Mid-major football teams no longer have to sit and hope that they can overcome the vagaries of the BCS calculations to see whether or not they will merit consideration for a big-time bowl bid. A guaranteed slot now exists for the top Group of Five champion to play in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. But perhaps there will be reason yet for potential Cinderellas to keep an eye on the whims of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
With the fall of Temple to Notre Dame, just three undefeated teams remain from the mid-major conferences. But all three that still sport zeroes in the loss column could ostensibly contend not just for the Access Bowl berth but one of the bigger paydays in the playoff bracket. We do not yet know how Memphis, Houston, and Toledo will be rated by the committee, but the relative top-to-bottom strength of the AAC and the statement victories all three sport against Power Five schools bolster the possibility that we could have a team challenge to become the first ever Playoff Buster.
At most only two undefeated teams will remain at the end of the season. If either Memphis or Houston makes it through November without taking a defeat, a win over a one-loss Temple team in the inaugural AAC championship could provide the style points necessary to enter into consideration for one of the four most coveted spots in FBS football. It is a long shot, of course, but with only eight undefeated teams remaining among the Power Five leagues and many of those teams still due to play one another, there could still be enough chaos to make it a viable consideration.
Before we can seriously entertain such possibilities in earnest, however, we must first make it to December. What stands in between is a multitude of chances for every team to tumble from its perch. This week we will begin the process of winnowing down the field further, as we cut the Access Bowl Power Rankings down from 20 to 15. These rankings take into account both overall record, conference record, statement victories, and remaining games on the schedule. A lot could still change, but as the last month of the regular season gets underway this is the present hierarchy of the contenders to take the Access Bowl slot this season… at the very least.
1. Houston Cougars (AAC/8-0)
- LAST RANKING: 2nd
- LAST WEEK: won 34-0 v. Vanderbilt
- NEXT WEEK: Nov. 7 v. Cincinnati
The Cougars take back over the top spot in this week’s rankings after shutting out a Vanderbilt team that had already lost to Western Kentucky to open its 2015 campaign. Where the Hilltoppers struggled until the final whistle, however, Houston essentially had their showdown with the Commodores wrapped up before halftime. The pass defense nabbed three Vanderbilt passes to increase their national lead in turnover margin, and Greg Ward Jr. had another efficient day with 253 total yards and two scores.
Houston had already defeated Louisville, and the team has been improving since that point. The toughest part of the Cougars’ schedule really gets started from this point forward, with Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy still to play. But Tom Herman’s squad gets to play all three at TDECU Stadium, and the only road game left on the schedule is a trip to UConn. If Houston can manage to get through November unscathed and then gets to take on a one-loss Temple crew for the conference crown, a victory in that game could propel the former SWC school back to a big-time stage.
2. Toledo Rockets (MAC/7-0)
- LAST RANKING: 3rd
- LAST WEEK: idle
- NEXT WEEK: Nov. 3 v. Northern Illinois
The Rockets sat this weekend out, but they remain the frontrunner for the MAC title as the only unbeaten team left in the league. Toledo gets to make a statement within the conference this week, with a chance to take out the five-time defending MAC West champion Northern Illinois at the Glass Bowl in Tuesday night MACtion. Wins over Arkansas and Iowa State haven’t aged as well as other teams’ statement victories among the mid-majors, but they remain impressive embellishment for the Toledo case.
After NIU comes to town, Toledo will also face Central Michigan, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan before the MAC championship in Detroit. The Rockets are hardly guaranteed to win the division title, with the Broncos tied at 4-0 in MAC play and both the Huskies and Chippewas sporting a single conference loss. Toledo will have to defeat all three to guarantee what will likely be a replay against Bowling Green on neutral turf, and only with the conference title in hand will the Rockets really be in contention.
3. Memphis Tigers (AAC/8-0)
- LAST RANKING: 1st
- LAST WEEK: won 41-13 v. Tulane
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 v. Navy
Memphis dropped two spots not necessarily because they are any less of a contender, but rather because of the way they have had to overcome slow starts to remain undefeated this year. On Saturday the Tigers spotted Tulane two touchdowns before rolling off 41 straight points in a runaway victory. Paxton Lynch had his usual prolific day, throwing for 343 yards and a score and adding another 43 rushing yards, while the defense shook off its lethargy to hold the Green Wave under 300 total yards on the day.
The Tigers still have the single most impressive victory of the season to date among the mid-majors thanks to their two-touchdown win over Ole Miss (and Temple’s loss to Notre Dame), and everything is still on the line. A three-week stretch looms that will make or break the Tigers’ season, with Navy coming to Memphis on Saturday before Justin Fuente takes his team on the road to Houston and Temple the next two weekends. If Lynch can pull out three wins out of those three games, the regular-season finale against SMU will be a mere formality before a likely rematch with the Owls.
4. Temple Owls (AAC/7-1)
- LAST RANKING: 4th
- LAST WEEK: lost 24-20 v. Notre Dame
- NEXT WEEK: Nov. 6 at SMU
The victory was there for the taking at the end, with Temple holding a lead against Notre Dame deep into the fourth quarter. Even after an Irish touchdown pass secured a 24-20 lead, the Owls still had over two minutes left on the clock to drive for a winning score. But P.J. Walker tried to force the ball on third and 17, throwing an interception with 68 seconds left. After an otherwise blemish-free day, that solitary mistake allowed Notre Dame to escape Philadelphia with the win.
Instead of heading into the final month of the regular season as a third undefeated AAC team and a likely top spot in the Power Rankings, Temple instead stayed in place for another week. The loss to the Irish won’t kill Temple’s chances of getting into a New Year’s Six bowl, especially with Memphis left to play and a game against either the Tigers or Houston in a likely AAC championship appearance. But there is no room left for error for the Owls, and contention for a playoff spot is out of the question for any mid-major with a loss unless we see 2007-level chaos again.
5. Boise State Broncos (MWC/7-2)
- LAST RANKING: 12th
- LAST WEEK: won 55-27 at UNLV
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 14 v. New Mexico
Just when you think they are dead and buried for the season, here comes Boise State yet again to threaten the Group of Five field with its national-brand recognition and surging potential. The Broncos still need Utah State to lose a second league game to have a shot at the Mountain West championship, but Bryan Harsin’s team is gaining momentum heading into the final month of the season.
Despite failing to win in the Beehive State this season (the Broncos also dropped their game against BYU in Provo), and despite a season of transition where the offense has been forced to retool on the fly and the defense has been nowhere near its historic highs, only an Aggies loss is standing between Boise and a shot at a fourth New Year’s Six bowl appearance in the past decade. If they manage to get assistance with a USU loss, the November 20 visit from Air Force will determine the MWC Mountain title. As we saw last season, a two-loss Mountain West champion will be perceived in a higher light than a one-loss champion from most other mid-major conferences. If the AAC cannibalizes itself and Toledo loses, Boise is waiting in the wings to pounce.
6. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/7-1)
- LAST RANKING: 6th
- LAST WEEK: won 44-41 (3OT) v. Troy
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 5 v. Arkansas State
After needing three overtimes to get past Troy at home this weekend, Appalachian State is in far weaker position relative to the teams above them than they were entering the weekend. The Mountaineers remained in sixth in the Week 9 rankings largely due to their position as the definitive frontrunner in the Sun Belt, while Conference USA has a far murkier situation.
Appalachian State is hardly in the clear, though. First the Mountaineers must get past Arkansas State, the other team that is still undefeated in Sun Belt play and that has a pedigree of championship-caliber football in the league, in a Thursday night showdown. If Appalachian State can survive the visit from the Red Wolves, they will still have to get past Idaho, UL-Lafayette, and South Alabama. This season, any one of the trio could provide a trap game, especially if the Mountaineers put down their guard after the Arkansas State game. The Access Bowl will still be a longshot for any Sun Belt squad, but Appalachian State is the only real hopeful left.
7. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/6-2)
- LAST RANKING: 7th
- LAST WEEK: idle
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 4 v. Ohio
The Falcons got to take a break in Week 8, resting on their bowl-eligible record before they welcome Ohio for a Wednesday showdown that could essentially lock up the MAC East title before November really even begins. Bowling Green features the top passing attack in the nation, with no quarterback throwing for more yards per game than Matt Johnson. All told the offense is eighth nationally, scoring just under 44 points per game, meaning that the defense merely needs a few stops to ensure that the offense can build a lead.
Merely defeating Ohio might be enough to win the division, but that won’t mean Bowling Green can just sit back and wait for the trip to Detroit in December. following the visit from the Bobcats, the Falcons will head to Western Michigan before a home game against Toledo in a likely MAC championship preview. But while a pair of wins over the Rockets would bolster Bowling Green’s case for the Access Bowl, it would also paradoxically work against them as it would eliminate the only undefeated team in the MAC and lower the league’s profile on a national level.
T-8. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/8-1)
- LAST RANKING: 5th
- LAST WEEK: won 34-10 at Charlotte
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 at Middle Tennessee
T-8. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/7-2)
- LAST RANKING: 10th
- LAST WEEK: won 55-30 at Old Dominion
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 v. Florida Atlantic
There are still a lot of questions to ask about the C-USA East race, with a pair of blemished contenders looking like they could either push the top-tier challengers for the Access Bowl bid or flame out before they even play one another. One has two losses to Power Five schools; the other suffered its only loss against a former MAC rival and has a Power Five victory on its resume. Marshall has rebounded from its loss at Ohio to roll off seven straight victories heading into games against Middle Tennessee and Florida International. The Thundering Herd is winning with defense rather than offense, boasting the top unit in the country in opponent passing efficiency.
Luckily the Herd will have a bye week before traveling to Western Kentucky, which boasts one of the best passing offenses in the country. Led by Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers are ranked fifth in passing yards per game and fourth in passing efficiency. Their win over Vanderbilt is slightly devalued after the way Houston defeated the Commodores on Saturday, but WKU can boast that they did it on the road. The Florida schools left on their schedule should provide little resistance, making the home game against the Herd a winner-take-all affair between competing styles of success that will determine which remains in the hunt for the Access Bowl bert.
10. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/6-3)
- LAST RANKING: 8th
- LAST WEEK: won 41-17 at Colorado State
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 14 v. Wyoming
San Diego State has been dependent on defense and Donnell Pumphrey for its success in 2015, and so far it has been working satisfactorily for the Aztecs. The most recent victim was Colorado State, with Pumphrey racking up 121 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Maxwell Smith efficiently managing the game to the tune of 11-of-14 passing for 180 yards and a score. The defense allowed 368 yards, but forced four turnovers as the Rams failed to get anything started.
Wyoming, UNLV, and Nevada (combined record: 7-18) are the only three teams remaining on SDSU’s regular season schedule, meaning that the next real challenge is likely to come in the Mountain West championship game. Having already crushed Utah State, the Aztecs should be hoping for Air Force or Boise State to emerge atop the Mountain Division standings in order to provide a unique opponent for the championship. The Broncos would provide the biggest statement opportunity, but either would offer a chance not just at a 10-win season but potentially a major bowl game as well.
11. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/6-1)
- LAST RANKING: 9th
- LAST WEEK: won 29-17 v. South Florida
- NEXT WEEK: Nov. 7 at Memphis
The Midshipmen have been buried behind Memphis and Houston in the national consciousness thanks to those two teams’ recent statement victories over Power Five schools and their unblemished records. But Navy is just as much in the AAC West hunt as those two schools, with their only loss coming to the same Notre Dame team that dealt Temple its first defeat. The Middies are benefitting from the fifth-best turnover margin in the country and the fourth-best rushing offense to reach 6-1.
They have plenty of chances to rise up the latter in the next month. Navy heads west to take on Memphis next weekend, and they also have to take on Houston on the road. The one thing that could throw a wrench into the system is the December 12 game against Army in Philadelphia. Coming as it does after the scheduled final CFP selection committee rankings and the bowl selection show, there are stipulations to postpone Access Bowl selection if the Middies are still in the running. We’ll know beforehand, since the AAC title game will be played on December 5.
T-12. Utah State Aggies (MWC/5-3)
- LAST RANKING: 18th
- LAST WEEK: won 58-27 v. Wyoming
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 at New Mexico
T-12. Air Force Falcons (MWC/5-3)
- LAST RANKING: 15th
- LAST WEEK: won 58-7 at Hawaii
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 v. Army
Utah State is at once in the best of positions and the worst of positions. They have already conquered Boise State to eliminate the biggest obstacle in the path to the MWC Mountain title. Then the Aggies went and lost by just as embarrassing a score at San Diego State, and now USU is on shaky ground in a three-way tie in the division standings. Matt Wells continues to cobble together an injured squad in a way that has kept the Aggies competitive, and Utah State has been far less consistent than might be expected because of the shuffling. New Mexico presents a possible trap before USU visits Air Force in a division elimination game.
Air Force won’t get a chance to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after losing to Navy, but they still have a conference title within reach. If they get past Utah State on November 14, they will have to turn around and travel to the Smurf Turf in Boise six days later for the chance to take the division title outright against the Broncos. A top-three rushing attack and a decent defense will keep the Falcons in every game, but the lack of a statement victory will make it hard to compete with teams like Houston and Toledo for the Access Bowl spot.
In the end, neither of these teams is likely to climb too high unless every other conference champion has lost at least twice. But we will get a good gauge of which is superior when they meet in two weeks in Colorado Springs; win and Utah State is as good as the division champ, while Air Force will still have more work to do to secure the crown.
T-14. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/6-3)
- LAST RANKING: 11th
- LAST WEEK: won 42-17 at Rice
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 7 v. North Texas
T-14. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/6-3)
- LAST RANKING: 17th
- LAST WEEK: won 34-13 v. UTEP
- NEXT GAME: Nov. 14 at Rice
Conference USA is wide open this season, with a pair of contenders in each division. We’ve already talked about Marshall and Western Kentucky, but in the West an equally compelling November 28 showdown is emerging that is likely to serve as a de facto division championship game.
The Bulldogs took care of business at Rice last weekend, and the offense is running on all cylinders under the stewardship of Florida transfer Jeff Driskel, who had 320 yards and four more touchdowns agains the Owls to add to his top-20 passing totals on the season. Interestingly, though, the defense is far better against the run than the pass despite getting to practice against Driskel and crew on a weekly basis.
That could prove costly against a Southern Miss team that has finally emerged out of the shadows of its recent swoon to reclaim a spot among the higher-tier mid-major programs. Wedding a top-15 offense with a top-50 defense, the Golden Eagles have an identical record to Louisiana Tech and has a bye week before taking on Rice on November 14. Nick Mullens has already surpassed last year’s stats with three games to go, and Southern Miss could be on the way to its first double-digit win total since upsetting Houston for the C-USA championship in 2011. That, of course, would also require upsetting either Marshall or WKU in the title game, much like 2011. It would be highly unlikely that this would be enough against a field of champions that might continue two undefeated teams and Boise State, however.
Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/6-2)
Western Michigan Broncos (MAC/5-3)
Arkansas State Red Wolves (SUN/5-3)
Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/5-3)
Ohio Bobcats (MAC/5-3)
Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC/5-3)