In the new world of the College Football Playoff system, the top champion from one of the “Group of 5” conferences is guaranteed a berth in one of the CFP at-large bowl games, assuming that team is not selected to play in the CFP. Last year the committee selected Boise State for that Group of 5 bowl berth and the Broncos beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
Periodically College Football America will check in with the Group of 5 conferences — the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt Conference — and handicap the Top 5 teams with a shot at that berth.
After three weeks, here are the five “Group of 5” teams that seem the most likely to claim that berth.
The Tigers are 4-0 for the first time since the 1960s. That’s big news in Memphis, where the Tigers are coming off claiming a share of the American Athletic championship a year ago and appear on their way to dominating the league this year. The Tigers needed all they had to defeat one of their American Athletic contenders, Cincinnati, on Thursday night. The Tigers have a solid chance at an 11-1 regular season, as their Oct. 17 matchup with Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., would appear to be the only sure loss on the schedule. Sandwiched around it are its remaining American contests, with Navy, Houston and Temple sticking out as their most difficult remaining games. All three of those games are back-to-back-to-back. So the Tigers can’t put it on cruise control just yet. But I could see them winning the conference with just one loss, and that puts them in contention.
The Rockets are one of the few Group of 5 teams that has a road SEC win, having upended the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville, Ark., two weeks ago. Then they returned home and notched a second Power 5 win over Iowa State. It will be hard to find a Group of 5 team with two Power 5 wins on their resume, one of which is on the road, by season’s end. This week’s game against Arkansas State is against one of the best in the Sun Belt. After that the Rockets get into the meat of Mid-American Conference action. November will be brutal — Nov. 3 at home against Northern Illinois, a game College Football America will cover; Nov. 17 at Bowling Green and Nov. 27 hosting Western Michigan. Survive that road, plus the MAC title game, and the Rockets would be 12-0. Would the committee then send them to a New Year’s Day bowl game? Or the Bahamas?
Northern Illinois (2-1)
Remember — it’s the top conference champion in the committee’s eyes, and NIU dominates this league year after year. The Huskies are coming off an near-earth shattering upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus last weekend. The committee will remember that. They’ll also remember what the Huskies do this weekend against Boston College. They need a win over a Power 5 and that’s their only remaining chance. In Mid-American Conference play Toledo and Western Michigan (Nov. 18) look like their toughest games. I could see an 11-2 Huskies team getting the berth, especially if they win the MAC.
Boise State (2-1)
I don’t believe the committee will hold that nine-point loss to BYU against the Broncos. Why? Because by week’s end they could have a pair of wins over Power 5 teams. The Broncos already beat Washington and face Virginia this weekend. That would make them 3-1 entering Mountain West play. The early schedule in league action is tough — consecutive road games against Colorado State and Utah State (though with quarterback Chuckie Keeton now out, this game might be a tad easier to win). Survive those and the schedule gets more manageable. I could see the Broncos finishing 12-1 or 11-2 and winning this league. So they could snag that Group of 5 berth again.
Temple? Seriously? Yep, it’s time to take the Owls a tad seriously. Remember — they beat Penn State in the season opener at home and they followed that with a win over Cincinnati. The Owls haven’t been in this kind of position in decades, so it will be interesting to see how they handle this. The Owls aren’t going to go undefeated — they play Notre Dame on Oct. 31 — but the rest of the schedule is filled with conference rivals and an Oct. 2 non-conference game with Charlotte that should be a walk. Can Temple get to the end of this with an 11-1 league record, an East Division title and a conference title game berth? And could it be against Memphis? Now that would be fun.
The next five
Here are five mid-majors we’ll track before our next update in two weeks:
Cincinnati (2-2): Even with two losses the Bearcats could still win the American Athletic. All the Bearcats must do is win the East Division and the conference title game.
Houston (2-0): Impressive road win over Louisville. Cougars get a crack at another Power 5 win vs. Vanderbilt Oct. 24. Houston’s league schedule is as tough as they come, though.
Bowling Green (1-2): Loss to Tennessee. Win over Maryland. Loss to Memphis. Purdue this week. The Falcons can score points in bushels and don’t have to play Northern Illinois in MAC action.
Western Kentucky (2-1): Beat Vandy in the opener. Losing to Indiana last weekend was an opportunity lost. Could still finish 10-2 and reach the Conference USA title game, though. It’s a manageable slate. Well, except for that LSU game on Oct. 24.
Georgia Southern (2-1): If anyone comes out of the Sun Belt it will be the Eagles, who were undefeated in SBC play last year. Their only loss is to West Virginia. Their best win is over Western Michigan. So the Eagles are big Broncos fans when it comes to MAC play.