How crazy have the first two weeks of the college football season been for the Group of Five schools? Just a fortnight into the new year, only nine schools remain undefeated from among the mid-major conferences. (Well, 10 when you count a Cincinnati team that has yet to play a game.)
The beauty of the new system this year is that a loss does not automatically jeopardize a mid-major team’s chances of earning a bid to one of the big bowl games affiliated with the College Football Playoff. In many ways, losing a tight contest to quality competition is going to be viewed more favorably than breezing through a cupcake schedule — as Northern Illinois learned in 2012 when it earned an Orange Bowl berth despite losing its opener to Iowa.
It will be instructive this first year to see how the selection committee treats close defeats against good teams. Will the committee look more favorably on the near-upsets of Power Five schools by teams like UTSA, Ball State, San Diego State, and Memphis… or will they continue to prize wins, even when they come against mediocre opposition, over all else? The selection procedures do denote a desire for selectors to consider strength of schedule when assessing worthiness, though there are no concrete guidelines dictating to what extent it will be a factor. There is little we yet know about this brave new world.
One factor that could muddle the clarity we might hope to gain from this season? The continued rise of BYU, who knocked off Texas and has looked as good as any other team in the country through the first two weeks. How will the selection committee treat the independent Cougars, given that they have neither a conference affiliation nor the Notre Dame benefit of the doubt, could affect what happens further down the line for the mid-majors.
There is still a lot of football to be played, and these rankings will continue to be fairly fluid until we have more reference points to better sort the contenders from the pretenders. Let’s dive in and look at how the second weekend of the season affected the shape of the field as we advance deeper into September.
1. Northern Illinois Huskies (2-0/MAC)
- LAST WEEK: 9th
- LAST GAME: won 23-15 at Northwestern
- NEXT GAME: September 13 at UNLV
After losing to California in the season opener, it was obvious that this year’s Northwestern team is probably fighting just to stay out of the Big Ten West cellar. So to say that this is a statement win for Northern Illinois might be a slight overstatement. The Huskies have leaned on their running game more heavily this season after the end of dual-threat quarterback Jordan Lynch’s eligibility, and it was the ground attack that guided NIU to victory last Saturday in Evanston. With three different quarterbacks combining to go just 13-of-23 for 180 yards, it fell on Akeem Daniels and the backfield-by-committee to pick up the slack. The defense likewise firmed up, holding Northwestern to just 74 rushing yards in the win. They still have road trips to Sin City and Fayetteville before the start of conference play, but once again Northern Illinois looks like the class of the MAC.
2. Marshall Thundering Herd (2-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 5th
- LAST GAME: won 48-7 v. FCS Rhode Island
- NEXT GAME: September 13 v. Ohio
Marshall looked far better against Rhode Island last Saturday than they did against Miami of Ohio in the season opener. The Thundering Herd, unlike most other teams on the list, have little room for error and would probably be eliminated from consideration with a single defeat due to their weak 2014 schedule. Quarterback Rakeem Cato steamrolled the Rams, compiling over 400 total yards of offense (267 passing, 143 rushing, three total touchdowns) as Marshall staked out an early lead and continued building it until the final whistle. They’ll need to do more of the same against Ohio when the Bobcats come to Huntington next weekend, both to continue boosting their own resume as well as to weaken its former conference’s credentials. The onus is now on the Herd to prove that they’re that much better than teams that might end the season with a loss but played better competition to arrive at December.
3. UL-Monroe Warhawks (2-0/SUN)
- LAST WEEK: 8th
- LAST GAME: won 38-31 v. Idaho
- NEXT GAME: September 13 at LSU
It was supposed to be state and Sun Belt rival Louisiana-Lafayette that was the front-runner for that conference’s hopes of claiming a New Year’s bowl bid. Instead it looks like the Warhawks might be the class of the SEC’s little-brother league, after surviving against visiting Idaho to move to 2-0. They’ll likely endure a defeat this upcoming weekend, given that they have to Baton Rouge for a night game against LSU in Death Valley, but if they can manage to keep the score close and acquit themselves well they would gain a serious boost in their resume. Working in the Warhawks’ favor is the fact that all four of their non-conference opponents are from either the SEC or ACC; if they can even just split that quartet of contests and then run the slate in the Sun Belt, a 10-2 ULM squad would have a serious case to present to the selection committee.
4. Nevada Wolf Pack (2-0/MWC)
- LAST WEEK: NR
- LAST GAME: won 24-13 v. Washington State
- NEXT GAME: September 13 at Arizona
Is Washington State just that bad, or is Nevada finally rising to prominence in the Mountain West after joining the league in 2012? Senior quarterback Cody Fajardo is finally coming into his own after succeeding Colin Kaepernick in the Wolf Pack’s Pistol offense, able to beat offenses with his arm (as he did in the opener against Southern Utah) or his legs (like he did last week against Washington State, rushing 16 times for 100 yards). We saw UTSA give Arizona all it could handle last week in their Thursday-night showdown at the Alamodome, so Nevada could conceivably spring the upset in Tucson this Saturday. With Wyoming the only other undefeated team in the MWC (and likely to lose this weekend when they take on Oregon at Autzen Stadium), Nevada looks capable of emerging as the league’s best hope for one of the CFP-affiliated bowls.
5. Central Michigan Chippewas (2-0/MAC)
- LAST WEEK: NR
- LAST GAME: won 38-17 at Purdue
- NEXT GAME: September 13 v. Syracuse
It is odd to think that, just half a decade ago, the premier team in the MAC West wasn’t Northern Illinois but Central Michigan. The Chippewas won three MAC championships in a four-year span from 2006 to 2009, but once Dan LeFevour graduated and Butch Jones left to take the Cincinnati job the team’s fortunes went fallow. It finally seems like Dan Enos has found the right combination in Mount Pleasant, where CMU is 2-0 for the first time since 2002. They routed Purdue in West Lafayette by three touchdowns last Saturday, giving them a win over a Big Ten opponent since beating Michigan State in 2009. Before September is out they could have victories over opponents from three of the Power Five conferences; in the next two weeks they’ll get chances to knock off ACC and Big 12 schools when they host Syracuse and travel to Kansas.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats (0-0/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: NR
- LAST GAME: idle
- NEXT GAME: September 12 v. Toledo
The Bearcats are the only undefeated team left in the American Athletic Conference… and we don’t know much yet about this school, since they are also the only team left in the FBS not to play a game yet this season. The potential is great for Tommy Tuberville’s crew, given that preseason favorites like UCF, East Carolina, and Houston have all sustained defeats already. We’ll get our first glimpse of the Bearcats on the field when they host Toledo in a Friday-night showdown at Paul Brown Stadium, and they’ll be tested a few weeks down the road with a trip to Columbus to face Ohio State. Cincinnati will also take on the Hurricanes in Miami in October, part of a stretch of eight straight weeks of football before a break in November. Will the long break to start the season work in the Bearcats’ favor?
7. South Alabama Jaguars (1-0/SUN, W 23-13 @ Kent State)
8. Texas State Bobcats (1-0/SUN, idle)
9. San Diego State Aztecs (1-1/MWC, L 31-27 @ North Carolina)
10. UTSA Roadrunners (1-1/C-USA, L 26-23 v. Arizona)
11. UTEP Miners (1-1/C-USA, L 30-26 v. Texas Tech)
12. Memphis Tigers (1-1/AAC, L 42-35 @ UCLA)
13. Wyoming Cowboys (2-0/MWC, W 17-13 v. Air Force)
14. Boise State Broncos (1-1/MWC, W 37-24 v. Colorado State)
15. New Mexico State Aggies (2-0/SUN, W 34-31 @ Georgia State)
16. UCF Knights (0-1/AAC, idle)
17. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-1/C-USA, L 42-34 @ Illinois)
18. Utah State Aggies (1-1/MWC, W 40-20 v. FCS Idaho State)