How could a mid-major qualify for the College Football Playoff?

Monday March 10th, 2014

Fiesta Bowl champ UCF would have had a difficult time challenging for a spot in the four-team playoff.
Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Wichita State is the toast of college basketball after finishing the regular season 34-0 and becoming the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. There was some debate in recent weeks as to whether the Shockers, with their weak Missouri Valley Conference schedule, deserve a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday, but those days seem behind us. Given Wichita State's record, no credible voice is suggesting that the Shockers should be anything other than a top seed once the brackets are unveiled.

It's a remarkable, extremely rare moment for mid-majors. And it would be darn near impossible to pull off in college football.

If the men's basketball committee does in fact make Wichita State a No. 1 seed, it will essentially be proclaiming the Shockers to be one of the four best teams in the country, which, beginning this fall, would be the equivalent of Boise State -- or another program from outside the five power conferences -- qualifying for the four-team College Football Playoff.

The question here: Is such a feat even possible?

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No team from outside the six former BCS automatic-qualifying conferences ever reached the national championship game under the old system, though Andy Dalton-led TCU came close in 2010, finishing 12-0 and No. 3 in the final rankings. In theory, adding two more spots to the field should provide more opportunity for football's little guys. In the new format, however, those teams may be more, not less, marginalized.

For one thing, conference realignment has dramatically altered the competitive landscape in the four years since the 2010 Horned Frogs came one Auburn or Oregon loss away from playing for the crystal trophy. TCU has moved up to a power conference. So has two-time BCS participant Utah. Boise State, which completed undefeated seasons with BCS bowl victories in '06 and '09, is the last of the three recent mid-major darlings that still plays outside the power conferences. The perceived gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider.

In fact, there are fewer haves now than there were in the old system. The realignment trickle-down effect eventually destroyed the Big East, with the reconstituted American Athletic Conference taking its place. The five leagues that garnered "contract" bowls in the playoff format -- the Big Ten and Pac-12 (Rose), Big 12 and SEC (Sugar) and ACC (Orange) -- are the new consolidated AQ conferences. Even the American's most highly regarded program, Louisville, will join the ACC as a full member on July 1. All told, the so-called Group of Five (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt) has welcomed eight FBS newcomers since 2011, while retaining just six teams that have played in BCS bowls (Boise State, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and UCF).

Furthermore, while many of the pollsters -- polls comprised two-thirds of the BCS formula -- paid mind to teams' strength of schedule, there was no formal requirement, nor was it applied with any sense of consistency. College Football Playoff officials have made it abundantly clear that strength of schedule will be a point of emphasis (if not the biggest point of emphasis) for the playoff selection committee. And whereas a basketball team has numerous opportunities to schedule quality nonconference opponents early in a season (Wichita State, for example, faced Saint Louis, Tennessee and BYU in November and December), a football team has just four potential slots. Plus, since athletic departments rely heavily on ticket revenue from home games, it becomes even more challenging for have-not teams to schedule more than a couple of games against power-conference foes, which either won't travel or require home-and-home agreements.

The non-AQ team that might have had the best BCS championship argument, had it finished undefeated, was Boise State in 2011. The Broncos were led by four-year quarterback standout Kellen Moore and future star NFL running back Doug Martin. As fans may recall, that team opened with a 35-21 rout of eventual SEC East champion Georgia in Atlanta, and its lone blemish was a 36-35 home loss to TCU on a last-second missed field goal. Had Boise State won that game, the Broncos would have sparked a heck of season-ending debate, particularly given the backlash against that year's LSU-Alabama title game rematch.

For the sake of hypotheticals, here's what Boise State's "tourney résumé" (using the most commonly cited basketball criteria) would have looked like had the Broncos finished undefeated in 2011.

Record: 12-0
SOS*: 39
Vs. Top 25: 2-0
Vs. Top 50: 3-0
Road/neutral: 6-0

* -- All BCS data is from Jerry Palm's website, which includes strength of schedule rankings.

And here's how that résumé would have stacked up against the top four teams in the final 2011 BCS standings.

No. 1 LSU

Record: 13-0
SOS: 1
Vs. Top 25: 6-0
Vs. Top 50: 8-0
Road/neutral: 6-0

No. 2 Alabama

Record: 11-1
SOS: 11
Vs. Top 25: 3-1
Vs. Top 50: 6-1
Road/neutral: 5-0

No. 3 Oklahoma State

Record: 11-1
SOS: 4
Vs. Top 25: 4-0
Vs. Top 50: 8-1
Road/neutral: 5-1

No. 4 Stanford

Record: 11-1
SOS: 41
Vs. Top 25: 0-1
Vs. Top 50: 3-1
Road/neutral: 5-0

Looking at those résumés, Boise would have had no argument against the top three, but perhaps it could have made a better case for the fourth playoff spot than the Cardinal. Though, as I've written in the past, No. 5 Oregon had a stronger case than Stanford, too; the Ducks beat the Cardinal 53-50 in November 2011.

Even so, it's important to reiterate that the Broncos, unlike Wichita State, did NOT finish undefeated, thereby rendering the discussion moot. Meanwhile, 10-2 TCU, the team that not only handed Boise State its lone defeat but also wound up winning a third straight Mountain West title, is no longer in that league. The MWC has since added five teams (Fresno State, Nevada, Hawaii, San Jose State and Utah State), but it has dropped considerably in quality. The Broncos even struggled last season, finishing 8-5 with all but one of their conference opponents ranked 67th or lower in the BCS standings.

Another recent test case might be reigning Fiesta Bowl champion UCF. Mind you, the Knights were still considered a power-conference team last season, and they dropped one game. If it had been a year later, however, and if UCF had pulled out its home game against South Carolina on Sept. 28, it would have claimed two Top 25 wins (South Carolina and Louisville) and five Top 50 victories (those two plus Cincinnati, Penn State and Houston). Even then, other games against FIU (1-11), Memphis (3-9), Connecticut (3-9) and Temple (2-10) left the Knights with a strength of schedule ranked 81st nationally. And that was before the American lost Louisville while adding East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

Still, UCF isn't backing down with its schedule. This year, the Knights will face Penn State in Ireland, host BYU and visit Missouri, which was last year's SEC East champ. That's far a more ambitious nonconference slate than most teams from the five power leagues have, and a model for future mid-major playoff aspirants.

While every season is different, this, in general, is what a non-power-conference program's résumé would need to include to warrant playoff consideration:

• An undefeated record

• Wins over two respected power-conference foes, one of which finishes the season in or near the top 10

• Either a third win over a decent power-conference opponent or two wins over respectable mid-majors that typically play in bowls

• One Top 25 win over a conference foe and a league schedule with no more than two opponents ranked in the bottom third of the FBS

Even then, no more than three of the five power-conference champions could finish with one loss or fewer, so that the other contenders for the fourth playoff spot would either have two losses or not win their respective conference.

In other words, all of the stars would have to align. A mid-major qualifying for the coming four-team playoff would only happen in an extremely rare scenario, much like Wichita State securing a No. 1 seed in the tournament.

4:57 | College Football
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