Our new Group of 5 writer Connor (@connorten) is here to give you his season previews for the Group of 5 conferences.
The Group of 5 may be the winners of the announcement of a potential 12-team college football playoff. The Group of 5 are being given an opportunity to compete with the best programs that college football has to offer. There had been rumours that the Group of 5 would split into their own playoff structure due to the overwhelming favouritism the current setup has towards the Power 5.
The intrigue may remain in the Power 5, but the Group of 5 is getting stronger. There are names and teams you need to know. Here is Connor’s breakdown of the Group of 5, and his favourites to win their respective conferences.
American Athletic Conference
The AAC is one of the most intriguing Group of 5 conferences. There will be expectation of a bounce back for many teams in 2021. 2020 was the first season since 2016 that the AAC didn’t have more than one team finish in the final AP poll. Cincinnati being crowned AAC champion last year meant that there hasn’t been a repeat champion since 2017-18 (UCF). It ultimately remains a two horse race in 2021 between Cincinnati and UCF. There is a fun to follow middle of the pack after that. UCF brings in new coaching hire former Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn. There are high expectations for the Malzahn era, and his early recruiting and transfer portal success paint an intriguing picture for 2021 and beyond. Cincinnati under Luke Fickell and returning Senior quarterback Desmond Ridder have a slight advantage going into the season thanks to the continuity in coaching staff and roster.
Predicted winner: Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats were the top Group of 5 program last season. Expectations make it look like 2021 will be no different. Cincy ranked in the top 25 in both total defense (13th) and total offense (24th) in the nation. The defense and offense return some key players. The beating heart of the Bearcats offense is senior quarterback Desmond Ridder, who was the 2020 AAC Offensive player of the year. Ridder is garnering First Round 2022 NFL Draft hype with his intriguing dual threat ability. In 2020, he threw 2296 yards and a 19:6 touchdown to interception ratio paired with 592 yards and 12 more touchdowns on the ground. Returning with him is a large chunk of his 2020 weaponry. They include two senior wide receivers Jayson Jackson & Alec Pierce. The team’s leader in receiving yards and touchdowns in ‘20 was Tight End Josh Whyle. He also returns this season. Running Back Jerome Ford enjoyed 6.6 yards per carry in 2020, and will step out of Gerrid Doaks’ shadow to take the lead back role.
There are three projected AAC first-team players returning on defense. Their tackle for loss and sacks-leader in 2020 was defensive lineman Myjai Sanders. Super Senior DT Curtis Brooks helped along the front four last time around. Add former top 75 recruit in 2019 Jowon Briggs through transfer to an already mean defense. Despite losing their top two Safeties, the secondary sees the return of junior cornerback Ahmad Gardner. Garner is gathering steam among scouts as a likely first round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and the best man-to-man corner in the nation. In his first two seasons in Cincinnati, he had six interceptions and 12 pass break-ups.
Conference USA is an intriguing division to watch. There are a couple teams on the outside looking in, a competitive team in transition with a new coach (Marshall), and then there are the couple sure-fire teams at the top: UAB and UTSA. It is difficult to ever rule out the Marshall Thundering Herd, who finished 7-3 and went to the C-USA title game last season. However, I call 2021 the year of transition with new head coach Charles Huff and see the West taking the crown over the East. Early indications are that Huff is having tremendous success in early recruitment, so keep your eyes open in 2022. UAB is the consensus favourite to repeat as C-USA champions, but also have the hardest schedule in the division. My favourite for the C-USA is Jeff Traylor and the Roadrunners, thanks to returning a majority of the roster for 2021.
Predicted winner: UTSA Roadrunners
UTSA was much improved in 2020 under the guidance of first year Head Coach Jeff Traylor. The Roadrunners nearly won the C-USA West and made their first bowl appearance since 2016, losing to Louisiana 31-24 in the First Responder Bowl. The biggest question mark lies at the Quarterback position. No team in college football has had as bad of luck as UTSA with injuries. Former LSU transfer Lowell Narcisse started 2020 as the quarterback before being carted off with an ankle injury. He was replaced by Frank Harris. Josh Adkins has also had opportunity in a struggling Quarterback room, but broke his collarbone. If the spring games are any indication of the direction Traylor is going, it is a two man race between Harris and Adkins with Harris looking like the slightly superior QB. However, the leash will likely be very short for Harris.
If they find some consistency at QB in 2021, there are some big returns on both sides of the football. Both the offense and defense were top 50 in the country last season. The offense returns its entire front five on the offensive line plus Running Back Sincere McCormick. He had 1598 scrimmage yards (1467 rushing) plus 11 touchdowns in 2020. They also will have their top two wide receivers back. Zakhari Franklin and Joshua Cephus combined for 1236 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020. There will be 10 starters coming back on defense including leading tackler and interceptor Rashad Wisdom (Safety) and the linebacking tandem of Trevor Harmanson and Jamal Lingon. Finally, sack leader Trumane Bell also returns for 2021.
The MAC is a conference of great uncertainty due to the abbreviated season in 2020. No teams played more than eight games. Some played half of that. The MAC has a number of high power offenses to make the conference interesting including Kent State, Ball State and Toledo. Ball State had a tremendous year in 2020. They won their first MAC championship since 1996, and defeated San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl for their first ever Bowl win. Finishing the season 23rd in the National AP poll was the icing on the cake. I expect a repeat performance as Ball State takes full advantage of the fifth year, “super senior” eligibility returning 16 total with that tag plus 17 starters.
Predicted winner: Ball State
Quarterback Drew Plitt returns as a “Super Senior” with an historic run as Ball State QB on his mind. In school history, he ranks third all-time in passing touchdowns and fourth on the all-time passing yards list. Despite losing four WRs to the transfer portal, Plitt’s two leading receivers, Justin Hall (665 receiving yards and 4 TDs) and Yo’Heinz Tyler (607 receiving yards and 8 TDs), return for the 2021 season. They also return all five starters up front. That continuity should help improve an offensive line that gave up 28 sacks in eight games.
On the defensive side of the ball, the young up-and-coming defensive play caller Tyler Stockton returns three 2020 first team All-MAC players. The defense improved by over five points per game allowed in 2020 versus 2019. They return an inside linebacker tandem that was first and second on the team in tackles: Brandon Martin (90 tackles) and Jaylin Thomas (78 tackles). Outside linebacker Anthony Ekpe led Ball State in tackles for loss (7) and sacks (5) last year, and also returns. Returnee Jaylin Thomas is the active MAC leader in tackles with 289. They also bring back Safety Bryce Cosby, the current active start leader for Ball State with 43, who also filled the stat sheet in 2020, third on the team in tackles plus two interceptions, four passes defended and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Mountain West Conference
The MWC will be a fun Group of 5 conference to watch. In the West, Nevada HC Jay Norvell and QB Carson Strong will again challenge the 2021 West division and MWC winner, San Diego State. On the Eastern side, Boise State is tough to count out, despite bringing in a new HC. They also have a tough schedule, but have won the MWC crown two of the last four seasons. I am taking Nevada this year behind star QB Carson Strong and nine returning All-Mountain West players.
Predicted winner: Nevada Wolf Pack
Strong returns with two of his biggest receiving weapons from his award winning 2020 season. He threw for 2858 yards (70.1% completion) and a 27:4 touchdown to interception ratio. WR Romeo Doubs finished with 1002 yards and nine TDs on a team-leading 58 receptions. Tight End Cole Turner also had nine TDs to go with 48 receptions and 605 yards plus returning leading rusher Toa Taua and his 889 scrimmage yards and five TDs.
They weren’t great defensively in 2020, but they weren’t bad either. Nevada did improve from 2019, which is a start. Star defensive linemen Dom Peterson played through injury in 2020. Peterson should be back to full health in 2021, which should mean double digit sack and tackle for loss numbers. Linebacker and team tackle leader Lawson Hall returns. Another small improvement on defense for Nevada could be instrumental for the success of their high powered offense.
Sun Belt Conference
Appalachian State owned the Sun Belt for four years before two new teams emerged. That of course includes the 2021 Cinderella story of college football, Coastal Carolina. Billy Napier and the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns took the West and finished 15th in the season end AP Poll. Coastal Carolina took the East and Sun Belt championship, finishing 14th in the rankings. They reached as far as 9th in the AP poll during the season. Coastal Carolina and Louisiana should be in the mix at the top again. A couple major losses for Coastal Carolina are crucial. Sun Belt defensive player of the year Tarron Jackson and conference touchdown leader running back CJ Marable have left for the NFL. This change has me leaning in Louisiana’s direction in 2021.
Predicted winner: Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns
Billy Napier is back for his fourth year as HC, and is becoming a name to watch in the college football scene. He has turned down Power 5 jobs to continue his stint in Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns have gone from a 7-7 squad in year one under Napier ro a 10-1 finish in 2020 That meant a near Sun Belt title, plus their first ever AP Poll finish. Consecutive Bowl Game wins under Napier highlights the side’s progress. The team returns the most productive college football defense, and the sixth best offense.
They do lose two key running backs in Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, but QB Levi Lewis returns. Lewis is in the hunt for Louisiana school records in passing touchdowns and yards. The Ragin’ Cajuns also return arguably the top offensive line in the conference along with a deep wide receiving room. While Louisiana may have struggled against the run on defense, they do return ten starters with talent across all levels. They will look to build on a 2020 season in which they only allowed 22 points per game and were the #2 ranked team in the country in passing efficiency, allowing 10 passing touchdowns and picking off 16 passes.
Follow our new Group of 5 writer Connor on Twitter – @connorten! He will be bringing news, previews and results from the Group of 5 conferences for the 2021 season.