For every contender left in the Access Bowl race in 2015, just one plot point remains for each of them as they all strive to present the strongest possible resume for the College Football Playoff selection committee to parse through. Four of the Group of Five conferences have winnowed down to their final two hopefuls in the race for the league title; only the Sun Belt provides a different methodology that throws their chances into murkier waters. (See more below)
This week, as we prepare for Championship Weekend and the final selections, the Access Bowl Power Rankings will focus with greatest detail on the nine teams with clear-cut chances to win outright conference titles from one of the Group of Five leagues. We will also look at those teams that are gone but not forgotten, and which will enter 2016 right back in the hunt for the New Year’s Six bid guaranteed to the best mid-major program of the season.
This season, though, the composition of the league title games means that the bid to either the Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl will almost certainly go to the champion of the American Athletic Conference. Barring a strange occurrence in that game coupled with a massive blowout by one of the secondary hopefuls, there is no way that the winner between Houston and Temple will be shut out of the system. Thus what follows is mostly academic, but no less fun, as we dive into the Access Bowl Power Rankings for Week 13…
1. Houston Cougars (AAC/11-1)
- LAST WEEK: won 52-31 v. Navy
- NEXT WEEK: Dec. 5 v. Temple (AAC Championship in Houston)
On friendly turf in TDECU Stadium, the Cougars made short work of the Midshipmen to claim the AAC West title on Friday. Against a disciplined Navy team that entered the game ranked 15th by the CFP selection committee, Tom Herman’s team put up 555 total yards of offense and yet again won the turnover battle in the emphatic 52-31 victory. Greg Ward Jr. was back from the start, after injuries had kept him out most of the past two games. They rebounded from the disappointment of losing to Connecticut on the road last week — a game in which Ward only entered at the end when his backup, Kyle Postma, himself went down with injury — to put on a decisive display that left no question about their status as the favorite to claim the AAC title and earn the selection as the top Group of Five champion.
For the Cougars, next week’s home game for the AAC championship effectively serves as a win-and-they’re-in game for Houston to reach the New Year’s Six. Of course, the Cougars have been in this position before, back when they were still a member of Conference USA. They’ll have to avoid a similar letdown to the 2011 game that saw Southern Miss pip their shot at a BCS berth, and the Temple team they’ll play for the title is even better than the Golden Eagles squad that ruined Kevin Sumlin’s last game with the Cougars. Win that game, and the UConn loss will be superseded by victories over Louisville and Vanderbilt along with Memphis, Cincinnati, and Navy in conference play. Despite the loss on the road, Houston went 7-1 in conference with an average 41-23 scoreline.
2. Temple Owls (AAC/10-2)
- LAST WEEK: won 27-3 v. Connecticut/strong>
- NEXT WEEK: Dec. 5 at Houston (AAC Championship in Houston)
The Owls had to win their last game of the season to ensure their place in the inaugural AAC championship game, and they had to win it against the very UConn team that tripped up Houston the previous weekend. Temple had no such problem, rolling to a 27-3 victory to become just the third mid-major this season to reach 10 wins prior to the championship games. Matt Rhule’s team continues to win with a stout defense and an efficient, well-balanced offense; against the Huskies, the Owls put up 160 passing yards and 161 rushing yards while allowing just 138 total yards by UConn’s offense (including just nine rushing yards on 26 attempts). It was a masterful performance by a team that has the resume to compete head-to-head with Houston for not just the AAC title but the Access Bowl berth.
Though they suffered a defeat against South Florida (that would have allowed the Bulls to steal away the AAC East title had Temple lost to UConn on Saturday), Temple’s only other loss came in a 24-20 nailbiter against Notre Dame. Temple’s 21-point loss to the Bulls still lingers, but their average AAC game finished in a 35-21 victory and they also had a resume-building 27-10 win over Penn State in the season opener that still stands as one of the best mid-major statements of the year. They already beat Memphis in cross-division play, and now they also have a chance to take down another top West team in what effectively amounts to a New Year’s Six play-in game. Barring a decisive win by another conference champion, the Access Bowl is coming down to next week’s game in Texas.
3. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/10-2)
- LAST WEEK: won 49-28 v. Marshall
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 5 v. Southern Miss (C-USA Championship in Bowling Green, KY)
The result was never as close as last season’s thriller in Huntington, as Western Kentucky dominated Marshall on Friday to ensure one more game in their home stadium in 2015. With the 49-28 pasting of the Thundering Herd, WKU claimed the C-USA East title and set up a date with Louisiana Tech/Southern Miss for the conference championship next weekend. The win capped off a perfect regular season in conference play, making them one of just three mid-major teams left that are still sporting unblemished league records. (Clemson, North Carolina, and Iowa are the only ones that can boast the same among the Power Five schools.) Nobody in the AAC can make such a claim, which might help the Hilltoppers’ case in front of the committee.
Of course, they can also boast a victory over Vanderbilt just like Houston, but the Hilltoppers lost their other two opportunities to claim statement wins over Power Five schools — a three-point loss at Indiana, followed a month later by a four-touchdown defeat at LSU. Neither are damning, and an 11-2 WKU squad would have a case to make against everyone except Houston. Their utter dominance in conference speaks to the fact that they are playing on a higher level than most mid-majors. In the run to 8-0, Western Kentucky won by single digits only once, in the home opener against Louisiana Tech, and won by an average score of 51-24 that included six wins with a margin of victory over 20 points.
4. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/9-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 48-10 at Ball State
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 4. v. Northern Illinois (MAC Championship in Detroit)
The Falcons had already sealed their spot in the MAC championship game last week despite losing to Toledo, but they proved their worth with a Tuesday night rebound victory at Ball State. The 48-10 pasting left no doubt as to their position as the top team in the MAC East. Matt Johnson’s two passing touchdowns and short scoring punch on the ground fueled the road win against the Cardinals, keeping a 10-3 season on the table for Bowling Green. In just 22 minutes and change, the Falcons amassed 576 yards of offense — just above the team’s season average of 566 yards and 44 points per game.
Now they have to prepare for Northern Illinois, their chance to take on Toledo in a neutral-site rematch stolen away by the Rockets’ home loss against Western Michigan on Friday. Bowling Green will be the heavy favorite at Ford Field against the Huskies, despite NIU’s six-year streak of reaching the game… but for Bowling Green to be seriously considered above a team like Houston or Western Kentucky, they will need to not only beat Northern Illinois but crush Rod Carey’s charges. Their 7-1 conference record features the largest conference margin of defeat of any major contender, throwing off an average score of 47-22 in conference games. Only a blowout would force the selection committee to give them serious consideration if the teams above them both win their respective conference championships.
5. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/9-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 31-14 v. Nevada
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 5 v. Air Force (MWC Championship in San Diego)
After all indications throughout the season revealed the MWC West division to be a pretender to the stacked Mountain division, we arrive in December with the West champion as the favorite in this year’s MWC championship game. San Diego State earned the chance to host the title game after Air Force bombed against New Mexico in the final game of the regular season (more on that below), providing home-field advantage and far better weather conditions. But even with a MWC title, San Diego State will still have a lot of work to make up if they are going to trump the champions of several other Group of Five conferences for the Access Bowl spot.
After all, this is a team that opened the season 1-3 before rattling off eight straight conference wins. Two of those defeats came against Cal and Penn State on the road… which isn’t necessarily a marked blemish on the record, but it also means that the Aztecs lack a statement win over Power Five competition to compare against the other conference champs. Their defense was the best among Access Bowl contenders, allowing an average of just 11 points per game against Mountain West competition. But San Diego State also has a home loss against South Alabama on its record; had the Jaguars contended for the Sun Belt title, such a defeat would not be as significant, but given that Joey Jones’ team needs to beat Appalachian State next week just to become bowl eligible the loss looks far more damning.
6. Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/9-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 58-24 at Louisiana Tech
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 5 at Western Kentucky (C-USA Championship in Bowling Green, KY)
On October 9, Southern Miss fell 31-10 at Marshall to fall to 3-3 on the season. Since that point, the Golden Eagles have reeled off six straight wins. The last came on Saturday, as Southern Miss went on the road and obliterated Louisiana Tech 58-24 in a de facto division championship game. The Eagles’ defense held the Bulldogs to negative rushing yardage and forced seven turnovers in the blowout, and racked up 555 total yards of offense on the other side of the ball. Nick Mullens threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns, tailback Ito Smith ran for 169 yards and three scores on the ground, and after going 4-32 over the past three seasons since Larry Fedora left Hattiesburg the Golden Eagles are back in a big way.
They still face an uphill battle against Western Kentucky just to claim the Conference USA championship, and even if Southern Miss does upset the Hilltoppers on the road next week it will likely still have little influence on the selection committee. Losses at home to Mississippi State and on the road at Nebraska prevented the Golden Eagles from notching a statement victory over a Power Five team, and WKU’s win over Marshall prevented Southern Miss from having a chance to avenge their only conference defeat of the season. The did win by an average 44-18 score in conference, erasing even that three-touchdown loss to the Herd with dominance the rest of the way. Much like they did against Houston four years ago in this game with Houston’s shot at the BCS, Southern Miss effectively has the chance to eliminate its own league from Access Bowl contention but little shot of its own.
7. Air Force Falcons (MWC/8-4)
- LAST WEEK: lost 47-35 at New Mexico
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 5 at San Diego State (MWC Championship in San Diego)
The Falcons had the chance to enter the Mountain West championship game with real momentum after knocking off Utah State and Boise State (the latter in Idaho, no less) over the previous fortnight. Then Air Force traveled to New Mexico, and the magic evaporated against a Lobos squad that pulled off its own trifecta of wins against the top teams in the MWC Mountain. The loss relegated the Falcons to visitor status for the MWC championship game, as the computer rankings used to determine home-field advantage tipped in favor of San Diego State after AFA suffered its second division defeat of the season.
Troy Calhoun’s crew benefitted from a solid but fairly even season in which four of the six Mountain teams finished with 5-3 records, as parity served as the buzzword for the division in 2015. Other than back-to-back wins against Fresno State and at Hawaii midway through the season, the Falcons have done little to showcase themselves as a truly dominant mid-major presence this season. The wins over Utah State and Boise State, we now know, were the product as much of down years for those schools as they were of any overpowering ability of Air Force to dominate the showdowns. While they score around the same number of points as San Diego State per game, the Falcons allow more than twice as many… making them the heavy underdog as they head to California next week, and a likely afterthought in the Access Bowl race even if they win the Mountain West.
8. Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/8-4)
- LAST WEEK: lost 26-21 v. Ohio
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 4. v. Bowling Green (MAC Championship in Detroit)
The Huskies lost their Tuesday night showdown with Ohio, falling 26-21 at home to open the door for Toledo in the MAC West race. Then the Rockets went out and fell at home to Western Michigan 35-30, and Northern Illinois was handed the gift of a sixth straight division championship and a chance to play for the school’s fourth conference crown in the past five years. Rod Carey’s squad is hardly a powerhouse in the mold of previous vintages that busted the BCS in the most improbable fashion possible. Even if they manage to knock off Bowling Green as a heavy underdog in Detroit, the Huskies will have a steep hill to climb to contend against the other conference champions from the Group of Five leagues. If anything, they need even more chaos than they needed to propel them to the Orange Bowl in 2012.
NIU already has two losses in conference, a 29-19 road loss at Central Michigan and the aforementioned loss in the home finale against the Bobcats. The Huskies have finished conference games by an average score of 37-26, hardly a measure of dominance when considering their two losses in the mix. The Huskies also have moral victories but no actual statement wins from their two games against Power Five competition. Holding losing by just seven to Ohio State, and having a chance to force overtime at the end in the Horseshoe, is admirable… but losing a perfectly winnable game against Boston College might have the Huskies merely playing the spoiler role at Ford Field.
SUN BELT SPECIAL
The Sun Belt’s unique structure, as the only Group of Five league without at least a dozen teams divided into two divisions, means that its teams play final conference games when every other conference is playing championship games. That means that there is still no decisive decision to what is happening in the conference… not that it should matter much to the tenor of the Access Bowl race. Even if Arkansas State wins the league as the undisputed, unbeaten conference champion, a 9-3 record will likely have no chance to match up against the other Group of Five league winners.
Should the Red Wolves slip in the final weekend, a split championship will divide interest to the point that it completely kills the conference’s chance. In reality, the Sun Belt’s perception at this point is as the fulcrum between FCS and FBS football, serving as the entry point for teams like the Mountaineers and Eagles to leap up to I-A competition. Until they get more teams and play a championship game, they will have no real chance at claiming the Access Bowl berth… and even that will likely require a showdown of undefeated champions to pip the relative strength of leagues like the AAC and Mountain West in most years. Here is where each stand in the battle:
9. Arkansas State Red Wolves (SUN/8-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 52-28 at New Mexico State
- NEXT GAME: Dec. 5 v. Texas State
The Red Wolves are in the driver’s seat in the Sun Belt, with an undefeated record in conference play and a head-to-head win over Appalachian State. They rolled over New Mexico State on the road this weekend, and as long as they take care of business next Saturday against Texas State they will end the year as the undisputed league champ. Even should they manage such a feat, they will still have one fewer data point than every other champion, and will already have three losses on the record. The Sun Belt is generally considered the easiest league to navigate, further dissipating the impact of that unbeaten record in conference play.
Even a win next week against the Bobcats won’t make much headway against the other conference champions from the Group of Five leagues. Lose and things devolve into the chaos discussed below. Win and there is still little to respect. With the 52-28 win over the Aggies on Saturday, Arkansas State has won its seven conference games by an average margin of victory of 19 points. It is hardly dominant enough to make up for losses to USC, Missouri, and Toledo out of conference.
14. Appalachian State Mountaineers (SUN/9-2)
Technically the Mountaineers are still alive for a share of the Sun Belt championship, with one more week to play in the league. At 9-2, Appalachian State has the best record… but a loss to Arkansas State means that the Mountaineers must win next week and hope the Red Wolves lose to provide an opening to splitting the league title. Whether or not they end up earning a share of the title, though, this year was still a success in Boone. Appalachian State will play in a bowl game in its first season as a full FBS member, win or lose this week.
17. Georgia Southern Eagles (SUN/8-3)
Even if the Eagles were to split the Sun Belt championship with Arkansas State and Appalachian State, they would still be the odd man out as the only team with a winless record in common games against one another. A year after running undefeated through conference play, 2015 has to be disappointing for Georgia Southern. At least they will be able to placate themselves with the first bowl berth in school history after being denied the chance last year as a transitional program. That is something to crow about, at least, even though a second straight Sun Belt title is out of reach.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
These teams have zero shot at their conference titles, and most will merely be waiting to see which bowl games they get to play in this year. But hope still lingers at each of these schools, both for the upcoming postseason and into 2016 and beyond.
10. Navy Midshipmen (AAC/9-2)
Losing out on a surefire shot at the Naval Academy’s first major bowl game since the 1964 Cotton Bowl is painful, but the Midshipmen still have the traditional Army-Navy Game to play next week in Philadelphia. A 14th straight win against the Cadets would give Navy its first 10-win season since 2009, and a victory in their bowl game would make this Navy team the first 11-win squad ever. While losing to Houston in a de facto AAC West division championship hurts, Keenan Reynolds and crew will graduate among the most accomplished Middies in the program’s long and distinguished history.
11. Memphis Tigers (AAC/9-3)
Sure, it is a hell of a disappointment to miss out on the AAC championship game and what would have almost assuredly have been a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game had they reached the game and won the conference. But while the Tigers were decisively defeated by Navy and Temple and lost that heartbreaker to Houston, they did also manage to make Bowling Green sweat out its own Access Bowl hopes and claimed two Power Five victories, over Kansas on the road (not so impressive) and at home against Ole Miss (hugely impressive). They’ll likely lose Justin Fuente before the bowl game to the Virginia Tech job, but there is plenty for a new head coach to build upon in Memphis.
12. Toledo Rockets (MAC/9-2)
The MAC West was there for the taking after Northern Illinois improbably lost to Ohio on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, but the Rockets couldn’t close the deal against Western Michigan and let the division slip through their fingertips. At 9-2, Toledo would have provided the MAC with a far better chance of claiming the Access Bowl (either as a 10-2 champion or as another quality win for Bowling Green). Instead they will have to settle for whichever minor bowl game to which they land an invite, where they will have the opportunity to post the first 10-win season for the program since 2001.
13. Marshall Thundering Herd (C-USA/9-3)
Once again the Thundering Herd had a perfectly respectable season. Once again, they fell short against the Hilltoppers. This year it meant the difference between a shot at the C-USA title, though, making this season far more disappointing than last year’s run to near-perfection that fell short against WKU. The Herd had already bombed at Ohio and at Middle Tennessee before the season-ending defeat, though, which had rendered any shot at the Access Bowl pretty much moot whether or not they won Conference USA. They’ll still go bowling and have a shot at a third consecutive 10-win season, but the bigger dreams have once again been thwarted.
14. Appalachian State (see above)
15. Boise State Broncos (MWC/8-4)
A year after knocking off Arizona for its third Fiesta Bowl victory in three tries, Boise State fell off a cliff in 2015. The Broncos knocked off Washington and Virginia for two statement wins over Power Five teams, but they fell on the road to BYU in Week 2 to blemish the dreams of perfection that seemed viable in the preseason. More unsettling for Bryan Harsin’s team is the fact that Boise State went just 5-3 in Mountain West play this season, not only losing on the road (52-26 at Utah State) but also suffering back-to-back losses on the Smurf Turf against New Mexico (31-24) and Air Force (37-30).
16. South Florida Bulls (AAC/8-4)
The Bulls didn’t get the Temple loss they needed to vault into the inaugural AAC championship game, but it has still been a successful season in Tampa. After years of longing for a return to respectability, South Florida will be going back to a bowl game for the first time since making a string of six straight postseason appearances from 2005 to 2010. While the New Year’s Six might have been too lofty a height to reach in 2015, the experience gained by this roster will bode well for its continued chance to contend for future AAC titles in the coming seasons.
17. Georgia Southern (see above)
18. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA/8-4)
The Bulldogs had the door wide open to walk into the C-USA championship game and face the one team that had defeated it early in conference play. Instead, they watched the opportunity go up in flames with a blowout loss at home to Southern Miss, handing the Golden Eagles the division title in the process. It was a disappointing way to end a promising regular season that featured transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel leading a potent offense. But with missed opportunities at Kansas State (loss in overtime) and at Mississippi State (definitive defeat), there wasn’t much of a ceiling anyway for Louisiana Tech in 2015.
19. Western Michigan Broncos (MAC/7-5)
The other Broncos that were left to play spoiler did their job admirably, as WMU ended Toledo’s dream of a MAC championship and the Access Bowl berth with a 35-30 road victory on Black Friday at the Glass Dome. Western Michigan ensured its bowl eligibility for the second straight season by claiming that seventh victory, but the Broncos couldn’t take advantage of a down year in the MAC West to claim a spot in Detroit after falling to 1-3 in September non-conference play and dropping games to Bowling Green and NIU down the stretch. As such, regardless of how the bowl game ends, it was a solid but unspectacular season in Kalamazoo.