The College Football Playoff is a vast improvement over the BCS. By having the “four best teams” compete to find the National Championship, it eliminated some of the guess work from the BCS format. With that being said, the BCS was better than the old method, which did not involve a game at all. Without a game to be played, many news outlets announced their national champion before bowl season. Even with these benefits, there is one major drawback: the CFP will eliminate independents.
Did They Win Before the BCS?
Yes, with some regularity too. The 25 seasons before the introduction of the BCS system, independents were National Champions nine times. Of those nine, only one was not unanimous, as UPI elected Alabama as National Champions in 1973, instead of Notre Dame. Nine out of 25 may is a lot for one “conference”. Over that 25 year stretch, an independent school was the National Champion 36% of the time, and from 1986 to 1989, four consecutive independents won. It wasn’t just flukes either. Eight were won by college football royalty, with three for Notre Dame, three for Miami (FL), and two for Penn State. The outlier happens to be Pitt, who was an independent when they won in 1976. Since the inception of the BCS or its precursors (the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance), no independent school has won a national championship. So, what happened?
Where Have All the Independents Gone?
Two big factors have played into why independents no longer win. One is the change to the BCS/CFP, which I will get into later. The other, maybe bigger issue, is the quality of independent programs has decreased. In 1991, Miami and Pitt both joined the Big East, now they are both in the ACC. Two years later, Penn State bolted for the Big Ten. Miami is the only one of these teams, however, who have won since joining a conference, which they did in 2001. At the same time, while they did not win in this 25 season window, Florida State was independent until 1992, then won once they went to the ACC. If independents could replace these powerhouses, it wouldn’t really matter. However, they did not.
The Current Independents
Of all the current independent programs, two have won a national championship: Notre Dame and Army. Army has not won since 1945, and Notre Dame hasn’t won since 1988. Outside of those two leaves UMass Amherst, Liberty, New Mexico State, and BYU. BYU won in 1984, but were members of the Western Athletic Conference at the time. Outside of the Fighting Irish, no other independent has been relevant for over 70 years. However, will a weakened field or the CFP eliminate independents ?
Is the BCS to Blame?
The BCS, and later the CFP, is partially to blame. If an independent loses one game, they do not get the benefit of the doubt. They are not handcuffed by conference schedules, and can thus play whoever they want. If their schedule is weak or they drop a game, they’re unlikely to make it. A school like Alabama, however, can dominate all year, lose the Iron Bowl, and sneak in as the fourth seed. Under the BCS, this issue was slightly lessened for Notre Dame, as they would receive an automatic bid to a BCS bowl game if they finished in the top eight, but no other school. There is no such rule in the College Football Playoff, as teams are decided by a committee. Without a change in format, does this spell the end for independents?
Where Do Independents Go From Here?
Without a change in format, the CFP will eliminate independents. However, this does not mean that Notre Dame will join a conference for football. They have the prestige and history as an independent program necessary to make the playoffs. It is also unlikely Army will join a conference, as that is another program that historically has been independent. This leaves four other programs that, while far from a national championship now, should join a conference. Struggling as an independent will make it hard to get the benefit of the doubt if they suddenly have a stellar season. If they slowly improve as members of a conference, it will be easier to get in if one of these schools win their future conference.
The last time the CFB realigned started in 2010 and finished in 2014, but with the current issue of independents, we could see another one soon.