Western Michigan is 11-0 and has a clear path to represent the Group of Five in the Cotton Bowl. But that likely wouldn’t be possible had Wyoming not taken out Boise State earlier in the year.
The celebrations started to calm as “Row the Boat” signs were being lowered at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo. Western Michigan defeated Buffalo, 38-0, as darkness settled in Saturday, long after College GameDay had packed up its set.
Broncos’ victories have become the norm around town. That seems almost unfathomable considering a 1-11 squad played in front of sparse crowds just three years ago. But this Western Michigan team is 11-0, and coach P.J. Fleck’s mission to usher the program to the national stage is all but complete.
The Cotton Bowl is the destination for the highest-ranked Group of Five conference winner in the final College Football Playoff rankings, and the Broncos need two wins – over Toledo on Friday and in the MAC championship game – to play in one of college football’s most prestigious bowls.
Not Boise State. Not Houston, if it in fact jumps the Broncos in the next set of rankings following its win over Louisville. It’s Western Michigan. And that’s because of two events that happened roughly 1,100 miles west of Kalamazoo.
Laramie, Wyoming, to be exact. War Memorial Stadium is the site of the two biggest boosts to Western Michigan’s hopes of reaching a New Year’s Six bowl game, as well as where the Broncos’ chances were most certainly dashed.
The first came Oct. 29, when Wyoming’s Chase Appleby stripped Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien, sending the ball through the end zone with 1:25 remaining in the game to give the Cowboys a 30-28 win off the safety.
— Wyoming Cowboy FB (@wyo_football) October 30, 2016
The next came this past Saturday. As fans filed out of Waldo Stadium, Wyoming snuffed out a San Diego State 2-point conversion attempt with no time remaining to seal a 34-33 victory.
— Wyoming Cowboy FB (@wyo_football) November 20, 2016
That defensive stand kept the Cowboys ahead of Boise State in the Mountain West’s Mountain division due to the head-to-head tiebreaker. If Boise State can’t reach the Mountain West championship game, it cannot win its conference, thus effectively ending any chances of reaching the Cotton Bowl.
It matters not that the Broncos from Boise are ranked ahead of the Broncos from Kalamazoo in the latest CFP rankings. The same would go for Houston if it somehow leaps ahead of Western Michigan – it cannot win the American Athletic Conference title.
Should Fleck’s team beat Toledo on Friday and Wyoming follows suit with a win over New Mexico the next day, Western Michigan will be the Group of Five’s only hope for participating in the Cotton Bowl.
And if this is Fleck’s last dance in Kalamazoo, considering bigger programs will no doubt prepare to lure him away in the offseason, how fitting would it be to end in Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, a modern cathedral representative of the rise Western Michigan has experienced under Fleck’s guidance?
Zach Terrell and Corey Davis, one of the most underrated quarterback-wide receiver combos in the nation, would get to end their college careers on the grandest of stages, as Davis tries to add to his MAC career record for touchdown catches. Fleck would be able to look around and see a stadium similar to those he could be coaching in should he choose to move on.
Western Michigan would have some Cowboys to thank for riding another set of Broncos off into the sunset, helping the group from Kalamazoo realize a dream that seemed unthinkable not long ago.