To the surprise of absolutely no one, the CFP Championship game does not, in fact include a team from the Group of 5. So it seems like an acceptable time to take a look at bowl season through the G5 lens and maybe how that may springboard things going into the 2023 season.
1. Tulane established themselves as the top G5 team.
In the midst of a very entertaining NY6 clump of bowls, arguably the most entertaining one that didn’t affect the National Title was the Cotton Bowl matchup between USC and Tulane.
For the uninformed, USC kicked a field goal to take a seemingly comfortable 45-30 lead with 4:30 remaining. But that plucky Tulane Green Wave refused to yield. Thanks to their big play offense (how good is Tyjae Spears?) and a special teams gaffe by USC that led to a safety, the AAC Champs were able to make a furious comeback to win 46-45.
Now, for the casuals, that was just a fun football game to watch involving a plucky underdog with sweet, sweet uniforms versus a traditional name brand team with the Heisman Trophy winner. But the hardest of hardcore fans, we can see how this game could honestly affect the landscape of college football going forward.
In a year that is going to see conference rivals Cincinnati, Houston and UCF make the move to the Big XII, Tulane may have cemented themselves as The Team in the AAC. With newcomers such as UTSA and UAB posing a threat at the top of the conference and teams like North Texas, FAU, Charlotte, and Rice providing competitive depth, the American will still be good but may struggle to establish an identity early on as rivalries form. But with Michael Pratt returning at quarterback and coach Willie Fritz coming back after flirting with the Georgia Tech job, there is at least a team for fans to rally behind. Not bad for a team that was 2-10 a year ago.
2. Troy established themselves as a strong #2
If not for the fun ride the Green Wave took us on, a lot of people would be talking about the great season the Troy Trojans had.
I’ll talk about it anyway.
It seems like it happened forever ago, but on the first day of Bowl Season, Troy faces UTSA in one of the more interesting matchups offered. The contrast of styles between the high powered Roadrunner offense and the stingy Trojan defense offered entertaining options. As it turned out, the game played out how anyone who watched both teams would have expected. UTSA got out to a hot start, but eventually the Troy defense suffocated the C-USA champs into an 18-12 vistory.
The Sun Belt was one of the most fun conferences in all of football this season, and Troy proved themselves as the toughest team of them all. In fact, if not for a last second Hail Mary at Appalachian St. in September, this is probably the team playing USC in the Cotton Bowl. (So maybe we should all send Thank You notes to Boone, N.C.) I think that Troy’s success this year can carry over. Sure, they are losing all-time tackler Carlton Martial and receiver Tez Johnson has transferred to Oregon, and I don’t love Gunnar Watson at quarterback, but coach Jon Sumrall has established an identity with this program. Play solid defense, run the ball effectively behind Kimani Vidal (assuming he returns) and limit mistakes at quarterback. If they keep up that formula, they will be a tough out for as long as Sumrall is there.
3. Making his own name
The most impressive individual performance in a bowl game has to go to Frank Gore Jr.
The junior running back rushed for a record 329 yards (on just 21 carries!) and also threw for another TD as the Southern Miss Golden Eagles beat Rice in an entertaining 38-24 LendingTree Bowl win. The junior running back has been doing things like that all year long for the Golden Eagles – they don’t use the term “Superback” for nothing – but to see him do it on a national stage was a welcome sight.
Southern Miss is solid quarterback play away (Ty Keyes entered the transfer portal) from being a very real problem in the Sun Belt. And with non-conference games against Mississippi St. and Florida St., coach Will Hall’s squad – and Gore Jr. – will get a chance to showcase themselves again and again.
4. Bowl Challenge Cup Champions!
Not for nothing, but the conference that had the best winning percentage in Bowl Season are our friends in the MAC.
The MAC acquitted themselves quite well, going 4-2 in their bowl matchups. Winning were Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Buffalo and Ohio, all in entertaining fashion. The two losses came from Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, but the RedHawks lost at the last second to UAB in the Bowl opener, and the Falcons lost to New Mexico St. in large part to quarterback Matt McDonald getting knocked out in the first quarter.
The MAC is generally considered an afterthought in college football. A fun little conference that minds their own business and uses MACtion as a fun gimmick to drum up attention. But the reality is, they play some good football in the Mid-American Conference. For further proof, consider that two of the conference’s better players – quarterback Collin Schlee (Kent St.) and running back Carson Steele (Ball St.) both transferred to UCLA. And one of the most sought after defensive linemen – Braden Fiske (Western Michigan) took his talents to Tallahassee.
There’s obviously a lot more player movement to be done, but keep an eye on Ohio and Eastern Michigan next year.
5. So Long. Farewell. Auf Wiedersehen.
A couple players I wanted to shout-out as they wrap up their college careers. First up, Jake Haener went out with a bang , throwing for 280 yards and two TDs as Fresno St. throttled Washington St. 29-6 in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.
Also on the defensive end, Carlton Martial wrapped up an unbelievable career at Troy. He ends his college football career as the FBS all-time leader in tackles with 578 and will head to the Senior Bowl in Mobile to showcase his talents to NFL scouts. His measurables are not ideal by NFL linebacker standards, but I would take him on my team any day.
So that puts a bow on a very fun 2022 season in the World of the Group of 5. It’s certainly an ever-revolving door, as players are always coming and going, and last year we saw the beginning of movement among teams, as the Sun Belt added four teams and boosted it’s overall profile. Next year will look very different in the AAC and C-USA, and not just with the teams in it. The Blazers hired former NFL QB Trent Dilfer as their head coach in an interesting decision. UNLV hired former Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom to be their lead man, and Liberty hired Jamey Chadwell away from Coastal Carolina in an attempt to establish themselves as the class of Conference USA. (Liberty hired a coach known for a mullet is certainly an on-brand decision.) I personally can’t wait to see how 2023 shakes out.