South Florida began the season as the only ranked team from the Group of 5, giving the Bulls the literal poll position in the race to represent the non-power conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game. Hoping to join Boise State, Houston and Western Michigan as smaller conference programs to play on the big stage, USF started slow under new head coach Charlie Strong. However, after a dominant 43-7 win over reigning American Athletic Conference (AAC) champion Temple, the Bulls improved to 4-0 and maintained their position as the highest ranked mid-major college football program.
But, even if USF manages to go undefeated through the regular season and win the AAC Championship Game, there’s now a strong possibility another G5 program will leapfrog the Bulls for the coveted New Year’s Six spot. San Diego State has played a tougher early-season schedule than South Florida, and the Aztecs have passed each test – including wins over Pac-12 opponents Arizona State and ranked conference title contender Stanford.
Running back Rashaad Penny has 716 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 91 carries this season – good for an average of 7.87 yards per attempt, boosted by a 95-yarder against Arizona State. Penny, who also had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Sun Devils, ranks second in the FBS with 179.0 rushing yards per game. He has run for at least 128 yards, has broken loose for at least one 30-yard gain in every contest, and has scored at least once in all four games.
By relying heavily on the running game, the Aztecs have also set up their defense for success. San Diego State has allowed just 292.3 yards of total offense per game and no opponent has gained more than 342 yards in a game despite a higher than expected average of 5.22 yards per play. The Aztecs have 10 sacks and an impressive 12.0 percent sack rate, with nine sacks combined against their two Pac-12 opponents. SDSU recorded four sacks against Stanford and held the Cardinal to a paltry 64 passing yards on 20 pass attempts. The Aztecs have also forced eight total turnovers and boast a plus-five turnover ratio.
Nevertheless, like USF, Rocky Long’s SDSU squad has been far from perfect. The San Diego State offense can be explosive, but the Aztecs have managed 396.3 yards of total offense per game and 5.85 yards per play, which rank No. 80 and No. 60 nationally, respectively. The offensive line also has surrendered 13 sacks so far (only seven FBS teams have allowed more) for an ugly 15.1 percent sack rate.
According to analytical statistics from Bill Connelly, San Diego State had just a 22 percent win expectancy against Arizona State but beat the Sun Devils 30-20. The Aztecs had a 42 percent chance to beat Stanford, yet outlasted the Cardinal 20-17. Last week, SDSU survived its Mountain West Conference opener against Air Force 28-24 despite just a 25 percent win expectancy.
But, having survived those hard-fought contests, San Diego State is capable of running the table. Connelly’s projections show the Aztecs as an underdog in only one of their eight remaining regular season games (Boise State has a 53 percent chance of beating the Aztecs on Oct. 14) with SDSU having at least a 66 percent chance of winning each of its seven contests on the slate. For comparison' sake, USF is favored in all of its remaining games, with a 59 percent win probably against Houston the best chance for an upset. Yet the Bulls’ only win over a Power 5 opponent was a 47-23 victory over Illinois.
Given its success to date, San Diego State has a strong head start on a resume that should appeal to the College Football Playoff committee charged with handing out the New Year’s Six invites. With a potent rushing attack and a stingy, playmaking defense, an undefeated season is a distinct possibility. And even if the Aztecs stumble and lose at some point, the wins over Arizona State and Stanford give San Diego State the inside track to finish ahead of USF in the committee’s rankings.
– Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.