Just when you think the picture is beginning to settle, everything goes haywire yet again. Before we even hit the weekend proper, both the Sun Belt and Mountain West pictures had been inverted. Georgia Southern fell decisively to Appalachian State, and MWC West leader San Diego State dispelled the myth that theirs is the weaker division by knocking off Mountain leader Utah State by an even bigger margin.
The AAC continues to provide the most intrigue. Three of the four remaining undefeated teams hail from the league, and the only possible way that there will be an undefeated-versus-undefeated matchup in the inaugural championship game for the league is if Temple and Houston remain unscathed until December. Should that happen, the winner would have one hell of a case for inclusion in the four-team College Football Playoff bracket… after all, Houston plays Vanderbilt next weekend (who did just knock off two-time defending SEC East champ Missouri on Saturday) and Temple plays Notre Dame. Should both win, and then both prevail over Memphis, their combined 24-0 record would have come against legitimate enough competition to deserve a discussion in the committee meeting.
But it is always dangerous to project that far forward in any college football season. East Carolina nearly knocked off Temple, which would have simultaneously bolstered and diminished the AAC’s legitimacy, just as a 24-point loss by Ohio at Buffalo hurt the MAC’s top tier yet strengthened the league’s case for greater parity. A slew of dangerous contests remain on every contender’s schedule (some more dangerous than others), and upsets happen every week for mid-majors just as they do for teams like Florida State (a one-time Cinderella of its own beginning in the late 1970s before it ascended to blueblood status) and Utah (the original BCS Buster before its ascent to a spot in the expanded Pac-12).
We are getting close to the point where the field will get winnowed down yet again, with next weekend putting us into November (by publication time) and whittling the field to 15 or 16 (depending on results). There are still enough three-loss teams to warrant a longer look this weekend, though, and not all three-loss teams are equal. While some things remain the same, some shuffling has occurred, and there are surprises aplenty to consider as we look at the Top 20 in the Access Bowl Power Rankings for Week 8.
THE BIGGEST THREATS…
1. Memphis Tigers (AAC/7-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won 66-42 at Tulsa
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 31 v. Tulane
There was no letdown for Memphis on Friday night, six days after they handily defeated Ole Miss. In what could have been a trap game, the Tigers instead scored early and often on the way to a 24-point victory over Tulsa, on a night where quarterback Paxton Lynch set a career best with 447 passing yards and four touchdowns. The running game got into the spirit as well, with Doroland Dorceus and Jamarius Henderson both piling up over 100 yards and two touchdowns apiece for a ground game that totaled 257 yards in Tulsa.
The Tigers should have no problem getting to 8-0 against Tulane next weekend, and then their November schedule gets that much more difficult. Memphis gets to host Navy on November 7 before back-to-back road trips to Houston and Temple. If they survive that labyrinthine stretch of games, SMU should provide no worry on the last game of the regular season, Memphis should be undefeated heading into the AAC championship game, and the Power Five conferences should start sweating about possibly only having three playoff spots to fight over. Justin Fuente’s crew is a legitimate national powerhouse in 2015.
2. Houston Cougars (AAC/7-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: won 59-10 at UCF
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 31 v. Vanderbilt
It took a little time, but Houston eventually got running on all cylinders and overpowered a woebegone UCF squad to the tune of 59-10 on Saturday. Kenneth Farrow piled up 167 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries, and the Cougars rushed for 366 yards total in Orlando. Greg Ward Jr. remained efficient in Tom Herman’s offense, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 210 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 46 more and another score. And the defense, one of the nation’s best units at stealing the football, forced four UCF turnovers on the day.
With the win, Houston technically sits ahead of Memphis in the AAC West standings with one more conference victory than the Tigers. They play their last non-conference game next weekend when Vanderbilt comes to TDECU Stadium, an opportunity to add an SEC victory to their win over Louisville. The Cougars then have the advantage of playing all three main rivals — Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy — at home, providing a clear path to the inaugural AAC title game if they keep winning.
3. Toledo Rockets (MAC/7-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won 51-35 at Massachusetts
- NEXT WEEK: Nov. 3 v. Northern Illinois
The first half of Toledo’s Saturday showdown with UMass looked like it was about to knock the MAC effectively out of the Access Bowl race, as the Minutemen took a 28-10 lead into the locker room at halftime. Then the Rockets came out and adjusted, rolling off 38 unanswered points as they controlled possession and racked up 620 total yards of offense on the day. The reversal kept the Rockets perfect in the standings to begin the second half of the season.
They will host NIU for some Tuesday night MACtion on November 3, a contest between the division leader and the five-time defending MAC West champion. If Toledo is going to make a serious bid for the Access Bowl against the sheer numbers of AAC contenders, they have to dominate games against teams like the Huskies. They also have Bowling Green (in what could be a MAC championship game preview) and Western Michigan to survive in November, and wins over Arkansas and Iowa State give the Rockets as strong a case as Memphis or Houston or Temple — at least to this point, and as long as they keep winning.
4. Temple Owls (AAC/7-0)
- LAST RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: won 24-14 at East Carolina
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 31 v. Notre Dame
East Carolina was one of the biggest conference trap games left on Temple’s schedule, and for most of Thursday night it appeared that the magic was about to run out for the Owls in Greenville. ECU held a 14-10 lead late into the fourth quarter, but P.J. Walker’s touchdown pass to Robby Anderson with 3:31 remaining, and Jahad Thomas’ touchdown run 73 seconds later, allowed Matt Rhule’s squad to reverse the result and sneak home with the 10-point victory.
With the Pirates now two games behind Temple in the AAC East standings, the Owls are all but assured of a spot in the inaugural league championship game. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely in the clear, with Notre Dame coming to Philadelphia next weekend and Memphis visiting on November 21. If Temple can get past both teams and reach the championship game undefeated, their best chance at potentially threatening for the playoff itself would be to square off against an undefeated Houston squad. Otherwise, given the Tigers-Owls head-to-head, a rematch would likely benefit neither team.
5. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/7-1)
- LAST RANKING: 6th
- LAST WEEK: won 30-13 v. North Texas
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 31 at Charlotte
The Thundering Herd haven’t played nearly as tough a schedule as Western Kentucky, with whom they are deadlocked in the battle for C-USA East supremacy, but they can claim a Power Five win over Purdue. They also moved to 7-1 on Saturday with a comfortable 30-13 victory against North Texas in Huntington, rolling up an easy 402 yards of offense against one of the half-dozen worst teams in FBS. If anything, the fact that Marshall didn’t win by more is suspect.
And until they square off against the Hilltoppers on the final weekend of November, the Herd really won’t face any significant competition. FBS newcomer Charlotte is next on the schedule, Middle Tennessee and FIU follow, and just like last year Marshall could run away with the Conference USA title and have a 12-1 record and still never be seriously considered for the Access Bowl slot among the Group of Five champions. Doc Holliday’s team is hardly perfect, and they’re playing far too close against inferior competition, something that will likely put them out of the running whether or not they win the league.
6. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/6-1)
- LAST RANKING: 8th
- LAST WEEK: won 31-13 v. Georgia Southern
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 31 v. Troy
In its second FBS season, Appalachian State now controls its own destiny in the Sun Belt standings after dismantling Georgia Southern on Thursday night. The Mountaineers held the nation’s top rushing attack under 200 yards — and App State’s offense actually outgained the Eagles on the ground by over 40 yards. Quarterback Taylor Lamb was an efficient 14-of-20 for 202 yards and two scores, the defense allowed just 252 total yards, and the Mountaineers won the turnover battle plus-two.
So what does Appalachian State need to do from here to threaten for the Access Bowl spot out of the Group of Five? Other than a November 5 visit from Arkansas State, nobody else remaining on the Mountaineers’ schedule should cause them any worry. The lack of a conference championship game could cost Scott Satterfield’s crew in the eyes of the selection committee, but an outright conference championship would prevent the sorts of shenanigans that split the field in the Big 12 last season.
7. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/6-2)
- LAST RANKING: 9th
- LAST WEEK: won 48-0 at Kent State
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 4 v. Ohio
Matt Johnson, the national leader in passing yardage coming into this week, threw for 17 yards above his season average against Kent State in a 48-0 whitewash, completing 27 of 40 for 430 yards and five touchdowns in the rout. That was no surprise, as the offense has ranked among the nation’s best all year. What was surprising was the Falcons defense, which pitched its first shutout since November 2013 and has been ranked 100th or worse in many key categories.
With Ohio’s loss, Bowling Green took sole possession of the top spot in the MAC East standings. The Falcons will take a well-deserved rest next weekend before hosting the Bobcats in a Wednesday night showdown on November 4, with a win effectively wrapping up the division title for Bowling Green. They will also host MAC West leader Toledo in Tuesday night MACtion before what is looking more and more likely to be a rematch for the conference title in Detroit. If the Falcons win the first showdown and Toledo arrives 11-1 at Ford Field, a second win over the Rockets could boost Bowling Green’s case.
8. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/5-3)
- LAST RANKING: 16th
- LAST WEEK: won 48-14 v. Utah State
- NEXT GAME: Oct. 31 at Colorado State
It is always dangerous to call conference or even just division races when the calendar hasn’t even yet flipped over to November, but after trouncing Utah State on Friday night it seems unlikely that anybody in the MWC West is going to catch San Diego State. The Aztecs exerted their will all night over the Aggies, with Donnell Pumphrey singlehandedly putting up 181 yards and two touchdowns on the same defense that had held Boise State to just 34 yards last week.
The one thing potentially holding San Diego State are those three defeats in the record. Losing at California or at Penn State isn’t particularly damning in and of itself, though the lack of any Power Five statement win hurts relative to other teams in the Access Bowl hunt. The third loss — falling at home to a South Alabama squad that is now 3-3 and fourth in the Sun Belt — is a bit more puzzling, and could be what ultimately dooms the Aztecs from contention. Not playing Boise State is also a double-edged sword, as the USU victory really provides their only chance at a league statement before the title game.
9. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/5-1)
- LAST RANKING: 11th
- LAST WEEK: won 31-14 v. Tulane
- NEXT WEEK: Oct. 31 v. South Florida
The Midshipmen belatedly hit their midway point of the season with a 31-14 win over Tulane that kept them undefeated in AAC play. Navy won thanks mainly to their defense, which forced two fumbles and nabbed an interception to stall three Tulane drives, including one fumble on the goal line as the Green Wave threatened to pull within a field goal.
Navy’s only loss came against Notre Dame, and they will have a chance to directly affect their fortunes in the conference battle. Should they knock off both Memphis (Nov. 7) and Houston (Nov. 27) from the ranks of the undefeated, and then face an undefeated Temple team in the AAC championship game at the beginning of December, it would be awfully difficult for the CFP selection committee to leave out a historic powerhouse of the sport that had finished 12-1 and won its conference. (Now could that be for the actual playoff? Probably not for a Group of Five team with a loss…)
NEXT PAGE: The Marginal Hopefuls (#11-20)