Ball State didn’t reach the six wins required for a bowl appearance, but the success of one of its conference rivals will benefit the Cardinals’ athletic department.

Western Michigan received a berth to play in the Cotton Bowl Sunday, just the second time a team from the Mid-American Conference has ever been chosen to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Broncos ran the table in the regular season and beat Ohio in the MAC championship game Dec. 2 to finish 13-0.

Ball State benefits because teams that make it to any bowl game earn a payout that is put into a pool that its respective conference can disperse among full members. Just by playing No. 8 Wisconsin on Jan. 2, Western Michigan will earn $4 million for the MAC, according to the College Football Playoff revenue distribution projections.

Cotton Bowl

Who: Western Michigan (13-0) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)

Time: 1 p.m.

Date: Jan. 2

Place: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas

Watch: ESPN

“If a team like Western Michigan wins out and plays in a big bowl game, then all the [MAC] schools would benefit,” Ball State athletic director Mark Sandy said prior to the MAC championship, “not only from the notoriety and the great publicity for the league, but yet there could be some revenue they put back.”

Making the Cotton Bowl

The majority of college football fans know about Western Michigan by now. P.J. Fleck is the hottest young coach in America, and “Row the Boat” has become the rally cry for fans that love a great underdog.

The Broncos beat two Big Ten teams (Northwestern and Illinois) and won every regular season MAC game by at least two touchdowns.

Ball State got the typical Western Michigan treatment at Scheumann Stadium Nov. 1, as Zach Terrell, Corey Davis and company cruised to a 52-20 win on ESPN2.

“They have a playmakers that stepped up, and they’ve been stepping up every game for them,” senior defensive end Josh Posley said after the Nov. 1 game. “So they played the part. I think one of them was on ESPN’s Top 10 plays.”

The only time the Broncos seemed to struggle was in the MAC Championship Game, where they beat Ohio 29-23.

When Ball State played Western Michigan, head coach Mike Neu said there’s a clear reason why it is such a good team.

“That’s the first thing I told our guys when we got in the locker room after the game,” head coach Mike Neu said. “The reason they’re where they are at is, yes, they have good football players, but they don’t make mistakes.”

Western Michigan is averaging 43.5 points and 496.7 yards per game this season, both in the country’s Top 10.

Still, it took some help for the No. 15 Broncos to make the Cotton Bowl.

Bowl System

Northern Illinois is the only MAC team to ever bust the old bowl championship series system when the Huskies made the Orange Bowl in 2012, falling 31-10 to Florida State.

The current system features a four-team playoff, but Group of 5 teams, like Western Michigan, have no realistic chance of getting into the playoff, which “isn’t right,” said David Ridpath, an expert on intercollegiate athletics administration, governance, rules and compliance at Ohio University.

“If you’re a Division I football program, you should have full access to the playoff,” Ridpath said. “I don’t see why we can’t have a system where every conference champion gets in and you have a fair number of at-larges. Sure, there’s gonna be people left out. It happens in the NCAA [basketball] Tournament. But that’s life.”

To clarify, Football Bowl Subdivision football is split into two groups: the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) and the Group of 5, which is made up of the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt.

Each Power 5 conference champion is guaranteed a bowl bid to a New Year’s Six bowl, but only the highest-ranked conference champion from the Group of 5 receives that guarantee.

Western Michigan qualified for the Cotton Bowl that way, but coming into the year, the Broncos weren’t favored to get that bid.

As the season progressed, many expected teams like either Houston, Navy, San Diego State or Boise State to earn that spot. And the committee agreed, consistently ranking some of them above Western Michigan until crucial losses ruined their chances.

After winning the MAC title game, Broncos’ head man P.J. Fleck made a case for his team.

“I don’t think there’s anybody to pay attention to,” Fleck said. “Who are we paying attention to? Why are we paying attention to anybody? We are 13-0. We’re the best Group of 5 team in the country. We didn’t lose a game. Whoever they put on our schedule, we beat. There’s two undefeated teams in the country — us and Alabama — and there is no argument.”

Ridpath said the schedule penalizes teams like Western Michigan, as well as a lack of reputation. It can be a difficult balance, though, because some games are scheduled years in advance. Ball State, for example, has games scheduled out as far as 2022.

All things considered, Western Michigan laid out the blueprint for MAC schools on how to make a New Year’s Six Bowl game.

It just takes a perfect season to do it.

Cashing in

Sandy said the bowl revenue is “very slight” most years, when a MAC school doesn't reach a New Year's Six bowl. This year will be different, but it's unclear at this point how much Ball State will get.

“So if five teams go to a [lower-tier] bowl game, the payouts for each bowl game are collected at the conference level and then expenses are paid out of that for teams taking a flight and all that,” he said. “When teams go to bowl games, it costs them money. They don’t make money unless you’re in the Top 10 or 15 bowl games.”

Most of the time, there just isn’t enough money after bowl expenses to split among member schools. With the Broncos playing in the Cotton Bowl this year, and the separate $2.16 million they receive for their travel expenses, there will be money left over for the members of the MAC.

Western Michigan playing in the Cotton Bowl will pay off beyond the financial compensation, too. Recruiting and national recognition for the conference are all magnified.

Ball State wanted to win that game against the Broncos Nov. 1, but the benefit of Western Michigan winning that game — and all 12 others — can help in the grand scheme of things.

“You want to beat everybody on your schedule,” Sandy said. “But once you lose to them, and they’re having success, you’re all for them. The more success they have, the more it helps the league.”