There is a chance Fresno State football could play in its biggest postseason game ever.
Even with one loss, there is a path for the Bulldogs to play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
They can do so if they follow three complicatedly easy steps.
Playing in the Fiesta Bowl would bring prestige, a national audience, and could significantly and positively affect the program for years to come.
Of the 40-plus college football bowl games, the “New Year’s Six” are the truly the only games that matter. Two of the games double as the College Football Playoff semifinal. No chance for the Bulldogs this year.
Of the four remaining bowls, one spot is reserved for the highest-ranking “Group of Five” champion. Whoever is the top team in the final CFP poll among the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference or Sun Belt Conference, is headed for the big time.
And, there is the money to go along with it.
The conference would receive at least $4 million for qualifying for a “New Year’s Six” game, according to published reports. There is also a $2.74 million just to cover travel expenses. This is on top of the complicated bowl revenue payout to all the conferences.
Step 1: Win Out
This is the most obvious criteria. A two-loss team is unlikely to be the top-ranked Group of Five champion. When Fresno State spent two weeks in the AP Top 25, it was the only Group of Five team in the poll. Now, there are three — two of them, Air Force and James Madison, are undefeated.
Another loss not only pushes the Bulldogs further down in the Mountain West standings, it probably means a trip to a lesser bowl. Hello Frisco?
Step 2: Qualify for Mountain West Title Game and Win
This season, the Mountain West Conference eliminated divisions. So, the top two teams in the league qualify for the title game.
Fresno State’s loss at Wyoming means the Cowboys own the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs. Wyoming has since lost to Air Force and would need to lose one more for the Bulldogs to jump ahead.
There are two MWC teams with unbeaten conference records — Air Force and UNLV. Fresno State hosts the Rebels on Saturday, and if the team follows Step 1, will bypass them.
Fresno State and Air Force do not play this year, so if the Falcons lose one game, the head-to-head tiebreaker will not apply. The next MWC criteria is if the highest-ranking team in the Nov. 21 CFP poll wins the following weekend. That team would win the tiebreaker. The first CFP poll will be released on Oct. 31.
If the team, presumably Air Force, loses that game or is not ranked in the CFP poll, then it goes to the computers. The MWC uses the Colley, Massey, Wolfe, and Anderson polls. Currently, Air Force’s average is 17.25; Fresno State is 38.25 (lower is better).
There are other tiebreakers beyond that (and multi-team tiebreakers), but they are unlikely to play out.
Fresno State defeated two Power 5 teams (Purdue, Arizona State), but neither is having a stellar season. The Bulldogs may be better off playing the Mountain West title game at an undefeated Air Force and beating the Falcons to improve their resumé.
Step 3: Tulane and Others Lose
If Fresno State emerges as the Mountain West champion with one loss, it still needs to be the highest-ranked team in the final CFP poll, scheduled to be released on Dec. 3.
The current AP and coaches polls also rank Tulane (AAC) and James Madison (Sun Belt).
Tulane would definitely need to lose for Fresno State to have a chance, and not even winning the conference could help.
James Madison is in the second year of a two-year transition from the Football Championship Subdivision. NCAA rules say James Madison is not bowl eligible during the transition. Still, the Dukes are ranked. They could enter the bowl picture in an emergency situation such as if not enough teams meet the bowl requirement of winning at least six games. To be safe, Fresno State could use a JMU loss.
Other Group of Five teams that received votes in the latest polls include Liberty and Toledo.
And if this doesn’t work out, there could always be a return trip to the L.A. Bowl. This year, Jimmy Kimmel is out as title sponsor, and “Gronk” — colorful retired NFL player Rob Gronkowski — is in.