To get this out of the way, I believed Liberty deserved a New Year’s Six bowl appearance after conference championship week.
Do I think SMU had a strong case to be the Group of Five team that earned a NY6 bowl berth? Absolutely. But just because Liberty had a weak strength of schedule doesn’t mean the Flames aren’t capable of doing what many deem impossible.
They went undefeated against FBS teams and beat New Mexico State, which blew out Auburn, twice. Picking the Flames for that spot was justifiable.
I also think Florida State should’ve been in the College Football Playoff. OK, sorry, let’s get back on track.
But now at this point, the G5 might need a win over a Power Five team in a bowl game, because thus far, those matchups have mostly not gone the way of G5 programs.
Liberty will play Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1. And we’ll find out if that unblemished record meant something or absolutely nothing.
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Group of Five Changes
Recent conference realignment, NIL, the transfer portal. I don’t wanna sound like every other washed up high school football coach on social media, so I’m not going to go on and on about those things.
But their impact on the different tiers of college football is undeniable.
Look no further than the MAC, where the conference’s best quarterbacks–like Dequan Finn of Toledo and Kurtis Rourke of Ohio–have entered the transfer portal. Throw in Jordan McCloud of JMU and Taylen Green of Boise State, and the list of top-notch G5 quarterbacks going elsewhere isn’t short.
As for conference realignment, no one can truly predict what will happen to the Big Ten or the SEC, or what that will mean for the College Football Playoff for that matter. I hope G5 teams get their own playoff, but again, no one knows.
What we do know: The dismantling of the Pac-12, and even a standout G5 program like SMU heading to the ACC – or even a coach like Willie Fritz giving up the head coaching spot at Tulane to go to Houston which was just in the AAC a year ago – indicates a larger matter.
Competing in the FBS isn’t enough anymore. Those in the Group of Five seem to be frantic to cross the gap to the Power Five before that gap continues expanding.
Do I blame those coaches, players, or teams for wanting to move up? Not a second. But all of this highlights the disparity in college football that hasn’t stopped growing.
Look no further than this bowl season. G5 underdogs miraculously pulling off electric, fun upsets over Power Five programs isn’t exactly happening.
After Boston College beat SMU on Thursday, G5 teams are 1-6 against P5 teams in 2023’s bowl season. The only win for the G5 was USF’s 45-0 drubbing over Syracuse, which went through a coaching change this season.
And the deficit in those six losses? It’s 195-126, a double-digit average. Meaning: It hasn’t even been close in those matchups.
Yes, I cover the Group of Five for a living, so I would enjoy a G5 team making some noise. But for the average fan, that’s not exactly thrilling.
Liberty Football In The Fiesta Bowl
This brings me to Liberty, the team that could change the complexion of the Group of Five this bowl season.
Those scores and records would be mostly forgotten if Liberty beat Oregon. And there’s reason to believe that’s not impossible.
The Flames’ strength of schedule is an argument against them, sure. But they dominated Conference USA this year.
And they were arguably playing at their best as the season went on. They haven’t been in a game decided by less than 10 points since October and have only won by one possession twice all season.
Liberty is also well-rounded. The Flames were top five in the country in scoring offense (40.8 points per game) and total offense (514.9 yards per game) while also ranking in the top two in CUSA in scoring defense (22.7 points per game allowed) and total defense (356.5 yards per game allowed).
Led by HERO Sports G5 Player of the Year Kaidon Salter and Co-Coach of the Year Jamey Chadwell, the Flames’ offense could have enough firepower to keep up with the likes of Oregon.
Or maybe they don’t. Maybe the contest will be lopsided by the first quarter like some SMU fans expect. And maybe New Year’s Day will be another reminder of how much the divide between the Power Five and the Group of Five has grown.
But if Liberty can win or even keep this game close – which I believe the Flames will – then they will have proven landmark upsets in college football are still possible.
And that chance, no matter how small, is all the sport has ever needed in the first place.