After Navy's blowout loss to Temple in the AAC championship game, Western Michigan is officially going to the Cotton Bowl as the top team from the Group of Five conferences. More likely than not, the Broncos will play against a team from the Big Ten—a conference they're 2-0 against in this undefeated season.
Western Michigan's story has been told countless times. Coach P.J. Fleck took over a 4-8 team and promptly went 1-11 in his first year. Two 8-5 seasons later, and with his first recruits now seniors, Fleck has transformed WMU into a MAC powerhouse. And he's done it with his signature, goofy catch phrase, "Row the Boat."
The Broncos are in a New Year's Six bowl because the top Group of Five team is guaranteed a spot each year, but for WMU, of all teams, to earn that spot is more impressive than it sounds. No, none of the Group of Five conferences are as good as the Power Five conferences, but there are clear tiers among the Group of Five. The American Conference has teams that used to be in power conferences, and teams in recruiting hotbeds, while the Mountain West put teams in top bowl games—like TCU in the Rose Bowl and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl—before the Playoff existed.
But Western Michigan plays in the MAC, one of the less-heralded conferences in the Group of Five. The MAC is full of teams in the Rust Belt that can't recruit even second-tier players, and while it occasionally has some solid teams, including a Northern Illinois team that went to the Orange Bowl, it's typically closer in strength to Conference USA or the Sun Belt than the best Group of Five conference is to the worst power conference in any given year. Most years, teams from The American Conference or the Mountain West will earn the Group of Five's New Year's Six bid, as Boise State and Houston did in the first two years of the new system.
However, more remarkable than simply having a MAC team in the New Year's Six is that Western Michigan is actually a very good team. The last MAC team to reach this stage was Northern Illinois in 2012, but the Huskies made their living with an easier schedule and a little bit of luck. They were 12-1 going into the Orange Bowl—where they were blown out by Florida State —and finished the season ranked 40th in the F/+ ratings, which evaluate how teams perform on a per play basis, regardless of the luck involved in wins and losses.
WMU, on the other hand, ranks 18th in this year's F/+ ratings. For reference, the advanced stats say the Broncos are better than every team in the SEC East, and the second-best team in the Big Ten West. This is a really good team that, while it will be an underdog against the Big Ten title game loser, certainly doesn't have the long odds one might expect from a MAC team.
Just keep rowing, Broncos. You're already in uncharted waters. (Sorry).