With the exception of a handful of teams, most teams have begun their conference slate. So we have enough data to get a feel for who teams are at this point. So rather than wait a couple weeks when the season reaches its halfway point and I start getting sad, I wanted to do an overview of each of the Group of Five conferences a month into the season. I want to highlight a team that has surprised to this point and put a team that has disappointed on notice, then maybe a prediction about how the rest of the season will play out. You’ll get it. Let’s start with the American.
Most Disappointing – Houston
Looking at a September schedule that started off with games against UTSA and Texas Tech, there was a very real chance that Houston was going to go anywhere from 1-2 to 3-0. And if they happened to start off undefeated, many people thought there was a decent chance that the Cougars would run the table and represent the G5 in a NY6 bowl. The only forgone conclusion was a win over Kansas. August was a weird time.
Coming out of that 1-2 was bad enough, but they sit at 2-3 after an overtime loss to Tulane last Friday night. Despite not having Cincinnati or UCF on their schedule, it’s going to take a lot of things to break right for them to even make the conference title game. The Bearcats look like the class of the conference again, and road games at Memphis, SMU and East Carolina are going to prove tougher than maybe Houston fans expected.
Houston certainly isn’t bad by any means. They have played in three overtime games, losing two of them. That changes their perception dramatically. Offensively, Clayton Tune has been fine at quarterback, and Nathaniel Dell has been playing at a high level at receiver, but the loss of running back Alton McCaskill has proven to be a bigger deal than maybe previously thought. Also, the defense has been….ok. Sack Avenue has done their part, averaging just under 3 sacks a game. And while the defense has given up 27 points to every opponent, bear in mind the three games that went to overtime.
My guess is that things will level out and Houston will make a bowl game. But given the expectations brought forth in the preseason, that game will be much earlier in bowl season than Cougar fans hoped for a month ago.
Most Surprising – Tulane
I don’t think many people believed that Tulane was as bad as their 2-10 record suggested last year, but after their 17-10 win in Manhattan against Kansas St. three weeks ago, the Green Wave proved themselves to be more than a cute little team with kick-ass uniforms. Then they went one step further last Friday when they went to Houston and won. Tulane is a legit threat to win the conference.
If you squint real close, Tulane may remind people a lot of last year’s Cincinnati squad. Play great defense, run the ball, and get good quarterback play. A simple formula, but not easily executed. I’m not saying there is a Top 5 draft pick in the secondary, but the defense is doing a great job of preventing teams from scoring on them. Also Tyjae Spears may be the best running back in the conference and Michael Pratt (or Kai Horton or Justin Ibieta) is doing a good job of putting their receivers in a position to make plays. The similarities to the Bearcats are there, and we may just find out of they can out-Cincinnati Cincinnati to win the AAC in the regular season finale Nov. 26 in the Queen City.
Conference Title Game Prediction – Cincinnati vs. Tulane
Most Disappointing – Charlotte
Call Charlotte the 41ers, because they will give up 41 points to everyone they play. William and Mary scored 41 points and beat Charlotte. Georgia St. scored 41 points in Charlotte’s only win to this point. UTEP put up 41 points last week in their first ever win in the Eastern Time Zone. This defense is bad to the point of feeling sorry for them.
Offensively, it has been more an issue of bad luck rather than being outright bad. They have used four quarterbacks to this point, and while Chris Reynolds is back, it is probably too little, too late in terms of turning the season around. As one of the teams making the move the the AAC, they have some work to do before they get there.
Most Surprising – Rice
If you are looking for the most surprising result, it is easily Middle Tennessee St. pwning Miami. But as far as a team that has punched above it weight class, it has been the Rice Owls.
Take Week One against USC out of the equation because nothing good was going to come out of that matchup. Outside of that, the Owls have looked very good, winning 3 of 4 including wins over Louisiana and UAB and their only loss during that stretch being to Houston by a touchdown. They’ve done it primarily with their offense. Luke McCaffrey has been an absolutely revelation at wide receiver after transferring from Louisville (and before that Nebraska). Running back Ari Broussard has 8 touchdowns and the defensive front seven has done a terrific job getting pressure on the quarterback. Quarterback TJ McMahon needs to cut down on his mistakes for Rice to be a real threat to the UTSAs and Western Kentuckys of the world, but there are signs that this team will not be a pushover and should make a bowl.
Conference Title Game Prediction – UTSA vs. Western Kentucky
Most Disappointing – Northern Illinois
It’s tough to qualify disappointment when everyone plays such a tough non-conference schedule. 2-3 records at this stage of the season is par for the course. But Northern Illinois are the defending conference champions and to this point have only a season opening win against Eastern Illinois and losses to Tulsa, Vanderbilt and Ball St. on their resume. Not great, Bob.
The injury to all-conference quarterback Rocky Lombardi has played a role in the struggles, but freshman Ethan Hampton has been alright. He has to make plays to keep defenses from loading the box to stop stud running back Harrison Waylee. It’s still early in conference play and anything can happen in the MAC, but the Huskies have work to do, starting this weekend against conference favorite Toledo.
Most Surprising – Western Michigan
No team is without their warts, but Western’s 2-3 record and 1-0 start in conference looks the most respectable. Buffalo has a loss to Holy Cross, Bowling Green has one to Eastern Kentucky, those are hard to overlook. Meanwhile, Western lost to Michigan St., Pittsburgh and San Jose St. None of those are inherently bad teams, and the Broncos took care of Ball St. in a conference game, so they get the nod.
The quarterback play has been pretty pedestrian, but the two-headed rushing attack of Sean Tyler and La’Darius Jefferson has been terrific. Corey Crooms could be the next WMU receiver to play on Sundays. Wins in home games against Ohio and Eastern Michigan could really boost the profile of this team and make them a real threat to win the conference.
Conference Title Game Prediction – Kent St. vs. Toledo
Most Disappointing – San Diego St.
Wow, plenty of deserving nominees here. Fresno St. lost to Connecticut last week (without Jake Haener), Utah St. lost to WEBER STATE BY 27. Colorado St. lost to…everybody. But I’m going to say San Diego St. because they had the highest expectations.
The quarterback play has been as bad as advertised. Braxton Burmeister was expected to be the key piece for the Aztecs, but Friday night’s game against Boise St. proved he is very, very much not that. On top of that, the defense, which has been SDSU’s calling card, has not showed up in games against Arizona, Utah and Boise St. Can they turn things around and get to six wins and a bowl? Absolutely. But are they going to challenge for the conference title? No, and that’s because…
Most Surprising – UNLV
The Rebels are going to run away with the West Division.
If you remember my Predicting the Future column previewing the Mountain West, I hinted at that possibility. The division was wide open and this conference has a reputation of teams coming out of nowhere, so the signs were there. *Pats self on back*
Doug Brumfield has been terrific at quarterback, improving on his Freshman of the Year campaign last year and holding off transfer Harrison Bailey. But it’s been two other transfers, receiver Ricky White and running back Aiden Robbins that have really taken this offense to another level.
The schedule still has some challenges – including against Air Force and a non-conference game at Notre Dame – but games against San Diego St. and Fresno St. are not as daunting as they appeared a month ago. If the defense tightens up a bit, this team can win the conference.
Conference Title Game Prediction – Air Force vs. UNLV
Most Disappointing – Louisiana
I know, the obvious choice is Georgia St., but I think my pep talk last week might’ve turned things around for them. So I am going to look at the Ragin Cajuns.
This was always going to be a transition year with the losses of head coach Billy Napier and quarterback Levi Lewis, but the transition was expected to be smooth. They still don’t have the quarterback situation figured out between Chandler Fields and Ben Wooldridge, which is unfortunate because the defense has been really good. Losses already to UL Monroe and South Alabama have put Louisiana in a hole they may not be able to crawl out of with road games at Marshall, Southern Miss and Florida St. still on their slate. Home games with Troy and Georgia Southern are also going to be challenges. I don’t think this is a bowl team, and there is work to do in a changing climate.
Most Surprising – South Alabama
This is like choosing my favorite child. They all make me happy.
There’s James Madison, who has taken the conference and the FBS by storm. There’s Georgia Southern, who officially ended the Scott Frost Era at Nebraska and pushed Coastal Carolina to the limit. But I’m going to give some love to the West Division favorites, who are a botched fake field goal attempt at undefeated UCLA away from being undefeated themselves.
With apologies to the Dukes, this is probably the best defense in the conference. At the very least, it is the best secondary. And Toledo transfer Carter Bradley has played solid if unspectacular at quarterback. Keep an eye of that though, as his worst game was last week against conference foe Louisiana. If that is a trend, the division can be taken over by a team like Troy or even Southern Miss. But if that was just a blip, this team can win the conference outright.
Conference Title Game Prediction – Coastal Carolina vs. Troy