The last time a program outside of the current Power 5 establishment won a national championship was in fact BYU in 1984. Many pundits around college football point to that championship in 1984 as the moment that caused the wheels to go in motion for a new postseason to be established.
We’ve seen quite a few different postseason formats come and go over the years in college football since the days of the polls determining the national champ. Now, we have arguably the best setup to-date with the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six bowls.
BYU is in a precarious position right now when it comes to the Playoff and the New Year’s Six, considering it has no voice at the table. What does that mean you ask? Well, when you see discussions for which programs could potentially nab the automatic Group of 5 bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, the Cougars are never mentioned because they have no access to that automatic bid by not being in a Group of 5 league.
Now, moving away from being branded with Group of 5 programs is one of the many reasons BYU declared its independence back in 2010, and by all means, BYU’s image and perception around college football appears to have improved since making this bold declaration. Just ask the ACC, Big Ten and SEC how they view BYU. The Cougars are a Power 5 brand in those conferences’ books when it comes to non-conference scheduling. But still, the Cougars are in that fence-sitting mode where they have some Power 5 perks, but when it comes to money and access, the Cougars are still lumped in with those Group of 5 schools they felt were in the rear-view mirror.
Could BYU get into a New Year’s Six bowl this year? Let’s forget about the Playoff angle, as BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall has even said that it would take two consecutive undefeated seasons for his program to be considered for a spot in footballs final four, but the New Year’s Six seems more attainable for the Cougars if the stars align. What would they need to do to get there?
Here are my two things that MUST happen for BYU to crack the establishment and pull in an at-large New Year’s Six appearance.
1. Finish the 2015 regular season 11-1 with the lone loss against a Power 5 program in September
BYU hasn’t had a one-loss season since 1996, so this will be a tall order for a program that is staring down arguably the toughest schedule in program history. With that said, the Cougars could reap great rewards sent their way by playing a tough schedule if they can win of course.
In most years, I would say BYU would need to go 12-0 to be in the mix for an at-large spot in the New Year’s Six, but this year with the difficult schedule the Cougars could go 11-1 and be positioned to nab one of those at-large spots in the New Year’s Six.
When to lose is always a much-debated topic in college football. Some believe that when you lose doesn’t matter, it’s just a loss. I’ve always been of the belief that losing late in the season has a more devastating impact on a team potentially going to a big bowl game. It’s the last image in people’s minds. You don’t think the selection committee, who creates these New Year’s Six matchups, would be leery of adding BYU coming off a November loss to Missouri? That would be the committee’s last taste of BYU versus a Power 5 school. Now on the other hand, if the Cougars drop a game early in the season, say against UCLA in the Rose Bowl, they will still have opportunities against Michigan, Cincinnati, Missouri and Utah State to enhance their resume for an at-large spot, and to basically make up for the loss against the Bruins in Pasadena.
Win 11-plus and the one loss can come early. Going back to that 1996 season I mentioned earlier, those Cougars led by Steve “#SarkAfterDark” Sarkisian followed that blueprint en route to an appearance in the Cotton Bowl, which just so happens to be a New Year’s Six game these days.
2. All of the Power 5 teams not in the Playoff need at least two losses
With BYU not having a seat at the Playoff and New Year’s Six table, it's going to need help to somehow get into a New Year’s Six bowl, and to be honest, the Cougars probably need a lot of help.
Remember the 2007 season, when a two-loss LSU team took home the national title? Every Power 5 program that season except Kansas had two losses or more. BYU will need a similar situation to play out this year to have a shot at a New Year’s Six game if the magical season falls into place for the Cougars.
With this being one of the more wide-open years in college football after you get past Ohio State, chaos feels like it is bound to happen.
If there are quality one-loss teams that get shut out from the Playoff like Baylor and TCU did last season, it will hurt BYU’s chances pulling in an at-large spot, because again, BYU can’t qualify for any automatic spots. Its only path is to get an at-large bid. An 11-1 BYU team with a national fan base that is chomping at the bit to play in one of these bigger bowls would be an attractive option for the selection committee.
In this era of Playoff or bust, some question how important the New Year’s Six games are anymore? Yes, you can say they are just exhibitions, but these are still the sport’s biggest stages. For a program like BYU that covets exposure and putting its program in front of as many eyeballs as possible, there aren’t many stages bigger than a New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Cougars will need to come out of the gates with a fast start, because if they stumble, it could become another ho-hum season in Provo that leaves the nation sleeping on a program that was once known for always being a fly in the ointment of every system in college football that tried to keep the little fly out of the mix.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.