Well this is a giant clusterf---, now isn't it?
East Carolina couldn't hold onto the ball against Temple, Justin Holman couldn't stop tossing interceptions against UConn, and suddenly we have a five-way tie at the top of the conference. The big question is, who is most likely to rise to the... umm, cream of this crop? We'll go in order of the current standings.
Quality Wins: 28-24 @ Memphis, 31-10 vs Temple
Bad Losses: 27-7 vs UTSA
Man, that opening loss to UTSA is a long time ago now, but it keeps getting uglier each week, as does their loss against BYU (unless you give brownie points for them playing the Taysom Hill Cougars instead of the Christian Stewart Cougars).
But now they've won three straight with Greg Ward Jr. under center, two of which came against other teams in this conversation, and their next three opponents are a combined 3-20. Ward has been accurate (44-of-52 the last two games) and avoided turnovers. There is no reason this team shouldn't be 8-3, 6-1 heading into their finale on the road against Cincinnati.
Quality Wins - 70-41 vs North Carolina, I guess
Bad Losses - 20-10 at Temple
It's a small positive for the Pirates that they can claim a team within this group as their worst loss of the season, but dear lord was it ugly. Not only that, but ECU has suffered the dreaded situation where their schedule has gotten weaker as the season has gone on. The Pirates played two games against teams that were ranked at the time of the game, and both those teams now have losing records - as does everyone else they've played except Temple.
A win over a 5-4 FCS team and a 5-2 record against a group of FBS teams with a combined 22-37 record will guarantee you that you can kiss your dreams of being ranked goodbye, but they still have a bunch of positives. First of all, no matter how ugly last week's game was, we know that's the exception not the rule.
This offense is still top-notch at an average of 360
Shane Carden yards passing yards per game, which might be enough in the AAC. They also get a week and a half to prepare for a weeknight game on the road against a Cincinnati defense that has given up an average of 626 yards of offense to their four previous opponents with winning records.
Quality Wins - 41-14 @ Cincinnati, 36-27 @ Middle Tennessee
Bad Losses - 28-24 vs Houston
The Tigers are rolling, as Ole Miss remains the only team to hold them to less than 24 points on the season after back to back steamrollings of Tulsa and SMU. In Memphis' five victories, Paxton Lynch has seven passing touchdowns, two interceptions, and five rushing touchdowns. In their three losses those numbers become three, four and two. Suffice to say, as Lynch goes so go the Tigers.
The Tigers played not one but two road games against teams who were ranked at the time. Unlike ECU, both of their opponents are still ranked, and they played extremely well. They very nearly defeated UCLA, and they didn't trail Ole Miss by more than a touchdown until the last 10 minutes of the game.
It's a huge boost to them that they already took care of business against Cincinnati, and that after this week against Temple, they face no other serious challenges the rest of the way. The loss against Houston stung, but they've rebounded nicely and have only one real hurdle between themselves and that coveted 9-3, 7-1 finish I've already referenced.
Quality Wins - 58-34 vs Toledo
Bad Losses - Technically none
The above information largely depends on your perspective. Yes, their three losses are to opponents with a combined record of 18-7. That said, they gave up 1.941 yards and 146 points in those three games. They also gave up another 563 yards in their win over Toledo, a game where they led by 34 points at halftime and by seven points a minute into the fourth quarter. Did I mention they just barely beat a Miami (OH) team that is now 2-8?
Their defense has gotten better, but it still isn't spectacular, and they have the toughest schedule of the group. They have three of four remaining games against teams we're talking about in this cluster, and are the only one in the group that doesn't play Tulsa (which is much more detrimental than it is for Houston to not play UConn, I assure you).
The season finale against Houston would likely be for the title if the Bearcats win out to that point, but I think that's the least likely scenario.
Quality Wins - 17-12 @ Houston, 31-24 (OT) @ BYU, 34-14 vs Temple
Bad Losses - 37-29 @ UConn
It says a lot about the current state of the Knights' season that their worst loss came right after their most recent strong win. Holman has been all over the place, and his numbers over the last five games bear that out. UCF might be 4-1 in that span, but Holman has passed for 101, 326, 113, 336, and 284 yards while completing 33, 59, 53, 64, and 53 percent of his passes.
That failure is either on Holman or the offensive coordinator, depending on who you ask, but either way it makes what looks like an easy road a little less certain. The Knights are off this week and then face Tulsa and SMU at home before travelling to South Florida and East Carolina. If Good Holman shows consistently, they're easily 8-3, 6-1 heading into that finale. If not? Who knows, things could turn quickly.
Their Friday night game against Memphis looms large, but they would still need to topple Cincinnati as well, in addition to everyone else stumbling in order to achieve the top rung of this ladder. They've had a nice season and should finish strong, but they've already lost to Houston and UCF and still need to avoid losing to both Memphis and Cincinnati.
First, some math:
If Memphis wins out: Memphis has one loss, no others affected - remaining opponent record 12-21
If ECU wins out: ECU has one loss, UCF and Cinci have at least two losses - remaining opponent record 13-19
If UCF wins out: UCF has one loss, ECU has two losses - remaining opponent record 10-22
If Houston wins out: Houston has one loss, Cinci has two losses - remaining opponent record 8-23
If Cinci wins out: Cinci has one loss, ECU and Houston have two losses - remaining opponent record 18-14
I'm buying in on the Tigers, even if they need help. They've got one of the better offenses in the group, they've played the toughest schedule to date, and they have a pretty easy schedule going forward.
Obviously, the best case scenario is one where both they and Cincinnati win out, because that would leave them a season-ending ECU victory away from a conference co-championship with Cinci, where they would get first place.
That's also the least likely scenario given that the Bearcats have the toughest remaining schedule. Additionally, all Houston has to do to be first over the Tigers is win out the easiest schedule of the group, a bunch of cream puffs and then Cincinnati.
It's too soon to say anything definitively other than "this Friday's game between Memphis and Temple will help a lot of this." But things just got a lot more interesting.