Whether intentional or not, the College Football Playoff committee made a statement with its penultimate rankings: The Cotton Bowl dream for Appalachian State is, by and large, dead.
App State appeared at No. 21, ranked behind fellow Group of Five schools Memphis (No. 17), Boise State (No. 19) and Cincinnati (No. 20) on Tuesday night. The highest-rated G5 champion earns a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game every season.
All four of the teams mentioned are playing in title games this weekend. Two of which are playing each other in the American Athletic Conference championship. Memphis (11-1) and Cincinnati (10-2) played each other last week, with the Tigers winning, 34-24. But with two AAC teams above App State, as well as the Mountain West’s Boise State (11-1), is the G5’s bid in the Cotton Bowl the AAC’s to lose?
Rob Mullens, the College Football Playoff committee chair, wouldn’t go as far to agree during the College Football Playoff teleconference.
“I mean, obviously there's a lot of games to play,” Mullens said. “Memphis is the highest ranked G5 at No. 17. Committee's impressed with their win over Cincinnati last week to add to their win over Navy and SMU.
“Explosive offense, for sure. But we still have to watch the championship games coming up this weekend.”
Logic would say that all but ends App State’s pursuit of the Cotton Bowl. If Memphis wins, it’s a no-brainer. If Cincy wins, it adds a victory over a ranked opponent in the final week of play. And Boise State, which hosts Hawaii, could finish 12-1 and pounce if Memphis missteps. Had the Bearcats fallen below the Mountaineers, App State’s chances would have improved.
But ultimately, the weight of the 24-21 loss to Georgia Southern held Appalachian back.
“Again, just résumé,” Mullens said when asked about the case against App State. “Obviously Cincinnati, it's right there. We're in that discussion of 19 to 21. We watch the games. We see these teams as very close.
“Boise State's win at Florida State, you compare that to App State's wins at South Carolina, North Carolina. Then Cincinnati's only losses are to ranked teams. We spent considerable time on that.”
First, here are the high points of that resume: The Mountaineers could be 12-1 if they win the Sun Belt title game. They’re 6-0 on the road, with two of those away victories coming at Power Five schools — North Carolina (34-31 on Sept. 21) and South Carolina (20-15 on Nov. 9). None of the Group of Five teams ranked have more Power Five wins than App State.
Those wins helped App State bolster its strength of record, a stat provided by ESPN. App State sits at No. 20 in that category, ahead of Boise State (No. 21). But both are behind Memphis (No. 18) and Cincinnati (No. 19). And that begins to indicate the problem.
The AAC has had seven teams ranked at different times during the season — Cincinnati, Memphis, Navy (which is No. 24 in the playoff rankings), SMU, Temple and Central Florida. That’s why Cincinnati and Memphis’ strength of schedule is 72nd and 75th, respectively. App State’s, on the other hand, is 113th out of 130. That’s the worst in the playoff top 25, and most of that is due to the Sun Belt Conference.
ESPN’s Football Power Index rating, according to the website, is a measure of team strength, representing how many points above or below average teams are. The ranking doesn’t account for FCS teams. App State, Boise State and Memphis all played one FCS opponent while Cincinnati played none.
App State has three wins against teams inside the top 45 of the ESPN index — South Carolina (tied for 38), Carolina (40) and Louisiana (43). Memphis has four in the top 50: Cincinnati (41), SMU (45), Navy (46) and Ole Miss (47). Cincy has one, against Central Florida (21).
Memphis has also played only two games against opponents outside the top 100. Cincinnati has played three. But App State has played against six. Boise State, in comparison, has played against four.
Five of those App State opponents were in Sun Belt games: Georgia State (110), La.-Monroe (111), Coastal Carolina (114), Texas State (120) and South Alabama (122). Non-conference foe Charlotte (113) rounds out the group.
That’s why the conference home loss to Georgia Southern (ranked No. 85 in the index) is so crippling to an otherwise flawless season.
When presented with these stats, App State athletics director Doug Gillin pointed toward all App State had achieved so far.
"We control what we can control. I am so proud of our coaches and student-athletes for all that they have accomplished thus far this season," Gillin said through text. "Winning 6 games on the road, three of them ESPN top-50 programs and two P5 programs, 7 games by over 15 points, highest-ranked program in North Carolina for the second year in a row, historic ranking in the history of the Sun Belt and Appalachian.
"There is a lot to be proud of, but we are not done. If we win the conference championship this weekend, we believe a lot of the metrics will point to App as the best program in the Group of 5 this season."
With the Cotton Bowl seemingly out of reach, the best bet for Appalachian State is the New Orleans Bowl, which could be earned with a title-game win Saturday. One more win would give App State its highest win total since moving to FBS in 2014.
Winning the Sun Belt championship and another bowl game would give App State a 13-1 record that includes two Power Five wins. The Mountaineers would also finish the season ranked for the first time in school history, giving them a better chance to start next year ranked as well.
So even though the New Year's Six quest is likely over for 2019, App State can set 2020 on that course with a strong finish to this month.