This weekend, most of the eyes of the Group of Five will be on the AAC title game in New Orleans as Tulane faces UCF for the conference’s crown. With a win, Tulane looks to be the hands-down favorite for the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six with an 11-2 record and a win over Kansas State, the potential Big 12 champion. If UCF wins, they likely would get the Cotton Bowl berth instead, despite a 10-3 record. Two wins over Tulane would boost their resume along with a win over a Georgia Tech team that beat the ACC Coastal champions, North Carolina.
For any prayer at the Cotton Bowl, the rest of the Group of Five needs to root for UCF to narrowly beat Tulane. The other Group of Five conference champions’ resumes compare better with UCF than Tulane, so let’s analyze each conference’s best New Year’s Six candidates.
Conference USA Best Candidate: UTSA 10-2
Best wins: Western Kentucky (8-5), Middle Tennessee (7-5, with a win over Miami (FL)) North Texas (7-5)
Dealbreakers: Loss to Houston (7-5, 4th in AAC) 41-20 loss to Texas)
UTSA’s resume looks solid on the surface but is more of a testament to the crumbling state of Conference USA. The Roadrunners beat the other four bowl teams in their conference, but only one had eight wins. Even if the Roadrunners win their second straight C-USA crown decisively, it would be hard to put them in the New Year’s Six over UCF due to their loss to an inferior team in UCF’s conference. Additionally, they have a weaker resume than Troy, who would have beaten 10-2 South Alabama and 9-3 Coastal Carolina, and Boise State, who would have beaten 9-3 Air Force and 8-4 Fresno State.
MAC's Best Candidate: Ohio (9-3)
Best wins: Win over 7-5 Toledo in MAC Championship Game
Dealbreakers: 33-point loss to Iowa State (4-8)
Parity has long been the MAC’s calling card, but it works against the conference in the New Year’s Six race. Ohio is having its best season since 1968 due to its ability to avoid upsets within the conference for the most part. While their loss to 5-7 Kent State is comparable to UCF’s loss to Navy, the Bobcats’ 33-point loss to 4-8 Iowa State kills their New Year’s Six resume compared to UCF, who beat Georgia Tech, and 11-2 Troy, who lost to 8-4 Ole Miss by 18-points. Ohio is also hurt by only having one win over a team with seven or more wins, while UCF would have wins over 10-3 Tulane and 9-3 Cincinnati.
Mountain West's Best Candidate: 9-3 Boise State
Best wins: Air Force (9-3), Fresno State (8-4)
Dealbreakers: 17-point loss to UTEP (5-7)
Remember when Boise State lost to UTEP on September 24? Well the Broncos quietly went 8-0 in Mountain West play after the embarrassing loss to the Miners and will play for the Mountain West title. Their wins against 9-3 Air Force and 8-4 Fresno State are impressive, but would not be as strong as UCF’s two wins over 10-win Tulane and 9-3 Cincinnati. Additionally, the loss to 5-7 UTEP by multiple scores is worse than UCF’s 3-point loss to Navy.
Sun Belt: 11-2 Troy or 10-2 Coastal Carolina
Troy’s best wins: South Alabama (10-2 with a last-second loss to 9-3 UCLA), Marshall (8-4 with a win over 8-4 Notre Dame), Coastal Carolina (9-2)
Coastal Carolina's best wins: Troy (10-2), Marshall (8-4 with win over Notre Dame)
Troy Dealbreakers: N/A
Coastal Carolina Dealbreakers: 28-point loss to 4-8 Old Dominion, 40-point loss to 8-3 James Madison
Troy arguably has the best argument for the New Year’s Six out of any team not in the AAC. Troy’s losses came on a hail mary to Appalachian State, who went 6-6 and by 18 points to Ole Miss. Both losses are forgivable and not particularly bad. Their win over 10-2 South Alabama and a Marshall team who beat Notre Dame give them arguably as strong a resume as UCF. Most importantly, they do not have a bad loss like UCF, who lost to 4-7 Navy.
Coastal Carolina is having another strong season and would have a strong resume if they were to beat Troy, as they also have a win over Marshall. However, if UCF’s 3-point loss to Navy was ugly, then Coastal’s loss to Old Dominion was even worse, as they lost by 28 to the 4-8 Monarchs. A 40-point loss to James Madison is also bad, but maybe forgivable given the Dukes’ 8-3 record.
While all eyes will be on the AAC for the Group of Five's New Year's Six berth, the race is closer than in other years, which is encouraging for the Group of Five as a whole. Even though most of the Group of Five conference championships have no New Year's Six implications, it will still be an amazing weekend of college football across the Group of Five landscape.