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Boise State could still be the New Year's bowl favorite, but the race is nice and crowded

Temple looks even better than expected, Western Kentucky's passed two tests, Houston's ahead of schedule and the MAC has impressed.

Loren Orr/Getty Images

Last year's battle for the non-power champions' big-bowl slot was a fight between Marshall, Boise State and Marshall's painfully weak schedule. When WKU upset Marshall, that was that. Boise State went to the Fiesta Bowl to beat Arizona.

Perhaps the picture will be equally clear two months from now, but early indications are this is more battle royale than one-on-one. Boise State's loss to BYU, along with some high-profile wins -- Houston over Louisville, Toledo over Arkansas, Temple over Penn State, Bowling Green over Maryland -- have created uncertainty.

So what can the numbers tell us? S&P+ win probabilities are still blurry. The rankings are half based on preseason projections, and the large mass of teams in the middle means quite a few games are tossups. At this stage, that results in pretty low projected win totals, since a 70 percent chance of winning means only 0.7 projected wins.

Here are the 16 group-of-five teams with 7 or more projected wins at the moment, plus a 17th getting quite a bit of attention. This isn't every good non-power team, of course, just the ones that currently project to be within range of a good committee ranking.

Team S&P+ rank
Proj. wins Proj. losses Conference Division
Boise State 21
9.6 2.4 MWC Mountain
Marshall 44
9.0 3.0 CUSA East
Temple 54
8.8 3.2 AAC East
Western Kentucky 58
8.5 3.5 CUSA East
Navy 55
8.4 3.6 AAC West
Louisiana Tech 52
8.1 3.9 CUSA West
Northern Illinois 64
8.0 4.0 MAC West
Memphis 57
7.8 4.2 AAC West
Georgia Southern 72
7.8 4.2 Sun Belt
Toledo 65
7.7 (in 11 games) 3.3 MAC West
Colorado State 61
7.5 4.5 MWC Mountain
Appalachian State 82
7.4 4.6 Sun Belt
Houston 78
7.4 4.6 AAC West
Cincinnati 50
7.2 4.8 AAC East
San Diego State 70
7.2 4.8 MWC West
Ohio 94
7.2 4.8 MAC East
Bowling Green 93
5.9 6.1 MAC East

Current evidence will overtake past evidence soon, and at that time, teams like Bowling Green (dragged down by a prolonged funk last season, which affected projections) and Houston could rise swiftly while others (Marshall, maybe?) drop. Even while acknowledging the conservatism in these projections, a few things become clear.

First, Boise State's still probably in the driver's seat. The Broncos travel to Virginia in two weeks and are given a 69 percent chance of winning. That's their worst remaining projected result. Even with a loss to what is clearly a pretty good BYU, a 12-1 Boise State that ran through the Mountain West and beat Virginia and Washington would have a serious case for the bid. They might also benefit from the fact that the AAC has enough good teams to knock each other around and finish with a 10-3 conference champion.

The list also tells us Temple's star is rising quickly. In defeating Penn State and Cincinnati, the Owls have already taken down two of their most highly rated opponents. They aren't likely to finish 12-0, but they'll have further opportunities for big wins, starting in Week 8, when they travel to ECU. Even an 11-2 Temple might be the clubhouse leader.


Temple (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games (win probability included): at ECU 54 percent, Notre Dame 27 percent, Memphis 60 percent.
  • Trending: Up. The Owls' defense, which was outstanding in 2014 and returned almost every contributor, has shown up. They completely shut down Penn State for 50 minutes and mastered a bend-don't-break routine against Cincinnati. And thanks to junior Jahad Thomas (328 yards in two games), they have a run game. An iffy passing game will likely cause them to trip up, but the D might be one of the two or three best mid-major units.

Navy (1-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Notre Dame 15 percent, at Memphis 44 percent, at Houston 58 percent
  • Trending: Neutral. The Midshipmen ran through Colgate in the season opener and had a bye last week.

Memphis (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: Cincinnati 55 percent, Ole Miss 16 percent, at Temple 40 percent.
  • Trending: Up. You're only going to prove so much when you begin with Missouri State and Kansas, but beating those teams by a combined 118-30 still says something.

Houston (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at UCF 35 percent, Cincinnati 41 percent, Navy 42 percent
  • Trending: Way, way up. New head coaches don't usually make an instant impact ... but there are always one or two. The Cougars' win at Louisville was a statement of intent. Tom Herman's Cougars might end up drastically exceeding their projections.

Cincinnati (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Memphis 45 percent, Miami 43 percent, at BYU 35 percent
  • Trending: Down. A little. The loss to Temple hurt, if only because it damaged their odds of winning the AAC. And trips to Memphis, ECU, and Houston don't look like cakewalks. Beat Memphis in two weeks, though, and the Bearcats are right back near the top.

Conference USA

Marshall (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Kent State 70 percent, at Middle Tennessee 68 percent, at WKU 51 percent
  • Trending: Down. The Herd are breaking in new pieces, as evidenced by last week's loss at Ohio. The schedule is again easy enough that they have a chance to get to 10-1 when they head to WKU, but ... well ... if they didn't get to the promised land last year, they probably won't this year.

Western Kentucky (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Indiana 57 percent, at LSU 12 percent, Marshall 49 percent
  • Trending: Up. The injury to running back Leon Allen struck a blow, and the Hilltoppers are dealing with a few other injuries as well. But they've survived two tests -- Vanderbilt's defense, Louisiana Tech's offense -- and if they can outgun Indiana in Bloomington, their odds of finishing 11-1 are strong. (Yes, they could take down LSU in Week 8, but probably not.)

Louisiana Tech (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Kansas State 25 percent, at Mississippi State 24 percent, at Rice 69 percent
  • Trending: Down. With likely losses at Kansas State and Mississippi State, the Bulldogs probably needed that WKU game last week. Conference USA probably isn't strong enough for a two-loss team to get too much attention from the committee.


NIU (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Ohio State 3 percent, at Boston College 33 percent, at Toledo 44 percent
  • Trending: Neutral. The Huskies did what they needed to do (offensively, at least) against UNLV and Murray State, but they'll probably need to beat (highly unlikely) Ohio State or (far more likely) Boston College to get a top ranking.

Toledo (1-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Ball State 51 percent, NIU 57 percent, at Bowling Green 59 percent.
  • Trending: Up. They've got the name-brand win; that's huge in a conference like the MAC, which isn't as well-regarded as the AAC, Mountain West and probably Conference USA. If the Rockets run the table -- which would include winning at BGSU -- they'll have a case.

Ohio (2-0)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Minnesota 21 percent, at Bowling Green 42 percent, at NIU 25 percent.
  • Trending: Up. Ohio was pretty awful last year, but Frank Solich's team picked up a nice statement win over Marshall. Beat Minnesota in Week 4, and the Bobcats would be favored to cruise into Bowling Green undefeated. But trips to BGSU and NIU are also daunting.

Bowling Green (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Purdue 34 percent, at WMU 35 percent, at Ball State 34 percent.
  • Trending: Up. A long 2014 funk sent the Falcons' projections spiraling, and they are therefore still projected to lose a few games. But with what we saw against both Tennessee and Maryland, let's say that winning at Purdue, WMU, and Ball State seems more likely than the odds currently think.

Mountain West

Boise State (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Virginia 69 percent, at Colorado State 71 percent, at Utah State 71 percent.
  • Trending: Down. If only because there was nowhere to go. Beat Virginia, and the Broncos are still in good shape.

Colorado State (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Utah State 42 percent, Boise State 30 percent, San Diego State 64 percent.
  • Trending: Neutral. The Rams nearly scored a nice statement win over Minnesota but fell in overtime. That would have helped, but losing didn't really hurt. Run the table in the MWC (not likely, but not impossible), and CSU's got a hell of a case.

San Diego State (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at Penn State 23 percent, Utah State 52 percent, at Colorado State 36 percent.
  • Trending: Neutral. Avoiding Boise State in the regular season will help the Aztecs, but unless they take down Penn State, they probably aren't a serious contender.

Sun Belt

Georgia Southern (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at ULM 59 percent, at Appalachian State 47 percent, at Georgia 5 percent.
  • Trending: Down. A Sun Belt team probably needs to go 11-1 with a big upset to get serious consideration, and the Eagles' blowout loss to WVU hurt their cause. Beat Georgia and finish 11-1, however, and you're in great shape. Easy enough, right?

Appalachian State (1-1)

  • Three toughest remaining games: at ULM 54 percent, Georgia Southern 53 percent, Arkansas State 57 percent.
  • Trending: Down. ASU got thumped by Clemson and doesn't have a name left on the schedule. Maybe if they beat a team that goes on to beat Georgia?

    * * *

Bill C. and Steven Godfrey talk Bowling Green, Memphis, and the SEC, which is almost as good as the MAC.