Monday, November 18, 2019

Schaible: The New Year's Six race providing chaos among group of five schools

Photo Credit: Mike Carlson- Associated Press

By: Brian Schaible
Twitter: @SBNationReports

Saying Cincinnati escaped with a win in Tampa would be a massive understatement.

This was essentially a loss that miraculously appears in the win column.

Four missed field goals, head-scratching clock management, and just inane decision-making is what did in the South Florida Bulls on Saturday night.

The Bearcats are now 9-1 and very much in the chase for the New Year’s Six Bowl bid, which is awarded to the highest ranked Group of Five team.

“When you can go out there and not have your best, nothing clicking and find a way to win on the road, you really have to look at yourself,” said Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell. 

He went on to add, “When those guys believe in themselves, they’re hard to beat.”

He’s right, they’ve been an exceptionally tough team to close out.

UCF had a second half lead, Eastern Carolina threw a pick six in the closing minutes, and Saturday, USF sunk to new levels of late game ineptitude.

Has Cincinnati really found ways to win or have their opponents mastered the art of the second half collapse?

In Cincy’s only loss, there were no last second theatrics, there was a 42-0 clobbering by the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Despite all of this, that illustrious Cotton Bowl bid is theirs to lose. All they need to do is win their remaining games and the American Conference Championship and they will almost certainly be the highest ranked representative from the Group of Five.

Easier said than done.

In order to advance to the conference championship game, they’ll likely have to defeat an inconsistent Temple squad and then go on the road against No. 18 Memphis on Black Friday.

There are scenarios where Cincinnati could potentially match up against Memphis in consecutive weeks.

Will they do it? Who knows?

What I think is more fascinating is whether the American conference actually deserves the top ranked status amongst non-Power Five schools.

Before UCF’s unexpected loss to Tulsa last week, I began to explore whether the Knights has a path back to the New Year’s Six for the third consecutive year.

What was found most fascinating was interacting with UCF fans and media was that they were not worried about a one-loss Conference USA or Sun Belt champion. They stated emphatically that UCF would be given the nod if the bowl committee had to choose between the schools.

I thought, how ironic is this?

The same folks who campaigned against big school bias and how every benefit of the doubt seems to favor the SEC and Big 10, suddenly they are the ones now claiming conference superiority.

It was and remains and incredulous point of view. 

That said there are parallels in this race to become the Group of Five “champion”.

The Mountain West continues to schedule most of their games after 10pm ET and therefore generate minimal interest on a national scale. How has that worked out for the Pac-12 in playoff appearances?

Conference USA and Sun Belt are seemingly always in flux. While the MAC generally fares well in its annual Big Ten matchups, it’s also so closely matched that having a breakout team, like Western Michigan a few years ago, going undefeated is a very rare occasion.

2019 is proving to be the most competitive year in history for the coveted Cotton Bowl bid.

Here’s where we stand after Saturday:

Mid-American Conference: 

While the conference will certainly have many bowl bids, they have been eliminated from any possible New Year's Six Bowl. Just too many losses to overcome.

Conference USA: 

Skip Holtz’s Louisiana Tech squad jumped out to an 8-1 start but, they still couldn’t get any love from the pollsters. A second loss– 31-10 to Marshall finished off any remaining hopes.

American Athletic Conference: 

Three teams looking to compete for a conference title. SMU and Memphis are all in the same division with the latter owning a victory over the former. Whoever emerges will likely take on Cincinnati. There are certainly losses on the horizon, but if one of these schools can remain unscathed, they will likely emerge with the bid.

Mountain West: 

This will come down to whether Boise State can finish the regular season and champion at 12-1. If they do and the American Conference stumbles, they will secure the big payout.

Sun Belt: 

Appalachian State is putting together a resume that is hard to top. No other group of five team can claim two Power Five victories with both coming on the road. Outside of Clemson, they could easily stake claim that they are the second-best team in the Carolinas. A close home loss to Georgia Southern might mean they will need help to claim the top spot.