With Enough Chaos, Could the AAC Champion Be in the College Football Playoff Conversation?
“AAC! AAC! AAC!”
It was a chant that easily could have -- maybe should have -- rang out throughout the Liberty Bowl as Memphis concluded its 37-24 win over 13th-ranked Ole Miss last Saturday.
It was a stunning performance for the upstart Tigers, whose dominance over the SEC power was not fully reflected in the final score. Memphis’ star quarterback Paxton Lynch picked apart the vaunted Land Shark defense like a plate of nachos, racking up 384 yards on 39 completions. Meanwhile, Ole Miss managed just 40 yards rushing against a Memphis defense that made key adjustments after going down 14-0 just minutes into the game.
The victory propelled Memphis (6-0) to 18th in the new AP poll, followed closely by fellow undefeated American Athletic Conference schools, Houston (21st) and Temple (24th).
While national headlines have focused on playoff frontrunners like Ohio State and Baylor, the AAC’s upper tier has quietly put together an impressive 2015 resumé against Power 5 schools, punctuated by Memphis’ win over the Rebels. The conference’s other marquee wins this year include Temple crushing Penn State, Houston with a road win at Louisville, East Carolina over Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati beating Miami.
It is not to suggest that Memphis or the AAC elite are playoff contenders now. In the eyes of the college football pundit class, they will never be. But an AAC team making the Final Four is not quite the far-fetched scenario that it seemed even one week ago.
If parity continues to reign in the Power 5 conferences and a number of contenders slip up alá 2007, we may be forced to seriously consider the viability of a playoff spot going to the AAC champion.
Here is a look at the case to be made for each of the AAC’s remaining unbeatens, should Power 5 chaos ensue:
By most accounts, Memphis is the crème of the AAC crop. The numbers support the narrative. The Tigers currently sit at 26th in our team efficiency rankings -- based on nERD, the expected point differential for a given team against an average opponent on a neutral field -- which puts them ahead of the likes of Texas A&M, Georgia, UCLA, and even unbeaten Michigan State.
The key is Memphis’ pace and efficiency in the pass game. Per our numbers, Memphis is the seventh fastest offense in the nation, while still maintaining FBS’ third most efficient passing attack. Lynch has thrived in the up-tempo offense. Consider this national profile: Lynch ranks fourth in completion percentage (71.4 percent) and fifth in yards per attempt (9.6) and has just one interception.
Of concern, though, is the Tigers’ matador defense. S&P+ ratings from SB Nation’s Bill Connelly rate Memphis as the 88th best defense in college football. The Tigers are yielding an average of 30.2 points per game against FBS schools and 6.3 yards per play, which ranks 111th out of 128 FBS teams. To be taken seriously, Memphis will need to demonstrate that its defensive showing in the final 54 minutes of the Ole Miss game was no fluke.
Having a compelling narrative may help mask some deficiencies. Coach Justin Fuente has the Tigers on the nation’s third longest winning streak and holds a 19-3 record over his first three seasons. In the three seasons prior to his arrival, Memphis won just five games -- total. Fuente has completely transformed the Tiger football program from also-ran to Cinderella story, and he is doing it without a haul of five-star recruits. Rather remarkably, Memphis' pass offense is buoyed by receivers Anthony Miller and Mose Frazier, both former walk-ons.
Four games will likely determine Memphis’ playoff fate: versus Navy (November 7), at Houston (November 14), at Temple (November 21), and the AAC title game (December 5). ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) currently puts Memphis’ chances of winning out at 7.7 percent. If it does, Memphis will possess undeniably solid resumé. That should certainly give the Playoff Committee something to think about.
First-year Houston head coach Tom Herman has quickly made his team a top candidate for Overachieving Team of the Year. Houston is just three spots behind Memphis in our nERD rankings, and the teams share some key similarities. Houston is also a top-10 team in terms of pace and can put up scores in bunches. The Cougars are averaging nearly 46 points per game and have not scored fewer than 34 points in any single contest. Perhaps most impressively, Houston is doing all of this while down three offensive linemen.
Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. has proven to be a perfect fit for Herman’s offense, which he honed at Ohio State. Ward is a dual threat in the vein of J.T. Barrett, and has piled up 9 passing touchdowns and 14 rushing scores. He has had at least three total touchdowns in every game this season.
Houston’s remaining schedule sets up extremely well. The Cougars get their toughest four opponents – Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Memphis, and Navy – all at home. According to nERD rankings, Houston should be a favorite in all of its remaining regular season games. ESPN’s FPI gives Houston at least a 53 percent chance to beat Memphis and at least a 69 percent chance to knock off every other team.
Herman is definitely a hot name in the coaching rumor mill. His stock will only increase if he can position his Cougars team as playoff contenders in his first year.
How’s this for a hot take? Temple would be a likely playoff team if they run the table to a 13-0 record. It’s probably a stretch worthy of a Skip Bayless endorsement, but consider that such a feat would give the Owls wins against Penn State and Notre Dame out of conference and AAC victories over Cincinnati, East Carolina and Memphis (likely twice).
Temple wants to ugly up every game they play. In this way, Matt Rhule -- another trendy name in coaching circles -- breaks from other top teams in AAC who spread you out and wear you down. Temple would rather come out and punch you square in the jaw, and it’s working. S&P+ rankings love the Temple defense, now ninth in the nation in efficiency. While the metrics are down on the Owls' offense, it too is based on the throwback concepts of physicality and power football.
"We're going to line up in big sets and we're going to rock you for four quarters," offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield told USA Today. "We call them body blows. If you can withstand it, great. But we're going to try to get you to drop those hands, and when you drops those hands then we go for the kill."
Temple’s first Top 25 ranking since 1979 is a noteworthy accomplishment, but its ability to dominate physically -- and slow down -- East Carolina, Memphis, and Houston will be a tall order. But their Final Four ambitions will likely be decided before getting into the meat of their conference schedule in November.
At the beginning of the year, who could have predicted that Notre Dame at Temple on Halloween might have playoff implications?
A text from a friend earlier this week probably summed it up best: “A prime time nationally televised game for Temple. What a college football world we live in.”
The AAC would certainly agree.