Not a lot of change at the top of this week’s rankings for me, as Cincinnati escaped disaster against USF, Memphis and Appalachian State recovered after slow starts, two other top-10 Group of 5 teams had a bye week, and everything went pretty much as expected. To view last week’s very similar rankings, click here. The one piece of big news coming from the Group of 5 this week was Miami (OH) becoming the first team to clinch winning their division, as the Redhawks secured their spot in the MAC championship with a win over Bowling Green and Buffalo’s loss to Kent State. The MAC West, on the other hand, is the most contested division in the FBS, with a chance at a 5-way tie at the end of the year.
#1. Cincinnati Bearcats (Last Week: 1)
The Bearcats escaped from USF with a 20-17 win on a walk-off field goal by Sam Crosa to keep the top spot and move one win away from a spot in the AAC championship game. That came after trailing 10-0 at halftime and 17-7 late in the third quarter as the offense couldn’t get anything going early on and Cincy was lucky to even be in the game, as a pair of missed field goals from 50, 53 and 43 yards by Spencer Shrader kept USF from adding to their lead. Shrader also made a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter and lined up for another short field goal of 33 yards with just over two minutes to play with a chance to put USF back in the lead and instead missed his fourth field goal of the game with just one make. Cincy then drove 60 yards to put Crosa in position to hit the game-winner. It was a rough game for Desmond Ridder, as he threw for just 78 yards on 9-18 passing against a surprisingly stingy pass defense from the Bulls. They had a lot more success running the ball with Michael Warren II, as he had 134 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It was just enough to win a game they were badly outplayed, as USF paid for their poor special teams play. They’ll look to clinch the AAC-East this week when they host Temple, who they have just a 7-13-1 record against all-time, including a current 4-game losing streak to the Owls. They weren’t this good the last time Temple came to Cincinnati though, so while it should be a good game, the Bearcats will easily be the favorites this year.
#2. Memphis Tigers (2)
The Tigers trailed Houston, 17-7, at the end of the first quarter but dominated the rest of the game to earn a 45-27 win. Houston’s offense scored a touchdown on each of their first two possessions, a field goal on their next two, and then didn’t score the rest of the game, with a blocked punt touchdown in the fourth quarter being their other score. Memphis, on the other hand, scored touchdowns on five of their first seven offensive drives as Houston struggled to slow down Brady White, Kenny Gainwell and co. White ended the game 22-33 through the air for 341 yards and five touchdowns along with a rush touchdown. Gainwell had 99 yards on the ground to lead the Tigers rushing attack, while Damonte Coxie and Antonio Gibson each had four catches for 93 yards as Coxie scored twice and Gibson also had a touchdown catch. Their odds of winning the AAC are up to 25.1% according to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), the highest they’ve been all season. Just three weeks ago FPI had their odds at 8.3%, just before they beat SMU. This week, they travel to USF (where Cincinnati just struggled) before hosting the Bearcats in what should be a great season finale. With Navy and SMU both currently 5-1 in-conference along with the Tigers, they likely need to win both of those games to get to the AAC championship game.
#3. Boise State Broncos (3)
Boise State started the game with a fumble recovery for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, and it didn’t get much better for New Mexico from there. The Broncos got out to a 28-0 lead at the end of the first quarter en route to a 42-9 victory over the Lobos. The Broncos were able to move the ball effectively in spite of being down to their third-string quarterback in Jaylon Henderson, in large part because he played nothing like a third-string quarterback, throwing for 292 yards and three touchdowns on 15-28 passing (though he also had an interception and a lost fumble). George Holani had 73 rushing yards to lead the team’s 213 yards on the ground in the game. There’s still been very little that anyone has said about starting QB Hank Bachmeier’s injury progress, as the Broncos still hope to get him back for next week as they travel to Utah State in a game that the Aggies have kept as one with pressure for Boise State to win as they sit at 5-1 where a win over the Broncos will put their in-conference records even with each other along with Air Force if the Falcons keep winning. The Broncos currently own an 18-5 advantage in the all-time series against Utah State, having won 15 of the last 16 matchups including a 41-14 win in 2017 when Utah State last hosted Boise.
#4. Appalachian State Mountaineers (4)
App State had some first-quarter trouble as they fell behind, 21-7, to Georgia State, but they took control of the game as they then went on a 49-0 run before a late touchdown by the Panthers made it a 56-27 final score in favor of the Mountaineers. App State failed to get a first down in four of their first five offensive drives, including being unable to capitalize on a punt return fumble by Georgia State and throwing a pick-six. Zac Thomas settled down after that, though, finishing the game 19-31 for 256 yards and four touchdowns, along with 52 rush yards and a score on the ground. Darrynton Evans led the rushing attack with 131 yards and a touchdown on eighteen carries as the Mountaineers ran for 280 yards as a team. Corey Sutton has been a reliable receiver for App State the past two years, and he had a monster game as he had eight catches for 173 yards and three touchdowns. When Shaun Jolly returned the favor from GSU’s pick-six in the first quarter with one of his own in the second, the tide had clearly turned in favor of the Mountaineers, as they took the lead on that play, and Jolly would come up with another interception on the Panthers’ very next drive. That allowed them to stretch the lead to 35-21 at halftime and they never looked back. They could clinch the Sun Belt-East this weekend with a win over Texas State and a Georgia Southern loss at Arkansas State, but they’ll find themselves not only in the Sun Belt title game but hosting it if they win each of their last two games, with a road contest against Troy to close out the season after they host the Bobcats.
#5. SMU Mustangs (5)
SMU had a bye week to prepare for what will be an AAC-West elimination game between them and Navy, as the loser will no longer have a chance at going to the title game. SMU’s defense clearly needed the break after surrendering more than 50 points in each of the last two games. It’s worth pointing out, however, that most of the damage done against them in those games was done through the air, a weakness the Midshipmen are less likely to exploit. Their offense also scored 107 points in that two-game stretch, and hasn’t been held under 34 points yet this year, so Navy’s defense will also have their hands full. Navy goes in as slight favorites (favored by four in early vegas line, 54.6% by FPI) in what should be a high-scoring game and one that will likely be decided by who can slow down their opponent’s run game better or the turnover battle. It’s been an incredible season for the SMU program that hasn’t been nearly this good since before the NCAA gave them the death penalty in the late ’80s, but they won’t be satisfied without a conference championship, especially as several team leaders (Xavier Jones, James Proche and others on offense, leading tackler Richard McBryde, sack leaders Patrick Nelson and Delontae Scott, interceptions leader Rodney Clemons on defense) are in their final year of eligibility. SMU will need wins in their last two games along with a Memphis loss to get to the AAC championship.
#6. Air Force Falcons (7)
Air Force fell behind, 14-0, in the first quarter against Colorado State and didn’t take the lead until the fourth quarter as they eventually worked their way to a 38-21 win. It really should have been 31-21, or even closer, but a 99-yard pick-six by Zane Lewis with about a minute and a half left in the game made the final score a bit wider than the game was (and made them cover the 10.5-point spread). That was a sort of payback for the Rams’ defensive touchdown in the first quarter after a miscommunication in the Falcons’ backfield led to a loose ball scooped up by Mohamed Kamara and returned for a CSU touchdown. Donald Hammond III completed just five of his eleven pass attempts in the game, but three of them went for touchdowns of 31, 50, and 28 yards. The option-run game was working for them the rest of the time, as Kadin Remsberg ran for 101 yards as the Falcons racked up 227 yards on the ground as a team. Lewis’ pick-six overshadowed the unbelievable defensive game of Jake Ksiazek, a senior who had just ten tackles without a sack, forced fumble or fumble recovery in his collegiate career entering the game had four tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in the game. The win was their fourth consecutive in their rivalry with CSU, and an interesting note on the fact that they beat both Colorado and Colorado State this year: in each of the five years where Air Force has beaten Colorado (’58, ’60, ’63, ’68, ’19), they’ve also beaten the Rams to claim the title as the best college football team in Colorado. If they’re able to win their last two games, this week at New Mexico and then a home game against Wyoming to end the year, we can confidently say this is their best year since 1998, when they went 12-1 and finished 13th in the AP Poll.
#7. Navy Midshipmen (6)
Navy needs to regroup in a hurry after suffering a beatdown at the hands of rival Notre Dame this weekend, as the Irish took a 38-3 lead into halftime before coasting to the finish of the 52-20 win. Malcolm Perry moved to third on the all-time rushing list in Navy history as he ran 25 times for 117 yards, but he also lost three fumbles. The defense allowed Ian Book and Chase Claypool to eat them alive, as Book threw for 284 yards and five touchdowns, 117 yards and four touchdowns of which were to Claypool. Like I said, they need to regroup fast because they still have a lot to play for in 2019, as they have another tough test coming when they host SMU this week. Win that game, beat Houston and have Memphis lose one of their last two, which they very reasonably could lose what will be a showdown with Cincinnati in the season finale, and Navy will find themselves in the AAC championship game. Even without a Memphis loss, wins in those two aforementioned games plus one more in their traditional game against Army will give them just their third 10-win regular season in the last hundred years (they also have two years where a bowl win was their 10th win of the year and went 10-1-1 in 1905).
#8. UCF Knights (8)
UCF has outscored their opponents 448-236 this year, yet have a record of just 7-3. Their closest win is by 13 points, and their worst defeat was by 3 points. Their 0-3 record in one-score games has come back to haunt them, and it could be considered repayment for or regression from their 5-0 record in such games in the last two seasons. They had a bye this past week to prepare for their upcoming trip to Tulane as they try to bounce back from the tough loss to Tulsa. Getting Dillon Gabriel to be turnover-free will be a big part of getting a win over the Green Wave, as Gabriel has somewhat incredibly thrown seven interceptions in their three losses and none in their seven wins. Keeping him out of trouble has clearly been a big factor in that as well, as he’s been sacked fifteen times in the losses and only five times in the wins. It’s normal for players to have better stats in wins than losses, but not to those extremes, as Gabriel has also been responsible for at least three touchdowns in all of their wins and none of their losses. Their running game has been as complicated as it has been successful, as they have four different running backs with at least 65 carries and over 400 yards on the year. Adrian Killins Jr is the only senior in that group, so they will likely have a widely varied running attack again in 2020. Bentavious Thompson, a sophomore, has the most touchdowns (eight) and yards per carry (7.4) of the group. FPI gives the Knights a 66% chance at winning out to finish the year 9-3.
#9. BYU Cougars (9)
BYU earned an easy win over FCS foe Idaho State this week, topping the Bengals 42-10 as starting QB Zach Wilson returned from injury. He threw 19-31 for 187 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception as he tried to regain his rhythm. Sione Finau ran for 102 yards and a touchdown, as he’s emerged as their leading rusher on their current four-game win streak after not debuting until their game against USF. Defensively, Austin Lee recorded a 26-yard pick-six in the first quarter to get the scoring started and Dayan Ghanwoloku later made his second interception of the year, and seventh of his career, as the Cougars built their lead. They play on the road at fellow independent UMass this week in a game they’re heavily favored in again, as an early Vegas line has BYU favored by 41.5 points, one of the largest spreads you’ll ever see among two FBS opponents, and FPI gives BYU a 98.6% chance to win even on the road. The Cougars have made it this far without excelling at any one aspect of the game but not having any glaring holes in their team either, and they’ll look to keep working with that balanced approach to stretch their winning streak as the year winds down.
#10. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (10)
South Alabama proved to be a bit tougher to handle than expected for Louisiana, as the Ragin’ Cajuns went in as 27.5-point favorites before emerging with a 37-27 win. The win put them a win away from clinching the Sun Belt-West with two home games remaining in the regular season. The Ragin’ Cajuns were lucky to have a 17-14 lead at halftime with the Jaguars having had a field goal blocked by Bennie Higgins and fumbling on their last drive of the half. Special teams play was a major part of Louisiana’s win, as Raymond Calais and Eric Garror both had returns of over 50 yards to set up scoring drives to go along with the field goal block. Elijah Mitchell ran for 117 yards and a touchdown and Levi Lewis had 136 passing yards and two touchdowns on 16-29 passing to lead the offense. They host Troy this week as they look to punch their ticket to the Sun Belt championship game. Their record against Troy is technically 7-9 all-time as they have four vacated wins over the Trojans from 2011-2014 and Troy has won each of the four matchups since then.
#11. Marshall Thundering Herd (14)
Marshall earned a huge win over Louisiana Tech this week to stay in control of their own destiny in the CUSA-East. They were dominant in the 31-10 win, with 405 yards of offense to 261 for Tech while gaining 22 first downs to their eighteen and winning the turnover battle 2-1. Isaiah Green was 14-26 for 213 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception and had 24 rushing yards and a score on the ground. Brenden Knox had 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns to lead the running game while Obi Obialo led the passing game with eight catches for 146 yards. Steven Gilmore had an interception and Tavante Beckett had thirteen tackles, a pass breakup, and a fumble recovery to lead the defense. Marshall travels to Charlotte this week, who they are 3-1 against in the four years since the 49ers became an FBS school including 2-0 in Charlotte. A win coupled with a Florida Atlantic loss would secure them a spot in the C-USA championship game, as would wins in each of their last two games as they host FIU in the season finale after the game at Charlotte this week.
#12. San Diego State Aztecs (11)
San Diego State’s defense allowed a 53-yard pass to set up a touchdown on Fresno State’s second drive of the game. On FSU’s other 52 plays combined, they gained 153 yards. The Aztecs rode their defense to a 17-7 win to stay in the lead in the Mountain West-Mountain division. Both teams had more opportunities to score, with the Aztecs having a turnover on downs around the Bulldogs’ 30-yard line in the first quarter, having a 42-yard field goal attempt blocked late in the second quarter, fumbling after driving to the FSU 11-yard line in the third, and having another turnover on downs in the final minute of the game in the red zone as they were trying to run out the clock. Fresno State had missed opportunities of their own, twice crossing the 50 but being unable to score in the first half, then throwing an interception on a 3rd-and-goal when they were down ten with about eight minutes remaining. The interception was the third thrown by Jorge Reyna, and the second made by Luq Barcoo, his second multi-interception game of the year, as the senior corner now has seven on the year. Ryan Agnew had a much better day than Reyna did, throwing for 323 yards on 33-47 passing with a touchdown and an interception. It was the first 300+ yard passing day of Agnew’s career, as the senior QB in his second year as a starter also set career highs in completions and attempts. This week will determine their fate in the Mountain West-West as they travel to Hawai’i for their final in-conference game, where a win will punch either team’s ticket to the championship.
#13. Temple Owls (15)
Temple is coming off of a huge win at home over Tulane that keeps them on track to get to eight wins for the fourth time in the last five seasons, which was enough to get two head coaches hired by Power 5 teams in that span. If you count Manny Diaz, who was announced as the coach at Temple before the surprising retirement of Mark Richt led Miami to hire him, the Owls have supplied three current ACC teams (and Baylor) with their current head coach. Temple went into the game against Tulane as 6.5-point underdogs but outgained the Green Wave with 402 yards of total offense to their 333 and won the turnover battle, 3-1. Will Mobley going 3-3 on his field goal attempts and Tulane missing their only attempt helped spur them to a 29-21 victory. The defense gave Green Wave QB Justin McMillan fits all game as he was just 11-27 passing with an interception, was sacked three times, all by Quincy Roach, who also forced and recovered a fumble on one of those sacks. That sack-strip led to Temple’s first score of the game, a field goal after they gained just one yard on the ensuing drive, as they would build up a 13-0 lead, eventually stretch it to 22-7 heading into the fourth quarter, and then hung on as the Green Wave mounted a comeback effort for their 29-21 win that also featured stopping Tulane on downs twice in the final three minutes. Anthony Russo threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns to go along with Todd Centeio throwing for 76 yards and a touchdown on the one drive he led as QB as Temple kept their slim (microscopic, really) chance at an AAC title alive needing to win next week at Cincinnati and then get some help, as they would need Cincinnati to also lose at Memphis, they would likely need UCF to lose one of their last two games, and the Owls would have to beat UConn in their season finale. If all of that happens, Temple will find themselves in the AAC championship game.
#14. Western Michigan Broncos (On The Bubble)
Western Michigan has a much easier path than those owls to their conference championship game in that they merely need to win their season finale at Northern Illinois to win the MAC-West. The Broncos earned their way back into my rankings, and onto the doorstep of the MAC championship game, by winning their first road game of the season, an overtime thriller at Ohio. The Broncos dominated the first half, owning a 209-46 advantage in total yards and being up one in the turnover battle after a muffed punt by the Bobcats, but had just a 10-0 lead to show for it. The Bobcats clearly came out of the locker room having made good adjustments as they had two touchdowns and two three-and-outs defensively to take a 14-10 lead before the Broncos scored touchdowns on each of their next three possessions (while Ohio got a field goal and a touchdown in between those scores) to take a 31-24 lead with 4:51 to play. A 4th-and-goal stop on their own 6-yard line on Ohio’s ensuing drive with 1:17 left should have ended the game, but the Bobcats still had all of their timeouts and Western was unable to pick up a first down, punting the ball back to Ohio with 0:47 left before Nathan Rourke led a touchdown drive to force overtime. The defense got a stop, forcing Ohio into a field goal before LeVante Bellamy punched in his FBS-leading 21st touchdown run of the year to end it. Jon Wassink had been powering WMU’s offense while Bellamy struggled in the game, throwing for 322 yards on 23-34 passing with three touchdowns. They have a bye this week to prepare for their big matchup against NIU, who they own a 25-19 advantage over in the all-time series but haven’t beaten in DeKalb since 2007.
#15. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (OTB)
The Golden Eagles had some life breathed into their C-USA hopes as Louisiana Tech stumbled against Marshall while Southern Miss beat UTSA this week. They still need the Bulldogs to lose one more of their last two games, but their odds are less bleak now than they were entering the weekend. Southern Miss never trailed in their contest against the Roadrunners, but the game was a bit more tense than the 19-point final spread suggested. It was a 6-point game with less than 20 minutes remaining, and UTSA had three drives with a chance to make it back into a one-score game before Kevin Perkins’ 39-yard touchdown run with 4:45 left put the game away. There was a point in the third quarter of this game that saw four turnovers in five plays, as neither team appeared to want the ball as Southern Miss had a 23-10 lead after a touchdown drive to start the second half. Jack Abraham was 22-34 passing for 290 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. De’Michael Harris had his second 100+ yard, two-touchdown game on the ground this year after moving from wide receiver to running back this offseason. He led the team with sixteen carries and 121 rushing yards in the game. The defense was making disruptive plays throughout the game with five sacks, seven QB hurries and six pass breakups along with their three turnovers forced. The Golden Eagles will now get ready for senior day against Western Kentucky this week before a trip to FIU to end the year.
Louisiana Tech (11), Tulane (12)
On the Bubble
Louisiana Tech, Florida Atlantic, Tulane, Central Michigan, Miami (OH)
Group of 5 Conference Championship Watch
So we have our first division secured in 2019 as Miami (OH) has secured a spot in the MAC championship (and Georgia also clinched the SEC-East this week), with more coming this week as the winner of the San Diego State-Hawai’i matchup will head to the Mountain West title game, and Cincinnati and Louisiana have a good shot at securing their division titles as well. We’ve got a pair of ranked matchups this week as the SMU-Navy matchup could play a part in deciding the AAC-West while Cincinnati can clinch the AAC-East with a win in the other ranked matchup as they play Temple. UCF playing at Tulane, who currently sits on the bubble, will give us a third big matchup from the AAC. The biggest matchup not in the AAC is probably the San Diego State-Hawai’i matchup to decide the Mountain West-West division. It should be another fun week of college football as the conference title races come into even clearer focus.