The long opening weekend’s slate of games separated a few of the overhyped pretenders from the less-heralded contenders in the quest for the first guaranteed mid-major berth in one of the elite bowl games. It also required a lot more serious thought regarding Perennial favorites like UCF, Boise State, and Fresno State were felled from the ranks of the unbeaten on opening weekend. Usual lightweights like Hawaii and Georgia Southern came agonizingly close to pulling off upsets against AQ-conference middleweights.
You won’t see any of those teams on this week’s list of rankings. Instead this week’s rankings reward those performances that opened eyes the widest this past weekend. Some are admittedly more amazing than others, but some of the victories that may have been less impressive at first glance were more telling than they initially seemed. This list also works from a longer ranking system I’ve started to craft that I’ll unveil next week once there are data points for every team within the Group of Five.
After all, there has only been one week of play so far, and if we learned anything during the BCS era it is that a loss early is better than a loss later in the season. The Knights, Broncos, Bulldogs, and every other team that lost last week is hardly out of the running for the lucrative automatic berth into one of the big New Year’s bowls. And just because a team like Temple or Colorado State or UTSA looks good on Labor Day doesn’t mean that it’ll still look this good by Columbus Day or Thanksgiving.
That said, there were some shockers in both directions, good and bad, that set an early tone for the season to come. Let’s look at the big winners from among the FBS mid-major conferences from the opening weekend of the 2014 season…
1. Temple Owls (1-0/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 45th
- LAST GAME: won 37-7 at Vanderbilt
- NEXT GAME: September 6 v. Navy
Yes, Vanderbilt was breaking in a new head coach after James Franklin left to succeed Bill O’Brien at Penn State. Unfortunately for Derek Mason, though, the bare cupboards (only 10 returning starters) could not be replenished quickly enough to stave off an upset to Temple. I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong about the Owls, who I had ranked 45th in the preseason power rankings. Any time a team forces seven turnovers against an SEC school, it deserves accolades. But we must also temper this excitement about what may be the best Temple team in years with the realities of how they won. Quarterback P.J. Walker was efficient enough, completing 23 of his 34 passing attempts. But those completions flew for only 207 yards and two scores, and the Owl offense was 2-for-17 on third down while gaining just 4.3 yards on average per play. Can Temple, which ranked 109th in total team defense last year, maintain the luck that propelled it to a victory in Nashville and threaten in the AAC? We’ll find out how well they sustain the momentum when they take on Navy on Saturday.
2. UT-San Antonio Roadrunners (1-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 8th
- LAST GAME: won 27-7 at Houston
- NEXT GAME: September 4 at Arizona
Houston was supposed to be the mid-major that was one of the biggest threats to contend for the CFP bowl berth this year from the AAC. Yet the Roadrunners have also been threatening to make waves since joining the FBS ranks in 2012. Larry Coker’s crew went 8-4 in their first transition year, including a .500 record against fellow FBS competition. Last season, had they not still been in their transitional period, UTSA would have been eligible to go bowling after going 7-5 in Conference USA and a tough non-conference slate that included three BCS-conference schools (Oklahoma State, Arizona, Houston). After losing to the Cougars in the Alamodome last year, though, UTSA finally has its breakthrough victory after a 27-7 road drubbing of Houston. The Roadrunners gained vengeance for last year’s defeat by ruining Houston’s opening of the new on-campus TDECU Stadium. The passing attack missed departed quarterback Eric Soza, as senior replacement Tucker Carter went 15-of-24 for just 121 yards. But the defense held Houston to a negative total in rushing yardage, forced six turnovers, and a statement victory was never in doubt for the C-USA West frontrunner.
3. Colorado State Rams (1-0/MWC)
- LAST WEEK: 31st
- LAST GAME: won 31-17 v. Colorado (in Denver)
- NEXT GAME: September 6 at Boise State
In recent years, the Rocky Mountain Showdown has become a much more even affair between the Colorado Buffaloes and the Colorado State Rams. While the former is ostensibly the bigger school in the bigger conference, the latter has been doing far more of the winning in recent editions of the annual battle for state supremacy at Mile High Stadium in Denver. This year the Rams followed the example of their namesake mascot, battering into the Buffaloes defense for 266 rushing yards. CU put up an early scare for CSU, kicking a field goal three minutes into the second quarter to build up a 10-0 lead. Dee Hart responded with an eight-yard touchdown before halftime to narrow the gap, and after allowing the Buffaloes to score on their opening drive of the second half Colorado State shut their opponent down the rest of the way. Both Hart and Treyous Jarrells ran for over 100 yards, mitigating the mediocre performance of returning quarterback Garrett Grayson (13-of-23, 134 yards, one touchdown). They’ll get another test this week against a Boise State squad looking to rebound from an embarrassing loss against Ole Miss.
4. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 20th
- LAST GAME: won 59-31 v. Bowling Green
- NEXT GAME: September 6 at Illinois
Bobby Petrino’s rapid farewell has seemed to have little if any adverse effects on the Hilltoppers offense, which drilled defending MAC champion Bowling Green in a mismatch. WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty was 46-of-56 for 569 yards and six touchdowns, tailback Leon Allen was a yard shy of a 100-yard performance, and the offense put up 708 total yards and 59 points on the Falcons’ defense. Western Kentucky was still far from an elite defensive unit, allowing 465 yards to Bowling Green on an average of more than 6.5 yards per play. But with the firepower of eight returning starters on offense, it will not matter that the Hilltoppers are reeling from losing eight players on the defensive side of the ball if they can continue to put up big numbers in the air and on the ground. Their trip to Illinois next weekend offers the only chance to prove themselves against big-five competition this season, before they dive into the heart of the Conference USA schedule. Given how the Illini performed against Youngstown State in their opener, a win is entirely within the realm of possibility for WKU.
5. Marshall Thundering Herd (1-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 6th
- LAST GAME: won 42-27 at Miami/OH
- NEXT GAME: September 6 v. FCS Rhode Island
The Thundering Herd are in a precarious spot. They have a wafer-thin strength of schedule, among the lowest-rated in the country, which means they should be able to run their schedule. That would nominally give them the inside track on the automatic berth, but given the fact that the selection committee is taking strength of schedule into account they almost need to demolish every opponent along the way. At halftime of their season opener at Miami of Ohio, it looked like Marshall was well on the way to their first demolition. Rakeem Cato had already tossed three touchdown passes, the defense had held firm against the RedHawks to permit just a field goal, and the Herd was up 28-3 at the intermission. Then the defense buckled, the hosts had a 17-point third quarter, and the rout had suddenly turned into a tight contest. Marshall managed to pull away for a 15-point win, but it is hardly the blowout they’ll need to impress the selectors come December. A two-touchdown gap won’t cut it against Rhode Island this weekend, despite the fact that Miami is less than five points higher in the Sagarin rankings.
6. UAB Blazers (1-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 51st
- LAST GAME: won 48-10 v. Troy
- NEXT GAME: September 6 at Mississippi State
Why does UAB rate this highly after a win against a team as historically marginal as Troy? The Trojans took less than 90 seconds to score against the Blazers… and then didn’t score again until kicking a field goal as time expired before halftime. In between, UAB put 24 points on the Troy defense. After halftime, they matched that point total while preventing another Trojan score. Jordan Howard dominated the contest, rushing 19 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns. D.J. Vinson complimented him well in the backfield, adding 106 yards and another touchdown on 22 carries. Quarterback Cody Clements managed the offense well, completing 13 of 19 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns, and adding another touchdown and 37 yards on the ground. The balanced performance will get a bigger test next weekend, when the Blazers travel to Starkville to take on Mississippi State in the first of two manageable showdowns against SEC opponents. (Their second, against Arkansas in Fayetteville, won’t take place until the last weekend of October.) If they survive even one of those contests, they could become a serious Conference USA contender.