The top six mid-major teams in the country all held serve this week, winning against overmatched competition to stay in place in the Week 5 Access Bowl Power Rankings. But the field winnowed itself down nevertheless — we are down to just 11 remaining teams that have one or fewer defeats, and less than 40 percent of the teams in the Group of Five conferences have reached this point of the schedule at .500 or better in the standings.
Now it will come down to splitting hairs and trying to think like the College Football Playoff selection committee. Impressive resume-building victories will always count far greater than which team you lose against. A loss isn’t a death knell, though losing your conference will eliminate you as a mid-major from the pool for consideration.
With that in mind, not all conferences are created equal at the mid-major level either. Winning the Sun Belt or Conference USA is far different than taking the American Athletic Conference, from which four of the five remaining undefeated mid-majors hail. The MAC and Mountain West have both skewed heavily in favor of one division, rendering an entire pool of teams as potential spoilers for a narrowing window of big-time exposure for those conferences.
We have narrowed the list down to 20 teams as October hits, mirroring the aforementioned tightening of the pool of contenders. Where does your favorite mid-major school rank?
1. Memphis Tigers (AAC/5-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won 24-17 at South Florida
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 17 v. Ole Miss
It was hardly an impressive performance in Tampa, but the Tigers did enough against South Florida to remain undefeated heading into their bye week. Memphis is the only undefeated mid-major to reach five wins at this point in the season, and they will have an opportunity to make a major statement against Ole Miss once they come out of the break. If Memphis can knock off the Rebels at home, nobody left on their schedule will seriously threaten the Tigers. They benefit from one of the five most efficient quarterbacks in the country, a top-10 offense, and a defense that has bent at times but manages to consistently do enough to secure victory.
2. Toledo Rockets (MAC/4-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won 24-10 at Ball State
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 10 v. Kent State
The Rockets have wins over SEC and Big 12 opponents, and now they also have a conference win to bolster their credentials after a comfortable two-touchdown victory over Ball State on Sunday. Toledo’s greatest strength has been its defense so far this season, with the unit holding teams to just 13 points and 80 rushing yards per game. Toledo benefits from its clear status atop the MAC West hierarchy, where every other team has already amassed at least three losses on the record. Where that could hurt, though is in schedule strength once the selection committee sits down in December to parse out best cases for each team.
3. Temple Owls (AAC/4-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won 37-3 at Charlotte
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 10 v. Tulane
Temple’s degree of difficulty went significantly downward this week, as they played FBS transitional member Charlotte and walked away homeward with an easy 37-3 victory. They have a legitimate chance to reach the Halloween showdown with Notre Dame with a 7-0 record, and they avoid two out of the three undefeated teams from the AAC West during the regular season. The schedule lines up favorably for Temple to at least end up 11-1, and after getting overlooked in the preseason the Owls now look like the class of their division. They will need to get more consistent offensive output, however, to have a shot against teams like the Irish and Memphis.
4. Houston Cougars (AAC/4-0)
- LAST RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: won 38-24 at Tulsa
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 8 v. SMU
One-third of the way through its season, Houston is still perfect in the standings after taking care of business at Tulsa over the weekend. Despite a change in coaching staff, the Cougars still boast one of the top five turnover margins in the country after ranking among the national leaders in the category the past few years, fueling their 4-0 start. Coupled with the maturation of Greg Ward Jr. at quarterback and the emergence of a top-10 offense under new head coach Tom Herman, Houston has a balanced roster that can beat opponents in multiple ways. This should continue to bode well as they advance through AAC competition.
5. Boise State Broncos (MWC/4-1)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won 55-0 v. Hawaii
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 10 at Colorado State
For as much as people talked about Ian Johnson and Kellen Moore and a playbook field with tricks and a turf colored Smurf, Boise State’s rise to its status as the preeminent mid-major school in the country was predicated on defensive prowess. The Broncos have rediscovered its dominance on that side of the ball, posting top-10 marks in total yards allowed, opponent passing efficiency, rushing defense, points allowed, turnover margin, and red zone defense. In a down year for the Mountain West, all Boise State has to do is plow through its conference slate and hope the AAC cannibalizes itself out of the picture.
6. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/4-0)
- LAST RANKING: 6th
- LAST WEEK: won 33-11 v. Air Force
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 10 at Notre Dame
The Midshipmen began their quest for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy with an emphatic 33-11 home victory over Air Force on Saturday. Navy held the Falcons to fewer than 300 total yards of offense and forced four turnovers to coast to victory in the rivalry game, keeping pace in the Access Bowl race in the process. The Middies have looked completely comfortable in their new conference home after a century of independence, and it could result in the school’s first major bowl appearance since the 1964 Cotton Bowl loss to Texas. After years in the shadows, one of college football’s historic powers could be reemerging as a thorn in the sides of the nation’s powerhouses.
Hovering in Contention
7. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/4-1, LW: 7th) — The Eagles continue to lead the Sun Belt race after another conference victory over UL-Monroe on Saturday. Georgia Southern has yet to lose a single Sun Belt contest since affiliating with the league on its move from FCS, and only a season-opening loss to West Virginia has kept their record from remaining perfect. Any school from the Group of Five’s weakest league will have an uphill battle to claim the Access Bowl slot, but Georgia Southern’s continued run of excellence positions them as the one team with a legitimate shot. If they run the schedule, including the November 21 showdown with Georgia, they will have earned a place in the conversation.
8. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/4-1, LW: 8th) — The Bobcats built up a first-half lead at Akron, and then were forced to hold on as the Zips chipped away at the score. That Ohio survived 14-12 is indicative of its defense’s ability to lock down against opposing defenses, as they held Akron to 227 total yards on 61 plays. Had that defense managed to shut things down at a critical moment the previous week against Minnesota, the Bobcats would have a statement victory and still be undefeated. They still benefit by being in the MAC East, with a potential championship game against Toledo to bolster the resume.
9. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/4-1, LW: 13th) — In the first few games of the season, the Hilltoppers looked hesitant as they gutted out close wins over Vanderbilt and Louisiana Tech. The narrow defeat at Indiana seemed to snap WKU out of its torpor, as they have won by an average of nearly five touchdowns per game in the past two victories. Brandon Doughty is ranked third nationally in passing efficiency, and sits in the top 20 in the country in points and yards per game. A trip to Death Valley to face LSU on October 24 will likely make or break Western Kentucky’s chances of remaining nationally prominent.
10. Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/3-2, LW: 14th) — Despite losing starting quarterback Gunner Kiel to a scary neck injury in the previous week’s loss to Memphis, the Bearcats rebounded to upset the Miami Hurricanes at Nippert Stadium on Saturday. They will have a hard time climbing back up into a crowded AAC race that still features four undefeated teams, and after a bye week their next scheduled game takes them to Provo to face a strong BYU squad. A third loss is likely going to prove costly unless Group of Five Armageddon occurs, but Cincinnati is still strong enough to merit consideration — especially if the team can get healthy again.
11. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/3-2, LW: 9th) — Bowling Green has had a riddle of a season to this point. Losing to Tennessee was no season-breaker, especially after following up that defeat with a statement win over Maryland. They played Memphis to the brink in a 44-41 loss, but then they knocked off Purdue on the road to claim a second win and go to 2-0 against the Big Ten in 2015. The Falcons’ road win over Buffalo on Saturday kept them in position to challenge Ohio for the MAC East title, and they will get to face the Bobcats head-to-head at home on November 4 in what is lining up like a de facto divisional championship game.
12. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/4-1, LW: 12th) — Marshall is the lowest-ranked team among the group of 11 with one loss or less, largely due to the impact of a weak schedule on its PRS rankings. The Thundering Herd rumbled over Old Dominion 27-7 this week, but the paradox remains the loss to Ohio. Marshall needs the Bobcats to run the table and win the MAC East, but then to lose to the MAC West representative (likely Toledo) in order to take them out of the Access Bowl running. Then, of course, the Herd also need to take care of their own business, which is fairly devoid of serious challenges prior to the November 27 encounter with WKU.
13. Air Force Falcons (MWC/2-2, LW: 11th) — The Falcons couldn’t find an answer for Navy, which emerged from the service academy showdown with a convincing 33-11 win to push the Falcons down the Access Bowl race. But the only real challengers this season from the Mountain West are going to come from the Mountain Division, and Air Force is clustered with New Mexico and Utah State right behind the Broncos, and they are all 1-0 in league play. Boise State had trouble with the Falcons last year, and if Air Force can play its way into the MWC championship game anything could be possible.
14. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/3-1, LW: 16th) — Like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State has looked anything but overmatched in the Sun Belt since transitioning from FCS football, and the Mountaineers’ only loss came on the road against Clemson. Against their other three opponents, Appalachian State has allowed just 13 points total, all of which came in last Saturday’s win over Wyoming. They get to ease into conference play with road trips to Georgia State and UL-Monroe before Georgia Southern comes to Boone on October 22. Should they deal the Eagles their first-ever Sun Belt defeat, Appalachian State would become the instant favorite in the conference.
15. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/3-2, LW: 17th) — The September loss to Western Kentucky dealt Louisiana Tech a conference blemish early in the season, but the Bulldogs rebounded with an eye-opening three-overtime defeat at Kansas State and a win over FIU. Tech still gets to play Mississippi State, offering another statement opportunity against Power Five competition. Then there are Southern Miss and UTSA, the nominal roadblocks on an otherise clear path to the C-USA West title. Reach that game and then it would likely be a rematch with WKU (or possibly a first game against Marshall) to decide which team wins the league.
16. East Carolina Pirates (AAC/3-2, LW: 19th) — The Pirates are a lot like Bowling Green this year in that it is hard to get a solid grasp of where they stand in the hierarchy. An eight-point win over a Towson team that is mired near the bottom of the FCS Colonial Athletic Association is hardly inspiring, but then they pushed Florida to the brink in the Swamp before falling by a touchdown in Gainesville. They got pummeled on the road in a conference showdown with Navy, but then won their second straight against Virginia Tech. Doubling up the score against SMU doesn’t say a ton this season… far less than if they do it to BYU in Provo this week.
17. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/3-2, LW: 21st) — For the Golden Eagles, their season essentially boils down to next Friday’s showdown with Marshall in Huntington. If Southern Miss can knock off the Thundering Herd on the road to move to 4-2, it would signal their return to C-USA prominence after several seasons in the doldrums. If they lose to go to 3-3, bowl eligibility is still well within reach — just not a truly transcendent season, which is already hanging entirely on the Golden Eagles remaining in conference contention and winning out over Louisiana Tech for the West title.
18. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (AAC/2-2, LW: 15th) — Tulsa followed up its loss to Oklahoma with a loss to Houston, dropping to fifth in the AAC West and .500 overall. UL-Monroe offers a final non-conference chance to right the ship and smooth out the wrinkles before conference play begins in earnest, and East Carolina and Memphis will be waiting immediately on the other side. Any chance at the AAC title, much less a legitimate case for an Access Bowl candidacy, will hinge on reaching Halloween without any further marks in the loss column. With so many AAC contenders, the Golden Hurricane will have to start eliminating its conference foes from the race lest it be eliminated.
19. New Mexico Lobos (MWC/3-2, LW: NR) — With so much attrition from the rankings this week, spots opened up for two teams to enter the rankings. New Mexico comes in at 19th after taking the Battle of I-25 over state rival New Mexico State and moving to 3-2. The Lobos shut out their FCS opener, Mississippi Valley State, and fell to 1-2 with losses against Tulsa and Arizona State before winning the past two over Wyoming and the Aggies. Interdivisional games against Nevada, Hawaii, and San Jose State provide an opportunity to go to 4-0 in Mountain West play before back-to-back showdowns with Utah State, Boise State, Colorado State, and Air Force on every November Saturday.
20. Utah State Aggies (MWC/2-2, LW: NR) — Utah State seems snakebitten after losing Chuckie Keeton yet again in his sixth season of eligibility following medical hardship clearances, and yet the Aggies continue rolling along. They couldn’t pull off a win over Washington like conference rival Boise State managed, but USU also had to go to Seattle to face the Huskies. They opened conference play with an emphatic 33-18 home win over Colorado State, as backup quarterback Kent Myers showed off dual-threat skills with 328 total yards and two scores against the Rams. Hopefully that can take some pressure off a defense that has been forced to do much of the heavy lifting so far for the Aggies.
Dropped Out of Rankings
#10 Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/2-3)
#18 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (C-USA/2-3)
#20 Ball State Cardinals (MAC/2-3)
#22 Nevada Wolf Pack (MWC/2-3)
#23 Connecticut Huskies (AAC/2-3)
#24 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (MWC/2-3)
#25 Old Dominion Monarchs (C-USA/2-3)