Aside from the four teams that will participate in the playoff, the committee’s rankings also determine a key spot for teams that are in conferences outside of the Power 5. Whichever team from the so-called “Group of 5” conferences is ranked the highest in the committee’s end-of-year rankings will receive the coveted automatic bid for those conferences to a New Year’s Six bowl. That spot has been occupied for the past several seasons by the University of Central Florida Knights, but this year, several other contenders are making their push.
SMU, ranked 15th, is currently undefeated and at least in the AP poll, appears to have the inside track at the bowl bid. But the Mustangs have a difficult matchup this Saturday, when they travel to Memphis to face the 24th-ranked Tigers in an AAC West showdown.
Two of the other contenders for that potential bid get the national spotlight this Saturday on CBS Sports Network. Fellow American Athletic Conference contender, the #17 Cincinnati Bearcats make the trip to Greenville, North Carolina to face the East Carolina Pirates, with kickoff slated for 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The Bearcats are 6-1 on the year, with their lone loss coming against #3 Ohio State, who very well might be the best team in the country. According to CBS Sports Network college football analyst Malik Zaire, the thing that has stood out the most about the Bearcats so far this season is the “toughness” that head coach Luke Fickell has instilled in his defense.
“He is a defensive coach, and he came from a defensive lineage at Ohio State with the great defensive coaches he had there. The toughness in the defense is what is going to win you games, and it has been really successful for him this season,” said Zaire.
To that point, the Bearcats have allowed just 20.4 points per game this season, and that average is inflated by the 42 that they allowed to the Buckeyes. Take that game out, and the ‘Cats have been even stingier, allowing just 16.8 points per game and giving up 20+ to just two opponents (UCF & Houston). Another key factor in their success has been the quick development of sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder, who is completing 60 percent of his passes for just shy of 1,400 yards with 13 touchdowns through seven games. Zaire says his former offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, now with the Bearcats in the same role, designs a system that makes it possible for young quarterbacks to succeed.
“Coach Denbrock is going to call plays so that the reads are clear for him to be able to play fast,” said Zaire. “That is something that has helped in his development as a young player and it has proven to work for him so far.”
The Bearcats opponent this week, East Carolina, is not expected to provide too much trouble, with oddsmakers installing the Bearcats as 24-point favorites. But matchups still loom against Temple and Memphis in the final two weeks of the season, as potential speed bumps in Cincy’s quest to play on New Year’s Day.
Also vying for that spot are the perennial class of the Mountain West, the Boise State Broncos. Currently ranked #21 in the AP Top 25 poll, Bryan Harsin’s squad is coming off of its first loss of the season, 28-25, against BYU in Provo. Zaire sees that loss as a strong motivating factor for the Broncos as they push forward through the rest of their schedule.
“It is usually something motivating that can get you back on track and something your team can pull from to have a better showing for the next week,” said Zaire. “I was covering a high school game last week, and a team was undefeated going into the playoffs before losing to their rival just prior to the start of the playoffs. What that loss did was pull those guys together and show the strength of the team. I feel like it will be a similar thing for Boise State to come off of a loss and find the inner strength of the team and the seniors pull together to come out with a victory.”
The Broncos, with a win in hand over Florida State already this season, now face an upstart San Jose State team that just knocked off Army last week to get to 4-4 on the year. While that may not seem like much, it’s the first time since 2016 that the Spartans have reached the four-win mark. Coach Brent Brennan has a solid starting quarterback in Josh Love who should test the Boise secondary.
The bigger question for the Broncos is the health of freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier, who started the first six games of the season before injuring his hip against Hawai’i three weeks ago. His return will be crucial for the team down the stretch, as they push for that bid.
The Broncos look to get back to their winning ways on Saturday night in the Bay Area against San Jose State. Kickoff is set for 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS Sports Network. Boise State enters the matchup as 17-point favorites according to SportsLine.
Finally, a conversation can’t be had about potential Group of 5, New Year’s bowl teams without discussing undefeated Appalachian State and one-loss Memphis. The Mountaineers have rolled through their schedule in their first year under new coach Eli Drinkwitz. The Mountaineers defense has really stiffened in recent weeks, allowing just 17 points to conference opponents South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Lafayette. Ranked one spot ahead of Boise at #20, the Mountaineers face Georgia Southern on Thursday night.
As for #24 Memphis, they have the aforementioned battle with SMU on deck this Saturday, in a game that Zaire says will be determined by the quarterback play and which guy can make the key plays on third and fourth down when the team needs it. College Gameday will be on hand for the first time in program history, and it is sure to be a fun matchup, with the Tigers currently listed as six-point favorites. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the Tigers this year, keep an eye on running back Kenneth Gainwell, who has rushed for over 900 yards and topped 400 yards receiving already. Kickoff in that one is set for 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time.