How Western Michigan Could Reach the 2016 College Football Playoff

Western Michigan is one of just two unbeaten teams left in the FBS. Here is a scenario that could put them into the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Western Michigan has survived two straight weeks of Tuesday night #MACtion to move to 10-0 on the season, avoiding the pitfalls that befell other unbeaten teams in Week 11. The Broncos are three games away from running the table in the Mid-American Conference, and if they win out they are virtually guaranteed the Group of Five’s spot in the Cotton Bowl. While they are ranked behind Boise State this week in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Broncos out west still need Wyoming to lose another game to even play for the Mountain West championship.

So as long as they keep winning, P.J. Fleck’s team will almost certainly pass their namesakes in the CFP rankings. But could they manage to Row the Boat all the way to an even more lucrative spot in either the Peach Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl? There is precedent for a MAC team getting a major bump in the standings from a series of surprises, so it isn’t entirely impossible for the Broncos to play for the College Football Playoff this season. Here’s what it would take for WMU to make it into the top four of the CFP rankings after the first week of December.

Sep 17, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; The Western Michigan Broncos defense celebrates after the interception by Western Michigan Broncos linebacker Robert Spillane (10) during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Western Michigan beat Illinois 34 to 10. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 17, 2016; Champaign, IL, USA; The Western Michigan Broncos defense celebrates after the interception by Western Michigan Broncos linebacker Robert Spillane (10) during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium. Western Michigan beat Illinois 34 to 10. Mandatory Credit: Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

1. Stay Undefeated and Win the MAC

This is the most obvious thing that Western Michigan needs to do merely to merit consideration for the Group of Five’s Access Bowl berth into the Cotton Bowl. In order to position itself in the College Football Playoff race, it must not only stay undefeated but it must continue to get emphatic results over its MAC opponents. So far WMU has not only won, but they have won by an average of 25 points per game as they have steamrolled one opponent after another.

The Broncos need to continue this hot streak on both offense and defense. They play Buffalo at home this weekend before facing Toledo at home for the MAC West title on November 25. If they lose either game, it’s all over. Then they must beat the MAC East champ in Detroit to finish the year 13-0. At this point this is the only thing that Western Michigan can control, so they must make sure not to stumble before the finish line.

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson (55) reacts after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide during the fourth quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Auburn Tigers won 34-28. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive end Carl Lawson (55) reacts after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide during the fourth quarter at Jordan Hare Stadium. Auburn Tigers won 34-28. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

2. Witness Thanksgiving Chaos Across the Country

Western Michigan can’t get to the College Football Playoff alone. They need a lot of help around the country in the form of upsets that drive down the number of one-loss and two-loss teams. Anything that happens next weekend would be wonderful, obviously, but there would be no better time for another weekend of chaos like Week 11 to occur than over the extended Thanksgiving slate of rivalry games as the entire country is watching. Chief among the possible upsets would be another Auburn win over Alabama in an Iron Bowl upset in Tuscaloosa, which would earn WMU the distinction of the last unbeaten team in the country.

They could also get a lot of help from any number of other upsets. Iowa plays Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day to open the possibilities. A Washington State victory over Washington in the Apple Cup on Black Friday would kill the Huskies’ chances of making the playoff, opening the door for other contenders. Other Friday upsets that would benefit the Broncos include a Boise State loss at Air Force to eliminate any Group of Five competition, Iowa State over West Virginia, Michigan State over Penn State, and Minnesota over Wisconsin, and Notre Dame over USC. WMU will also root for Northwestern to ensure bowl eligibility against Illinois. On Saturday the Broncos will root for South Carolina to take down Clemson andColorado State over San Diego State.

Sep 3, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops walks off the field after a game against the Houston Cougars at NRG Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Sooners 33-23. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

3. See a Big 12 Collapse

The Power Five conference that is most vulnerable of missing the College Football Playoff at this point of the season is undoubtedly the Big 12. Oklahoma currently leads the pack with a perfect league record, but they have a backloaded schedule that has them facing their two rivals for the title. If the Sooners were to lose to West Virginia and Oklahoma State over the next two weeks — a scenario that is hardly impossible — they would fall out of the running.

That leaves the Mountaineers and Cowboys. Even if they both win over Oklahoma, there are still other opportunities to crumble under the pressure of the final stretch. Oklahoma State’s game at TCU next weekend is no sure victory, and if the Horned Frogs win it would spell a second conference loss for the Pokes even before the Bedlam game. And as mentioned, West Virginia still has to play at Iowa State (always a dangerous trap) and close against Baylor. If they lose even one of those two games, Mike Gundy’s team would be the champion… with a 6-2 league record and having gone 9-3 overall. The only way they’d get into the semifinals is if the CFP committee completely forgets their loss to the Chippewas.

4. Watch a Surprise Pac-12 Champ Emerge

Washington’s loss to USC opened the door for more chaos in the Pac-12, and Western Michigan would benefit most from a chain reaction of events that could lead to another open spot in the College Football Playoff. The Broncos should be rooting for a Washington State-USC matchup in the Pac-12 championship game… but they need them both to arrive at that point having lost another game ahead of time.

For this scenario to play out, the following must happen:

  • Utah loses at home to Oregon in Week 12, while USC beats UCLA and Colorado knocks off Washington State
  • As already mentioned, Washington State loses to Colorado while Washington bests Arizona State
  • On Thanksgiving weekend, the Cougars beat Washington in the Apple Cup to claim the Pac-12 North with a 9-3 overall record
  • That same weekend, USC loses to Notre Dame out of conference while Utah beats Colorado in Boulder

In that scenario, USC and Colorado would both finish 7-2 in conference play, with the Trojans advancing to the title game thanks to their head-to-head win over the Buffaloes. No matter who wins the Pac-12 in that scenario, the champion would have at least three losses. USC would be a 9-4 champ if they take the title, while Washington State would be 10-3 but with losses to FCS Eastern Washington and Boise State. Both would likely be passed over by the CFP committee.

Nov 12, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons defensive lineman Chris Stewart (96) sacks Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) during the first quarter at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

5. Get a Louisville Upset in the ACC Title Game

The best scenario for Western Michigan would be for Louisville to lose to Houston on November 17, then for Clemson to lose to Wake Forest two days later. That would put the Cardinals into the ACC championship game rather than the Tigers, who beat Louisville head-to-head earlier this season. If Bobby Petrino’s team does take that second loss, and to a Group of Five school no less, it would already be enough to damage the ACC’s chances of making the College Football Playoff.

But the Broncos would benefit even more if whoever among Virginia Tech and North Carolina was to knock off Louisville in Orlando to steal away the ACC crown. Even if the Hokies or the Tar Heels run their schedule to win the conference title, either would be a three-loss school. Of course, a win by the Big Ten West champion or the SEC East champ would have an even bigger impact, but this is by far the most plausible of the possibilities after what we’ve seen from the ACC this season.

As you can see, the prospects of a Western Michigan spot are not absolutely impossible, though they are a longshot that depends on an absolutely perfect series of results both within and outside of their control. At least you’ll get to see them play a Power Five team in the Cotton Bowl if they win out.

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