Football Season is here!!! We are down to the final preview for the college football season. We’ve been all over the country looking at the power 5 conferences. I’ve looked at the odds on favorites for each conference, gave a few sleeper picks I believe could win their division and potentially conference, as well as other teams and storylines I’m looking to follow throughout the year.
Of course every year there is a few teams that come out of the Group of Five conferences that surprise everyone. The Group of Five consists of the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sunbelt. I’m grouping the Independents here as well since they don’t belong to any specific conference. In this section of the preview, I’m not going to break down favorites or sleepers as everyone on this page is considered a sleeper. Instead, I am going to highlight a couple of teams that could do some damage and some teams to keep an eye on.
First things first, let’s talk about the highest ranked member in this section.
Notre Dame – Brian Kelly and the Irish have an interesting year ahead of them. Starting the year off #12 and facing Michigan week 1 really paints a target on the Irish’s backs. Notre Dame finished 2017 tied with Oregon in total defense at 46th. However, they return 9 starters and they’ll need to have improved if the Irish want to compete for a playoff spot. Led by Senior Linebacker Te’veon Coney (116 TOT, 11.5TFL, 3 sacks) the Irish defense should improve upon last seasons ranking having 7 Senior/G and 4 Juniors to become what should be one of the best defenses in the nation. Senior QB Brandon Wimbush has been named the starter after rushing for 804 yards and 14 TDs while also throwing for 16 more TDs. If Wimbush can improve through the air, the offense should open up for Senior RB Dexter Williams (once back from suspension) and Junior RB Tony Jones Jr. With 2 Graduate Students and 2 Juniors along the offensive line, Notre Dame will rely on experience to lead the way as they navigate through one of the toughest schedules in college. Notable Games: vs Michigan, vs Stanford, @Virginia Tech, vs Florida State, @USC
Massachusetts – I know, come on, are we really talking about UMass here? Ok, I know what you’re thinking and just hear me out a little bit. Yes, I saw what UMass was able to do against a clearly inferior opponent last week. I wasn’t so much impressed by that performance as I was from some of the other games I’ve been able to see from them. Last year’s lost 17-13 to Tennessee, beating Mississippi State at halftime only to lose a close game, practically ran the score up on my Eagles posting 55, but the real moment I realized what was going on with the Minutemen was game 1 of the 2016 season against Florida. They were down 10-7 at half, played great defense the entire game until Florida was able to get 2 late touchdowns to win the game. Now that the offense returns 9 starters I can’t help but at least follow them to see if they can improve on 2 and 4 win seasons to get to 6 and make a bowl game. Notable Games: @BC, @Georgia Southern, vs USF, @Uconn, @UGA
Army – I’ve been following Army since Jeff Monken arrived at West Point. Monken brought back the revitalized the program of my Alma Mater, Georgia Southern. He’s done the same since taking over a Knights program that was struggling to win games. They broke the streak against Navy in 2016 and have been able to beat the Midshipmen 2 years running now. After winning 10 games a season ago, can we believe there is actually excitement going into Monken’s 5th season with the program. Being an independent, they don’t navigate a treacherous schedule by any means, but it’s nice to have excitement at our military academies. They lost Ahmad Bradshaw from last year’s team but Army really isn’t about one individual. Its about teamwork and relying on your comrades to do their jobs and working together to achieve a common goal. As long as they run the triple option, they have a chance to succeed. Notable Games: @Duke, vs Hawaii, @Oklahoma, vs/@San Jose St., vs Air Force, vs Navy.
American Athletic Conference:
Navy – Sticking with our military academies, excitement for Navy should be higher than expected. One of the main reasons I like the move to the AAC for Navy is that when you run the triple option, you prey a lot on the weaker parts of a defense. You can really exploit holes in team’s defensive units to strategically move the ball down the field, either in chunks or 3-4 yards at a time. Seeing as how not many of the AAC defenses rank high nationally or particularly have any NFL quality defensive linemen (for the most part), Navy can generally stick to their gameplan and execute themselves to victory. The past 2 seasons the Midshipmen have gone 11-2 and 9-5 seasons, both years going 7-1 in the conference and losing the AAC Conference Championship last year. They will rely on a lot of new starters only returning 9 players from last year but like Army, as long as they run the triple option, they should be in for another solid season. Notable Games: @Hawaii, vs Memphis, @Air Force, vs Temple, vs Houston, vs Notre Dame, @UCF, vs Tulsa, vs Army
Houston – Houston is a team many talked about joining the Big 12 only to finish 7-5 last season. 3 of those were close games, but if you’re going to pay attention to any body, the obvious choice is Ed Oliver. However, since this is The Other Side Sports, I’d like to highlight RS Senior S Garrett Davis. Davis brought down 4 picks and had 51 total tackles last season. Many eyes will be on Oliver but I’m curious to see Davis and the guys around him function as they look to get back into form in Major Applewhite’s 2nd season. Notable Games: Arizona, @Texas Tech, vs Tulsa, @Navy, vs USF
Tulane – Another Ex-Georgia Southern coach I’m watching is Willie Fritz. I love Fritz’s style of offense, a shotgun spread triple option. It’s creative and in many ways that I’ve mentioned above with Army and Navy, I believe it’s a winning system in the AAC. Tulane has just needed the right pieces and experience to be able to adjust to the new system. I see the Green Wave as a bowl caliber team and someone who can upset any team overlooking them on their schedule. I don’t think they could beat Ohio State but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them beat Wake Forest week 1. Notable Games: vs Wake Forest, @Ohio State, vs Memphis, @Cincy, @USF, @Houston, vs Navy
USF – I mention USF because of Charlie Strong. If he can win without Quinton Flowers at QB this season, he should get plucked away for a better job. Sure there’s stability at South Florida but he’s just too good of a coach to be out of a power 5 conference too long. Last year was great with UCF vs USF when we got to see 2 really good coaches go at it. Scott Frost is gone now and Strong could be in his last season for the Bulls this season. Notable Games: vs Georgia Tech, @UMass, @Houston, vs Tulane, vs UCF
UCF – How could I not mention last year’s Co-Champions? Of course, with departures of Scott Frost, the OC and DC, Shaquem Griffin, Mike Hughes, Tre’Quan Smith, and Jordan Atkins, They may have lost too much to repeat as AAC Champions and a National Championship is out of the question. I don’t care how good a coach Josh Heupel and Randy Shannon are, they have a tall order and a target on their backs. Notable Games: @UNC, vs Pitt, @Memphis, vs Temple, vs Navy, @South Florida
Florida Atlantic – Lane Kiffin is picking off fish in a barrel. His offensive mind is too smart for Conference USA. Just being honest. He thrived his 1st season as head coach and he’ll probably thrive every year he’s the coach of the Owls. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them ranked by seasons end. However, no one seems to want to hire him to run their program so we could be in a situation quite like Nick Saban, too good at his current job so he just dominates every year but not good enough to succeed at a higher level. Maybe someone will poach Kiffin away but it seems like the beginning run of C-USA championships and 10+ win seasons. Notable Games: @Oklahoma, vs Air Force, @UCF, @MTSU, @Marshall, vs Western Kentucky
Marshall – The Thundering Herd started off the 2017 season with a 6-1 record. They followed that up going 2-4 with a bowl win over Colorado State. 3 of the 4 losses were from a combined 8 points. Their season would’ve had a drastically different outcome if the ball bounced differently. Returning 9 starters on both offense and defense, the Thundering Herd look to be the main opponent at derailing Lane Kiffin from establishing his dominance. Notable Games: @South Carolina, vs NC State, @WKU, vs MDSU, vs FAU, @FIU
North Texas – The Mean Green won 9 games last year behind one of the better QBs in the country in Mason Fine who threw for over 4,000 yards and 31 Touchdowns. North Texas returns 17 starters and looks to repeat as CUSA West Division Champions. After getting torched by Troy in the bowl game, all focus should be on improving their defense if they want to take the CUSA crown this year. Notable Games: @Arkansas, vs LA Tech, vs Southern Miss, @UAB, vs FAU
Buffalo – When I think of Buffalo, I think of Turner Gill and the 2008 season. They won 5 out 6 games to finish the season including 5 in a row (3 in overtime) to get into the MAC Championship game. They upset an undefeated #12 ranked Ball State team in the MAC Championship game in a truly exciting game for Bulls fans. They were never that great but behind the legs of James Starks they were able to accomplish great things. They had 2 winning seasons after that. Last season they were robbed of a bowl bid after going 6-6 and losing all 6 games by 10 or fewer points (including a 7OT Game!!!). If Junior QB Tyree Jackson can stay healthy and Emmanuel Reed and Johnathan Hawkins can help lead the way on the ground, they could see themselves back in Detroit for the 1st time since 2008.
Akron – Oh Zippy McZipperson, how I adore thee. The Zips went 7-7 last year going 6-2 in the MAC and return 14 starters. They have to replace their QB from last year but Kato Nelson looked promising in his limited time last season. Nelson will at least have returning leading WR Kwaddarius Smith (726 rec yards, 7TDs, averaging 21.4 YPC) and Senior RB Van Edwards Jr to lean on while he adjust to a fulltime role. The main focus is on defense where they return 9 starters led by Ulysees Gilbert III (140 TOT, 9.5 TFL, 4 Sacks, 3 INTs) and RS Senior FS Jordan George (70 TOT & 5 INTs). They should make it hard for anyone in the MAC to move the ball down the field. Notable Games: @Nebraska, @Northwestern, @Iowa St, @Buffalo, vs N.Illinois, @Ohio
Northern Illinois – Northern Illinois has the toughest start to the season on par with any of the Group of Five teams. 3 of the first 4 games are against Iowa, Utah, and Florida State. Throw in Central Michigan and they either have high hopes for their season or everyone will be sleeping on the Huskies off their record alone. They lost their top 2 leading tacklers and leading rusher from a season ago, but they’ll bring back 14 starters. The Huskies offensive system runs through the QB position and RS Sophomore QB Marcus Childers will look to carry the load if they are to pull an upset or 2 and not start the year 1-3. SR WR D.J. Brown will lead the skill positions until JR WR Spencer Tears gets back from suspension for the Huskies. On defense keep an eye on JR DE Sutton Smith as he ran through opposing offensive lines on his way to 63 TOT, 30 TFL, and 14 sacks. Notable Games: @Iowa, vs Utah, vs Central Michigan, @Florida St, @BYU, @Akron, vs Toledo,
Mountain West Conference:
Boise State – The Broncos are no stranger to the national spotlight. Pulling off some of the greatest upsets of all time and putting themselves on the map nationally. Boise State might just be the most storied Group of Five program in the country having posted 2 undefeated seasons, winning 3 Fiesta Bowl games, and winning 10+ games 13 times since joining the FBS ranks. With 8 preseason 1st team All-MWC players led by Senior QB Brett Rypien and Junior RB Alexander Mattison the blue field isn’t the only thing people will be talking about this year. The most underrated element to all the Broncos teams has been their defense (having 14 defensive players drafted since 2007). This year the Broncos look to have one of their best defenses to date with 10 returning starters. With top players DE Curtis Weaver (13TFL, 11 Sacks), Junior SS Kekoa Nawahine (108 TOT, 3 INTs), and RS Senor DT David Moa (21 TOT, 3.5 TFL, 1 Sack) keeping the defensive unit glued together, this could be another very special season for the Broncos. Notable Games: @Troy, @Oklahoma St, @Wyoming, vs SDSU, @Nevada, vs Fresno State.
Fresno State – The Bulldogs return 15 starters from a team that finished 10-4, 7-1 in conference play and handed Boise St their only MWC loss last season before falling to the Broncos in the Mountain West Championship game. Former Cal Head Coach Jeff Tedford enters his 2nd season with the Bulldogs and looks to improve on a great first year. Returning Senior QB Marcus McMaryion (2726 pass yds, 300 rush yds, 18 total TDs) looks to improve upon his numbers with the help of 1st team All-MWC RS Senior WR KeeSean Johnson (1013 yards and 8 TDs). Leading tackler Junior MLB Jeffrey Allison (126 TOT, 5.5 TFL, 2 Sacks) will look to lead the way with fellow RS Senior LB George Helmuth (89 TOT, 8TFL, 4 Sacks) as they duo look to wreak havoc for an improving Fresno State team that could see themselves ranked sometime this season. Notable Games: @Minnesota, @UCLA, @Nevada, vs Wyoming, @UNLV, @Boise St.
San Diego State – The main question I have for the Aztecs is, Do you have another one in you? By that I mean are there any more 1,000 yard rushers? Having 3 RBs drafted since 2012, posting a 2,000 yard rusher twice with Rashaad Penny, and having at least 1 1,000 yard rusher since 2010. I just have to wonder if there is another one on the way. There has been a nice consistency at the RB position starting with Ronnie Hillman, Adam Muema, Donnel Pumphrey, and Penny. It’ll be up to RS Junior Juwan Washington to keep it going. After seeing Washington rush for 759 yards and 7 TDs on extremely limited touches, it seems like the Aztecs will be able to keep the trend going and they’ll need it to be able to get back to the MWC and 10+ wins in 2018. Notable Games: @Stanford, vs Arizona State, @Boise St, @Nevada, @Fresno St
Georgia Southern – Under the guidance of Chad Lunsford, my Eagles looked like a completely different team to finish the season last year. I wanted Tyson Summers to do a good job but we just never really looked like we were gelling and playing like a team. Lunsford has the players buying in and excited for the season. We’ve lost 3 coaches in a short period of time with Jeff Monken to Army, Willie Fritz to Tulane, and Tyson Summers. It now looks like the Eagles are back to their old ways. Bringing back the triple option offense to Statesboro was the best decision they could’ve made. The triple option needs a dynamic player at QB and Shai Wertz looks every bit the part to be electrifying and deadly. They’ll also need help to be better on the offensive and defensive lines if they want to have a strong season. Bringing back 18 starters from last seasons team will go a long way if everyone has bought in and improved. A bowl game, 2nd bowl victory, and beating Georgia State are the goals here, anything else is gravy. Watch for RB Wesley Fields to get over 1,000 yards rushing. Notable Games: vs UMass, @Clemson, vs Arkansas State, @Texas State, vs App State, vs Troy, @Georgia State
Troy – Troy has posted back to back 10-win seasons. They’ll look to post another one while getting to the 1st ever Sunbelt Championship. They lost their QB from 2017 and with a tough beginning schedule, Junior QB Kaleb Barker will have to shift into form quickly if they want to get back to 10 wins. They return 12 starters from last season and look really young on the defensive side of the ball. They’ll probably need to score a lot of points to have a similar season as the past 2 years, so returning starters OLB Hunter Reese (34 TOT, 13.5 TFL, 6 sacks) and ILB Tron Folsom (80 TOT, 8.5 TFL, 1 INT) will have to lead the way for them to have a strong defensive unit. Notable Games: vs Boise State, @Nebraska, @UL Monroe, @South Alabama, @Georgia Southern, vs Texas State
Arkansas State – The Red Wolves have 6 All-Sunbelt players including 4 on the offensive side of the ball. Led by Seniors at QB, RB, WR, and Offensive Line it’s going to take a really good defense from stopping Arkansas State from looking like the favorites to win the Sunbelt in 2018. Senior QB Justice Hansen accounted for 44 total touchdowns and over 4,300 yards of total offense in 2017. Senior RB Warren Wand (715 rush yards, 6 TDs) and Senior WR Justin McInnis (800 rec yards, 4 TDs) will help lead the charge for the Red Wolves against Sunbelt teams not really known for playing good defense. Notable Games: @Alabama, @Tulsa, @Georgia Southern, vs App St, @Louisiana, vs UL Monroe, @Texas St.
The Group of Five and independent teams usually get the last looks from the media but each conference has their own story lines, competitions, and rivalries. If you’re not watching then you could miss some really good football being played. They may not be able to beat the best of the best but there are some that can. The teams from these conferences represent what American values are all about. With a little grit, hard work, and determination, you can achieve great things. When no one is looking how do act? A lot of these teams are capable of pulling upsets and winning their conference championship.
Never sleep on the little guy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of these teams pull an upset this season and if they do, there will be a story behind how it all happened.
“Are you watching closely?” – The Prestige
May the best team win.
***Wikipedia was used for team history and coaches history
******Sports-reference.com was used for all player statistics
*******Odds were provided through Bovada.com