It is always tough to predict how non-power conference seasons will go. The fluctuation from good years to bad is much more drastic than in power leagues. Also, one explosive player can make a bigger difference in leagues where the talent disparity is wider and the average talent level is lower. This look at the preseason top ten Group of 5 teams tries to factor in all of that and attempts to see how this coming season could look in these five conferences.
2015 Preseason Top 10 Group of 5 Teams
#10 Toledo Rockets (MAC)
Like our #8 Bowling Green, Toledo has been held back by Northern Illinois’ dominance in recent years. But with Northern Illinois losing most of their team from last year and with Rod Carey not being the same caliber recruiter or coach that Dave Doeren was, the Huskies are finally poised to fall from the MAC penthouse. And the MAC West team that stands to gain the most is Toledo.
The Rockets always have a strong offense. Last year’s young team struggled but with quarterback Logan Woodside and leading tailback Kareem Hunt returning with a year of experience, the Rockets should be explosive on offense again. And with eight defensive starters returning, it looks like Toledo will finally have their chance to be on top of the MAC.
#9. Appalachian State Mountaineers (Sun Belt)
A program made famous not for its NCAA FCS titles but for its historic upset over a then-Top 5 Michigan team finally has a chance to make a name for itself at the FBS level. Sure, they’re tucked away in the Sun Belt, but it is entirely possible that a trip to Clemson is all that stands between the Mountaineers and an undefeated season. Taylor Lamb looks like a future star and the team returns 22 of their 24 starters (including the kicker and the punter). The schedule is pretty weak but with the right bowl matchup, a 12-1 season is possible–which will put this program on the path towards national prominence that started back in 2007.
#8 Bowling Green Falcons (MAC)
Bowling Green has been towards the top of the MAC for a few years now. And while the past five years have really been ruled by Northern Illinois (other than a 2013 MAC Championship Game upset), Bowling Green’s time has finally arrived. Their non-conference schedule is challenging (to say the least), with three Power 5 opponents and Memphis, who will show up later on this list. After that, though, they should have a relatively easy MAC slate. The entire offensive line returns to protect James Knapke, who has an excellent arm but has struggled with interceptions in the past.
#7. Air Force Falcons (Mountain West)
This might be a stretch. Troy Calhoun is an excellent coach. He runs a very solid triple-option offense and always brings a strong defense to Colorado Springs. However, his best years usually come when he has a veteran team. This year’s Air Force team will be anything but that. Quarterback Kale Pearson is gone but star receiver Jalen Robinette returns and that will help any quarterback adjust to a new offense. Nate Romine has been in the system for two years and got a significant amount of time as a freshman when Pearson was hurt, so the adjustment shouldn’t be too bad. The defense will need to be rebuilt but that is Calhoun’s specialty. Openers against Morgan State and San Jose State should give the team a chance to find some rhythm before the meat of the schedule.
#6. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (C-USA)
The Bulldogs were a talented team in 2014 that had a few mind-boggling results. They dominated Illinois in the bowl game, almost took out Marshall in the C-USA Championship Game, and absolutely obliterated Western Kentucky in the regular season. On the other hand, they lost to both Old Dominion and Northwestern State. The defense was often weak last year but held surprisingly firm in a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy. Only five starters return on defense, but the defense needed work anyway. Cody Sokol will be tough to replace at quarterback, but if someone steps up the offense should be potent once again.
#5. Temple Owls (AAC)
This one might also be a stretch. Temple has been back on their way to being decent ever since Al Golden coached there and they might finally be ready to have a solid season. After being bowl-eligible but not getting selected last year, the Owls will return almost their entire team (including every single defensive starter) who will want to make sure that a repeat of that doesn’t happen this year. Non-conference games against UMass and Charlotte should give this team a chance to build momentum for a potentially program-changing season. There is a large gap from Temple to the top four teams on this list but the Owls have really changed from a perennial contender for worst team in the country to a solid mid-major over the past decade.
#4. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (C-USA)
Western Kentucky was the one team last year who did the impossible and beat Marshall. It was a crazy offensive game with both teams seemingly scoring at will on big plays. That game certainly wasn’t emblematic of their entire season. The offense was explosive, yes. But the Marshall game was certainly its most explosive. If they had lived up to that potential all year they would have fared better than 8-5. The other problem, of course, was that their defense was atrocious at best.
That shouldn’t be a problem this year, though. Nine starters return on defense. Now, the defense will still need work but it should be much better than last year. Combine that with the return of star quarterback Brandon Doughty and Western Kentucky could easily be the favorites for the Conference-USA title as the season progresses.
#3. Memphis Tigers (AAC)
Justin Fuente has done an incredible job as the head coach at Memphis. In just three years, he brought a perennial cellar-dwelling team, a program that has been accused of not caring about football, to the top of the Group of 5 teams. Memphis is situated near a wealth of recruiting talent and Fuente has taken full advantage.
No one expected Memphis to be any good last year. After all, they’ve been so bad for so long. So when the Tigers played close to both UCLA and Ole Miss, it was viewed as those teams playing poorly, not Memphis playing well. Two months later, though, it was more than obvious. Memphis was bigger, faster, and stronger than most of their AAC competition across all positions. Whether this was a one-time flash in the pan with a veteran team or the beginning of a Group of 5 dynasty remains to be seen.
Usually top Group of 5 teams are those that are the most veteran and can return the most starters. This is true about power conference teams as well, but the correlation between returning starters and success is more drastic in the smaller leagues. Memphis only returns 11 starters in 2015, but their two-deep was very solid last year so maybe that won’t be so much of an issue. Quarterback Paxton Lynch returns so as long as the offensive line can find their rhythm Memphis should challenge for the AAC title again. The defense will need work but Fuente is a defensive coach and should have no problem getting a young defense into good shape.
#2. Utah State Aggies (Mountain West)
Utah State is a stacked team this year. They return nine offensive starters from a solid offense. Most importantly, though, star quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns. Keeton is an incredible athlete who, two years ago, was receiving some preseason dark horse Heisman hopes. Knee injuries have marred his last two seasons but, assuming he is as mobile as he once was, he will be the x-factor in every Aggies game.
The defense was strong all last year and should be anchored by a strong linebacking corps in 2015. Non-conference road tilts against Utah and Washington should prepare the Aggies well for Mountain West play. They are still not quite in Boise State’s league but they should be the clear #2 in the Mountain West and, just maybe, if Keeton can have a miracle game, anything can happen there.
Boise State opens the season at home against Washington and former coach Chris Petersen. If the Broncos win that game, the goal will not be a Mountain West championship and a New Years’ Six bowl. Things will obviously depend on how the rest of the season breaks, but this year’s Boise State team could be on the level of those teams in Kellen Moore’s heyday. The schedule is tough enough and the talent is there. Boise State should be thinking more than Fiesta Bowl again this year–they want a national semifinal.