We waded into the College Football Playoff waters on Monday morning by releasing our top four teams one day in advance of the selection committee's first set of rankings. After tweeting out our article, a follower wrote back asking who we thought led for the Group of Five's guaranteed spot. That's a new term for this unprecedented era we live in.
Before we answer the question, let's first give a brief primer for the uninitiated.
The selection committee isn't just placing four teams in the Playoff, they're also selecting matchups for each of the New Year's Six bowls - Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta. Two of those bowls will serve as semifinals each year (this year it's the Rose and Sugar), while the other four will remain what they've always been - glorified exhibitions on or around New Year's Day. The committee will slot the best remaining teams to the non-semifinal game, and one spot will be reserved for the committee's highest-ranked Group of Five (representing the American, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC) champion. Certain bowls are under contract to specific conferences - Big Ten vs. Pac-12 for Rose, Big 12 vs. SEC for Sugar, ACC/Notre Dame vs. Big Ten/SEC for Orange - in years where they don't host a semifinal. That means on Dec. 7 the committee will select one Group of Five team to face an at-large selection in either the Peach, Cotton or Fiesta bowls (dubbed "access bowls" by the Playoff folks), depending on match-ups, geography, and other factors at play.
With that out of the way, let's examine the state of each Group of Five league and stack up who has a shot at a New Year's Six appearance.
American: The odds-on favorite to win the spot as long as they don't lose out, Ruffin McNeill's Pirates are the highest-ranked Group of Five team at No. 21 in the latest AP poll. East Carolina owns wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, which aren't great but better than its main competition can boast, and its only loss is to South Carolina. Win at Temple and Cincinnati in the next two weeks and the Pirates can likely start booking flights for Atlanta.
Conference USA: The only other Group of Five team ranked in the latest AP poll (checking in at No. 23), Marshall is the first team in college football to eight wins, and the only team to win eight games by 15 points or more. But what do those eight wins mean when the best one is against Middle Tennessee?
MAC: There is no Byron Leftwich, Ben Roethlisberger or Jordan Lynch in the league to drive a MAC team into the nation's top 15. Toledo is the only team still undefeated in conference play, but lost to Cincinnati and Iowa State in non-conference play. Maybe in 2015.
Mountain West: Colorado State is maybe the conference's best bet, with a 7-1 record, but is second place in its own division after its loss to Boise State. No matter, Rams are still in great position to work their way into the Top 25 with an 11-1 (or 12-1, if Boise State slips up) finish. At present, though, the Broncos probably still have the conference's best resume. If only they hadn't turned the ball over 11 times in losses to Ole Miss and Air Force.
Sun Belt: As a transitional member to FBS, Georgia Southern (6-2 and in first place in the Sun Belt at 5-0) needs a shortage of bowl-eligible teams to play an extra game, hoping to fill a spot another conference can not fill. Are you ready to have your mind blown? Willie Fritz's team's losses have come to N.C. State (by one) and Georgia Tech (by four). If one play here or there goes differently in both games, Georgia Southern is undefeated and facing the chance of playing its inaugural bowl game in the Peach Bowl.