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Three under-the-radar, dark horse teams that could crash the New Year’s Six

The AAC has claimed the New Year’s Six in 6-straight seasons. But this year’s field looks more wide open than ever.

NCAA Football: Myrtle Beach Bowl-Marshall at Connecticut David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

This is the final year of the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six under the format first introduced in 2014.

Four teams qualify for the playoff. The champions of five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC) receive automatic invites to the New Year’s Six. And then the highest ranked champion among the five other conferences (AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) earns the last automatic bid.

Given recent history, the AAC champion seemingly has a de facto bid to the New Year’s Six. Six consecutive AAC title game winners have claimed this spot — UCF twice, Memphis, Cincinnati twice, and Tulane. The last time another conference secured this automatic bid was 2016 when undefeated Western Michigan represented the MAC in the Cotton Bowl. In the nine years of the current New Year’s Six format, the only other league to punch a ticket to one of these prestigious bowls was the Mountain West, sending Boise State to the Fiesta Bowl in 2014.

While it’s usually the AAC’s bid to lose, this year’s revamped version of the AAC lost three of its most accomplished programs — Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF — and the landscape of the conference has shifted significantly as a result. After two weeks, only one AAC program remains undefeated. And given the pre-bowl records of past qualifiers (as shown below), many 1-loss teams are all on the brink of elimination of the New Year’s Six:

  • 2014 Boise State, 11-2
  • 2015 Houston, 12-1
  • 2016 Western Michigan, 13-0
  • 2017 UCF, 12-0
  • 2018 UCF, 12-0
  • 2019 Memphis, 12-1
  • 2020 Cincinnati, 9-0
  • 2021 Cincinnati, 13-0
  • 2022 Tulane, 11-2

The race is wide open this year, especially considering the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt combine for zero ranked teams. Last year’s representative, Tulane, was severely under-the-radar heading into the season, checking in as seventh in the preseason AAC media poll fresh off a 2-10 season. That being said, which team could become this year’s Tulane?

So let’s lay some groundwork rules for the term “under-the-radar” and define it as teams that didn’t crack the top three in their respective preseason conference media polls.

Remember, claiming a conference championship win is a requirement for this New Year’s Six bid. So finishing the regular season 12-0 or 11-1 could be all for naught if it isn’t followed up by a win first week of December. Anyway, let’s look at some under-the-radar candidates:

Memphis Tigers

Toughest games remaining: 9/23 vs. Missouri (neutral-site), 9/30 vs. Boise State, 10/13 vs. Tulane, 11/18 vs. SMU

NCAA Football: First Responder Bowl-Memphis at Utah State
Memphis QB Seth Henigan is in his third year as the team’s starter. Through two games, he has 573 yards on a 74% completion rate.
Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The AAC has more members than ever in 2023. But the 14-team league is down to just one undefeated team after two weeks of action. It’s not reigning champion Tulane, nor reigning CUSA champion UTSA, nor SMU. Sitting alone at 2-0 in the league is Memphis — one of four teams eligible for this New Year’s Six bid that has earned one before (along with Boise State, Western Michigan, Tulane).

The Tigers have become accustomed to winning since joining the AAC. Memphis has not finished below .500 since 2013, becoming a bowl season staple while participating in three AAC Championship Games over that timeframe. And while the Tigers are fresh off a 7-6 season, that record doesn’t do justice in how close Memphis was to a double-digit win campaign in 2022. They blew a 19-point fourth quarter lead to Houston (holding a 13-point lead in the final 90 seconds). They lost in a four overtime, two-point shootout to East Carolina, 47-45. They also lost one-score games to UCF and SMU.

This year’s Memphis hopes to channel those brutal losses into more fortunate results. So far, the Tigers haven’t faced elite level competition, but they’re doing what should be expected against Bethune-Cookman of the FCS and Arkansas State, collectively beating them, 93-17. Quarterback Seth Henigan is in his third year as the starting quarterback, witnessing a notable spike in efficiency after two games. And Memphis is surrounding him with better weapons than ever. In 2022, the team saw zero 100-yard rushing and three 100-yard receiving performances the entire season. But through two contests in 2023, the running back and wide receiver groups look much deeper with transfer additions such as Blake Watson, Tauskie Dove, and DeMeer Blankumsee.

The question with Memphis has always been defense, but the Tigers vastly improved in that facet last season. Against Arkansas State, they limited the Red Wolves to 22-of-41 through the air, collected two interceptions, chipped in nine tackles for loss, and batted down seven passes — resulting in a 37-3 blowout. But one thing that truly favors 2023 Memphis is the schedule. The road slate is more than manageable. Neutral-site action against Missouri and a home game against Boise State round out non-conference play, but Memphis can feasibly win both games. And in league play, the two toughest opponents — Tulane and SMU — must travel to the Liberty Bowl, where Memphis has won 25 of its last 29 outings.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Toughest games remaining: 10/7 at NC State, 10/19 vs. James Madison, 10/28 at Coastal Carolina, 11/18 at South Alabama

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Marshall
Marshall DE Owen Porter was a First Team All-Sun Belt selection in 2022. Porter already has 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack through two games in 2023.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall certainly looked on track for a New Year’s Six invite around this time last season, taking out Notre Dame 26-21 in South Bend. The 2022 Thundering Herd went through a late-September, early-October funk, but now they ride the fifth-longest win streak in college football — having captured seven consecutive victories dating back to Nov. 5, 2022. Marshall is 8-1 since elevating Cam Fancher to the starting quarterback role around midseason last year, but the Herd have primarily made their mark on defense during this prosperous stretch.

The Thundering Herd broke in a new defensive coordinator in Jason Semore after Lance Guidry departed to Miami (FL). This defense held a litany of top 10 national rankings in 2022 — third down defense (1st), run defense (4th), turnovers gained (5th), scoring defense (6th), and total defense (7th). Still, the defense is exhibiting the same qualities as last year. Now, Marshall has strung together 12 consecutive games holding opponents to 23 points or fewer, and during that stretch, eight of those 12 opponents scored under 14 points.

Yes, the opponents have been Albany of the FCS and an East Carolina team depleted of its top players from 2022, but Marshall’s defense is still living up to the standard. Three total touchdowns and zero fourth quarters points have been yielded thus far. With the likes of defensive ends Sam Burton and Owen Porter as well as inside linebacker Eli Neal leading the charge in the front seven, Marshall ranks third in sacks per game and fifth in tackles for loss per game in 2023.

The Thundering Herd were selected to finish fourth in the East Division in the preseason Sun Belt poll, and that low ranking likely doubts the offense. Inconsistency on offense is the reason why the Albany game came down to the final quarter, but Marshall still has a not-so-secret weapon at its disposal on that side of the ball. Running back Rasheen Ali led the entire FBS in rushing touchdowns in 2021 before taking off the majority of 2022 due to personal reasons. Now Ali is back as the same player he was two years ago, totaling 222 rushing yards and five touchdowns through his first two contests. Even if Marshall’s passing attack doesn’t always deliver, the Thundering Herd can count on Ali and a relentless defense to lead them to their first Sun Belt title — and possibly, a New Year’s Six.

Wyoming Cowboys

Toughest games remaining: 9/16 at Texas, 10/7 vs. Fresno State, 10/14 at Air Force, 10/28 at Boise State

NCAA Football: Portland St. at Wyoming
Wyoming ILB Easton Gibbs ranked first on the team with 121 tackles in 2022. This season, he has 14 in addition to two pass breakups.
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Not many people expect Wyoming to emerge victorious on the road against No. 4 Texas this Saturday, and barring a stunning upset, the Cowboys’ undefeated run comes to an end. But even if it gets out of hand, New Year’s Six qualifiers have survived multi-score defeats to other elite teams before — see Boise State’s three-touchdown loss to Ole Miss in 2014.

Still, a path exists for the Cowboys as Mountain West champions, especially after winning a memorable double overtime thriller over Texas Tech. An Appalachian State team which took North Carolina to two overtimes last weekend concludes a challenging non-conference schedule, but the Cowboys have the luxury of playing that contest in Laramie. In all likelihood, Wyoming’s New Year’s Six prospects come down to how it survives the month of October. A home game against Fresno State and road trips to Air Force and Boise State could prove challenging, but the Cowboys will rely on their outstanding defense to power through to victory.

Last season, Wyoming limited six of its eight Mountain West opponents to 20 points or fewer, and a solid portion of that defense remains on campus in 2023. The potency of the Cowboys’ defense was on full display against Texas Tech, surrendering just three points in the final three quarters of regulation. The linebacker tandem of Easton Gibbs and Shae Suiaunoa is spearheading a run-stopping unit allowing 91.5 yards per game, while the coverage thrived with nine pass deflections against the Red Raiders alone.

The biggest question is — how far can Wyoming’s offense take this team? Quarterback Andrew Peasley looks like an improved version of himself, and his ability to run the football has kept the offense afloat so far. But questions still lurk about a passing attack which ranked 125th nationally in yards per game and 124th in completion percentage a year ago. If those metrics substantially progress, the Cowboys could find enough firepower to roll through these tough Mountain West opponents. And given the struggles of the AAC, the Mountain West champion could very well claim a New Year’s Six appearance for the first time in nine years.