DETROIT -- Western Michigan has done all it can do.
The Mid-American Conference champions capped an undefeated run through the league Friday night with a 29-23 victory over Ohio in the league title game. Now it’s up to the College Football Playoff selection committee to decide if that’s enough to send the 13-0 Broncos and their rising star of a head coach to this season's Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
P.J. Fleck -- the man who created his own language in Kalamazoo and got his players to buy in for college football’s most dramatic turnaround during the past four years -- said earlier this week he didn’t have any new words to sell his team as this season's Group of 5 representative in the upper echelon of bowl games. There’s not much he can add to a perfect record.
Will that be good enough to hold off Navy if it claims the American Athletic Conference crown Saturday afternoon? The Midshipmen have two losses (at Air Force and at South Florida), but also victories over Houston and Memphis, and potentially Temple this weekend, teams that look better than the Big Ten also-rans the Broncos took down in September.
Western Michigan was ranked No. 17 in this week’s CFP release. Navy was two spots behind at No. 19. Higher-profile decisions will be made this weekend, but the Group of 5 presents an interesting case study for how the committee views an unbeaten against a team that passed tougher tests.
Ohio (8-5) almost made it an easier choice. The Bobcats' league-leading defense held Western Michigan to field goals on three of its first four trips to the red zone. A few deep balls from Ohio quarterback Greg Windham, including his first pass of the game after coming off the bench in the middle of the second quarter, kept the drama going into the final minutes.
Western Michigan, though, answered each challenge in much the same ways it has all season. Two takeaways -- for the nation’s top team in turnover margin -- helped the Broncos to a 6-0 lead in the first quarter. Record-setting receiver Corey Davis blazed past the Ohio sideline for a 70-yard touchdown. And veteran quarterback Zach Terrell, despite throwing two second-half interceptions, led a two-minute drill for what turned out to be a crucial touchdown at the end of the first half and orchestrated another clock-munching scoring drive in the fourth quarter to deflect Ohio’s upset bid.
Fleck said his team started getting questions about an undefeated run through the 2016 slate after its first game. The Broncos needed a fluky touchback in the fourth quarter to stave off Northwestern 22-21 that day. Then, with the added pressure of staying unbeaten, they knocked off the next 11 teams with an average scoring margin of 27.8 points per game.
Friday night wasn’t quite as pretty, but style points weren’t going to be the difference in Western Michigan’s bowl destination. Going a full season without a full slip is nearly impossible to do. It’s hard to say how this group would stack up against one of the Power 5's best, but it sure seems as though it would be fun to find out.