Despite success, Boise State’s playoff predicament is familiar

NCAAF

BOISE, Idaho — Boise State athletic director Curt Apsey is a realist.

He knows when the first batch of College Football Playoff rankings are unveiled in 2½ weeks, it probably won’t matter if the Broncos (6-0), the highest-ranked Group of 5 team in the country, are still undefeated. At least not as far as the top four is concerned.

“I’m not sure we factor into the playoff, to be honest with you,” Apsey said.

He is not fazed by it. Not really. It would be great for No. 14 Boise State, of course, if that were not the case, but in Year 6 of the playoff era there aren’t any reasons to expect a Group of 5 team to receive serious consideration.

Apsey has sat on a mock playoff committee and understands the process as well as anyone. If UCF, on the strength of a 25-game winning streak, couldn’t climb past No. 8 in the committee’s final ranking a year ago, it’s clear it would take a very unique set of circumstances for another Group of 5 team to fare any better.

Apsey could pound his hands on the desk and go on a media offensive crying foul, but yelling at clouds doesn’t change the weather.

“We don’t really focus that much on that sort of pie in the sky, be a part of the College Football Playoff and all that kind of thing,” Apsey said. “Because we know what we have to do in order to just be considered for that.

“If you have a 12-0 Boise State and, say, you have a 10-2 Alabama. … We beat everyone in our conference and we beat Marshall and we beat Portland State. I’ll be honest with you, I kinda get [selecting Alabama]. I really do.”

That’s not to say Apsey is not confident in the program or his school’s ability to compete with the teams at the highest level — he is — but he doesn’t see the point in painting an alternative reality.

If this season’s team is able to make a push for the Group of 5 at-large spot in the Cotton Bowl, it probably will come as a result of impressive balance. True freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier has relied heavily on two running backs, Robert Mahone and George Holani, to share the load and four receivers have at least 15 catches. It’s not the most explosive offense the Broncos have fielded, but it hasn’t needed to be thanks, in part, to a veteran defense led by outside linebacker Curtis Weaver, the national sack leader.

“Now can we go on the road any given Saturday and beat anybody? Absolutely we can do that,” Apsey said. “Can we do it eight out of 10 times? I don’t know.”

These types of discussions are hardly new in Boise. They’re a simple byproduct of winning — something the Broncos have specialized in for a long time.

Since the turn of the century, Boise State has the best winning percentage (.839) in FBS. The Broncos have appeared in the AP Top 25 at least one week in 18 straight seasons. A win against BYU on Saturday (10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN2) coupled with a Michigan loss to Penn State would vault the Broncos into the top spot for the best all-time winning percentage among teams currently at the FBS level.

Boise State’s history — starting from when it became a four-year, NAIA school in 1968 and rising to Division I in 1996 — is much different than Michigan’s, but regardless, it’s an impressive badge of honor.

It really hasn’t mattered what level or conference in which the Broncos have been. They have won everywhere.

At the halfway point of the regular season, the Broncos have the inside track to the Cotton Bowl. That’s better than any possible alternatives, but it still doesn’t mean too much at this stage, especially considering this is one of the deepest fields the Mountain West has ever assembled and the Broncos will face a tricky road ahead.

Against Power 5 teams this year, the Mountain West is 9-10. It’s the best winning percentage a Group of 5 conference has ever had against Power 5 teams in the playoff era. No others have finished better than five games below .500.

“Everyone’s raised their game, and to me that number fires me up because I know what the hell we face every week,” said Boise State coach Bryan Harsin, whose tenure began the same year as the playoff (2014). “Whether people want to say Boise State versus this team or whatever. I watch the film. I know who the hell those guys are. I know what kind of coaches they got and that does not surprise me that our conference has continued to do that well.”

A conference’s record against Power 5 opponents is only one data point when measuring conference-wide success and it has obvious flaws — Ohio State counts the same as Rutgers — but it generally serves as a good, basic indicator of depth.

Eight of the Mountain West Conference’s 12 teams picked up at least one Power 5 road win. Wyoming (Missouri), San Jose State (Arkansas) and UNLV (Vanderbilt) all beat SEC opponents. Boise State started the season with a win at Florida State.

“I believe we are the best Group of 5 conference, hands down, that’s out there,” Harsin said.

“Because I get to see them every single week and I’m proud of that and I’m proud to be a part of that and to be one of those teams that’s in that conference.”

First-year defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding spent the past 15 years at FCS Eastern Washington and grew to have a strong appreciation for the Mountain West. Part of what stood out to him about Boise, specifically, was the how well the program developed players.

“Guys are ready to go when they come out of here,” Schmedding said. “That’s the one thing I’ve always noticed.”

Participating in that process has only helped solidify that belief and coaching the conference’s best NFL prospect, Weaver, also doesn’t hurt. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks him as the No. 26 overall draft-eligible prospect.

Weaver not only leads the nation with nine sacks, he recently set the Mountain West all-time sacks record (29.5) and still has a year and a half of eligibility remaining. His ability to bend around the corner rushing the passer is as good as there is in the country and he benefits further from playing next to talented tackles David Moa and Sonatane Lui.

The looming decision about the NFL isn’t something Weaver is ready to give much attention to — at least not publicly — but he hasn’t found the personal stakes this year much different than in the past.

“That’s been my demeanor the whole life. Like when I started playing high school, I should be on varsity. When I get to college, I should be playing with the older guys like, no question about it,” Weaver said. “That’s always been my demeanor. I want to be in the NFL. That’s always been a big goal for me. Degree and the NFL.”

While this could end up as Weaver’s final season on the blue turf, it’s merely the beginning of what could be a special career for Bachmeier, the first true freshman to start a season opener for Boise State. Bachmeier left in the first half of last week’s win against Hawaii after suffering what Harsin described as a possible hip pointer and his status for Saturday’s game at BYU is unclear. The only detail made available was the injury would not be season-ending.

For as long as the injury keeps him out, the Broncos appear to be in capable hands. Sophomore Chase Cord threw for 175 yards and three touchdowns off the bench against Hawaii, and would benefit from playing behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. Boise State is one of only three teams in the country that returned all five starting linemen.

Whether the Broncos have a team to finish as well as they’ve started remains to be seen, but if they do find themselves undefeated at the end of the year, Harsin’s stance remains the same as it has been in recent years.

“I’ll continue to say that you’re an undefeated team, you deserve an opportunity to continue your season and play for a national championship,” Harsin said. “If you’re undefeated, you should have an opportunity to play for a national championship. Period. And regardless of perception, don’t care about that.”

Apsey and Harsin agree that more changes to the playoff structure seem likely, if not inevitable. But for now, they’re content serving as the possible disruptor. It’s a role that has served the program well.

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