As it turns out, UCF really is vulnerable. They finally suffered a regular-season loss, and in their next tough game, they lost again. That allowed Boise State to stretch their lead atop the Group of 5, though perhaps Cincinnati off that win over the Knights is their next challenger. For the foreseeable future, the AAC champ will always have an argument at the top of the Group of 5 conferences, and Cincy now seems to have the best shot at it. Appalachian State, who was nearly the first Sun Belt team to ever finish a season ranked last year, and Memphis and SMU, more teams in the hunt for the AAC crown, are lurking on the edges. To view last week’s rankings before what was an important and crazy week of college football (seriously did you see that Tulsa-SMU game? Go watch the highlights. Or lowlights, there was some mayhem involved in that one), click here. Let’s get into it.
#1. Boise State Broncos (Last Week: 1)
Boise State’s odds at winning the conference topped 50%, now sitting at 51.5% according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) as they went into Las Vegas and beat UNLV 38-13. They got another great defensive performance, headlined by three of their five sacks going to Curtis Weaver as the junior defensive end became the Mountain West Conference’s all-time leader in career sacks, now with 29.5. Freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier has a ways to go before we start thinking about career records for him, but he kept on a good track to get himself into the ballpark of those eventually with a 299-yard, two-touchdown performance while throwing 19-30 against the Rebels. It was a rough day for Robert Mahone, who had just thirteen rush yards on nine carries and lost a fumble, but their running game was bolstered by the efforts of George Holani, who gained 80 yards on the ground, though he’s still yet to get in the end zone this year, Akilian Butler’s 23-yard touchdown run on a reverse, and John Hightower, who needed just six touches (two carries, four receptions) to put up 156 yards of total offense including a 76-yard touchdown reception. Boise State went 7-0 in UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium, with a 3-0 record against the Rebels there and a 4-0 record in Las Vegas Bowls held in the stadium, which will no longer be in use as UNLV begins playing in Allegiant stadium, which will be shared with the Raiders of the NFL, next season. The Broncos now prepare for Hawai’i to come to Boise next week as a potential preview of the Mountain West championship game as Boise State and Hawai’i have the best odds in their respective divisions at winning the conference.
#2. Cincinnati Bearcats (4)
Cincy earned their first win over a ranked team since 2009, when they were playing in the Big East, were ranked #5 themselves and beat then-15th-ranked Pitt at Heinz field before losing to Florida in the Sugar Bowl and having head coach Brian Kelly leave for Notre Dame that offseason. Butch Jones kept them successful as the Big East slowly died after that, and the Tommy Tuberville era… happened, after Jones left for Tennessee, but Luke Fickell has the Bearcats back in a prominent position after knocking off UCF, 27-24, bringing them to 4-1 on the year and 15-3 dating back to the start of last season. Throwing the football was a struggle for both teams, as Desmond Ridder and Knights QB Dillon Gabriel both had QBR’s of under 30 in the game, with Ridder throwing for 149 yards, two touchdowns and a pick on 17-31 passing. Michael Warren II was their biggest source of offense despite not getting in the end zone, as he ran the ball 23 times for 133 yards including a huge 60-yard run to end the third quarter and set them up for the touchdown that put them ahead 27-16. That came just a few drives after Ahmad Gardner jumped a hook route and got a pick-six to give Cincy the lead. The defense forced four turnovers in the game, all by Gabriel (three interceptions and a fumble), and they were all huge impact points in the game, with the first interception coming on a second-and-goal play as the Knights were threatening to go up 10-0 in the first quarter. The lost fumble in the second quarter set up the Bearcats’ first touchdown in the game, which gave them a 10-6 lead at the time. The second interception was the pick-six by Gardner, and the third came as UCF was again in the red zone, with a 2nd-and-10 at Cincy’s 14-yard line when Gabriel threw a pass that ended up in the hands of Cincinnati linebacker Jarrell White, ending a drive where the Knights could have made it a one-score game with about twelve minutes to go. The Bearcats now head to Houston to face a struggling Cougar team coming off a bye week in what FPI projects to be their second-toughest remaining game behind only their season-ending trip to Memphis.
#3. Memphis Tigers (3)
The defense that looked surprisingly strong in the season-opening win over Ole Miss continues to be a concern, but the offense propelled them to victory anyway in a 52-33 triumph over Louisiana-Monroe. The 5-0 start to the season has them ranked #23 in the AP poll after they weren’t ranked at any point last year. Kenneth Gainwell led the Tigers with 209 yards rushing on just fourteen carries including touchdown runs of 40 and 68 yards. The 68-yarder came on the first play after ULM had cut the lead to six midway through the fourth quarter to boost Memphis’ lead back up to twelve with just over six minutes to play. On the Warhawks’ first play of their ensuing possession, La’Andre Thomas came up with an interception and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to all but seal the win. It was one of the very few defensive highlights in a game that saw both teams gain over 500 yards of total offense, and one of Memphis’ best defensive maneuvers of the game was executing an onside kick in the second quarter. Brady White continued to produce for the Tigers, throwing for 249 yards and three touchdowns with an interception on 15-23 passing. Memphis travels to Temple this week to kick off an interesting remainder of the season for them, where FPI has them as the favorite in every game (if you count a 50.4% chance to win against Cincy being the favorite), but projects them to end up 9-3 or 10-2 as they only have one game (at South Florida) where they’re given better than a 68% chance to win.
#4. Appalachian State Mountaineers (5)
Appalachian State is coming off a bye that’s really just half a week of extra rest on either side of their game this Wednesday against Louisiana. FPI thinks we’re likely to see a rematch of this game in the Sun Belt championship game, with Louisiana having the 7th-best odds of any team to win their conference and the Mountaineers owning the 10th-best odds at 39.6%. Most people expected App State to move in the wrong direction a bit with Scott Satterfield taking the head coaching job at Louisville this year, but so far they’ve kept up their dominance by going undefeated including a win over a Power 5 opponent in North Carolina. Their offense, powered by junior QB Zac Thomas (69-96, 802 yards, seven TDs, two INTs) and junior running back Darrynton Evans (67 carries, 471 yards, 7.0 yards per carry, nine touchdowns) will keep them in a game against anyone, as their lowest scoring output so far has been a 34-point performance against UNC, and Louisiana has a tough task ahead of them trying to keep this Mountaineer offense from going off. App State is given no less than a 70% chance to win the rest of their games in conference, and with Louisiana being in the West division it’s very likely that they would make it to the Sun Belt championship game even with a loss. The winner of this game puts themselves in the driver’s seat to host that championship game, so it’s still a very important game for both sides.
#5. UCF Knights (2)
UCF isn’t totally done for, but the loss to Cincinnati put a massive dent in their chances of winning the AAC for a third straight year. They have the third-best odds, per FPI, of winning out in their remaining schedule, at 33.5%, but their odds of winning the AAC dipped to 18.1% as they now need Cincy to lose at least twice to get to the championship game. It looks like a key for the Knights is going to be keeping Dillon Gabriel out of trouble, as this game and their loss to Pitt were the only games he was sacked multiple times or threw an interception, being dropped six times and throwing two picks against Pitt, and suffering 3 each of sacks and interceptions against the Bearcats. They actually outgained Cincinnati 423-341 in total yards, but the four total turnovers (as Gabriel also lost a fumble) were too much to overcome as they kept either spoiling their own scoring chances or setting Cincy up to score with their mistakes. Gabriel Davis had another big day receiving, catching thirteen passes for 170 yards. It marked his third consecutive game with over 100 receiving yards, but he failed to get in the end zone against Cincinnati after catching five touchdown passes the last two weeks. UCF gets a bye week to regroup, and the schedule gets easier from here with their only expected test the rest of the year being their game at Tulane on November 23rd. They’ll host ECU in their first game after the bye.
#6. SMU Mustangs (6)
It was an ugly, bad, sloppy, but very entertaining game as the Mustangs took on Tulsa playing as a ranked team for the first time since 1986. For the first three quarters, it almost looked like SMU was trying to lose, or at least everyone except Ar’mani Johnson, whose 64-yard pick six had provided about the only spark as the Mustangs headed into the fourth quarter down 30-9 but with the ball at 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line. They managed to punch the ball in for a score, one of six fourth down conversions they made in the game, and they proceeded to score on each of their next two drives to tie the game with about a minute remaining in regulation, and the Golden Hurricane didn’t try particularly hard to score to avoid overtime, where they would strike first with a touchdown pass on 3rd and goal. SMU would convert yet another fourth down on their way to a touchdown to force a second overtime, but fumbled the ball away, setting Tulsa up with a relatively pressure-free drive where any score would win the game. Jacob Rainey would miss his second field goal of the game, and hurt his knee as he drifted forward into a defender after the kick to try to get a running into the kicker call. That led them to bring out kickoff specialist Zack Long to attempt the first field goal of his career after they stalled out in triple overtime, and he also missed. Shane Buechele then found James Proche for his second touchdown catch of the game for the walk-off win. They’ll take this week off to recover from that wild game, and face Temple the following week after the bye.
#7. Toledo Rockets (10)
Toledo secured their place as favorites in the MAC with a win over Western Michigan, who appears to be their toughest competition in the West, this week. They took a 24-7 lead into halftime and hung on as the Broncos fought back in the second half to earn a 31-24 win. Bryant Koback proved too much for WMU to stop on the ground, as he racked up 177 yards on 21 carries for the Rockets, but he left the scoring to QB Mitchell Guadagni, who threw for two touchdowns while going 14-22 for 200 yards, and rushing for 39 more while picking up two more scores on the ground. The defense did a great job in slowing down the Broncos, being just the second team to hold them under 30 points so far this year, with the vaunted Michigan State defense being the first. They accomplished this by getting after WMU quarterback Jon Wassink, sacking him five times on the game and forcing an interception, though that was promptly negated when Kahlil Robinson fumbled on the return, giving the ball back to the Broncos. Freshman kicker Evan Davis recorded his first miss on a field goal attempt this year, as he failed to hit a 43-yarder going into halftime, and he now sits at 7-8 on field goal tries. The win boosted the Rockets’ odds of winning the MAC championship up to 56.8% according to FPI, and they travel to Bowling Green this week in the Battle of I-75 against a Falcons team that has yet to come within 28 points of an FBS opponent this year. The Falcons owned a lead in the rivalry back when this was the Battle for the Peace Pipe, but Toledo has won nine in a row, including all eight games since they switched to the Battle of I-75 Trophy, to take a 40-39-4 lead in the all-time series.
#8. BYU Cougars (7)
The Cougars are getting ready to go to Tampa to face South Florida in the first matchup ever between the two schools. This comes after a much-needed bye week following BYU’s grueling opening to the season, playing four Power 5 teams (Utah, @ Tennessee, USC, Washington) and then traveling to Toledo, who has looked like one of the better Group of 5 schools so far this year. After their trip to USF, the Cougars will get to stay in Utah for a month, with three home games around a trip to Utah State upcoming for them. BYU’s record isn’t going to be what other teams in this area of my rankings are, but going 7-5 with their schedule would be an accomplishment for any Group of 5 team, as their schedule was ranked as the toughest of any team not in one of the Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame with that rough start we mentioned, along with trips to Utah State, San Diego State and USF and hosting Boise State. Their defense has been their calling card so far, and if their offense can step up in big moments, this team could show why they said they didn’t need a conference and make the Mountain West, their most recent conference, look worse for wear without them by beating some of their top teams.
#9. Tulane Green Wave (15)
Football fans in New Orleans had gotten used to having to turn to LSU if they wanted a good college team to root for, with Tulane only having won eight or more games once since 1980, when Tommy Bowden took them to an undefeated C-USA crown and a Liberty Bowl win (coached by Chris Scelfo after Bowden took the head coaching job at Clemson) in 1998, and that team finished ranked #7 by the AP Poll. Willie Fritz has the Green Wave thinking about changing that, as they’re 4-1 after beating Army this week and FPI now projects them to win 8.1 games (before a bowl game). Tulane managed the rare feat of outrushing Army in the game, as they picked up 324 rush yards on the backs of five different players running for at least 40 yards while Army gained just 193 on the ground as they threw the ball an astounding and confusing 24 times. Justin McMillan was 15-21 through the air for 201 yards and a touchdown, though he did log a season-low nineteen rushing yards and lost two fumbles in the game. Amari Jones was the only Tulane player to find the end zone multiple times, as he had 65 rushing yards and a score on the ground to go along with 104 receiving yards including a 15-yard touchdown reception that was their first score of the game. Tulane hosts UConn next week in what should be a relatively easy game before heading to Memphis the following week.
#10. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (11)
The Rainbow Warriors took a bye week between their thrashing of Nevada and their upcoming trip to Boise State. Hawai’i has lit up opponents through their passing game thus far, as it seems they do every year, with Cole McDonald having thrown for 1629 yards and seventeen touchdowns so far while increasing his completion percentage from 58.9% last year to 68.9% so far in 2019. The only problem has been interceptions, as he’s already thrown nine after having ten all of last season. He had his first pick-free game this year against Nevada, and the Rainbow Warriors will hope he can play similarly mistake-free against Boise State as they’ll need him to be sharp if they want a chance to win. Another example of how potent their passing attack is is the fact that they have four wide receivers with over 300 receiving yards already, led by senior Cedric Byrd II, who has 498 yards and nine touchdowns highlighted by a 224-yard, four-touchdown performance in the season-opening win over Arizona. As we mentioned before, this week’s game against the Broncos could be a Mountain West championship preview, as Hawai’i is given no less than a 66.7% (or two-thirds) chance at winning each of their remaining games after this week at Boise.
#11. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (12)
Louisiana is coming off a bye week and is hosting Appalachian State in a huge early game for the Sun Belt on Wednesday. So far this year, they have a loss to an SEC team on a neutral field (against Mississippi State in New Orleans on August 31st) and no other team has played them closer than a 13-point win over Georgia Southern in their last game. The problem is their schedule. They haven’t beaten a team ranked in the top 90 by FPI yet and they only have two shots at teams currently ranked at least that high, this week against App State and next week at Arkansas State (who’s only 87). That’s fine if they end up 10-2 or 11-1 and playing in the Sun Belt championship game (FPI gives them a 14.7% chance of winning out that would include a win in the championship game, making them 12-1), less fine if they stumble and end up 9-3 or 8-4 and end up second or third in the Sun Belt West. They’ll look for Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell (950 combined rushing yards, fifteen touchdowns) to keep punishing their opponents, and specifically to keep Appalachian State’s offense off the field as much as possible in their upcoming game, as their offense has proved very difficult to stop and keeping them on the sidelines may be the best way to do it. When they’re successful, it allows the Ragin’ Cajuns to keep Levi Lewis in his “game manager” role, as he’s only topped 30 passes once, in the game against MSU to start the season, and he’s settled into his role since then, throwing for about 180 yards per game and being interception-free in their last three games. After a pair of tough games against App State and Arkansas State, the schedule gets light again for Louisiana, as they’re given at least an 85% chance to win in four of their last five games.
#12. Western Michigan Broncos (9)
Western Michigan fell to Toledo last week, 31-24, bringing their record to 3-3 on the year. They’re 3-0 at home, where they’ve faced unimpressive opponents in Monmouth, Georgia State, and Central Michigan, and 0-3 on the road where they’ve had to play their tougher opponents in Michigan State, Syracuse, and Toledo. The Broncos got out to a slow start, falling behind 24-7 at halftime including failing to capitalize on Toledo’s turnovers, punting without even really flipping the field after the Rockets’ interception and then missing a field goal after the fumble on an interception return gave them a chance for redemption. It was a great second half for WMU, outscoring Toledo 17-7 and they had the ball at Toledo’s 12-yard line with just over two minutes to play with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown, but a key sack by Saeed Holt on second down (along with two incompletions) put the Broncos in a 4th-and-22 situation that Jon Wassink couldn’t quite convert as he scrambled for 20 yards but fell short, allowing the Rockets to take over, pick up two first downs, and run out the clock. Western Michigan now returns home for their homecoming game against Miami (OH). The good news is that they’re given a 22.1% chance to win out by FPI. The bad news is their odds of winning the conference are down to 11.2% as Toledo should find themselves in Detroit as the MAC West champ the first Saturday in December.
#13. Army Black Knights (8)
At the start of the year, I said Army needs to win double-digit games for this year to be considered a success with how light their schedule was. The schedule looks better now than it did at the start of the year, as Tulane certainly looks better now than they did before the year started, and Hawai’i and Navy have been trending up as well, but that double-digit win possibility just took a big hit with the loss to Tulane. They do have thirteen regular-season games, so they could go 10-4 with a bowl game, but they’ve already lost twice, they have three games left where FPI has them as the underdog, and they’re projected to finish the regular season at 8-5. It was a streaky game against Tulane, but the Green Wave’s streaks were a bit bigger than Army’s, as Tulane twice scored 21 unanswered points with Army responding with two touchdowns both times. That was enough to tie the game the first time after Army struck first on their opening drive, but the second time that fell short, as two failed 2-point conversions left them trailing 42-33. Army’s offense tried something new with throwing the ball 24 times, and it didn’t go so well. Kelvin Hopkins Jr completed just nine of those passes for 170 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. He also ran the ball 24 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns, but the rest of the team had just 20 carries for 61 yards. Hopkins is good, but not quite put-the-team-on-his-back good, so that way of running their offense didn’t quite work. They’ll look to bounce back this week with a trip to Western Kentucky, which FPI gives them a 56.3% chance to win.
#14. San Diego State Aztecs (On The Bubble)
The defense continued to excel, holding Colorado State to just 10 points and forcing four turnovers to help the offense chip in 24 points to get the win. Two of their touchdowns came off of turnovers, as Kyahva Tezino forced a fumble on the Rams’ first play of the second half, which Dwayne Johnson Jr recovered to set the Aztecs up with the ball at CSU’s 11-yard line, and they’d score three plays later. Their other three turnovers came on three consecutive drives, and three consecutive offensive plays, as Luq Barcoo intercepted three straight passes, the first by Patrick O’Brien and the only two passes Justice McCoy would throw in the game as the other two. They only capitalized on one of them, putting together a 5-play, 39-yard drive to make it 24-3 before Colorado State tacked on a late touchdown. For the Aztec defense, it was just another strong performance in what has been a fantastic start to the year, as they’ve given up more than fourteen points just once thus far, surrendering 23 in the loss to Utah State. Their defensive efficiency, one of the factors in FPI, is ranked eighth at 86.1 (on a 0-100 scale), the highest of any Group of 5 school, with UCF being the next highest at 81.7 (13th). They take on Wyoming this week as the Cowboys are coming off a bye following their conference-opening win over UNLV.
#15. Temple Owls (OTB)
Temple jumps back into the rankings after taking down ECU in their AAC opener, 27-17. They were really bad in their loss to Buffalo, but how many Group of 5 teams can claim wins over two Power 5 opponents? (I’m not sure if Georgia Tech should count given that they’ve also lost to The Citadel, but they’re in the ACC so technically they do.) They stymied the Pirates’ run game, holding them just under 100 yards as no individual player for ECU had a rush average over 4 yards per carry. The Owls, meanwhile, did very well for themselves on the ground, rushing for 237 yards and two touchdowns, headlined by Re’Mahn Davis’ 157 yards on 24 carries. The game was bookended with ECU touchdowns, that Temple had a 27-3 run in between. However, this is the part of the year where things get tough for Temple, as FPI gives them better than a 37% chance to win in only one of their next six games (at South Florida, November 7th [53.7%]). This upcoming week is one of the games they have the best chance to win, as FPI gives them a 36.4% chance of taking down Memphis on their home field. The two teams have gone back and forth in their four meetings since both being charter members of the American Athletic Conference, with Memphis winning most recently in 2016.
Marshall (13), Fresno State (14)
On the Bubble
FAU, Navy, Utah State, Wyoming, Southern Mississippi, Fresno State
We have three matchups between ranked teams this week, with all three involving a team in our top four. It should be a fun week that will either result in the top teams distancing themselves from the pack or some reevaluating needing to be done if the lower-ranked teams can pull the “upsets” (Louisiana is actually a slight favorite in their game against App State). Other games I’ll be looking for to fill out the bottom of these rankings are the Navy-Tulsa game, the Fresno State-Air Force game, and the battle between Wyoming and San Diego State. It should be fun as we hit the halfway point in the season.