College Football Playoff Rankings: Will The Mountain West Land In The First Top 25?
Can Air Force or Fresno State establish a foothold in the race to a New Year’s Six bowl game?
Two teams are in contention. How much respect will they receive?
College football season has reached November’s doorstep and, to this point in the calendar year, the Mountain West has not disappointed.
While the field of expected and surprise contenders thinned over the last couple of weeks, the two teams at the top of the conference standings, the Air Force Falcons and Fresno State Bulldogs, might have done enough to merit an appearance on the season’s first College Football Playoff top 25 rankings, which will be revealed on Tuesday.
Here’s how the two contenders stack up:
Air Force Falcons (8-0)
Oct 28, 2023; Fort Collins, Colorado, USA; Air Force Falcons quarterback Zac Larrier (9) runs with the ball against the Colorado State Rams at Sonny Lubick Field at Canvas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Michael Madrid-USA TODAY Sports
Best three wins: vs. Wyoming (5-3), at San Jose State (4-5), at Navy (3-4)
Best three opponent wins: Wyoming over Texas Tech (3-5) at home, San Diego State over Ohio (6-3) at home, Colorado State over Boise State (4-4) at home
The case for the Falcons: The Falcons are one of eight undefeated FBS teams left standing and, more importantly, one of just three 8-0 teams among the Group of 5. They’ve also proven in the last few weeks that they can push back when pushed, rallying to beat Wyoming at home before surviving back-to-back road challenges against rivals Navy and Colorado State.
The case against the Falcons: A soft schedule to date might limit the Falcons’ ceiling to start, as that is the same obstacle that hinders most G5 aspirants in the debut rankings. Among Air Force’s eight victories so far, only 5-3 Wyoming currently has a winning record, though they’ll have the chance to bolster that in November with back-to-back clashes against UNLV and Boise State to close the regular season.
Fresno State Bulldogs (7-1)
Sep 30, 2023; Fresno, California, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs defensive back Camryn Bracha (27) is congratulated by linebacker Levelle Bailey (6) after recording a sack against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the third quarter at Valley Children’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
SP+ rank: 47 | FEI rank (through Week 9): 37 | Sagarin rank: 59 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 110/128
Best three wins: vs. UNLV (6-2), at Utah State (3-5), at Purdue (2-6)
Best three opponent wins: Purdue over Virginia Tech (4-4) on the road, Arizona State over Washington State (4-4) at home, UNLV over UTEP (3-6) on the road
The case for the Bulldogs: Fresno State has battled injuries all year long, but Jeff Tedford’s Bulldogs are still in the hunt thanks to an offense that rarely beats itself and an opportunistic defense that is probably the best in the Mountain West outside of Colorado Springs. Like Air Force, they’ve also mostly taken care of the business on the road with three wins away from Valley Children’s Stadium, one of 12 Group of 5 teams with at least three road victories through Week 9.
The case against the Bulldogs: Unlike Air Force, Fresno State lost to Wyoming for their lone blemish to date. Also unlike Air Force, the Bulldogs have won more often than not but haven’t always done so convincingly. While the College Football Playoff committee doesn’t take margin of victory into explicit account, it may be hard to ignore that Fresno State is now 4-1 in games decided by eight or fewer points, part of an overall schedule through which, at present, UNLV is the team’s lone victory over an opponent with a current winning record.
How do these Mountain West teams stack up against everyone else in the hunt? Read on to learn more.
By Way of Comparison: The Rest of the G5 Field
Tulane (7-1): SP+ rank: 42 | FEI rank: 45 | Sagarin rank: 52 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 96/96
Liberty (8-0): SP+ rank: 46 | FEI rank: 48 | Sagarin rank: 63 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 128/115
Toledo (7-1): SP+ rank: 53 | FEI rank: 81 | Sagarin rank: 65 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 121/129
SMU (6-2): SP+ rank: 40 | FEI rank: 33 | Sagarin rank: 27 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 129/120
Troy (6-2): SP+ rank: 45 | FEI rank: 39 | Sagarin rank: 50 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 95/68
James Madison (8-0): SP+ rank: 39 | FEI rank: 40 | Sagarin rank: 51 | Strength-of-schedule rank (per Sagarin/Sports Reference): 89/91
What are the big takeaways here?
You might have thought Tulane would take a step back after their epic Cotton Bowl win in 2022, but other than a road loss to Ole Miss, the Green Wave are back in the AAC’s driver’s seat with a win against 6-2 Memphis already in hand. Like Fresno State, however, Tulane has had a penchant for close calls with one-score wins over the Tigers, 3-5 North Texas, and 4-4 Rice in the last three games. Relative to the Bulldogs and Falcons, the Green Wave probably have a modest leg-up in overall resume to date, but they may need to do some more convincing down the stretch to prove they deserve a chance at back-to-back New Year’s Six appearances.
The Liberty Flames and new head coach Jamey Chadwell have certainly made Conference USA more interesting this fall, but how will the committee measure their conference wins against 7-2 Jacksonville State and 6-3 New Mexico State? Neither the Gamecocks nor Aggies have beaten anyone with a winning record, so it may be that Liberty coasts to the CUSA title game and gets the 2014 Marshall treatment along the way.
After losing a heartbreaker in their season opener against Illinois, Toledo has done plenty to affirm the notion that they’re the class of the MAC. The Rockets just concluded a three-game road swing with a key victory over 7-2 Miami of Ohio, but their resume is otherwise light on significant wins and may remain so if the Illini and San Jose State can’t play their way to bowl eligibility. If they can get a rematch in the conference championship with either the Redhawks or the Ohio Bobcats, who are currently 6-3, that will also help.
SMU has blasted the dregs of the AAC over the past month, winning their last four games by an average of 38 points, but the cold reality is that the Mustangs probably needed to beat either Oklahoma or TCU to be a part of the initial conversation since they currently have zero wins against opponents with a winning record. Their best (and maybe their only) chance to play their way in is to run the table and hope they get to topple Tulane in the conference championship game.
Outside of a blowout road loss to Kansas State in non-conference play, the Troy Trojans have leaned on a potent defense to string together a five-game winning streak and get the inside track in the Sun Belt’s West division. While their home loss to James Madison in Week 3 stings in retrospect, they’ve defeated 6-2 Georgia State and 5-3 Texas State and could sneak their way into stronger consideration should someone above them in the pecking order stumble between now and December. Don’t sleep on this team.
And then there is JMU, a team that many people believe is getting completely hosed by NCAA rules. There’s no doubt that, in a perfect world, the Dukes would easily secure a spot in the initial rankings if they were ruled eligible, though it seems like we’ll have to settle for a potential scenario in which the program claims the national championship after running the table.
Know Thy Enemy: Week 10 Schedule For G5 Competitors
Buffalo (3-5, 3-1 MAC) vs. Toledo – Tuesday, 10/31, 4:30 PM PT/5:30 PM MT, ESPN2
South Alabama (4-4, 2-2 Sun Belt) vs. Troy – Thursday, 11/2, 4:30 PM PT/5:30 PM MT, ESPN2
Tulane at East Carolina (1-7, 0-4 AAC) – Saturday, 11/4, 12:30 PM PT/1:30 MT, ESPNU
James Madison at Georgia State (6-2, 3-2 Sun Belt) – Saturday, 11/4, 12:30 PM PT/1:30 MT, ESPN2
Louisiana Tech (3-6, 2-3 Conference USA) vs. Liberty – Saturday, 11/4, 3:00 PM PT/4:00 PM MT, CBS Sports Network
SMU at Rice (4-4, 2-2 AAC) – Saturday, 11/4, 4:30 PM PT/5:30 PM MT, ESPNU
So what do I think the first top 25 will look like? Read on.
Projected College Football Playoff Poll, Week 10
Back in 2021, the Mountain West landed two teams — San Diego State and Fresno State — in that season’s first College Football Playoffs rankings. The Bulldogs even had two losses when they landed at #23, one spot ahead of the #24 Aztecs, so it may be instructive to view 2023 through that particular lens.
Though Air Force and Fresno State have both played slightly softer schedules overall through nine weeks, the Bulldogs have played at a remarkably similar level through the eyes of both SP+ and FEI while the Falcons have a better profile, at least on par with what 2019 Boise State brought to the table when the Broncos began at #22 with a 7-1 record. Winning your first eight games by an average of roughly 20 points each should earn you a little benefit of the doubt.
Fresno State is in a much tougher bind for now because the committee has, in most years, demonstrated a habit of ranking two- and three-loss Power 5 teams that have played tough schedules (2022 Texas, 2021 Wisconsin, and so on) ahead of the best handful of G5 candidates. If you watch on Tuesday and see Miami (FL), Texas A&M or, heaven forbid, Iowa land in the top 25 instead of the Bulldogs, this is why. The lone exception to this, at least in my opinion, is Oklahoma State: Someone is going to have to take James Madison’s place in the top 25, after all, and Mike Gundy’s Cowboys are now 6-2 with wins over Kansas and Kansas State.
I do think that dearth of surefire Power 5 options will be enough for Fresno State to squeak in. Even if that isn’t the case for this week, the path to January 1 could not be more clear for the cadets and the Red Wave. Keep winning, and the rankings will take care of themselves.