Everybody loves an underdog, and that’s never more true than during March Madness. College basketball’s bracket regularly and unpredictably falls apart due to under-seeded mid-majors knocking off big-time bluebloods. That’s what makes the tournament exciting.
But college basketball isn’t the only sport with a bracket anymore. In the College Football Playoff, like in the NCAA tournament, teams outside of the Power Five conferences often lead tough roads to the Final Four.
Do any non-Power Five teams have what it takes to reach the College Football Playoff’s top four this season? We break down five mid-major programs that could turn into college football’s Cinderella in 2015.
No team outside the Power Five entered the offseason with more momentum than Boise State. The Group of Five’s representative in the New Year’s Six bowls last season, the Broncos didn’t miss a beat in their first year without longtime coach Chris Petersen, beating 10th-ranked Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl. Under coach Bryan Harsin, the program used the Mountain West’s top scoring offense (39.7 points per game) to notch its eighth 12-win season since 2002. Boise State could have the pieces in place to keep the success rolling in ‘15.
The roster is set to return 16 total starters, with eight on each side of the ball. The biggest question marks might be at quarterback and running back, where the Broncos lose Grant Hedrick and Jay Ajayi, respectively. All eyes are on redshirt sophomore Ryan Finley and true freshman Brett Rypien at quarterback, while Jeremy McNichols could be the next man up at running back. The Broncos should have all five starters back on the offensive line and a loaded receiving corps joining a seasoned defense. They might even have a résumé that could impress the selection committee, as they open against a Petersen-led Washington squad on Sept. 4.
The Cougars looked the part of a potential Cinderella early last season. They shot out to a 4-0 start that included a 41-7 thumping of Texas, and dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill emerged as a legitimate darkhorse pick for the Heisman Trophy. But the season came crashing down when Hill broke his leg in a 35-20 loss to Utah State on Oct. 3. The Cougars lost Hill for the season and went on to lose four straight games.
Hill returns this fall as a senior, along with 14 other starters. That includes four starters across the offensive line and veteran pass-catchers Colby Pearson and Mitchell Juergens. A defense that allowed 4.93 yards per play also brings back six starters. As an independent, BYU won’t have the luxury of a conference championship to add to its resume. But it will have several marquee games with which to impress the selection committee. The Cougars play road games at Nebraska, UCLA and Michigan—all in the month of September. Wins in those hostile environments should garner plenty of headlines, just what this experienced program needs to spark a playoff run.
After Tommy Tuberville’s squad lost to Memphis 41-14 last October, the Bearcats knew they had to win their final seven American Athletic Conference games to earn any share of the conference title. And that’s exactly what they did.
Cincinnati capped a seven-game win streak with a regular-season-ending 38-31 victory over Houston, a result that thrust the Bearcats into a three-way tie with Memphis and UCF for the league’s top spot. They used the AAC’s No. 2 total offense (6.33 yards per play) to test eventual national champion Ohio State in their marquee nonconference game. Although Cincinnati lost 50–28, it trailed just 33-28 early in the third quarter before the Buckeyes reeled off the final 17 points.
The Bearcats returns 12 starters this fall, including eight from their offense. Chief among them is quarterback Gunner Kiel, who threw for 3,254 yards and tied a program single-season record with 31 touchdown passes in 2014. Kiel will have running back Mike Boone and the bulk of the team’s receiving talent back. The defense, however, returns just four starters and must improve on last year’s unit that allowed 5.8 yards per play.
Cincinnati plays a home game against Miami and has a trip to BYU slated for nonconference play, so the playoff committee could find the Bearcats’ résumé impressive if they win out.
It was only three seasons ago that Northern Illinois crashed the BCS party, earning a trip to the Orange Bowl opposite Florida State with a 12-1 regular season. The Huskies don’t have Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch at quarterback anymore, but they could have the firepower to make a similar run in the playoff era.
Last year Northern Illinois won 11 games and the Mid-American Conference title with a 51-17 victory over Bowling Green on Dec. 5. That win set a conference record for points and margin of victory in the MAC title game. The Huskies enter spring practice with 14 returning starters, including Drew Hare at quarterback. The rising junior grabbed control of the position midway through last season and threw for 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
Should the Huskies go undefeated in 2015, that’d include a victory in the MAC championship game and road wins over Ohio State and Boston College in nonconference play. Even with a weaker conference slate, that’d be a strong body of work for playoff consideration.
The Aggies’ 21-6 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl last December marked the program’s third straight bowl win, a school record. That accomplishment is even more remarkable considering the Utah State lost three quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in 2014. Four quarterbacks attempted at least 35 passes last year, a run sparked by starter Chuckie Keeton’s knee injury against Wake Forest in September. Despite the shakeups under center, Utah State still managed to notch a double-digit win season, a testament to the coaching job of Matt Wells.
The Aggies should be one of the Mountain West’s more experienced teams in 2015. Fifteen starters return, including Keeton, who received a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA after suffering a second torn ACL. In Keeton’s last full season in ‘12, he earned first-team all-conference honors and ranked 17th nationally in total offense (307 yards per game) as just a sophomore. This season Keeton will have four offensive linemen back as well as senior receivers Hunter Sharp and JoJo Natson (1,443 combined receiving yards in ’14).
Utah State’s defense was its bread-and-butter last year. The unit allowed a Mountain West-best 19.7 points per game, and that group returns six starters. The Aggies are slated to play one of the better nonconference schedules of any Group of Five team. If they win road games at Utah and Washington and handle their conference schedule, expect this group to find a way into the playoff discussion.