Non-AQ Teams and the College Football Playoff

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Austin Mayerhofer

December 28, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO–January 4, 2010. The Boise State Broncos hoisted the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl trophy high above their heads, having just taken down the TCU Horned Frogs. The Broncos might have come out on top at the end of the game, but on that day, everyone was a winner. It marked the first time in history that two “non-AQ” (non-automatic qualifying) conferences earned BCS bowl berths in the same season. Boise State’s final ranking was #4 in the entire nation, TCU finishing #6. Other non-AQ teams that finished in the top 25 were BYU (12), Utah (18), and Central Michigan (23). Not including this most recent matchup pitting the Broncos against the Horned Frogs, non-AQ teams boasted an impressive 3-1 record in BCS bowls, with Utah taking down Pitt in 2004, Boise State shocking Oklahoma in 2006, and Utah taking down Alabama in 2008. The only loss was Georgia’s 41-10 drubbing of Hawaii in the 2007 season’s Sugar Bowl. Keeping the good times going, TCU finished #2 in the 2010 final AP rankings and won the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

It was a great time for the “little” teams, as going unbeaten was basically a guaranteed spot in a top-flight bowl game at that time. However, despite all the accolades and BCS bowl appearances, there was still one question that lingered: When will a non-AQ team play for a national title? The problem kept arising time after time again—11-2 LSU got in over 12-0 Hawaii in 2007, 12-1 Florida got in over Utah in 12-0 in 2008. To compensate for a weak conference schedule, Boise State scheduled Oregon in 2008 and 2009, along with two top 25 teams in 2010, playing #10 Virginia Tech on the road and #24 Oregon State at home. TCU went to Virginia and Clemson in 2009, going unbeaten, but still was not given the chance to play in a national title game. For a long time, the questions and observations on non-AQ were hypothetical—Yes, they have beaten some good BCS teams this season, but are they really better than a Texas, a Florida, a USC? This was mainly Boise State’s problem, as from 2006-09 they finished the regular season unbeaten three times, only to come up short of playing for a national championship every time.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - TCU v Boise State

Image Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Enter the college football playoff. The 2014 season marked the first time that four teams would get to play for a national title, pitting #1 against #4, and #2 against #3. A little late, as TCU had moved up to the Big 12 by then, and Boise State wasn’t the same team they used to be, but finally a system was in place that could give the smaller teams a shot. In 2009 and 2010, TCU would’ve gotten their chance to prove they’re the #1 team in the country. Who knows how it would’ve turned out, but at least they would’ve had a shot, and that had been the problem for many, many years.

But, would they really? With the introduction of the college football playoff, a selection committee comprised of 14 members who vote on the top 25 teams in football, the BCS system was replaced and finally gone—huzzah! Not so fast, as ESPN analyst Lee Corso once famously said. The BCS buster of 2014 was Marshall, who, two weeks before they lost in a nail biter against Western Kentucky, was 10-0 and beating teams by an average of 30.8 points per game. While it was unanimously agreed upon by the public that this team was not a national title contender, they were definitely top 25 material. So, looking at the college football playoff rankings, going down the list…down…down…wait, no Marshall? Sure, they’re not top 10 material but to keep them out of the top 25? That seems a bit odd.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Gail Burton

If we implement the BCS system for this season, Marshall stands at #19, a much more reasonable and understandable ranking. Not too high, but not too low either. The AP poll has Marshall at #18 as well, coaches poll have them at 18, USA today poll at 18…Seeing a pattern here? Why are the playoff committee’s views so different? This question cannot be directly answered, but there are some possible problems and flaws with this newly implemented system. The obvious one is that with just 14 voters, one voters’ ideas could greatly sway the rankings, contrary to a poll like the largely trusted AP poll, in which 65 different sportswriters across the nation give their vote. This gives more regulation on radical viewpoints and more accurately portrays the ideas of the entire nation.

A second problem is of the 14 members, only Ty Willingham has ever been involved with a non-AQ school, and he was just a defensive back coach at Central Michigan for two years. Maybe this doesn’t impact anything, but it’s worth noting that the non-AQ teams don’t really have a “voice” among this panel.

So, while non-AQ teams will probably move higher if they have a more challenging non-conference schedule, it remains to be seen if anyone will be taken seriously by the voters as a legitimate national title contender. All we can do is sit back, wait, and enjoy the matchups we have now. Alabama vs Ohio State is looking pretty good right now. Maybe Alabama vs Boise State will be looking good in the near future. The next few years will be fun.


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