One quarter of the way through the season, the race for the guaranteed New Year’s Six bowl invitation is heating up among the Group of Five schools. Only six squads remain undefeated at this point, though after last year there is no guarantee that an unblemished will guarantee that berth. (Remember, Marshall was 12-1 to Boise State’s 11-2 when the Broncos were selected for the Fiesta Bowl last year.)
That said, the fewer losses the better. And while suffering a second loss this early in the season isn’t the end of the Access Bowl dream, it does put a team lower in the hierarchy of contenders. That will be reflected below in the rankings, though it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; you will notice a 2-1 team ahead of several undefeated schools, and a two-loss team ahead of one-loss squads. Just like the College Football Playoff selection committee will look at more than just the record in the standings, so too do I draw upon resources like the Pigskin Rating System we’ve created here at Sports Unbiased as well as the quality of each team’s wins and losses.
We still have a long way to go, and for many of these teams conference play — the primary determinant in whether a team remains eligible for consideration in December — has not even yet commenced. The road remains long, even as October nears and the crispness of true autumnal weekends draws closer. This ranking is intended to assess where teams stack up at this moment, based on what they have done to this point.
1. Temple Owls (AAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won 25-23 at Massachusetts
- NEXT WEEK: October 2 at Charlotte
It was an underwhelming victory, but after landmark wins against Penn State and Cincinnati to open the season it was almost inevitable that Temple would have a letdown game at some point. That happened at Gillette Stadium against UMass, but Temple managed to persevere for a two-point victory to remain undefeated. In doing so they also remained atop this week’s Access Bowl Power Rankings.
The Owls get a chance to rest next week ahead of a trip to face Charlotte on the road. The win over Cincinnati in Week 2 gave Temple a critical conference road victory to open its AAC ledger, positioning them in first place in the East Division. The true tests still await, though they already have that head start in the standings that could prove pivotal down the road should tiebreakers come into play to see which team plays in the inaugural AAC championship game.
2. Memphis Tigers (AAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won 44-41 at Bowling Green
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 24 v. Cincinnati
Memphis looks like the team most likely to face Temple in that first-ever AAC championship game in December, especially after winning a tough cross-conference Access Bowl elimination battle at Bowling Green on Saturday. The Tigers held on for dear life, with Paxton Lynch throwing a long touchdown to Tevin Jones to tie the game with 11 minutes remaining on a reverse that became a flea-flicker, and Jake Elliott hitting a field goal with seven minutes to go to seal the road victory. And despite allowing 579 yards of offense, the Tigers defense tightened when it mattered most.
The Tigers now take on Cincinnati at home next weekend and travel to South Florida for the first game of October before the team’s first bye week. The rest and preparation period will be pivotal, for Memphis could be setting things up for an undefeated showdown with visiting Ole Miss on October 17. If the Tigers can just keep that game close (whether victor or vanquished in the end) and run the rest of the AAC slate, they will make a stout case to play on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.
3. Toledo Rockets (MAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 6th
- LAST WEEK: won 30-23 (2OT) v. Iowa State
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 26 v. Arkansas State
The Rockets needed two overtimes, but they managed to defeat Iowa State in the Glass Bowl. The win over the Cyclones gives Toledo a win over a Big 12 school to go along with their SEC victory over Arkansas in Week 2. Even though inclement weather forced the cancellation of the season opener and prevented the chance to warm up against FCS competition, Toledo looks like a well-oiled machine that can continue to cause damage throughout the rest of the season. With their consecutive victories, they are now clearly the class of the MAC.
They will still have to take care of business in league play, though, something the Rockets have failed to accomplish since 2004. One more non-conference test still awaits against Arkansas State, but Toledo’s season will boom or bust based on how well they manage the MAC slate. Games on the road against Ball State on October 3, at home against Northern Illinois on November 3, and at Bowling Green on November 17 will determine how far the Rockets rise this year.
4. Houston Cougars (AAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: idle
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 26 v. Texas State
Houston dropped two spots this week as they sat on the sideline, not through any fault of their own but by virtue of the strong performances put in by the teams that leapfrogged them in the rankings. The Cougars remain one of the stingiest defenses in the country on the ground, allowing fewer than 50 yards per game, and they are tied for 14th nationally in turnover margin. Greg Ward Jr. is one of the 25 most efficient quarterbacks in the country, and Houston has already defeated an ACC opponent in Louisville to bolster its resume.
One of three teams still undefeated in the AAC West, though, Houston still needs to separate itself from teams like Memphis and Navy if it hopes to put its name in consideration for the New Year’s Six berth. A game against Vanderbilt on Halloween will break up the conference schedule, providing little respite ahead of showdowns with Cincinnati and Memphis. The Cougars have the ingredients gathered to create a magical season, but they’ll have to avoid a 2011-sized letdown to get there.
5. Boise State Broncos (MWC/2-1)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won 52-0 v. FCS Idaho State
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 25 at Virginia
It hurt to lose to BYU in Week 2, but it wasn’t the end of the world for Boise State. The Broncos got back to work on Friday night against Idaho State, and they thoroughly manhandled their FCS opponent for a 52-0 shutout on the Smurf Turf. Bryan Harsin cycled through three quarterbacks, as the game against the Bengals afforded opportunities for experimentation. It added up to nearly 600 yards of offense and seven touchdowns.
The real time for redemption after the defeat in Provo begins next Friday, when Boise State travels to Charlottesville to take on a Virginia team that gave Notre Dame fits in Week 2. From there everything turns toward Mountain West play. If the Broncos can reach October at 3-1 in the standings, they’ll have both the resume (with wins over Pac-12 and ACC opponents) and front-runner status within their own conference. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but if Boise finishes the year as MWC champions they’ll have a solid case against which few other teams can compete.
6. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 10th
- LAST WEEK: won 35-14 v. FCS Southeast Louisiana
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 26 at Minnesota
Ohio, like Temple, is one of those teams that escaped notice in the preseason Access Bowl Power Rankings. They have played their way right into contention, however, as the only remaining undefeated team in the MAC East. The only thing holding them behind one-loss Boise State is a schedule that has proven less than impressive. After surviving a trip to Moscow to face Idaho, Ohio knocked off Marshall (a solid non-conference opponent in what has proven to be a mid-major elimination game) and then took care of business in a three-touchdown win over FCS Southeast Louisiana.
Ohio has looked like a potential contender only to falter in the past, and we’ll see soon enough if that is about to happen as the Bobcats visit Minnesota on Saturday. If Frank Solich’s squad can knock off the Golden Gophers in the Twin Cities, they would have a Big Ten win to bolster their case before the committee. Even if they lose that contest, however, the pivotal point of the season will be back-to-back games at Buffalo and Bowling Green at the end of October and beginning of November. Win those and they should be playing in Detroit in December.
7. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 13th
- LAST WEEK: won 45-21 v. East Carolina
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 26 at Connecticut
Like UCF a couple of years ago and Memphis last year, Navy has had little trouble adjusting to its first-ever foray into conference life as a member of the AAC. The Midshipmen are already 1-0 in league play after handily knocking off East Carolina last weekend, holding the Pirates to 80 rushing yards, forcing two turnovers, and controlling the time of possession. Navy imposed its will on its first conference opponent, as quarterback Keenan Reynolds ran for 142 yards and five touchdowns as the catalyst of the option offense.
Navy will always have a compelling case as an instantly recognizable national brand with a storied history. They will also have several statement games out of conference that are rivaled by few other Group of Five schools. Most prominent is the annual series against Notre Dame, which will give the Midshipmen a shot at picking off the preeminent independent brand in the game. Win in South Bend against a top-10 school and run the AAC slate and anything is possible.
Carrying a Solid B Average
8. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/2-1) — The Huskies didn’t win in Columbus, but by playing the defending CFP national champions so closely they proved that they were serious contenders in a wide-open MAC West. NIU forced five Ohio State turnovers and allowed the Buckeyes to convert just two of their 13 third-down opportunities. They were tied at halftime and had opportunities to win the game at the end that quarterback Drew Hare simply couldn’t convert against a tough OSU defense, and losing by a touchdown is hardly an indictment of their worthiness. They have another chance to win against a Power Five opponent when they visit Boston College on Saturday.
9. Air Force Falcons (MWC/2-1) — Like NIU, Air Force went on the road against a Big Ten and CFP contender and acquitted itself well. The Falcons weren’t quite as close against Michigan State, holding the Spartans to just under five yards per play and giving up 104 fewer yards than AFA gained on the day. Two fumbles and an interception by an opportunistic Michigan State defense were the only thing that prevented the Falcons from springing a more serious upset opportunity. Air Force has a break next weekend before traveling east for the annual battle against Navy in the quest for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
10. Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/2-1) — The Bearcats barely held on for a 37-33 win on the road against MAC opponent Miami, as the RedHawks forced four turnovers and operated a bend-but-don’t-break defense to perfection in the upset bid. But part of the issue was also the fact that starting quarterback Gunner Kiel left the game with a head injury, and it was freshman quarterback Hayden Moore who tossed both interceptions and coughed up both fourth-quarter fumbles. If Moore has to start in Thursday’s AAC showdown at Memphis, and/or Kiel is forced to miss any significant amount of time due to an injury sustained after his head was driven into the turf on a play whistled for roughing the passer, the Bearcats’ dreams could go up in flames.
11. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/1-2) — If it weren’t for a trick play to steal away victory, the Falcons would have a statement win over fellow Access Bowl contender Memphis (the aforementioned double-reverse flea-flicker). They already played Tennessee tough in a virtual road game in Nashville and followed it up with a true road win in a blowout of Big Ten opponent Maryland. Senior quarterback Matt Johnson leads the nation in passing yards per game, throwing for 452 yards per game (or 62 more yards than second-placed Dane Evans at Tulsa) and the offense has scored nearly 40 points per game despite two losses. If the defense can get itself composed, the MAC East is still there for the taking. Before conference play begins, though, Purdue awaits on the schedule for a potential second Big Ten win.
12. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/2-1) — The Eagles are still the likeliest team to win out of a jumbled Sun Belt field, and the season-opening West Virginia game will definitely be evaluated closely by a selection committee that will note the absence of starting quarterback Kevin Ellison. And despite the debacle in Morgantown, the Eagles are ranked sixth nationally in rushing yards per game after getting Ellison back from an early-season suspension. Sun Belt play begins with a trip to face Idaho, and continues until a statement possibility in Athens against Georgia on November 7. If they can make it to the game between the hedges with an 8-1 record, even keeping it close against the Bulldogs could help Georgia Southern’s case.
13. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/2-1) — Winning against Purdue was a huge boon for the Thundering Herd’s case after missing out last year due to a weak non-conference schedule. Losing at Ohio looks less bad with each passing week that the Bobcats remain undefeated, though it also automatically ensures that Marshall remains ranked lower from the result of that virtual Access Bowl elimination game. The Herd get another chance for redemption against another former MAC rival when they travel to Kent State next weekend, and then they’ll have to run their Conference USA schedule and beat out Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee just to advance to the C-USA title game, where Louisiana Tech likely awaits.
14. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (AAC/2-1) — The Golden Hurricane went to Norman and gave a spirited contest to the Sooners, but it was never probable that Tulsa was going to win on the road over Oklahoma. (It hasn’t happened since 1996, when the Hurricane won 31-24 in Norman over a Sooners team that finished the year 3-8.) Keeping it within two touchdowns in that situation was probably all that could be asked of most Group of Five schools. There is no chance for Tulsa to catch its breath, though, because a visit from Houston awaits on Saturday. If they can right the ship against the Cougars, the Golden Hurricane will still also have to navigate a tough AAC schedule that includes East Carolina, UCF, and Cincinnati as cross-division opponents.
15. Connecticut Huskies (AAC/2-1) — I’ll be honest. UConn’s 2-0 start to the season seemed ephemeral, constructed largely of a lucky pair of five-point victories against weak opposition. But by traveling to Missouri and keeping the nation’s attention in a near-upset of the two-time defending SEC East champs, the Huskies legitimized their case as a potential dark horse candidate for the AAC crown. Temple and Cincinnati remain in favored position, but preseason contenders UCF and East Carolina are fading fast and the door is open for Connecticut to make its first run at a major bowl since 2010. The Civil Conflict with the Knights should at least have greater stakes than last year for UConn.
Clinging to a Passing Grade
16. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/2-1) — The Hilltoppers remain solidly in contention for the C-USA title despite losing to Indiana over the weekend. Though the opportunity to claim victory against a manageable Big Ten victim slipped through their grasp, WKU already has a conference win and a road win against SEC opponent Vanderbilt.
17. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/1-2) — The Bulldogs were oh-so-close to snagging a statement win on the road in the Little Apple against Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. Instead triple overtime proved cruel, and now Louisiana Tech must hope to run the rest of its slate (including a road game against Mississippi State) to have a shot at the Access Bowl slot unless all hell breaks loose.
18. Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA/2-1) — The Monarchs, like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, are in their first season of full FBS membership after transitioning from FCS. And like those two programs, Old Dominion is still well alive for a conference title. With six of the seven C-USA East teams tied at 2-1 in the standings, ODU’s loss to NC State hardly dooms them from contention.
19. UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (SUN/1-1) — The Ragin’ Cajuns were idle this weekend, holding at 1-1 in the standings while others shifted around them. They almost knocked off Kentucky in Knoxville, and Louisiana didn’t suffer any hiccups against a Northwestern State team that loves pulling off FCS-versus-FBS upsets. A tight Sun Belt field is there for the taking — though it might mean missing out on a fifth straight New Orleans Bowl appearance.
20. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (MWC/2-1) — After just three weeks, Hawaii is improbably the only team left in the MWC West Division with only one defeat. They won against a Colorado team that defeated fellow MWC member Colorado State this weekend, and their loss at Ohio State is hardly an opportunity killer. (Even if Toledo traveled better, they also didn’t cross six time zones to do so.)
21. Buffalo Bulls (MAC/2-1) — Lance Leipold has turned around the atmosphere in Buffalo, with the Bulls’ only loss coming in Happy Valley against Penn State. FBS Albany was no match, nor was Florida Atlantic. After next weekend’s game against Nevada in Reno, Buffalo opens conference play with showdowns against Bowling Green and Ohio in October, matchups that will determine the MAC East.
22. Rice Owls (C-USA/2-1) — After upsetting Marshall to win the C-USA title two years ago, Rice has remained a contender within the conference. The Owls lost by two touchdowns against Texas, but otherwise they’ve managed so far to take care of business (albeit against FCS Wagner and North Texas). Things get tougher in the next few weeks with a trip to Baylor and a visit from the aforementioned Hilltoppers.
23. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA/2-1) — Middle Tennessee lost at Alabama, but that is a regular occurrence for teams that travel to Tuscaloosa. The Blue Raiders still have a chance to knock off resurgent Illinois in Champaign next weekend, and last Saturday’s 73-14 win over C-USA newcomer and transitional FBS member Charlotte gave Middle Tennessee an early conference win.
24. South Alabama Jaguars (SUN/2-1) — San Diego State was penciled in the top 25 on Saturday when they led South Alabama 17-10 at halftime, but the Jaguars’ comeback to win 34-27 in overtime vaulted the visitors into position instead of the Aztecs. If tailback Xavier Johnson and quarterback Cody Clements can spark another upset this weekend over NC State, they’ll skyrocket up the rankings.
25. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/1-1) — After losing at Clemson 41-10 in Week 2, the Mountaineers had a weekend of recuperation before this Saturday’s showdown at fellow FBS neophyte Old Dominion and the October 3 visit from Wyoming ahead of Sun Belt play. This season’s Appalachian State isn’t of a 2007 vintage, but they can still plenty rock the boat after finishing third in its inaugural season last year.
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/2-1)
- Ball State Cardinals (MAC/2-1)
- Florida International Panthers (C-USA/2-1)
- UL-Monroe Warhawks (SUN/1-1)
- #11 Colorado State Rams (MWC/1-2)
- #17 East Carolina Pirates (AAC/1-2)
- #22 Utah State Aggies (MWC/1-2)
- #23 San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/1-2)