It was a wild final week of the regular season, with a few conference races taking unexpected final turns. For some teams, this week brought jubilation from a berth in their conference championship game, a win over a rival, bowl eligibility secured, or multiple of those things. For others, this week brought heartbreak and/or questions about the future of their coaching staff as they’re left wondering what went wrong. For most of the teams on this list, it’s the former as eight of the ten Group of 5 teams heading to their conference’s championship game are ranked here. To view last week’s rankings (and possibly reminisce some “what-ifs”), click here. This week, we’ll give our rankings as always before previewing the conference championship games for each of the Group of 5 conferences.
#1. Memphis Tigers (Last Week: 1)
Memphis earned a win in the biggest Group of 5 game of the season this past week over Cincinnati to earn a rematch this upcoming week with the Bearcats for the AAC championship. It will be Memphis’ third consecutive season in the championship game, having lost to UCF each of the past two years. Chris Claybrooks opened the game with a kick return touchdown for the Tigers and Brady White led the offense with 233 passing yards and two touchdowns on 15-26 passing. Damonte Coxie was his favorite target, catching six passes for 145 yards including a 46-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter that pushed Memphis’ lead to ten points. After Cincy struck back, an Antonio Gibson touchdown run made it 34-24 with under four minutes to play, and the Bearcats’ third turnover of the second half on their ensuing possession sealed the win for Memphis. Cincinnati was without their starting quarterback, Desmond Ridder, in the game, and it’s unclear if Ridder will be able to go in their rematch for the conference final this Saturday. The Tigers are a win away from playing in the best bowl game in school history by far, as their current most prestigious bowl that they’ve played in is the Liberty Bowl (a home game for them) in 2017. The Cotton Bowl is a pretty big step up from that.
#2. Boise State Broncos (3)
Jaylon Henderson continued to impress as he threw for 253 yards and two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground while playing turnover-free in a 31-24 win over Colorado State that kept their Cotton Bowl hopes alive. Henderson, a senior from Kingwood, Texas who transferred to Boise State from UTSA, had thrown just one pass (and made eight rush attempts) in his career entering 2019 where he was competing with Chase Cord for the backup QB spot but ultimately ended up being their third-string QB. He saw some action after Hank Bachmeier went down with an injury, but it took Cord also getting hurt for Henderson to make his first collegiate start against New Mexico, and he has been responsible for nearly 800 yards of total offense and nine touchdowns in three games since then. He had to carry more of the weight of the offense as their running game struggled, and they’ll hope to get George Holani back to making some drive-sustaining runs against Hawai’i this week in the Mountain West championship game. It will be their fourth title game appearance, all in the last four years. They’re 2-1 in the first three, all of which have been played against Fresno State. With a win and Memphis winning the AAC, they will presumably go to the Las Vegas Bowl for the fifth time this decade.
#3. Appalachian State Mountaineers (4)
Appalachian State is two wins (in the Sun Belt championship game and whichever bowl game they end up in) away from being the first Sun Belt team ever ranked in a final AP Poll. It looks like they don’t have a chance to go to the Cotton Bowl, as they’re ranked behind Cincinnati and Memphis in the playoff committee poll this week and I don’t see how they would jump past that game’s winner. Still, they’re the highest-ranked Sun Belt team ever and, since they won’t be going to the Cotton Bowl, will be favored in their bowl game, so they arguably should be looking at a top-20 finish. They smacked around Troy this week in the regular-season finale, winning by a final score of 48-13 as Zac Thomas threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns while completing 28 of his 34 passes. Darrynton Evans didn’t do much after a 52-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but he did end the game with 82 rushing yards and two scores. They’re the first Sun Belt team to beat two Power 5 teams in the same season and have a chance to be the first Sun Belt team to get to twelve wins and finish a season with one or fewer losses. They’ll have to beat Louisiana for the fourth time in the last two years to get there.
#4. Cincinnati Bearcats (2)
Cincy had to play their most important game of the year without their starting quarterback, and they held their own before ultimately falling to Memphis, 34-24. Ben Bryant did a solid job in replacing Desmond Ridder, completing 20 of 32 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown, though his two interceptions in the second half really damaged the Bearcats’ chance to win. Michael Warren was effective on the ground, but they might need even more than the 21 carries for 122 yards and a score that he gave them this past week if they want to beat the Tigers without Ridder. More carries from him will mean less time with the ball in Bryant’s hands, and while he did well when he wasn’t turning the ball over, he did have two interceptions and three fumbles (only one lost). Without a return of a healthy Ridder, though, it doesn’t look likely for the Bearcats to beat Memphis in Memphis. For that to happen, they can’t have as many blunders as they did last Friday night, when they allowed a game-opening kick return touchdown, gave up three turnovers and suffered five sacks. Even if they’re unable to beat Memphis, Luke Fickell has this team back to a point where they’re ready to compete for and win conference titles in the near future.
#5. Navy Midshipmen (5)
Navy grabs the highest ranking of any team not headed for a conference championship, but by virtue of their annual clash against Army a week after everyone else is done, they still have a game to play. They earned a win over Houston to move to 9-2 on the season heading into their annual clash with the Black Knights as Jamale Caruthers and Malcolm Perry ran all over the Cougars. Caruthers ran for 188 yards and five touchdowns, while Perry ran for 146 and one score, pushing his season total up to an even 1500, while he also topped 1000 passing yards on the year with his pair of completions that went for 107 yards in the game. That leaves him 87 rush yards shy of the single-season Navy record and just 68 yards of total offense short of setting that record as well. He’s likely to break both records in the game against Army, as he’s only come short of 87 rush yards once in a game this season, in the season opener against Holy Cross when he didn’t play the full game. The Navy defense made some big plays in spite of allowing 41 points to the Cougars, as they forced five turnovers that set their offense up with a few short fields for easy scores in the 56-41 win. They’ll look to punctuate both their bounce-back season and Army’s disappointing one with a win over the Black Knights in Philadelphia on December 14th.
#6. Air Force Falcons (6)
Air Force is the highest-ranked team here that’s just waiting on bowl selection Sunday to figure out what their next game is after they beat Wyoming, 20-6, to finish the regular season at 10-2. The Falcons were held under 200 yards passing and running, but held Wyoming under 125 in both categories. The 75-yard touchdown pass from Donald Hammond III to Benjamin Waters that essentially put the game away late in the fourth was the big difference-maker in total yards, and Air Force’s defense forced the Cowboys into three turnovers. Two of those turnovers were interceptions by Jeremy Fejedelem (I’d hate to be the announcer trying to figure that one out), the first two of his senior season. Fejedelem had 104 tackles and three interceptions last year, but before this week he had really only made his presence felt once this year, when he had fourteen tackles and a sack in their overtime win over Colorado in September. The Air Force team was senior-laden, as usual, but with Hammond and their top two rushers in Kadin Remsberg and Timothy Jackson returning in 2020, they should put another very good team on the field, and could potentially challenge Boise State for the division title if things go well for them next season.
#7. UCF Knights (7)
UCF dominated their rival South Florida in a chippy game on Friday night to end the year 9-3. Dillon Gabriel had another big game slinging the ball all over the field for 270 passing yards and two touchdowns on 23-39 passing. Adrien Killins had 114 rushing yards and a score on the ground, while Gabriel Davis caught both touchdown passes and finished the game with 106 yards on eight catches. The UCF defense overwhelmed the Bulls as well, holding them to 250 yards of total offense and forcing three turnovers in the dominant 34-7 win. No one in Orlando will feel particularly celebratory about a 9-3 season given the expectations and hopes they had coming into the year, but this was more about Cincinnati and odds catching up to them than it was any drop in their level of play. And a 9-3 record with a true freshman at quarterback is certainly a good sign that they’ll continue to be competing for the conference crown in the next few years. The good news about somewhat underperforming expectations is they are likely to be a sizable favorite in their bowl game.
#8. SMU Mustangs (8)
SMU earned a win in their season finale over Tulane despite being outgained by nearly 100 yards of total offense to finish the regular season 10-2 with their only losses being on the road against ranked teams within their division. Shane Buechele threw for 180 yards and three touchdowns, Xavier Jones ran for 125 yards and two scores, and the defense forced two turnovers in the 37-20 win. James Proche had seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown and now stands alone as the SMU career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He also tied Aldrick Robinson’s record of fourteen receiving touchdowns in a season and has the fourth 100-catch season in SMU history. The defense forced five sacks along with the two fumbles that they got their turnovers off of including two sacks each from Patrick Nelson and Delontae Scott. Everyone has been saying all year long that this is their best season since 1984, but I’m not quite done saying it because it’s still true, as this is the first 10-win campaign since then. They’ll hope to make it their first year ranked in the postseason AP poll since then as well, and a bowl win would likely get them there. They’ll hope head coach Sonny Dykes can lead this team into a new chapter of great SMU football.
#9. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (10)
Louisiana was very fortunate to escape from rival UL-Monroe in their season finale, winning 31-30 on difference-makers of a missed extra point and a missed field goal on ULM’s final two drives. Levi Lewis threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns, and Raymond Calais had an eight-carry, 107-yard day that was mostly just an 83-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter. That slightly overshadowed Elijah Mitchell’s more consistent work in the ground game, as he racked up 102 yards on nineteen carries. Ja’Marcus Bradley was responsible for their biggest plays in the passing game, with a 74-yard catch that set up a first-and-goal that the Ragin’ Cajuns eventually scored on, and a 42-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter as Bradley wound up with four catches for 127 yards in the game. Bralen Trahan had a 54-yard interception return that flipped the field on the first time the Warhawks showed they didn’t have faith in their kicking game, going for it on a 4th-and-8 from the ULL 24. They would later fail a 4th-and-2 at the ULL 21 in another showing of a lack of confidence in their kicker before letting Jared Porter try the game-winner, a 35-yard attempt that he failed to convert. Louisiana will now head to Boone, North Carolina for the second consecutive year for the Sun Belt championship game. They lost to the Mountaineers at home this year, 17-7.
#10. Temple Owls (11)
Temple actually got a slight scare from UConn as they quickly fell behind, 14-0, to the Huskies before taking a 17-14 deficit into halftime, but they would return to form to roll over UConn in the second half for a 49-17 win. Branden Mack had 171 receiving yards and touchdown catches of 63 and 41 yards, and Anthony Russo had 247 total passing yards on the game with those two touchdowns to Mack. Re’Mahn Davis had 105 rushing yards, including 55 on a touchdown run in the third quarter, as their offense catching fire allowed them to pull away. Temple ended up outgaining the Huskies by 248 total yards and forced a turnover without giving one up. It marks the fourth time in the last five years that the Owls have hit at least eight wins., but they’re only 1-3 in their bowl games in that span. That’s partially due to two of them being coached by an interim head coach after their coach left for a Power 5 program (both times being led by Ed Foley), but it’s something they’d like to do better moving forward, hopefully starting this year. Temple football has looked like they’re developing into a small-conference power, sending each of their last four head coaches to Power 5 schools.
#11. Florida Atlantic Owls (13)
Florida Atlantic secured the C-USA-East title and hosting the conference championship game with their win over Southern Miss this past weekend. Sophomore QB Chris Robison completed just eight of nineteen pass attempts but threw for 156 yards and three touchdowns. The 34-17 final score could have had even more separation, but FAU had four field goal attempts and made just two of them. Make those, or better yet turn them into touchdowns, and this game really would have looked like a blowout. Southern Miss QB Jack Abraham was sloppy with the ball all game, costing the Golden Eagles five turnovers including two interceptions each by FAU defenders Meiko Dotson and Akileis Leroy. FAU will get to host UAB in the conference title game, and the Blazers beat just one team ranked better than 109 in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) all year. UAB’s schedule was light enough for them to go 8-0 against teams outside the top 100 and 1-3 against top-100 teams and earn a bid in the C-USA championship game. Head coach Lane Kiffin and his Owls will go in as heavy favorites to win their second Conference USA championship in three years.
#12. San Diego State Aztecs (15)
San Diego State turned the QB duties over to redshirt freshman Carson Baker, and he did just enough as their defense suffocated BYU for a 13-3 win. Baker finished 19-24 for 172 yards and a touchdown in his collegiate debut, and San Diego State ended the regular season 9-3 despite the disappointment of not getting into the Mountain West championship game. Baker didn’t throw for nearly as many yards as Cougars QB Zach Wilson, but Wilson’s two interceptions and lost fumble took away drives from BYU that they desperately needed. Two missed field goal attempts from less than 30 yards also hurt the Cougars, but they badly needed to find the end zone and were never able to do it. Dwayne Johnson Jr and Tariq Thompson had the interceptions for the Aztecs, as it was Johnson’s first of his career and Thompson’s third of 2019 and tenth in his impressive collegiate career. Both junior safeties should be back to lead what figures to be another great defense for the Aztecs in 2020, the only question is if they can build enough of an offensive attack to make a run at the Mountain West crown. This will be San Diego State’s tenth consecutive year playing in a bowl game after having just four in school history before 2010.
#13. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (14)
Hawai’i had already locked up a spot in the Mountain West championship game when they hosted Army to close out the regular season and outgunned them to keep the Black Knights from bowl eligibility. The 52-31 win was led by Cole McDonald throwing for 250 yards and three touchdowns, and he was relieved by Chevan Cordeiro throwing for 109 more yards and two more scores. Jared Smart and Cedric Byrd II both topped 120 receiving yards on eight catches with a touchdown, and Jason-Matthew Sharsh caught two touchdown passes. Miles Reed led the rushing attack with 92 yards and a touchdown while the Rainbow Warriors defense allowed 411 yards on the ground to Army. They managed to force the Black Knights into two interceptions despite Army throwing just 11 passes, including a 100-yard pick-six by Rojesterman Farris II that ended Army’s last chance at a comeback. They now head to Boise State seeking their first 10-win season and conference title since going 10-4 and earning a three-way tie at the top of the WAC with Boise State and Nevada in 2010. The last time they won a conference title outright was in 2007 when they went 8-0 in WAC play including a win over Boise State, which was the Broncos’ only loss in-conference that year.
#14. BYU Cougars (9)
It was a mostly disappointing season for BYU this year, as they had arguably the toughest schedule of any Group of 5 (or independent other than Notre Dame) team with four Power 5 foes, trips to Toledo, Utah State and San Diego State, and a home tilt against Boise State, and only amassed a 7-5 record. That included losses to Toledo, who fell apart down the stretch as they lost their starting quarterback and running back, and a 4-8 USF team, though they also managed to beat Boise State, Tennessee, and USC. While it was obvious they were facing a much tougher defense this week, going from 56 points on 628 yards of total offense one week to a 3-point dud was a huge letdown for the end of the season. Zach Wilson was never able to replicate what he did in the second half of last season, averaging 7.6 yards per pass attempt with eleven touchdowns to seven interceptions after averaging 8.7 YPA with a 12-3 TD-INT ratio a year ago. The Cougars have already been announced as a participant in this year’s Hawai’i bowl, though their opponent is still TBA. Their offense struggled at times, and especially in the season finale against SDSU, to run the football as well, as a lot of their problems were offensive issues. They averaged 36.9 points in their wins, but just 15.6 in their losses. They did give up more points in losses than wins, but by a much smaller margin (21.4 in wins, 28.6 in losses).
#15. Central Michigan Chippewas (On the Bubble)
Central Michigan earned a spot in the MAC championship game in their first season under Jim McElwain after WMU lost to NIU last Tuesday, opening the door for the Chippewas to earn that spot in the title game with a win over Toledo, which they earned on Black Friday. It was a monumental leap in year one under McElwain, as CMU was just 1-11 a year ago, leading to the firing of John Bonamego. They were beneficiaries of the other top MAC-West teams falling apart, from WMU being unable to win more than one road game all year, to Toledo losing some of their best players due to injury. That was part of the reason that they didn’t just beat Toledo, but gave them a 49-7 thrashing to secure their ticket to Ford Field in Detroit for the MAC championship game. Quinten Dormady was 15-19 for 250 yards and two touchdowns in the game, and Kobe Lewis led the run game with 131 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. Tommy Lazzaro, a dual-threat quarterback who had been their starter early last year, has been used recently in a role primarily as a runner, and he also had two rushing touchdowns in the game. The Chippewas defense managed to swarm Toledo and keep them contained all game, forcing ten tackles for loss. They’re heading into the MAC championship game as favorites to win their first conference title since 2009.
Western Michigan (12)
On the Bubble
Marshall, UAB, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, Utah State
Conference Championship Game Previews
The AAC title game will be a rematch of this past week’s Cincinnati at Memphis matchup. Desmond Ridder will get the start this time for Cincinnati at QB, but don’t be surprised if they bring Ben Bryant in at least for a gadget play or two, if not for a whole series. Watch the run game in this one, because both teams love to run the ball and average nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, but Cincy’s defense stops the run better than Memphis’. If one team has more success on the ground, they’ll control the clock, keep the other team’s offense on the sideline, and keep their defense fresh for the fourth quarter. If one team hits 200 yards on the ground and the other doesn’t that team likely wins. Memphis has experience in this title game as this is their third straight year in it, while Cincy is in it for the first time ever. Both coaches are on the rise, but Mike Norvell of Memphis may be getting the call from a Power 5 school this offseason. That doesn’t really affect the game, it’s just something to think about moving forward for these teams. FPI likes the Tigers, Vegas likes the Tigers, and I don’t like a team with a banged-up starting quarterback, so I’ll take the Tigers too.
The Conference USA championship game will pit reigning champ UAB against 2017 winner Florida Atlantic. As was briefly mentioned in Florida Atlantic’s spot in the rankings, UAB played an incredibly weak schedule this year. Still, you don’t get to your conference’s title game without doing a lot of things right. UAB continued to use a sturdy defense that was especially tough to run on to power their way to nine wins, while FAU had Chris Robison throw for over 3,000 yards on the year to help them outscore teams on their way to nine wins. So these teams will go strength vs strength and weakness vs weakness. In terms of yardage and points, there’s not enough of a gap to get a clear idea of an edge. That gap appears when you look at the quality of opponents and efficiency scores of the two teams. Once again, FPI says Owls, Vegas says Owls, and I have to agree because UAB lost each of their three most difficult games of the year and didn’t beat anyone good on the road.
The MAC championship game will be Central Michigan facing off with Miami (OH) from Ford Field in Detroit. This one hits a little close to home for me because my Western Michigan Broncos were among the favorites all year to play in and win this game until they handed their spot to their rival Chippewas with their loss to Northern Illinois the last week of the season. Western Michigan beat both of these teams handily at home this year but will be sitting at home and watching like everybody else. The Chippewas had a major turnaround thanks to first-year head coach Jim McElwain. CMU was 1-11 a year ago before vaulting up to an 8-4 record heading into the championship game this year. Miami barely changed, going 7-5 this year after a 6-6 season a year ago. The Redhawks were outgained and outscored this year, but the MAC, and especially the MAC East, was such a mess this year that they’re in the title game anyway. Central Michigan suffered a minus-6 turnover differential on the year, the exact thing that would play to Miami’s hand. With an admittance that I’m picking more with my heart against my rival school than with my head, I’ll take the Redhawks.
The Mountain West championship game this year features Boise State for the third consecutive year and fourth time overall and Hawai’i making their first appearance. The Broncos beat the Rainbow Warriors, 59-37, in Boise earlier this year, and there’s little evidence to suggest that Boise State won’t handle Hawai’i again. Hawai’i decided the West division needed a different look as they went into their last in-conference game against two-time champ San Diego State, and they became the first team other than SDSU and Fresno State to win the division, while Boise State secured hosting the title game for the third consecutive year and fourth time in the seven-year history of the MW championship game by finishing their first undefeated regular season in Mountain West play. The one thing that could give Hawai’i fans hope is the improved look out of their defense, as they gave up just eighteen combined points in their last two in-conference games, beating UNLV and SDSU in the process. The question is whether that was more about their defense or weak opponent offenses, and I’m guessing it was a little bit of both, but more about their opponents. Jaylon Henderson has earned the start in this game for the Broncos despite entering the season as their third-string QB, as he’s stepped up big when Hank Bachmeier and Chase Cord went down with injuries. There was snow in Boise for the title game last year, but it’s supposed to be a bit warmer in Idaho this time around and that should help the offenses put up some numbers. I’m going with FPI and Vegas on this one in siding with Boise State.
The second iteration of the Sun Belt championship will look eerily similar to the first, as it will once again be Appalachian State facing off against Louisiana. The Mountaineers will once again play host to the Ragin’ Cajuns for the title game after traveling to Lafayette in the regular season when they beat Louisiana, 17-7. It seems to be a safe bet that at least a few more points will be scored this time around, as both teams average over 200 yards through the air and on the ground while scoring nearly 39 points per game. Both teams’ defenses improved as the season went on, however, with App State’s allowing fewer yards (321-370) but Louisiana’s allowing slightly fewer points (17.8-18.8). Both quarterbacks are likely to go over 2,500 passing yards on the season, and both teams already have a rusher over 1,000 yards. Appalachian State is the better team at their peak, as evidenced by their pair of wins over Power 5 opponents and win at Louisiana, but they suffered an upset loss to Georgia Southern while Louisiana beat every team they were supposed to but lost to App State and Mississippi State. An Appalachian State victory would give them 12 wins on the year, which would be a Sun Belt record. A lot of signs point to a one-score App State win and I’m going with the Mountaineers, but in a blowout, as they try to prove to the country why they feel they’ve been underrated.
We’ll be taking this next week off, and we’ll come back with another article to hit before bowl games get underway to recap the conference championship games and preview where the top Group of 5 teams are going bowling. It’s been an awesome season of college football, and we’re near the finish line now, almost at the time to say goodbye until next August. We’ll see you back here before the bowl season gets underway.