Navy’s loss at Houston Friday complicates the Group of Five conference’s New Year’s Six bowl bid, but the solution for any scenario is quite simply. Send the American Athletic Conference champion no matter what.
Dissect it any way you so choose. With Toledo losing at home Friday to Western Michigan, the third installment of the Bowling Green-Northern Illinois MAC Championship Game trilogy is set. The Rockets were the most realistic, remaining option of the New Year’s Six automatic access invitation outside of the American, due to their wins over the SEC’s Arkansas and Big 12’s Iowa State.
Toledo was also one of three Group of Five teams still ranked in the Top 25 heading into the week. The other two both came from the American, which would seemingly make the AAC’s place in a New Year’s Six bowl a slam dunk.
Navy, the highest ranked Group of Five team at No. 15, may be out of the running. But American West champion Houston checked into the Top 25 just last week, and will almost assuredly return at 11-1 with Friday’s quality win.
The Cougars will join Temple, which returned at No. 25 last week after a surprising loss to USF the week prior. Whether Houston or Temple wins the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Game next Saturday, they’re New Year’s Six inclusion is a no-brainer.
But that’s contingent on Temple beating Connecticut this Saturday. And Connecticut already knocked one AAC title hopeful from the Top 25, stunning Houston just last week.
Another UConn upset sends USF to Houston to represent the East division, and here’s where it gets complicated. A USF win in the AAC Championship Game caps the Bulls’ turnaround season at 9-4. Should Bowling Green win the MAC, it will have a better record with two wins over Big Ten opponents.
Should San Diego State beat Nevada Saturday and Air Force defeat New Mexico, the Mountain West champion is guaranteed to finish 10-3. Conference USA East division winner Western Kentucky is already at 10 wins, and could reach 11 in a possible rematch with Louisiana Tech.
That’s a whole lot of contingencies, but the end result should be no different: The American champion is the obvious choice for the New Year’s Six.
A hypothetical conference champion USF could have the worst win percentage of all Group of Five league title winners, but the Bulls would also emerge from what has clearly been the best of the Group of Five. American squads have shuttered in and out of the Top 25 throughout the last two months: Houston, Memphis, Navy and Temple. All deserved their slotting.
The shuffling of AAC teams in and out of the Top 25 is an exercise in conference cannibalization — the oft-discussed possibility for football’s “best conference,” the SEC, but which rarely comes to fruition in that league.
The top four beat one another up over the last month, but the conference’s depth has grown to six in the final month. USF emerging in this conversation is one example. The other is Connecticut’s place in this possible chaos.
UConn capping 2015 with back-to-back Top 25 wins speaks to Bob Diaco’s Huskies putting together the pieces lacking in near-misses early against Missouri and BYU. UConn is bowl eligible and playing some of the best football in a deep conference.
A win over Houston would be USF’s second over a Top 25 opponent in the final four weeks of the season to culminate a remarkable turnaround from 1-3. The Bulls sputtered initially, albeit understandably in losses to Florida State and Memphis, but are surging since.
Wins over Temple and a hypothetical defeat of Houston trumps anything either potential Mountain West champion can offer. San Diego State would have a case at 11-2, but the Aztecs’ early-season home loss to South Alabama is an albatross not offset by any particularly impressive win.
Air Force has no bad losses; Michigan State is a Playoff contender and Colorado State is a bowl-bound conference foe. Holding off Boise State offsets any negative impact from the CSU loss. However, the Falcons lost head-to-head against the American when they dropped their Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy matchup with Navy.
Western Kentucky might have a case with 11 wins, should it claim the C-USA title. The Hilltoppers beat an SEC opponent (Vanderbilt), and their sole losses are to Big Ten (Indiana) and SEC (LSU) opponents. The lack of attention-grabbing wins hurts the Toppers, however, as they’ll finish the season with nothing on par with Temple and Houston.
Of all the teams to benefit from Toledo’s Western Michigan loss, none comes out better for it than hypothetical AAC champion USF — well, save Northern Illinois.
A one-loss and nationally ranked Toledo would have bolstered Bowling Green’s resume in a MAC Championship Game rematch win enough to contend for the New Year’s Six bid against USF. The Falcons boast a win over common opponent Maryland, which handed USF its sole bad loss of the season.
As it stands, 8-4 Northern Illinois wouldn’t pump Bowling Green’s portfolio enough to make it an issue.
The possibilities for each Group of Five title race shaking out in the coming days are plentiful, but there’s only one, obvious end result. The American should have the New Year’s Six bid completely sealed.