Tired of seeing Georgia at the top of all preseason Top 25 polls? I got you, fam.
Last year, I did a weekly Top 25 poll that was exclusively Group of 5 teams on what was then known as Twitter. Cincinnati and UCF were regularly ranked. Houston made appearances. It was a different time back then. But the idea of a poll that excluded Power 5 schools was sound, given the exclusion Group of 5 teams generally feel when the AP or Coaches polls come out.
So with that in mind, here is my Group-of-Five-only Preseason Top 25 poll. See how it feels to be left out Ohio St.!
1. Tulane – Just like with “those other polls”, the champ has to lose to be knocked off their perch. Now having said that, the Green Wave may not be long for this position.
I’ve mentioned it in the betting column I wrote for the AAC (which you can read here) and verbalized it in the podcast I did previewing the same conference, but I am not as high on Tulane as a lot of people. Their first three games (against South Alabama, Ole Miss and at Southern Miss) are all going to be challenges. If they get through that 3-0, just lock them into a NY6 bowl, even if they lose their finale against UTSA. But as The Hunted instead of The Hunter, the target is on them. Despite that, Michael Pratt and Co. are #1 until proven different.
2. Boise St. – There has been a lot of talk about the Sun Belt and AAC, but the best team in the Group of 5 may just reside in the Mountain West Conference.
Taylen Green may be the best quarterback most of America doesn’t know. But they will soon enough. Perhaps as soon as Week One at Washington. Green and Michael Penix could very well put on a show, but the Broncos are far from a one-man show on offense.
Boise St. has a powerful one-two punch at running back with George Holani and Ashton Jeanty. Both could be all-conference candidates. They also bring back last year’s starting receiver core and three starters along the offensive line. There’s a lot to like there. Defensively, they expect to be their typical dominant selves despite having to replace six starters. That game against Washington will be a huge measuring stick, but beyond that they also get UCF at home and games at San Diego St. and at Memphis in the month of September. How they come out of that will go a long way to determining how the rest of the season plays out. 10-2 and a NY6 bowl is not out of the question.
3. South Alabama – Remember when I said Tulane was likely to get tripped up in their non-conference slate? Well here is their Week One opponent.
I’m very high on South Alabama this year. Like, probably-going-to-win-the-Sun-Belt levels of high.
It’s certainly debatable, but there is a very real possibility that USA has the top WR (Caullin Lacy), top RB (La’Damian Webb) and top defensive player (Yam Banks) in the entire conference. Add to that returning starter Carter Bradley at QB and pretty much their entire offensive and defensive lines, and that’s a pretty nice nucleus of a 10-3 team to bring back.
The schedule is no doubt going to be a problem, with road games at Tulane, Oklahoma St., James Madison, Troy and a season finale at Texas St. But while collectively, that looks awfully daunting, the reality is that each of those games in winnable. Week One will truly set the tone. A win there, they take over the #1 spot in this very prestigious poll and the sky is the limit.
4. UTSA – Those who know my work may be surprised to not see UTSA at #1. I’m nothing if not unbiased. Having said that, there is a very real chance that at the end of the year they are the top team in the Group of 5.
By now you know the names. Frank Harris. Rashad Wisdom. De’Corian Clark. Joshua Cephus. They’ve all been there for-ever. And as good as the Roadrunners have been the past couple years, THIS may be their most successful year yet. They return 9 starters but Keyvorian Barnes got a lot of run last year at running back. They will miss Zakhari Franklin, who transferred to Ole Miss. But this offense will be scary good.
The crazy thing is, the offense is not the entire story. The defense has some dudes in Wisdom and Nicktroy Fortune in the secondary, Jamal Ligon and Trey Moore at linebacker, and Brandon Brown plugging up the middle. If they can be something resembling “very good” as a unit, then there is no team on their schedule – and that includes Tennessee in Knoxville and Tulane in New Orleans – they can’t beat.
5. Western Kentucky – With the exodus of teams from CUSA to the AAC, someone is going to have to step up and carry the conference banner. Austin Reed and the Hilltoppers are well equipped to do so.
WKU finished third in the conference last year, but that was behind UTSA and North Texas, who are no longer a concern. And frankly, the four teams coming in are not quite at that level to this point. They return Reed to run the Air Raid-style offense, throwing to all-conference receiver Malachi Corley. Indiana transfer Davion Ervin-Poindexter provides balance in the running game.
The defense has always been the concern in Bowling Green, and with most of the front seven new, it will likely continue to be. But there aren’t a ton of offenses in the conference that will challenge them. Their non-conference slate is difficult, with games at Ohio St. and at Troy in September. But there is a very real chance we are looking at a 10-2 record when all is said and done.
6. Troy – Speaking of Troy, your defending Sun Belt Champions are back. And maybe flying a bit under the radar.
A lot of talk regarding the Sun Belt West has been about South Alabama as a popular favorite and Southern Miss as a popular darkhorse. But make no mistake, the Trojans aren’t going away. Sure they may have lost their best defensive player (Carlton Martial) and maybe their best offensive player (Tez Johnson) but they return a ton of talent on both sides of the ball.
The defense is where Troy makes their mark. And despite the all-time leading rusher in college football history graduating, they should be just fine on that side of the ball. Good luck throwing against this team. Linemen T.J. Jackson, Javon Solomon and Richard Jibunor are possibly the three best pash rushers in the entire conference. That’s an embarrassment of riches if I’ve ever seen one. And the secondary returns all-conference corners O’Shai Fletcher and Reddy Steward. They need some linebackers to step into starring roles, but overall I’m not worried about it. This D is seriously nasty.
Gunnar Watson is a quality quarterback, but desperately needs to cut down on the turnovers (12 interceptions in 2022). He has quite the security blankets to hand off to in Kimani Vidal and Memphis transfer Asa Martin. If teams try to stop the run, Deshon Stoudamire is ready to fill Johnson’s shoes, who transferred to Oregon).
7. Toledo – This might be the team with the highest ceiling and the lowest floor.
On one hand, if they can beat Illinois Week One, the schedule sets up to where there is a chance the Rockets can run the table and represent the Group of 5 in a NY6 bowl. On the other, they do play in the unpredictable MAC, where the preseason favorite rarely finishes where they start.
The success of the team rests almost exclusively with quarterback Dequan Finn. Finn threw for 23 touchdowns last year and ran for nine more. He is a playmaker in every sense of the word. He does have a very good running mate in Jacquez Stewart, who rushed for 770 yards, and a terrific receiver in Jerjuan Newton to throw to. All 3 of those players are Juniors.
Defensively, their strength is in the secondary, where they return every starter from last year’s 3-3-5 lineup that led the league in total defense. Maxen Hook (another Junior) is a name to remember.
As I mentioned earlier, the Illinois game Week One is a significant measuring stick. If they can find a way to win that, they are at home for 4 straight games and then have a non-conference road game at UMass. The MACtion part of their schedule definitely has some landmines, but this team should be considered of the conference until proven otherwise.
8. Coastal Carolina – The architect of the Chanticleer offense left after the 2022 season.
Or did he?
Jamey Chadwell left Conway to be the head man at Liberty. Fortunately for Coastal fans, quarterback Grayson McCall is back. It’s not exactly a Tom Brady-Bill Belichick situation, but we will learn a lot about this program now that the two are separated. New coach Tim Beck comes from North Carolina St. with a successful pedigree, but I expect him to take the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach. Let McCall cook, pass it to stud receivers Sam Pinckney and Jared Brown and let likely starter Braydon Bennett get his on the ground. This offense will be tough to stop.
Defensively, there are issues. They lose pass rusher Josiah Stewart to Michigan, but bring back all-conference linebacker JT Killen. While that’s a nice building block, he will need help. That side of the ball may get exposed Week One at UCLA, and quite possibly at Georgia Southern. But if they get things figured out, this team is going to be a threat in the Sun Belt.
9. SMU – It’s Preston Stone’s team now.
The third year sophomore finally gets to take the reins at quarterback after Tanner Mordecai decided to transfer to Wisconsin. And if he lives up to the hype, this team might be grossly underrated.
If there is any G5 team who has been able to use the transfer portal to their advantage, it’s SMU. While they have certainly lost their share of talent, they bring in this year a running back from Miami (Jaylen Knighton), a cornerback from West Virginia (Charles Woods) and a safety from Stanford (Jonathan McGill) all expected to contribute significantly. On top of that, their conference slate avoids both Tulane and UTSA, and their non-conference slate offers road opportunities at Oklahoma and TCU to make a statement. This team has the talent to win the conference and threaten for a NY6 bowl.
10. Marshall – There has been a lot of talk about offenses to this point, but if you are looking for a smash mouth team that will run the ball and play stout defense, look no further than Marshall.
The Thundering Herd were one of the more interesting teams in the Sun Belt last year. They beat Notre Dame early in the season and finished with five straight wins. If not for a curious loss to Bowling Green, this would be a team coming off a 10-win season. Their defense returns key pieces at each level in Owen Porter, Eli Neal and Micah Abraham, which allows them the potential to finish this season near where they finished 2022 (8th in the nation in total defense). Offensively, they lose stud running Khalen Laborn but return standout running back Rasheen Ali, who actually led the country in touchdowns in 2021. If he regains that form after missing last season with a knee injury, they won’t skip a beat on the ground.
The major question for Marshall is at quarterback. Cam Fancher took over the position midway through last season from Henry Colombi and played well, but more will be expected from his this season. If he takes the next step, then Marshall could be a contender for the Sun Belt title. If he doesn’t, then the whispers for Marshall’s favorite son Chad Pennington’s descendent Cole (Marshall’s favorite grandson?) will get a little louder.
11. Ohio – If there is a team in the MAC with as much talent as Toledo at the skill positions, it’s Ohio.
The Bobcats return MAC Offensive Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke, though he is recovering from a knee injury that cut his season short. Luckily, they have arguably the best running back in the conference in Sieh Bangura who can shoulder the load early while Rourke gets back to 100%. Also, catching his passes will be all-conference receiver Sam Wiglusz. There’s is a ton to like with this offense.
Defensively, they return two starters at each of the three levels, so they should be solid. If they can weather a tricky non-conference slate which includes games at fellow Group of Fivers San Diego St. and Florida Atlantic and hosts Iowa St., there’s potential for this to be another 10-win campaign.
12. Fresno St. – Here’s where the poll becomes a crapshoot.
Fresno St. loses a lot from last year, including but not limited to star quarterback Jake Haener and star receiver Jalen Moreno-Cropper. But now is when we just have to trust Jeff Tedford’s ability to develop quarterbacks.
Replacing Haener will be either Logan Fife, who started last year when Haener got hurt to mixed results, or UCF transfer Mikey Keene. While the quarterback is finding their groove, the Bulldogs will likely lean on their defense, who returns seven starters from a conference champion squad.
An interesting Week One matchup at Purdue will set the tone early. They also get Boise St. at home. The conference schedule sets up nicely for them to be the biggest threat to Boise St. yet again.
13. Florida Atlantic – If you are looking for a darkhorse in the AAC, Hoo better than the Owls of Florida Atlantic? (I’ve written a lot of words, let me have that lame joke.)
Tom Herman takes over an FAU squad that is riding some pretty high vibes following the success of the basketball team. He has already found his quarterback though the transfer portal in Nebraska transfer Casey Thompson (or maybe Central Michigan transfer Daniel Richardson). Whoever is under center has 1,000-yard rusher Larry McCammon III to hand off to and Lejohntay Wester to throw to.
The secondary is a strength of the defense behind safeties Armani-Eli Adams and Dwight Toombs. The front seven will need to come around, especially with a tough early season schedule that includes Ohio at home and road trips to Clemson and Illinois. The good news is they get UTSA and Tulane in Boca, and if they get the offense clicking like Herman wants, either of those games will be winnable.
14. Georgia Southern – This is a scary half team. When they are on offense, the opponent is scared. When they are on defense, fans are the ones nervous.
Coach Clay Helton has done a terrific job in a very short amount of time turning the Eagles from a triple option offense to an Air Raid. And while Kyle Vantrease is gone, in comes Tulsa transfer Davis Brin to lead the offense. He has a stud receiver to throw to in Khaleb Hood. But as good as the offense is, that’s how bad the defense is. Hoping they can outscore teams in the Sun Belt is a risky proposition (I don’t expect it to work at Wisconsin), but it’s so crazy it just might.
15. Miami Ohio – Quarterback Brett Gabbert returns after being less than 100% for most of 2022 with a shoulder injury. He has an all-conference candidate in Miles Marshall to throw to. Together they will put up good numbers, though they need running back Keyon Mozee to step up to take this offense to the next level.
The strength of the Redhawks is the defensive line, which returns 3 starters. If the rest of the defense holds up and they can survive their first 3 games all on the road, the MAC schedule is friendly enough that this team can go on a run and challenge Ohio for the MAC East Division title.
16. Air Force – As a triple-option offense who led the nation in rushing yards per game last year, the Falcons have a clear identity. But they have to replace a lot of that production.
Gone is quarterback Haaziq Daniels and fullback Brad Roberts, who combined for over 2,400 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. Those shoes will be filled, but it may take some time. Luckily the schedule is pretty generous, as there is no Fresno St., San Diego St. comes to Colorado Springs, and a road trip to Boise is the season finale. Sprinkle in the Commander-in-Chief games and Air Force has a good chance to win a minimum of 8 games.
17. Southern Miss – I could’ve just written “Frank Gore Jr. The end.” and that would have been enough analysis to justify this ranking. But there is more to this team.
For one, they play very good defense. Jay Stanley is a pro at safety and Hayes Maples returns from injury to anchor the linebacker corp. The “Nasty Bunch” brings back every starter along the d-line as well. There is a lot to like on that side of the ball.
The key (as it is with so many teams) is quarterback play. The Golden Eagles has been trying to find The Guy seemingly every since Will Hall took over the team. Two transfers (Holmen Edwards from Houston and Billy Wiles from Clemson) are being given the opportunity to take the reins at that position and take the offense to the next level. Whoever is the starter will have a lot of pressure, as this team has arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in all of college football. But the talent is definitely there for USM to threaten in the Sun Belt West.
18. North Texas – I have mentioned it in my “Gee, Five Darkhorses” column, but if there is a team to watch out for in the AAC, it could very well be the Mean Green.
North Texas were the runners-up in CUSA to UTSA, and made some significant changes that would propel them to the upper echelon of the American in a hurry. New coach Eric Morris is a Mike Leach disciple, and with that comes an Air Raid style offense. UL Monroe transfer Chandler Rogers is expected to lead that attack, but UNT also has a stable of running backs that rivals any in the conference. If he can figure out a way to marry his style of offense with thee talent on hand, this team will be potent.
Defensively, 8 starters return from a unit that struggled at times last year. But any improvement will help with a challenging schedule that includes road trips against Navy, Tulane and SMU and home games against UTSA, UAB and Memphis. But if things break right, look out.
19. New Mexico St. – It sounds weird to say, but Jerry Kill is building something at New Mexico St.
Winners of 7 of their last 9 games, the Aggies are a team that stands to greatly benefit from joining CUSA. They bring back senior quarterback Diego Pavia, whose insertion into the starting lineup full-time was key to their success. Pavia threw for 13 touchdowns but it was his ability to make plays with his legs that game this team a dimension they didn’t have previously. With Star Thomas and Jamoni Jones returning, this rushing attack will gives foes fits all season long.
The defense was solid last year, finishing 30th in the country in Total Defense, but has significant holes to fill on that side of the ball. If they can get through a tough road slate that features games at Western Kentucky, Liberty, UTEP, Hawaii and Auburn their home schedule offers them a lot of opportunities to rack up wins and challenge for a conference title.
20. Eastern Michigan – EMU is coming off maybe the quietest nine win season ever in 2022. They’ve been very good under Chris Creighton, but never really seen as a major threat in the MAC. This year may be more of the same, but the keys will be running back Samson Evans, who gained over 1,100 yards last year, and the development of dual-threat quarterback Austin Smith.
Defensively, the Eagles return 8 starters from a unit that was solid but far from dominant. The strength lies with their back seven. And the schedule actually sets up nicely, with tricky but not unwinnable games at Minnesota and Jacksonville St. and a conference game at Toledo that may determine the West Division. Either way, expect Eastern to win at least seven games, go bowling and maybe even more.
21. James Madison – Talk about making an impact. JMU made the move from the FCS level to the Sun Belt and won the East Division. Now we find out how good they really are.
The Dukes made the jump with quarterback Todd Centeio, running back Percy Agyei-Obese and receiver Kris Thornton were all talented enough to allow JMU to hold their own with anyone on their schedule. But those pieces are all gone and their depth is now tested. All that remains from last year on the offensive side of the ball is their line (which is good) but no skill position starters. Defensively, they were great last year and bring back seven starters on that side of the ball, so they should be very good again. But with interdivisional games against Troy and South Alabama instead of Texas St. and Arkansas St., I expect a drop off from last year. Regardless, they earned the right to be ranked.
22. Liberty – Liberty loses a lot from a team that won 8 games last year. But they do have one newcomer that offers a lot of reasons for optimism. New coach Jamey Chadwell.
Granted, Chadwell did not bring Grayson McCall with him, but he has two capable options at quarterback in Johnathan Bennett and Kaidon Salter. Also in the backfield is running back Quinton Cooley, who transferred in from Wake Forest. The Flames have been able to use the transfer portal well, so an infusion of talent coupled with living the CUSA life means they should be towards the top of the conference for the foreseeable future.
23. Wyoming – If the offense ever comes around, the defense is good enough to lead Wyoming to a MWC title.
Ten starters return for a Cowboy defense that was among the best in the conference. Linebacker Easton Gibbs has a real chance at being the Conference Player of the Year. Offensively, Wyoming left a lot to be desired in 2022, but Andrew Peasley is back at quarterback. If he can cut down on the turnovers and boost the touchdowns, then there is optimism.
Running back Harrison Waylee is an impact transfer from Northern Illinois, but he will miss the first couple of games while healing from a minor knee injury. Without him, a Week One upset of Texas Tech at home seems a bit less likely, and consider their game against Texas a non-starter, but there is no one in the Mountain West who should look forward to playing this team.
24. Memphis – We are getting dangerously close to “Make or Break” time for Ryan Silverfield.
Sure the Tigers have been….fine…the past few years under his tenure. But for a program that thinks they should be considered among the schools that left the conference for the Big XII, fine isn’t good enough.
Seth Henigan is back for his third year as a starting quarterback. He has plenty of talent at the skill positions in Jeyvon Ducker at running back and receiver in Roc Taylor. They will put up points, I’m not worried about that.
The defense has pieces in place and led the league in interceptions last year with 16. But you can’t depend on a team to sustain that. Luckily, the schedule sets up well for the Tigers, as they only leave the state once before Oct. 21, and that’s to play an Arkansas St. team that should offer up a ton of resistance. There’s no UTSA or Florida Atlantic on the schedule, and they get Tulane and SMU at home, so if there was ever a time for this team to make a move, this is the year.
25. Louisiana Tech – Boise St. fans can relate to this, and I shudder to say it, but this team’s success likely rests on the arm of Hank Bachmeier.
I was admittedly not a fan of him as Boise’s QB. I feel like he got a lot of mileage out of one win as a freshman over a Florida St. team that was not up to their usual standard and wore out his welcome as a mediocre quarterback. But this fresh start may just be what him and La. Tech need. Coach Sonny Cumbie wants to run an Air Raid offense and has the weapons in place with running back Marquis Crosby and receivers Smoke Harris, Cyrus Allen and Nebraska transfer Decoldest Crawford.
Defensively, they return 6 starters but bring in 11 transfers for a talent infusion. I understand they went 3-9 last season, but this team has the perfect opportunity to make a move in the new look CUSA.
So there it is, the only Top 25 poll that matters. Who is overrated? Who is underrated? Who should be rated that wasn’t and rated that should be? Sound off via social media (@walkonredshirts) or my account (@justincripe) or our message board!