TAKEAWAYS | It's beginning to look a lot like a Broncos Cotton Bowl
MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
Hey, if the Hallmark Channel can start its countdown to Christmas in October we can take a moment before Halloween to look at the Group of 5's New Year's Day bowl picture.
So — through eight weeks of the season, it appears the Broncos will play in the Cotton Bowl. That is the Group of 5's destination this season in the New Year's Six games.
But which Broncos, Boise State or Western Michigan?
Both are among the nine remaining unbeaten teams in FBS. Western Michigan is 8-0, matching the best start in school history, after a 45-31 MAC victory against Eastern Michigan Saturday on ASN. Boise State improved to 7-0 with a 28-27 victory against BYU after blocking a 44-yard field-goal try with 16 seconds remaining.
Boise State of the Mountain West moved up one spot to No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25 while Western Michigan of the MAC remained No. 20. And that's the key. The highest-ranked team from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt will play in the New Year’s Six.
It could still be Western Michigan if the Broncos from Kalamazoo go undefeated while the Broncos from Boise lose.
WMU passed a test Saturday, rallying to win after trailing at home for the first time this season.
"We needed to be challenged like this, it was not easy and it was not perfect," said head coach P.J. Fleck, who was added to the Paul "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year Award watch list last week. "We are a top?20 program; we aren’t going to get anything less than everybody’s best."
Fleck has exhorted his team to "Row The Boat" — pull together in the same direction — since going 1-11 his first season at WMU in 2013. That's just what they did against Eastern Michigan. After falling behind 17-14 in the second quarter, WMU stormed back to take a 31-17 lead.
"I’m really proud of the guys on how they responded to this test that (EMU) threw at us," senior quarterback Zach Terrell said. "We weathered the storm and we came out on top together and rowing. That’s an elite team win.”
Whether they will be elite enough to play in the Cotton Bowl remains to be seen. Western Michigan could run the table and still get the New Year's Day cold shoulder. San Diego State (6-1) is on course to play Boise State in the Mountain West championship game. Navy (5-1), meanwhile, has beaten Houston and leads the American Athletic Conference's West Division.
The Aztecs and Midshipmen, even with one loss, might finish higher in the rankings than undefeated Western Michigan because of their strength of schedule. WMU's best win came in the opener, 22-21 at Northwestern.
At least WMU is dominating the MAC, leading the league in scoring offense (44.4 points per game) and scoring defense (19.2 ppg). They are 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and have won 15 of their last 17 games and 10 in a row. That includes the first bowl win in school history, a 45-31 victory against Middle Tennessee of Conference USA in last year's Bahamas Bowl.
Playing New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl would be Western Michigan's biggest triumph yet.
NEW MEXICO IN ARIZONA?
Speaking of bowl games, New Mexico is emerging as a consensus choice to play in ASN's bowl game — the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Dec. 30 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.
The Lobos (4-3, 2-1 Mountain West) are coming off a 59-17 victory against UL Monroe in which they rolled up 622 total yards. It's the third time they have surpassed 600 total yards under Bob Davie, the former Notre Dame head coach.
The Fighting Irish fired Davie in 2001 after he went 35-25 in five seasons with three bowl losses. New Mexico went 11-26 in Davie's first three seasons, but finished 7-6 last year with a 47-37 loss to Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl.
Davie will be looking for his bowl victory while New Mexico will be looking for its first bowl victory since beating Nevada 23-0 in the 2007 New Mexico Bowl.
Nevada won last year's inaugural NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl, 28-23 against Colorado State.
“Well, that was fun. It was a really fun football game,” head coach Brian Polian said after his first bowl win in three seasons at Nevada. “It want to say publicly that this was a great experience. This was a great bowl.”
The Mountain West representative will face a team from the Sun Belt or Conference USA. Idaho (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (4-3, 2-1 Conference USA) are possible candidates.
Idaho, which is leaving the Sun Belt after next season and returning to FCS and the Big Sky Conference, needs two wins in its last four games to be bowl eligible.
So does Old Dominion to qualify for its first bowl game. UTEP on Oct. 29 and Florida Atlantic on Nov. 19 appear to be winnable contests for the Monarchs, who are coming off a 59-24 loss to Western Kentucky Saturday on ASN. But that appeared to be the case last year, when ODU only needed to beat 2-9 FAU to reach the postseason. The Monarchs lost 33-31, turning the ball over on downs in the final minute.
Middle Tennessee (5-2, 2-1 C-USA) is another projected possibility and would provide a great matchup of contrasts against New Mexico. The Lobos lead FBS with 374.1 yards rushing per game while the Blue Raiders are eighth in FBS with 354.4 yards passing per game.
THE SEC IS OVERRATED
Speaking of Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders' 51-45 victory at Missouri was the latest indication that the SEC is overrated.
No. 1 Alabama might very well be the best team in the nation, but there's no way the SEC is the nation's premier football conference. Not after one of its teams allowed 595 total yards to a visiting Conference USA team on homecoming. Not when MTSU, the No. 8 passing offense in FBS, gained more yards rushing (311) than passing (284).
MTSU's I'Tavius Mathers earned another FBS #GameChanger nomination after gashing the Tigers for 215 yards rushing on 28 carries, including a 71-yard touchdown. That's the most rushing yards against Missouri since Auburn's Tre Mason (180) in the 2013 SEC Championship.
Three years later, Missouri (2-5 with wins against Eastern Michigan and Delaware State) is an SEC bottom-feeder. But the Tigers are the third SEC team to lose to a Group of 5 opponent this season — Southern Miss of C-USA beat Kentucky, 44-35, and South Alabama of the Sun Belt beat Mississippi State, 21-20.
C-USA teams nearly won two more games against SEC opponents, but Louisiana Tech lost 21-20 at Arkansas and Western Kentucky lost 31-30 in overtime at Vanderbilt.
And the Sun Belt nearly scored another upset against the SEC when Appalachian State lost 20-13 in overtime at Tennessee. The Volunteers never led in regulation.
South Carolina survived close calls against East Carolina of the American Athletic Conference, 20-15, and UMass, 34-28. The Minutemen, 1-7, are an FBS independent.
Georgia escaped the biggest upset of all on Sept. 10 against Nicholls of the FCS Southland Conference. The Bulldogs rallied from 14-13 deficit in the third quarter then held off a late rally to beat the Colonels, 26-24. Nicholls (3-4 overall) is tied for fourth in the Southland at 3-2.
What's the old saying? A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Or in this case, the SEC.
SHSU HOLDS NO. 1 POLL POSITION IN FCS
Sam Houston State, coming off a 38-21 victory at Nicholls Saturday on ASN, remained No. 1 in the STATS FCS Top 25. In fact, Nos. 1-9 remained unchanged, including The Citadel at No. 5. The Bulldogs and Bearkats, both 7-0, are the remaining unbeaten teams in FCS.
The Bearkats are also No. 1 in FCS with 592.1 total yards and 52.4 points per game.
And speaking of No. 1, congratulations to Fordham's Chase Edmonds. The FCS leader with 1,244 yards rushing this season became the school's all-time leading rusher in a 17-14 Patriot League victory against Georgetown.
Edmonds carried a career-high 37 times for 179 yards, giving him 4,730 for his career. He surpassed Kirwin Watson's former mark of 4,617 yards in 2000-03.
Photo illustration by Mike Bambach/ASN