There is a lot of unknown in the world of the Group of 5 heading into this season. I mean, a lot. But that’s kinda what makes this level of football so exciting.
Think about last year at this time and where G5 Darling Tulane was at. They were coming off a 2-10 season and very few people looked at them as the team that would escort UCF, Houston and Cincinnati out of the AAC, let alone as a team that would beat USC and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams in the Cotton Bowl. Seriously, if you said that out loud to a college football fan last August, you would get laughed out of whatever room you were in. But here we are.
So will there be a Tulane this year? (Of course there will be, and they should be really good.) Will a team come out of nowhere to make a run at their conference championship, if not more? Here is one team from each conference who I think has that potential.
AAC – North Texas
When people talk about the new teams coming into the American, they talk about UTSA because of how good they have been the past two years. They talk about UAB because of new coach Trent Dilfer. They talk about Florida Atlantic because of their wave of momentum following a Final Four run from their men’s basketball team. They talk about Rice because of incoming transfer JT Daniels. They talk about Charlotte because new coach Biff Poggi is a character who played the disrespect card so well at AAC Media Days. Last on that list is probably North Texas.
It won’t be that way for long.
People forget that the Mean Green played in the CUSA last year against the aforementioned Roadrunners, and pushed them to their limit in the regular season in San Antonio. And while they have a new coach and a new quarterback in a new conference, there are plenty of reasons to believe they will be very good again.
The Mean Green have built an identity behind a punishing running game and defense, with a passing attack good enough to keep teams honest. But with Austin Aune gone at quarterback and Seth Littrell not being brought back as head coach, there are thoughts that more can be done to take that offense to the next level.
North Texas is now coached by Eric Morris, a Mike Leach disciple who has served as offensive coordinator at Washington St. and head coach at Incarnate Word before GJ Kinne. As a former receiver, you know Morris will want to throw the ball around to returning receivers Roderic Burns, who led the team last year with 40 receptions, and Jyaire Shorter, whose 11 of his 23 catches went for touchdowns, among other. The key is at quarterback, where Chandler Rogers transfers in from UL Monroe, where he threw for over 2,400 yards and 15 TDs. He also ran for another 5 touchdowns, which will force opposing defenses to completely lock in on the 1-2 punch of Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi, which may immediately be the best of the conference.
If a defense that returns 8 starts from last year but is switching to a 3-3-5 style and loses stud linebacker KD Davis can carry their weight then the Mean Green will be a real problem. The issue is their schedule did them absolutely no favors, as they get road games at Tulane and SMU and UTSA at home. For them to make a run at the conference title, they will likely have to win one or two of those games. But the talent is there for them to be at worst a bowl team.
CUSA – UTEP
The mass exodus from CUSA allows the opportunity for a mid-tier conference team to rise up and establish themselves as the class of the new-look conference.
UTEP should be that team.
They have all the pieces, including a quarterback with an NFL caliber arm in Gavin Hardison. If he can harness that talent and become more consistent, the sky is truly the limit. The Miners also have an all-conference caliber running back in Deion Hankins and arguably the best offensive line in CUSA. There’s no doubt they can score with anybody.
Defensively, they return pass rusher Praise Amaewhule but need to replace 6 starters from a defense that shows glimpses last year but needs to be most consistent. (Case in point, they beat Boise St. 27-10 six days after losing to New Mexico by the exact same score. Make it make sense.)
The schedule offers possibilities with the help of a few breaks. Obviously there is no more UTSA, Rice or North Texas, all teams that beats the Miners last year. Replacing them in conference are New Mexico St. (who UTEP beat last year), Liberty, Sam Houston St. and Jacksonville St. That game against JSU is Week Zero and a win will give UTEP a leg up in conference. Elsewhere on the schedule, they get an Incarnate Word team that lost head coach GJ Kinne to Texas St., a Northwestern team that is…going through some stuff, Arizona and UNLV. Hosting Western Kentucky and Liberty at the Sun Bowl is a good thing as well. I’m just saying, someone has to win the new-look CUSA, why not the Miners?
MAC – Akron
I know, I know. But hey, it’s MACtion, let’s get weird with it.
Akron finished 2-10 last year, not exactly a beacon for optimism. But a deeper dive suggests that they are not as far away from contention as it would appear.
Let’s focus on the positives. First off, quarterback DJ Irons decided to return for his senior year. Having a three-year starter at the helm and all-conference candidates Alex Adams, Daniel George and Shocky Jacques-Louis to throw to gives the offense a lot to be optimistic about. I don’t love the defense, but again, it’s the MAC.
Five of the Zips conference losses last year were by a touchdown or less, so they are right there. They just need that breakthrough, and it feels like this year offers that. Their conference opener is against a beatable Buffalo team. A win gives them confidence heading into the remainder of the conference schedule that happens to avoid prohibitive favorite Toledo.
This also feels like an important year for head coach Joe Moorhead. He’s been able to parlay coordinating success into head coaching jobs (namely turning the Penn St. OC job into the Mississippi St. HC job, then the Oregon OC job into this) but hasn’t had the head coaching success. It makes sense at Mississippi St., the SEC is a tough nut to crack. But if he can’t turn things around in Akron, where the pressure is significantly less, then maybe he needs to stay in his coordinating lane.
Mountain West – UNLV
If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then when it comes to picking UNLV to break through in the Mountain West, consider me Christian Bale in American Psycho.
There was probably an easier analogy to make, but the point is that I am bullish on UNLV year after year. It feels like it should be easy to recruit players to Las Vegas, but then I remember the NCAA existing and the Rebels playing their games off campus. Regardless, there are reasons to believe UNLV can be successful on a consistent basis. And reasons to believe that can begin this year.
Doug Brumfield returns at quarterback after ending last year on a down note after injuries derailed a promising start. People forget the Rebels were 4-1 before a pretty brutal October where they were outscored by San Jose St., Air Force and Notre Dame by a combined 126-35. While terrible defense is mostly to blame, Brumfield was injured in the San Jose St. game and wasn’t the same once he returned. If he is back to 100% and Ricky White can replicate his success last year at wideout, this team can put up points.
The schedule sets up well for them with no Boise St. or San Diego St. on their schedule. And if tricky but not impossible out-of-conference games against Vanderbilt and at UTEP go their way, they will have a great deal of confidence headed into games against Hawai’i, at Nevada and Colorado St. A 3-0 conference start is not out of the question.
The key is the defense, but that is where new head coach Barry Odom comes in. He has had varying degrees of success at SEC schools Missouri and Arkansas and is a change of pace from Marcus Arroyo. Odom could be just what is needed to take the Rebels to the next level, or a mixture of oil and water.
Sun Belt – Southern Miss
Any time you have a team that is a quarterback away from contending, you have my interest.
Quarterback has been the missing piece for the Golden Eagles for the past few years. In fact, the best quarterback they have may be head coach Will Hall, who won the Harlon Hill Trophy (the D-II equivalent to the Heisman Trophy) in 2003. Second best may be Super Back Frank Gore Jr., who actually played the position a couple times in the tail end of the 2021 season. Assuming that to not be the case, two transfers – Holman Edwards (Houston) and Billy Wiles (Clemson) – are competing with incumbent Zach Wilcke to take USM to the next level of the Sun Belt West.
My gut says that one of the transfers will seize the position. Hall has seen what Wilcke can do and has a 7-6 record to show for it. But with a schedule that includes games at Florida St., at Mississippi St., at South Alabama, at Appalachian St. and at Louisiana and a home game against Tulane, someone is going to have to make plays at that position. The good news is, three of those games have no bearing on being able to win the conference.
Gore Jr. is great, and the rushing attack added Memphis transfer Rodrigues Clark to help lighten the load. The Nasty Bunch is going to be its playmaking self again. All that is needed is a playmaker at the quarterback position and this team can put the fear of God in anyone on that schedule.