I haven’t confirmed it yet, but following the Cougars’ upset of Boise State Saturday, BYU should have by now received an abundance of flowers and chocolates — no alcohol, of course — courtesy of the American Athletic Conference.
The Broncos’ loss was their first of the season and brought Boise State back to the pack in the battle for the highest-ranked Group of Five program.
If Boise State would have finished 13-0 as Mountain West champs, the Broncos would have been a shoo-in to earn the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl berth to the Cotton Bowl. After the non-conference loss at BYU, the No. 22-ranked Broncos are still the favorite to win the Mountain West, but now if they finish 12-1 they probably will need some help to play in the Cotton Bowl.
That’s because the highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion, based on the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings, earns a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl. This season’s bid will be for the Cotton Bowl, in a matchup against a Power Five opponent.
Boise State’s loss was huge for the American, which currently features No. 16-ranked SMU (7-0), Memphis (6-1) and Navy (5-1) in the AAC West and No. 18-ranked Cincinnati (6-1) in the AAC East. The best-case scenario for the American would be a conference title game between 12-0 SMU and 11-1 Cincinnati. The winner would likely receive the Cotton Bowl bid.
Based on the computer ratings used in the compilation of the Bowl Championship Series (which utilized the Anderson & Hester, Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Sagarin and Wolfe rankings), the American is the strongest overall Group of Five conference and sixth strongest overall. In fact, the American is not too far behind the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is the lowest-rated Power Five league.
According to those computer ratings, the average ranking of each team in the American is 57.8, slightly behind the ACC (53.8), but substantially better than the Mountain West (seventh overall, 72.0) and Sun Belt (eighth overall, 83.4).
For what it’s worth, the computers rate the Big 12 as the best overall conference (43.8 average team ranking), followed by the Pac-12 (47.5) and Big Ten (48.2). The SEC, which features five Top 10 teams according to the Associated Press poll, is still only fourth at 49.2, illustrating the Grand Canyon-like gap between the SEC’s best and worst programs.
Despite all those numbers favoring the American, AAC officials shouldn’t start booking their Cotton Bowl trip just yet. Remember, the selection committee’s rankings are not based on those computer ratings and, instead, are simply football’s version of a beauty pageant (without Steve Harvey misidentifying the winner).
That’s why No. 21 Appalachian State of the Sun Belt will have a strong case if it can run the table.
The Mountaineers (6-0) already have a win at North Carolina, who nearly upset defending national champion Clemson, and on Nov. 9, they visit South Carolina — the same Gamecocks that upset then-No. 3 Georgia.
A 13-0 Appalachian State would have the most impressive wins, but by all metrics, would have played a much softer conference schedule than the American or Mountain West contenders.
So, in an ironic twist, the American will claim its champion deserves to be in the Cotton Bowl over Appalachian State, using the same “conference schedule strength”-based rationale that was used against the AAC in past years.
Over the course of the last two seasons, undefeated AAC champion UCF entered the bowl season ranked below seven Power Five one-loss teams, seven Power Five two-loss teams and one Power Five three-loss team. UCF ranked behind those schools, in large part, because those programs played in a tougher conference and faced tougher weekly competition in their respective Power Five leagues compared to the American.
Yet, American and UCF officials claimed UCF should have been ranked above those teams with losses because the Knights were undefeated.
Now in a twist of fate — cue “The Twilight Zone” theme song — the American may be relying on the same argument used against them: that a one-loss American team should be ranked higher than an undefeated Sun Belt team because it played a tougher conference schedule.
Anything less than a 13-0 season for Appalachian State will realistically eliminate the Mountaineers from New Year’s Six bowl contention, but it would be fascinating to see what the committee would do with the following scenario:
- AAC champion: 12-1 SMU or 12-1 Cincinnati
- Mountain West champion: 12-1 Boise State
- Sun Belt champion: 13-0 Appalachian State
What would the committee do?
The positives for 12-1 SMU and 12-1 Cincinnati: Either team would have won the toughest (based on power ratings) Group of Five conference, which featured at least three different AP-ranked teams during the season (Memphis was ranked earlier). No other Group of Five league has had more than one ranked team this season.
The positives for 12-1 Boise State: Its only loss was without starting QB Hank Bachmeier, which the selection committee is supposed to take into account, and the Broncos won a league that had nine victories vs. non-conference Power Five leagues, the most of any conference in the nation. Boise State would also have one Power Five road victory (at Florida State). Only two contending Group of Five schools can match that resume builder: SMU and Appalachian State, who could surpass Boise with a win over South Carolina.
The positives for 13-0 Appalachian State: The only Group of Five team with two road victories against Power Five opponents — at North Carolina and South Carolina. The question is would these two monumental wins compensate for playing against a weaker conference schedule as compared to what the American champion or Boise State faced?
On Nov. 5 we will get an idea of how the selection committee values these teams in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. And then four days later, we’ll know if Appalachian State is a contender for the Cotton Bowl when the Mountaineers visit South Carolina.