OK, so the bragging rights between the power conferences after one full weekend of college football may draw more interest and debate, but what about the Group of Five? Non-conference matchups in the first few weeks of the season may actually have more riding on the outcomes for Group of Five conferences than they do the power conferences. With just one spot guaranteed to the highest-ranked champion of the Group of Five conferences — the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference, and the Sun Belt Conference — the race to win a seat at the New Years Six bowl lineup is already underway for the non-power conferences.
So, which conference is off to the best start as a whole? It just might be the conference that claims to be the nation’s sixth power conference.
The AAC went 5-4 this weekend to be the only G5 conference to go over .500 through Saturday’s games (East Carolina is playing today against North Carolina A&T). That 5-4 mark includes breaking even against power conference competition. The AAC was the only non-power conference to grab a win against a power conference opponent thanks to Cincinnati spoiling the debut of Chip Kelly at UCLA Saturday night. The conference had a rough opening weekend though with Navy, SMU, and Tulane all taking losses and Temple being upset at home by FCS Villanova. At least UCF and Memphis performed as expected, there were some demoralizing losses for the conference. We’ll see how that plays out down the line.
Conference USA went 6-8, but all six of the wins came against FCS opponents. Conference USA was 0-5 against power conferences, lacking a signature win for the conference as a result. Two of the conference’s losses came on the road against Wisconsin (Western Kentucky) and Oklahoma (FAU), which is understandable, but Old Dominion getting blown out on the road against Liberty in Liberty’s first FBS game in program history was not a great look. UTEP losing by 20 at home against FCS Northern Arizona also does not sit well for the conference. Conference USA is one of two Group of Five conferences yet to place a team in the New Years Six bowl lineup under the current format.
The other is the Sun Belt Conference, which nearly landed the win of the weekend for non-power conferences. Appalachian State gave it a serious run but could not escape Penn State with a road win against a top 10 team that could have shaken up the entire Group of Five race right out of the blocks. Instead, the Sun Belt went 5-5 overall, with all five wins coming against FCS opponents and a mark of 0-3 against power conferences. A few of those wins against FCS squads were nailbiters as well (Georgia State, UL Monroe), and Troy ended up getting blown out at home by Boise State of the Mountain West Conference.
Like UCF (and Memphis or Houston), Boise State is perceived as the flag-waving program for the Mountain West in 2018. The Broncos got their season off to a great start with their road win against the Trojans, but the conference overall had a bit of an underwhelming result this weekend. The Mountain West was 6-6 in games, but just 2-5 against FBS opponents and 0-5 against power conferences. While Boise State and Hawaii looked solid, the conference as a whole will look to improve their results if the conference is going to have a solid chance to send its champion back to the New Years Six ahead of the AAC.
And then there is the MAC, two years removed from sending its champ to the Cotton Bowl. It was a rough weekend for the MAC, with a record of 0-6 against FBS opponents and loading up on five wins against FCS foes.