It’s been less than a month since Georgia won the National Championship, yet it feels way-too-late to hop aboard the Way-Too-Early Top 25 train. So I am going to do something a little different in the way of prognostication.
Thanks to the success of Cincinnati (and to a lesser degree, Louisiana and UTSA), moving and shaking in the transfer portal and talk of conference realignment, more eyes have been on the Group of 5 than ever. So let me freeform some things these baby blues see for 2022 in the World of G5.
Conference Champion – Houston
For the past couple of years, Cincinnati has been Snow While and the rest of the AAC have been the dwarves. But the Bearcats are losing a ton of talent to the NFL and will have to retool, all with an eye toward joining the Big XII in the not-too-distant future. My prediction is that Houston will establish themselves as the top team in the American, possibly until both leave for the Big XII. With Clayton Tune returning at quarterback the Cougars have a ton of returning experience, as well as skill talent in sophomore stud running back Alton McCaskill and receiver Nathaniel Dell. The non-conference schedule is definitely interesting, as they open the season at UTSA and at Texas Tech, as well as with home games against Kansas and Rice. If they can navigate that, they may have a real, real special season.
Will Surprise – UCF
Gus Malzahn was hired last year by the Knights in what seemed like an interesting move. However, Dillon Gabriel – talented as he is – was not quite the type of quarterback Malzahn thrives with. Enter John Rhys Plumlee. The Ole Miss transfer played slot receiver the past couple of years while Matt Corral was at the helm for the Rebels. But Plumlee is a playmaker with both his arm and his legs. The Bounce House could be rockin next year.
Will Disappoint – SMU
On the surface, there’s no reason to expect a “Ponydown” situation. The Mustangs are returning Tanner Mordecai, Ulysses Bentley at running back, and more than enough skill talent. The problem for me, is coaching. I’m not sold on Rhett Lashlee to replace Sonny Dykes, a guy who “got it” as far as football in the DFW goes. Lashlee is a very good offensive mind, but it just doesn’t feel like the best fit. (And oh yeah, Dykes comes back Sept. 24 and he is bringing his TCU Horned Frogs with him. That’ll be fun.)
Conference Champion – UTSA
Loyal readers know that last year I predicted that the stars would align for the Roadrunners to be a special team. I went so far to say they would go undefeated BEFORE the Illinois game Week One. (Check the archives.) It would have happened too if not for those meddling kids at North Texas, but I digress.
Am I going to go so far as to predict a repeat 11-1 season? Probably not. The Roadrunners are now the hunted instead of the hunters, and non-conference games against Houston and at Texas are going to be tough (if not fun as hell). But Frank Harris is back at quarterback and they return a majority of their receiving core. There is definitely enough there to win the conference again though. Get on board now.
Will Surprise – Marshall
The best running back you have never heard (Hurd?) of plays for Marshall. His name is Rasheen Ali, and he put up over 1,400 yards as a freshman last year. The Thundering Hurd finished a somewhat disappointing 7-6 last year, but could be primed for a better season this year behind Ali and Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi at quarterback, replacing Grant Wells who went to Virginia Tech. Keep an eye on September 10, as Marshall travels to South Bend to take on Notre Dame in one of those games that could end up much closer than it looks on paper.
Will Disappoint – Charlotte
After a 4-2 start to the season, including a win over an ACC foe (granted it was Duke but still), Charlotte was giving off strong “wait till next year” vibes. Then the bottom dropped out on Will Healy’s squad, as they finished the season 5-7 and somehow missed a bowl bid. Non-conference games against Maryland, at Georgia St. and South Carolina don’t give me warm, fuzzy feelings that this year will offer the bounce back opportunities the 49ers need to be relevant in CUSA.
Conference Champion – Central Michigan
The best team in the conference in probably defending champion Northern Illinois and the best retuning quarterback in Rocky Lombardi, but in this conference, why would anyone follow conventional wisdom? The Chippewas won their last five games of the season, including a spur-of-the-moment Sun Bowl over a Power Five opponent (Washington State). They return the nation’s leading rusher (Lew Nichols) and a more than capable quarterback in Daniel Richardson. And both are sophomores. Unless the transfer portal proves too tempting to resist or coach Jim McElwain finds greener pastures elsewhere, this team could be very good for a while.
Will Surprise – Bowling Green
Bowling Green has been a very young team the past two years, but last year they showed glimpses of what they could be, upsetting Minnesota 14-10 and putting up 56 points in a victory against Buffalo. In a conference as wild as the MAC, having a senior quarterback who has been through it makes a difference, and the Falcons have one in senior Matt McDonald.
Will Disappoint – Kent St.
I’m kind of throwing a dart here, as there was a lot of mediocrity in the MAC. The Golden Flashes will lose quarterback Dustin Crum from a conference runner-up team. In the world of the Group of Five, where you can’t necessarily plug-and-play at the quarterback position, losing a potential NFL prospect feels like a big deal. Don’t bet on Kent St. making back-to-back MAC title games.
Conference Champion – Fresno St.
Jeff Tedford is back for his second stint as coach of the Bulldogs. All he did during his three years there (2017-19) was lead the program to a 26-14 record, a 2018 Mountain West Championship, two MW West division titles and two bowl wins. And now he has (almost far and away) the best quarterback returning in the Mountain West in Jake Haener.
Will Surprise – UNLV
The Rebels finished last season 2-10, but if you squint real hard, you saw some signs of improvement. Games against Eastern Washington, at Fresno St., at UTSA, Utah St., San Jose St. and San Diego St. were all lost by 8 points or fewer. I don’t know if they will challenge for the conference title, but not many people thought Utah St. would a year ago either and sure enough, they won the MWC. Plus the Rebels have a pretty sweet slot machine gimmick. I’m putting all my chips on the Rebels this year. (See what I did there?)
Will Disappoint – San Diego St.
The Aztecs had a great year last year, going 12-2 including a win over Pac-12 Champion Utah. However, they did so behind one of the best defenses in the country. The problem is, they lose a lot of that talent on defense and the schedule is TOUGH. While they open up badassly named Snapdragon Stadium this year, their road schedule is brutal. Along with a game at revenge-minded Utah, they play Boise St., Fresno St., Nevada and New Mexico all on the road. Those won’t be easy. And while quarterback play was spotty with Lucas Johnson at the helm last year, let’s just say that if Braxton Burmeister is the answer, you are asking the wrong questions.
Conference Champion – Georgia State
The Panthers finished 2021 at the hottest team under the Sun…Belt. (I’m killing it with the wordplay this column.) But lost underneath all the talk about Louisiana, Coastal Carolina and Appalachian St. are the Panthers, who finished the season winning 6 of their last 7 and probably should have beat Auburn earlier in the season. Quarterback Darren Grainger is going to challenge Greyson McCall as the top quarterback in the conference. He’s that good. Coach Shawn Elliot will be the next guy to move up to a Power Five coaching gig. I’m telling you, this might be my G5 Crush this year. Be warned.
Will Surprise – Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern desperately needed to make a splash. And make a splash they did, hiring former USC head coach Clay Helton. Helton will take an offense that previously ran the triple-option and try to turn it into a pro-style offense. Buffalo transfer Kyle Vantrease will be handed the keys to the offense. While he is not a world beater by any means, he is definitely capable of being successful at this level. I have no idea if all the pieces will fit together, but the bar is set pretty low to begin and it will be interesting to watch.
Will Disappoint – Louisiana
Look, this is probably understandable. They are losing their head coach (Billy Napier) and star running back (Montrell Johnson) both to Florida. And the best quarterback they have ever had not named Jake Delhomme (Levi Lewis). To expect them to repeat their success over the past two years is asking an awful lot.