Sunday, September 07, 2014

BYU: The Mid-Majors Last Hope

Well, we are just two weeks into the 2014 season, and any hopes of an interloper infiltrating the initial College Football Playoff appear to be almost null. Consider the following: In the American Conference, the only remaining unbeaten team is Cincinnati...who has yet to play a game. The Sun Belt has three unbeaten teams, but Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, and South Alabama are hardly college football royalty (and each also has at least one SEC team left on its schedule). Nevada and Wyoming are unbeaten in the Mountain West, but both play difficult Pac-12 teams this weekend and are unlikely to run the table. Central Michigan and Northern Illinois are unbeaten in the MAC, but Central Michigan has lost at least six games for the past four seasons, and Northern Illinois must win an SEC road game (Arkansas) and then navigate an improving MAC with an unblemished record. Marshall is unbeaten in Conference USA, but their schedule is one of the softest in the nation, and a group of Roadrunners may be waiting for them in the Conference USA Championship Game. But take heart underdog lovers everywhere, there is still a glimmer of hope, and it is in the form of a group of latter day saints.

On Saturday night, BYU throttled Texas for the second straight season, this time in Austin, by a score of 41-7. The win moves the Cougars to 2-0, and perhaps more importantly potentially sets the stage for an undefeated campaign. The Cougars still have ten games to play, but after their performance against Texas, no game appears unwinnable. Let's peruse their schedule starting with the home games.

Utah State
Savannah State

The Cougars have yet to play a home game, so they still have six left on the slate. On paper, the toughest test is probably Utah State out of the Mountain West. Houston, Nevada, and Virginia could also present some challenges, while UNLV and especially Savannah State are likely romps.

And here are their four remaining road games.

@ Boise State
@ Middle Tennessee State
@ Cal

The road schedule is a little dicier with UCF and Boise ranking among the premiere mid-major teams over the past few seasons. However, the Cougars nearly won at Boise two seasons ago in a 7-6 slugfest, and UCF is missing a few pieces from its Fiesta Bowl winning team of 2013.

So that is BYU's schedule. Now, let's go ahead and make the (grandiose) assumption they win out. Could they make the four-team playoff? I think so. Here is why. Their schedule is perfect. A few years ago, Luke Win wrote a Sports Illustrated article about gaming the RPI. While their is no RPI in football, the Cougars have done a great job of challenging themselves with their schedule, but not too much. There are three schools from Power 5 Conferences on the 2014 schedule (Texas, Virginia, and Cal). While none of the three project to be great, Texas will likely win seven or eight games (and more importantly has a great deal of name recognition), while early returns on Virginia and Cal make them appear improved over their ghastly 2013 iterations. The Cougars also did a great job of scheduling mid-majors. Boise State, Houston, Middle Tennessee, UCF, UNLV, and Utah State all played in bowl games last season. Plus, while Nevada missed a bowl last season, they played in eight straight from 2005-2012. This means their are no real anchors on BYU's schedule. Their lone guarantee game is Savannah State (which based on their first two forays against IA opponents should be very ugly).

Now what sort of help does BYU need to make the playoff assuming they win out? For starters, it would be nice for them if UCF beat Missouri this weekend. Having Boise State and Utah State dominate the Mountain West would also be big. Having their (assumed) Power 5 scalps do their some damage in their respective conferences would also be help. If Texas could upset either Baylor, Kansas State, or Oklahoma, that would bolster BYU's profile. In addition, having either Virginia or Cal get to bowl eligibility (with maybe a quality win or two along the way) would also strengthen public perception.

Of course, BYU also needs a little help from the Power 5 conferences as a whole. Well, the Big 10 has already done them a huge favor. Not only did the league's three marquee programs all lose by at least fourteen points in non-conference action over the weekend (Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State), but a pair of teams also went down to MAC foes (Northwestern and Purdue), and a few more narrowly escaped against lesser opponents (Iowa and Nebraska), further hurting the league's reputation. Barring an unbeaten season by Nebraska, the Big 10 champion will probably miss the playoff. What about the other major conferences? Well, the SEC champion is probably in unless they have three losses. Thus, BYU needs to hope SEC teams cannibalize each other enough so that every team except the champion has two losses. In the ACC, a loss by Florida State would do wonders for their playoff hopes (maybe at Louisville?). The Pac-12 champion, particularly if it is Oregon, Southern Cal, or Stanford is probably in with a loss, so again BYU needs some cannibalization, particularly an upset or two by upstarts such as Arizona or Utah. Finally, it would be nice for the Cougar's hopes if the eventual Big 12 champion also has a pair of losses.

To sum things up, assuming they get to the end of the season unbeaten, BYU needs at least three (and possibly four) of the following things to happen to get into the four-team playoff:

ACC champ has one loss
Big 12 champ has two losses
Big 10 champ has one loss
Only one SEC team has fewer than two losses
Pac-12 champ has two losses
Notre Dame has more than one loss

Does this mean I think BYU is one of the four best college football teams in 2014? No. Do I think they could navigate the SEC West with less than two losses? Again, no. However, there are pros and cons to every situation. Playing in the SEC gives you access to the best players in the nation. However, it also means you must navigate a tougher schedule. While BYU does not have as brutal a schedule, they do have systemic disadvantages when it comes to recruiting the nation's best players (some of course self-imposed by their religious affiliation and others a natural occurrence of not being associated with a major conference). Consequently, engaging in theoretical thought experiments such as 'If they played LSU's schedule', are not the point of this post anymore than 'If they had LSU's players' is. BYU will play BYU's schedule in 2014, and it is within the realm of possibility that if they finish unbeaten, they make the four-team playoff.

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