With the Dec. 4 announcement of the College Football Playoff semifinalists and most bowl bids a little under two weeks away, all eyes in the Group of 5 conferences are focusing on the Cotton Bowl bid.
After Tuesday night’s announcement of the latest CFP rankings, the top four teams – Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson – remained stationary while Houston vaulted to No. 20 with their 36-10 upset victory over then-No. 5 Louisville last Thursday. Boise State (No. 19) and Western Michigan (No. 21) remained locked in. Alabama and Western Michigan are the only two undefeated teams left. Navy entered the rankings this week at No. 25.
The question is: Is Houston the best G5 team and most deserving of the Cotton Bowl bid?
The Cougars advantage over Boise State and Western Michigan is its two high-profile wins over then-No. 3 Oklahoma 33-23 and last week’s win over Louisville. Neither Boise State nor Western Michigan have a win over a team that was in the Top 25 when they played. In the second week of the season, Boise State beat a then-unranked Washington State 31-28. The Cougars are now 8-3 and No. 23 in both the CFP Rankings and AP poll now.
WMU is ranked behind Houston and Boise State due to their relatively soft schedule. Western Michigan’s strength of schedule ranks 126th among FBS teams, and the Broncos only have three wins over teams with winning records: 49-19 win over Central Michigan (6-5), 45-31 win over Eastern Michigan (6-5) and a 70-21 win over FCS-school North Carolina Central (9-2). Western Michigan’s only win over a team in the top 50 of the FBS is its 22-21 win over Northwestern (5-6) in the first week of the season.
Western Michigan is the only undefeated G5 representative. Houston has a 40-46 loss to Navy and 16-38 loss to SMU. Boise State’s only loss is 28-30 to divisional rival Wyoming.
Despite any discussion of whether Houston should have jumped Western Michigan in the latest CFP Ranking, what matters the most for the bowl bid is whether the G5 team was its conference champion. Only a G5 conference champion would be considered for the Cotton Bowl berth.
In the American Athletic Conference, Houston is second in the West behind Navy (8-2) with no chance to catch the Midshipmen. Navy has one conference game remaining at SMU (5-6), but even if Navy were to lose they would own the tie-breaker over Houston and represent the West in the AAC championship. Houston would have a relative home-field advantage being just a few hours drive away from Dallas meaning more fans may travel to the game.
Boise State is in a similar position. The Broncos are tied with Wyoming (8-3) for first place in the Mountain Division. However, unlike Houston, Boise State could still reach the Mountain West conference championship game with some help if Wyoming lost to New Mexico (7-4) and the Broncos beat Air Force (8-3) this weekend. If both Wyoming and Boise State both win, the Cowboys will be in the conference title game.
In Conference USA, Western Kentucky (8-3) and Old Dominion (8-3) are leading the East and would most likely play Louisiana Tech (8-3) from the West. In the Sun Belt, Arkansas State (6-4) leads the conference, but would have no-chance of a Cotton Bowl bid with four losses.
All of this favors Western Michigan. That said, the Broncos face a tough task at home against Jason Candle’s Toledo (9-2) this week with a spot in the MAC title game on the line. Should the Broncos beat Toledo, they would likely face either Ohio (8-4) or Miami (6-6) in the MAC championship. So, for P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan, the course is straight forward. Keep winning. If the Broncos win their next two games, they would most likely get the Cotton Bowl bid.
Above: Photo courtesy Houston Cougars Athletics