The College Football Playoff era has yet to produce a Group of Five semifinalist, but overall the past two years have generated some notable successes for the teams outside of the power conferences. After Boise State, the first winner of the Group of Five’s automatic berth in a New Year’s Six bowl, beat Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, Houston repeated the feat with a victory over Florida State in last year’s Peach Bowl.
Now the Cougars are out for more and have all eyes on them after last year’s transcendent season. While they certainly get top billing amongst the Group of Five squads heading into the season, there’s plenty of intrigue outside of coach Tom Herman’s program, too.
Here’s what you need to know about the Group of Five in 2016:
Projected Group of Five conference champions
|American Athletic Conference||Houston||8-4 (6-2)|
|Conference USA||Western Kentucky||10-2 (7-1)|
|Mid-American Conference||Western Michigan||9-3 (6-2)|
|Mountain West Conference||Boise State||10-2 (7-1)|
|Sun Belt Conference||Appalachian State||10-2 (8-0)|
Highest-ranked Group of Five team: Boise State
Players to watch
Greg Ward Jr., QB, Houston2015 stats: 232 for 345, 2,828 passing yards, 17 TDs, 6 INTs; 1,108 rushing yards, 21 TDs2016 projected stats: 241 for 360, 2,925 passing yards, 20 TD, 10 INTs; 1,043 rushing yards, 15 TDsIf there’s one player outside of the Power 5 that can’t be missed, it’s Ward. In fact, few players in all of college football are more electrifying than the Cougars passer. Ward did just about everything for Houston last season, passing for 2,828 yards and leading the team with 1,253 rushing yards along with 38 total touchdowns and nine turnovers. He is ruthlessly efficient, completing 67.2% of his passes last season for 8.2 yards per attempt while gaining 5.6 yards per rush.
Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic2015 stats: 13.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 39 tackles, 5 forced fumbles2016 projected stats: 13 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 45 tackles, 3 forced fumblesNo. 2 in the nation in sacks last season (a Florida Atlantic-record 13.5), Hendrickson was absolutely unblockable at times. He compiled a ridiculous four sacks at Old Dominion, three at Charlotte and 2.5 against Florida International. The senior enters 2016 as the preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year.
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan2015 stats: 90 receptions, 1,436 yards, 12 TDs2016 projected stats: 103 receptions, 1,452 yards, 15 TDsOnly Western Michigan can say goodbye to a pass-catcher who racked up 1,377 receiving yards last year and feel confident that it has its No. 1 receiver coming back. Daniel Braverman may be gone, but the prodigious Davis (1,436 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns) returns to Kalamazoo along with quarterback Zach Terrell. Expect Terrell to rely even more on the 6’3” Davis this fall.
Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State2015 stats: 8 INTs, 75 tackles, 7 passes broken up, 2 forced fumbles2016 projected stats: 8 INTs, 81 tackles, 10 passes broken up, 1 forced fumbleKazee made SI.com’s preseason All-America second team after earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors last season. He set a conference record with eight interceptions last season in addition to 75 tackles, seven passes broken up and two forced fumbles. The senior anchors a loaded secondary for San Diego State, which will seek to defend its Mountain West title.
Matt Breida, RB, Georgia Southern2015 stats: 1,608 rushing yards, 7.9 yards per carry, 17 TDs2016 projected stats: 1,676 rushing yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 19 TDsIn case you didn’t realize it, the nation’s leader in yards per carry last season plays in the Sun Belt. Not Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry, not runner-up Christian McCaffrey, not Florida State sensation Dalvin Cook, but Georgia Southern’s Breida. The 5’10”, 185-pound back returns to the Eagles’ triple-option offense after averaging nearly eight yards per carry last season while racking up 1,608 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Coaches on the hot seat
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan2015 record: 1-11 (0-8 MAC)Record at Eastern Michigan: 3-21 (1-15 MAC)It’s hard to win games and sell your program in recruiting when many people in your own school want your program cut. And a combined three wins in Creighton’s first two seasons and seven total wins for the Eagles in the past four years don’t exactly suggest a turnaround is imminent. However, the fact that 16 starters return this fall is cause for some hope.
Paul Haynes, Kent State2015 record: 3-9 (2-6 MAC)Record at Kent State: 9-26 (6-17 MAC)The best thing Haynes has going for him is that he’s not much worse than his predecessors—with the exception of Darrell Hazell’s breakthrough 2012 season. Haynes has gone 9–26 in his three seasons with the Golden Flashes, continuing a trend of futility for a program that has had just two winning seasons since 1987. Of course, that poor track record didn’t save Haynes’s forbearers from getting fired, so with 18 starters returning, he’ll need to deliver in 2016.
Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)2015 record: 3-9 (2-6 MAC)Record at Miami (Ohio): 5-19 (4-12 MAC)I swear I’m not picking on the MAC, but it really is a make-or-break season for the teams at the bottom of the conference. Martin took over a program in 2014 that had hit rock bottom (0–12 in 2013), but he’ll need to show the Redhawks are climbing out. A 5–19 record so far isn’t erasing memories of ’13’s failures. Martin showed he could be a successful coach at Grand Valley State—he won two Division II championships and went 74–7 in six seasons—so perhaps he can still pull Miami (Ohio) out of the dirt.
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State2015 record: 3-9 (2-6 MWC)Record at Fresno State: 29-23 (21-11 MWC)From beginning the 2013 season with 10 straight wins to a 3–9 campaign last year, the Bulldogs have really been in a tailspin. DeRuyter has gone 9–17 in the past two seasons and replaced both coordinators along with several position coaches this off-season. Those changes could reignite the success Fresno State is used to, but if they don’t work, there will be no one left to blame but DeRuyter.
Key nonconference games
Houston vs. Oklahoma (Sept. 3)
The Cougars should give a very clear sense of whether their playoff hopes are legitimate in this Week 1 showdown with the defending Big 12 champs. This is likely a must-win for Tom Herman’s squad to have a chance of finishing in the top four. Oklahoma reached the playoff last season, and with Baker Mayfield, Samaje Perine and Jordan Thomas back, the Sooners have a strong chance to repeat. A win for the Cougars would force the playoff selection committee to pay close attention the rest of the season.
Washington State at Boise State (Sept. 10)
The Broncos face three interesting tests in their non-conference schedule, also traveling to Oregon State and hosting BYU. But this matchup with the Cougars could be the most critical for positioning for a possible New Year’s Six bowl bid. Washington State could be a player in a wide-open Pac-12 North. If the Cougars win the division and Boise State takes the Mountain West, the Broncos’ victory could serve as a key argument for why they should get the Group of Five’s New Year’s Six bowl slot.
Key conference games
Western Kentucky at Marshall (Nov. 26)
When the Hilltoppers and Thundering Herd meet on the final weekend of the regular season, the Conference USA East Division title is likely to be on the line. Western Kentucky was the only team to knock off Marshall in 2014, and the Hilltoppers repeated the feat last year as part of an undefeated campaign in conference play. But Marshall should be recharged this year, with seven starters back on offense and having had a full season to recover from quarterback Rakeem Cato’s departure. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky has the loss of its own all-time great QB to deal with, as Brandon Doughty is gone after passing for a program-record 12,855 yards.
Toledo at Western Michigan (Nov. 25)
No single game will decide the MAC as both divisions feature multi-team races, but with this one coming on a Friday on the final week of the regular season, it’s definitely one to have circled because the stakes could be sky-high. The Broncos spoiled Toledo’s hopes of a division title last year; the Rockets may get a chance to return the favor.
Appalachian State at Georgia Southern (Oct. 27)
The Mountaineers seemed on track for an undefeated conference campaign in just their second season in the FBS last fall after they downed the Eagles at home 31–13. Arkansas State upended that two weeks later and stole the Sun Belt conference title. Appalachian State doesn’t have to face the Red Wolves this season, so if it can get past Georgia Southern again, it should be on its way to an 8–0 conference record and its first Sun Belt championship. The Eagles take an Oct. 5 trip to Arkansas State. If they win that, a victory at home over the Mountaineers would all but secure their own conference title.
Five key questions
Can Houston make a run to the playoff?
Through two years of the playoff, no Group of Five team has come particularly close to earning a spot in the semifinals. With all of its preseason hype, Houston looks like a team that could potentially change that. The Cougars have already avoided a pitfall of many talented Group of Five teams by giving themselves a schedule that allows them to prove their worth. Non-conference matchups against Oklahoma and Louisville, two teams that should factor into the championship races in their respective power conferences, offer prime opportunities for Houston to show it can hang with the best. Of course, winning those games will require actually being a playoff-caliber team, a standard of which the Cougars will likely fall short. The offense is there; Ward is a stud, and he should get plenty of support from transfer running back Duke Catalon and wide receiver Chance Allen. But Houston thrived last season by forcing an FBS-best 35 turnovers, including 21 interceptions. Now the Cougars must replace four of five starters in their secondary, casting serious doubt on a defense that lives and dies by its aggressiveness. That combined with a difficult schedule, including challenging conference matchups at Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis, will cause Houston to stumble.
Who will earn the New Year’s Six bowl bid?
This may seem to have an obvious answer given that we’re discussing Houston’s playoff hopes, but that same schedule that makes the Cougars’ hopes of a top-four ranking possible also could knock them out of a return to a New Year’s Six Bowl. They could be the best team in the American and still finish with as many as four losses. No team has more control of its destiny than Houston, but destiny won’t come easy. If the Cougars slip up, South Florida and Cincinnati will be waiting in the American, as will Boise State and San Diego State in the Mountain West.
How will Big 12 expansion play out?
With seemingly every Group of Five program jockeying to earn an invitation to the Big 12, the storyline will surely linger until the conference ultimately makes a decision. Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, and UConn appear to be the most likely candidates, so it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the American is not impacted. But possible outside-the-box options like Boise State and Colorado State could shake up the Mountain West. And assuming the AAC gets raided to at least some extent, it could turn around and pick off teams from Conference USA. The domino effect of conference realignment move is wildly unpredictable.
Can someone other than Bowling Green or Northern Illinois win the MAC?
Just two teams have won the MAC since 2011: the Falcons and Huskies. But a new crop of challengers has emerged and come tantalizingly close. Toledo appeared poised to win the MAC’s West Division before Western Michigan stunned the Rockets at home in their regular season finale. The Broncos had their own chance last year but surrendered a fourth-quarter lead to Northern Illinois. As a result, the Huskies and Bowling Green met in the MAC championship game for the third straight year. After last year’s close call, could this be the year for a new champ? Toledo should be in the hunt again despite losing head coach Matt Campbell, and Bowling Green will have to hold off Ohio in the MAC East. But the ever-energetic P.J. Fleck’s Western Michigan has the best shot. The Broncos get Toledo and Northern Illinois at home and don’t have to play Bowling Green or Ohio in divisional crossover games. Fleck has rebuilt Western Michigan from the ground up—the Broncos went 1–11 in his debut season in 2013. This year could be the ultimate payoff.
Which highly coveted Group of Five coaches will spring for power conference jobs?
Herman drew plenty of interest after just one season of success at Houston but opted to return for another year with the Cougars. Year two could be his last. With Texas’s Charlie Strong, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and LSU’s Les Miles all entering the 2016 season on the hot seat, at least one of those three jobs is likely to be open at the end of the year. Herman should top most search lists, and it’d be hard for him to pass on any of those three high-profile jobs. Then, there’s Western Michigan’s Fleck, a proven recruiter and program builder who will likely draw plenty of interest for any open Big Ten job. Other Group of Five coaches who could be the subject of rumors this off-season if they can put together successful campaigns this fall include Temple’s Matt Rhule, Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm, Appalachian State’s Scott Satterfield and South Florida’s Willie Taggart.