1. East Carolina Pirates (2-1/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 1st
- WEEKEND RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: October 4 v. SMU
After going 2-0 against the ACC and losing a heartbreaker to South Carolina, the Pirates took a much-deserved break before diving into AAC play this weekend. They’ll start their conference slate with SMU, who has already been trounced by an average score of 51-3 by Baylor, North Texas, Texas A&M, and TCU. Shane Carden and the ECU offense should be able to match the efforts of the Mustangs’ previous Big 12 and C-USA opponents to put up another lopsided score. October affords the opportunity for East Carolina to pad their resume, as the SMU contest is followed by a trip to South Florida and an open date before a Thursday-night showdown with Connecticut on October 23. The next real test for the Pirates won’t come until November 1, when they travel to Philadelphia to face resurgent Temple, and if that doesn’t decide the conference the decisive answers will likely come 12 days later when ECU travels to Cincinnati to face the Bearcats.
2. Marshall Thundering Herd (4-0/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 2nd
- WEEKEND RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: October 4 at Old Dominion
The Thundering Herd have played a paper-thin schedule, one currently rated 176th out of 252 Division I teams according to Jeff Sagarin. While East Carolina was knocking off the Hokies and Tar Heels and playing the Gamecocks close, Marshall was beating up on a trio of MAC middleweights and FCS Rhode Island. Conference USA play will only marginally raise the level of competition for the Herd, meaning that they will have to continue to light up the scoreboard to stay fresh in the minds of the selection committee. Working against Marshall is the decimation of C-USA’s depth over the past few years, with the loss of teams like the Pirates (who Marshall beat 59-28 last year to win the East Division) hurting the Herd’s credibility. Luckily, despite the thin schedule, Marshall is still scoring at a high enough clip to remain relevant even when margin of victory is adjusted, a clear indication that the explosiveness of the Rakeem Cato-led offense still has the potential to take this team far.
3. Nevada Wolf Pack (3-1/MWC)
- LAST WEEK: 4th
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 24-10 at San Jose State
- NEXT GAME: October 4 v. Boise State
Nevada’s only stumble of the season came on the road against an undefeated Arizona team, and it has a win against Washington State on its resume. As of now, the Wolf Pack is the team best positioned in the Mountain West for a run to a potential berth in one of the CFP-affiliated bowl games. Next week’s visit from Boise State yields the highest stakes for this team since Colin Kaepernick was quarterbacking them to an upset of Boise State in 2010 for a share of the WAC title. If they beat the Broncos — and despite Boise’s flat effort against Air Force, that’s hardly a given — the rest of the schedule lines up for a run to the MWC Championship Game. The offense is hardly as dynamic as those vintage Kaepernick years, but a top-30 defense is good enough to keep Nevada in every one of its remaining contests. And the longer Arizona stays in contention in the Pac-12 South, the better that lone defeat looks on Nevada’s resume.
4. Northern Illinois Huskies (3-1/MAC)
- LAST WEEK: 8th
- WEEKEND RESULT: idle
- NEXT GAME: October 4 v. Kent State
Like ECU and Marshall, the Huskies had the advantage of sitting back and watching the carnage play out. Why do they jump so high, though, leapfrogging Cincinnati in the process? The recent loss to Arkansas doesn’t look any better than the defeat to Iowa in 2012 that opened the Orange Bowl campaign, nor any better at first glance than the Bearcats’ stumble this week against Ohio State. But unlike Cincinnati, they already have a win over a Big Ten opponent — and that Northwestern team just went to Happy Valley and dropped the Nittany Lions from the ranks of the unbeaten, boosting the value of NIU’s signature win. And the Huskies have a much less treacherous path to winning the MAC championship than the Bearcats’ battle for the AAC title. They’re already on the path to a fifth straight season of at least 11 wins, and after forfeiting the chance of a repeat BCS bid last year by stumbling to Bowling Green in the MAC championship game Northern Illinois has a winnable slate that could keep them in the hunt.
5. Temple Owls (3-1/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 13th
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 36-10 at Connecticut
- NEXT GAME: October 11 v. Tulsa
Temple is the enigma of the AAC. going 6-17 over the past two seasons since rejoining the conference in its last year as the Big East. In the three season prior, though, the Owls went 9-3, 8-4, and 8-4 from 2009 to 2011, earning bowl bids in the first and last year of the run. Last year the team seemed outgunned at every turn under new head coach Matt Rhule, but they’ve already exceeded last year’s win total before the first day of October. With sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker starting to feel more comfortable in Rhule’s offense, Temple can continue to throw wrenches into the AAC standings. In addition to East Carolina and Cincinnati the Owls also have league road trips to face last year’s darlings, Houston and UCF, as well as a visit to Penn State on November 15 that could boost their credentials at the perfect time to grab the selection committee’s attention to go with an opening-game demolition of Vanderbilt.