Let’s assess where things stand in each conference before we dive into looking at each team. Assume, for a moment, that total chaos has to emerge at this point for a three-loss team to have a truly viable shot of stealing away the New Year’s Six slot, so conference champions in the running for the Access Bowl slot will probably have to end the regular season with two losses or less to be legitimate contenders.
Before this week’s first game between Arkansas State and South Alabama kicked off on Tuesday evening in Mobile, that left only 18 potential teams left in the hunt. Four were undefeated, seven had one loss, and seven more had two losses. What has played out over Week 7 is a further separation, and what we are seeing are several conferences with heavy disparities in division quality:
- Three of the four undefeated teams hail from the AAC, with Houston and Memphis (as well as one-loss Navy) balanced only by Temple on the opposite side of the divisional divide.
- The MAC features undefeated Toledo in the West against a pair of two-loss hopefuls, Bowling Green and Ohio, that are respectively surging and backsliding their way in the East standings.
- Whichever among Marshall and Western Kentucky takes the C-USA East title host face no better than a three-loss team in the conference title game after Louisiana Tech’s loss at Mississippi State on Saturday.
- The Sun Belt has come down to depending on one of its two newest members, Georgia Southern or Appalachian State, running the table and winning the league outright at 11-1. (The Sun Belt, it bears noting, is the only mid-major without divisions or a title game.)
- In the Mountain West, Utah State usurped Boise State’s position in the driver’s seat of the MWC Mountain; both teams now have two losses apiece, putting them in tenuous position. No other team in the league has less than three losses in what has become a down year for what is traditionally the best of the mid-major FBS conferences.
The AAC provides a definite gulf between the talent level top to bottom when compared to the other conferences, especially with the Mountain West so far down this season. If an undefeated champion (either Memphis, Houston, or Temple) emerges from the conference, the resume of any of the teams merits playoff consideration.
As great as it is that teams no longer are prisoner to the vagaries of the polls and the structure of the BCS system, and as nice as it is that the College Football Playoff structure provides for access to the top mid-major champion, the design of that access is to placate the Group of Five conferences while the Power Five take all the playoff spots. Only once a deserving mid-major earns serious consideration will the system truly prove to be inclusive, though.
The scenario isn’t too far-fetched. It requires at least two of the Power Five conferences to cannibalize themselves to the point of seeing a two- or three-loss team emerge as champions. The Pac-12 and SEC, in many ways, seem most vulnerable, though they both probably require three-loss champions to slide down the chain of consideration. A surprise Coastal victory in the ACC championship and/or West victory in the Big Ten championship (barring an undefeated Iowa-v-Ohio/Michigan State title game) could assist the case.
What if Temple plays Houston in a matchup of undefeated AAC divisional champions on the first weekend of December, though? In that scenario, either the Owls or the Cougars likely merit a chance in the bracket as a 13-0 conference champion. Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State could potentially deal one another blemishes on their respective records. The SEC is already down to just one undefeated team remaining, as is the Pac-12. The opportunity is there…
… but that is also getting far ahead of ourselves, as we are only halfway through October at this point. There is still a bunch of football left to play, and a lot of craziness could still transpire before December. Here is a look at the Top 20 in the Access Bowl Power Rankings for Week 7.
1. Memphis Tigers (AAC/6-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won 37-24 v. Ole Miss
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 23 at Tulsa
I said last week that a win over Ole Miss could position Memphis well for a run at an undefeated season. The way they are playing, they could be a threat to the established order fighting for playoff spots… especially if they play a rematch against a one-loss Temple team in the inaugural AAC championship game. (The Tigers and Owls play in Philadelphia on November 21.)
The Tigers dominated time of possession against the Rebels, holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes. The time deficit and an anemic ground game (40 yards on 24 carries) forced Mississippi to take to the air early and often, and it led to two Tigers interceptions. An aggressive gameplan allowed Memphis to snag the most impressive win of the season to date among the mid-major hopefuls, allowing the Tigers to maintain pole position in the AAC and Access Bowl races.
2. Toledo Rockets (MAC/6-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won 63-20 v. Eastern Michigan
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 24 at Massachusetts
The Rockets needed fewer than 24 minutes to rack up nine touchdowns and 611 yards, and their defense kept Eastern Michigan out of the endzone until two late Darius Jackson touchdowns made the margin of defeat slightly more respectable for the Eagles. Phillip Ely torched the MAC rivals for 327 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and a balanced Toledo offense and a decent defense combined to easily roll over EMU.
Toledo already has a pair of Power Five victories — Arkansas and Iowa State compare favorably to Memphis’ wins over Ole Miss and Kansas — and a clear path to the MAC title game in Detroit. Unlike other 6-0 teams, though, Toledo has only five more games to play after the opener against FCS Stony Brook was canceled. Will the committee look at that as a positive in terms of schedule strength or a negative in terms of data points? For now they still slot behind Memphis.
3. Houston Cougars (AAC/6-0)
- LAST RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: won 42-7 at Tulane
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 24 at UCF
Houston wasn’t perfect in the Superdome on Friday night, committing 12 penalties and losing the turnover battle against Tulane. Then again, the Cougars didn’t need to be perfect to roll to a 42-7 victory in which they held the Green Wave offense to 4.0 yards per play on the night. Greg Ward Jr. got the job done admirably both through the air and on the ground, throwing for 222 yards and a touchdown and adding 77 yards and three rushing scores to his season totals.
All the attention is on Memphis after the Tigers’ win over Ole Miss, but Houston is technically ahead in the AAC West standings with three conference wins and also boasts its own statement victory over Louisville. A home game against Vanderbilt provides another statement opportunity, and Houston will get to face its conference rival head-to-head on November 14 in what will likely be a clash of undefeated foes.
4. Temple Owls (AAC/6-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won 30-16 v. UCF
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 22 at East Carolina
Temple still has the clearest path to the AAC championship game of any of the conference contenders, mainly because every other team in the East has at least one league loss. They remain undefeated after a tougher-than-expected game against winless UCF, only taking a lead for good early in the fourth quarter thanks to a 199-yard, three-touchdown performance by tailback Jahad Thomas.
The Owls don’t necessarily need to keep winning pretty, though… they merely need to keep winning. They have a short week ahead of a Thursday night trip to East Carolina, and then a Halloween visit from Notre Dame will provide a second opportunity to claim a statement win after taking down Penn State early. Their only other major test, on November 21 against Memphis, also occurs in Philadelphia.
NEXT PAGE: Blemished Cinderellas (1-2 Loss Teams, #5-13)