So I made an egregious oversight last week, as this week’s top team failed to even garner an honorable mention in the Week 2 Mid-Major Power Rankings. For some reason I overlooked East Carolina — much like Virginia Tech would over the weekend, allowing Shane Carden to throw for over 400 yards as the Pirates held on for a 28-21 victory in Blacksburg. Their victory, over a Hokies team coming off an upset of Ohio State in the Horseshoe, vaults ECU into pole position this week.
The Pirates gave South Carolina a scare the previous weekend, falling 33-23 in Columbia to a Gamecocks squad that went on to knock off Georgia on Saturday to improve to 2-1 itself. They had nearly upset Virginia Tech last year, losing 15-10 when the Hokies came to Greenville, and Carden showed how much he learned from the previous encounter. He completed just 23 of his 47 attempts, but he racked up 9.1 yards per attempt in throwing for 427 yards and three touchdowns, and added another score on the ground for good measure.
The Pirates will have another shot at ACC competition next weekend when North Carolina visits Greenville next Saturday. The Tar Heels lost 55-31 on their home field last year, so East Carolina will almost certainly be favored to win again now that they’re the hosts in the return game. Coupled with a close loss to an SEC East contender that has gone 11-2 each of the past three seasons, a pair of victories over Power Five schools would be a resume few other teams could challenge.
Of course, that will only come into play if the Pirates can manage to win the American Athletic Conference. UCF entered the season as the favorite to repeat in the league; instead the Knights tumble from these rankings after suffering a second straight defeat, this time to Missouri on the road. Houston has likewise fallen from its lofty preseason perch, losses to UTSA and BYU mitigated only by a 47-0 shutout of beleaguered FCS program Grambling State. The challengers to ECU have thinned in the AAC to the point where Tommy Tuberville’s Cincinnati squad might be the only real threat to a conference crown.
Only three undefeated teams are left among the Group of Five schools, and none of those three has a statement victory of the caliber that East Carolina can boast. Last year it was UCF claiming the last automatic bid for the former Big East after moving over from Conference USA. This year ECU could achieve essentially the same feat. But they will have to get past contenders from the other four mid-major leagues as well, a tall task in itself. Let’s look at how all these contenders stack up in this week’s CFP Mid-Major Power Rankings…
1. East Carolina Pirates (2-1/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: NR
- LAST GAME: won 28-21 at Virginia Tech
- NEXT GAME: September 20 v. North Carolina
The big story after East Carolina’s victory has centered on the Hokies’ inconsistency in games following victories over ranked opponents. But that merely serves to cheapen what in reality was a solid victory by a talented East Carolina squad that nearly did the same thing to Virginia Tech last year. There was no shame in losing to South Carolina, and they could have a second win over an ACC opponent when the Tar Heels visit this weekend. Their resume is what stands out compared to the three undefeated teams ranked below them here, and it could be the difference-maker if the selection committee has to decide between ECU and a team like Marshall, who doesn’t play a single Power Five opponent in 2014.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (3-0/MAC)
- LAST WEEK: 1st
- LAST GAME: won 23-15 at UNLV
- NEXT GAME: September 20 at Arkansas
In between those extremes is Northern Illinois, the perennial MAC powerhouse that surprised the country two years ago with its out-of-thin-air bid to the Orange Bowl. The big question mark entering the season for the Huskies, much as it was two years ago when Chandler Harnish needed to be replaced at quarterback, was who would step up and fill the shoes of Jordan Lynch? The answer has turned out to be Drew Hare. The sophomore went 18-of-28 for 285 yards and three touchdowns and added 74 yards and a rushing touchdown on 14 carries against UNLV. Their resume isn’t as impressive as ECU, but Hare and the Huskies get a statement opportunity this weekend when they head to Fayetteville to take on Arkansas.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd (3-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 2nd
- LAST GAME: won 44-14 v. Ohio
- NEXT GAME: September 20 at Akron
The Thundering Herd is going to likely be the test case for the selection committee, where we learn whether the 13 people tasked with picking bowl participants will give greater credence to the quantity or the quality of victories. Their out-of-conference schedule featured three former MAC rivals and FCS Rhode Island; according to Jeff Sagarin’s rankings, Marshall’s schedule is worse than 207 other FBS and FCS programs. With Rakeem Cato, the 2012 national leader in passing yardage, under center for his senior year, there is no opponent on the Herd’s remaining schedule that strikes fear. So the Herd should be an undefeated 13-0 Conference USA champion, but will a lack of losses be enough to counter the lack of quality opponents?
4. Cincinnati Bearcats (1-0/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 6th
- LAST GAME: won 52-34 v. Toledo
- NEXT GAME: September 20 v. Miami of Ohio
They spent the first two weekends watching from the sidelines, and then by the time Saturday rolled around this week they’d already won their belated home opener. Cincinnati got a solid performance from long-heralded sophomore transfer Gunner Kiel, who finally got his first college start three years after being the top-rated quarterback prospect in the country. Kiel didn’t disappoint, completing 25 of his 37 attempts for 418 yards and six touchdowns. Despite the late start to their season, Cincinnati still gets resume-building challenges against Ohio State and Miami on the road, and if they can win both of those games Tommy Tuberville’s team would quickly push East Carolina for AAC honors and the inside track to a New Year’s bowl.
5. Nevada Wolf Pack (2-1/MWC)
- LAST WEEK: 4th
- LAST GAME: lost 35-28 at Arizona
- NEXT GAME: September 27 at San Jose State
Nevada’s nailbiter loss in Tucson this weekend put the Wolf Pack at 1-1 in the Pac-12 portion of their schedule, but no Mountain West school has played as tough against Power Five opponents. Cody Fajardo is never going to be confused for Colin Kaepernick in Nevada’s offense, but the 6’2″, 215-pound senior showed a remarkable calm in keeping his team in the contest against Arizona. Now the Wolf Pack will have a bye week to recuperate before trying to maintain its position as the class of the West Division. They’ll still have to travel to Provo to face a tough BYU squad, but Nevada gets to take on Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, and Fresno State at home — putting them in position for the first double-digit win total in Reno since winning the WAC in 2010.
6. UL-Monroe Warhawks (2-1/SUN)
- LAST WEEK: 3rd
- LAST GAME: lost 31-0 at LSU
- NEXT GAME: September 13 at LSU
Okay, so nobody expected the Warhawks to go into Death Valley and steal a night game from LSU. A shutout is hardly encouraging, but somebody has to win the Sun Belt and ULM is still the squad best positioned to do so in 2014. They still have two more chances to be SEC competition, with trips to Lexington on October 11 and College Station on November 1. If they can win just one of those games (likely the Kentucky game rather than Texas A&M), and run the conference table, a 10-2 UL-Monroe squad whose only losses came to top-tier SEC opposition would merit some attention depending on how the rest of the conference races shake out.
Other One-Loss Contenders
7. Memphis Tigers (1-1/AAC, idle)
8. Boise State Broncos (2-1/MWC, W 38-21 @ Connecticut)
9. San Diego State Aztecs (1-1/MWC, idle)
10. UTEP Miners (2-1/C-USA, W 42-24 v. New Mexico State)
11. South Alabama Jaguars (1-1/SUN, L 35-3 v. Mississippi State)
12. Utah State Aggies (2-1/MWC, W 36-24 v. Wake Forest)
13. Central Michigan Chippewas (2-1/MAC, L 40-3 v. Syracuse)
14. Texas State Bobcats (1-1/SUN, L 35-21 v. Navy)
15. Wyoming Cowboys (2-1/MWC, L 48-14 @ Oregon)
16. New Mexico State Aggies (2-1/SUN, L 42-24 @ UTEP)
17. Bowling Green Falcons (2-1/MAC, W 45-42 v. Indiana)
18. Temple Owls (1-1/AAC, idle)
19. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2-1/C-USA, W 50-47/3OT v. Western Kentucky)
20. Colorado State Rams (2-1/MWC, W 49-21 v. FCS UC-Davis)
21. UAB Blazers (2-1/C-USA, W 41-14 v. FCS Alabama A&M)
22. Old Dominion Monarchs (2-1/C-USA, W 17-3 v. Eastern Michigan)
23. Akron Zips (1-1/MAC, idle)
24. Western Michigan Broncos (1-1/MAC, W 45-33 @ Idaho)
25. Air Force Falcons (2-1/MWC, W 48-38 @ Georgia State)
26. San Jose State Spartans (1-1/MWC, idle)
27. Appalachian State Mountaineers (1-1/SUN, idle)
Dropped from Last Week
- UTSA Roadrunners (1-2/C-USA, L 43-13 @ Oklahoma State)
- UCF Knights (0-2/AAC, L 38-10 @ Missouri)
- Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-2/C-USA, L 50-47/3OT @ Middle Tennessee)