For every program outside of Boise, it’s a fleeting honor to be considered one of the “it” teams of college football’s Group of Five conferences. With fewer resources and thinner rosters, the margins of error are often smaller for the Group of Five’s best than they are at most Power 5 programs. UCF’s 25-game winning streak has vaulted the Knights to the top of the G5 heap, but as the stars of 2017’s breakthrough 13–0 team matriculate out, head coach Josh Heupel has his work cut out for him maintaining that supremacy.
At this point two offseasons ago, few would have predicted UCF was about to run the table, but some had already pointed out that the broader football-watching population should be hopping on the bandwagon. Now there’s a new wave of Group of Five teams looking to challenge UCF’s inside track on a New Year’s Six bowl berth. This time last year, Buffalo, Cincinnati or UAB were preparing for breakthrough seasons with a minimum of hype behind them. Now the search begins for a new set of buy-low candidates.
Below, our writers play a little game of Group of Five Stock Watch, making the case for one team they’re buying in on as a more dangerous factor than most expect, in conference races or beyond.
In his first year as a head coach, all Billy Napier did was lead the Ragin’ Cajuns to a division title, including a win at in-state rival UL-Monroe and a shootout upset of Sun Belt power Arkansas State, and sign the top-ranked class in the conference. What’s in store for year two? Napier does lose his starting quarterback—junior Levi Lewis will compete with junior college transfer Jaiave Magalei for the gig in spring ball—but Louisiana should be strong on the offensive line, where all five starters return, and in the backfield, which features a trio of explosive backs in Trey Ragas, Elijah Mitchell and Raymond Calais. They averaged nearly seven yards a carry and ran for more than 2,000 yards last season. End Kendall Wilkerson and tackle Quintlan Cobb are two promising incoming freshmen expected to restock a defense that loses three of its top five tacklers. — Ross Dellenger
Houston was blown to pieces by Army in a 70–14 Armed Forces Bowl loss that doomed Major Applewhite with an 8–5 finish, but the Cougars are going to be an interesting AAC team to watch in 2019. They’re now coached by Dana Holgorsen, who left West Virginia after his senior-laden Mountaineers came so close to playing for a Big 12 title. Not only will Holgorsen be expected to win just as much as he did in Morgantown, but he must continue challenging the College Football Playoff discussion, even if his path to the final four just got a little steeper. Any Group of Five team that aspires to be a legitimate playoff contender must play a difficult schedule, and the Cougars fit the bill, facing Oklahoma, Washington State and North Texas before the end of September.
No matter how it navigates those non-conference tests (a trip to defending AAC champ UCF the first weekend in November also looms), Houston has the talent to contend for the AAC title, especially with quarterback D’Eriq King returning. The rising senior powered the fourth-best scoring offense in the country before a torn meniscus against Tulane on Nov. 15 ended his season, and the Cougars lost their final two games without him. Before the injury, King had thrown for 2,982 yards and 36 touchdowns (still the sixth most TDs in the FBS at the end of the year) and ran for 674 yards and 14 more scores. The late-season fade may have scared off potential hangers-on, but with Holgorsen in the fold, Houston’s sights are set on more than knocking off the Knights for the AAC title. — Laken Litman
Consider this my invitation onto the Tulane bandwagon. The Green Wave are bringing back a young, talented defense with a strong defensive line, and head coach Willie Fritz's offense returns its leading rushers as well as quarterback Justin McMillan, an LSU transfer who went 5–2 once he took over the starting job in October. Tulane has a tough non-conference schedule—Auburn, Army and Florida International all won their bowl games—but the byproduct should be a lot of national exposure for an improving team with a solid chance to win the wide-open AAC West. — Joan Niesen
The Aggies jumped onto the national radar in Week 1 of the 2018 season by almost upsetting Michigan State in East Lansing. Then, they ripped off the least talked-about 10-game winning streak in the country before a loss to Boise State in the final week of the regular season and missing out on the Mountain West Championship game. Head coach Matt Wells was hired away by Texas Tech and took most of his staff with him, but quarterback Jordan Love, who completed 64% of his passes for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns, is back to provide continuity for head coach Gary Anderson’s second stint in Logan just as both Boise State and Fresno State lose their multi-year starting QBs to graduation. The Aggies’ season will likely be defined by three games: at Wake Forest on Aug. 30, at LSU on Oct. 5 and vs. Boise State on Nov. 23. If they can win two of those three games, they might just finish as the best Group of Five team and secure a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. — Joe Wilkinson
The MAC could be another free-for-all this year, with turnover for both 2018 division champions that could open the door for the Broncos, who would have played for a conference title if not for a 42–41 overtime loss to Ball State that swung on a failed two-point conversion. Western Michigan followed up a six-game winning streak with a three-game skid after junior quarterback Jon Wassink went down with a foot injury, but if margin of victory is any indication, the Broncos were living on the edge even when things were going well. According to FBS returning production numbers tabulated by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, Western Michigan brings back a nation-leading 85% of its 2018 production, including Wassink and his backup Kaleb Eleby. September trips to Michigan State and Syracuse could steel coach Tim Lester’s charges for a MAC schedule in which they play their toughest opponents on the road ... or demoralize them. — Eric Single