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New Year’s Six watch: The AAC’s 6-year streak is in jeopardy

We look at 15 different New Year’s Six candidates alive for the bid shared by the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

Fresno State v Arizona State Photo by Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

The 2023 season features the 10th and final time of the current 4-team College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six as we know it. Every year, one spot in the NY6 is reserved for the highest-ranked conference champion of the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

This bid has been heavily dominated by the AAC, which rides a 6-year streak of appearing in a New Year’s Six bowl. The only non-AAC teams in the nine years of the College Football Playoff era to earn a bid to these prestigious bowls were 2014 Boise State of the Mountain West and 2016 Western Michigan of the MAC.

But this year, the AAC isn’t off to a strong start. The conference lost three of its usual powers in Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF this offseason, and non-conference play was quite disastrous for the majority of the 14-team league. The only programs that boast winning records after four weeks are reigning champion Tulane and Memphis, and nobody is a perfect 4-0.

Still, there are several 4-0 teams eyeing that New Year’s Six bid, hoping to keep the losses to a minimum by the time conference championship weekend swings around. To get an idea of what records are usually needed to contend, here are the past NY6 representatives which claimed the automatic bid shared by the AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

  • 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

Here, we break down each of the top 15 candidates to qualify for this year’s bid:

The premier candidates

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Fresno State at Purdue
Fresno State CB Carlton Johnson is tied for the national leader in interceptions with three. He has the Bulldogs’ defense second in the country in turnover margin at +8.
Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. Fresno State Bulldogs (Mountain West), 4-0: Fresno State is the only team eligible for this New Year’s Six bid with a ranking currently beside its name. The Bulldogs are No. 25 in the country after defeating Purdue in a back-and-forth thriller, shutting out Arizona State 29-0 on the road, and clobbering Kent State by 43 in Central Valley. There was a slight hiccup in the middle which involved skating by FCS competition in overtime fashion, but the Bulldogs are an overall stellar team. The offense hasn’t missed a beat moving on from star quarterback Jake Haener to UCF transfer Mikey Keene, who averages over 300 yards per game. And there’s star talent all around from Mountain West leading receiver Erik Brooks to cornerback Carlton Johnson, who leads the FBS with three interceptions on the year. The schedule is favorable as well, and the greatest threats to a 12-0 regular season are Wyoming on Oct. 7 and Boise State on Nov. 4.

2. Air Force Falcons (Mountain West), 4-0: There’s another Mountain West team which could possibly collide with Fresno State in a 12-0 vs. 12-0 conference title matchup. No service academy has ever qualified for a New Year’s Six before or even claimed a 21st century conference championship, but Air Force looks like a legitimate candidate to buck both trends. The defense is suffocating opponents to 12.8 points per game, while the offense leads the FBS in rushing for the fourth consecutive season. Air Force has been one step away from contention, attaining 10+ wins in each of the last three non-pandemic seasons. This year’s squad can likely afford one regular season loss and still qualify for the NY6, with Wyoming and Boise State as the toughest opponents remaining.

3. Tulane Green Wave (AAC), 3-1: The incumbent NY6 participant has all the tools it needs for a return trip. Tulane slipped up in 2022 non-conference play against Southern Miss, but a stellar AAC slate put the Green Wave back in position to qualify for the Cotton Bowl. This year’s team lost to Ole Miss at home without the services of star quarterback Michael Pratt, but now Pratt is back in the lineup and the team has won 10 of his last 11 starts. Tulane’s offense may not have the luxury of Tyjae Spears in the running game this year, but the unit is more explosive through the air with Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys, who combine for six 35+ yard touchdown passes this year. Combine that with the AAC’s best defensive line which is leading the group to 3.8 sacks per game, and Tulane looks poised to reign the AAC once again.

The next wave

Memphis v Missouri
Memphis QB Seth Henigan aims to lead the Tigers to their second New Year’s Six appearance after a 3-1 start.
Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

4. Memphis Tigers (AAC), 3-1: Memphis was the final AAC team to squander its undefeated record, but Ryan Silverfield’s fell only by seven to an undefeated SEC squad in Missouri. Memphis finished 7-6 last year, but the team wasn’t far off from double-digit wins when looking at the close nature of some gut-wrenching losses. But this year’s squad looks far improved at the skill positions, bringing in transfers like Blake Watson and DeMeer Blankumsee to complement third-year starting quarterback Seth Henigan. And the defense looks sharper than it did in prior years, allowing just 18.8 points per game. The Tigers returns home for a challenging non-conference game against Boise State, and then they host Tulane two weeks later after an opportune bye. Memphis’ final test of the season also transpires at the Liberty Bowl when it faces SMU in the regular season finale. The program has collected 27 wins in its last 30 outings at home, so the Tigers simply defending their territory could lead them back to the NY6 for the first time since 2019.

5. Liberty Flames (CUSA), 4-0: Liberty might have as good of a chance as finishing the regular season 12-0 as any team in the country, but be warned, strength of schedule could be an argument against the CUSA’s lone unbeaten. The Flames are off to a 4-0 start and only one opponent on the schedule currently boasts a winning record — FBS newcomer Jacksonville State. But Liberty’s toughest matchup is likely an Oct. 24 road game at WKU. Jamey Chadwell’s team breezed by each of its first four FBS opponents by double-digits, and the competition won’t take too much of an upswing. Dual-threat quarterback Kaidon Salter is the perfect fit for Chadwell’s scheme, and the sophomore is up to 11 touchdown passes this year with only one interception while attaining 268 yards as a rusher. Liberty also leads the country in takeaways (12) and interceptions (10), and sustaining that level of execution on defense could have the Flames competing in the NY6 in their first season since shedding independent status.

6. Toledo Rockets (MAC), 3-1: Toledo is one Illinois miracle fourth down conversion away from showcasing a 4-0 record. The reigning MAC champions spent the last two weeks overcoming adversity in the form of 10-point second half deficits to San Jose State and Western Michigan, but the Rockets passed both tests thanks to sensational performances by running back Peny Boone. The defense is loaded with All-MAC talent in the secondary and the front seven produces 3.8 sacks per game. Add veteran quarterback Dequan Finn to the mix, and Toledo has the full arsenal to become the first back-to-back MAC champion since 2011 and 2012 Northern Illinois. Other than a road game at Miami (OH) on Oct. 21, Toledo might be double-digit favorites in every game remaining this season. If enough chaos transpires in other conferences, a 12-1 MAC team could find itself NY6 bound.

7. Marshall Thundering Herd (Sun Belt), 3-0: Marshall currently exhibits the nation’s seventh-longest win streak, claiming eight-straight victories dating back to the conclusion of 2022. And this streak is thriving because the defense is an absolute force to be reckoned with. During Marshall’s last 13 games, the defense has not surrendered more than 24 points once. The unit has stifled nine of these 13 opponents below 20 points, including all three challengers this year. Marshall limped out of the gate this year, falling behind an FCS team by double-digits before a fourth quarter comeback, but the Thundering Herd controlled their last two matchups against East Carolina and Virginia Tech. The offense has a security blanket in running back Rasheen Ali, who averages 132 rushing yards and over two touchdowns per game. This defense is strong enough to win the most loaded Sun Belt we’ve seen in years. The question is, can Marshall generate enough points to elevate to NY6 status?

The dark horses

NCAA Football: Georgia St. at Appalachian State
Georgia State QB Darren Grainger has yet to throw an interception this year, and his efficiency has led the Panthers’ to their first-ever 4-0 start.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

8. SMU Mustangs (AAC), 2-2: History suggests SMU must win out after a 2-2 start. How feasible is this task? The schedule shapes up nicely for the Mustangs, as they avoid Tulane and face a more-than-manageable schedule of Charlotte, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, Rice, North Texas, Memphis, and Navy. Of those eight teams, only Memphis totes a winning record. The Mustangs played two challenging non-conference opponents in Oklahoma and TCU, and they countered both very well on the defensive end — limiting those explosive, up-tempo Big 12 offenses to 14 first half points each. With no more Sooners or Horned Frogs on the schedule, SMU has a feasible path to finish the season 11-2. But losing one game could destroy the NY6 hopes for good.

9. Ohio Bobcats (MAC), 4-1: Week 0 participant Ohio is nearly halfway through its regular season slate. And if the Bobcats didn't lose star quarterback Kurtis Rourke to a first quarter injury in Week 0 at San Diego State, they’d probably be undefeated. Ohio proved its separation from conference competition in a 38-7 thrashing of Bowling Green on Saturday. The Bobcats avoid Toledo on their regular season schedule, and the opponent remaining they wouldn’t currently be double-digit favorites over is Miami (OH). And this rivalry, known as “The Battle of the Bricks” transpires in Athens, OH this year. Win that game, win the MAC Championship, and there’s certainly a shot the MAC claims the NY6 for the first time since 2016?

10. Wyoming Cowboys (Mountain West), 3-1: Week 4 was such a stacked slate that Wyoming’s fourth quarter comeback against Appalachian State flew way under the radar. The Cowboys erased a 19-7 deficit in the final stanza to improve to 3-1, with that Week 1 win over Texas Tech embellishing their season résumé. Wyoming’s only loss was to Texas in a game that was tied 10-10 in the fourth quarter. The reason why the Cowboys aren’t higher on this list is because the Mountain West is grueling. They face Fresno State at home and battle Boise State and Air Force on the road in the month of October. Wyoming’s defense is spectacular, but the team needs to figure out the scoring situation before enduing that grind which could make or break this season.

11. Georgia Southern Eagles (Sun Belt), 3-1: Georgia Southern quietly put together one of the more impressive non-conference performances in the Sun Belt. The Eagles cleared UAB by 14 points, annihilated Ball State in 40-3 fashion, and played Wisconsin closer than the box score would suggest. Georgia Southern held a 7-point third quarter lead over the Badgers before an onslaught of three second half turnovers resulted in 21 points for the Big Ten West favorite. Still, the nation’s seventh-best passing offense has plenty going for it. James Madison, Georgia State, and Marshall are the toughest opponents remaining, and while the Sun Belt is a grind this year, the Eagles have shown the capability of contending for their first-ever outright league title.

12. Miami (OH) RedHawks (MAC), 3-1: Miami (OH) could not claim to be the superior Miami in a 38-3 loss to Miami (FL) to launch the season, but ever since “The Confusion Bowl,” the RedHawks have looked the part of MAC contenders. Miami has the most lethal quarterback-to-receiver combo in the conference with fifth-year starter Brett Gabbert and FCS transfer Gage Larvadain, a duo which has accounted for 438 yards and four touchdowns this season. Led by Gabbert, the RedHawks snapped a 16-game skid against crosstown rival Cincinnati and they pulverized their other non-conference opponents by means of an explosive offense. The results of a home game against Toledo and road matchup at Ohio in back-to-back October weekends will determine if the RedHawks can hit double-digit wins by December.

13. Georgia State Panthers (Sun Belt), 4-0: Georgia State is off to its first 4-0 start in program history after putting away Coastal Carolina 30-17 on the Surf Turf in Conway, SC. The Panthers’ schedule significantly ramps up in difficulty though, after starting out with an FCS team, UConn, Charlotte, and Coastal Carolina to cruise to four-straight victories. Up next is Troy, followed by an October slate of Marshall, Louisiana, and Georgia Southern. Then November presents James Madison, Appalachian State, LSU, and Old Dominion. Staying unscathed, or just chalking up fewer than two losses, against that schedule is extremely difficult, but Georgia State may still find itself in Sun Belt East contention thanks to the dynamic offensive trio of quarterback Darren Grainger, running back Marcus Carroll, and wide receiver Robert Lewis.

14. Boise State Broncos (Mountain West), 2-2: The sky seemed to be falling last year when Boise State started 2-2 with an alarming home loss to UTEP. The Broncos fired their offensive coordinator, quarterback Hank Bachmeier entered the transfer portal, and somehow, everything clicked. Then Boise State went 8-0 in Mountain West play and never lost again until the Mountain West Championship Game. A similar scenario could unfold in 2023, but the Broncos also have one of the toughest slates of all the candidates. Road games at Memphis and Fresno State and home games versus Wyoming and Air Force headline the remaining eight games. But Boise State cannot afford one more loss in all likelihood to crash the NY6 for the first time since 2014.

15. South Florida Bulls (AAC), 2-2: Not many teams have risen their stock from Week 1 to Week 4 like South Florida. The Bulls opened the season with a disastrous 41-24 loss at WKU and played an uninspiring Week 2, only beating Florida A&M of the FCS by 14 points. But we’ve seen a completely new team under first-year head coach Alex Golesh the last two weeks. South Florida played Alabama jarringly well, having the game tied 3-3 through the late third quarter thanks to relentless pressure from the defense. They lost 17-3, but the offense found its footing on Saturday against a Rice team which started off strong. Quarterback Byrum Brown threw for 435 yards and dazzled with his mobility in a 42-29 victory. If Brown continues this electric play and the defense sustains its willpower from the Alabama game, every game could be winnable. And Memphis is the only above-.500 opponent remaining as Tulane is absent from the schedule.