One week is in the books, and we have our first sample size to parse how the Access Bowl race might play out this season. Some teams lived up to their billing, others survived but failed to impress, and others still severely damaged their case for New Year’s Six consideration in just one performance. Of course, it is only one week, so jumping too far to conclusions too early would be foolhardy… but it would also be no fun to refrain from trying, so here we go.
You can catch yourself up with how we stacked up every team that merited consideration in our preseason preview, all of which are featured in this week’s analysis along with a special addition that was overlooked during the summer but opened eyes immediately when handed the opportunity. Additionally, it is important to remember that these rankings incorporate but are not beholden to the Sports Unbiased Pigskin Rating System scores that we have devised to systematically rank FBS teams. Just as those rankings are fluid and reflect the most recent data available, so too do the Access Bowl Power Rankings.
But enough prologue… let’s dive in and see which mid-major schools have the best chance of playing Cinderella this season.
1. Boise State Broncos (MWC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won v. Washington 16-13
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at BYU
Boise State doesn’t lose its spot atop the Group of Five hierarchy this week, scoring a statement win at home against a Pac-12 team to begin its quest to (at the very least) play in another New Year’s Six bowl game. It was an uneven effort, but it was a Power Five victory that will look as good as Washington plays throughout the rest of the season.
By halftime it felt like Boise State was going to steamroll the Huskies in former Boise State head coach Chris Petersen’s first visit back to the Smurf Turf after relocating to Seattle. The defense held Washington to only 29 total rushing yards, and true freshman Husky quarterback Jake Browning had a rude awakening to the difficulties of FBS football as he went 20-of-34 for 150 yards and an interception (and several other balls that could have been picked). The Bronco offense wasn’t as crisp, with new quarterback Ryan Finley throwing for just 129 yards and giving a way an interception of his own. The revelation this season for Boise State is likely going to be sophomore halfback Jeremy McNichols, who terrorized the Huskies for 134 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on 28 touches.
2. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Southern 62-15
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 10 at Western Kentucky
It wasn’t exactly a major challenge, but on a weekend where other teams sputtered the Bulldogs managed to take full care of business against FCS Southern. Transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel went 12-for-15 for 274 yards and four touchdowns and ran in another in less than two quarters of play, efficiently carving up the overmatched Jaguars secondary before ceding the spot under center to backup Ryan Higgins. And halfback Kenneth Dixon needed just 11 touches to pile up 171 yards and two touchdowns of his own, exhibiting versatility as a rusher and receiver.
They now have to travel to face a Western Kentucky team that won at Vanderbilt this weekend but who the Bulldogs also beat 59-10 last season. There seems to be no drop in offensive output with Driskel instead of Sokol guiding the attack, and the defense showed promise (albeit against an FCS roster) by holding Southern under 100 rushing yards and under 200 passing yards. They’ll be tested by a far stronger offense next week, and also have matchups against Kansas State and Mississippi State to look forward to down the road. If they continue to develop chemistry with their new talent, the Bulldogs could threaten the Broncos and every other team gunning for the Access Bowl berth.
3. Memphis Tigers (AAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Missouri State 63-7
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Kansas
Like Louisiana Tech, Memphis didn’t have much of a test against its FCS opponent. But that made it all the more imperative that they dominate that opponent in a way that Power Five teams like Kansas and Washington State couldn’t manage this weekend, and the Tigers met the test with flying colors. Memphis remains behind the Bulldogs mainly because they dominated an opponent that finished 4-8 last season instead of one that won its division and finished 9-4.
What we did learn from the game is that Memphis has one hell of a defense heading into the heart of 2015. The Tigers held the Bears to 125 total yards of offense, forced three fumbles, 0.6 yards per carry, and a 2-for-14 conversion rate on third downs. Justin Fuente’s could potentially put up even better stats next weekend in Lawrence against a Jayhawks team that lost to FCS South Dakota State in its opener. If the D keeps playing this way, the Tigers could be favored against all of the remaining teams on their schedule save Ole Miss. 12-1 isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and if that one loss comes in a close defeat to the Rebels it would give Memphis a strong case for the CFP selection committee to consider.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Alabama A&M 52-10
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 v. Temple
Cincinnati was in the same boat as AAC rival Memphis this weekend. The most they could gain by playing against an FCS opponent that finished with a losing record in 2014 was plenty of offensive output and a better understanding of how the new parts of each number-one unit would work together this season. The Bearcats took care of business on both fronts, putting up 636 total yards of offense and seven touchdowns with a balanced attack that gave plenty of moving parts an opportunity to work out.
Gunner Kiel looked sharp, completing 18 of his 22 attempts for 233 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Understudy Hayden Moore had a decent day, going 8-for-14 for 103 yards and another passing score. The backfield trio of Tion Green, Hosey Williams, and Mike Boone combined for 306 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. And the defense took care of business, holding Alabama A&M under 100 rushing yards and a 1-for-13 conversion rate on third down. Their next opponent will offer a stern challenge and provide an early glimpse at how the power struggle will shake out in the AAC this season. The Bearcats certainly seem ready for the challenge.
5. Temple Owls (AAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: unranked
- LAST WEEK: won v. Penn State 27-10
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Cincinnati
Every year when I do these preseason rankings, there inevitably seems to be one team that slips through the cracks and goes unnoticed until they force the country’s eyes open on the kickoff weekend. That team this season is undoubtedly Temple, who welcomed Penn State to Philadelphia and promptly set about sending the Nittany Lions back to Happy Valley with their tails between their legs. The Owls held Penn State to a 44 percent completion rate passing for 103 yards and a pick, giving up fewer than 200 total yards in the 27-10 victory. The defense generated 10 sacks against a Big Ten offensive line. They also racked up more than 300 yards of offense on one of the best defenses of 2014.
The Owls seem to be back to their 2009-2011 levels, when Al Golden and Steve Addazio had the Owls humming on all cylinders. Next week’s game against Cincinnati will really show whether this is a sustained turnaround for an Owls team that has not gone bowling since 2011. East Carolina and UCF seemed like the biggest challengers to the Bearcats for the AAC East title, but Temple could throw a wrench into that equation with a win next Saturday at Nippert Stadium.
6. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 12th
- LAST WEEK: won v. Purdue 41-31
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Ohio
The final spread-covering score of the victory over Purdue belied the realities of how the game played out. The Boilermakers had the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, gained eight more first downs and 57 more yards on offense, were more efficient on third and fourth down conversions, and committed two fewer penalties.
Ultimately the Big Ten school fell on the road because of two plays that inextricably linked Purdue quarterback Austin Appleby and Marshall safety Tiquan Lang. Lang ran back an Appleby interception 30 yards to put Marshall up 7-0 just seven seconds into the contest. Then, with 80 seconds remaining in the game and the Thundering Herd hanging on by three, Lang picked off Appleby again and ran it 55 yards to the house for his second touchdown of the game. Without his scores, Purdue would have won. Instead Marshall covered the spread and gave itself a bigger victory for its resume than it ever had in 2014.
7. Western Michigan Broncos (MAC/0-1)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: lost v. Michigan State 37-24
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Georgia Southern
As I said in the preseason preview for Western Michigan, “Let’s just get things out of the way immediately — the Spartans and the Buckeyes are both going to defeat Western Michigan on either end of September.” So it came to pass for the Broncos, though they remained competitive throughout the encounter. A missed field goal on the opening drive and a pair of interceptions early and late in the game were ultimately the difference between success and failure against one of the best teams in the country, and WMU acquitted itself well enough that they don’t deserve to plummet down the rankings completely.
After all, the first prerequisite to be considered for the Access Bowl and a New Year’s Six berth is to win one of the Group of Five conferences. After a strong performance in defeat against a top-10 team, Western Michigan still looks like the best bet to take the MAC this season given the way other conference foes performed over the weekend. Zach Terrell completed 66 percent of his passes and threw for 365 yards and two scores, and the Broncos defense held NFL prospect Connor Cook under a 50 percent completion rate. The one thing that WMU will need to find is a running game; the Broncos gained just 18 yards on 23 rushing attempts against the Spartans.
8. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 15th
- LAST WEEK: won at Vanderbilt 14-12
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 10 v. Louisiana Tech
It wasn’t pretty in the least, but Western Kentucky can now claim an SEC victim on its resume after surviving a trip to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Thursday night. The defense was run ragged (but forced three turnovers to keep from breaking), and the offense was stymied for most of the night. But Brandon Doughty was able to find Tyler Higbee for one touchdown, Leon Allen punched in another on the ground, and the Hilltoppers were able to hang on for the nominal upset over the Commodores. It all came down to a two-point conversion that failed, or else we might just be talking about Western Kentucky as roadkill on the opening weekend.
WKU has the chance to really separate itself from the pack next Thursday when the Hilltoppers host Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs looked strong in their opening game, albeit against FCS competition, and the clash will go a long way toward deciding which team gets a leg up in the Conference USA race. It is a tough inter-divisional game for both schools, and the Hilltoppers will have to be better defensively against Jeff Driskel and the high-powered Tech offense if they hope to stay in the Access Bowl hunt deep into the season.
9. Colorado State Rams (MWC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 14th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Savannah State 65-13
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 v. Minnesota
The Mountain West seems as though it will be dominated by Boise State this season, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else in the league is going to capitulate meekly with those predictions. Colorado State began the Mike Bobo era with an emphatic victory over FCS Savannah State that allowed the new coach to test both his quarterbacks, see how quickly his defense could come together, and figure out where the Rams still need work.
That spot, for Colorado State, is turnovers. Despite scoring 65 points and amassing nearly 600 total yards of offense, the Rams lost one fumble in a goal-to-go situation and gave up three other turnovers in Savannah State territory. The offense also scored quickly, which left the Rams defense on the field for nearly 37 minutes. Bobo will have to work with his new roster to cut down on mistakes and figure out ways to keep the ball in his offense’s hands longer to succeed against Minnesota and beyond.
10. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 8th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS San Diego 37-3
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at California
San Diego State will have to watch in its rearview mirror, for it was not the only MWC West team putting up an impressive performance against FCS competition over the opening weekend. The Aztecs, though, remain the favorite in the division after allowing just three points against FCS San Diego and posting the best winning margin of West teams.
Calvin Munson catalyzed the Aztecs defense, notching 11 tackles, a sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, and two touchdowns on interception returns. Teammate Damontae Kazee picked off the Toreros three times as well, and on the day SDSU forced six turnovers overall. The competition ramps up beginning next weekend, when the Aztecs travel north to Berkeley to face Cal, and they still also have to travel to face a Penn State team (that suddenly looks far less ferocious after its opening defeat to Temple) and plow into the heart of the conference schedule. If they keep winning, SDSU will keep climbing.
11. Houston Cougars (AAC/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 16th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Tennessee Tech 52-24
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Louisville
The Tom Herman era started with a bang in Houston, as the Cougars mauled FCS Tennessee Tech without any major issues to win by four touchdowns. Houston piled up 27 first downs and more than 600 yards of offense, while the defense turned the Golden Eagles into a one-dimensional passing team right out of the gate. (Tech finished with just 29 rushing yards on 33 attempts.)
The encounter with Louisville next Saturday will offer a chance to showcase whether the divide has actually narrowed between the Cougars and teams in the Power Five. Louisville, after all, was one of the initial cases of upward mobility in modern college football, and a win over the Cardinals would bolster Houston’s case in the race for the Access Bowl. The Cougars also still have a shot at two Power Five wins, with a woebegone Vanderbilt team also waiting on the schedule in late October.
12. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/1-0)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 19th
- LAST WEEK: won v. FCS Howard 49-0
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Clemson
It isn’t exactly a win in the Big House, but Appalachian State will be more than happy with a shutout victory of a mid-level FCS team in Howard that showcased just how much talent the Mountaineers have back in 2015. No team returned more starters overall, and Appalachian State showed that even its backups have the skill to contribute this season. The defense held firm, allowing just 176 yards and eight first downs, while the offense piled up 663 yards and held the ball for nearly 36 minutes.
Visiting Death Valley next weekend will show how far experience can take the FBS neophyte in its first season as a full member of the top division. The defense will have its hands full with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, while the Tigers present one of the most ferocious lockdown defenses of 2014 as a challenge for Taylor Lamb and crew to try to crack. With other Sun Belt contenders falling over the weekend (against much tougher competition, mind you) the Mountaineers now take over the top spot in the conference race.
13. Toledo Rockets
- PRESEASON RANKING: 17th
- LAST WEEK: canceled v. FCS Stony Brook (weather)
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Arkansas
Toledo was the victim of weather patterns, as its season opener with FCS Stony Brook was canceled at halftime due to a storm system rolling through Ohio. The Rockets were up 16-7 at the half of a game that was played in fits and starts between one delay after another, but once the game was called it was impossible for the two schools to find a suitable time for a replay. Through no fault of their own, Toledo could be at a decided disadvantage in the Access Bowl race as a result.
With only 11 games on its regular-season schedule at this point, Toledo will have to reach the MAC championship game just to ensure it plays the same number of games as other teams in consideration. As we saw last year in the case of Baylor, TCU, and Ohio State, the CFP selection committee likes to have as many data points as possible, and with the loss of a game that would have most assuredly bolstered Toledo’s end-of-season stats, the Rockets have to fight that much more to make their case heard.
14. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (SUN/0-1)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 20th
- LAST WEEK: lost at Kentucky 40-33
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 v. FCS Northwestern State
Louisiana-Lafayette made noise on the road in Lexington to open the season, moving up in the Sun Belt race with the best performance of several conference hopefuls that had losing efforts against Power Five competition. The Ragin’ Cajuns were tied with the Wildcats until the final minute, when Mikel Horton’s touchdown with 57 seconds remaining allowed the hosts to escape victorious after coughing up a 27-7 lead in the second half. Two interceptions by Brooks Haack played a large part in the failure to secure an upset, but the Cajuns now like the most dangerous team in their league.
They can’t look too far ahead in their schedule, as ULL’s next opponent is a Northwestern State team that dealt Louisiana Tech an FCS upset last season. As long as they continue to dominate time of possession and outgain opponents on offense, however, Mark Hudspeth’s squad should have little problem making it to October undefeated. There they will meet with Louisiana Tech, in what should likely be a state elimination game in the Access Bowl battle.
15. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/0-1)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 13th
- LAST WEEK: lost v. Tennessee 59-30 in Nashville
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 at Maryland
The Falcons were within a point of Tennessee midway through the second quarter of their showdown at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, but Bowling Green couldn’t maintain the pace and were eventually doubled up by the Volunteers in defeat. Penalties were a big part of Bowling Green’s issues, as the Falcons collected a dozen flags and gave away 128 yards by their own mistakes. They were able to move the ball on an SEC defense, but they couldn’t get out of their own way in terms of killing their own momentum.
If Bowling Green can remedy those mistakes over the week, the Falcons have the talent to potentially upset Maryland on the road. That is a big if, of course, as the Terrapins warmed up with an easy win over Richmond and could be a decent Big Ten team this season. They’ll also have a chance to claim a Power Five win against Purdue, which gave Marshall fits on Sunday, and also have a big cross-conference battle with AAC contender Memphis. There were plenty of positives to take away from the trip to Tennessee, but there are also plenty of adjustments that must be made to keep the Falcons soaring beyond September.
16. Arkansas State Red Wolves (SUN/0-1)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 11th
- LAST WEEK: lost at USC 55-6
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 v. Missouri
The Red Wolves weren’t expected to go across the country and knock off a USC team that has been on many people’s shortlist to compete in this year’s College Football Playoff. One hoped, though, that the substantial fight shown by Blake Anderson’s team at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum would have translated into more points. Arkansas State compiled more than 400 yards of offense, 19 first downs, and over 35 minutes of possession, but could only show a single touchdown for the effort.
Another chance to strike fear in the hearts of the Power Five comes on Saturday when Missouri comes to Jonesboro. Given the result against one national contender, the showdown with the two-time defending SEC East champion might merely prove to be another lopsided mismatch, but the Red Wolves have at least shown themselves capable of moving the ball against a top defense. Now they just need to start finding the goal line in order to stay in the Access Bowl hunt beyond next week.
17. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/0-1)
- PRESEASON RANKING: 7th
- LAST WEEK: lost at West Virginia 44-0
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 12 v. Western Michigan
It was bound to be tough sledding for the Eagles on their trip to Morgantown even before quarterback Kevin Ellison was suspended for the first two games of the season due to academic issues, but once the speedy runner was out of the picture the upset became that much more unlikely. What really hurts Georgia Southern’s case moving forward is the fact that they were shut out completely, gaining just 224 yards despite an eight-minute advantage in time of possession.
Next weekend will be no easier against a Western Michigan team that looked resilient in defeat against a Michigan State team that is even more fearsome than the Mountaineers. The cross-conference battle between Access Bowl hopefuls will go a long way toward separating the contenders from the pretenders in this year’s race, and an undermanned Georgia Southern team could be effectively eliminated from the picture before Sun Belt play even starts unless they manage to right the ship against a tough Broncos squad. The onus is on quarterback Favian Upshaw to improve from his performance in the season opener — the backup completed just two of his 13 attempts for 29 yards, tossing four interceptions for good measure, and added just 64 rushing yards on 16 carries.
Fading Out Of Contention Fast
Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/1-0) — Sure, Northern Illinois took care of business on Saturday. They even did it against an FBS opponent when so many of their mid-major brethren were playing FCS teams. But given the talent and coaching disparities, the Rebels should never have been in position to upset a team like NIU. The Huskies had to recover from a 17-6 deficit just to survive another week undefeated, and attrition of the past few years might finally have Northern Illinois vulnerable for a fall from its perch atop the MAC West. FCS Murray State offers a chance to shake out the cobwebs further before the Huskies have to head to Columbus to face defending national champ Ohio State.
East Carolina Pirates (AAC/1-0) — In their opener, the Pirates gave up 27 first downs and 416 yards of offense to FCS Towson, a team that finished 4-8 last season. The only thing saving ECU from an embarrassing upset was a pair of turnovers by the Tigers, an interception killing a drive before halftime and a fumble early in the third quarter coming as Towson reached midfield. This team looks a far cry from the group that knocked off Virginia Tech and North Carolina last year. The Pirates will have to be much better next weekend when they face Florida in the Swamp if they hope to remain in the Access Bowl race by the end of September.
Utah State Aggies (MWC/1-0) — Yes, the Aggies won their home opener on Thursday against the Thunderbirds of FCS Southern Utah, but an unimpressive effort makes them look highly unlikely to replicate the feat of reaching the MWC championship game that they achieved two years ago. In his return after a second straight knee injury, Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton looked like a shell of his former self, going 16-for-33 for just 110 yards and a pick and adding just seven yards on the ground on six carries. The dynamic dual-threat quarterback might be gone from his game, and that would doom the Aggies.
UCF Knights (AAC/0-1) — It wasn’t supposed to begin like this for the Knights in what is likely George O’Leary’s last season as head coach before assuming full-time AD duties. At home against an FIU team that has largely been an afterthought since transitioning to I-A status in 2004, the Knights gave up 391 yards of offense and fell to a former C-USA rival 15-14 when the Panthers blocked a 47-yard field goal attempt with 25 seconds left. UCF could still win the AAC, but convincing the committee to consider them for a New Year’s Six berth will be tough with a loss like this on the record.