Welcome to this week’s “Gee, Five Thoughts” where I try to make sense of this past weekend in the World of the Group of 5. It was another entertaining – and surprising – slate of games, so let’s see what the main takeaways are.
C-USA Is A-OK
One of the pleasing outcomes this weekend was Friday night upset victory by UTEP over Boise St. I have a soft spot for the Miners since my Week Zero visit a month ago, so to see them get a potentially season-altering 27-10 win on national television made me happy. But there were two stories to come from that game. I’ll talk about the team that lost in a bit, but this win coupled with the stunner Saturday by Middle Tennessee St. over Miami spoke to a bigger point.
Conference USA plays some very good football.
Heading into conference play, a lot of the talk about the conference centers around UTSA, as they tend to play the highest-profile games. And teams like UAB and Western Kentucky are the main conference threats despite flying a little farther under the radar. But with these two non-conference wins, the Miners and Blue Raiders are absolutely sending notice to the rest of the conference that they are not to be trifled with.
UTEP has a bit of work to do after losing Week Zero to North Texas, but with no UAB or Western Kentucky on their slate, the schedule is manageable, and they seem to have found a formula that works. Pound the ball with running backs Deion Hankins and Ronald Awatt, then use play action to showcase Gavin Hardison’s howitzer of an arm. Meanwhile the Blue Raiders have a speed advantage over a lot of teams in C-USA that they can take advantage of. But we will find out early how much of a threat they will be as they play UTSA, at UAB and Western Kentucky in the next three weeks.
Enjoy this last season of Conference USA as we know it, because it will look drastically different next year. But even still, the performance of two of the “leftovers” suggests the conference may be in good hands.
The More Things Change…
A lot of teams in the AAC looked at all the talent that Cincinnati lost and saw them ripe for the picking.
*Lee Corso voise* NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND.
Teams like Houston, UCF, SMU, Memphis, Tulane, and East Carolina saw opportunities to seize the American throne. But none of the above have shown enough consistency to pose a serious challenge at the top of the conference. Meanwhile, after a competitive loss to Arkansas Week One, the Bearcats have looked an awful lot like the Bearcats of previous years. Saturday Cincinnati beat previously undefeated Indiana 45-24 by causing turnovers and making big plays through the air. While Desmond Ridder and Sauce Gardner aren’t walking through that door and I’m not 100% sold on Ben Bryant or their running game, the road to conference supremacy still goes though the Queen City.
James Madison: Destroyer of Dreams
The Fun Belt never, ever fails to disappoint.
The showcase game of the conference saw newcomer JMU heading to Boone to take on America’s Darling, Appalachian St. After a competitive first quarter, App St. took over in the second quarter to take a 28-3 lead. However, if Super Bowl LI taught us anything, a 28-3 lead is the most dangerous lead in sports. From there, JMU shut down the Mountaineers and clawed their way back to win 32-28. James Madison and division foe Coastal Carolina are the lone undefeated teams in all of the Group of 5 and appear headed for a showdown at the end of the year, but since the Dukes cannot win the conference in Year One as an FBS member, the division remains wide open for all teams not named Georgia St. (which….wow.)
Over in the West Division the standings look like this:
Shoutout to UL Monroe, who took down perennial conference king Louisiana Saturday night. Whether that outcome was a result of a heated rivalry or the Warhawks are greatly improved remains to be seen, but Terry Bowden has ULM playing well. Teams like Troy, South Alabama and Southern Miss may also be able to stake claims after impressive wins this weekend. This is going to be every bit as fun to watch as the East Division.
The Fall of the Boise St. Empire
I mentioned earlier how Friday night’s game in the Sun Bowl affects the winners. But the real story in the MWC is how that game might have officially signaled the end of the Broncos reign as a feared G5 Power and the start of them as JAT (Just Another Team).
The signs have been there. I have been vocal about Hank Bachmeier’s mediocrity and the Broncos recent inability to win the games against Power 5 teams they previously won. Plus the rest of the conference is rising to their level. But Boise St. firing Offensive Coordinator Tim Plough Saturday suggests they recognize that changes need to be made. Plough is being replaced by former head coach Dirk Koetter, but I really believe that in order for the Broncos to get back to where they want to be, at the top of the conference, they need to make a change at quarterback. Taylen Green, though only a freshmen, is the type of dual-threat that can make plays happen with both his arm and his legs. He would provide the energy boost it feels like this stagnant program needs.
Things are so bad, I think the question is fair to ask. Who would Boise St. rather have coaching, Andy Avalos or Bryan Harsin?
Friday is shaping up to be a terrific night of G5 football. Tulane travels to Houston in a game that will likely tell us a lot about both squads. Also, UTSA heads to Middle Tennessee St., Boise St. hosts San Diego St. and (conference favorite?) UNLV hosts New Mexico. THAT’S ALL FRIDAY NIGHT!
Saturday, there are fun games all over the place. Fully expect the Sun Belt to go full Sun Belt yet again. But one game worth keeping eye on is Central Michigan at Toledo. Both teams were considered to be at the top of the MAC East Division. While the non-conference schedule did offer up some questions for both teams (Toledo on offense and CMU on defense), expect this game to go a long way in determining who will win the MAC. Of course, I say “keep an eye” on it with the caveat that the game is not televised. Also, if you want the ultimate in “Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Objects”, Troy takes their defense to Bowling Green, Kentucky to face the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in a very interesting non-conference matchup.
Seriously, that Friday slate though…