How a Mid-Major can Earn a Spot in the College Football Playoff

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The final introductory article to this first season of the College Football Playoff will discuss what exactly a mid-major has to do to earn a spot in the four team postseason tournament.

Fortunately, this is probably the easiest question of all about the CFP to answer. All we really have to do is study the history of mid-majors during the BCS era. While the selection process is different, by looking at when mid-major teams have challenged for spots in the top two of the BCS we can figure when they will at least be in the conversation for top four in the CFP.

First of all, the basic arguments will be the same. An undefeated mid-major will be able to claim that they beat every team put in front of them and that there’s nothing more anyone can ask for than perfection. The arguments against them will be “they didn’t play anybody” or the more sophisticated “they only have to get up for one game a year”.

As under the BCS, any mid-major hoping for a spot in the CFP will have to obliterate all mediocre competition. The few (if any) games against top teams won’t have to be blowouts, but everything else will. A close game against a bad team can kill a mid-major’s chances as surely as any loss can. The CFP has said that they will focus on strength of schedule, so any aspiring mid-major will have to make their eye-test case so strong as to outweigh the low SOS.

If we look at when mid-majors like Boise State and TCU earned top five rankings in the BCS era, it was never from just a single good season. Even mid-majors with top-tier talent will usually start off lower in the polls and have to work their way up. So whenever Boise State or TCU earned a high ranking, it came off the heels of multiple successful seasons. A top five finish means a top 10-15 start for a mid-major, which could be close enough to be in the mix if they run the table.

Yes, the selection committee is supposed to be above all of that preseason poll nonsense, but the same basic principle behind the reason for those poll trends apply. A mid-major doesn’t start out being on the national radar. Even one that earns their way throughout the season sits behind the eight-ball in the national conversation. A mid-major, to really be under national scrutiny, needs to start the year in the limelight. That means a great season the year before, preferably capped off with an upset of a top power conference team.

That is the real crux of the matter. Throughout the BCS era, it took mid-major teams several years to earn what a power-conference team earned in one. Boise State’s first Fiesta Bowl bid was the culmination of several years of 10-win seasons, capped off with an undefeated 2006. The same was true of TCU in 2009. And once those mid-majors acquitted themselves well on the national stage, they stayed on the radar and had an easier time moving up. Of course, that attention fades quickly for mid-majors. After going 8-5 last year (not a bad season by any means), Boise State is not ranked in a major preseason poll for the first time since 2008.

The CFP committee, supposedly, will take each year into account on its own merits. If they are completely true to this idea, then the mid-majors won’t have a chance at all. However, that isn’t really feasible. Eventually, if a mid-major can string together enough 11- or 12-win seasons in a row, there will be too much negative attention when they get consistently snubbed. So we can expect the mid-majors to receive the same attention under the CFP as under the BCS. If they have two or three amazing seasons, with a major upset or two in the middle, and cap it off with an undefeated year, they will be in the conversation.

Remember, as with everything in the CFP, what every team does affects every other team. If four of the power conferences have undefeated champions or one-loss champions with a very strong resume, it would take an extreme situation for any mid-major to get in. The mid-majors’ best chance is for the stars to align perfectly—they need a playoff-worthy season to happen in a year when there really aren’t four worthy power conference teams.

No matter what happens, a nonconference victory over a power conference team (or two) is probably a must. It would certainly help if that team goes on to win nine or ten games. I guess the best case any mid-major could make is if it has a victory over a one-loss power conference champion, but looking at future schedules that looks extremely unlikely in the next few years.

Another important thing that could help a mid-major is if one of the mid-major conferences has several strong teams. This year, the Mountain West looks to be the only conference that could have that. But if each of Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, and Utah State can earn nine or more wins (with some good non-conference ones), that could help the claim of any of those that go undefeated. The bottom of the mid-majors will always be awful relative to the power conferences, but if the very top can seem competitive that will be their chance. The dream for a mid-major is to have the conference championship game to be between two undefeated teams ranked in the top 10, but that is most likely a pipe dream.

No, the best chance any mid-major can have is to have several great seasons in a row while the other conference contenders each have several solid seasons in a row. And, on top of that, it has to end in a year where the power conferences don’t have four worthy teams.

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