Here we go. It’s time for another season of college football, and while a lot of people focus on the teams vying for a National Championship, it’s important to remember the smaller conferences and think about their division races and conference championship hunts and watch out for teams to take down a Power 5 conference team (we’ve already seen one, and it factored into our rankings). Just as we did last year, we’ll be ranking 15 teams from the Group of 5 conferences (American, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) or independents other than Notre Dame. There’s less coverage on small conference teams in the offseason than the bigger schools, making predictions for them somewhat challenging, but we’ll give it a shot anyway.
#1. UCF Knights
Last year was no Scott Frost, no problem for the Knights as they rattled off another undefeated regular season before falling to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl, and this year we’ll see how they do without McKenzie Milton under center. Returning running backs Greg McCrae and Adrian Killins, who combined for nearly 1900 rushing yards last year, will help whether the quarterback is Darriel Mack Jr or Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. On defense, key players like Richie Grant (108 tackles, 6 INT in 2018, both led team), Nate Evans (99 tackles, 2.5 sacks in 2018), and Brendon Hayes (3 sacks, 44 tackles in 2018) should help anchor a defense that’s going to miss the loss of second-round draft pick Trysten Hill and Pat Jasinski, a linebacker who forced three fumbles and had an interception a year after having 104 tackles. There’s a reason they’re the only Group of 5 team ranked in the preseason polls, they should have another great year in 2019.
#2. Boise State Broncos
The Broncos have a tough task in replacing Brett Rypien and Alexander Mattison at QB and RB, but if any Group of 5 team is capable of that, it’s Boise. Mattison was actually less successful than his predecessor, Jeremy McNichols, and backups Andrew Van Buren and Robert Mahone were pretty successful in the playing time they received last year. Returning all five starting offensive linemen will help carry new faces at the skill positions as well, and they have a lot of talent in their receiving core to make the new QB’s job easier. On defense, they have some pieces to replace up front but the secondary should be good enough to make up for it. They return six of seven secondary members who saw significant playing time last year, as well as returning 2017 starter DeAndre Pierce, who missed most of last season with a lacerated spleen (which sounds awful). Curtis Weaver, who logged 9.5 sacks last year, returns to lead the defensive front that lost some pieces, but was just okay last year and should be able to maintain their production even with some veteran players graduating. As is the case every year, the path to the Mountain West championship runs through Boise.
3. Army Black Knights
Army was great last year, and should be the beneficiaries of one of the easiest schedules in the FBS this year (with an SOS rank of 123 according to FPI), with four games that they’re given over a 90% chance to win, with a fifth over 85%. They do play at Michigan in Week 2, which will almost definitely be a loss, but they’re only underdogs in two other games, when they travel to Air Force and Hawaii, and they’re given greater than 35% odds in both of those games. This team could go 9-3 and this ranking would be too high. After back-to-back double-digit win seasons (including a program-record eleven last year), head coach Jeff Monken needs to make it three in a row for 2019 to be considered a success. QB Kelvin Hopkins is back to run their option attack, and while the loss of fullback Darnell Woolfolk is a big one, returning three offensive linemen and several skill position players means that their offense should be fine, as they’ll likely lead the nation in rushing yards (they trailed only Georgia Tech last year, who figures to go to a more traditional offense under new head coach Geoff Collins). On defense, the Black Knights will have a very different look than they had last year, but as long as the offense does their job and controls the time of possession, the defensive unit should be just fine. They do return some key pieces like linebacker Cole Christiansen, who recorded 77 tackles a year ago, Rod Stoddard, who is probably their largest defensive player at 280 pounds, who along with fellow big guy Connor Smith will be looking to plug holes inside, and three starting secondary members return as well. They’ll win a lot of games, but the question is how they fare in the few tough games they have.
4. Memphis Tigers
Memphis is favored in all but one of their games, according to FPI, and that game is this week hosting Ole Miss, where they’re given a 48.4% chance to win. However, their win out chance is just 0.8%, in large part because they have 4 games between 50 and 62% win probability (at Temple, Houston, South Florida and vs Cincinnati) and only a 21.1% chance to win their conference, as they would likely be underdogs to UCF, or Cincinnati in Cincy, in a conference championship game. But even with a loss to Ole Miss and splitting those 4 tough games where they’re favorites, they could still very well be 9-3 and looking at a spot in the AAC championship game. S&P+ has them winning just as many games as UCF, both around 9.5, and facing off in the conference championship game. Replacing Darrell Henderson won’t be easy for the Tigers, and they also had all three of their coordinators hired into other jobs (OC Kenny Dillingham to Auburn, DC Chris Ball to Northern Arizona as HC, STC Joe Lorig to Texas Tech, then Penn State), but QB Brady White, an explosive receiving core, and a big, strong running back in Patrick Taylor Jr all return to make what should still be an exciting offense, and could even repeat as the best offense in the AAC. The defense was the source of concern last year, especially defending the pass, but that was largely youth-based issues. This year, they return a lot of players who should be progressing and making their defense better as a whole. Defensive improvement and offensive stability would make this program one of the best small conference teams in the country, and if it all clicks, Memphis could find themselves in an NY6 bowl game.
5. BYU Cougars
BYU scheduled themselves a rough start, but with potential for big, season-defining wins. Yes, they start with Utah, Tennessee, USC, and Washington, but all three of those Pac-12 teams come to Provo to face the Cougars. The upside there is it gives them the potential to actually beat a Pac-12 team, and even have a slim shot at beating two of them. The downside is that’s half of their home games for the season, and has a real potential to be an 0-4 start with three home losses. The schedule only gets slightly easier after that as well, as they then travel to Toledo and South Florida before coming back to Utah to face Boise State. They could pretty reasonably start the year 2-5, and that’s the danger of having the toughest schedule of any small conference team (per FPI, S&P+ says NMSU has a harder schedule, but they’re terrible and play 7 road games so who cares). With QB Zach Wilson, who took over the starting job late last year as a freshman, and RB Lopini Kalota, also a freshman in 2018, back, the offense has the potential to take a step forward to join their defense which has long been the better unit for this team, which could allow this team to go 8-4 or maybe even 9-3 even with this tough schedule, and if you couple that with a bowl win, you’re talking about a really good season for BYU, which will then have a lot to look forward to in 2020 with Wilson and Kalota presumably returning again. They lost just one starter from last years O-line, and get back a 2017 starter to fill that hole. BYU last year did a great job preventing big plays, but their offense also struggled to do so, turning many of their games into boring slugfests that came down to who could convert more 3rd-and-3’s. If the defense can make more big plays after really struggling to stop their opponents in the backfield last year, that could help their offense get some short fields and make some big plays of their own. It should be a big year for the Cougars.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Another team with one of the toughest schedules for a group of 5 team, Cincinnati hosts UCLA, travels to Ohio State and travels to Marshall, and that’s just out-of-conference action. Within their AAC schedule, the Bearcats host UCF and travel to Houston, South Florida, and Memphis. On the bright side, in their other five games, they have at least an 80% chance to win, per FPI. Their incredible defense from a year ago returns a lot of talent on the back end, though the D-line will need a bit of reworking after losing their top three rotation players there. If they can hold steady, an offense that featured a freshman QB and sophomore RB should improve, especially when bringing back their leading rusher from 2017 and all but one receiver, making this team dangerous in the AAC East. If Milton’s loss proves to be big for UCF, it could allow them to put an end to UCF’s brief time on top of the conference and claim it as their own. Then the question would turn to the future of Luke Fickell and whether he’d be willing to stay with the Bearcats or move on to a power 5 coaching job.
7. Appalachian State Mountaineers
The Mountaineers could be due for some regression with head coach Scott Satterfield moving on to bigger and better things at Louisville, but they were head and shoulders above the rest of the Sun Belt a year ago and survive a bit of regression and still win the conference. They’re still major favorites in the Sun Belt and are favored in all of their games except when they travel to North Carolina and South Carolina. Even if they lose those two, and one of their three toughest in-conference matchups (at Louisiana, Troy, vs Georgia Southern), that would put them at 9-3, and wins in the Sun Belt championship and a bowl game would put them at 11-3 for the year. The offense last year was much better with QB Zac Thomas on the field, and a full season of health for him should fit right into first-time head coach Elijah Drinkwitz’s pass-first philosophy he’s used as an offensive coordinator. Their defense has been their calling card since their jump to the FBS five years ago, and new DC Ted Roof has a lot of work in front of him to replace difference-makers like corners Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes, who combined for five INTs and twelve pass breakups a year ago, and defensive end Okon Godwin, who had 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss last year, to keep this defense at the elite level it’s been. They have good depth at end, linebacker and safety returning, though, so if Roof can get the best out of this unit and they play close to the level they did last year, App State should be ok.
8. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
This one is where the fact that a few games have already been played comes into play. Hawai’i already has notched a win over a Pac 12 foe in Arizona. The Wildcats came in as 10.5 point favorites but Hawai’i did what they’re known for and put up a lot of points by throwing the ball really well. WR Cedric Byrd III caught fourteen passes for 224 yards and 4 touchdowns as they withstood the Arizona attack, including a Khalil Tate run where he was tackled on the 1-yard line as time expired with Hawai’i up 7. The Rainbow Warriors will play 13 games this year, and that win may have been the difference between a good season for them and a great one. They should be competing with Fresno State and San Diego State, both of whom they get at home, for the Mountain West West division, and though playing at Boise State in the regular season won’t help, the way the rest of their schedule plays out it looks like they have a shot at making it to the Mountain West championship game. The questions, as they usually do for Hawai’i, reside mostly on the defensive side, and whether that unit can get enough stops for them to win tough games. They got it done against Arizona, as they withheld giving up six turnovers to survive the contest. They can’t do that every game, but the fact that they beat a Pac 12 team without playing their best football is a good sign for this season.
9. Western Michigan Broncos
Western Michigan should go undefeated at home this year. The best team they play at home is Miami (OH), who ranks 105 in FPI (to WMU’s 66) and 93 in S&P+ (to WMU’s 88). The issues should come on the road, where they play Michigan State and Syracuse out of conference, as well as their biggest two competitors in the MAC West in Toledo and Northern Illinois, as well as MAC East favorite Ohio. They played Syracuse close at home last year, but it’s unlikely for that game to flip to a win when it’s moved to New York this year, even with WMU’s team being one of the most experienced in the country. They return starting QB John Wassink, for hopefully a healthier senior season after missing time each of the last two years, but they return 2018 backup Kaleb Eleby in case he goes down again. They also keep senior running back LeVante Bellamy, who ran for over 1200 yards last year, as well as receiving threats D’Wayne Eskridge and Giovanni Ricci. Unfortunately, they did lose Jayden Reed, who transferred to Michigan State after a fantastic freshman season in Kalamazoo, but they also keep 3 O-line starters including all-conference guard Luke Juriga. The defense was bad last year, largely in a feast-or-famine type of way where they either stopped plays behind the line or got burned for big plays. But the defense also returns most of its starters, and a more experienced defense should do a better job of limiting the big plays. They’ll have to get it done once or twice in tough road games, but if they do they’ve got a good chance to win the MAC.
10. Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall also enters the year as the odds-on favorite to win their conference, given a 25.3% chance at winning the C-USA according to FPI. They have some tough out of conference tests, going at Boise State and hosting Cincinnati, but their toughest in-conference game is at Florida Atlantic, where they’re given a 49.9% chance to win by FPI. If QB Isaiah Green can stay healthy, that will go a long way to help their offense survive the loss of key wideout Tyre Brady. RBs Tyler King and Brandon Knox should help that offense go, as they were the two more efficient backs of their four that saw regular playing time. The defense was dominant last year, and though they have a lot of faces changing up front coupled with a new coordinator, the secondary should be great after only one important loss in safety Malik Gant declaring for the NFL draft early. The C-USA appears to have some competition of teams hot on the heels of the Thundering Herd like FIU, FAU and possibly Southern Miss, but if Marshall can win some close games, they should come away with the conference crown.
11. Ohio Bobcats
The Bobcats have 3 tough games this year, in the forms of games at Pitt and Marshall out of conference and hosting Western Michigan in MACtion. But none of those are MAC East opponents, as with Buffalo losing a lot of key players clearing the way for Ohio to return to Detroit for the MAC championship game in early December. Head coach Frank Solich continues to impress into his 70s, and QB Nathan Rourke is probably the best QB in the conference, and maybe the best overall player. While traveling to Buffalo won’t be easy, and beating the Bulls last year wasn’t enough to get over them overall, they get Miami (OH) at home after a crushing loss to them in Oxford a year ago. The MAC West is clearly better than the East, and Ohio should be able to use that to their advantage. If they stumble, it will be due largely to the turnover on offense other than Rourke, where they lose all their backs who had more than 20 carries, all but two receivers who caught more than 3 passes, and 3 all-conference offensive linemen. The defense should be slightly better, but with a new coordinator and a few key defenders leaving the program, that shouldn’t be a large difference in 2019.
12. Fresno State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs start off the year tough, traveling to USC in week one. Then Minnesota comes to Fresno, also a difficult test but one that Fresno State has a legitimate chance to win. They have three in conference games where they’re underdogs but given over a 40% chance to win by FPI (at San Diego State, Air Force, and Hawaii). If they can win any two of those 5 games in which they aren’t favored (especially if they can win two of those in-conference games) then they can make a push for the Mountain West championship game. They were right at the top of group of 5 teams last year, but they lose a lot of the production from that 2018 team which will make it tough for them to repeat. But head coach Jeff Tedford engineered a turnaround from 1-10 to 10-4 in his first year in Fresno, so who’s to say he couldn’t lead the team to a surprisingly good season when it looks like they’re due for a rebuilding year? The run game was the biggest negative in Fresno last year, and a returning running back will only marginally help when losing four starters from the offensive line. The defense should be very good again, as they managed to play very well in spite of not forcing negative plays at a high rate. If they can find some big plays, it should help offset the loss of most of their linebacking core, which is the unit that meant the most to their defensive success a year ago. It should be an interesting year for the Bulldogs.
13. Houston Cougars
Houston doesn’t get a good projection from FPI this year, but when you hire away a coach from a Power 5 program (in hiring West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen), you expect to improve. They return their electric QB D’Eriq King, who had a shot at going for 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards before getting hurt and missing the last two games. The backfield duo of Car and Carr should be as entertaining on the field as their last names are paired together. The problem in Houston will continue to be their defense. It was bad last year with Ed Oliver in the mix for most of the season, and they have no one near that impactful on that side of the ball this year. A new defensive coordinator in Joe Cauthen, coming from the same position at Arkansas State, they hope will help as well as returning experience at defensive end (where Cauthen liked to attack from at ASU) and safety (a key spot to be good if you want your guys up front to attack). FPI says the Cougars are underdogs in 8 games, but only 3 of them have win percentages lower than 35. When new coaches are successful, it’s those close games that they flip to wins. If Holgorsen can manage that, then this year won’t be lost for the Cougars.
14. Toledo Rockets
After a trip to Kentucky to start the year, the schedule turns favorable for Toledo, who’s only other two games in which they’re underdogs come at home (against BYU and WMU). Winning one of those will allow them to make up for a potential loss in one of their tougher road games (at Colorado State, Ball State, Buffalo). Toledo’s offense should be good (a common thread among top MAC teams, think Buffalo last year or WMU in 2016), but the defense was an issue in their 7-6 campaign last year and lost five of their top six havoc-producing defenders (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), leaving them the potential to lose a few 45-38-type games. Their running game should be good with their two leading rushers returning as well as four offensive line starters, and returning QBs mean more than shuffling wide receiver groups. A defense that sometimes got pushed around while defending the run has gotten even smaller up front, which doesn’t bode well when conference rivals Western Michigan and Northern Illinois like to run the ball like they do. But their offense can keep them in games, and they’re really only one upset away from a 10-2 season. They do still have a high ceiling in 2019.
15. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
The Golden Eagles may as well start the year 0-2, we can throw their games at Mississippi State and Alabama out the window. The good news is, like Ohio, they play in the clearly weaker division in their conference. They do have to play at Florida Atlantic, but they don’t play FIU or Marshall in the regular season. They’re given at least a 45% chance to win every game against non-SEC opponents this year, while Louisiana Tech and North Texas are the only other schools with any chance at winning the C-USA West. Louisiana Tech has the best shot at taking down Southern Miss in the division, but they play FIU and at Marshall in cross-division action. They return a lot of offensive linemen, where they’ll need to see a big improvement to fix an offense that couldn’t run the football or avoid sacks last year. When QB Jack Abraham completed 73% of his passes behind that line, that looks like potential for a major offensive improvement with better blocking up front. The defense that allowed them to get to 6-5 last year returns a lot of their top players, as well. That has the potential to, with a returning HC and DC, vault them to the top of all small conference defenses. Any team with as good of a shot as Southern Miss has at getting to their conference’s championship game deserves a spot on this list. It’s just a matter of offensive execution to get them there.
Florida International, Georgia Southern, Temple, North Texas, San Diego State
So there are your predictions for the best group of 5 teams in college football this year. Some names not on this list will surprise us, and some teams that look good right now will slip up. That’s the nature of sports, and especially college football. It will be exciting to see the way the landscape shifts throughout the year and watch as conference championship races take shape. See you back here on Monday when we’ll start getting to our regular weekly schedule for these articles.