We are near the end of the regular season of college football, and what a year it has been for mid-major schools. A “Group of 5” has formed this year surrounding mid-major schools who have hoped to get a crack at making a “Big Six” Bowl Game on New Year’s, the modern day comparison of being a BCS bowl buster in prevous years, though this spot is guaranteed. It has been a very very interesting year in the “Group of 5” and has seen many teams rise and fall with potential at making a Big Six bowl game, so before the final week, we will take a look at the team that have risen and fallen over the last couple weeks, and at the team that is in the driver’s seat for the position.
The beginning – Early on this season, there was a lot of discussion as to who would potentially “run the table” and be the mid-major team that makes the Big Six bowl game. The talk ranged from the Marshall Thundering Herd, who had a favorable schedule, the Boise State Broncos with new head coach Bryan Harsin, to the upstart Louisiana Lafayette Cajuns, or the up and coming Cincinnati Bearcats. After week one, there was no clear team that stood out from the rest, but the Broncos took a fall after a 13-38 loss against Ole Miss in a game that was closer than the score indicated. The Broncos seemingly would have had to run the table from that point to make a Big Six bowl. Week two saw the Lafayette fall in a crushing loss to the Louisian Tech Bulldogs 20-48, the Northern Illinois Huskies pull off a huge win at Northwestern, and the East Carolina Pirates make a statement in a 23-33 loss at South Carolina (which would factor later into the Pirates run). After week three, an amazing upset occured in Blacksburg when the Pirates of ECU upset then #17 Virginia Tech on a late 1-yard TD run by Shane Carden thaat catapulted the Pirates into the Group of 5 representative talk, while only Marshall, Cincinnati and Northern Illinois remained undefeated out of the Group of Five teams.
The race narrows – After three weeks of the regular season, the Group of 5 representative race had dwindled down to seemingly four teams with a real chance. After a week four dominating performance from the red-hot East Carolina Pirates over North Carolina in a 70-41 win, a favorable schedule seemingly had the Pirates as the favorite to make a Big Six bowl. As the weeks passed, the competition dwindled as the Bearcats lost three games in a row, the Broncos dropped another game at Air Force, and Northern Illinois had gotten blown out by Arkansas. Only two teams remained in the talk to make a Big Six bowl, and after week nine, both teams were playing lights out. The Pirates of ECU were 6-1 after winning five straight, and the Thundering Herd of Marshall were 8-0, with their closest game being a 15-point game against Miami (Ohio). The Pirates had the edge on Marshall due to their ranking in the College Football Playoff, being 23rd in the inaugural rankings. Week 10 came in the college football season, and the PIrates were seemingly on cloud nine with a favorable schedule, no conference championship and impressive wins early in the season, until they ran into a Temple team that shut down the Pirates offense in a 10-20 loss for ECU, that all but knocked them out of Big Six bowl talk.
Who Will It Be? – After the East Carolina loss, the race had all but been narrowed down to the 8-0 Marshall Thundering Herd, but a weak strength of schedule had many people questioning how goof the Herd were. So what other teams would step up if the commitee felt the Herd weren’t good enough for a Big Six bowl game? The Boise State Broncos had suddenly re-emerged as a favorite after cruising over opponents after their loss at Air Force, and the Colorado State Rams were sitting at 8-1 after winning seven straight after their loss at Boise. Before week 13 of the season, none of the three Group of 5 candiates were among the Top 25 in the playoff rankings, so no team had an edge to the Big Six bowl. The Herd had continued to cruise through their schedule, sitting at 10-0; the Broncos were 8-2 after a big win over San Diego State; and the Rams of Colorado State were 9-1. After week 13 wins by all three teams, two of those teams finally cracked the Top 25 of the playoff rankings finally. The Boise State Broncos ranked 23rd and the Thundering Herd of Marshall were 24th, respectively. The Broncos held a minor edge over the Herd due to their rankings, but after a crazy week 14, the fuzzy picture finally became clear.
Broncos take control – With the season winding down, the three teams still seemingly alive in the Group of 5 race still had a lot of work to do. The Broncos faced a tough task against a good Utah State team, the Thundering Herd played a high powered offense of Western Kentucky, and the Colorado State Rams played at Air Force in a matchup of two stellar teams. On Friday, the Thundering Herd hosted the Hilltoppers in a matchup that pitted two great offense against each other, unfortunately, the Herd’s defense didn’t get the memo about playing defense and they lost a heartbreaker in overtime off a Brandon Doughty two-point conversion, losing 66-67 and losing all hope to make a Big Six bowl in the process, despite playing the next week in the Conference USA championship. The Rams of Colorado State also played on Friday, and like Marshall, lost a 24-27 heartbreaker after a 39-yard Field Goal by Will Conant as time expired, and the Rams, like Marshall, saw their Big Six bowl game hopes diminish. The ball was officially in the Boise State Broncos court as they were the only team left of the three to play, and a win would all but seal the deal for the Broncos to be the first Group of 5 representative. The Broncos came out on their Senior night and made a statement, winning 50-19 over the Utah State Aggies behind Jay Ajayi’s 229 yards and 5 TDs, all while clinching a spot in the Mountain West championship.
The Boise State Broncos now are the only team in the College Football Playoff Rankings coming it at #22, and a Mountain West Championship game against the 6-6 Fresno State Bulldogs this Saturday should see the Broncos clinch a Big Six bowl game spot, and the the inaugural Group of 5 representative.
However, one cannot overlook the success of the Colorado State Rams this season, going from 8-6 in ’13 to 10-2 in ’14. The Rams will fall into an amazing post season spot if the Broncos win the Mountain West Championship, as they will land in the Las Vegas Bowl, being one of the very few teams from the Group of 5 to play a Power 5 conference team in a bowl game. This is huge for a Colorado State team that in ’11 was 3-9 and will potentially make a bowl game for the second straight season against a Power 5 team after beating Washington State 48-45 in the New Mexico bowl last season.