5. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/6-1)
- LAST RANKING: 6th
- LAST WEEK: won 55-28 at North Texas
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 24 at LSU
6. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/6-1)
- LAST RANKING: 10th
- LAST WEEK: won 33-17 at Florida Atlantic
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 24 v. North Texas
With Louisiana Tech’s loss at Mississippi State dropping the Bulldogs to 4-3 on the season, the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd are the only legitimate challengers remaining for Conference USA to walk away this season with the Access Bowl nod. We have to wait until November 27 to watch them square off in both teams’ final game before championship week, and that showdown on Black Friday after Thanksgiving will almost certainly be a battle for the C-USA West division title.
Western Kentucky is doing it with prolific offense, riding Brandon Doughty’s arm (387 passing yards per game, 24 touchdowns against four interceptions through seven games) to a 6-1 record with the only loss coming in a tight contest that ended 38-35 on the road at Indiana. Marshall, against the grain they established in recent seasons, is largely surviving on the strength of a bend-but-don’t-break defense that is giving up an average of 364 yards per game yet is holding opponents to just 17.5 points.
Western Kentucky has the far more forgivable loss against the Hoosiers, as Marshall lost by a wider margin to MAC East challenger Ohio. WKU also has the biggest test remaining prior to the head-to-head duel in late November, as they head to Death Valley next weekend for a shot at SEC heavyweight LSU. If the Hilltoppers win the league, they would likely have a stronger case than Marshall due to schedule strength.
7. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/5-1)
- LAST RANKING: 7th
- LAST WEEK: won 56-26 v. New Mexico State
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 22 at Appalachian State
8. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/5-1)
- LAST RANKING: 12th
- LAST WEEK: won 59-14 at Louisiana-Monroe
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 22 v. Georgia Southern
We are preparing for what essentially boils down to the Sun Belt conference championship game on Thursday, when Georgia Southern travels to Boone to face Appalachian State. The two league front-runners, two years removed from FCS status, are the league’s last best hope of claiming the Access Bowl slot this season. None of the established members of the conference has fewer than three losses, leaving the Eagles and the Mountaineers to take up the banner for what has traditionally been the afterthought of the mid-major leagues.
Georgia Southern has won five straight after its opening-weekend blowout loss at West Virginia. Appalachian State has won four in a row after its own rout at Clemson. The Eagles dominated New Mexico State at home to warm up for the showdown in Boone, rushing for over 500 yards in a 56-26 rout. The Mountaineers did the same on the road at UL-Monroe, knocking off the Warhawks 59-14 in Louisiana with a balanced attack that put up over 600 total yards of offense. While Arkansas State is still undefeated in conference play and also remains in contention, next Thursday’s game opens the door for the winner to take clear leadership of the league.
9. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/5-2)
- LAST RANKING: 11th
- LAST WEEK: won 59-10 v. Akron
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 24 at Kent State
10. Ohio Bobcats (MAC/5-2)
- LAST RANKING: 9th
- LAST WEEK: lost 49-14 v. Western Michigan
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 24 at Buffalo
Coming into the season, Bowling Green looked like the clear favorite in the MAC East. For the first half of the season, Ohio had tenuously held on to the top spot in the division standings after a gutsy win over Marshall and an undefeated record in conference play. The victory over the Herd remains a positive mark for the Bobcats, but after dropping their second game — at home, by five touchdowns, to a Western Michigan squad that came to Ohio with a sub-.500 record — the hierarchy has been restored in the division.
Bowling Green had no such difficulties at home against Akron. Matt Johnson threw for 357 yards and five touchdowns, the backfield rotation managed 120 yards and three rushing touchdowns, and the defense allowed just 262 yards to the Zips on less than four yards per play. After both teams visit divisional rivals with four losses each next weekend, they will have a bye ahead of their head-to-head Wednesday night showdown on November 4. That encounter in Kentucky will almost certainly determine which team heads to Detroit with a chance to knock off Toledo or whoever else might potentially emerge as the West champ.
11. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/4-1)
- LAST RANKING: 8th
- LAST WEEK: idle
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 24 v. Tulane
Navy slid three spots in this week’s rankings through no fault of their own, as they stayed on the sidelines and watched their two main division rivals score decisive victories to remain undefeated. The Midshipmen get to stay home over the next fortnight as they square off against Tulane and South Florida in conference play. Navy will just hope to remain healthy and get by those opponents without much trouble…
… because a trip to the Liberty Bowl to face Memphis looms on the first Saturday of November, and that is a must-win if the Midshipmen are to maintain a shot at a New Year’s Six berth out of a deep AAC field. Survive that and they’ll have to take on SMU and Tulsa before another elimination game against Houston. Navy can still make a major bowl game, and they’ll have to prevail in several major tests to do so.
12. Utah State Aggies (MWC/4-2)
- LAST RANKING: 16th
- LAST WEEK: won 52-26 v. Boise State
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 23 at San Diego State
13. Boise State Broncos (MWC/5-2)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: lost 52-26 at Utah State
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 24 v. Wyoming
Boise State was hovering right there in contention behind the undefeated leaders atop the Access Bowl Power Rankings, ready to pounce up the table once the AAC started seeing head-to-head matchups cull its herd of undefeated squads. Then they ran into a steamroller in Logan, as the Aggies forced seven turnovers in the first half en route to a 52-26 blowout. Now Boise State doesn’t even look certain of winning its own division, dropping eight spots and getting leapfrogged by Utah State.
Coupled with Air Force’s loss at Colorado State, Utah State’s head-to-head win over the Broncos puts them in sole possession of the lead in the MWC Mountain standings. Given that an Access Bowl candidate must be a conference champion, Boise State now needs the Aggies to lose twice to regain a shot at the title.
Beyond these two teams, the Mountain West essentially has no shot left at reaching the New Year’s Six this year. At this point, the league’s only real chance is for both of these teams to run the table to make this head-to-head clash win look as good as possible for USU, and some team to go on a run in the MWC West to reach the title game with a 9-3 record. Otherwise they might not have enough clout relative to other leagues.
NEXT PAGE: Spoilers (Three-Loss Challengers, #14-20)