The switch to the new College Football Playoff will have a profound impact on the so-called Group of Five conferences. The American Athletic, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA, and Sun Belt conferences–those not included in the Power 5–are now guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl as the highest-ranked champion.
At first glance, that sounds like a good thing, but some fear it’ll only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Yes, the smaller conferences will have an easier route to a bigger bowl game, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get a shot at a playoff berth. Just look back to those stellar Boise State and TCU teams. Under the old system, those squads had earned enough cachet that if they went undefeated while other BCS schools lost a game, they would have been elevated into a top spot. A 12-0 Boise State would likely be chosen over a one- or two-loss champion from say the Big 10 or a runner-up from the SEC.
Now, a one- or two-loss champion from a power conference is likely to get a playoff ahead of an undefeated mid-major. It’s something that bears watching as the new playoff format unfolds.
As for that coveted New Year’s Day berth, there are plenty of teams that could make a run at it.
Can Boise State sustain the level of excellence it established without Chris Petersen? Will Utah State keep up its amazing transformation from bottom-feeder to mid-major power and win the Mountain West?
What will UCF do for an encore after its break-though season a year ago?
Can Bowling Green become the next Northern Illinois? Will Ball State do it? How will Northern Illinois cope without Jordan Lynch?
2013 Year in Review
The strongest Group of 5 team in 2013, by far, was the Central Florida Golden Knights. UCF finished 12-1, defeating Penn State and preseason darling Louisville (it was the Cardinals’ only loss) before pulling a stunning upset and easily handling a potent Baylor team in the Fiesta Bowl. The Knights’ only blemish on the year was a narrow, 28-25 loss to SEC power South Carolina. Louisville also finished 12-1 in its final season before moving to the ACC, while Cincinnati flew under-the-radar at 9-4. Houston was the only other AAC team to finish with a winning record at 8-5.
The Mountain West experienced a changing of the guard, as Boise State’s longtime grip on the league title was finally put to an end by an explosive Fresno State team. The Bulldogs had BCS aspirations, but a late-season loss to San Jose State scuttled those dreams. The Bulldogs still rebounded to win the league title before getting thumped by USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. Boise suffered a disappointing 8-5 season, but Utah State showed how far it has come, winning 9 games and advancing to the league title game despite losing star quarterback Chuckie Keeton for most of the year due to a knee injury. Colorado State became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008 and had arguably the most dramatic bowl comeback of the season, rallying from a 35-13 deficit to win 48-45 in stunning fashion over Washington State.
MACtion was as exciting as ever, with Northern Illinois nearly making it back to a second-straight BCS bowl game behind quarterback Jordan Lynch. The Huskies were routed in the MAC championship game by a really good Bowling Green team to quash those hopes, but the Huskies still finished 12-2. Bowling Green ended the year at 10-4, while Ball State also posted 10 wins.
Marshall rode the arm of Rakeem Cato to a division title before falling to Rice in the Conference USA title game, but the Thundering Herd rebounded to defeat Maryland and finish 10-4. Rice was a bit of a surprise team in 2013, going 10-4, upsetting Marshall, and winning its first outright conference title since the ’50s. Nicely done, Owls. Texas-San Antonio continued its meteoric rise, ending the season on a five-game win streak and nearly snagging a division title despite only playing games as a program for three years.
Parity seemed to reign in the Sun Belt. Three teams separated themselves from the pack, but four teams finished 6-6. Apart from newcomer Georgia State, you were either pretty good or absolutely mediocre. Louisiana-Lafayette won nine games for the third-straight year and translated that into a conference title. League stalwart Arkansas State finished 8-5, and Western Kentucky went 8-4.
Looking Ahead to 2014
American Athletic Conference
UCF lost some significant players from its stellar 2013 squad–most notably Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson–but the Golden Knights have plenty of talent returning. They failed to complete the comeback in the season-opening game in Dublin, Ireland, against Penn State, but the Golden Knights may have found their quarterback after Justin Holman came on to relieve Pete DiNovo. The defense is deep, talented, and experienced. Most of the defensive two-deep returns to what should be the best defense in the conference.
East Carolina has been getting some preseason buzz, and rightfully so. Shane Carden had a big year in 2013, throwing for over 4,0o0 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and he’s primed for another big year. The Pirates were 10-3 last year, and while they move up to a new league, it shouldn’t take that long to acclimate since many of their new mates used to be in Conference USA. The Pirates’ non-conference slate is a doozy; road games against South Carolina and Virginia Tech followed by a home contest with North Carolina. If ECU can win one or two of those, they’d be in the driver’s seat for that New Year’s Day berth.
Cincinnati is a wild card. The Bearcats stumbled out of the gate in 2013 but rebounded to finish 9-4, 6-2 in conference. They return plenty of talent at experience at the skill positions, and former five-star recruit Gunner Kiel is in the mix at quarterback. The middle of the defense is a concern, but the unit does have its share of playmakers. Tommy Tuberville is a proven coach with a knack for pulling big upsets, too.
Houston looked bad in its opener, losing 27-7 to UTSA. The Cougars had -26 yards rushing (yes, you read that right), and quarterback John O’Korn threw four interceptions. That’s disappointing. However, Houston has plenty of playmakers, and O’Korn was pretty solid as a true freshman starter a year ago. This is one of the better teams in the conference, although it’s not quite at the same level as UCF.
Champion: Central Florida
Central Florida is a budding powerhouse that has been steadily improving for a number of years. The Knights have plenty of talent and speed, and they’re the most sure thing in the conference. Cincinnati could be really good, but it could also a few games it shouldn’t. ECU is moving up a conference, and that transition is rarely easy. Houston looked abysmal in its opener, and the Cougars just don’t have the horses to run with UCF.
Boise State may no longer be the Boise State of old, but until further notice, the Broncos are still the team to beat in the Mountain West. They hung tough with Ole Miss until collapsing in the fourth quarter, but quarterback Grant Hedrick’s play wasn’t inspiring. Defending league champ Fresno State was boat-raced by USC and has to replace quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams, but the Bulldogs are one of the premier teams in the conference and should still be explosive. Utah State relies on a stout defense that has quietly been one of the best in the nation the past few years. The Aggies have to replace some of that defensive talent, but they get star quarterback Chuckie Keeton back.
Outside of the top three, a couple of teams could potentially compete for a league crown. Of the six Mountain West teams to play Power 5 schools opening weekend, the only one to earn a victory was Colorado State. The Rams ran all over the Buffaloes, gashing CU for 266 yards in a 31-17 victory. The offense should be one of the league’s better units, and the run defense is solid. The secondary has a penchant for yielding long pass plays, which is a concern. San Diego State has established itself as a solid program, but can the Aztecs finally get over that 8-9 win hump? They have had Boise’s number the past two years, and if they can get more consistent on offense, the Aztecs could very well usurp one of the league’s elite teams.
Champ: Utah State
The Aggies have the best defense of any of the league contenders, and they get Keeton back. This is a program that has quietly been building over the last few years, and it made the title game last year without its best player. Boise State has shown some cracks in the armor, and Fresno State must replace its two best players. San Diego State is good but hasn’t been able to crack the top tier of the conference. Colorado State looked good in the opener, but the Rams have yet to prove they can beat one of the elite teams in the conference. Utah State shut them down last year, and that was a Rams offense with two early-round NFL draft picks and prodigious running back Kapri Bibbs. San Diego State has plenty of talent, but they need to be more productive on offense.
Bowling Green is the favorite in the MAC East. The Falcons have an exciting quarterback in Matt Johnson, confidence after winning the league title a year ago, and should face few obstacles in their division. Ohio has to replace a bevy of starters on offense, and Buffalo lost its best player in linebacker Khalil Mack. Akron is improving, but the Zips probably aren’t there yet.
The West division is going to be a battle. Northern Illinois has been the league’s premier team the past few years and returns plenty of talent; however, the Huskies must replace Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch. Pete Lembo’s Ball State squad won 10 games in 2013 but must replace quarterback Keith Wenning. Toledo could also make some noise.
Champion: Northern Illinois
The Huskies have been the MAC’s best team for the past few years now, and while it’s highly unlikely they can replace Jordan Lynch, they still have plenty of quality talent and experience. They’re the most proven program in the division, and when they face Bowling Green in a title game rematch, this time the breaks will go their way.
East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa have departed for the AAC, but Old Dominion and Western Kentucky now join the fray. Marshall is the heavy favorite behind Cato and a painfully weak schedule. The Thundering Herd’s division is weak; East Carolina is gone, Middle Tennessee State has to replace some key parts, and Florida Atlantic was 6-6 last year. Newcomer Western Kentucky could pose a challenge, though. The Hilltoppers were impressive in throttling defending MAC champ Bowling Green 59-31
The East should be pretty entertaining, however. Defending champion Rice will be a threat, while UTSA served notice with its dominant 27-7 pasting of Houston. North Texas won 9 games a year ago but has to replace numerous key players.
Marshall is the popular pick–and with good reason–but a lot of pressure is riding on the Thundering Herd. Remember a couple year’s ago when Ohio was getting a lot of BCS buster buzz? The Bobcats had a skilled quarterback and easy schedule, yet they couldn’t pull it off. The same thing will happen to the Thundering Herd as they get upset in the conference title game by an experienced UTSA team that boasts 38 seniors and a coach who has won a national championship in Larry Coker.
Louisiana-Lafayette is the clear favorite as the Ragin’ Cajuns return senior quarterback Terrance Broadway and a bevy of starters. They have the most talent and get their chief conference rivals at home. Arkansas State will be tough–the Red Wolves have ruled this conference in recent years despite having to replace their head coach every year (five coaches in five years)–but they do have to break in a new quarterback. Arkansas State’s experience and successful history will make them a factor, but while ASU is the stronger program, Lafayette has the better team. South Alabama is a wild card; the Jaguars did beat Lafayette last year, albeit when Broadway was out with injury, and were incredibly unlucky in close games. They do have to replace last year’s starter at quarterback as well as numerous key players on defense. Louisiana-Monroe is another dark horse. The Warhawks failed to live up to preseason buzz last year, but they return plenty of depth and experience. However, they must replace longtime starting quarterback Kolton Browning.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are the league’s best team. They have the most talent, are experienced, and they have a great coach in Mark Hudspeth who has been there for a few years while Arkansas State is on its fifth coach in as many years.
New Year’s Day Bowl Participant
Wow, this is tough. The highest-ranked conference champion earns the berth, so a team like Marshall could go undefeated but miss out to a conference champion with one or two losses that played a much tougher schedule. The Mountain West has a rich history of strong BCS-busting teams, but the league’s best teams aren’t of the same caliber as those history-making squads were. Boise State is no longer the same elite program that started every year off with an upset of a power program. Fresno State has gotten thrashed by USC in its past two games, and Utah State lost big to Tennessee. Those teams have built up a national reputation; if a school like San Diego State or Colorado State breaks through and wins the league, they won’t get the same benefit of the doubt.
Northern Illinois is certainly a candidate. The Huskies are proven, made a BCS game two years ago, and nearly repeated the feat last year. UTSA could certainly make things interesting if they beat Arizona and run the table.
Central Florida is probably the best choice, however. The Golden Knights were outstanding a year ago and return plenty of talent. With no other dominant mid-major, they can certainly weather their loss to Penn State. Nobody else can match that resume; Boise State, Fresno State, and Utah State all lost big to power teams while UCF nearly won. Colorado State won big, but beating a terrible CU team isn’t the same as narrowly losing to an up-and-coming Penn State squad.
Central Florida is the pick.