Boise State Football: A One-Loss Broncos Team Is Better Than Two-Loss Cincinnati, Come On
If Cincinnati beats Memphis to win the AAC title this Saturday, will the Bearcats deserve a Cotton Bowl berth? Uh, no.
Cold hard facts = truth
The American Athletic Conference has done a lot of talking lately.
First, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco doubled down on his argument that a two-loss champion from his conference deserved the Group of 5’s New Year’s Six berth, lamenting that it would be “unfair” for the Boise State Broncos, the Mountain West’s last hope for that same bid, to leapfrog any AAC champ with two losses.
Now that the regular season has concluded, we know exactly who that team would be. The Cincinnati Bearcats lost at home to the Memphis Tigers on Saturday in a game that was never all that competitive, but others have taken up Aresco’s mantle, anyway, most recently Dan Morrison at SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty, who contends that UC has a better overall resume than both the Broncos and Appalachian State.
Here’s the thing, though: Nah, bro. We’re going to break down each salient point, Drew Magary-style, and give the appropriate context to this whole debate.
[Cincinnati has] two losses. Both were on the road. One to Ohio State, the best team in the country. Then, to Memphis, but with a win in the AAC Championship Game they would have avenged that loss. In a sense, it would be like the loss never happened.
Beating the Tigers in a rematch doesn’t erase the first result, it means you… well, split the two games. Nothing more, nothing less. Additionally, no G5 team has ever split two games with its conference title opponent and managed to claim the NY6 bid: Boise State beat Fresno State twice in 2014 and UCF beat Memphis four times between 2017 and 2018.
Cincinnati has had some close calls, but they also have better wins than Boise State. Cincinnati beat UCF. That beats Boise State’s best win over a Florida State team who fired their coach midseason.
Morrison mentions the Air Force Falcons just once, but he fails to note that they not only cracked the polls for the first time in nearly a decade this weekend, they are, by SP+, are in roughly the same neighborhood as the Knights if they aren’t ahead of them in the eyes of the committee.
Beating Florida State on the road, by the way, is a notch better than beating UCLA at home. Just saying. Interestingly, he also never mentions Miami of Ohio at all, because it would be a solid feather in the cap to claim UC could have a win over the MAC champions by next week.
Furthermore, top to bottom, Cincinnati has played a more difficult schedule by the simple virtue of playing in the AAC. Say what you will about the AAC’s Power 6 campaign, they are a full leap ahead of any other G5 conference.
Let’s start by examining the tweet that Morrison embedded from ESPN’s Bill Connelly, which is ostensibly to point out that, top to bottom, the AAC has generally played better based on the Five Factors (explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers; remember that SP+ is an opponent-adjusted measure of how you have played rather than who you have played, that it is NOT a resume tool).
If you look at the photo within Connelly’s tweet, however, you’ll note the AAC East and the MWC Mountain are neck-and-neck, ranking 10th and 11th respectively among all FBS divisions. Funny that.
To go back to the earlier contention regarding UCF, the real problem lies further down Cincinnati’s resume. It’s easy to contend that having beaten Air Force, Wyoming and Utah State — a trio of solid to great bowl eligible teams — is better than having beaten UCF, Temple and… South Florida, I guess, since the 4-8 Bulls finished 4th in the AAC East.
What about interdivision games, though? Glad you asked, because Morrison also doesn’t mention that Cincinnati notched wins against the two teams who finished at the bottom of the AAC West, Houston and Tulsa. Hawaii may not be beloved by the advanced metrics, but they still won nine games and emerged as a division champion while San Jose State and UNLV weren’t total disasters who could be analogous to the aforementioned Cougars and Golden Hurricane.
What about Boise State pummeling FCS Portland State, though? Glad you asked that, too, because the Vikings are currently rated higher by Sagarin than UConn. Neither moves the needle at all, but there’s that.
The difference in strength of schedule between Cincinnati (70th, per Sagarin) and Boise State (88th) is not so great that finishing with one fewer win and one more loss will be enough to make up the ground UC will inevitably lose when the newest CFP rankings are unveiled on Tuesday. You can look at past, roughly similar results at this juncture to get a sense of how hard teams are hit:
- 2018 – #23 Boise State beats #21 Utah State, 33-24; USU drops out of next rankings, Boise State up to #22
- 2017 – #17 Washington beats #13 Washington State, 41-14; Wazzu drops to #17, UW up to #13
- 2016 – #14 Florida State beats #15 Florida, 31-13; UF stays at #15, FSU up to #12
- 2015 – #18 Ole Miss beats #21 Mississippi State, 38-27; MSU drops out of next rankings, Ole Miss up to #13
- 2015 – #13 Florida State beats #12 Florida, 27-2; UF drops to #18, FSU up to #9
- 2014 – #14 Wisconsin beats #18 Minnesota, 34-24; Minnesota drops out of next rankings, Wisconsin up to #13
The kicker? According to Sports Reference, all but Utah State finished the year having played a tougher overall schedule than Cincinnati and were no worse than 56th in SOS by season’s end. The moral, as always: If you’re in the Group of 5, just don’t lose twice.
The fact is that other than a comparable head to head with Boise State, Cincinnati doesn’t do great against the eye test. In a way, they’re like Georgia. They play uninspiring, but effective offense. However, their defense is elite, and play at an elite level in a conference where offense is king. Look no further than the Bearcats’ defense being the only defense since 2016 to hold UCF to under 30 points in a game for proof of that.
On a per-play basis, Cincinnati has allowed 5.2 YPP and Boise State has allowed 5.26, so while they’re both top-40 that doesn’t quite scream “elite”. It also doesn’t account for the fact that the Bearcats are fourth in the AAC by that same measure if you look solely at conference play, behind UCF, Temple, and Memphis.
Cincinnati has also allowed 1.52 points per drive and Boise State has allowed 1.72 PPD, both of which are in the top 25 nationally (the Broncos also happen to be in the top 25 on offense, too, while the Bearcats are 57th). The difference between the two here is effectively negligible and it’s not Boise State’s fault that no one else in the AAC plays any defense.
Oh, and that common game with Boise State? Boise State beat Marshall at home, 14-7. Cincinnati beat Marshall on the road 52-14.
The committee doesn’t account for margin of victory when considering a team’s resume.
The reality is that even with two losses, Cincinnati has a better resume than either Appalachian State or Boise State. They are more deserving of the Cotton Bowl bid. Whether or not the committee is choosing the best teams, or the most deserving teams, the AAC Champion fits the bill for the Group of 5 champion this season on both merits.
The Massey Rankings Composite accounts for 79 different sets of rankings, some of which you’ve heard of and many of which you have not. On average, Boise State is 18th and Cincinnati is 21st, a fairly significant gap at this juncture. More to the point, five of the six computers used by the old BCS formula favor Boise State now. SP+ favors the Broncos now, too, and so do FEI and ESPN’s FPI.
And those conquered foes? Here’s how they stack up according to Massey:
Boise State – Florida State: 52 | Marshall: 58 | Air Force: 24 | UNLV: 114 | Hawaii: 48 | San Jose State: 104 | Wyoming: 62 | New Mexico: 123 | Utah State: 55 | Colorado State: 111 | Average: 75.1
Cincinnati – UCLA: 74 | Miami (OH): 80 | Marshall: 58 | UCF: 26 | Houston: 85 | Tulsa: 81 | East Carolina: 117 | UConn: 125 | USF: 95 | Temple: 46 | Average: 78.7
It’s nothing personal, Bearcats fans, it’s just facts. The Mountain West will be rooting for you on Saturday, after all, so don’t let us down.