The Group of Five conferences have created an interesting race this year for the New Year’s Six bowl bid that goes to the highest-ranked conference champion outside of the Power Five.
UCF, at 8-0 and with a 21-game winning streak, remains the favorite. But the Mountain West quietly has stockpiled three contenders directly behind the Knights.
Here’s my updated top five Group of Five contenders:
1. UCF (8-0): The Knights’ schedule gives them no shot at a top-four spot, even if they go undefeated for the second straight season. The defense is a problem, too. I expect them to lose a game — perhaps Nov. 17 vs. Cincinnati — but they’ll get the major bowl bid if they win out. They have the pole position at No. 12 in the CFP selection committee’s rankings.
2. Fresno State (8-1): The Bulldogs have the defense to catch the selection committee’s attention — tied for second in the nation in points allowed. In fact, if the Bulldogs are impressive Friday against Boise State, next week against San Diego State (7-2) and in the Mountain West title game potentially against a Top 25 Utah State team, they’d have a case that they deserve the nod over an undefeated UCF. The loss to Minnesota hurts, though. The CFP has Fresno State ranked just 23rd, seven spots below the team’s AP ranking.
3. Utah State (8-1): The Aggies have soared to No. 14 in the AP poll, three spots behind UCF and two spots ahead of Fresno State. Still, the selection committee hasn’t recognized them yet. The Aggies average 50.1 points per game and score more points than anyone other than Alabama. Like Fresno State, they have destroyed most of their opponents but lost by a touchdown early in the season to a Big Ten team (Michigan State, in their case). And like Fresno, they’ve got a chance for two marquee wins: at Boise State on Thanksgiving weekend and potentially against a CFP Top 25 Fresno State in the Mountain West title game.
4. Boise State (7-2): It’s easy for those of us in Boise to count the Broncos out. They haven’t looked the part this year. But as the Broncos did in 2014, they have a chance to swipe the New Year’s Six bowl bid with an outstanding finish. The Broncos almost certainly will face two teams ranked in the AP top 16 in the final three weeks of the regular season: Fresno State will be No. 16 when the teams meet Friday, and Utah State is expected to preserve or improve its ranking heading into the Thanksgiving weekend showdown. Both of those games are in Boise. The Broncos also could get a second shot at Fresno State in the title game, for the potential of three wins against ranked opponents in a four-week span. And playing games at Troy (win) and Oklahoma State (loss) would resonate with the committee. The problem: It’s hard to imagine the Broncos actually winning all those games.
5. Cincinnati (8-1): The Bearcats quietly have played good football all season, thanks primarily to a dynamic defense. Their only loss was in overtime at Temple. If they can upset UCF on the road, they’ll vault into strong consideration for the top Group of Five spot. The issue for the American conference is that UCF and Cincinnati are in the same division, so neither has a shot at a marquee opponent in the title game. Houston (7-2) is the leader on the other side, but the Cougars just lost to SMU.
Other contenders: If there’s chaos in the American and Mountain West, watch out for UAB (8-1). The Blazers have allowed 38 points in six Conference USA games. Buffalo is a nice story at 9-1 in the Mid-American Conference. The Sun Belt’s expected contenders have slipped and the only team undefeated in conference play is Troy (7-2), which has provided a boost to Boise State’s resume.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s sports columnist. Contact him at email@example.com and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.