Can there ever be a Gonzaga in college football?
You’ve seen it before.
A big-revenue college sports team goes into the postseason as the odds-on favorite to win it all. It’s almost unfair how good they are. They have the future top-10 pick, they have one of the most recognizable faces in the sport and they have the seemingly ageless coach who has been there forever.
Wake up. That wasn’t Alabama football I just described. It was Gonzaga basketball. You know, the West Coast Conference juggernaut that is in position to do something we haven’t seen done in nearly half a century: complete an entire college basketball season undefeated.
We see that in college football because, well, playing 1/3 the games and doing so in a sport that (usually) rewards the teams recruiting from the blue-chip pool of talent is a different ballgame. Literally.
What’s unique about Gonzaga is that it’s no longer the plucky mid-major with 7,000 students whom diehard basketball fans heap praise on. The Zags are the, uh, zag. They aren’t the program like Butler that hits it right with a bound-for-better coach and an overachieving roster who happens to play in the middle of a basketball hub (in 49 states it’s just basketball). Gonzaga went from being the best of among mid-majors who, like Butler, could have the occasional special group (1999, 2006 and 2009) to being a yearly Elite Eight participant and national title contender.
Gonzaga recruits, develops and plays like a blue blood. Mark Few deserves a ton of credit for that whether his team cuts down the nets in Indianapolis or not.
Could we ever see a rise quite like this in college football, though?
Let’s lay out what we’re talking about
The college football equivalent to what Gonzaga is doing would be if a program like Cincinnati, UCF or Boise State went from being a yearly New Year’s 6 contender to becoming national title favorites. And just so we’re clear, we’re talking about real national titles that are actually acknowledged by the current system.
The current Playoff system, of course, would make the answer to the question an obvious “no.” I mean, if we haven’t even seen a single Group of 5 team make the field even though we’ve seen 4 Group of 5 teams go undefeated only to get left out of the 4-team Playoff. While I maintain that 2016 Houston had a shot, and 2021 Cincinnati’s path is there, the odds still aren’t good in this current system.
The football equivalent of what Gonzaga is doing would be a Group of 5 team joining the frequent Playoff invitees of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma. I mean, think about this. Here are the amount of Elite Eight trips from these schools since 2015:
- Gonzaga: 4
- Kansas: 3
- Kentucky: 3
- Duke: 3
- UNC: 2
It’s hard to imagine a college football world in which we’re talking about a Group of 5 team having more Playoff appearances in a 6-year stretch than the blue bloods.
But Playoff expansion is the way in which this dynamic can shift. If Cincinnati/UCF/Boise State starts getting yearly Playoff bids in an 8-team field and it actually wins games convincingly, then we can start to have the Gonzaga conversation. I’d argue winning the Group of 5 bid for an 8-team Playoff is a bit easier than consistently going to Elite Eights and competing for titles like Gonzaga, but that’s really the only way this argument gains legitimacy.
There are plenty of hurdles preventing that from being a reality anytime soon.
The Few Factor
Few has been at Gonzaga since 1999. He’s had plenty of opportunities to go beyond the walls of Spokane and coach a traditional power. He’s the outlier. Even when Mike Krzyzewski turned Duke into a blue blood, it was in the ACC. There also wasn’t the same sort of financial divide between Power 5 schools and mid-majors then like there is now.
Speaking of that, Few’s salary was ranked No. 57 among college basketball coaches at $1.98 million in 2020-21, according to USA Today. Only 3 college basketball coaches made at least $5 million annually in 2020-21. In college football, 16 coaches made at least $5 million. From No. 10 to No. 60 in college basketball coaches salaries, there’s only a variance of roughly $2 million. I say “only” because in college football for the coaches ranked No. 10 to No. 60, there’s a variance of roughly $3.7 million.
Here’s the real kicker. In college football, Dana Holgorsen is the highest-paid Group of 5 coach at $3.61 million. There were 36 Power 5 coaches who made more than that. Including Luke Fickell ($3,272,500) and Ken Niumatalolo ($2,316,000), only 3 Group of 5 coaches ranked among the top 60 nationally in annual salary.
In other words, the financial gain is significantly greater in college football than college basketball. Combine that with the reality that Group of 5 teams are at a massive disadvantage with the current Playoff format, and yeah, let’s just say there aren’t many Mark Fews in college football.
Money isn’t everything, but would Few have left Gonzaga if his team didn’t even get an equal chance to compete for a title against the blue bloods in the postseason? It’d be like if Gonzaga could only win the NIT every year. I don’t want to assume anything, but let’s be real. That has to be something.
It’s much easier to have a mid-major destination job in college basketball than in college football. Sure, Group of 5 coaches have turned down plenty of Power 5 jobs. But ultimately, that imbalance is that much greater on the football side.
There’s another imbalance that needs to be mentioned here.
The Talent Factor
This is along the lines of why I said we’d never have a Playoff quite like this blue bloods-less crop of elite teams in college basketball this year. It’s the composite talent factor. Here are Gonzaga’s recruiting class rankings since 2014, which was when the Zags really took off (247sports composite):
- 2014 — No. 45
- 2015 — No. 112
- 2016 — No. 20
- 2017 — No. 120
- 2018 — No. 69
- 2019 — No. 13
- 2020 — No. 9
- 2021 — No. 31
Basketball recruiting is much different because of the limited scholarship availability, especially at places that don’t have the one-and-dones like Duke and Kentucky. Don’t get caught up in that. Instead look at how in the last 8 classes, the Zags finished in the top 45 5 times.
Now consider this. In college football, here are the Group of 5 schools that ranked in the top 45 during that stretch:
- 2014 — USF (No. 42)
- 2015 — None
- 2016 — Houston (No. 36)
- 2017 — None
- 2018 — None
- 2019 — None
- 2020 — Cincinnati (No. 41)
- 2021 — Cincinnati (No. 42)
To recap, that’s only 1 Group of 5 team in the last 8 years who ranked among the top 40 nationally in the class rankings. None of those classes ranked among the top 35 nationally.
Before you tell me that stars aren’t everything in football, take a look at the 247sports team talent composite rankings. That measures the amount of recruiting talent on the roster. The worst ranking for a national championship participant since 247sports started tracking this in 2015 was 2015 Clemson, which was No. 13. Of the 12 national championship participants, 11 were in the top 10 in that year and 9 were in the top 6 (2016 Clemson and 2019 Clemson were No. 9).
That’s the problem. You aren’t winning a national title in this current college football system without talent. The team with the No. 59 talent composite ranking might get a Playoff bid, but it seems unlikely that it would ever be in the Gonzaga role of obvious favorite to win it all. It would be considered a miracle. No. 59, by the way, was what an undefeated Cincinnati team ranked last season in the 247sports talent composite. Not a single Group of 5 team cracked the top 50.
That’s the great divide until further notice.
Gonzaga can sign top-10 classes in a given year. It can land a 5-star like Jalen Suggs.
Sure, Houston can go get a 5-star like Ed Oliver. But who’s making a bigger impact on his team’s success? A run-stuffing defensive tackle or a dynamic combo guard? It’s not even close.
That’s why the non-Power 5 climb is so much steeper in football.
So what does this all mean? Don’t hold your breath
With the TV revenue gap, the recruiting gap and the postseason system gap, college football’s version of Gonzaga is a pipe dream at best. Too many things seem to be working against it. Gonzaga also made it look far easier than it truly is.
The teams who take this step usually do so after joining a Power 5 conference, which Gonzaga never did. Even a place like Villanova had the benefit of playing a traditional basketball conference like the Big East combined with a major US city to recruit from.
Gonzaga has a remarkable coach, a true 21st century brand and perhaps soon, it’ll have the sport’s ultimate prize. Two of those 3 things seem obtainable for a Group of 5 program in college football.
But that last one? I’ll believe it when I see it. And maybe not even then.