Only five undefeated teams remain among the ranks of the Group of Five conferences. Beyond the teams with unblemished records, just eight more teams are plugging along with only one loss. As September gives way to October, the Access Bowl contenders are starting to distance themselves from the pretenders merely dreaming for a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
This is the last week that the Access Bowl Power Rankings will be expanded to a full 25 teams. October will provide the conference battles that allow the field to winnow down to 20 beginning with Week 5, as the grading curve steepens and margins for error shrink in the process. We are also seeing the Pigskin Rating System figures normalize as more data points reveal the best mid-major teams.
We still have a lot of football to play, so this list is hardly a concrete representation of how the rest of the season will play out. Chaos is the beauty within college football’s design, yet with few non-conference opportunities left for these teams the stakes increase to a zero-sum point as teams with big-bowl dreams take out one another on the field. Here is how the teams stack up this week in the Power Rankings, and you can find each team’s PRS ranking in the table at the bottom…
1. Memphis Tigers (AAC/4-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won 53-46 v. Cincinnati
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 2 at South Florida
After winning a thriller on Thursday night against Cincinnati, Memphis vaults into the top spot of this week’s Access Bowl Power Rankings. Only Ole Miss and Baylor are scoring more points than the 53.8 per game that the Tigers have posted during their first four victories, and Paxton Lynch is most efficient mid-major quarterback in the country a third of the way through the season.
Looming in the near future is a showdown with Ole Miss, as the Rebels travel to Memphis on October 17. Should the Tigers upset the Rebels at home, they could arrive at a pivotal stretch of the schedule undefeated. The AAC will likely be settled in November, when Memphis squares off against Navy, Houston, and Temple on three straight weekends. And if they navigate the entirety of the schedule unscathed, there is no way that anyone would pip the entirety of Memphis’ resume.
2. Toledo Rockets (MAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won 37-7 v. Arkansas State
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 3 at Ball State
This, however, might be the team with the best case to put up against Memphis. Toledo missed out on a cupcake game against FCS Stony Brook to start the season, which means the Rockets only have 11 games to state their case… but it also means that the strength of that schedule escalates.
After knocking off Arkansas in Little Rock and following up with a victory over Iowa State, Toledo has two Power Five statement wins on its resume. They also took Arkansas State out of the Sun Belt and Access Bowl equations with a 37-7 drubbing over the weekend. The Rockets boast a top-15 scoring defense after those contests, and only six other teams boast a better turnover margin in the FBS ranks. Toledo gets to warm up into conference play through the month of October, facing Ball State, Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and UMass before the level of difficulty increases with a visit from defending MAC West champ Northern Illinois on November 3.
3. Temple Owls (AAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: idle
- NEXT WEEK: October 2 at Charlotte
It wasn’t anything Temple did, so much as it was impressive performances from other teams, that caused them to drop two spots this week. The Owls needed divine providence to survive a scare against UMass in Week 3, only winning thanks to a defensive two-point conversion on a failed PAT attempt and a late field goal. Wins over Penn State and Cincinnati were far more impressive in the long run.
There is no logical reason why Temple should not be 7-0 by the time Halloween rolls around and Notre Dame comes to Philadelphia. The Owls can’t get caught looking too far ahead, though, because immediately preceding that showdown with the Irish are games against UCF and East Carolina. While the Knights look nothing like recent vintages, the trip to Greenville could be the last trap waiting on Temple’s schedule. Survive that, and acquit themselves against Notre Dame (in victory or defeat), and the last test will be a home game against Memphis on November 21.
4. Houston Cougars (AAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: won 59-14 v. Texas State
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 3 at Tulsa
Houston welcomed Texas State to TDECU Stadium and promptly overwhelmed the Bobcats in a 59-14 whitewash. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. accounted for six touchdowns in the victory, throwing four and running for two others in the blowout. The Cougars put up nearly 700 yards of offense in the rout, and the defense forced two interceptions and two fumbles to move Houston to third nationally in turnover margin.
With a statement win over Louisville already on its resume, the Cougars also have an opportunity to steal a win over an SEC school when Vanderbilt visits Space City on Halloween. Houston has to travel to Tulsa, Tulane, and UCF in the interim period before the visit from the Commodores, but should be 7-0 by the time that game rolls around. Things tighten up in November, but Houston has the advantage of playing Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy at home. Four years after coming close to immortality as a BCS Buster, the Cougars have a legitimate shot to finally reach a major bowl game.
5. Boise State Broncos (MWC/3-1)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won 56-14 at Virginia
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 3 v. Hawaii
The first team with a loss in the Access Bowl Power Rankings this week is also the most famous of mid-majors. Boise State’s loss to BYU looks increasingly inexplicable as the Broncos begin to coalesce into a burgeoning juggernaut. Against a Virginia team that gave both UCLA and Notre Dame fits, Boise dominated from start to finish in a 56-14 obliteration of the Cavaliers in Charlottesville.
Now Mountain West play starts for the Broncos, beginning with a visit from Hawaii this weekend. The biggest test is likely to come from Air Force — the only Mountain West team to beat Boise State last season — when the teams meet on the Smurf Turf on November 20. Despite losing starting quarterback Ryan Finley to a broken ankle that sidelined him eight weeks (or, in a macabre way, perhaps because of it) the Broncos continue to plug along at a high rate thanks to Brent Rypien’s revelatory play. Perhaps the Broncos will get the chance to play in a bowl game besides the Fiesta Bowl this season if they keep it up.
6. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/3-0)
- LAST RANKING: 7th
- LAST WEEK: won 28-18 at Connecticut
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 3 v. Air Force
Nobody is currently scoring more points per game than Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. The catalyst of the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense is averaging three touchdowns a game after running in a trio of scores over the weekend against UConn and tossing another through the air. Navy as a team is averaging more than 40 points per game, ranking among the top 25 nationally in scoring offense as a result.
The degree of difficulty will increase in the coming months, beginning with a visit from Air Force to open October. That showdown immediately precedes a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame under the watchful eyes of Touchdown Jesus — an annual contest that the Middies have dropped four straight years after dominating the series from 2007-2010. Navy especially lucked out by missing Cincinnati, Temple, and East Carolina in cross-division matchups. Ken Niumatalolo’s crew could ostensibly play on of the trio if they can get past Memphis and claim the AAC West.
Carrying a Solid B Average
7. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/3-1) — The Eagles have continued to rebound from the 44-0 loss at West Virginia in the season opener, winning their third straight on Saturday with a 44-20 beatdown of Idaho. The win marks the ninth straight Sun Belt game won by Georgia Southern since transitioning from the FCS ranks last season, and this year the Eagles will be eligible to compete in the school’s first-ever bowl game should they reach eligibility. The team’s triple-option offense continues to punish opponents on the ground — the Eagles are currently fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game. They’ve coupled the ground game with a mid-tier defense that should be sufficient in Sun Belt play. Until someone else steps up, Georgia Southern remains the favorite to win a second straight conference title.
8. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/3-1) — The Bobcats lost their first game of the year, giving up a late touchdown on the road to fall to Minnesota 27-24 in Minneapolis. Ohio played a nearly perfect game, essentially playing the Golden Gophers to a draw when home-field advantage is taken into account. The loss will not have too major an impact on the Bobcats, who remain atop the MAC East and have an open lane to reach Detroit and the MAC championship game. Akron, Buffalo, and the following entrant in this week’s Power Rankings will all have an opportunity to derail the Bobcat train, but they will have to crack a defense that is allowing fewer than 20 points per game. In his 11th season with the Bobcats, Frank Solich might have the best all-around roster of his tenure.
9. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/2-2) — The Falcons have the Big Ten’s number this season, following up a blowout over Maryland with a defeat of Purdue on Saturday. The second victory prompted the Bowling Green bookstore to release this special-edition shirt. A three-point loss to Memphis has locked the Falcons in a Catch-22… they need the Tigers to keep winning to improve the quality of the defeat, though if both teams finish as conference champions the benefit would go to the AAC champion. No quarterback has passed for more yards to this point of the season than Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson, who is on pace to finish the regular season with over 5000 yards through the air. The Falcons have needed every yard and point, as their defense is coughing up nearly 40 points per game.
10. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/2-2) — Unlike the MAC teams above them, Northern Illinois needs help to reach the MAC championship game from the West. Toledo remains the team to beat in the division, while Ball State has an early advantage with a league win and both Central and Western Michigan have been better than their respective 1-3 records denote. Yet NIU looks no less potent than the previous incarnations that have a five-year division winning streak going. The Huskies nearly dethroned Ohio State in Columbus, losing a 20-13 heartbreaker with a late interception on a potential tying drive, and followed it up with an even more painful loss at Boston College this weekend. With those Power Five contests behind them, NIU can now focus solely on remaining atop the MAC West another year.
11. Air Force Falcons (MWC/2-1) — Air Force enjoyed a weekend off to conclude September, sitting on the sidelines and watching from Colorado Springs as their fellow Mountain West members took the field over the weekend. After losing to Michigan State, the Falcons set to preparing for their service academy showdown with Navy in Annapolis next Saturday. While Air Force was unable to reach the battle with their military brethren undefeated, they are nevertheless allowing fewer than 20 points per game and rank 16th in rushing defense — both marks that should give the Midshipmen pause. If Air Force can emerge from the east coast with a win, their next major test won’t come until mid-November when the Falcons face Utah State and Boise State on back-to-back weekends.
12. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/3-1) — Unlike last year, when the Thundering Herd remained undefeated late into the season, Marshall has already suffered its first loss of the year. The defeat to Ohio, a battle between former MAC rivals, was wholly unexpected, but it has also allowed the Herd to fly below the radar entering October. While the offense is not quite as dynamic as it was last year with Rakeem Cato running the show, Marshall has the advantage of playing in a division where nobody has a monopoly on dominance. Old Dominion provides the first chance to tally a conference victory, and the Herd avoid both Rice and Louisiana Tech from the West. As a result, Marshall isn’t likely to be seriously challenged in league play until November when they face Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky.
13. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/3-1) — Speaking of Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers were the only team last season to knock off a Marshall squad with undefeated dreams. Unlike Marshall, WKU’s only loss came in a close contest against Power Five competition when the Hilltoppers visited Indiana. After four games, Brandon Doughty is behind only Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson in passing yardage and features as the seventh-most efficient quarterback in the country. Despite losing to the Hoosiers, Western Kentucky can boast one win over a Power Five team after defeating Vanderbilt in the season opener. They also have a shot to take down top-10 LSU in Death Valley on October 24; pull off that feat and Jeff Brohm’s crew will quickly entrench itself near the top of the Power Rankings.
14. Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/2-2) — An already disappointing season saw even more dejection over the weekend, as starting quarterback Gunner Kiel went down with a neck injury caused by targeting. One of just 14 teams to have already played at least two conference games, the Bearcats are looking up in the standings after losing to both Temple and Memphis during September. If Cincinnati is forced to face the visiting Hurricanes on Thursday night without Kiel, a third loss could quickly doom the Bearcats’ chances of realizing a truly special season. BYU also awaits a fortnight later, and a season that held hopes of a New Year’s Six berth might have already flamed out by the time Cincinnati gets back to conference play in late October.
15. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (AAC/2-1) — Tulsa had a chance to regroup after losing to Oklahoma in Week 3, using a bye week to rest and recuperate ahead of an October slate of games that will determine how serious the Golden Hurricane’s dark-horse status truly is this season. Working in Tulsa’s favor is an offense that is producing nearly six touchdowns per game; working against the Hurricane is a defense that is allowing nearly 40 points per game, leaving an average point differential of less than a field goal per game. The margin for error in Tulsa is razor-thin, and Tulsa will need to take care of business against Houston and every other opponent on its schedule if the team hopes to accomplish more than merely hoping for improvement…
16. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/2-1) — Like Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, Appalachian State only became eligible to compete in bowl games this year. The Mountaineers look ready to make the most of the opportunity, their only loss coming to College Football Playoff hopeful Clemson in Week 2. ASU gets to play a woebegone Wyoming team coming out of its bye week, and ultimately it could be the showdown with the Eagles on October 22 that determines which neophyte wins the Sun Belt this season. Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette look far less potent than they did entering the season, leaving the conference spoils to a pair of new teams.
Clinging to a Passing Grade
17. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/2-2) — The Bulldogs responded after two straight close defeats, taking care of business against Florida International in a game Tech had to win. Though they are technically behind Rice in the C-USA West standings, the Bulldogs acquitted themselves far better against Power Five competition (after nearly beating Kansas State in Week 3) and will take on the Owls the day before Halloween with divisional supremacy on the line.
18. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA/2-2) — Victory over Illinois was oh-so-close in Champaign this weekend, with the Blue Raiders missing a 43-yard field goal wide left in the waning moments to lose 27-25. Next weekend Vanderbilt comes to town, providing Middle Tennessee with one final opportunity to claim a victory over Power Five competition. Redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, the son of head coach Rick Stockstill, has ably taken over at quarterback and could keep the Blue Raiders in C-USA contention.
19. East Carolina Pirates (AAC/2-2) — East Carolina was left for dead last week after the Pirates followed up a heartbreaking close loss against Florida with a blowout at Navy. But when expectations are lowest, ECU is most likely to surprise. The Pirates survived two turnovers in Saturday’s game to claim their second straight win over Virginia Tech, reinserting themselves into the Access Bowl conversation in the process. Now ECU must make up ground in the AAC East race to keep pace.
20. Ball State Cardinals (MAC/2-2) — Wins over lower-division VMI and Eastern Michigan do little to move the needle. A blowout at Texas A&M likewise does little to engender positive reactions for an Access Bowl candidate. So why is Ball State in this week’s Top 25? It all comes down to the most recent road trip, where the Cardinals forced three Northwestern turnovers and nearly dealt the Wildcats their first loss of the year. A major test against Toledo awaits next.
21. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/2-2) — After several years in the Conference USA cellar, Southern Miss is finally reemerging as a viable mid-major threat this season. Mississippi State required a second-half turnaround to defeat the Golden Eagles in the season opener, and Southern Miss put a scare into Nebraska on Saturday to nearly upset the Huskers in Lincoln. The schedule now enters conference play, and the Eagles could play a major role in deciding the league in 2015.
22. Nevada Wolf Pack (MWC/2-2) — Somebody is going to have to win the MWC West this year, and Nevada increasingly looks capable of threatening for the honors. Losses to Arizona and Texas A&M put the Wolf Pack in a September deficit, but an elimination game against Buffalo put Brian Polian’s team back on the radar. Nevada has the benefit of avoiding both Boise State and Air Force in cross-divisional play, making their road perhaps the easiest of a flawed group of West hopefuls.
23. Connecticut Huskies (AAC/2-2) — A 2-0 start to the season and a near-upset of Missouri in Week 3 made UConn look like a possible AAC spoiler. That could still be the case, but it also feels like the Huskies are starting to regress back to the mean after losing at home to Navy. They have to take on BYU in Provo to begin October, beginning a pivotal month that also features road games against UCF and Cincinnati. They’ll have to continue leaning on a top-25 defense to stay alive in the Access Bowl race.
24. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (MWC/2-2) — Like Nevada and San Jose State, Hawaii is one of a trio of 2-2 teams at the top of the MWC West standings. Though they failed to score a single point in two midwestern trips to face Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Rainbow Warriors can claim victory over one Power Five school after knocking off Colorado in their home opener. Back-to-back games at Boise State and home to San Diego State will set the ceiling on how high Hawaii can climb in 2015.
25. Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA/2-2) — Old Dominion barely remained in this week’s Access Bowl Power Rankings after getting blown out 49-0 at home by Appalachian State. The Monarchs were easily overmatched by the Mountaineers, though it will matter little if they can make waves in C-USA play starting with next weekend’s trip to Huntington to take on Marshall. Survive the Herd and ODU’s next big test will come at the end of the month, with Western Kentucky visiting Virginia for Halloween.
- Colorado State Rams (MWC/2-2)
- Akron Zips (MAC/2-2)
- San Jose State Spartans (MWC/2-2)
- Florida International Panthers (C-USA/2-2)
- #18 UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (SUN/1-2)
- #20 Buffalo Bulls (MAC/2-2)
- #21 Rice Owls (C-USA/2-2)
- #23 South Alabama Jaguars (SUN/2-2)