Welcome to Road to the NY6! Each week, I’ll be taking a look at UCF’s chances to snag the Group of Five’s automatic slot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Last year, the Knights weren’t on anyone’s radar to start the season, but ended up going undefeated to make it to the Peach Bowl.
This year, everyone knows who UCF is. While they have the added advantage of starting the year ranked, the Knights will also have a target on their back all year. Let’s take a look at how the Group of Five is shaping up after the first week.
Group of Five Power Rankings
Disclaimer: These power rankings aren’t my personal opinion of which team is the best. They’re simply a ranking of which team currently has the best chance to make a New Year’s Six bowl, based on the opinions of the national media and upcoming games.
- Boise State
Last Week: 56-20 win at Troy
This Week: vs UConn
No, the Broncos aren’t the highest AP-ranked Group of Five team right now, but that could soon change with the way they’re playing. An absolute beat-down of an opponent coming off an 11-win season is a pretty impressive way to start the season.
A lot of Boise State’s preseason hype centered on quarterback Brett Rypien and he didn’t disappoint in his senior season debut, completing 20 of his 28 passing attempts for 305 yards and four touchdowns. He should be due for another big game next week when the Broncos take on the defensively-challenged UConn Huskies.
Whether it’s fair or not, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boise State jump UCF in the AP Poll soon. Lots of national media members have already been quick to declare the Broncos as the best representative from the Group of Five this year. Combine that with its years of success and a big win in week one, and Boise State may have distanced itself from the rest of the pack in the eyes of the AP voters.
Last Week: 56-17 win at UConn
This Week: vs SC State
Thursday night’s victory over UConn served as a major vindication for the Knights and their fans. The storylines had been beaten into their heads all offseason: Frost is gone, so UCF is done. That 13-0 record was a fluke. Auburn didn’t even want to be in the Peach Bowl.
But to the shock of many college football fans, UCF showed from the opening snap that its high-powered offense, bottomless well of talent and high-reaching expectations aren’t going anywhere. The Knights absolutely pummeled the Huskies, blazing down the field and adding more points drive after drive.
Junior McKenzie Milton was practically flawless, adding fuel to his fledgling Heisman campaign, Ole Miss transfer Tre Nixon led the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and after a slow start, the defense recovered to keep the Huskies away from the red zone for most of the second half. Across the board, it was a dream debut for new head coach Josh Heupel.
So why isn’t UCF first in these rankings? There’s a couple big reasons.
The first is that the Knights played on a Thursday night, a couple days before the 2018 season really got started. On the surface, this looked like a good thing for UCF. Fans who’d been hungry for college football for months only had a couple games to choose from that night so, theoretically, it should have meant more exposure for the Knights.
Instead, it meant that UCF was largely an afterthought by the time Saturday rolled around. FAU’s total collapse and Boise State’s dominant debut filled up the Group of Five headlines, while the Knights were left mostly forgotten.
But the main reason that UCF isn’t currently the favorite to get to the Fiesta or Peach bowl is because of something out of the team’s control: its conference opponents.
UCF’s opener may have been a dream, but a number of AAC teams lived through their nightmare scenarios on Saturday. Temple and ECU fell to FCS opponents, SMU and Navy were taken down by Group of Five teams, and USF and Tulsa finished with less-than-convincing wins.
As of right now, the Knights’ schedule is abysmal. They could realistically get through the season without playing a single ranked team. Given that Boise State has matchups this season with several good Mountain West teams and Oklahoma State, UCF could be in trouble when the Playoff Committee compares the two programs.
Last Week: 66-14 win vs Mercer
This Week: at Navy
There were a lot of questions marks heading into the season for the 2017 AAC runners-up. The Tigers lost their quarterback, their top receiver and their top defensive player. That kind of loss doesn’t exactly make for high expectations.
But after putting up a 56-point first half in its season opener, it looks like Memphis may be on track for another big season in 2018. Last year the Tigers biggest obstacle was the Knights, who they lost to on the road and again in the conference championship game. But this season, Memphis will host UCF and has a real chance to upset the defending champs.
Their out of conference schedule of Georgia State, South Alabama and Missouri offers little challenge, and they’ll also get Houston at home. The Tigers will likely challenge for the New Year’s Six spot late into the season, despite starting the year unranked.
Last Week: 45-27 win vs Rice
This Week: vs Arizona
Last year was unquestionably a step back for Houston. Only two years removed from a 13-1 season, the Cougars strung together just seven wins and lost their bowl to a Mountain West team. But after one game, it’s looking like Houston may be returning to form this year.
Despite a slow start, the Cougars earned a dominant win against Rice that included a big game for potential Heisman candidate Ed Oliver. He finished with 13 total tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss. The offense also had a solid game, with quarterback D’Eriq King throwing for 320 yards and three touchdowns.
Houston is a very real contender for the American Conference Championship. Of the Cougars’ eight conference opponents, only two finished with more than seven wins last season. If they can score wins against Arizona and Texas Tech, the New Year’s Six slot may be theirs for the taking.
- San Diego State
Last Week: 31-10 loss to Stanford
This Week: Sacramento State
Ok, I recognize this is not exactly a great first week performance. But these power rankings aren’t about who are the best five teams in the Group of Five. It’s about who has the best odds to make the New Year’s Six and the Aztecs are still very much in the conversation.
The final score was very misleading in their opening game. San Diego State hung with Stanford well into the second half, not to mention rendering Heisman hopeful Bryce Love effectively useless. The Aztecs have won at least 10 games three years in a row, and could be on their way to a big year once they’re back on a Mountain West schedule.