Everything is set, with all 40 bowl matchups now set in stone for the 2015 season. We now know that the American Athletic Conference was the undisputed king of the mid-major conferences, that Conference USA and the MAC overtook the Mountain West in the pecking order, and that the Sun Belt is still the caboose of the FBS leagues.
Let’s not waste too much time in platitudes at the top; there will be plenty of time for that as we break down each team. Here is the final hierarchy prior to the bowl season among the Group of Five schools that contest the weekly Access Bowl Power Rankings here at Sports Unbiased…
1. Houston Cougars (AAC/12-1)
- LAST WEEK: won 24-13 v. Temple (AAC Championship in Houston)
- BOWL DESTINATION: Dec. 31 v. Florida State (Peach Bowl in Atlanta)
The scoreline belies how difficult this inaugural AAC championship game was for the Texan hosts. Temple had more offensive yards, first downs, and time of possession. The Owls were more disciplined, committing just two penalties all game compared to five for Houston. Matt Rhule’s squad was more efficient passing the ball, completing nearly 60 percent of their passes for an average of 6.5 yards per attempt — a full yard and a half higher than Houston’s average for the day. Temple also rattled off five drives of at least 50 yards. Of course, on those five drives Temple only walked away with 10 points total because they also had more turnovers, coughing up a fumble and an interception to an opportunistic Cougars defense that has ranked among the national leaders in turnover margin for the past few seasons.
Houston managed to keep the Owls one-dimensional on offense, leaving passing lanes open but clogging the middle and holding Temple under 100 rushing yards in the game. At the same time, they largely abandoned their own passing game in favor of a relentless ground attack that chewed up yardage and led to three touchdowns. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. had an uneventful day through the air, completing just over 50 percent of his passes for 88 yards, but he made up for it with 148 yards and two rushing scores. Brandon Wilson and Javin Webb added another 91 yards and a score on the ground, showcasing a diverse Houston attack that is not dependent on any specific style of play.
It is that versatility that will have the Cougars playing in one of the New Year’s Six bowls. The berth in the Peach Bowl will be Houston’s first top-tier bowl game in over three decades, the last appearance coming in the 1985 Cotton Bowl Classic when the Cougars were still a member of the Southwest Conference. It caps a season where only an upset against Connecticut could prevent Tom Herman from completing a perfect campaign in his first season as a head coach. Had that happened, we might have seen Houston being considered not just for the Access Bowl but potentially a spot in the College Football Playoff itself.
Then again, it is instructive to remember that Houston would not have even qualified for a major bowl game in the BCS era, even with a conference championship and a 12-1 record. (They would have been ranked 15th in our calculations.) As it is, the loss to UConn — especially coming as late in the season as it did for the Cougars — would have been a death sentence for any mid-major’s big-time bowl dreams under the old system. We have moved on to an era of greater accessibility, so while 13-0 didn’t come to fruition Houston has still been rewarded for its exemplary regular season as American champion with a spot in Atlanta at the turn of the new year.
2. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA/11-2)
- LAST WEEK: won 45-28 v. Southern Miss (C-USA Championship in Bowling Green, KY)
- BOWL DESTINATION: Dec. 21 v. South Florida (Miami Beach Bowl in Miami)
Western Kentucky came out and turned an interception into seven points on their first drive of the Conference USA championship game at home on Saturday. Then they fell asleep, allowing Southern Miss to jump out to a 21-7 lead midway through the second quarter. The Hilltoppers pulled back two touchdowns in the final three minutes before halftime, though, and coming out of the locker room after the intermission Southern Miss still had the run of play as they retook the lead on their opening drive of the second half. Then WKU shifted into another gear, scoring 24 points in its final four full possessions to run away with a 45-28 victory.
In the process Brandon Doughty had another high-volume performance, completing 34 of his 52 attempts for 410 yards and three touchdowns and running in another score on the ground. The Hilltoppers held the ball for 10 more minutes than the Golden Eagles, piled up 10 more first downs and 180 more yards of offense. Doughty had one interception, but the defense bailed him out by picking off three Nick Mullens passes and forced a fumble. On a day when WKU had only two penalties in the entire 60 minutes, they weathered the best Southern Miss could offer and still came out far ahead of the Golden Eagles in the end.
In just its second season as a member of Conference USA, Western Kentucky has now won its first conference title since 2002, when the Hilltoppers were in the I-AA Gateway conference and romped to the program’s only national championship. Despite the fact that this will be the sixth time since 2007 that WKU has reached bowl eligibility, this will be just the third time that the Hilltoppers have actually managed to play in a postseason contest. It is the culmination of a concerted effort to make waves at the FBS level that began with David Elson less than a decade ago. Following up on the successes of Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino in Bowling Green, Jeff Brohm put everything together this season to claim that elusive crown.
Now the Hilltoppers will take on their former head coach when WKU heads to the Miami Beach Bowl to take on Taggart and the South Florida Bulls.
3. Bowling Green Falcons (MAC/10-3)
- LAST WEEK: won MAC Championship 34-14 v. Northern Illinois (in Detroit)
- POSSIBLE BOWL DESTINATIONS: Dec. 23 v. Georgia Southern (GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile)
Bowling Green came out flat on its first few drives against Northern Illinois in Friday’s MAC championship game at Ford Field in Detroit, going three-and-out on its first drive and gaining two quick first downs before stalling out and punting again. Even after putting together a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on its third chance with the ball, the Falcons continued to bog down on offense. Only as time wound down toward halftime did Bowling Green finally awaken, nabbing two quick touchdowns after the Falcons defense forced a fumble for a short field and turned around on the next NIU drive and forced the Huskies to punt immediately.
On a night when standout quarterback Matt Johnson looked downright ordinary (at best, by his standards) it was the running game that carried the day against the Huskies. Starting back Travis Greene hauled the ball 29 times for 187 yards and two scores, backup Fred Coppet carried another 16 times for 85 yards and the opening touchdown, and Bowling Green finished the game with 266 yards rushing while averaging almost exactly five yards a carry. By comparison, Johnson — second nationally this season in averaging 372 passing yards per game — threw for just 235 yards on the day and two touchdowns. He also tossed two uncharacteristic interceptions.
The Falcons put up a fairly emphatic statement, showcasing its lesser-heralded units with a strong rushing game and a powerful display by a defense that allowed NIU to compile just 259 total yards while coughing up five turnovers. Penalties cost Bowling Green from even more points, most glaringly late in the game when Greene busted off a run from inside the Falcons 40 and had it called back on a flag. As good as Dino Babers’ crew has been both throughout the season and specifically in this final statement, though, the cards were stacked entering the weekend thanks to the three losses already on their record.
Instead of encountering another conference champion, Bowling Green will take on a Georgia Southern team that is appearing in its first ever bowl game and will probably be far more motivated for the trip to Mobile. Babers won’t be with the team in Alabama, though, as he is headed to take over the head post at Syracuse. Defensive coordinator Brian Ward has been tabbed to serve as interim coach in the bowl game. This will be Matt Johnson’s final game leading the Falcons offense, and despite the disappointment of losing their head coach and missing out on a bigger bowl game, there will be plenty of motivation to reach 11 wins for the first time since 2003.
4. San Diego State Aztecs (MWC/10-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 27-24 v. Air Force (MWC Championship in San Diego)
- BOWL DESTINATION: Dec. 24 v. Cincinnati (Hawai’i Bowl in Honolulu)
Air Force was able to nab the first score in San Diego on Saturday, but the Aztecs traded punches throughout the night with the Falcons. At halftime the score was 10-10; the two sides swapped touchdowns to start the third and fourth quarters, keeping the game level at 24 apiece as time wound down in regulation. Air Force held standout tailback Donnell Pumphrey to just 90 yards on 16 carries, but they were thwarted by a multifaceted rushing attack that piled up 233 total yards and two touchdowns. Christian Chapman was able to respond to the Falcons’ focus on the ground game by completing 9-of-14 attempts for 203 yards and a passing touchdown.
And a 46-yard field goal by Donny Hageman, with five minutes left in the game, proved the difference in a close affair. The three-point win finished a perfect league campaign for the conference champion, as San Diego State survived a night where they committed more penalties, gave up the only turnover, and allowed Air Force to ramp up its trademark triple-option rushing attack effectively for over 300 yards on the ground. The defense held firm against the Falcons, bending but not breaking as they held AFA to a 2-of-11 success rate on third-down attempts and completely eliminated the passing game from the Mountain Division winner’s arsenal.
In the process Rocky Long’s squad turned around a season that started in September with a 1-3 record in non-conference play, the only win coming against FCS San Diego as the Aztecs lost not only to Cal and Penn State on the road but also to a South Alabama team that finished its year tied for fifth in the Sun Belt table with a 5-7 record. While the lack of any sort of statement win — SDSU played Colorado State, Utah State, and Wyoming in interdivisional contests, avoiding both Air Force and Boise State during the regular seasion — ultimately doomed Long’s crew from having any chance at squeaking into the Access Bowl discussion, it is nevertheless a solid campaign as the win in the Mountain West championship secured the school’s first 10-win season since 1976.
The Aztecs now take on a strong Cincinnati team in the Hawai’i Bowl on Christmas Eve, getting the chance to rehabilitate the Mountain West’s image in the Group of Five hierarchy after a season where the league fell behind not just the AAC but also Conference USA and the MAC in the pecking order. Bowl season is hardly a foolproof referendum on league quality, given different teams’ motivation level and the vagaries of coaching changes (especially among the mid-major schools good enough to reach the postseason), but it at least provides a barometer for a team like San Diego State to continue hunting for what would be the first 11-win season for SDSU since the school’s perfect season in 1969.
5. Arkansas State Red Wolves (SUN/9-3)
- LAST WEEK: won 55-17 v. Texas State
- BOWL DESTINATION: Dec. 19 v. Louisiana Tech (New Orleans Bowl in New Orleans)
The Red Wolves had the opportunity to nab an outright Sun Belt Conference championship against Texas State on the final day of the regular season, and they took full advantage in a 55-17 rout. The win made Blake Anderson the fourth straight head coach in the past five seasons to nab a conference championship, and set Arkansas State up to appear in its fifth straight bowl game. The win came courtesy of a slew of big performances on both offense and defense.
Senior quarterback Fredi Knighten was efficient both passing and running, completing 75 percent of his attempts for 196 yards and two touchdowns while also chipping in 18 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He was among five different ball carriers that scored on the ground for Arkansas State, as the Red Wolves racked up 343 rushing yards on the day. Money Hunter lived up to his moniker, returning a Tyler Jones interception 99 yards to make the score 20-0 in the second quarter just as Texas State was threatening to score. The defense all told generated three turnovers on the day, flipping the field position battle in the process and allowing the offense to execute with utmost efficiency.
Arkansas State was quietly among the 10 best scoring offenses in the country this season, averaging 41 points per game against its opponents even after accounting for lopsided losses to USC and Toledo and losing in a near-upset against Missouri. A potent rushing offense (14th nationally) and a strong secondary (28th in opponent passing efficiency) took the Red Wolves all the way back to the top of the Sun Belt after with much of the same personnel that looked largely underwhelming last season. The lack of a statement win, and the fact that Appalachian State has a better overall record despite losing head-to-head in Sun Belt play, made the Red Wolves less desirable as a possible Access Bowl candidate.
Instead they will be headed to the New Orleans Bowl for the first time since 2005 after spending the past four postseasons in Mobile. There they will take on a Louisiana Tech team that faded down the stretch and lost its chance at the Conference USA title with a loss in Week 13 against Southern Miss. It will be last game in Arkansas State regalia for Knighten and six other senior starters, providing ample motivation for the Red Wolves to come out and play strong against the Bulldogs in the Superdome. A victory in the Big Easy would make Anderson the third coach (after Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn) to lead Arkansas State to a 10-win season since 2011.
Falling at the Last Hurdle
There is obviously no shame in reaching a conference championship game and falling short. Merely claiming an opportunity to play for the title is honorable in itself. But it does mean that absolutely no reason remains in 2015 for dreamers to continue hoping for their favorite teams within this group to reach a major bowl game this season.
- Temple Owls (AAC/10-3) — Even before the conference championship game against Houston, the letdown had already commenced for the Owls. Temple knocked off Penn State in the opener to claim one of the biggest mid-major statement wins of the season, then followed it up with a 7-0 start that brought the ESPN crews to Philadelphia for the showdown between Matt Rhule’s crew and Notre Dame. Though they lost 24-20 to the Fighting Irish, Temple remained a strong contender in the hunt for the Access Bowl berth. Then they fell to division rival South Florida in Tampa on November 14, putting their spot in the AAC championship game in jeopardy. The Owls managed to rebound to win out in the regular season and head to Texas, but a stifling Cougars defense and a feisty Houston offense thwarted the New Year’s Six dream. Instead Temple will head to the Boca Raton Bowl, where they will face a Toledo team that also flamed out of contention earlier than expected.
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles (C-USA/9-4) — The Golden Eagles might be the team that exited Championship Weekend sickest about its performance with the Conference USA title on the line. On the road in Kentucky, Southern Miss looked like it was poised for an upset as it appeared they would take a two-touchdown lead into the locker room at halftime. Then they handed WKU all the momentum as the Hilltoppers scored twice late in the half to tie the score at the intermission. Once Western Kentucky responded to nullify the advantage, Southern Miss spiraled into a world of diminishing returns. They still get to go to the postseason for the first time since winning the 2011 C-USA title, taking on Washington in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
- Appalachian State Mountaineers (Sun Belt/10-2) — No team in the Sun Belt has a better overall record than the Mountaineers, but Appalachian State’s head-to-head loss against Arkansas State handed the Red Wolves the conference crown. Though they were unlikely to gain a share of the conference title, the Mountaineers still took advantage of a favorable road matchup against South Alabama to reach 10 wins in just their second FBS season. With their only losses coming against the Red Wolves and Clemson, the top seed in the College Football Playoff field, the season far exceeded expectations in Boone. Instead of a league title, Appalachian State’s reward for their season is a first-ever trip to a bowl game. They will head to Montgomery to square off against the Ohio Bobcats in the Camellia Bowl on the opening Saturday of the postseason.
- Air Force Falcons (MWC/8-5) — Air Force gave San Diego State a fight right through the final whistle, fiercely battling to keep the game close but coming up one field goal short on the road in the duel for the Mountain West title. The Falcons had a pendulum season, one in which they seemed to play both up and down to their competition depending on the weekend. Air Force knocked off both Boise State and Utah State to take the MWC Mountain honors, held College Football Playoff participant Michigan State within two touchdowns in East Lansing, and returned to a bowl for the eighth time in the past nine seasons. They also fell to Colorado State and New Mexico in division play, though, and fell to Navy in the battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. They lucked into a hell of a postseason prize, earning a trip to Fort Worth for a date with California.
- Northern Illinois Huskies (MAC/8-5) — NIU started to make the game interesting late in the third quarter, with a 32-yard touchdown pass and a 63-yard interception return in a three-and-a-half-minute span cutting the Bowling Green lead to 28-14 in the MAC championship. That was as close as the Huskies would get to repeating as conference champs, however, as another Falcons score put the game out of reach. The fact that Rod Carey’s squad was able to persevere and even reach its sixth consecutive MAC championship game was impressive in its own right, though, given the injuries that piled up through the season and the gap in depth between this and previous rosters. The consolation is the school’s eighth straight bowl trip, this time to the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego to face Boise State.
- Georgia Southern Eagles (Sun Belt/8-4) — Georgia Southern simply couldn’t manage to follow up last year’s perfect Sun Belt campaign with a repeat performance in 2015, though they will at least make an appearance in the school’s first bowl game after moving up as a transitional FBS member last year. A 44-0 blowout loss in Morgantown opened a roller-coaster season, as the Eagles responded to the defeat with five straight victories (including a 3-0 conference start). Then a trip to Boone exposed Georgia Southern as pretenders in a 31-13 loss. They nearly upset Georgia between the hedges, but they also got blown out on the first weekend of December by Georgia State. The consolation prize, after missing out on a second straight Sun Belt title, is a trip to Mobile to face Bowling Green in the GoDaddy Bowl.