We are getting to a point in the 2015 season where determining which teams will win their respective Group of Five conferences is oddly becoming more difficult. What we are seeing, however, is a clear hierarchy emerging between the mid-major conferences.
Not all conference championships are created equal. Even as undefeated teams have fallen by the wayside and traditional Cinderella powerhouses have yo-yoed in and out of the picture, there has remained a clear distinction between the five mid-major leagues that has been far less fluid than the shifts between the teams themselves.
For that reason, as we near Thanksgiving and the championship games for four of the five Group of Five conferences, we are going to take a different approach in looking at this week’s Access Bowl Power Rankings. Instead of just rating the teams that are still in the hunt, we are going to first rank the leagues and then determine the order that the contenders rate within each conference.
So which conference has the best chance of sending its champion to a big bowl game and making a statement for itself this season? Read below for the most recent take on the where everyone rates in the Access Bowl Power Rankings for Week 12…
1. American Athletic Conference
- Navy Midshipmen (AAC West, 9-1/7-0 conf)
- Houston Cougars (AAC West, 10-1/6-1 conf)
- Temple Owls (AAC East, 9-2/6-1 conf)
- South Florida Bulls (AAC East, 7-4/5-2 conf)
Even though Houston dropped from the ranks from the unbeaten with an inexplicable loss at Connecticut this weekend, the Cougars still have their fate in their own hands when they welcome Navy to TDECU Stadium early on Black Friday. The game will serve as a division championship game, with the winner advancing to host the AAC championship game on December 5.
There they will most likely take on Temple, which needs only to defeat UConn to claim the AAC East. Should the Owls lose, however, South Florida would take the division with a victory over winless UCF thanks to the Bulls’ head-to-head win over Temple. Only a surprise conference championship by USF would force the College Football Playoff selection committee to give serious thought to another conference champion. As long as it is Houston, Navy, or Temple emerging with the crown, that team will almost certainly be the committee’s choice to represent the Group of Five.
2. Conference USA
- Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA East, 9-2/7-0 conf)
- Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA East, 9-2/6-1 conf)
- Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA West, 8-3/6-1 conf)
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA West, 8-3/6-1 conf)
Four years ago, Conference USA was in the driver’s seat for a BCS berth. Then Houston lost to Southern Miss, both of the schools’ head coaches left for bigger positions, and the Cougars are now in another league. Last year, even when it was undefeated, Marshall didn’t get taken seriously for the Access Bowl berth… and the end of the perfect season at the hands of Western Kentucky only seemed to confirm suspicions held by the committee.
This year, the league has the clearest path to its championship game. WKU and Marshall will face off in Bowling Green on noontime on Black Friday, while Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss will kick off 24 hours later. The two contests will serve as division championship games; the winner between the Hilltoppers and Herd will host the game, while the Bulldogs and Golden Eagles will be playing for an upset berth. The league probably needs USF to win the AAC to have a shot at selection, but C-USA knows all too well that crazy things happen in championship games.
3. Mid-American Conference
- Bowling Green Falcons (MAC East, 8-3/6-1 conf)
- Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC West, 8-3/6-1 conf)
- Toledo Rockets (MAC West, 9-1/6-1 conf)
The team that would probably rate highest in the selection committee’s estimation, Toledo, needs help just to reach Detroit to play in the MAC championship game. Because the Rockets lost in their head-to-head matchup with Northern Illinois back on November 3, they need the Huskies to lose again to have a shot to defeat Bowling Green a second time and officially put their names into the pool.
But because Northern Illinois gets to play Ohio at home on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it is more probable that Toledo will take the field on Friday against Western Michigan knowing that they are already out of the race and playing only for pride at that point. If that is the case, the champion between the Falcons and the Huskies is unlikely to be overly impressive in the eyes of the committee. Bowling Green would have a better chance of garnering serious consideration than NIU, thanks to a tough non-conference schedule in which they beat Purdue and Maryland, narrowly lost to Memphis, and also took on Tennessee.
4. Mountain West Conference
- San Diego State Aztecs (MWC West, 8-3/7-0 conf)
- Air Force Falcons (MWC Mountain, 8-3/6-1 conf)
Over the course of the BCS’s existence as the primary system for determining which teams participated in the top bowl games and for the national championship, the Mountain West was the preeminent mid-major conference in the country. Utah, TCU, and Boise State all represented the league in BCS games, and last year the Broncos were the first team to secure the guaranteed Access Bowl berth for Group of Five champions.
Unlike every other mid-major league, we already know who will be playing in the MWC championship game… and neither San Diego State nor Air Force is likely to move the needle much against the other conference champions, thanks to each sporting three losses and lacking any sort of statement victory. Air Force lost not only to Michigan State but also to Navy, making it virtually impossible to pass the Midshipmen should they win the AAC. The Aztecs lost not just at Cal and Penn State but also at home to South Alabama, a blemish that could prove costly when compared against the out-of-conference records of other champs.
5. Sun Belt Conference
- Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-3/6-0 conf)
- Appalachian State Mountaineers (8-2/5-1 conf)
- Georgia Southern Eagles (7-3/5-1 conf)
If Arkansas State takes the conference title outright by winning its last two games against New Mexico State and Texas State, they would have a better chance at consideration than if they drop one of the last two contests and are forced into a three-way tie with Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Either way, however, the Red Wolves still are unlikely to merit serious consideration compared to the other conference champions among the Group of Five leagues.
The lack of a conference championship game is just as costly for mid-majors as it was for the Big 12 last season, with split championships diluting the water and the lack of a 13th game providing one fewer plot point to measure the Sun Belt champion against the other hopefuls. The league’s perception as a launchpad for programs moving up from FCS football and moving on to Conference USA also persists, and it will likely require an undefeated season from a Sun Belt champion to really force the selection committee’s hands on the league in future seasons.