This year has already seen the hierarchy of Access Bowl candidates shuffle on its head, as perennial contenders like UCF and Marshall have looked listless in the early going and former BCS Busters Boise State and Northern Illinois have sustained losses by Week 2. The beauty of the Access Bowl, though, is that a loss does not immediately disqualify a team, and somebody is getting into a New Year’s Six bowl regardless of how many losses the best Group of Five champion might have acquired.
Ultimately it is going to come down to strength of schedule, statement victories, and the quality of any losses when it comes time to assess who will emerge with the prestigious nod from the College Football Playoff selection committee. And already, midway through September, we’re starting to see a hierarchy emerge.
The top half-dozen teams in this week’s Access Bowl Power Rankings have a clear path to a major bowl game available. Five of the teams are undefeated, and last year’s Access Bowl claimant Boise State is also included in the mix. For any one of these teams, winning out would provide an airtight case for the CFP committee to consider. Of course, if multiple teams from this group pull off the feat, the job of that panel will get that much more difficult. Consider this group the honor students, in the parlance of academia to which the sport is nominally tied.
The second group that comprises the rest of this week’s Top 25 is comprised of a bunch of teams whose cases are not yet complete. They haven’t skipped any classes yet, but they also haven’t really stood out yet in class. These are the students who sit near the back, who don’t raise their hands much, who remain quiet as the rest of the class interacts around them. Many teams in this group will provide a clearer picture of themselves in the next few weekends.
Other teams were considered, but these teams have the combination of talent, name recognition, and schedule strength to make the most cogent case for the committee come December. Given the shake-ups that have already taken place, though, this is merely an educated guess off the first few weeks of a semester that still has plenty of time to materialize and could be subject to further temblors through the ranks.
1. Temple Owls (AAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won at Cincinnati 34-26
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 19 at Massachusettss
Temple followed up on its dominant performance against Penn State on opening weekend with a strong follow-up on the road in its AAC opener at Cincinnati. The Owls rode a 21-point third quarter to an insurmountable lead, then held on as the Bearcats fought back in vain. And that was on a day when Temple allowed 557 yards of offense and committed 12 penalties, getting away with these gaffes by forcing five turnovers and controlling the clock on the ground.
As a result of their current resume of results and the level of competition against which they have achieved victory, Temple now looks like the class of the AAC East and on a collision course for a pair of battles against Memphis (on November 21 in Philadelphia and in the AAC championship game). Given the way other conference races are shaking out, the American champion has the inside track at this early juncture in the marathon. The Owls also get to take on Notre Dame on Halloween, with another statement opportunity on the table for Temple to force the CFP selection committee to take notice.
2. Houston Cougars (AAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 11th
- LAST WEEK: won at Louisville 34-31
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 26 v. Texas State
Houston made its own major statement over the weekend, beating former Conference USA rival Louisville to claim a win over a Power Five opponent. Greg Ward Jr. completed two thirds of his passes and tossed three touchdowns, while the running game pounded out 226 yards on the ground. The defense forced four turnovers and turned the Cardinals into a one-dimensional outfit.
The Cougars will still have to go through Memphis to reach the AAC championship game, but at this point Houston has the more impressive body of work. The upset of Louisville gives Tom Herman’s team a statement victory for the committee, and they still get to host a Vanderbilt team that has lost once already to Group of Five competition this season. Once again featuring one of the most opportunistic ball-stealing defenses in the country and bolstered by Herman’s offensive acumen, the Cougars have emerged to threaten for honors in their new conference.
3. Memphis Tigers (AAC/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won at Kansas 55-23
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 19 at Bowling Green
Sure, it was a road game against Power Five competition, but there was little that Memphis could do this weekend to bolster its credentials. When your opponent is a woebegone Kansas team that lost its opener against a mediocre FCS opponent, the ceiling for impressing the selection committee is rather low. But the Tigers still managed to obliterate the team placed before them, and remain a threat to sweep the AAC on the strength of the nation’s fourth-most efficient quarterback and a defense giving up just 15 points per game.
Bowling Green offers a chance to make a cross-conference statement against a team also harboring ambitions for a MAC title and the Access Bowl. There’s also a visit awaiting from Ole Miss on October 17, and if the Tigers win that contest they will have a true statement victory over a Power Five rival on the resume. Coupled with their work so far, the committee would have a hard time arguing against that body of work.
4. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/2-0)
- LAST RANKING: 8th
- LAST WEEK: won v. Louisiana Tech 41-38
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 19 at Indiana
The Hilltoppers nearly squandered their chance to claim an early leg up in the Conference USA race, letting up in the second half of a game they would ultimately win by only three after being up by two touchdowns at the half. Yet with the win in a head-to-head showdown, Western Kentucky now looks like the front-runner in Conference USA. Brandon Doughty is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, Leon Allen demonized the Bulldog defense on the ground and in the passing game, and won despite committing 10 penalties and giving away 109 yards in the process.
WKU also has the advantage of playing another beatable Power Five opponent next weekend after already claiming a victory over Vanderbilt. The trip to Bloomington to face Indiana can and should provide the Hilltoppers a Big Ten win to go along with the SEC scalp they claimed in Nashville. If they get past the Hoosiers, Western Kentucky should have no trouble remaining undefeated ahead of the showdown with LSU on October 24.
6. Toledo Rockets (MAC/1-0)
- LAST RANKING: 13th
- LAST WEEK: won v. Arkansas 16-12 in Little Rock
- NEXT WEEK: Sept. 19 v. Iowa State
Toledo missed out on its chance to warm up the season when its home opener against FCS Stony Brook was canceled due to inclement weather and an inability to reschedule the charter flight that had brought the Seawolves out from the east coast. As a result, the Rockets were an unknown commodity coming into their showdown with Arkansas in Little Rock. The less-than-neutral setting didn’t faze Toledo, though, as the Rockets allowed 200 more yards to the Razorbacks but held on for a 16-12 upset that rocked college football on Week 2.
We now know who Toledo is in 2014, with Alabama transfer Phillip Ely offering steady game management at quarterback and a bend-but-don’t-break defense able to control the game in the red zone. (Arkansas scored just three points in five trips inside Toledo’s 20.) With the SEC victory checked off the list, the Rockets have the chance to add a Big 12 win to its resume when Iowa State comes to the Glass Bowl. Sun Belt contender Arkansas State also comes to Toledo before MAC play begins, and the Rockets could launch up the rankings with two more September statements.
Waiting to Speak Up in Class
7. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/1-1) — The Falcons pulled off a hell of an upset this weekend over Maryland, and could ostensibly slot into the above group as much as they could still be considered incomplete. They hung with Tennessee in Nashville for a week, and they are still on pace to contend for the MAC. So what are they doing down here? It remains to be seen just how good the Terrapins turn out to be this year, and Ohio has a better record at this point in the MAC East. Bowling Green has to surpass the Bobcats in the table to get to Detroit for the conference championship game, or they will be looking in from the outside come selection time.
8. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/2-0) — After winning the MAC West for five straight seasons, it seems foolish to doubt the Huskies. Yet NIU had a hard time taking care of business against UNLV in its home opener, and it was down after a quarter to FCS Murray State before pulling away for a comfortable 57-26 victory. The running game by committee is working well enough, and Drew Hare looks great at quarterback. But the defense is giving up four touchdowns a game against weak competition at this early juncture, and while Western Michigan’s stumbles have reduced the Broncos’ chances in the race NIU must still worry about Toledo in their division.
9. Air Force Falcons (MWC/2-0) — It isn’t Boise State or Colorado State or even Utah State that ranks atop the MWC Mountain, but the Falcons of the Air Force Academy. The Airmen have an early conference victory already with last week’s three-touchdown win over San Jose State in Colorado Springs, and they are the only team in the division that is still undefeated. The Broncos probably still have the best chance of winning the division and the conference, but it is instructive to remember that Air Force dealt Boise State its only Mountain West loss last year and finished 2014 with 10 wins. AFA now stands as the early pace-setter in the division, and can even survive a likely loss in this weekend’s trip to Michigan State and remain in pole position. (An upset would send the Falcons soaring up the Power Rankings.)
10. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/2-0) — A late touchdown by A.J. Ouellette sealed the upset victory for Ohio against visiting Marshall, and for the first time since Beau Blankenship left Athens it looks as though the Bobcats could contend for the MAC title and a spot in a major bowl game. Ohio held a potent Herd offense to just 263 yards and 4.53 yards per play. They end the month with a trip to the Twin Cities to face Minnesota, and should they pull off that upset and reach October undefeated the Bobcats will have a chance to contend for a major bowl appearance for the first time in school history.
11. Colorado State Rams (MWC/1-1) — The Rams took Minnesota to overtime in Fort Collins on Saturday, nearly pulling off the upset over a Golden Gophers team many have picked as a contender for the Big Ten West this season. Were this 1995 instead of 2015, Colorado State would still be undefeated at 1-0-1 and likely escalating into the national picture. Instead, they failed to pull off the victory in overtime and allowed their Power Five opponents to escape home with a victory. Now the Rams head to Denver over the weekend for the Rocky Mountain Showdown against Colorado, and given the fact that the Buffaloes already fell to Hawaii and the Rams have won two of the past three rivalry games at Mile High Stadium a second statement opportunity is still on the table.
12. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (AAC/2-0) — It seems like it has been much longer, but the Golden Hurricane is only three years removed from hosting the C-USA championship game and defeating UCF for the title. Tulsa has the chance to thwart teams like Houston and Memphis for the AAC West this year, in a conference that looks much like the one the Hurricane won in 2012. They don’t even necessarily have to win, but a strong showing against big-brother Oklahoma in Norman would go a long way toward legitimizing Tulsa’s case before the selection committee should they manage to win a deep American Athletic Conference in 2015 and put their name into the Access Bowl picture.
13. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/1-0) — The Midshipmen sat out kickoff weekend, instead waiting to host Colgate in their home opener until this past Saturday. They defeated the Raiders 48-10 in a game that told us little substantive information about Navy’s chances in the 12-team AAC in the school’s first-ever foray into conference affiliation after legendary decades of independence. East Carolina comes to Annapolis this weekend to offer an early referendum on those chances, and should they win at home against the Pirates it could set up an undefeated showdown between service academies when Air Force travels east. But we still just don’t know what 438 yards of offense means against Colgate, especially when the Middies allowed 325 yards and 20 first downs to the Raiders offense.
14. Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/1-1) — The early chance to gain the upper hand in the AAC East fell through for Cincinnati in a 34-26 loss to Temple at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats tumbled at home despite compiling 557 yards of offense and 34 first downs, and despite the Owls committing 12 penalties. Gunner Kiel proved to be overmatched against the Temple secondary, completing just under 60 percent of his passes and throwing for 427 yards on 52 attempts — but tossing four interceptions in the process. The Bearcats can rebound against Miami (of Ohio) before taking on Miami (of Florida) on the first night of October. A trip to Memphis awaits on the last Thursday night of the month, and Cincinnati will have to solve its offensive problems rapidly against the RedHawks to have a chance at surviving the Tigers.
15. Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA/2-0) — Western Kentucky is the obvious front-runner in C-USA East, and Marshall is also still lingering in wait for a Hilltopper stumble to reclaim pole position in the division race. But the Monarchs, now beyond their transition period into the FBS ranks, are ready now to take their shot at the league in what could potentially be a down year for the East. NC State will offer a prime opportunity this weekend for Old Dominion to make a more lasting name for itself in its second season in the top flight, though the defense will have to seriously tighten itself up to have a chance against Jacoby Brissett and crew.
16. Georgia Southern Eagles (Sun Belt/1-1) — Sure, the Eagles were whitewashed by West Virginia in a 44-0 shutout in Morgantown. It bears remembering that they failed to score in a game where quarterback Kevin Ellison was suspended in their one shot against a Big 12 opponent. Favian Upshaw looked much better in relief in the home opener against Western Michigan, rushing for 103 yards and completing one of his four pass attempts, but Georgia Southern rolled over the Broncos thanks to Matt Breida’s 176 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 11 carries. If Upshaw continues to get solid reps, and Ellison comes back for conference play hungry to push him for playing time, this team could be rolling by the time it meets Georgia in November. Another undefeated Sun Belt season is still in play for the Eagles.
17. East Carolina Pirates (AAC/1-1) — The Pirates pulled off upsets of Virginia Tech and North Carolina last year, but they’re still searching for their first victory over an SEC school since 1999 after coming up short in a 31-24 loss at Florida this weekend. East Carolina has been a giant-killer in recent years, and their strong showing in the Swamp still indicates the potential to wreak havoc in the AAC East after moving over from Conference USA. ECU still hosts Virginia Tech in another of their now-annual showdowns, and also takes on independent darling BYU on the same field where the Cougars took down Boise State. If the Pirates knock off the Hokies for the second straight season, win in Provo to end an undefeated BYU run, and take the AAC crown, they would have as good a resume as anyone else in the hunt.
18. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/1-1) — Despite the heroics of transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel (28-of-48 for 357 yards, two touchdowns and a pick; nine carries for 55 yards and a rushing touchdown), two 100-yard receivers in Trent Taylor and Paul Turner, and senior tailback Kenneth Dixon (22 carries for 168 yards and two touchdowns, plus five receptions for another 41 yards), the Bulldogs couldn’t escape Bowling Green without a loss against Western Kentucky on Thursday. Two turnovers doomed Louisiana Tech in a game that came down to the wire. The Bulldogs must rebound quickly, as Tech has nine days to prepare for Bill Snyder’s Big 12 middleweights. The loss to WKU can be eased with a major Power Five victory and the realization that the two teams that squared off in the Thursday night game could also see one another in the C-USA title game in December. The loss is disappointing, but there is still plenty to play for in Ruston.
19. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/1-1) — The Thundering Herd followed up their come-from-behind win over Purdue last weekend with a stinker on the road against Ohio. Racking up just 263 yards of offense, 16 penalties to give back 147 of those yards, and coughing up four turnovers, Marshall blew their undefeated season before it could even really build up any steam. Now the Herd must not only recover from the loss to dominate Conference USA, but they must also hope that Ohio wins the MAC East but falters in the championship game. Were they both in the pool of Group of Five champions, the Bobcats hold the head-to-head advantage.
20. UL-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns (Sun Belt/1-1) — The Ragin’ Cajuns followed up the scare they put into Kentucky with a comfortable 44-17 win over FCS Northwestern State, an opponent that defeated Louisiana Tech last year, so Mark Hudspeth has to feel comfortable about where his ULL team sits right now. Louisiana has Tech as well as Akron awaiting still on the non-conference schedule, and is looking to reclaim Sun Belt supremacy after ceding control of the conference to Georgia Southern last year and only returning to the New Orleans Bowl thanks to the Eagles’ FCS transitional status.
21. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (MWC/1-1) — USC transfer Max Wittek hasn’t exactly been the next Colt Brennan, but he has proven to be an intriguing addition to Norm Chow’s Hawaii roster. Against Ohio State he went just 7-for-24 for 67 yards, tossing two picks along the way, and completed just half of his passes for 202 yards against Colorado. But the Rainbow Warriors still have a win over a Power Five opponent with an upset over the Buffaloes that was fueled by a strong enough defense that forced three turnovers, and followed it up by holding defending national champion Ohio State to 4.37 yards per play. If they can maintain that defensive solidity, and Wittek can get more comfortable in Chow’s offense, Hawaii could be a spoiler in a wide-open MWC West field.
22. Utah State Aggies (MWC/1-1) — Chuckie Keeton played his way out of his shoes right up until the final whistle, but it wasn’t enough for Utah State to survive its trip to Salt Lake City with its undefeated record intact. After looking absolutely uninspiring in hanging on for a 12-9 victory in their home opener against FCS Southern Utah, the Aggies fell to Pac-12 rival Utah on a Friday night where the Utes lost starting quarterback Travis Wilson. Carelessness with the ball spelled doom for Utah State, as they gave the ball away three times in Utah territory. The final score could have been much uglier, and now the Aggies will have to settle for playing spoiler in Mountain West play.
23. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/1-1) — The Aztecs couldn’t pull off the upset in Berkeley when faced with a vastly improved California team, but Rocky Long’s crew still looks like it has the clearest chance of emerging from a bunched-up field of 1-1 teams in the MWC West standings. They remain behind Hawaii given the fact that their victory came against an FCS opponent instead of a Power Five school, and lost to a Cal team for whom the jury is still out instead of the defending CFP national champions. Still, once the ink dries on the final tally of the season, SDSU is likely to be traveling to play whichever team wins the MWC Mountain for the conference championship.
24. Appalachian State Mountaineers (Sun Belt/1-1) — The Mountaineers shut out FCS Howard, then turned around and proved themselves overmatched against a Clemson team that increasingly looks like the team to beat in the ACC. Appalachian State is hardly harmed by such a loss, and the fact that they weren’t in turn shut out by the Tigers is an indication that there is some relevant talent in Boone. A trip to Norfolk to face Old Dominion next weekend will provide a virtual elimination game between the Mountaineers and the Monarchs, and the Sun Belt title is still completely within reach. Whether that is enough when pitted against stronger mid-major conferences is another question altogether.
25. UConn Huskies (AAC/2-0) — Sure, the Huskies are undefeated this year. But they remain anchored at the bottom of these rankings for the simple reason that they only remain undefeated thanks to a pair of five-point victories over FCS Villanova and FBS featherweight Army. Neither victory proves anything about whether this is a Connecticut team of quality that could return them to a major bowl game for the first time since they won the old Big East title in 2010 and lost to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. We will learn more about UConn at this time next month, after they’ve emerged on the other side of a labyrinth featuring Missouri, Navy, BYU, and UCF.
- FIU Golden Panthers (C-USA/1-1)
- SMU Mustangs (AAC/1-1)
- Central Michigan Chippewas (MAC/1-1)
- Rice Owls (C-USA/1-1)
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/1-1)
- Nevada Wolf Pack (MWC/1-1)
- Fresno State Bulldogs (MWC/1-1)
- Eastern Michigan Eagles (MAC/1-1)
- UL-Monroe Warhawks (Sun Belt/1-1)
- #7 Western Michigan Broncos (MAC/0-2)
- #16 Arkansas State Red Wolves (Sun Belt/0-2)
- #21 UCF Knights (AAC/0-2)