What’s the difference between deserving and earning an opportunity?
According to Merriam-Webster, “deserve” is to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward while “earn” is to receive an opportunity as a return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.
Far more than a meaningless label, Power 5 membership gives programs a clear pathway to a national championship via the CFB Playoff bracket. The five conferences at the apex of the sport are the only place where a given coach can stand in front of his players at the beginning of the season and state, unequivocally, “if we win all of our games, we’ll play for a national title.”
The teams listed here, in order of level of performance, have consistently, on the football field, earned a shot at the next level.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 81.9%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 83.9%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 60%
No program has earned a shot to move up more than Boise State has. Over the last decade, and despite a major transition at head coach, the Broncos have hands down outperformed the rest of the field.
Boise State plays in one of the more competitive Group of 5 leagues, winning the Mountain West title three times since joining up in 2011. The Broncos have also been deliberate in not just booking games with Power 5 opponents, but scheduling powerhouse programs that will provide serious tests – Oregon in 2009, Virginia Tech in 2010, Georgia in 2011, Michigan State in 2012, Washington in 2013 and 2015, Ole Miss in 2014, Oklahoma State in 2018, and Florida State in 2019.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 66.2%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 66.3%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 65%
While Houston hasn’t had the dominance in conference play that Boise State has, it’s earned a slight edge over the Broncos vs. Power 5 opponents. It’s also worth noting that both schools played the same number of Power foes in the last decade – the Cougars earning a 13-7 mark and the Broncos going 12-8.
As far as quality, Houston has played Oklahoma (2016 and 2019), UCLA (2010-12), Mississippi State (2010), Louisville (2015), Arizona (2017-18), Texas Tech (2017-18 and 2009), and Oklahoma State (2009).
W/L straight up (2009-18): 63%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 59.2%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 57.5%
What strengthens Cincinnati’s case, and makes its numbers not an apples-to-apples comparison, are the eight seasons it spent in the Big East. Four of these years (2009-12) came in the last decade, meaning the Bearcats were playing programs which are now Power 5 members (think West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, and Pitt), at a much higher clip than other current Group of 5 members.
If you include these games, Cincinnati has played twice as many Power 5 opponents since 2009 than any other program listed here other than independent BYU. It makes the Bearcats 23-17 mark vs. the top tier of competition (7.5% less than Houston’s mark and a mere 2.5% lower than Boise State’s) even more impressive because they’ve managed to maintain a winning record despite twice the volume of games.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 62.3%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 40%
BYU has been an independent for eight of the last ten seasons, meaning its numbers – like Cincinnati’s – are difficult to compare to programs with a static conference affiliation. The Cougars are 18-27 against the Power 5 vs. the Bearcats’ 23-17 mark. But where Cincy has played the Rutgers, Syracuse, and Pitt’s of the world, BYU has played the likes of Texas (2011, 2013 and 2014), Ole Miss (2011), Notre Dame (2012-13), Wisconsin (2013, 2017-18), Washington (2013 and 2018), Michigan (2015), UCLA (2015-16), Michigan State (2016), Mississippi State (2016-17), and LSU (2017).
Though their numbers aren’t on par with Boise State or Houston’s – the Cougars’ status as a non-Group of 5 program that is committed to scheduling additional, high quality Power opponents makes them perhaps the most deserving of a shot at the next level.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 66.2%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 72.3%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 30.4%
While UCF might be considered the obvious first option to move up to a Power 5 league, its performance has been inconsistent over the past decade. Where on one hand the Knights went 25-1 from 2017-18 and 22-5 from 2012-13, on the other they went 6-19 in the two-season gap between the two dominant streaks including posting an 0-12 record in 2015.
Additionally, UCF’s 7-16 (30.4%) mark vs. Power 5 opponents puts it more in line with Ohio and San Diego State – which both have a 27.3% record against Power 5 opponents – than with Boise State or Houston.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 60.3%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 60.6%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 38%
Navy’s case is complicated by the fact it was an independent up until 2015 when it signed on with the American. That means, like Cincinnati and BYU, that it’s played more Power 5 opponents over the last decade than other comparable Group of 5 members. The Midshipmen have 29 such games vs. Boise State and Houston’s 20. Add in the fact that their 11-18 mark (7% better than UCF’s performance) includes a yearly clash with Notre Dame and other formidable opponents such as Ohio State (2009 and 2014), South Carolina (2011), and Penn State (2012) – and it’s even more impressive.
W/L straight up (2009-18): 68.4%
W/L vs. conference (2009-18): 80.2%
W/L vs. Power 5 (2009-18): 31.8%
What hurts Northern Illinois’ case is first, it plays in the MAC – where the level of competition isn’t necessarily on par with the Mountain West or American. Next, it’s showed poorly vs. the Power 5 – posting a 7-15 mark vs. Houston’s 13-7 and Boise State’s 12-8.
But, on the flip side, the Huskies’ P5 numbers are very close to UCF’s 7-16 mark and shatter the numbers of other successful Group of 5 members such as Appalachian State (0-7), Temple (4-18) and Western Michigan (2-22).
You’ve also got to wonder how each program listed (especially those in Tier Two) would be transformed if it did ascend to a Power 5 league. While not a magical wand, recruiting, financial viability, exposure, etc. would all be ramped up – especially for programs who have already made it clear, on the field, that they could compete at a higher level.