Boy, it is tough to believe that the first month of the college football season is in the books. I am straying away from my usual post and instead will be breaking down the top Group of Five teams and where they stand after the first five weeks.
As we all know, the coveted prize for the highest-ranked Group of Five team is getting to play in that New’s Year Six bowl game. On the surface, that is an excellent reward for a team that is typically away from the national spotlight, and often they make a memorable moment or two.
However, I believe the highest-ranked Group of Five team should be apart of an expanded eight-team playoff format. But that is a conversation for another day.
Through five weeks, there are three Group of Five teams that currently sit in the Top 25, with Boise State coming in at No. 16, followed by UCF at No. 18 and SMU at No. 24. Two more undefeated Group of Five teams also sit outside the Top 25 in Memphis and Appalachian State.
I will break down how these five teams have fared so far this season, what their future schedule looks like, and the chances for each team to reach that New Year’s Six bowl game.
Boise State: The Broncos currently sit at 4-0 and have taken back their usual spot of being the top-rated Group of Five team…for the moment. Boise began the season on the road at Florida State and came back impressively to win 36-31. True freshman QB Hank Bachmeier is hitting 64 percent of his passes with a 6-3 ratio but has been hit more times than any QB in the FBS.
While the Broncos offense is racking up the yards (averaging 476 yards per game), the Boise defense is a big reason why they sit at No. 16 in the AP Poll. Through four games, the Broncos are allowing just 299 yards per game (#25 FBS) and have collected a sack on almost 16 percent of their opponent’s dropbacks. They also have a pash rusher named Curtis Weaver, who is the active FBS leader in sacks with 26.5.
The defense lost leading tackler Zeke Noa for the season (ACL tear) and starting safety DeAndre Pierce has not seen the field since Week 1. The Broncos toughest remaining games are against Hawai’i next Saturday, Wyoming, on November 9th and at Utah State on November 23rd. If Boise can clear those hurdles, another undefeated season would likely be on the horizon.
The UCF Knights have been a constant resident in the AP Top 25 for the past few seasons and in both 2017 and 2018 were the Group of Five representative for the New Year’s Six bowl game. This season was a bit different, though, as the Knights would be without star QB McKenzie Milton.
Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush made it one start, before getting replaced by Dillon Gabriel, who has started UCF’s past four games. The Knights are averaging 569 yards of offense and are gaining 227 more yards per game than their opponents allow. Their defense has even taken a step up from last season (allowed 434 yards per game), allowing just 325 yards per game and 19 points per game.
Unlike the past two seasons, the Knights do not have the inside track to reach the New Year’s Six. This is because the Knights went to Pittsburgh and saw their 27-game regular-season win streak snapped. With trips to Cincinnati, Temple, and Tulane still on tap, UCF still has some games to pay attention to, and will likely need a Boise State loss if they want to play in a marquee bowl game again.
The last time SMU cracked the top 25, Top Gun was the No. 1 movie in America, and “That’s What Friends Are For” by Dionne and Friends topped the musical charts. That year was 1986.
Led by Texas transfer Shane Buechele, the Mustangs are averaging 511 yards (No. 13 in FBS) and 44 points per game. Buechele for the season has hit 69.4 percent of his passes (10-5 ratio) and has an elite group of receivers to throw to that includes Reggie Roberson (30 catches, 510 yards, 3 TD’s) and James Proche (34 catches, 376 yards, 5 TD’s). SMU’s lead rusher Xavier Jones already surpassed his rushing total from last season (525 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 10 TD’s) and he has balanced out the offensive attack.
For as much as attention as the offense (rightfully) receives, the Mustang defense is showing improvement this season. Through five games, the Ponies defense has held foes to 363 yards and lead the FBS with 25 sacks (recorded ten last week at USF). The Mustang defense also came up with three huge turnovers in their 41-38 upset win at No. 25 TCU two weeks ago.
If SMU is to earn that coveted Group of Five bowl bid, their games on November 2 at Memphis and November 30th vs. Tulane will likely determine who wins the AAC West. Then if SMU were to survive that, UCF could very well be waiting for them in the AAC Title Game. If the Mustangs get through that gauntlet without a blemish, it could come down to who is ranked higher between them and Boise State for the New Year’s bowl bid.
Often, when teams transition from the FCS level to the FBS level, it takes them a few years (or more) to start fielding a team that can win consistently. That is not the case for App State, as the Mountaineers are 48-16 since moving up the FBS in 2014.
The Mountaineers brought back 16 starters in 2019, including their QB Zac Thomas and running back Darrynton Evans as well as their leading tackler Akeem Davis-Gaither. The offense continues to move the ball well, averaging 429 yards and 47 points. Evans has 471 rush yards (7.0 yards per carry) and is tied for 3rd in the FBS with nine rushing touchdowns.
Last season App State’s defense ranked 5th in total yards allowed (288), but this season the defense is surrendering 420 yards, but are +5 in turnover ratio. The gameplan of outscoring their opponents likely won’t hold up and will need the defense to step up, especially since their two toughest games remaining are on the road at Louisiana next week and at Troy to close the season.
In his preseason magazine, Phil Steele picked the Memphis Tigers to be the Group of Five representative for the New Year’s Six bowl bid. So far, Memphis is 4-0 this season and are on a path to secure that New Year’s bowl birth.
The offense, with six starters back, is averaging 443 yards and 37 points, and QB Brady White is hitting 73.3 percent while Kenneth Gainwell is leading the Tigers with 411 rushing yards (6.6 yards per carry). But the main reason for the Tigers’ success this season is their improved defense that has allowed just 263 yards per game, which is 11th-best in the FBS.
While the run defense is allowing 160 yards per game, the Tigers pass defense is tops in the nation as they are allowing just 103 pass yards per game. Furthermore, the Tigers are only allowing opposing QB’s to connect on 41.6 percent of their throws. Memphis is battling both SMU and Tulane in the AAC West and get both of those games at home.
As the season carries on, it will be interesting to see how the battle for the top Group of Five slot goes, especially since three of these teams are from the American, and all will have to play each other at some point this season.
If I had to choose right now, I would say the team that eventually pulls away and earns the Group of Five slot is Boise State. The Broncos have an up and coming star at QB, and their defense is legit on all three levels. Plus, my fear with the AAC is that those three teams will wind up taking each other out by season’s end.
But that’s the beauty of sports, you do not know precisely how the situation will shake out until the games are played, and I am looking forward to watching that happen as the season rolls along.