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Non-Power 5 teams in the hunt for marquee bowl berth

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QB Rakeem Cato should put up huge numbers for Marshall this season.

With everyone still trying to figure out all the potential ramifications of Thursday's "autonomy vote," we thought it a good time to remind folks that a non-"Power Five" school is guaranteed a spot in one of the so-called "playoff bowls."

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While the selection committee is responsible for choosing the four playoff teams, it also will select the eight teams that will be involved in the four other bowls associated with the playoff. (This season, the semifinals are in the Rose and Sugar bowls, meaning the committee also will pick the matchups in the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls.) While there are 12 teams involved in the six games, it's not necessarily the 12 highest-ranked teams by the committee; instead, the highest-ranked team from outside of the Power Five is guaranteed a slot in one of the games, even if that team falls outside the top 12.

Just don't expect a non-Power Five school to be in the playoff.

Here are the seven non-Power Five teams -- ranked in order of their likelihood of earning that coveted spot -- to pay attention to this season.

7. Boise State

Toughest game: Aug. 28, vs. Mississippi in Atlanta.
Buzz: Isn't it a rule that Boise State must be on lists of this type? Chris Petersen is gone, to Washington, and Bryan Harsin now is in charge. He has a big-time running back in Jay Ajayi and a solid group of receivers. But both lines are a concern, and the Broncos aren't even favored to win their Mountain West division (that would be Utah State), much less the league. There also are games with BYU and Sun Belt favorite Louisiana-Lafayette. Still, if Boise can beat Mississippi on ESPN on "opening night," the Broncos suddenly become a legit contender for that bowl spot.

6. Utah State

Toughest game: Aug. 31, at Tennessee.
Buzz: The return of QB Chuckie Keeton, who missed the second half of last season with a torn ACL, makes the Aggies the Mountain West favorite. They won the Mountain West's Mountain Division last season, but appear primed to win the league this time around. Still, there are issues -- like no proven go-to receiver, a new starting tailback, a rebuilt offensive line and a rebuilt secondary. There also are road games against the Vols, Sun Belt contender Arkansas State, BYU, Colorado State and Boise State. The home schedule appears to be a breeze, though.


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5. Bowling Green

Toughest game: Sept. 20, at Wisconsin.
Buzz: The Falcons were the surprise winners of the MAC last season, and coach Dave Clawson was hired away by Wake Forest. Enter new coach Dino Babers, who had been at pass-happy FCS member Eastern Illinois, where New England Patriots rookie QB Jimmy Garoppolo put up huge numbers. Huge numbers are expected from Falcons QB Matt Johnson this season. The offense is loaded with playmakers, and the defense might be the best in the MAC. Could this team go unbeaten? There are back-to-back games against Big Ten teams -- Sept. 13 at home against Indiana and a trip the next week to Wisconsin -- that will tell the tale. If Bowling Green wins both, it will go unbeaten. But slowing Wisconsin will be a huge task for an undersized defense, and Indiana hammered BG last season.

4. Cincinnati

Toughest game: Sept. 27, at Ohio State.
Buzz: The Bearcats were the media's preseason pick to win the AAC, which also includes UCF as well as East Carolina and Houston. One positive from the conference schedule: Cincinnati and UCF do not play. The non-conference schedule is a concern, though. Along with the visit to the Buckeyes (it'll be the just the fifth time the teams have played since 1932), there's also a visit from Toledo -- expected to be one of the best teams in the MAC -- and a road trip to Miami. The defense should be stout, and there are high hopes for an offense led by highly touted quarterback transfer Gunner Kiel.

3. BYU

Toughest game: Sept. 6, at Texas.
Buzz: BYU plays three schools on this list (Boise State, UCF and Utah State) and also meets Houston, California and Virginia. But if the Cougars win in Austin -- they ran all over the Longhorns last season, rumbling for an incredible 550 yards in a 40-21 rout -- an unbeaten season becomes a distinct possibility. Still, the Cougars face a hardy schedule, and unless QB Taysom Hill has made big strides as a passer, BYU looks more likely to win nine or 10 than 12.

2. UCF

Toughest game: Sept. 13, at Missouri.
Buzz: The Knights ended last season on a high note with a 10-point victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. But that was the last game with QB Blake Bortles, who was the No. 3 pick in the draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The defense is going to be good again, but the offense is going to take a step back without Bortles and TB Storm Johnson. There is a deep group of talented receivers, though. The Knights open with Penn State in Dublin, Ireland, play Mizzou in the second game and also have a tough non-conference game against BYU. The AAC schedule features matchups with Houston and East Carolina, but the Knights miss preseason league favorite Cincinnati. (Well, preseason media favorite, anyway. We think UCF wins the AAC.) And if UCF manages to start the season 2-0, this is a team that then could run the table.

1. Marshall

Toughest game: Oct. 11, vs. Middle Tennessee.
Buzz: The Thundering Herd has the easiest path to an unbeaten season of any team in the nation. (If the game against MTSU isn't the toughest, a road game against Akron, a home game against Ohio or a home game against Western Kentucky would be the toughest. Yes, seriously.) QB Rakeem Cato should put up huge numbers and is in line to finish fifth in NCAA history in career TD passes. He is surrounded by solid skill-position talent, and C Chris Jasperse might be the best at his position outside the Power Five conferences. The defense should be one of the best in Conference USA, too, with stars at each level of the unit. There is no Power Five school on the schedule; the Herd originally was scheduled to play Louisville, but the Cardinals' move to the ACC meant that game had to be cancelled. FCS member Rhode Island -- which has had one winning season since 1995 and has won six games combined in the past three seasons -- replaced Louisville on the schedule. Because of the weakness of the schedule, though, Marshall would have little chance for a "big" bowl if it loses once. It's "undefeated or bust" for the Herd.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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