The College Football Playoff is heading into its third year of existence, the latest evolution of the sport and how it determines its national champion. The Big Ten has been a part of the first two CFP tournaments; Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon to win the inaugural title in 2014, while Michigan State earned a bid last season, losing to Alabama in the semifinals.
The Big Ten is in prime position to have at least one team, and possibly two, in this season’s four-team bracket. Ohio State and Michigan have been pegged as contenders from the preseason and have only enhanced their profiles through the first month.
Wisconsin has put itself into the conversation with impressive wins over LSU and Michigan State, and Nebraska is off to a 4-0 start following last season’s 6-7 finish.
This season’s playoff semifinals will be held on Dec. 31 and hosted by the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., and the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stoken was in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday to watch the Wisconsin-Michigan State game, one of several he’ll see across the country this season.
Stoken isn’t part of the CFP selection committee but he certainly has a vested interest in which teams might be coming to the Peach Bowl, and, with Atlanta’s proximity to the Big Ten in comparison to Arizona, there’s a chance any Big Ten team involved in the CFP will be playing in the Peach.
Stoken sat down with Landof10.com prior to Wisconsin’s 30-6 win against Michigan State and talked about the CFP, his tour of games and its purpose, as well as a former Big Ten assistant coach who has his non-Power Five conference team heavily in the mix for a playoff spot.
Q: You’re on a tour of college games around the country. What is your purpose for the tour?
A: What I try to do from the beginning of the season is I look at the schedule and I try to see everybody that has the potential to be in our game. This year we have the semifinal. Obviously, Wisconsin and Michigan State are two top 10 teams, one from the west side of the Big Ten and one from the east side. If we get a Big Ten team as No. 1, they’ll probably come to Atlanta because the CFP bases where people go geographically and the Big Ten is close to Atlanta. You’d think that if it’s a Big Ten, ACC or SEC No. 1 they’re probably coming to Atlanta. If it’s a Big 12, Pac-12 they’re probably going to go to the Fiesta.
The goal is to try and see as many teams as you can throughout the season that have a potential to get in your game so there’s a relationship built with them through the (Sports Information Department) office, through the coach, through the AD, so you at least know people.
In our case, this is my 19th bowl game and we’ve almost always had ACC vs. SEC. We have great relationships there because we’ve had them every year. Now that we’ve moved into the CFP – it’s our third year in the College Football Playoff New Year’s Six – we’ve got to develop relationships with the Big Ten and the Pac-12 and the Big 12. That’s one of my goals.
Q: You no longer have a say in which teams come to your bowl game. How has that affected the Peach Bowl?
A: I remember three years ago, I called Bill Hancock (CFP executive director) and said, ‘Bill, so are you going to give me a call and let me know who we are going to get? Who the selection committee is going to put in our game?’ and he said ‘Gary, you’ll find out when the rest of America finds out.’ So we watched the TV and found out we had Ole Miss and TCU that year.
The selection committee will make its call and we find out this year on Dec. 4 at 12 o’clock.
Q: What other games are on your tour?
A: Next week I’ve got Georgia and Tennessee, and then I’ll go up to Louisville and Clemson, so I’ll see two games next week. Then the next week I’ll see Stanford-Notre Dame. The next week I’ll see Texas A&M-Alabama. I’m going to see Clemson-Florida State, LSU-Alabama and somewhere in there is Louisville-Houston and then Michigan-Ohio State.
Q: How does a non-Power Five team like Houston affect the CFP?
A: I don’t know that it’s changed anything but the committee will have a decision to make. We saw Houston first-hand (vs. Florida State in the Peach Bowl last season) and they have a very, very, very good defense and (quarterback Gary) Ward is a difference-maker with his feet and his arm. He’s a dual threat. They play hard. Tom Herman has coached them up to where they’re very, very tough and they play very, very hard. That’s what gives them a chance. If they win the American Athletic, and having beaten Oklahoma and, if they can beat Louisville, and Louisville can beat Clemson or if Louisville wins the ACC and Oklahoma wins the Big 12 and Houston is undefeated and they’ve beaten the winner of the Big 12 and the winner of the ACC, the College Football Playoff selection committee is going to have an interesting decision to make.
Houston’s people are great. Tom Herman is first class. With his relationships in the past, lastly at Ohio State, he knows what it takes. He’s been on the biggest stage. He’s excellent.
Q: How important are the coaches, guys like Paul Chryst at Wisconsin and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, to these teams in terms of being able to take a program to the level of playing in the CFP?
A: It’s very, very important. If you can get a president of a university, the athletic director and the head coach on the same page in college athletics, you can do something very special. It seems like that’s what they have here at Michigan State. I know (AD) Mark Hollis a little bit and Mark Dantonio a little bit. They’re first-class guys. The same with Paul Chryst. He’s a first-class guy, and (Wisconsin AD) Barry Alvarez is, too.
It’s not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s good people having good leadership traits working together as a team to make something special happen. That’s what, in the case of Michigan State and Wisconsin, both of those coaches and athletic directors have done. That’s why they’re in the top 10.