The feasibility of a MAC team securing a College Football Playoff spot under the current 4-team format is borderline impossible. In order for 2021 AAC champion Cincinnati to secure the No. 4 spot, it required consecutive undefeated regular seasons, multi-loss champions in the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12, as well a convenient win over a Notre Dame team that happened to finish the regular season at No. 5 — sporting an 11-1 record with its lone defeat coming at the hands of Cincinnati.
But there is one goal that is difficult for the MAC to attain that is feasible. Western Michigan clinched a coveted New Year’s Six bid in 2016 thanks to an undefeated regular season — a spot reserved for the highest-ranked conference champion out of the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt. Since the Broncos qualified for the Cotton Bowl, that automatic bid has belonged to the AAC for the past six seasons.
The MAC hasn’t seen its champion win 10+ games since 2017 Toledo. Given the high level of parity the conference has marinated in recently, New Year’s Six conversations haven’t been necessary. The MAC already faces longshot odds behind the AAC and Mountain West for this bid, as evidenced by the 2016 College Football Playoff rankings when 12-0 Western Michigan was only ranked two spots ahead of 9-2 Navy heading into conference championship weekend. Thus, in order for the MAC to clinch this New Year’s Six bid, it is understood the MAC champion must finish with a better overall record than the other competing conference champions.
Enter the Toledo Rockets. Toledo is currently 8-1 and riding an 8-game win streak. The Rockets’ lone loss came at the hands of Illinois in Week 1, as the Fighting Illini converted an improbable fourth down attempt and iced the game with a last-second field goal to escape in 30-28 fashion. The Rockets’ most quality win is over 7-2 Miami (OH), which is their likely opponent for the MAC Championship Game in Detroit, should Toledo’s win streak continue.
In all likelihood, Toledo must enter bowl season sporting a 12-1 record to receive New Year’s Six consideration. The Rockets must run the table of Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green, and Central Michigan — three teams all one game above or below .500 — win the MAC title, and rely on help from some other conferences. So in order for this scenario to transpire, what must happen in the leagues competing for this same bid — which is most likely a spot in the Fiesta Bowl? Let’s take a look, and through a realistic lens.
Ideal conference champion for Toledo: UTSA
UTSA’s 2023 season is essentially a tale of two different teams. There was the non-conference Roadrunners which endured a challenging grind of Houston, Texas State, Army, and Tennessee. UTSA started 1-3 against that gauntlet of a schedule, only upending a substantially-improved Texas State team along the way. It was in that game where star quarterback Frank Harris suffered a turf toe injury and missed the next two contests, which factored in to the Roadrunners’ 37-29 home loss to a currently 3-6 Army and their blowout 45-14 defeat at Tennessee. UTSA caught fire once AAC play commenced. Harris returned and the team rides a 5-game win streak. Should the Roadrunners defeat Tulane on Black Friday, they have a legitimate chance to host the conference championship game. If UTSA runs the table, a 3-loss Roadrunner team vs. 1-loss Toledo would be an interesting debate, but no 3-loss team has ever clinched this specific New Year’s Six bid before.
Teams Toledo needs to lose: Tulane, SMU, Memphis
Tulane is the current favorite for the New Year’s Six. If the season ended last week, the Green Wave would have received their second consecutive New Year’s Six appearance, out-ranking all other AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt teams in the College Football Playoff poll at No. 24. The reigning AAC and Cotton Bowl champions have rattled off 7-straight victories and their lone loss came against a currently top 10 Ole Miss team boasting an 8-1 record — and Tulane was deadlocked with Ole Miss after the third quarter despite the absence of star quarterback Michael Pratt, who missed the game with a knee injury. If the Green Wave sustain the streak through the end of the season (Tulsa, Florida Atlantic, UTSA), they undoubtedly secure the bid. Even if they win the AAC with another loss, Willie Fritz’s team still probably punches a return trip to the New Year’s Six.
SMU or Memphis will inevitably get their third loss on Nov. 18 when the two perennial AAC contenders clash at the home of the Tigers. Right now, both teams are in difficult situations as SMU starting quarterback Preston Stone and Memphis starting quarterback Seth Henigan both suffered injuries Saturday and their timetables to return are unknown. Both teams rely heavily on quarterback play, and these unfortunate injuries could have significant repercussions on the teams’ records.
A fully healthy SMU is as dangerous as anyone in the AAC right now. While Tulane has escaped three-straight AAC games against sub-.500 teams by one score, SMU is rolling opponents — winning four of its five AAC contests by 18+ points and two by 55+. The Mustangs’ lone losses were early season road defeats to Oklahoma and TCU where their nationally-esteemed defense played exceptionally well.
Memphis remains in the picture despite not featuring an unblemished AAC record like Tulane, SMU, and UTSA. The Tigers only defeats were by seven to ranked Missouri and by 10 to ranked Tulane, and they led by double-digits in the second half of the latter game. If Memphis knocks off SMU at home and Tulane takes care of business against UTSA, that likely sets the stage for an 11-1 Tulane vs. 10-2 Memphis title game with New Year’s Six stakes equally on the line for both teams.
Ideal conference champion for Toledo: Anybody but Liberty
This is self-explanatory. New Mexico State is 7-3. Western Kentucky is 5-4. Everybody else besides Liberty has a losing record. That excludes FBS newcomer Jacksonville State, which is 7-3 and ineligible for a bowl game unless there aren’t enough 6-win teams to occupy all the slots. The 2023 iteration of the CUSA cannot secure a New Year’s Six bid unless its champion goes undefeated. But Toledo’s problem is Liberty remains unbeaten.
Teams Toledo needs to lose: Liberty
Liberty is one of seven undefeated teams in the country, and the Flames appear on track to perfection in year one of the Jamey Chadwell era. The looming schedule features non-conference matchups against 4-5 Old Dominion and 3-7 UMass, as well as a battle with 3-7 UTEP to conclude CUSA play. Then they’ll likely face New Mexico State or WKU in the conference championship in Lynchburg, VA. But even if Liberty is 13-0, is that enough to appear in the College Football Playoff rankings? Liberty is No. 25 in the AP Poll, but the CFP rankings are notoriously more strict about strength of schedule, and Liberty’s strength of schedule draws valid concern. The Flames’ strongest win is edging Bowling Green, 34-24, in a Week 1 game where the Falcons lost the turnover battle 5-1 and completed 11-of-31 passes. Toledo faces Bowling Green on Nov. 14 so there will be a common opponent to compare in the unlikely scenario a New Year’s Six spot comes down to a Toledo vs. Liberty debate. And although it has zero impact on the 2023 season, Toledo defeated Liberty in the 2022 Boca Raton Bowl, and those bragging rights will be brought up by Rockets’ fans if we enter that stage of debate.
Ideal conference champion for Toledo: Boise State, Wyoming, San Jose State
All three of these teams are 3-2 in the Mountain West standings. They are long shots to claim a spot in the conference championship game, but that objective is still feasible for each.
Boise State lost a key tiebreaker to UNLV last Saturday, but the Broncos can make up for it by upending Air Force on the final week of the regular season. They are 4-5 right now but three of those losses were due to a brutal non-conference slate. Boise State is still alive and well in the conference, although qualification for the Mountain West Championship Game will rely on outside help.
Wyoming is responsible for Fresno State’s lone defeat and holding onto that tiebreaker is important. Should the Cowboys take care of UNLV, Hawaii, and Nevada while Fresno State slips up, there is a path for Craig Bohl’s team to qualify for its first conference championship appearance since 2016.
San Jose State might be the least realistic conference champion in this entire piece, but the Spartans are playing good football right now. They’ve obliterated three-straight opponents by 21+ points, and they have the opportunity to claim some key tiebreakers with Fresno State and UNLV remaining on their regular season slate. Also, this is a team Toledo defeated during the regular season, 21-17, so San Jose State taking down quality Mountain West opponents looks spectacular for the Rockets’ strength of schedule.
Teams Toledo needs to lose: Air Force, Fresno State, UNLV
Air Force is 5-0 in the Mountain West standings. Fresno State and UNLV are 4-1. Of the these three Mountain West juggernauts, the one Toledo should be least concerned about is UNLV, as the Rebels have two losses while the Falcons and Bulldogs have one each.
One of those UNLV defeats was to Michigan and the other came from Fresno State in a Week 9 thriller decided by a dropped pass in the end zone. In their first winning season since 2013, the Rebels don’t have a single .500+ win, but the opportunity for Barry Odom’s team to prove itself awaits. UNLV closes against Wyoming, Air Force, and San Jose State. Clearing that schedule automatically thrusts the Rebels into the Mountain West Championship, and earning another quality win in that event could lead to one of the most unlikely New Year’s Six runs ever — but it would require some chaos in the AAC for that discussion to happen.
Air Force is one of two teams ranked in the initial College Football Playoff standings, earning the final No. 25 spot. However, that ranking will inevitably disappear Tuesday night as the Falcons were stunned by a struggling Army squad last Saturday. Not only did Air Force drop its first game, it wasn’t close. The Falcons fell in 23-3 fashion, but that doesn’t alter their odds of securing the Mountain West title. Hawaii, UNLV, and Boise State loom on the schedule. If Air Force runs the table and wins the Mountain West, the only teams that would probably get preference over the Falcons would be an AAC champion Tulane, and potentially, a 2-loss AAC champion.
After Air Force finally saw its spotless record crumble, Fresno State is the Mountain West team best positioned for this bid. The Bulldogs lost 24-19 to Wyoming but exhibit an otherwise-unscathed résumé. Not a single opponent .500 or above remains on the schedule, and with one close loss, Fresno State likely gets preference over anybody but a 1-loss AAC champion Tulane for the New Year’s Six. Toledo cannot clinch the spot if Fresno State runs the table. The same is likely true for Air Force.
Ideal conference champion for Toledo: James Madison
That’s a trick answer. James Madison cannot win the Sun Belt though. Due to penalties assessed to teams during their initial years of transferring to the FCS and FBS, the Dukes are ineligible for a multitude of accomplishments, ranging from Sun Belt Championship Game participation to bowl game participation — unless there are not enough eligible 6-win teams. But even if James Madison makes a bowl, the Dukes are ineligible for the New Year’s Six. That being said, it’s in Toledo’s best interest that James Madison remains unbeaten and keeps handing losses to the upper echelon of the Sun Belt. That being said, the likely conference champion is probably anybody but Troy. Week 10 certainly neutered the conference’s New Year’s Six chances as Georgia State and Georgia Southern were handed their third losses, and now everybody in the league has at least three besides James Madison and Troy.
Teams Toledo needs to lose: Troy
Troy started the season 1-2. The Trojans lost consecutive matchups to Kansas State (currently ranked and 6-3) and James Madison (currently undefeated), but they’ve taken care of all six opponents since. Troy is the frontrunner in the Sun Belt West division, securing a significant head-to-head tiebreaker with Texas State. The Trojans’ regular season schedule is certainly manageable onward, as they face two 2-7 opponents ULM and Southern Miss and a 5-4 Louisiana squad to wrap up the regular season. Since James Madison is ineligible for the Sun Belt Championship Game, Troy’s likely opponent that weekend is Georgia Southern which controls its own destiny in the Sun Belt East with a 6-3 overall and 3-2 conference record. But that division is a dog fight, and everyone in the Sun Belt East except for Marshall has a .500+ Sun Belt record, so there is a gamut of potential champions. Although the recent rise of the Sun Belt’s stature has been evident, an 11-2 Troy may not necessarily secure the New Year’s Six bid over 12-1 Toledo, so this rooting interest doesn’t need to be as strong as those in the AAC and Mountain West.