For weeks I have been on record saying East Carolina is the frontrunner in the Gang of Five access bowl hunt. After last night’s performance against Connecticut, and with the display of futility put on by Virginia Tech a little more than 300 miles northwest of Greensboro, I am not as certain as I once was. Hello there Colorado State and Marshall.
As Matt Zemek, one of the editors of The Student Section, stated earlier this month, it is fantastic that the little guys in college football have a nice reward to aim for at the end of the season. For a reminder, the highest-ranked conference champion from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, or the Sun Belt Conference will be guaranteed an available spot in the access bowls by the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Starting Tuesday night we will get our first glimpse at just how the selection committee weighs the performances of East Carolina against what Marshall or Colorado State have done this season.
This is when the selection committee will begin releasing its own ranking system, which is now the only ranking system, in theory, which matters moving forward. Conventional thinking may suggest East Carolina stays ahead of the pack, but this is a new experience for everyone. Who knows exactly how this will all unfold before our eyes?
Here is where we stand to date. East Carolina is now 6-1 overall and 3-0 in The American following a 31-21 home victory over UConn Thursday night. Marshall looks to remain undefeated this weekend with a home game against Florida Atlantic. Colorado State owns the best overall record among teams in the Mountain West Conference at 6-1, but the Rams will need Boise State to lose again in order to compete for the MWC championship. This is critical to the discussion moving forward.
East Carolina and Colorado State each own two victories over schools from the power conferences. How we view those wins now compared to, say, a month ago is not to be overlooked. East Carolina may claim a victory over a top-25 team at the time the result was achieved, but that top-25 team has now lost two straight and was destroyed 30-6 Thursday night at home by Miami. It is possible neither of East Carolina’s power conference victories will end up coming against bowl-eligible teams. Colorado State might be able to get an edge here.
On November 1, Virginia Tech will host Boston College. The game should be critical for the bowl hopes of both ACC programs, but as it turns out it could prove to be a pivotal matchup for East Carolina and Colorado State as well. If Boston College can get out of Lane Stadium with a win, the possibility of a bowl-less Hokies program becomes realistic. It also bolsters the chances Boston College goes bowling. That’s very good for Colorado State, very bad for East Carolina. Throw in the possibility that North Carolina might not pick up three more wins to become bowl-eligible and all of a sudden, that East Carolina profile is not looking particularly strong.
Good for Colorado State. Better for Marshall?
Colorado State lost a conference and division game to Boise State earlier this season. That gives the Broncos, a perennial team in this sort of discussion for other reasons, a head-to-head tiebreaker. With time starting to run thin, that means Boise State will have to lose one more time and Colorado State has to win out in order to represent the Mountain Division in the MWC Championship Game. That is starting to look tough with just four conference games remaining for Boise State, and the two toughest games (Utah State, San Diego State) coming on the blue turf.
And you thought we reached a point where Boise State didn’t matter in this Gang of Five discussion this season.
The point is, Colorado State may have a tough time even qualifying for an access bowl spot under the guidelines to be used by the selection committee. That gives Marshall a very good chance to sneak onto the big bowl stage.
Nobody in their right mind would suggest Marshall has faced a murderer’s row this season. Marshall has not played a single team from a power conference (though a scheduling complication with Louisville deserves to be mentioned in all this), and the toughest opponent to date may have been Akron or Middle Tennessee. Doc Holliday’s Thundering Herd has everything set up for an undefeated run. Just one team with a winning record remains (UAB), and with the way Marshall is putting up points, the boys from Huntington, West Virginia, are the clear favorites in Conference USA.
However, perfection is the goal here, because it is the only thing that keeps Marshall in the running and puts the Herd in position to move ahead of one-loss East Carolina. The Pirates have looked vulnerable. East Carolina still has to play at Cincinnati and face UCF at home, and who knows if Temple can put up a fight next week in Philly.
If the Pirates stumble and Colorado State is locked out due to a technicality, Marshall may be making some big New Year’s Day plans after all.