The College Football Playoff selection committee will guarantee one spot in a big revenue bowl game at the end of the season to the highest-ranked conference champion from the so-called Group of Five — American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference, Sun Belt Conference. With no team from any of those conferences starting the season ranked in the top 25 polls, it was crucial for one team to step up and state its case for consideration early on. The opening weekend of the college football season saw more whiffs than home runs by schools fighting for that big bowl game at the end of the year.
Boise State and Utah State, perhaps two of the perceived leading contenders, came up small in their battles with SEC schools. Boise State was taken down by Ole Miss on a neutral field in Atlanta on Thursday night. On Sunday night Chuckie Keeton and Utah State were rolled by Tennessee in Knoxville. If either Boise State or Utah State would have won, they would have become the leader in the clubhouse for the guaranteed bowl spot. So who had the most impressive season debut from each of the Group of Five conferences? Is there a favorite at this point?
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
The favorites in the AAC did not get off to a great start this season. Houston was embarrassed by UTSA in the grand opening of Houston’s new football stadium. Defending champion UCF was sloppy for most of the afternoon in Ireland against Penn State. A change at quarterback gave the Knights a spark and UCF took a late lead on the Nittany Lions but a field goal by Penn State as time expired dropped UCF to 0-1. Cincinnati, the media’s preseason favorite, did not play this weekend due to some bizarre scheduling. East Carolina held up their end of the bargain with a home blowout of a FCS program, but you don’t win points for that.
Temple may have had the most impressive season debut out of the American Athletic Conference. The Owls opened on Thursday night on the road at Vanderbilt. After sitting through a lengthy weather delay, Matt Rhule‘s program blew away Vanderbilt and ruined Derek Mason’s debut on Nashville. Temple gets a chance to build on that start this weekend at home against a Navy team that gave Ohio State a battle until the fourth quarter.
In the opening weekend of the season Conference USA teams did not fare well against power conference competition, but the conference did score some big wins by picking on other Group of Five conferences, which is equally important in this conversation. UTSA’s win against Houston raised plenty of eyebrows and has thrown UTSA into contender status in Conference USA as a result. Perhaps just as shocking was Western Kentucky’s blowout of defending MAC champion and 2014 favorite Bowling Green. UTSA’s victory over Houston on the road against an offense that is supposed to put up plenty of yards and points may be the more complete victory in my book, but Western Kentucky smacking around Bowling Green the way they did should not go unmentioned. These two wins alone may have been enough to suggest Conference USA is ahead of the MAC early on. Conference USA is still full of young, growing programs though so let’s see how the season plays out.
The two most convincing victories in the MAC this weekend happened to come against a pair of FCS opponents. Akron and Northern Illinois had no problems with their season-opening opponents, but they will hardly do anything to convince voters to place them above the performances of schools like Temple, UTSA or Western Kentucky (naturally). There was one MAC contest played this weekend, resulting in Ohio getting a jump in the standings following a road win at Kent State.
MOUNTAIN WEST CONFERENCE
On a weekend that saw Boise State, Utah State and Fresno State all lose to power conference opponents, Colorado State’s win against Colorado could not have come at a better time. Colorado State’s 31-17 victory over in-state rival Colorado put on display every reason why the Rams are expected to make a run in the Mountain West Conference this season. Having Dee Hart at running back will be a nice luxury after rushing for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Colorado may not be a great program, but Colorado State will take it. The Rams, right now, may be at the top of the pack among Group of Five contenders thinking about the big bowl reservation.
It was not a great weekend for the Sun Belt Conference. Louisiana Monroe’s home victory over a weak Wake Forest team may be the best victory in the books in week one. Georgia Southern nearly pulled an upset at North Carolina State, which would have been the top win among Sun Belt teams this weekend. If not ULM, then Texas State should probably get the nod following a 65-0 victory over Arkansas Pine-Bluff, but again, no points for blowouts of cupcakes, even in the Sun Belt.
WHAT ABOUT BYU?
Under the new structure of the College Football Playoff and the associated bowls, there is not automatic way for BYU to be invited to the party. BYU is not eligible to be considered for the reserved spot among Group of Five champions, even if the Cougars are ranked and no Group of Five conference champion is ranked. BYU’s only way to gain a spot in the bowl rotation is to 1) be selected to play in the College Football Playoff as a semifinalist or 2) be selected as an at-large team in the remaining bowl spots that are open after conference champions and automatic bids are selected.
BYU had one of the most impressive wins of the weekend from any school not in a power conference, dominating UConn in Connecticut. It was just the Huskies, but it was a show of dominance by Taysom Hill and the Cougars that would fare well with any other victory from the Group of Five schools on the opening weekend.