One of the best things about the Group of 5 is the parity amongst those teams. We saw a Coastal Carolina team, picked to finish last in the Sun Belt, win the conference and nearly finish with a perfect record. The Chanticleers are back with a ton of talent to retain their crown this year too.
Cincinnati finally broke through as AAC Champs and represented the G5 in the Peach Bowl. Now, the Bearcats are suddenly a power in these ranks and have multiple opportunities to pull off upsets against Notre Dame and Indiana. If they can find a way to win those two games, the national conversation changes. They must also be weary of the teams in their conference though, even if they are the clear favorite.
Liberty isn’t considered a G5 team as an independent, but they fit the underdog mold. Hugh Freeze has a potential Heisman trophy contender in quarterback Malik Willis, and the offense gets back plenty of experience to aid him in that run. The Flames came up one point short of a perfect season, and get a couple chances to upset Power 5 opponents. Cinderella stories were plentiful last year, and we could see the same thing again this year.
Nevada and San Jose State surprised the Mountain West last year, with the Spartans winning it all. SMU continues to load up on talent offensively, and seems to be a defense away from contending in the AAC. Louisiana went 10-1 last year and was overlooked mostly because of Coastal. Marshall started the 2020 season on fire before cooling off a bit. Buffalo and Ball State only lost one game each. It feels like last year was the most competitive we’ve seen the Group of 5 in a while, but it was still the AAC that reigned at the top.
Is this the year another AAC team wins the NY6 bid? The AAC’s won it the last four consecutive years and five of the seven total bids. Western Michigan (20156) and Boise State (2014) were the only non-AAC teams to win last. Regardless of who wins, the talent level continues to increase around the G5, and the gap with the Power 5 continues to shrink.
*To continue with the theme of my College Football Preview, independents are included minus Notre Dame **These are not predictions, but rather rankings of where teams are before the season begins.
1. Cincinnati Bearcats
2020 RECORD: 9-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Desmond Ridder
OUTLOOK: Luke Fickell continues to turn down Power 5 jobs in favor of the Bearcats, but there also haven’t been a ton of extremely enticing opportunities. His teams won 31 games over the last three years, including two AAC championship game appearances and one win in those games. Now, they’re the power of the AAC, and everyone’s chasing them. QB Desmond Ridder returns after coming on strong towards the end of the year, and the defense returns a ton of experience despite NFL departures. CB Ahmad Gardner is a future pro, and fellow CB Coby Bryant can lock receivers down. RB Jerome Ford takes over for Gerrid Doaks, and WR Michael Young and TE Josh Whyle could be set for breakout seasons.
2. Liberty Flames
2020 RECORD: 10-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Malik Willis
OUTLOOK: Hugh Freeze is now 18-6 with the Flames, and got a ton of SEC attention this offseason. He proved that he can produce another explosive offense, thanks mostly to his dynamic QB Malik Willis (3,194 total yards, 34 total TD’s in 2020). RB Joshua Mack and leading WR D.J. Stubbs also return to an offense that averaged 38.2 points per game last year. Defensively, defensive ends Durrell Johnson and TreShaun Clark combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks last year, giving them one of the best combinations in college football. The schedule is far from overbearing, and the only game they won’t be favored in is when they play Ole Miss on the road.
3. UCF Knights
2020 RECORD: 6-4 | KEY PLAYER: WR Jaylon Robinson
OUTLOOK: Gus Malzahn lost his job this offseason, but he found a great spot to land on his feet at UCF. He inherits one of the most explosive offenses in college football, and one of the best quarterbacks in Dillon Gabriel. The Hawaii native has already thrown for over 7,000 yards and 61 touchdowns in his career, and he’ll add to those numbers in a new offense. Malzahn must find a way to incorporate Gabriel’s game in his system, which shouldn’t be tough with the talent on the roster. Without their top receiver, the Knights look to Jaylon Robinson, who nearly surpassed 1,000 yards last year. The offense isn’t the problem, but the defense will need to step it up this year. Fortunately for Malzahn and the Knights, they have talent on that side of the ball as well.
4. Boise State Broncos
2020 RECORD: 5-2 | KEY PLAYER: RB George Holani
OUTLOOK: Andy Avalos takes over a Broncos program that hopes to get back to running the Mountain West, and he returns the experience needed to do just that. LB Riley Whimpey used his extra year of eligibility to lead the defense, and is joined by NB Kekaula Kaniho, DE Shane Irwin and more. The offense was surprisingly explosive last year, finishing 27th in scoring offense, and gets back nearly every key piece. QB Hank Bachmeier, when healthy, can be one of the best in the country. WR’s Khalil Shakir and CT Thomas can ball, and the backfield is loaded with Holani, Andrew Van Buren, and Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio. This is a scary team that man aren’t talking about enough, and they'll show that soon.
5. Nevada Wolf Pack
2020 RECORD: 7-2| KEY PLAYER: RB Toa Taua
OUTLOOK: Jay Norvell gave us one of the surprise teams of the Mountain West last year, and his team reloads for another run. Led by QB Carson Strong and WR Romeo Doubs, the offense is set to put up big numbers again this year. TE Cole Turner (605 yards, 9 TD) and WR Tory Horton (16.8 ypc) could have bigger years with most of the attention headed Doubs’ way. Taua will be the key to the offense as the Wolf Pack finished near the bottom of the country in rushing offense. Nevada’s defense also stepped up last year, finishing 33rd in scoring defense and strong against the run. Nevada came up short last year, but has the pieces offensively to win a championship, even if it means they need some new faces to step up on D.
6. SMU Mustangs
2020 RECORD: 7-3 | KEY PLAYER: LB Delano Robinson
OUTLOOK: Sonny Dykes is doing everything in his power to keep SMU near the top of the AAC, and his offense should be one of the best in the country once again. Oklahoma transfer Tanner Mordecai looks to take over for Shane Buechele, and joins an offense loaded with talent. Reggie Roberson, Rashee Rice and Danny Gray all return at wide receiver, and another Oklahoma transfer Grant Calcaterra comes in at tight end to replace Kylen Granson. The entire offensive line returns, and Ulysses Bentley is back after nearly rushing for 1,00 yards. If Dykes can even get an average defense, this is a title contender. If not, it’s just another team that can score a lot and gets in trouble when it can’t do that anymore.
7. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers
2020 RECORD: 11-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Grayson McCall
OUTLOOK: College football’s biggest surprise came from the Chanticleers last season. After being tabbed as the worst team in the Sun Belt, they flipped the script and won the conference. McCall was the X-Factor that brought them there, and he has a chance to repeat his success. The sophomore is a better runner than a thrower, but he can still sling it like the best of them (2,488 yards, 26 TD - 3 INT). His top two targets in WR Javion Heiligh and TE Isaiah Likely are back (a combined 1,599 yards, 15 TD). Defensively, DT CJ Brewer, leading tackler Silas Kelly, S Alex Spilllum and LB Teddy Gallagher return. So it’s safe to say that this team won’t sneak up on anyone, but they’ll be tough to beat too.
8. San Jose State Spartans
2020 RECORD: 7-1 | KEY PLAYER: DE Cade Hall
OUTLOOK: Last time the Spartans were a serious contender in the Mountain West, Mike MacIntyre was the coach. Since that time in 2012, San Jose State won 27 games and lost 59. Brent Brennan knew the challenges ahead when he took the job in 2017, and he’s finally turned this team around and has a conference championship. They’re ready to make another run to defend their crown in 2021 too behind QB Nick Starkel and a defense that knows how to keep opponents off the scoreboard. Hall and fellow DE Junior Fehoko return 24.5 tackles for loss and 16.0 sacks. The defense gets after the quarterback well, and the offense protects there own. Starkel was only sacked six times, which is great even if the offense wasn’t the most explosive.
9. Louisiana Ragin Cajuns
2020 RECORD: 10-1 | KEY PLAYER: RB Chris Smith
OUTLOOK: Don’t’ sleep on the Ragin Cajuns this year, because they’re ready to make some noise. If you thought they were quiet last year, just wait until you see what Billy Napier gets them to do in 2021. He gets veteran QB Levi Lewis to return, and RB Chris Smith might give them even better play at the position. WR Jalen Williams could be set for a breakout season after averaging 18 yards per reception in 2020, and the offense gets back a number of key linemen. Louisiana’s defense also gets its Top 5 tacklers back, so it’s going to be tough to find holes in this team, and even tougher to find ways to beat them. Beating Texas to start the year won’t be easy, but imagine the chaos if they did. Napier would be an even hotter commodity if that happens.
10. BYU Cougars
2020 RECORD: 11-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Baylor Romney
OUTLOOK: Lost in the Zach Wilson ride that was 2020 was the fact that BYU refused to let teams score any points. They finished fourth in the country in scoring defense, only to be overshadowed by the third best scoring offense in college football. Granted, some key pieces are missing from last year’s defense, but it will be the defense that carries the torch early this year since Wilson is now a pro. Baylor Romney inherits the task of replacing Wilson, and must do so facing a much more difficult schedule than last year. He’ll have his brother, Gunner Romney (19.7 ypc) and TE Isaac Rex (12 TD) to throw to, and can always turn around to hand the ball off to Tyler Allgeier.
11. UTSA Roadrunners
2020 RECORD: 7-5 | KEY PLAYER: S Rashad Wisdom
OUTLOOK: Just two years ago, the Roadrunners won just four games. Before that, they won three. Now, in just one year under Jeff Traylor, UTSA is one of the most exciting teams in Conference USA. An offense with explosive potential gets back RB Sincere McCormick (1,467 yards, 11 TD), and will rely on QB Rank Harris and WR Zakhari Franklin to determine how high the ceiling rises. They finished in 67th in scoring offense, but could be one of the best if the passing game takes off. Wisdom leads a defense that’s full of playmakers, and he’s the leader in that category too. He led the team in tackles and interceptions last year, and all he knows how to do is make plays. UTSA has come a long way in a short time under Traylor, and it feels like they’re ready to take the next step.
12. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
2020 RECORD: 6-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB Davis Brin/Seth Boomer
OUTLOOK: What an incredible 2020 season for the Golden Hurricane, and they can repeat that success this year. The only big losses from this team are QB Zach Smith, RB Corey Taylor II, and LB Zaven Collins, otherwise nearly everyone else is back. The defense is a physical group, but has some big shoes to fill without Zaven Collins, Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans. Justin Wright and Treyvon Reeves are back at linebacker, and so is DT Jaxon Player. Offensively, the running backs are deep with Deneric Prince, TK Wilkerson, and the return of Shamari Brooks. Brin or Boomer must prove they can balance the offense with a passing attack, because no one’s sleeping on this team in 2021.
13. Ball State Cardinals
2020 RECORD: 7-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Drew Plitt
OUTLOOK: With Buffalo getting most of the attention in the MAC, Ball State flew under the radar, and stunned the Bulls to win the conference title last year. Plitt returns to run the offense along with two of the best receivers in the conference in Justin Hall and Yo’Heinz Tyler. The two combined for 1,272 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and they also get Jalen McGaughy back as well. He only caught five passes, but he displayed his big play ability by taking three of them for touchdowns and averaged 34.2 yards per carry. With so much experience on the offensive side of the ball, the pressure turns to the defense, who was decent last year. A return to the top of the MAC won’t be easy, but then again we thought that last year too.
14. UAB Blazers
2020 RECORD: 6-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB Tyler Johnston III
OUTLOOK: It might not be a smart move to put UAB this low, but here they are nonetheless. Bill Clark’s produced winners, and that won’t change this year. The offense needs to find a new running back, but DeWayne McBride appears to be next in line to carry the ball for the Blazers. QB Tyler Johnston III also returns to lead the passing attack, and he also gets two of his top lineman back in G Colby Ragland and OT Sidney Wells. The defense lost some key pieces, but has the talent to be a stingy group. LB Noah Wilder returns after finishing second on the team in tackles. CB TD Marshall is going to be tough to beat deep. The Blazers have made appearances in the last three consecutive Conference USA championships, with two wins, so it won’t be a surprise if they return for the fourth time.
15. Kent State Golden Flashes
2020 RECORD: 3-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Dustin Crum
OUTLOOK: We can’t say enough about the job that Sean Lewis has done in his three years with Kent State. In the five years previous to his arrival, they won 14 games. Since he’s arrived, they’ve won 12 in three years (and last year they only played four games total). QB Dustin Crum is one of the most underrated players in the country, and now needs to find a new go to weapon with Isaiah McKoy. WR Ja’Shaun Poke should be next in line. The Golden Flashes offensive line is loaded with talent too, with OT Bill Kuduk leading the way. The defense just needs to prove they can show improvement after finishing 114th in scoring defense last season. It’s as good a year for them the win the MAC, and they’re an average defense away from that happening.
16. Buffalo Bulls
2020 RECORD: 6-1 | KEY PLAYER: QB Kyle Vantrease
OUTLOOK: Losing Jaret Patterson would be a huge dagger for most programs, but the Bulls reload this year with Kevin Marks. Marks has lived in Patterson’s shadow for the last few years, but still has 2,621 yards and 28 touchdowns to his name as a backup. The running game will be just fine this year, meaning all of the attention goes to Vantrease. He’s shown flashes of his potential at times, but overall this offense relies on the run game to move the football. Vantrease will need to become more of a weapon this year if the Bulls want to win the MAC. Lance Leipold left for Kansas, taking away some of the magic, but this is still a talented team.
17. Marshall Thundering Herd
2020 RECORD: 7-3 | KEY PLAYER: TE Xavier Gaines
OUTLOOK: Marshall was one of the hottest teams in college football last year, starting off 7-0 behind a stout defense and a young quarterback playing well. Even though the season didn’t end how they wanted, the Thundering Herd showed why there’s reason to be excited in 2021. QB Grant Wells showed his potential, and gets guys like Gaines back to make plays. The offensive line is loaded too, even without G Cain Madden. Their stout defense returns a number of key pieces too, including CB Steven Gilmore, S Nazeeh Johnson, LB Eli Neal, and DT Jamare Edwards. If Wells can take a step forward as a passer, this Marshall team becomes a the most dominant team in Conference USA.
18. Army Black Knights
2020 RECORD: 9-3 | KEY PLAYER: QB Tyhier Tyler
OUTLOOK: Jeff Monken continues to be one of the first names brought up when there’s an opening around the country, and for good reason. Last year, he went through multiple quarterbacks, but his defense stepped up in a big way, finishing second in the country in scoring defense. They lose a few big names, but DE Noah Cockrill and LB Arik Smith are back to lead the front seven, and CB Julian McDuffie and S Cedrick Cunningham Jr. will lead the back end. The defense has been the biggest asset as of late for Army, and that should continue in 2021. QB Tyhier Tyler emerged as the starter last year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. It feels like this group is headed for yet another solid year, one that will once again make it difficult for the Black Knights to keep their leader around.
19. San Diego State Aztecs
2020 RECORD: 4-4 | KEY PLAYER: LB Caden McDonald
OUTLOOK: We don’t really know what we’re getting with Brady Hoke’s second tenure with the Aztecs, but we’ll find out soon enough this year. The defense will be the group that keeps them in games. This is a group that allowed just 17.8 points per game, and returns plenty of key talent. LB Caden McDonald led the team in tackles for loss, DE Cameron Thomas came in second, and LB Seyddrick Lakalaka gives them versatility. All three are back, but the defense will need to find some secondary players to play behind them. The offense should run thru RB Greg Bell, who averaged 5.6 yards per carry. The Aztecs will be tough to beat, but can they be a contender in the conference?
20. Memphis Tigers
2020 RECORD: 8-3 | KEY PLAYER: WR Calvin Austin III
OUTLOOK: Year 2 under Ryan Silverfield becomes a critical one after last year. Brady White is gone, and a couple big names transferred out. Grant Gunnell and Peter Parrish will duel it out for White’s spot, and the winner gets to throw to Austin, and TE Sean Dykes. That’s hardly anything to complain about, but they’ll also need to wait for the running game to pick up the slack too. The Tigers became one dimensional at times last year, and getting back to running the ball will be key. CB Jacobi Francis and S Quindell Johnson return in the secondary, with LB JJ Russell back at linebacker, and a rising star in DE Morris Joseph up front. There’s plenty of talent to compete for a crown, but there are concerns too.
21. Toledo Rockets
2020 RECORD: 4-2 | KEY PLAYER: RB Bryant Koback
OUTLOOK: It’s tough to gauge the MAC after a shortened season, because many teams were so close. In fact, Toledo was just one loss behind the two championship game participants, meaning we don’t really know if they were actually in the running. For now, we’ll assume they are mostly because of the talent on the roster. Koback can be one of the best running backs in the country, and that’s also thanks in part to C Bryce Harris and the offensive line. Toledo’s defense has two solid defensive ends in Desjuan Anderson and Jamal Hines to lead the front seven, and the backside is lead by safeties Tycen Anderson and Nate Bauer. It’s a big year for head coach Jason Candle, who won 20 games in his first two years and has won just 17 in his past three.
22. Fresno State Bulldogs
2020 RECORD: 3-3 | KEY PLAYER: RB Ronnie Rivers
OUTLOOK: Many have been high on the Bulldogs this offseason, picking them as a sleeper team in the Mountain West. With most of the attention on San Jose State, Nevada, San Diego State, and Boise State, it’s easy to see why. They have a three-headed monster on offense that will do plenty of damage this season. QB Jake Haener (2,021 yards, 14 TD) provided stable play at the position, and gets to throw to veteran WR Jalen Cropper (520 yards, 5 TD). He also gets a versatile back in Rivers who can do it on the ground (507 yards, 7 TD) and as a pass catcher (265 yards, 2 TD). The defense is led by DE David Perales and DT Kevin Atkins, who combined for 13.0 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks in six games last year
23. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
2020 RECORD: 5-4 | KEY PLAYER: RB Calvin Turner
OUTLOOK: It won’t be like the Colt Brennan or Timmy Chang days, but Hawaii’s offense will be entertaining this year. QB Chevan Cordeiro settled into the starting spot nicely and is back for another year. He also showed off his running abilities last year. Joining him is one of the most versatile running backs in college football in Calvin Turner. Super senior WR Jared Smart also returned, so the offense will have weapons to utilize. In nine games, LB Darius Muasau accumulated 102 tackles while leading the team in tackles for loss and sacks as well. Khoury Bethley gives the secondary a player who can work anywhere, and CB Cortez Davis is back to make plays also.
24. Appalachian State Mountaineers
2020 RECORD: 9-1 | KEY PLAYER: DE Demetrius Taylor
OUTLOOK: If the Mountaineers want to get back to the top of the Sun Belt, it will do so without QB Zac Thomas. Former Clemson and Duke transfer Chase Brice comes to campus to help ease that transition. Wide receivers Thomas Hennigan and Malik Williams are back to lead the passing attack, and leading rusher Camerun Peoples is back after rushing for 1,124 yards and 12 TD. The offensive line will be solid again with OT Cooper Hodges returning as well as one of the greatest names in college football in G Baer Hunter. Underrated DE Demetrius Taylor leads the defense alongside LB D’Marco Jackson, and future NFL Draft pick CB Shaun Jolly, who picked off five passes in 2019. Appalachian State still has the talent to compete, but they’ll need to find a way to win as an underdog this year, which is new.
25. Western Michigan Broncos
2020 RECORD: 4-2 | KEY PLAYER: QB Kaleb Eleby
OUTLOOK: All Tim Lester has done with the Broncos is helped them move on from one off their best coaches in school history in P.J. Fleck, and kept them competitive. The offense last year rivaled the 2016 Cotton Bowl team with its scoring thanks largely to Eleby’s play. He completed 64.5% of his passes for 1,699 yards with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions last year, and gets back a number of key players. RB La’darius Jefferson averaged 104 yards per game on the ground, and receivers Skyy Moore (15.5 ypc) and Jaylen Hall (26.9). The defense needs to get their act together after allowing 34.2 points per game. Two of their top three tacklers return, but their both safeties, which isn’t always a good sign.