A win in the Cotton Bowl over Wisconsin would put P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan team on this list of the best Group of Five teams
The main question going into this year’s Cotton Bowl is whether Western Michigan can compete with Wisconsin. The Broncos went undefeated, won the MAC and beat Big Ten teams Northwestern and Illinois.
However, the No. 15 Broncos have to beat the No. 8 Badgers if they are to prove to the college football world that they are one of the best teams in the country and not just a neat story. If they do that, they will join an elite club of the best non-Power Five teams of all time.
The Power Five now consists of the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC conferences and was proceeded by the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Before that there were more major conferences, including the Big East and Southwest Conference. Nevertheless, the teams on the outside striving for greatness had to be perfect and hope the powers that be gave them the opportunity to prove themselves on college football’s big stage. Some got the opportunity. Some didn’t. Here are the 10 best based on their body of work.
10. 1969-71 Toledo Rockets
This is one of two teams that spans multiple years on this list because the Rockets were undefeated for three straight seasons. Toledo capped those seasons with three straight Tangerine (now Citrus) Bowl victories and three seasons ranked in the top 20. The Rockets did not even miss a beat after head coach Frank Lauterbur left for Iowa after the 1970 season and was replaced by Jack Murphy.
9. 1998 Tulane Green Wave
Running a spread offense designed by current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez and helmed by quarterback Shaun King, the Green Wave averaged 45 points a game en route to an undefeated season. After the regular season, head coach Tommy Bowden left for Clemson, but Tulane took care of business in the Liberty Bowl, beating a 9-3 BYU team 41-27 to finish the season ranked No. 7.
8. 1973-74 Miami (Ohio) Redskins
Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is called the “Cradle of Coaches” because an unprecedented number of successful coaches have passed through the program. Some of the greats include Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, John Harbaugh and Sean Payton. None though were as successful in Oxford as Bill Mallory and Dick Crum. The 1973 team, coached by Mallory, went 11-0, beating No. 19 Kent State and then a 7-4 Florida team in the Tangerine Bowl. Mallory left after the season for Colorado and was replaced by Crum, who continued the unbeaten streak. The Redskins (Miami did not change their mascot to the RedHawks until 1996) went 10-0-1, their only blemish being a 7-7 tie to Purdue. They closed the season with a 21-10 win over Georgia in the Tangerine Bowl and a No. 10 ranking.
7. 1999 Marshall Thundering Herd
Led by quarterback Chad Pennington, the Thundering Herd kicked off the season with a win over Clemson in Death Valley and then blew through its MAC competition on its way to an undefeated regular season. In the MAC Championship Game, Marshall overcame a 20-0 halftime deficit to top Western Michigan 34-30 and then beat an 8-3 BYU team in the Motor City Bowl to finish the season ranked No. 10.
6. 2004 Utah Utes
The first non-Power Five team to be a selected for a BCS bowl entered the season ranked No. 19 and opened with wins over Texas A&M and Arizona. The Utes’ spread offense, led by eventual No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith, overwhelmed opponents beating them all by two touchdowns or more. When the regular season ended, Utah was invited to the Fiesta Bowl to play Big East champion Pittsburgh. Head coach Urban Meyer had accepted the top job at Florida but recognized the significance of the moment and stayed to coach the Utes to a 35-7 victory over the Panthers.
5. 2006 Boise State Broncos
The Broncos beat Oregon State early in the season and went 12-0, becoming the second non-Power Five team to earn a BCS bid. In the Fiesta Bowl, they faced Big 12 champion and 11-1 Oklahoma. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, you are probably aware that Boise State upset the Sooners in one of the most dramatic games in college football history.
Related: 5 Greatest Fiesta Bowls of All Time
4. 1984 BYU Cougars
The Cougars’ wide-open passing attack and bowl wins over big schools had vaulted the program to national prominence in the early 1980s. When BYU upset No. 3 Pittsburgh to start the season, it quickly moved up in the rankings. As the Cougars kept winning and other programs kept losing, they rose in the polls, finally attaining the No. 1 ranking the last weekend of the season. BYU then beat a 6-5 Michigan team in the Holiday Bowl to win the only national title awarded to a school outside the Power Five in the modern football era. Could the Cougars have beaten Washington, who finished No. 2 that season? I don’t know, but I would have loved to have seen that game.
3. 2009 Boise State Broncos
The Broncos started the season by beating eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon on the way to its second undefeated regular season in a row. They were one of five undefeated teams going into the postseason, but got the opportunity to face No. 3 TCU in the Fiesta Bowl. The Horned Frogs had spoiled Boise State’s perfect season the year before with a 17-16 win in the Poinsettia Bowl, but in this game the Broncos got revenge with a 17-10 victory to finish the season ranked No. 4.
2. 2008 Utah Utes
The Utes kicked off the season with an upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor and kept rolling. Along the way, they beat Oregon State and Mountain West foes No. 11 TCU and No. 14 BYU to finish the season undefeated, earning a bid to the Sugar Bowl. There, Utah shocked No. 4 Alabama with a 31-17 upset to finish the season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll. In 2011, Utah left the Mountain West to join the Pac-12, its success having much to do with the move up in competition.
1. 2010 TCU Horned Frogs
Prior to 1995, TCU had enjoyed the status as a major team and had won two national titles. Then the Southwest Conference dissolved and the Horned Frogs were not invited to join the Big 12, relegating them to mid-major status. When head coach Gary Patterson took over in 2000, he built a program that returned TCU to national glory. The Horned Frogs had seven 10-win seasons in the 2000s and closed the decade with the best season in school history. TCU started the season ranked No. 6 and opened with a win over No. 24 Oregon State in the Cowboys Classic. The Horned Frogs then dominated the rest of their competition, including No. 6 Utah, holding teams to just 11.4 points per game. TCU finished the season ranked No. 3 and became the first non-BCS school to earn a Rose Bowl berth, where it beat No. 4 Wisconsin 21-19. The Horned Frogs came full circle in 2012 when they joined the Big 12. They won a conference title in 2014.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.