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Bowl Projections: Meet San Diego State, the Group of Five's New Hotness

The strongest Group of Five team through three full weeks of the season has two Pac-12 skins on its mantle and the nation’s leading rusher in its backfield. Will San Diego State earn a New Year's Six berth?

South Florida’s dark horse College Football Playoff campaign had virtually crumbled by the end of the first quarter of its season opener out west as San Jose State jumped out to a 16–0 lead. The Bulls were everyone’s preseason pick to threaten the playoff from outside the Power 5, but it was always understood that they would have to win with style on their way to an unbeaten regular season in order to get the committee’s attention. And USF has won, but style has hardly been a part of the equation: After rallying past San Jose State, the Bulls beat FCS Stony Brook by just 14 points, then endured a first-half slopfest on Friday night before creating some separation against Big Ten minnow Illinois.

So let’s get familiar with the Group of Five team that has made the strongest opening statement midway through September: San Diego State, owners of wins over Pac-12 opponents in back-to-back weeks and a new entrant to this week’s AP Top 25, nestled in right behind USF at No. 22. The Aztecs knocked off Stanford in Week 3 with a last-minute touchdown pass that followed a roughly 25-minute delay after the lights unexpectedly went out in San Diego Stadium, getting the attention of the nation at large beyond merely those who had stayed up for #Pac12AfterDark. Here’s what else they have going for them:

The Heisman Long Shot: Lost in Aztecs great Donnel Pumphrey’s chase for the FBS career rushing record last season was Rashaad Penny, who put up one of the quietest 1,005-yard, 11-touchdown seasons you’ll ever see. With Pumphrey now on the Eagles, Penny is setting defenses on fire all on his own: He’s the nation’s leading rusher through three games, with 588 yards and four rushing touchdowns, plus a touchdown catch and a 99-yard kick return TD in SDSU’s win at Arizona State. There are few athletes in the country more dynamic than the 5'11", 220-pound senior, who has put himself in position to challenge his predecessor’s single-season records.

The Coach: Rocky Long has three Mountain West titles to his name in six years at San Diego State, after spending much of the prior two decades as New Mexico’s head coach and a defensive coordinator at two Pac-12 stops, Oregon State and UCLA. This year’s defense has already forced seven turnovers, including three that helped the Aztecs dominate possession against Stanford.

The Stadium: Remember Qualcomm Stadium, the much-maligned home of the Chargers? Without the NFL tenant around, it’s just San Diego Stadium, a comically cavernous Mountain West venue. While the Stanford upset drew far fewer fans than the most sparsely-attended Chargers game, the 43,040 on hand did all they could to infuse college vibes into a pro stadium, from the pregame tailgate ...

... to the field-storming celebration:

The Schedule: Pass tough tests in the next two weeks—a road trip to Air Force and a visit from Northern Illinois, fresh off an upset of Nebraska—and San Diego State can start thinking seriously about storming the New Year’s Six. (Meanwhile, USF, Memphis, Houston and UCF all look dangerous enough to cannibalize each other’s chances once AAC play begins.) Aside from a mid-October home game against Boise State, which doesn’t appear to have the firepower of Broncos teams past, there doesn’t look to be much in the Aztecs’ way as they roll through the Mountain West, forcing the selection committee to stay up until 2 a.m. ET most Saturdays down the stretch.

Until further notice, SDSU seems primed to get another Power 5 test just before New Year’s Eve. Below, the rest of this week’s bowl projections:

Saturday, Dec. 16

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, New Orleans (1 p.m., ESPN)
Sun Belt vs. C-USA
Louisiana vs. North Texas

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (2:30 p.m., CBSSN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
Tulane vs. Troy

Las Vegas Bowl, Las Vegas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
​MWC vs. Pac-12
Air Force vs. Colorado

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque (4:30 p.m., ESPN)

Raycom Media Camelia Bowl, Montgomery, Ala. (8 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Eastern Michigan vs. South Alabama

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Boca Raton, Fla. (7 p.m., ESPN)
UCF vs. Middle Tennessee

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, Frisco, Texas (8 p.m., ESPN)
AAC vs. Sun Belt
Houston vs. Arkansas State

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, St. Petersburg, Fla. (8 p.m., ESPN)
Old Dominion vs. Memphis

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Friday, Dec. 22

Bahamas Bowl, Nassau, Bahamas (12:30 p.m., ESPN)
UAB vs. Northern Illinois

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Boise (4 p.m., ESPN)
Western Michigan vs. Colorado State

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Saturday, Dec. 23

Birmingham Bowl, Birmingham, Ala. (12 p.m., ESPN)
South Florida vs. Arkansas

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, Fort Worth, Texas (3:30 p.m., ESPN)
Army vs. C-USA
Army vs. Southern Miss

Dollar General Bowl, Mobile, Ala. (7 p.m., ESPN)
MAC vs. Sun Belt
Toledo vs. Appalachian State

Sunday, Dec. 24

Hawaii Bowl, Honolulu, (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
SMU vs. Hawaii

Tuesday, Dec. 26

Heart of Dallas Bowl, Dallas (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. C-USA
Minnesota vs. Louisiana Tech

Quick Lane Bowl, Detroit (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Pittsburgh vs. Purdue

Cactus Bowl, Phoenix (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. Pac-12
Texas Tech vs. Stanford

Wednesday, Dec. 27

Independence Bowl, Shreveport, La. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Syracuse vs. Texas A&M

New Era Pinstripe Bowl, New York (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten
Notre Dame vs. Maryland

Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif. (8 p.m., FOX)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Iowa vs. Utah

Texas Bowl, Houston (9 p.m., ESPN)
Big 12 vs. SEC
TCU vs. Florida

Thursday, Dec. 28

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Md. (1:30 p.m., ESPN)
Georgia Tech vs. Navy

Camping World Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (5:15 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big 12
NC State vs. West Virginia

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Pac-12 vs. Big 12
UCLA vs. Texas

San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, San Diego (9 p.m., FS1)
Big Ten vs. Pac-12
Michigan State vs. Oregon

Friday, Dec. 29

Belk Bowl, Charlotte, N.C. (1 p.m., ESPN)
Duke vs. Kentucky

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (2 p.m., CBS)
ACC vs. Pac-12
Louisville vs. Washington State

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Nashville, Tenn. (4:30 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
Vanderbilt vs. Wake Forest

Arizona Bowl, Tucson, Ariz. (5:30 p.m., CBSSN)
Sun Belt vs. MWC
Tulsa vs. Boise State

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Saturday, Dec. 30

TaxSlayer Bowl, Jacksonville, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN)
SEC vs. Big Ten or ACC
LSU vs. Miami

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn. (12:30 p.m., ABC)
Big 12 vs. SEC
Kansas State vs. Tennessee

Monday, Jan. 1, 2018

Outback Bowl, Tampa, Fla. (12 p.m., ESPN2)
Big Ten vs. SEC
Wisconsin vs. Auburn

Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (1 p.m., ABC)
Mississippi State vs. Florida State

New Year's Six Bowls

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Arlington, Texas (Dec. 29, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
USC vs. Oklahoma State

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz. (Dec. 30, 4 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-large
Washington vs. San Diego State

Capital One Orange Bowl, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Dec. 30, 8 p.m., ESPN)
ACC vs. Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame
Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Atlanta (Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m., ESPN)
At-large vs. At-Large
Michigan vs. Georgia

Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Pasadena, Calif. (Jan. 1, 5 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Clemson vs. Penn State

Allstate Sugar Bowl, New Orleans (Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinalist vs. CFP semifinalist
Alabama vs. Oklahoma

College Football Playoff National Championship, Atlanta (Jan. 8, 8 p.m., ESPN)
CFP semifinal winner vs. CFP semifinal winner