Dee Hart

Which Group of Five school had the most impressive Week 1?

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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.

CONFERENCE USA

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.

MAC

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.

SUN BELT

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.

No. 3 Clemson punches playoff ticket with ACC championship win over Virginia Tech

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 03:  The Clemson Tigers take the field during the ACC Championship against the Virginia Tech Hokies on December 3, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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For the second straight season, Clemson can say they punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff with yet another close ACC championship game victory.

The third-ranked Tigers jumped out to a big lead, led throughout and ultimately prevailed over Virginia Tech in a 42-35 win that was a tad closer than the final score indicated.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson continued his stellar play down the stretch this season, throwing for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The signal-caller added another two scores on the ground to go with his team-high 85 yards rushing as well on a night where he made some clutch throws down the stretch to keep the team in front of a stingy Bud Foster defense.

Tailback Wayne Gallman also found the end zone in Orlando but was still relatively limited with just 59 yards on 17 carries.

The Hokies did make sure Clemson sweated out things by threatening in the second and third quarters. Quarterback Jerod Evans threw for 264 yards and a touchdown but couldn’t get any help from Virginia Tech’s normally reliable ground game and threw an interception with 71 seconds left to end a comeback. Evans also led the team in rushing and scored twice while running back Travon McMillian did the same but managed to do so on only 37 yards rushing.

With a second straight ACC title in the bag for Dabo Swinney and company, the only question left for Clemson is where will they stand on Sunday afternoon and what semifinal site they will head to. Alabama appears locked into the No. 1 seed in the Peach Bowl but could the close result against Virginia Tech — combined with Washington’s emphatic win in the Pac-12 title game — force a national title game rematch in Atlanta?

That’s probably not on the minds of the Tigers on Saturday night as they rightfully celebrate yet another league championship and look like a dangerous team to face at the end of the month.

No. 7 Penn State completes comeback for the ages to claim B1G title

Penn State's Saquon Barkley (26) makes an 18-yard touchdown catch against Wisconsin's T.J. Watt (42) during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
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On Sept. 24, Penn State was 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in Big Ten play after a 49-10 undressing by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their Big Ten title hopes were left for dead. As we know, they managed to rally and win the Big Ten East.

And then, with 5:15 left in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions trailed 28-7 and their chances of actually winning the game were again left for dead.

But the Cardiac Cats rallied. Again. The seventh-ranked Lions closed the game on a 31-3 run to race past No. 6 Wisconsin for a 38-31 Big Ten Championship victory.

Of course, this win means much more than that. At 11-2 on the season, winners of nine in a row and winners of college football’s best conference, the question now becomes whether the College Football Playoff selection committee chooses the Lions over 11-1 Ohio State or Pac-12 champion Washington on Sunday.

But first, the comeback.

Penn State simply could not get out of its own way — or get Wisconsin out of its way… or get in Wisconsin’s way, for that matter — over the game’s first 25 minutes. The Badgers opened by forcing two three-and-outs and launching two long touchdown drives to grab a 14-0 lead a dozen minutes into the game. After a McSorley touchdown pass put Penn State on the board, the Nittany Lions allowed an errant snap to be returned for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

James Franklin elected to go for a fourth-and-short in his own territory on the ensuing possession and was rebuffed. Wisconsin again capitalized on the mistake to grab a 28-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half. Penn State again failed on a fourth-and-short near midfield on the next possession, but this time the Badgers failed to cash in. And that proved costly.

Because that failure to land the death blow allowed Penn State’s Cardiac Cats persona to awaken.

The Lions’ comeback started when McSorley hit Saeed Blacknall for a 40-yard touchdown catch with 58 seconds left in the half to pull within  a more manageable 28-14 deficit at the break.

After Wisconsin missed a field goal to open the second half, McSorley answered by finding Blacknall for a 70-yard scoring strike on the very next play. Then Penn State tied the game on its next touch as Saquon Barkley punched in a 1-yard score at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter.

Wisconsin re-gained the lead with a 23-yard Andrew Endicott chip shot, but only after Bart Houston missed what would have been a walk-in touchdown to tight end Troy Fumagalli on 2nd-and-8 from the 10-yard line.

Given the opportunity to take the lead, Penn State took full advantage, marching 81 yards in only four plays as Barkley hauled in an 18-yard wheel route from McSorley.

McSorley finished the game hitting 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions — against a defense that came in allowing eight touchdowns while swiping 21 interceptions. Compared to Houston’s numbers — 16-of-21 for 174 yards — quarterback play proved to be the difference in the game. McSorley’s play allowed Penn State to win a game in which it was out-rushed 241-51.

Wisconsin punted on its next touch, and Penn State missed its chance to deliver a knockout punch, instead settling for a 24-yard Tyler Davis field goal with 5:14 to play in the game.

Wisconsin would need a touchdown to force overtime, while Penn State would need a stop to complete its 21-point comeback. The Badgers moved to the Penn State 24, but, facing a 4th-and-1, Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain.

Penn State expired the final 58 seconds and secured the largest comeback ever in a Power 5 conference championship game.

Arkansas State, Appalachian State end up as SBC co-champs

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Two of the 10 FBS conferences don’t have championship games to determine a league champion.  The Big 12, which will go to a title game format next season, crowned an undisputed champion earlier today.  The other game-less league, on the other hand, will have more than one official champ.

Arkansas State had the opportunity to potentially win the Sun Belt Conference outright, but lost in Week 13 to drop to 6-1 in conference play.  Appalachian State won the same weekend to finish the season at 7-1 and claim at least a share of league title.

ASU and Troy, both 6-1 entering Week 14, needed a win to claim its share.

Troy failed miserably, falling 28-24 on the road to a Georgia Southern team that entered the game 4-7 overall and 3-4 in the SBC.  ASU, though, passed its final regular season test, putting 20 fourth-quarter points on the scoreboard in getting past Texas State in a 36-14 win in San Marcos.

The Red Wolves have now won five SBC titles the past six years, with three of those (2011, 2012, 2015) being undisputed.  They’re also the first team since Troy was in the midst of a five-year run from 2006-10 to win back-to-back championships.

As for App State, this is the Mountaineers’ first FBS league championship since moving to the SBC from the FCS for the 2014 season.

The three teams at the top of the SBC will play in some combination of the New Orleans/Dollar General/Camellia Bowls.  Arkansas State will be playing in its sixth straight bowl game, while Appalachian State will be in its second in a row in just its third season at this level.  Troy, meanwhile, will be making its first postseason appearance since winning the New Orleans Bowl in 2010.

San Diego State runs past Wyoming for second straight Mountain West title

San Diego State's Donnel Humphrey runs for a touchdown during the first half against Wyoming in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Laramie, Wyo. (AP Photo/Michael Smith)
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They say revenge is a dish best served cold. San Diego State checked off both boxes on Saturday night.

The Aztecs captured their second straight Mountain West championship and avenged an earlier loss with a 27-24 win over Wyoming in freezing conditions up in Laramie.

The San Diego State ground game was clicking all night long in a game where it was difficult to get much of anything through the air. Star tailback Donnel Pumphrey finished with 110 yards and a touchdown, passing former Texas great Ricky Williams to become the second leading rusher in FBS history late in the third quarter. The senior trails only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne by 108 yards on the all-time list with a chance to top his mark later this month in what will likely be a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Pumphrey’s backup Rashaad Penny wasn’t too shabby either, picking up a team-high 117 yards on the ground and finding the end zone twice. It was a good thing both players were humming in the backfield as quarterback Christian Chapman managed only 85 yards on six completions.

The SDSU defense also came to play in one of their best performances in a while. They picked off Wyoming’s Josh Allen twice, recovered a fumble late in the second half and bottled up the prolific runner Brian Hill to the tune of just 93 yards.

The Cowboys made a run to close the gap to just a field goal in the fourth quarter but couldn’t quite get over the hump for their second win in as many weeks over the Aztecs for a first ever Mountain West title.

Instead it was Rocky Long’s San Diego State squad that could lay claim to being the best in the conference this season for the second year in a row.