Contenders Still in the Hunt
A half-dozen teams still have a shot at the Access Bowl. If they follow the script and all win (or win a share) of their respective conference titles, this is how they’re likely to stack up against one another…
1. Boise State Broncos (10-2/MWC)
- LAST WEEK: 2nd
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 50-19 v. Utah State
- NEXT GAME: December 6 v. San Diego State (MWC Championship)
With Colorado State’s loss on Friday, the game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise between the Broncos and Utah State became a divisional championship contest for the MWC Mountain title and the right to host the MWC Championship next Saturday. Boise State took control early and held it throughout their 50-19 victory over the Aggies. Last year USU upset the Broncos to play Fresno State in the title game; this time around they could not stop an attack that racked up nearly 500 yards of offense and put half a century on the scoreboard. Boise has responded to the end of the Chris Petersen era with perfect poise, though, and they have a shot at getting back to a third Fiesta Bowl (or possibly a first-ever Cotton Bowl) in less than a decade. The majority of Power Five schools would be giddy to enjoy such a resounding level of sustained success, and Bryan Harsin’s side has the ability to take advantage of the new improved accessibility rules for years to come.
2. Northern Illinois Huskies (10-2/MAC)
- LAST WEEK: 3rd
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 31-21 at Western Michigan
- NEXT GAME: December 5 v. Bowling Green (MAC Championship in Detroit)
Last week we talked about the possibility of Northern Illinois sneaking into the Access Bowl, and the Huskies made sure they’d be in the discussion for another week by taking care of business against Western Michigan. In what amounted to a play-in game for the MAC Championship Game, NIU forced six Broncos turnovers and reversed a 21-7 deficit by scoring the game’s final 24 points. The Huskies now prepare for their fifth consecutive MAC Championship appearance, where they will face off against Bowling Green in a rematch of last year’s contest. Northern Illinois hasn’t been as explosive as they were the past few years with Jordan Lynch leading the offense, but the Huskies have done enough to merit consideration for a major bowl game. The Broncos have a slightly better chance of getting the nod if both win out, thanks to having already been recognized by the committee, but the Huskies have vaulted back up to prominence this November.
3. Marshall Thundering Herd (11-1/C-USA)
- LAST WEEK: 1st
- WEEKEND RESULT: lost 67-66 (OT) v. Western Kentucky
- NEXT GAME: December 6 v. Louisiana Tech (C-USA Championship)
The bubble finally burst for Marshall, as Western Kentucky pushed the Thundering Herd to overtime and then successfully gambled on a two-point conversion for the win. Doc Holliday’s team started to show cracks in its facade last week, nearly stumbling at UAB, and the Hilltoppers were able to exploit a defense that looked nothing like a top-20 unit. Marshall had already claimed the C-USA East, and they’ll host the C-USA Championship Game next Saturday, but their strength of schedule made it so that the Herd could not afford a loss on its record. The selection committee made that fact clear when they rated the Herd behind Boise State in last week’s CFP rankings; with a loss on the record, the argument that they are being unduly snubbed falls by the wayside. While Marshall should still win its conference, it would need both of the teams above them to lose on the final weekend to get back into consideration for the Access Bowl.
4. Memphis Tigers (9-3/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 5th
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 41-10 v. Connecticut
- NEXT GAME: bowl game TBD
The regular season is over for Memphis, and in their first season in the AAC after moving over from Conference USA the Tigers have claimed at the very least a share of the title in their new league. In their home finale, Memphis obliterated UConn 41-10 on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl, punishing every Huskies mistake to finish the season 9-3. The lack of a conference championship game means, however, that the Tigers might not win the league outright — and that could doom them in comparison to teams like Boise State, Northern Illinois, and possibly even Marshall. Nevertheless, Justin Fuente has engineered an amazing turnaround, and if both of the next two teams on the list lose their finales next weekend Memphis could still take sole possession of the crown. If that happens, and upsets happen in next week’s MWC, MAC, and C-USA championship games, Memphis has the resume to compete against the other Group of Five champions.
5. Cincinnati Bearcats (8-3/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 6th
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 14-6 at Temple
- NEXT GAME: December 6 v. SMU
Temple was a few plays away from reaching Thanksgiving as one of the AAC leaders. The Owls beat East Carolina, nearly upset Memphis, and was destined to be a tough out for Cincinnati. So while the Bearcats weren’t impressive in Philadelphia, they still held on for the win and remain in the hunt for a share of the AAC championship. It was an uncharacteristic defensive struggle for a team that had been held under 28 points just once before surviving at Temple 14-6 on Black Friday. Cincinnati was actually outgained on offense, with quarterback Gunner Kiel throwing for just 176 yards — over 130 yards below the team’s season average. Their biggest test is behind them, though, and now all the Bearcats must do is defeat an abysmal SMU squad to earn a share of the conference crown.
6. UCF Knights (8-3/AAC)
- LAST WEEK: 7th
- WEEKEND RESULT: won 16-0 at South Florida
- NEXT GAME: December 4 at East Carolina
UCF entered the season as the favorite to win its second straight AAC title in its two seasons as a league memeber. They subsequently dropped their first two contests, devolving into an also-ran among a group of AAC hopefuls. Then the Knights kept winning, rebounding from September to move up the standings into a tie for the American lead. Their latest victim was a South Florida team that continues to devolve since ending the Jim Leavitt era. UCF held the Bulls to just 200 total yards, shutting out the hosts 16-0 on a pair of touchdowns and a safety. The last test is now a trip to Greenville to face an East Carolina team that looked like the league’s best bet of claiming the Access Bowl bid before dropping back-to-back games to Temple and Cincinnati.