basically capped on their upward mobility because they play in a conference that never is accorded respect.

The Sun Belt played three games against Big 12 opponents this season and won them all: the duly noted Louisiana win over Iowa State; Arkansas State over Kansas State, 35–31; and Coastal Carolina over Kansas, a game the Chanticleers won by 15 after leading 28–0 in the second quarter. Those results should have validated the Sun Belt while defrocking the Big 12, but that isn’t the way it worked out.

Iowa State is instead rewarded for beating members of its own underachieving conference, a league that accomplished almost nothing while playing eight non-league games to date. There was one quality Big 12 win: Oklahoma State over Tulsa. There were four meaningless Big 12 wins: Texas over UTEP; Texas Tech (barely) over Houston Baptist; West Virginia over Eastern Kentucky; and Oklahoma over Missouri State. And there were the three losses to the same league, all of them in games that were scheduled to be automatic victories.

So Iowa State’s going 8–1 in a league that proved nothing should carry very little weight. Yet it does, to the point that the Cyclones are the highest-rated two-loss team in the nation. It matters to the committee to beat Oklahoma and Texas, even though there is no data outside the Big 12 circle to indicate that Oklahoma and Texas are good teams.

It’s simply taken for granted that because they are historically good teams, they must still be good teams, because of their brand names and iconic laundry and recruiting rankings. So credit must be given for beating them.

The default setting in the sport is that the Big 12 is good. Yet this is a league that is 0–4 in the College Football Playoff—Oklahoma was the league’s representative every time—and three of the four losses were beatdowns. The Sooners lost by 20 to Clemson in the 2015 playoff. They lost by six in double overtime to Georgia in a classic in 2017. They trailed Alabama 28–0 after 17 minutes in 2018, then rallied to make it look respectable in an 11-point loss. Last year, LSU utterly humiliated the Sooners, leading 49–14 at halftime and winning 63–28.

Yet, somehow, this is a league that always has a team rise into contention in the CFP rankings. Even in a year when its best team has two losses. Even in a year when it goes 0–3 against the Sun Belt.

It’s a joke.

The best team in that league moved up two spots Tuesday night, while Cincinnati moved down one after ... not playing. The Bearcats are one of the most statistically dominant teams in the nation and have handled all comers, but they never got higher than No. 7 and now have been pushed down another rung—essentially out of playoff contention. With one game remaining, against Tulsa, they don't have a realistic path into the top four without complete chaos.

Then there is the team that beat Iowa State by 17 on its own field. Louisiana’s only loss is by three points to undefeated Coastal (10–0), on a field goal with four seconds to play—a quality loss if there ever was one. But the Chanticleers are ranked only 13th, behind three teams with multiple losses (two of them from the Big 12). They flipped spots with BYU, which was trap-doored to 18th after being willing to take on a trip to Coastal with a few days’ notice and then being stopped at the one-yard line on the final play.

And the Ragin’ Cajuns come to rest at No. 19, a spot behind the Cougars and 12 spots behind the team they beat in Ames. Louisiana and Coastal Carolina proved it on the field—and the selection committee doesn’t care a bit.