The Non-AQ Solution: A College Football Playoff Plus-One

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Groundswell in support of altering the college football postseason came from non-automatic qualifying conferences, seeking a fair opportunity to play for the national championship.

But as the five power conferences with preferred access into the new, four-team College Football Playoff have demonstrated, the new system is shaping up to actually be more exclusive than its predecessor.

Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com wrote expansion of the College Football Playoff is inevitable. Indeed, one need look no further than the Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs, which grew to 24 teams last season, up from 20 the season before. Just five years ago, the FCS Playoffs invited only 16 teams.

The men’s basketball tournament also expanded recently, up from 65 to 68 in 2011.

An eight-team College Football Playoff is coming. And if the Playoff is destined for expansion, it only makes sense to offer a seat at the table for the entire Football Bowl Subdivision.

Here’s the layout:

• Automatic bids for every Group of Five conference champion.

• Two at-large berths for power-conference members.

• An automatic berth for one of the Other Five conference champions.

Being completely realistic, the Group of Five is not going to surrender a possible spot in the Playoff without the outsiders giving a concession. A concession for the Other Five that’s a win for the fans is to provide more football via a Playoff plus-one.

Essentially, one week before the eight-team tournament begins, the top two teams from the Other Five square off to earn the final spot.

With the current structure in place of five power conferences—ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—the teams jockeying for the Other Five berth would have been American Athletic champion UCF and Mountain West champion Fresno State. Blake Bortles captaining one offense, Derek Carr leading the other.

Let’s take it back further, going year-by-year over the past decade to 2004. That was the first season the Big East played without Miami and Virginia Tech, truly qualifying it as a non-automatic qualifier for the purpose of these scenarios. The 2004 season was also the first a non-AQ busted the BCS, as undefeated Utah rolled to the Fiesta Bowl.

Using BCS rankings, akin to The College Football Huddle breakdown of how the four-team tournament would have looked, the Playoff plus-one is as follows:

• 2012: Big East champion Louisville® (BCS No. 21) vs. MAC champion Northern Illinois* (BCS No. 15)

Northern Illinois became the first MAC team to bust the BCS, though the Huskies fell flat in their matchup with Florida State. Conversely, Louisville blitzed Florida in a 33-23 Sugar Bowl that was more lopsided than the final score.

• 2011: Big East champion West Virginia® (BCS No. 23) vs. Mountain West champion TCU (BCS No. 18)

In an ironic twist, Boise State ended the season ranked No. 7 in the BCS standings. However, the Broncos lost the Mountain West Conference championship to TCU.

West Virginia set an Orange Bowl record by running up 70 points on ACC champion Clemson. Though TCU lost two games early in its final season before joining the Big 12, the Horned Frogs caught fire at season’s end. Their eight-game win streak to close the campaign was the nation’s best.

• 2010: Mountain West champion TCU* (BCS No. 3) vs. WAC co-champion Boise State (BCS No. 10)
TCU could have earned a title shot in 2010 with a Playoff plus-one.
TCU bested Wisconsin in a smash-mouth, wildly entertaining Rose Bowl to cap the season. The 2010 Horned Frogs were among the most deserving non-AQ championship candidates, denied a shot at the crown by the BCS system. In the late 2000s and into the early 2010s, TCU had a burgeoning rivalry with Boise State. Imagine a Playoff plus-one installment in the series for a shot at the national championship.

Boise State shared the WAC championship with Nevada, and the Colin Kaepernick-led Wolfpack handed the Broncos their only loss. However, by virtue of Nevada’s loss at Hawaii and Boise State’s higher ranking in the final BCS standings, the Broncos get the nod.

• 2009: Big East champion Cincinnati® (BCS No. 3) vs. Mountain West champion TCU (BCS No. 4)

The 2009 season was nearly the perfect storm for BCS naysayers, and almost a model for the potential diversity of a four-team playoff. Assuming the Playoff invited the top four teams, regardless of conference affiliation, Cincinnati and TCU would have been in.

However, he also uncover the first glaring omission of the Playoff plus-one: 2009 WAC champion Boise State. Only BSU finished the year with an unblemished mark, though the BCS copped out by pitting the Broncos against fell non-AQ at-large selection, TCU.

By beating the Horned Frogs, Boise State actually accomplished a feat shared only by national champion Alabama: finish undefeated, with two wins over BCS game participants; Alabama beat Florida and Texas, while Boise State upended TCU and Oregon.

• 2008: Mountain West champion Utah* (BCS No. 6) vs. WAC champion Boise State (BCS No. 9)

Utah’s perfect season and Sugar Bowl defeat of Alabama was arguably the high point of the non-AQ in the BCS era. The Utes had a legitimate stake at the national championship, which in turn led the charge for an antitrust lawsuit against the system.

Boise State ran the table in the regular season, only losing in the Poinsetttia Bowl against TCU—a TCU team that finished the season ranked and with losses only to BCS runner-up Oklahoma and undefeated Utah.

• 2007: Big East champion West Virginia® (BCS No. 9) vs. WAC champion Hawaii* (BCS No. 10)

Hawaii became the poster child for power-conference elitists decrying inclusion of non-AQs, after Georgia picked apart the Warriors in the Sugar Bowl. Still, Hawaii was the only BCS buster pit against a power-conference opponent to lose until Northern Illinois in 2012.

West Virginia came within yards of playing for the 2007 season’s national championship.

• 2006: Big East champion Louisville® (BCS No. 6) vs. WAC champion Boise State* (BCS No. 8)

Both Louisville and Boise State reached and won BCS bowls this season. The two programs met two years earlier in the postseason, both sporting high national rankings and legitimate cases for inclusion in the BCS. Their 2004 Liberty Bowl clash was an instant classic.

• 2005: Big East champion West Virginia® (BCS No. 11) vs. Mountain West champion TCU (BCS No. 14)

Behind freshman quarterback Pat White, West Virginia beat SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, 38-35. Between West Virginia this season, Utah in 2008 and Louisville in 2012, teams treated as afterthoughts certainly had a knack for knocking off the mighty SEC in its own BCS bowl.

• 2004: Mountain West champion Utah* (BCS No. 6) vs. WAC champion Boise State (BCS No. 9)

As mentioned above, Boise State’s unbeaten season ended with a Liberty Bowl loss to Conference USA champion Louisville. The Cardinals were one spot below the Broncos in the final BCS rankings. That both were left out of the BCS picture while Pittsburgh was included fueled anti-BCS rhetoric.

So did the handling of Utah. The Utes were the first BCS busters behind standout quarterback Alex Smith, and eventual two-time BCS champion head coach Urban Meyer. Utah played that horribly overmatched Pitt team in a forgettable Fiesta Bowl.

A four-team tournament with the Utes, Auburn, Oklahoma and USC was just begging to be played.

® denotes BCS automatic qualifier; * denotes BCS at-large selection