The calendar has turned to June. The preview magazines have trickled out into stores. The start times for games have begun to be announced. It’s time to lock into the college football season.
I’ve done a relatively deep dive into the schedules and found several game that pique my interest. So I wanted to share a game each week that I – as the resident Group of Five guy – is most interested in attending in a perfect world. As loyal readers may recall, last year I did a similar column where I picked one game each weekend to potentially go to within the world of the Group of Five. For background, I live in DC and am married to a flight attendant, so airline travel is a pretty easy means of transportation. Also, my birthday falls on Week Zero. So with those perfect storms coming together, we went to the North Texas-UTEP game and a couple others involving Mississippi St. in September. (Because my husband is a Bulldog alum.) The column was designed to motivate me to travel more, see some of the amazing campuses and cities that are beyond Athens, Georgia and Columbus, Ohio. My intentions were good, my couch was greater.
So we are going to give it another try this year. My criteria is simply a combination of location, atmosphere and quality of game, with affordability sprinkled in. (Yes the Notre Dame-Navy game in Dublin would be great, but would I rather drop $500 for tickets to that when I don’t like Notre Dame and Navy is right down the road or $15 for a Hawaii-Vanderbilt game in Nashville? Considering my last name doesn’t start with “Mc” I think we know the answer to that.)
One thing that will be different this year as opposed to last year’s column is I am opening up the possibility of a G5 vs. P5 game. Make no mistake, I am “Ride or Die” Group of 5, but imagine how fun it was for Middle Tennessee St. fans who made the trip to Miami to watch their Blue Raiders beat the Hurricanes. Or a fan of Marshall, Georgia Southern and App State beating Notre Dame, Nebraska and Texas A&M. I’m chasing that high.
I will also note that UTEP is being excluded from consideration since I went there last year. On top of that Conference USA is just not as enticing this year as past years due to conference realignment, so there may not be a ton of C-USA representation, but they’ll get there. I do like that they are getting out in front of MACtion by having games on Wednesday and Thursday nights in October, but going to any of those games is not exactly conducive to the schedule of a guy who has a traditional 9-5. Having said that, the Sun Bowl is amazing and definitely worth checking out if you are willing and able.
Now then, without further adieu, here is the 2023 Ultimate Group of 5 Trip.
Week Zero (Aug. 26) – Hawaii at Vanderbilt: There is usually a Big 10 Week Zero game for fans to whet their college football appetite, but this year’s schedule doesn’t have that. Notre Dame-Navy is probably supposed to be that game, but Navy is under new leadership this year and the Irish have pretty high expectations under Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman. Quite frankly, that game may not be a lot of fun. Same goes with San Jose St. at USC. I looked at the Conference USA offerings,, but FIU at Louisiana Tech and UTEP at Jacksonville St. don’t move the needle for me as far as destinations go. In a perfect world, I would go to Ohio at San Diego St. for what could be a very good game between two teams expected to be in the upper echelon of their conferences, but ultimately, a trip to Nashville for birthday weekend was too much to resist. Besides, Vanderbilt and/or Hawaii both have the chance to be feisty this year. And if the game ends up being a blowout, the Nashville brewery scene is worth the trip alone.
Week 1 (Sept. 2) – Old Dominion at Virginia Tech: From a G5 perspective, Week One is traditionally not the greatest week of the year. Either they are scheduled against Power 5 opponents looking to give away money, or they host an FCS school they are expected to beat but ultimately might not. Sure, there is the occasional G5 vs G5 matchup, and Tulane hosting South Alabama is as good as you can ask for in that space, but for Week One I am going to stay local.
Old Dominion seems to have Virginia Tech’s number, beating them the last two times they have played each other. I don’t expect that happening this year, as ODU is replacing a lot of talent that was either drafted or transferred. I don’t know if Va. Tech is much better than 6-6, but if I want to go to Blacksburg and see Lane Stadium rocking once Enter Sandman hits, Week One is as good a time as any to me. And who knows, maybe ODU makes it 3 in a row against their in-state brethren.
Week 2 (Sept. 9) – Southern Miss at Florida St.: It happens every year. I develop a crush. This year it’s Southern Miss. And it makes sense. Frank Gore Jr. is one of the most exciting players in all of college football. Their aggressive defense has a cool nickname – the “Nasty Bunch”. There’s a lot to like.
But as with many crushes, there’s a reason you can’t fully commit to them. The Golden Eagles non-conference schedule is that reason.
Southern Miss is my crush, but Florida St. is my forever love. I have been a Seminole fan since childhood. And despite a few down years by their standards lately, this year expectations are high. Normally you don’t want to see your crush in the same place as your forever love, but this is definitely an exception. And from an on-field standpoint, if Southern Miss can get solid quarterback play, they have a puncher’s chance.
Week 3 (Sept. 16) – East Carolina at Appalachian St.: James Madison at Troy is the best G5 game of the weekend (and maybe the best game in the Sun Belt all year), so that appears to be a no-brainer. But JMU is a couple hour drive for me and I would rather see them at home. Instead I chose an opportunity to cross a campus off the ol’ bucket list. App St. is known for it’s scenic view, and while the leaves may not quite be changing colors to get the full Autumn effect, I’ll take my chances. The on-field product may leave something to be desired, as both teams are replacing record setting quarterbacks, but this game will give a nice barometer as to how both teams are looking heading into conference play.
Week 4 (Sept. 23) – UTSA at Tennessee: There may not be a game I am looking forward to as much as this one all year, full stop. UTSA is the team that made me love Group of 5 football when I saw something in them a couple years ago and proudly proclaimed it on this very internet. They’ve never let me down since. However, the next step in my fandom is to see them play in person. So seeing Meep Meep Nation at Rocky Top? There will be so much orange. Oh yeah, the game might also be really great too, as two high powered offenses led by Joe Milton and Frank Harris (still) will be on display. Give me all of that. I’ll sit at the top row of Neyland Stadium, IDGAF.
Week 5 (Sept. 30) – Bye Week: Seriously, if I go to UTSA-Tennessee, any game I go to the week after will pale in comparison.
Week 6 (Oct. 7) – Ball St. at Eastern Michigan: I feel like I need to get some MAC representation before the weeknight games get going and the weather turns in the Midwest. I’m soft. This conference is tough to nail down favorites in. Toledo and Ohio look to be upper echelon teams, but when it comes to the MAC, it’s not quite about the traditional.
EMU has a pretty good chance to be a threat in the conference, but more importantly, a grey field. That works for me. And Ball St. has a chance to be sneaky good with transfers Logan Hatcher (Arkansas St./Texas St.) coming in a quarterback and running back Marquez Cooper (Kent St.) looking to inject some juice into a Cardinal offense that saw Carson Steele head to Westwood.
Week 7 (Oct. 13) – Tulane at Memphis: I know, I know. It took far too long for me to get to a Tulane game. They are the top team in all of Group of 5 after all. But quite frankly, I feel like a Friday night game at Memphis is the best opportunity to see what this program is made of. Last year was great, but it’s not impossible to think it could be an aberration. Memphis has a chance to make a move in a conference that saw three of their chief rivals leave this year. If Seth Hennigan can take the next step at quarterback, there is an opportunity for them to establish themselves as the cream of the AAC crop.
Week 8 (Oct. 21) – Air Force at Navy: Army-Navy is obviously a Bucket List game for any college football fan, but this is the rare opportunity to see two service academies play on campus, and it is the campus I happen to live a mere 30 miles away from. (Plus, I have yet to get any Mountain West representation and this may be one of the better teams in the conference.) It’s a no-brainer.
Week 9 (Oct. 26) – Georgia St. at Georgia Southern: I say this knowing nothing about Statesboro, Georgia and based solely on what Georgia Southern Twitter says, but Georgia Southern is one of the sneaky underrated environments in the Group of 5. I’ll buy that, I’ve seen pictures. But to get the full Georgia Southern Experience, I feel like I need to go to a night game against a rival. Lucky for me, that’s an option. I really like what the Eagles are doing. Clay Helton has done a great job in selling a program that went from the triple option to a pass-happy offense overnight. This year they have Tulsa transfer Davis Brin coming in. If he can replicate what Kyle Vantrease did last year, this team will make noise in the Sun Belt East.
Week 10 (Nov. 4) – Florida Atlantic at UAB: Two of the more interesting coaching hires in college football not named Deion Sanders took place at these schools. Florida Atlantic hired former Houston and Texas head man Tom Herman to kickstart an FAU football team that is trying to ride the good vibes on campus of their basketball team’s Final Four run. On the other side, UAB took a flyer on Trent Dilfer to lead the Blazers into the new frontier that is the AAC. The teams are honestly pretty similar, with each boasting all-conference caliber running backs in Larry McCammon (FAU) and Jermaine Brown (UAB) as well as Big 12 transfers at quarterback in Casey Thompson (Texas) for the Owls and Jacob Zeno (Baylor) for the Blazers. This game could go a long way in determining bowl eligibility.
Week 11 (Nov. 11) – Texas St. at Coastal Carolina: Here are two teams that are going to look significantly different than they have in recent years. Texas St. may not be very good, but with GJ Kinne coming in from Incarnate Word and bringing an up-tempo offense with him and SEC quarterbacks TJ Finley and Malik Hornsby fighting for the starting quarterback position, there’s potential for Texas St. to at least be fun. Coastal Carolina, on the other hand, retains Grayson McCall at quarterback but with Jamey Chadwell headed to Liberty, the team could look drastically different in style. Where they fit in the Sun Belt East hierarchy depends on his supporting cast. Also, the field is teal.
Week 12 (Nov. 18) – Rice at Charlotte: On the surface, it is far from the sexiest matchup, and probably won’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of the AAC landscape. But when you get to November and are trying not to duplicate teams, you take what you can get. On the plus side, Rice is an interesting team. They went to a bowl game last year (even if that experience is best known for Frank Gore Jr. gashing the Owl defense) and bring much traveled JT Daniels into their quarterback. If he’s right, this offense could really be something. On the other side, you have a Charlotte squad looking for a fresh start in a new conference with former Michigan Assistant Biff Poggi at the helm. I don’t know if you should expect too much from the 49ers this year, but I have always thought of Charlotte as a sleeping giant in the world of G5. Poggi might be the guy to unlock that potential.
Week 13 (Nov. 24) – Toledo at Central Michigan: It’s Thanksgiving/Rivalry Week, so I’m probably going to go the family thing in the Midwest. A MACtion game makes the most sense, and this might be one of the more interesting options. Toledo is likely to be a force in the MAC as per usual behind Dequan Finn and a potent offense, but if what Bert Emanuel Jr. showed at the end of the season can be replicated, Central Michigan will be a player as well.
So this is my take on the most interesting games at the Group of Five level. I try to be as representative as possible, but I recognize that the Mountain West and C-USA do not get a ton of love in this column. It’s simply a matter of location. If it makes fans of those conferences feel any better, I have ESPN+ and the same couch I had last year. And it’s still comfortable.