Though the margin of error for mid-major teams fighting to win the Group of Five’s automatic bid into the College Football Playoff has increased compared to the BCS era, losses are inevitably detrimental to a contender’s hopes. And two teams fell back into the pack of two-loss hopefuls after sustaining losses on Saturday.
One might have seen Air Force’s loss at Utah State coming. The Aggies’ two losses had come in the season opener at Tennessee and in a heartbreaker in overtime at Arkansas State. While Air Force had opened a few eyes with consecutive wins over Boise State and Navy, they had also lost a winnable contest at hapless Wyoming. Utah State had won the division the previous year, while the Falcons had emerged largely out of nowhere to top the Mountain Division. They were well matched, and given the game was held at Merlin Olsen Field in Logan it wasn’t too shocking when Utah State emerged with a 34-16 victory.
Northern Illinois, on the other hand, seemed sure to move to 5-1 as they hosted Central Michigan. The Huskies had lost at Arkansas, but had also defeated Northwestern on the road. The last time NIU had lost in DeKalb was September 26, 2009 to Idaho, and it seemed like there was little threat to their streak of 28 straight victories. Then the Chippewas doubled up the Huskies in several important categories — time of possession, rushing yardage, and most crucially the final score — to eliminate the last one-loss team in the MAC.
Usually NIU waits until the MAC Championship Game to endure heartbreak of this nature, and before we’ve even reached November it seems that #MACtion is bound to be an afterthought this autumn. But if the craziness that has already ensued this season has taught us anything, it is that there is still a lot of football to be played before we truly have definitive answers.
Marshall remains as the last undefeated team among the Group of Five. Only three other teams have won all but one of their contests. Behind that quartet is a field of a dozen two-loss teams hoping for more chaos to open up the race once again. If teams like East Carolina and the Herd keep winning, it will all be academic, but at this point there is still plenty of hope for those 12 teams sitting on the cusp of contention.
It all comes down to a couple important facets of the new system that bear reiterating. First, the five champions of the Group of Five conferences will be the only teams under consideration for the Access Bowl bid. So a team like Louisiana Tech or UTEP could ostensibly upset Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game and eliminate the Herd from contention. East Carolina still has to survive tests from Temple, Cincinnati, and UCF to wrap up the AAC title. And Colorado State needs to emerge from the MWC Mountain Division (where it is currently in third place) just to have a shot at the conference crown that would put its name in the hat.
As Northern Illinois and Air Force reiterated for us in Week 7, every team is capable of suffering an off day. We are finally at the halfway point of the season, which means that the picture is becoming ever clearer with each data point — until upsets cloud our vision yet again. So let’s dive into this week’s CFP Mid-Major Power Rankings and see where each of the four main contenders and dozen dark-horses lurking in the shadows stand in the pecking order at this midpoint…