Group of Five King
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A moment of silence, please. College football’s BCS buster is no longer, the result of a new system that’ll include plenty of changes, a four-team playoff being chief among them. But a new postseason format does not mean that the game’s less prominent programs have been boxed out of a marquee bowl game. In fact, the new arrangement makes it easier for the so-called ‘Group of Five’ teams to play on a bigger postseason stage.
The bar used to be set at perfection for the Boise States of the game to earn a berth in a major bowl game. In the new world order, however, the highest rated champion, as determined by the 13-person committee, of the ‘other’ conferences will automatically be headed to one of the non-playoff games on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Put differently, the five winners of the American, the Mountain West, the MAC, Conference USA and the Sun Belt will be under consideration for a spot in the Orange, Cotton, Peach or Fiesta Bowl. So, the Broncos could still be in the hunt even if they lose the opener to Ole Miss. Ditto Cincinnati if it fails to get past Ohio State and Miami. Not bad, right?
Cinderella isn’t dead in college football. She’ll just be wearing a different slipper going forward. The following 14 teams are in the best position to carry on the old BCS buster tradition by qualifying to play a Power Five program in the 2014-15 postseason.
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … the holdovers know what it takes to win a title. The Owls have momentum, winning 10 games and their first outright conference championship in 56 years in 2013. For all the offseason love Marshall is getting, it couldn’t handle Rice in last December’s Conference USA championship game. Until proven otherwise, the Owls are the league’s team to beat.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the roster lost a lot of leaders on both sides of the ball, which makes Rice less formidable than it was in 2013. And with so many new starters, it’s doubtful the Owls can hang with Notre Dame or Texas A&M in the first two weeks. Barring a huge upset, how does Rice make a case? Beating Marshall on Nov. 15 would be its version of a Hail Mary.
Statement Opportunities : at Notre Dame (Aug. 30), at Texas A&M (Sept. 13)
13. Northern Illinois
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … a winning mentality still permeates throughout the roster, the staff and the DeKalb community. Sure, the Huskies are starting from scratch in a lot of key areas, but there’s enough of a foundation left from the teams that won 12 games in each of the last two seasons. Plus, Rod Carey will be working with more confidence now that he’s entering his second season as the head coach.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … Jordan Lynch was a Northern Illinois legend. The quarterback is the cover boy for a rebuilding year that includes the graduation of the entire D-line and an injury that’ll cost top RB Cameron Stingily at least the first four games. NIU is solid by MAC standards, but something will be off the team’s fastball in 2014.
Statement Opportunities : at Northwestern (Sept. 6), at Arkansas (Sept. 20)
12. San Diego State
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … Rocky Long’s teams always enter a season well-prepared. Long is one of the more underrated head coaches at this level, consistently maximizing his surrounding personnel on the Mesa. The Aztecs will be especially sound in the trenches, led by LT Terry Poole and NT Sam Meredith, and senior Quinn Kaehler is a returning starter at quarterback.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the roster took a beating from graduation, especially on defense. LB Jake Fely returns from injury, which is a huge addition, but he’ll be surrounded by a bunch of first-time starters. And that’ll make it tough to navigate a rocky road schedule that includes trips to Carolina, Corvallis, Fresno State and Boise State.
Statement Opportunities : at North Carolina (Sept. 6), at Oregon State (Sept. 20)
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … they’re hungry and experienced. The Rockets were not the least bit happy about finishing 2013 7-5 and bowl-less for the first time in five years. The encouraging news, though, is that there are returning starters everywhere, especially up front, and enough untapped potential to finally surge past Northern Illinois in the MAC West.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the quarterback situation remains unsettled. Toledo has yet to decide on an heir for Terrance Owens, though it has helped to infuse Alabama transfer Phillip Ely into the mix. On defense, the Rockets will need to grow up quickly to handle the East’s beast, Bowling Green, which visits the Glass Bowl Nov. 19.
Statement Opportunities : Missouri (Sept. 6), at Cincinnati (Sept. 12) at Iowa State (Oct. 11)
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … as the Sun Belt’s heavy favorite, the Ragin’ Cajuns will have a 1-in-5 shot of appearing in a major bowl game. As coach-quarterback combos go, Louisiana boasts a dynamite one in Mark Hudspeth and Terrance Broadway, respectively. No one in the league is going to slow down a ground game bolstered by backs Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire, and four starting O-linemen.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the Sun Belt is the weakest of the Group of Five conferences. The Cajuns just might plow through the likes of Appalachian State, Georgia State and New Mexico State without breaking a sweat. But unless they can upset Ole Miss or Boise State—on the road—they’ll likely be blocked from contention by the American and the Mountain West winner.
Statement Opportunities : at Ole Miss (Sept. 13), at Boise State (Sept. 20)
9. East Carolina
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … Shane Carden to Justin Hardy is one of the most lethal pitch-and-catch combos out of the Group of Five. The Pirates averaged 40 points per game in 2013, a number they’ll strive toward again this season. As a new member of the American, with an aggressive September slate, ECU will get plenty of respect for its strength of schedule.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … Carden and Hardy can’t singlehandedly overcome the graduation of so many key players on D and along the O-line. The Pirates have just three returning starters on defense, and the secondary will be vulnerable in and out of conference. The committee wants to champion a complete outfit, which ECU doesn’t figure to be in 2014.
Statement Opportunities : at South Carolina (Sept. 6), at Virginia Tech (Sept. 13), North Carolina (Sept. 20)
8. Fresno State
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … Tim DeRuyter is still in the Valley … and so are a number of his key players who contributed to back-to-back Mountain West titles. Now that Chris Petersen is in Seattle, the Bulldogs harbor the conference’s best coach and an all-leaguer at each level of the D. Skipping Utah State this season gives Fresno State an important scheduling advantage.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the offense’s soul has been ripped out. Not only is prolific QB Derek Carr gone, but so are 100-catch receivers Davante Adams and Isaiah Burse and all-star LT Austin Wentworth. Yeah, getting Duke transfer Brandon Connette was a tremendous move, but the Bulldogs will be far less dangerous through the air in 2014.
Statement Opportunities : at USC (Aug. 30), at Utah (Sept. 6), Nebraska (Sept. 13)
7. Bowling Green
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … the offense will be electrifying. The returning MAC champs averaged almost 35 points per game in 2013. Chump change. The Falcons’ offensive production is set to soar north now that the backfield of QB Matt Johnson and RB Travis Greene is joining forces with head coach Dino Babers, the architect of a high-octane attack.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … a new staff brings new problems. While Babers was a good hire, his playbook and pace will take time to be fully adopted. Oh, and the rebuilding defense can’t possibly be as stifling as it was a year ago. Bowling Green better upset one of the two Big Ten teams on the schedule to have a legit shot at a higher-profile postseason bid.
Statement Opportunities : Indiana (Sept. 13), at Wisconsin (Sept. 20)
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … they’re always competitive and well-coached, even when their coaches get promoted. The Bearcats have won no fewer than eight games in seven of the past eight seasons, and now that Louisville is in the ACC, the American is more winnable than ever. Plus, UCF is off the schedule, and East Carolina and Houston must travel to Nippert Stadium.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … it’s tough to win a league title with a new quarterback. Sure, Gunner Kiel was a former blue-chip recruit of Notre Dame, and Munchie Legaux has starting experience. But the former has yet to play a snap, while the latter is trying to return from a severe knee injury. Cincy will also be vulnerable in the middle of its D, a concern in a run-heavy league.
Statement Opportunities : at Ohio State (Sept. 27), at Miami (Oct. 11)
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … a large chunk of the players responsible for shocking Baylor in January’s Fiesta Bowl are still in Orlando. The Knights and head coach George O’Leary are riding high after winning 12 games—and the American—in 2013. The D will once again be the league’s nastiest, spearheaded by an ACC-caliber back seven brimming with speed and experience.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the overall dynamic of this program changed when Blake Bortles opted to turn pro early. Bortles was a difference-maker, one UCF will find impossible to replace. If the Knights are unable to exploit their advantages on the outside, they’ll be particularly vulnerable in key conference road trips to Houston and East Carolina.
Statement Opportunities : vs. Penn State (Aug. 30), at Missouri (Sept. 13), BYU (Oct. 9)
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … a perfect record will be tough for the committee to ignore. The Herd won’t just be favored in every game this season; it’ll be favored to win every game by double-digits. The Rakeem Cato-led offense is high-powered and diverse, while the D is underrated. Marshall is poised to stockpile blowouts, en route to a Conference USA championship.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … strength of schedule matters to the committee making this decision. The Herd can run the table, but will it deserve a major bowl berth for tearing through one of the softest schedules in the country? As it stands now, the toughest opponent on the schedule is Rice or Middle Tennessee, neither of which is considered a top 50 team.
Statement Opportunities : None
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … more than two dozen full or part-time starters are back from a year ago. And a lot of them are all-star-caliber. The Cougars are a little under the radar after using a rookie quarterback, John O’Korn, and suffering all four regular season losses by no more than one score. O’Korn is a year older, and there are playmakers everywhere on the two-deep.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … they first must prove they can win close games. Houston was unable to get over the hump when the schedule stiffened last November, losing three straight to UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati. The offense, with all of its skill, still must improve versus better defenses, and the D is busy trying to replace both of last year’s starting cornerbacks.
Statement Opportunities : at BYU (Sept. 11)
2. Utah State
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … Chuckie’s back. The Aggies pulled together after star QB Chuckie Keeton was lost to a season-ending knee injury midway through last fall. Now that he’s back, Utah State is capable of winning the Mountain West. The senior is a game-changer, and his teammates gained a ton of confidence by rallying to win the Mountain Division in 2013.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … the roster is in a state of flux. Keeton is outstanding, but can he stay healthy operating behind a line that parted with five senior offensive linemen? Additionally, the D will be rebuilding around Kyler Fackrell and the league’s best linebacker corps. All four of the Aggies’ toughest opponents, Tennessee, BYU, Colorado State and Boise State, will be played outside of Logan.
Statement Opportunities : at Tennessee (Aug. 31), at BYU (Oct. 3)
1. Boise State
They’ll Bowl With the Big Boys Because … they’re the best team in one of the two best Group of Five conferences. The Broncos are determined to move beyond last year’s 8-5 mark, their worst since 1998. They’ve got next-level weapons for veteran QB Grant Hedrick, including RB Jay Ajayi and WR Matt Miller, and the D is stout up front and in the secondary. Hosting Colorado State, Fresno State and Utah State is a scheduling gift.
They’ll Bowl in Anonymity Because … you don’t get better by losing Chris Petersen to a Pac-12 program. Yeah, Bryan Harsin is a rising young star within the ranks, but he’s not Coach Pete, who’d become an institution and a schematic genius in Boise before leaving for U-Dub. Hedrick doesn’t frighten opposing defenses, which means the Broncos won’t have a difference-maker at quarterback or at head coach in 2014.
Statement Opportunities : vs. Ole Miss (Aug. 28), BYU (Oct. 24)