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2014 Group of Five preview: Which non-power league teams will thrive?

2014 Group of Five preview: Which non-power league teams will thrive? Photo:
Projected Group of Five Conference Champions
 
Conference team record
American Athletic Conference Cincinnati 9-3 (7-1)
Conference USA Marshall 12-0 (8-0)
Mid-American Conference Bowling Green 10-2 (8-0)
Mountain West Conference Boise State 10-2 (7-1)
Sun Belt Conference Louisiana 10-2 (8-0)

Highest-ranked Group of Five team: Marshall

Players To Watch
 
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    2013 stats: 387-for-549, 4,139 passing yards, 33 TD, 10 interceptions; 103 rushing yards, 10 TD
     
    2014 projected stats: 395-for-560, 4,225 passing yards, 35 TD, 7 interceptions; 8 rushing TD
     
    Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player in 2013 is poised to dominate a new league following East Carolina’s move to the American. Carden posted eye-popping numbers last year and returns his favorite target in wide receiver Justin Hardy (114 catches, 1,284 receiving yards, eight touchdowns). As his 70.5 completion rate from last fall indicates, Carden is smart with the ball and takes what opposing defenses give him.

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    2013 stats: 298-for-499, 3,916 passing yards, 39 TD, 9 interceptions
     
    2014 projected stats: 303-for-495, 4,017 passing yards, 41 TD, 7 interceptions
     
    If any player outside the power conferences is to make a run at the Heisman Trophy, it’s likely to be Cato. That would require an undefeated season from Marshall, but Cato should do his part. The Thundering Herd’s leader tossed 76 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He could top that pace this fall.
     

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    2013 stats: 237-for-369, 3,467 passing yards, 25 TD, 7 interceptions
     
    2014 projected stats: 358-for-511, 3,917 passing yards, 34 TD, 11 interceptions
     
    Johnson’s impressive 2013 campaign helped Bowling Green upset Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois to claim the MAC championship. Now, after Dave Clawson’s departure and coach Dino Babers’ hire, Johnson could be primed to dwarf his prior exploits. Babers is the offensive mind who helped make Robert Griffin III a Heisman winner and Jimmy Garoppolo an FCS star. He’ll give Johnson many opportunities to thrive in his up-tempo offense.

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    2013 stats: 136-for-196, 1,388 passing yards, 18 TD, 2 interceptions
     
    2014 projected stats: 294-for-404, 2,801 passing yards, 37 TD, 5 interceptions
     
    Off to a dominant start in 2013, Keeton’s season was derailed when the quarterback tore his ACL and MCL in a 31-14 loss to BYU on Oct. 4. Now healthy, Keeton will seek to pick up where he left off -- wrecking West Coast defenses with precise and powerful throws. The Aggies need Keeton to be explosive. They return just three offensive starters, including one lineman. Keeton may need to think fast to succeed.
     

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    2013 stats: 71 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
     
    2014 projected stats: 98 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
     
    Orakpo was named to Bruce Feldman’s 2014 “Freaks” list, and with good reason: The junior linebacker bench presses 560 pounds, incline benches 500 pounds and power cleans 375 pounds. He recorded a vertical jump of 41.5 inches and a 40-yard dash of 4.53 seconds. That elite combination of power and speed gives Orakpo -- the brother of Washington Redskins’ star Brian Orakpo -- tremendous versatility. His production should only increase with his move to inside linebacker this year.

 

Coaches On The Hot Seat
 
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    2013 record: 1-11 (1-7 C-USA)
    Record at Florida International: 1-11 (1-7 C-USA)
     
    To land on the hot seat after just one season takes an especially awful debut. Turner’s sufficed. The Golden Panthers won one game in 2013, a 24-23 victory over Southern Miss, and ranked last in the FBS in total and scoring offense. Now, the unorthodox hire -- Turner hadn’t coached in college since his 35-57 tenure at Illinois ended in ‘04 -- is staring at a slate that appears equally daunting.

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    Norm Chow, Hawaii
    2013 record: 1-11 (0-8 MWC)
    Record at Hawaii: 4-20 (1-15 MWC)
     
    The longtime offensive coordinator has not adapted well to his first head coaching gig, winning just four games in his first two seasons at Hawaii. The days of Sugar Bowl berths under former coach June Jones are gone; even Chow’s former prowess of offensive strategy seems to have deserted him -- Hawaii finished 72nd nationally in scoring offense last fall. With Hawaii’s athletic director discussing the “possibility" of dropping the football program altogether, the whole team could be considered on the hot seat.

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    Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
    2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
    Record at Louisiana Tech: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
     
    After leading East Carolina to back-to-back Conference USA titles in 2008 and ‘09, little has gone right for Holtz. His South Florida teams got progressively worse during his three-year tenure, leading to his exit after a 3-9 campaign in ‘12. In his first year at Louisiana Tech, Holtz took a Bulldogs squad that went 9-3 in its final season under Sonny Dykes and went 4-8. Year two could be tough, too, as Louisiana Tech has a porous offensive line and questions at quarterback.

College Football Preview: Breaking down the Group of Five

Sports Illustrated senior writers Andy Staples and Pete Thamel break down the biggest storylines from the non-power conferences in 2014.

Three key nonconference games

Boise State vs. Ole Miss (in Atlanta), Aug. 28 (ESPN)

Week 1 will offer the first big clue as to whether Boise State can maintain the success it experienced under Chris Petersen now that Bryan Harsin is in charge. One game against an on-the-rise SEC opponent won’t make or break the Harsin era, but this matchup should provide some early insight into how the Broncos will rebound from an 8-5 campaign, their worst finish under Petersen. Injuries and inexperience plagued last year’s Boise State team. There is reason to expect improvement in 2014.

Appalachian State at Michigan, Aug. 30 (ESPN2)

Appalachian State heads into its season opener with low expectations, as the Mountaineers join the FBS fresh off a 4-8 mark in their final FCS campaign. Still, if Michigan learned one thing from these teams’ matchup in 2007, it’s not to take Appalachian State lightly. This is the program that won a conference title as recently as '12 and won three straight FCS championships from ‘05 to ’07.

Louisiana at Ole Miss, Sept. 13 (SEC Network)

Ole Miss will have to fend off another strong Group of Five foe in September, this time at home against Louisiana. Playing in the Sun Belt, the Ragin’ Cajuns will be hard-pressed to earn the Group of Five’s berth into the New Year’s Six bowls. A road victory over the Rebels would certainly bolster their cause.

Three key conference games

East Carolina at Cincinnati, Nov. 13 (ESPN2)

East Carolina is poised to immediately jump into the mix for an American Athletic Conference title. A November meeting with Cincinnati should help sort out the top of the league standings. The Bearcats ranked 12th nationally in yards allowed per play (4.7) last year. They’ll need that defensive aptitude to stifle Carden and a potent Pirates’ offense.

RICKMAN: Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel finally where he wants to be

Bowling Green at Toledo, Nov. 19 (ESPN2/ESPNU)

Bowling Green will undergo a transformation with the introduction of Babers’ offense, which helped Eastern Illinois lead the FCS in both total offense (589.5 yards per game) and scoring offense (48.2 points per game) in 2013. In addition to Johnson, the Falcons return tailback Travis Greene, who set a school record with 1,594 rushing yards last fall. Meanwhile, Toledo is one of three teams (along with Northern Illinois and Ball State) in the hunt to win the MAC West. This late-season matchup could be a preview of the conference championship game, especially if the Rockets take care of business at Northern Illinois the week before.

Utah State at Boise State, Nov. 29 (TBD)

The road to the Mountain West championship will likely run through the Mountain Division, which features the top two squads in the conference. The Aggies and Broncos end the regular season on the blue turf in what will likely serve as a de facto league semifinal. The winner will be the heavy favorite to claim the title.

Photo:

Five key questions

How will UCF weather the loss of Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson? After spoiling what was supposed to be Louisville’s coronation and big sendoff from the American, UCF waved goodbye to its own royalty in quarterback Bortles and running back Johnson. Replacing the duo that accounted for 87 percent of the Knights’ total offense in 2013 won’t be easy, and the loss of two all-AAC linemen won’t make that task any simpler. However, all four starters return to a UCF secondary that allowed 6.5 yards per passing attempt last year. Still, the Knights went 7-1 in one-score games last fall, a mark that will be difficult to replicate.

Which Group of Five team will earn the spot in the New Year’s Six? Under the new playoff format, the highest-ranked team from the Group of Five is guaranteed a berth in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, the group of bowl games that will serve as the playoff semifinals on a rotational basis (the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Peach and Cotton bowls). Marshall seems to have the easiest route to that slot with its weak nonconference schedule, its manageable Conference USA slate and its loaded offense. However, if Marshall slips, Bowling Green or Cincinnati could swoop in to steal the bid.

THAMEL: How will Group of Five teams fare in the new system?

How good is Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel? The world will finally learn just how good the former blue-chip recruit is. Kiel committed to Indiana and LSU before enrolling at Notre Dame, transferring to Cincinnati and missing the 2013 season. Now he is set to take the field. If he lives up to the hype, Kiel can lead the Bearcats to an AAC title. If he falters, Munchie Legaux could retake the starting role.

How will Wyoming's Craig Bohl adjust to the FBS? After winning three consecutive FCS national titles at North Dakota State, Bohl made the jump to the FBS in December to take over Wyoming. The coach has his work cut out trying to get the Cowboys back to bowl eligibility after two straight losing seasons. Wyoming ranked 100th in yards allowed per play last year and loses quarterback Brett Smith. But Bohl knows how to rebuild: North Dakota State went 2-8 the year before he arrived and won eight games in each of his first two seasons.

Can a surprise team win the American? Cincinnati is the favorite, and defending champ UCF is drawing plenty of preseason buzz. But could a less heralded team win the league? It’s certainly possible. East Carolina and Houston are potential candidates. The Pirates bring back Carden, while the Cougars return 17 starters, including quarterback John O’Korn and receivers Deontay Greenberry and Daniel Spencer (134 combined receptions for 1,971 yards). A run to a conference crown would be a wonderful way for Houston to break in its new stadium.

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