East Carolina still in favorable spot in Group of 5 bowl sweepstakes
East Carolina avoided a complete disaster on Saturday. The Pirates trailed South Florida at halftime in Tampa, but ECU managed to rally for a 28-17 victory in American Athletic Conference play. A loss may have been enough to derail a season that appears to be on track to end in the biggest bowl game in school history.
With the new College Football Playoff format, the highest-ranked champion from the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference (the so-called Group of 5 conferences) as determined by the CFB Playoff selection committee, will be guaranteed a spot in the big revenue bowl line-up, commonly referred to as the New Years Six. That includes the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl. This year’s playoff semifinals will take place in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, leaving a spot in the Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach up for grabs.
Having wins against Virgina Tech and North Carolina has thrown ECU in front of the pack from the Group of 5 conferences. Boise State and Utah State stumbled early to fall behind, and Cincinnati has gotten off to a rough start as well as Houston. The MAC has fallen behind the pack as well. With so many programs struggling to take advantage of the new postseason format, East Carolina and Marshall currently have the best shot at playing in a big bowl game.
Marshall is 6-0 and clinched bowl eligibility this weekend with a win over Middle Tennessee State. The problem for Marshall is the strength of schedule. Marshal’s best wins so far this season are against Akron and Middle Tennessee State, the only teams currently with a winning record on Marshall’s schedule (there are more to come in conference play). Compared to ECU’s overall body of work, that does not hold as much water as the Pirates. Yes, East Carolina lost to South Carolina, but the Pirates having two victories over power conference opponents will likely make it difficult for even an undefeated Marshall team (at 13-0 with a Conference USA championship game victory) to pass East Carolina if the Pirates end the season at 11-1.
The second half of the season will focus on the race for the four playoff spots, but the competition between conference championship contenders from the AAC, Conference USA and Mountain West Conference will be worth keeping an eye on as well.