The Final Four you will enjoy watching this week could never happen in major college football.
It couldn’t happen because it never has and likely never will.
Start with the premise that college football doesn’t do Cinderellas well. The sport is an exclusive club walled off with money, influence, tradition and network contracts reflecting how the public wants to watch
more than, say, Boise.
It is reflected in the definitions — Power Five vs. Group of Five. It is reflected in the numbers. Exclusive club? Only 30 football programs have won a national championship in the wire service era (since 1936). About half of those are members of the current SEC and Big Ten. The last and only team to win it all outside the current Power Five was BYU in 1984.
Only 18 college football teams have even played in the BCS Championship Game or College Football Playoff since 1998. There have been 36 total teams to play in basketball’s Final Four during that period.
So, yeah, football is exclusive.
The difference is that the basketball tournament starts each season with all 351 teams truly having a chance. VCU got to the Final Four. So have George Mason and Butler. This year, it’s Gonzaga, which has been knocking on the Final Four door so long it’s almost an insult to call it a mid-major.
Football equivalents to Gonzaga and
South Carolina Gamecocks
, despite it being a Power Five program, are virtually impossible to envision. The gap between football’s haves and have nots has never been wider financially, athletically and perceptively. But we’re going to try.
We thought it would be fun to try to put together a Final Four bracket based on the college football equivalents of this year’s participants. Call it a Football Four.
Obviously, this list is open for interpretation … and criticism.
That’s why we stress: this — is — for — fun.
Boise State Broncos
is Gonzaga: I know the Zags don’t play football, but think of an FBS football equivalent — a so-called mid-major that has been good for years, knocking on the door consistently.
Rough comparisons are Boise State and TCU. In their best season (14-0, 2009), the Broncos never got higher than fifth and finished the regular season ranked sixth in the AP Top 25. Would that have been good enough in the CFP era? Perhaps.
TCU Horned Frogs
from the Mountain West was No. 3 that year going into the bowls that year before losing to Boise in the Fiesta. TCU ended a four-year top 10 run with a Rose Bowl win in 2010. The Horned Frogs concluded the regular season as one of only three undefeated teams in the FBS. They finished ranked second. Largely because of that run, TCU was in the Big 12 two years later.
To give you an idea of how far away the mid-majors are in college football,
Western Michigan Broncos
essentially just accomplished the same thing Boise did in 2009 and TCU in 2010.
Those Broncos (13-0 in the regular season) were ranked 12th before the bowls as one of only two undefeated teams in the country. They lost to
in the Cotton Bowl.
Tulane Green Wave
is South Carolina: This is the toughest of the four to measure. Gamecocks basketball has eight NCAA Tournament appearances. It hadn’t been in since 2004 nor won a game in the tournament since 1973. It has two major conference titles since 1970. Even with the Final Four run, the Gamecocks have a losing record all-time in the NCAA Tournament (8-9).
In football, that equates to perhaps a Tulane,
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
, Iowa State,
- Tulane: Eight bowl appearances since 1970, three wins. Four conference titles, none since 1998.
- Wake Forest: An Orange Bowl as recently as 2007 but only 11 bowls in its history.
Iowa State Cyclones
: A Big 12 (and Big Eight) also-ran. Eight bowls since 2000, three wins. Since 1960, the Cyclones have finished above fourth in the conference or division seven times, the last time 12 years ago.
- UNLV: Four bowls, ever. One since 2000. Two conference titles (1984, 1994).
- Virginia: 7-11 all-time in bowls. Last bowl, 2011. Last bowl win, 2005. No outright conference titles (shared ACC titles in 1989 and 1995).
Try to imagine any of those teams getting into the CFP.
Alabama Crimson Tide
North Carolina Tar Heels
: Think of
Ohio State Buckeyes
Southern California Trojans
, any of the other superpowers. That’s the football equivalent of what UNC is in basketball (five national championships).
Roy Williams will be gunning for his third national championship since 2005 alone. Since 2005, that’s in the football realm of
(national titles in 2006, 2008) and Alabama (four in that period).
is Oregon: There is a rough Final Four equivalent in football for the Ducks — themselves. The question is whether this Final Four is the school’s highest athletic achievement. We’re leaving out track and field (10 combined indoor/outdoor titles), so this is only a revenue sport discussion.
The only comparisons are the 1939 basketball national championship and 2010 football season. No one really knew what that first basketball tournament was about. Back then, the NIT was popular.
In football, Oregon fell three points short of
in the BCS Championship Game with a Heisman Trophy third-place finisher (LaMichael James). That came in the middle of the best four-year run in program history (46-7 from 2009-2012).
Dana Altman isn’t Chip Kelly, but it looks like something is just getting started with the Ducks in basketball. Altman has won at least a share of consecutive Pac-12 titles. This is the program’s first Final Four since 1939.
With tears streaming down his face Saturday night, benefactor and former interim athletic director Pat Kilkenny told me, “It’s a numbers game to start with. It doesn’t take a lot of players.”
The disclaimer stands: It’s hard to translate basketball to football but we said we’d try.
The Football Four
Alabama vs. Oregon: Bama still at the top of its game. Oregon coming off a 4-8 season, its worst in years. Alabama 44, Oregon 20.
Tulane vs. Boise State: The Green Wave has one winning season since 2002. (Between 2003 and 2014, South Carolina hoops had four such seasons.) In the first year of his first FBS job, Willie Fritz guided Tulane to a 4-8 season. Boise State (10-3 in 2016) has dropped off only slightly since the Chris Petersen years.
Championship game — Alabama vs. Boise State: Like we said, it hasn’t happened. It may never happen. College football remains an exclusive club.