LAS VEGAS—The Sin City din of beeping slot machines and the howls of double-down winners can be heard from the ballroom at the chic Cosmopolitan Hotel where the Mountain West hosts its media days. Las Vegas is a city built on long-shot aspirations, with millions of tourists checking in every year with penthouse dreams and Brinks-truck optimism.
Las Vegas offers a fitting setting for the Mountain West, the premier incubator for small schools with big college football dreams. Starting with Utah crashing the Bowl Championship Series in 2004, the Mountain West sent four teams to the highest-level bowl games and annexed Boise State, the past decade’s other defining small-school darling.
One year into the College Football Playoff format, however, it’s becoming clear that the Mountain West and other teams outside the Power Five leagues (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) face daunting odds to earn one of the four playoff spots. While it’s dangerous to make definitive declarations off just one year of data, a confluence of factors leave leagues outside of the Power Five conferences as long shots to be in the conversation at the sport’s highest levels.
“The reality is that I can’t imagine there’s a scenario where they leave out a Big 12 and an ACC school with one loss (for a Mountain West school),” said Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter.
This year could present a fascinating litmus test of the league’s viability of a potential party crasher. Boise State returns 17 starters from a team that went 12-2 last season and beat Pac-12 South champion Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. In past years, the combination of that many returning starters and a signature bowl victory would have Boise starting the season near the top 10. But the reality is that the Broncos will be a fringe Top 25 team when the polls are released. Still, Boise coach Bryan Harsin thinks a playoff spot is possible in the right scenario. “I don’t think that’s a pipe dream,” Harsin said. “I know what other people think. Here’s the thing, I still think college football is the greatest sport and most exciting for that reason, that you give a team like Boise a chance.”
One reason Boise is likely to receive a low preseason ranking is that it lost two key players, prolific tailback Jay Ajayi and accurate quarterback Grant Hendrick. But there’s also the reality of teams from outside the power leagues being completely absent from the championship picture last season, as no squad from outside the Power Five leagues climbed into the top 20 of the playoff rankings. At no time in the past 15 years have smaller-conference teams been so distinctly removed from the national conversation. That’s an anecdotal observation, but one that many observers here agreed with. College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock trotted out a quote he’ll inevitably use quite a few times this season when asked about a small-conference school’s chances of making the playoff. “One year does not make a trend.”
It’s a valid point, but there are also some small signals that popped up from the one year that would add pessimism to Boise’s case. One important and overlooked nuance that emerged is that the polls tended to follow the committee’s rankings as opposed to the committee’s rankings following the polls. Why does that matter? A few reasons. First off, the committee wipes the slate clean and re-ranks each week. In doing so, it will inherently hurt teams from outside the Power Five. When the first College Football Playoff rankings are released on Nov. 3, Boise’s games from that date onward are New Mexico, Air Force, at San Jose State and potentially the Mountain West title game. That offers little opportunity to impress committee members. By contrast, Auburn will face Texas A&M on the road, Georgia, Idaho, Alabama and potentially the SEC East winner in that league's championship game.
So, while in theory having four playoff spots would give a school like Boise a better chance to play for the national title than under the old system, that still may not be the reality. Another factor hurting the Broncos is the lack of computer polls, which during the BCS days tended to favor the Broncos since they were biased toward undefeated teams. “I’m a computer guy,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said with a smile and thumbs-up gesture. “I hated the human element.”
Boise’s lab experiment this year includes the potential of a splash in September, as the early schedule features a home game against Washington and road trips to BYU and Virginia. Win all those games, and the Broncos could be knocking on the door of the top 10. But there’s still a long way to go and a lot of teams to hop over to get into the top four—plus the human element to overcome.
“To be honest with you, I feel like Boise State has been a power program for a long time, if we’re in the Group of Five or not,” Harsin said. “There’s power conferences, but there’s power programs.”
The biggest upcoming test for the Mountain West’s relevancy at the highest levels of college football will be when the College Football Playoff grows. To be clear, there’s been no official discussion of the playoff jumping from four to eight. But considering that there are four spots for the five power leagues and the possibility of more revenue, expansion seems inevitable. Spend enough time around the sport’s powerbrokers and they’ll tell you to expect discussions to kick off in about five years simply because of the way the sport is trending.
At that juncture, we can assume the Power Five champions will all receive an automatic birth. A huge question will be whether or not the Group of Five gets one for its best team. With the way that finances and television money are flowing toward the top leagues, it’s not a safe bet to say that the Group of Five would be automatically included.
A team like Boise State flirting with the playoff in the next few years would bolster the Group of Five’s argument for inclusion. But for now, just like the tourists at the tables in Vegas, the odds are against college football’s little guys.