With a quarter of the 2017/18 college football campaign in the books, who will represent the Group of Five at the New Year’s Six Bowl this January?It goes without saying that it feels just yesterday we were espousing the virtues of pre-season darlings Houston and South Florida, just short of anointing the race for the Group of Five a two-horse race.
While college football’s big league, the ‘Power Five’, has weakened, particularly in the SEC, thanks to the utter domination once again a quarter of the way through the 2017/18 campaign by Nick Saban’s Alabama. It is tough to see past a repeat of January’s SEC Championship outcome and a Crimson Tide/Clemson rematch, despite the immense threat of a stronger Big 12.
The aforementioned Group of Five is made up of mid-major FBS football programs encompassing the American Athletic, Mid-American, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mountain West Conferences. While each is well represented in the end of season bowls, it can send just one representative to the New Year’s Six bowls. The race to be that program is as exciting and dramatic as any story line in the amateur sport. Last year saw P.J Fleck’s Western Michigan be that team, launching himself to a job at Minnesota of the ‘Power Five’.
South Florida, having secured a share of the AAC East division a year ago (w/Temple), came into the campaign as joint favourites to sweep both a conference title and a Peach Bowl berth. Despite losing one half of one of college football’s deadliest quarterback/running back duos in Marlon Mack, to the NFL (now with the Indianapolis Colts), Quinton Flowers and co. have wasted little time flying out to a dominating 4-0 start. New head coach Charlie Strong is back in his recruiting heartland and has seamlessly transitioned the program having lost outstanding coach Willie Taggart to the Pac 12 and Oregon.
Powered by a 9th in the nation rushing offence, the Bulls have amassed 163 points, putting up an average 41 points per contest. While lighting up the scoreboard will not be enough in its entirety to power any team into January, Strong has a stuttering defence purring so far, of whom boast the 9th best unit in the country and the top in the nation in turnover margin at 2.5 per game. Such production on both sides of the ball makes the Tampa school the clear favourite at this juncture.
On the flip side, Houston‘s prospects four weeks ago looked just as bright, powered by college football’s All-American star Ed Oliver on defence. Following a mixed opening to the campaign (2-1), while far from disastrous, the loss of outstanding dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr, head coach Tom Herman to Texas and both starting cornerbacks has proven a far tougher bridge to cross than assumed. Saturday’s week three 27-24 home defeat to Texas Tech and the struggles of the Cougars offence are a concern going forward, but with a generational talent and future number one NFL Draft selection on their side, this team has the potential to achieve anything this year.
— 40 Yards Scouting (@mattphillips78) September 28, 2017
⇒Above: Houston’s Ed Oliver’s power, explosion off the snap & ability to split x2 teams allows him to live in the backfield and has a distinct effect on the opposition on an every-down basis.
Texas A&M transfer quarterback Kyle Allen, after an excellent start struggled to get anything going in the face of a suffocating and vastly improved Red Raiders defence, giving me cause for concern. However, there is no doubting the talent remaining on the roster in future NFL receivers Linnell Bonner and Steven Dunbar, both impressing despite the final scoreline.
Over in the MAC, despite tasting defeat to talent rich Miami on the road, Toledo possess the strongest returning cast in the Group of Five. An embarrassment of riches, headlined by the FBS’ top touchdown passing quarterback (45) Logan Woodside.
Last season’s 7th best offense in the country, returns four of the five All-Conference selections at the key offensive spots on the team (QB, WR, RB x2), operating behind a vastly experience offensive line. Second year head coach Jason Candle will have his program pushing South Florida all the way, backed by a tough defensive element. Despite losing All-Conference pick Kareem Hunt to the NFL, the depth of experience and exciting talent makes the Rockets an intimidating prospect not just within the MAC but anyone in college football.
While not a preseason favourite, Rocky Long’s (54-26) San Diego State program have us, like so many, questioning why we did not place them a greater threat to the established favourites. The Aztec’s outstanding, unbeaten start to the new campaign (4-0), should come as no surprise with an eye on the depth, experience and power of their returning talent. Despite losing college football’s all-time leading career rusher, Donnell Pumphrey (now of the Philadelphia Eagles), the impressive Rashad Penny has not missed a beat in filling the void, having already amassed 716 yards on the ground while remaining a dangerous special teams returner.
Coming off a Mountain West Conference title and two consecutive 11-3 campaigns, the Aztecs have already seen off one-time college football playoff challengers Stanford 20-17 and fellow Pac -12 school Arizona State 30-20 on the road in successive weekends. With their toughest segment of the schedule out of the way, Long’s dangerous squad could quite feasibly now run the table.
With Houston and South Florida facing off against each other on November 4th (in Tampa), the road is clear for the Aztecs to represent the Group of Five at the Peach Bowl in the salubrious surroundings of Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on New Year’s Day.
While the Peach Bowl looks likely to feature one of the above schools, there’s no evidence to say that there is not a challenge to that status posed from outside the favoured group, with a number of teams making early season statements.
The Sun Belt could be represented by the 3-1 Troy Trojans, led by experienced passer Brandon Silvers and highly rated senior running back Jordan Chunn, both of whom will be sought after in April’s NFL Draft, have the offensive capability to put significant points on the scoreboard. So why are they not strong favourites? The schedule is not as favourable as the teams above, with a road trip to LSU this weekend and a less than stout defence putting them at a significant disadvantage.
Having already seen off Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic (42-19), Tulane (23-21) and most recently this past weekend Cincinnati (42-32) Navy have established an early lead in the AAC West. Ken Niumatalolo (77-42) has established a perennial winner in Annapolis, Maryland who have surpassed thirteen wins in fourteen of his seasons. The Midshipmen’s 3-0 opening has them firmly in the mix to push the rest.
Also in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis have made us sit up and take notice both on a team-wide level, roaring to a 3-0 opening to the campaign and individually with potential first round NFL draft pick, wide receiver Anthony Miller in outstanding form. Having defeated UCLA 48-45 two weeks ago, the Tigers have shown they can continue the run, but face the toughest schedule of all the contenders having to face both Navy and travel to Houston in consecutive weeks next month.
Texas-San Antonio, also an unbeaten 3-0 have been an unexpected surprise, despite returning six veterans on offence and five on defence, grabbing the opening weekend headlines with a 17-10 upset victory on the road in Waco, Texas over Big-12 giants Baylor. Second year head coach Frank Wilson led the Roadrunners to a first in their history, bowl appearance last time out and are serious contenders to go one further and lift the Conference-USA title and make a New Year’s Six Bowl. Nevertheless, they have a tough road trip to Florida International in November to overcome.
Although we are four games into the 2017/18 college football campaign, meaning it can feel a little premature to be hyping up or talking down teams’ prospects, we are indeed a quarter of the way through the 2017/18 campaign. Here’s what has surprised us so far.
Certainly life and the attempt to bridge the loss of gifted and enthusiastic head coach P.J Fleck and four-year starting quarterback and leader Zach Terrell, is proving to be a significantly more difficult process than anticipated. Standing at 2-2, thanks to a home win over FCS small school Wagner, it has been a disappointing start. Having lifted the MAC title in January and represented the ‘Group of Five’ in the Cotton Bowl, a contest they lost narrowly (16-24) to the Big Ten’s Wisconsin. With a roster still full of an embarrassment of young, talented riches and prospective 2018 NFL Draft selections, the Broncos are sure to turn their fortunes around, but it could already be too late. We certainly underestimated the level of transition required in Kalamazoo.
A perennially well-run program under the expert tutelage of nine-year head coach David Cutliffe (52-61), 2016/17 was something of an anomaly for the Durham, North Carolina school. The Blue Devils have bounced back impressively with a talented and of course expertly coached squad, sweeping aside a tough looking, on paper, opening schedule with home victories over both Baylor and Northwestern. With a 4-0 head start in hand, they can take that confidence into an intimidating forthcoming schedule, featuring home ties with Miami and Florida State, followed by a tricky road fixture at resurgent Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Having posted a vastly improved 7-6 performance a year ago and Military Bowl victory over ACC Champions Temple (34-26), the Demon Deacons have started off from where they left. Third-year head coach Dave Clawson has forged a deeply talented roster than in previous years in Salem and have made the perfect start ahead of their formidable upcoming schedule, starting at home against Florida State, followed immediately with a road trip into Death Valley and Clemson. Nevertheless a 4-0 start was not expected, with last weekend’s impressive victory over Sun Belt favourites Appalachian State a highlight. The Deacons have built an exciting roster that will challenge many high ranking teams this season.
Each week we answer your college football questions.
This week, reader Mark Steel @stickapininit
Outside special teams, which position is the least important in the eyes of the draft – Middle Linebacker, Guard or Centre?
With the best will in the world to not sit on the fence, positional draft value really is on the eye of the beholder. However, with the NFL being the copycat league it is with common trends followed, quarterbacks, those who can rush them and tackles who protect the quarterback always take priority.
Middle linebacker is without doubt under valued by the NFL and personnel departments know that they can afford to wait until the 4-7 round range to get their man.
Teams will identify early on in the process those at the position who fit their exact schematic demands, largely ruling out many potential draftees at the position, in the knowledge they can afford to wait until later in the draft to bring them in.
Of course there are exceptions made when certain teams put need over value of course and/or when a ´once in every 5 years’ type talent comes along. Certainly that was the case for the likes of Luke Kuechly (R1/9), Patrick Willis (R1/11) and CJ Mosley (R1/20). In fact LaVar Arrington remains the highest selected inside linebacker, going second overall 17 years ago. Teams certainly will make an exception to the rule, but only if they have a stable quarterback situation plus depth at those vital, game defining spots.
However this is the rarity more than the norm and scouting departments will identify translatable traits, development potential and match to their own distinct scheme run by the defence.
Certainly they are valued, but the position can’t compete with the key positions outlined in the opening paragraph. The likes of AJ Klein (R5/148) and Houston’s Elandon Roberts (R6/214) have proven the positions value in the latter rounds and the trend will continue in that vein with effective scouting and skilled coaching staffs.
The same is undeniable along the interior offensive line. However, the center position has seen an upturn in its value thanks to the at the time, eyebrow raising first round selection of Travis Frederick by the Cowboys. We know how well that has worked out in hindsight and other teams have jumped onto the bandwagon. However, it still remains rare with just eight selected at the position in the past 17 years; Mike Pouncey, Alex Mack, Eric Wood and Nick Mangold.
The vast majority of personnel staff will look to the latter rounds to select a guard, where supply is far greater than the demand, that on a yearly basis leaves many last day steals to be had. Much of this again has to do with specific, team by team schematic requirements for the position that immediately cuts the field down significantly. A well run organisation will give all of their interior offensive linemen playing time and develop those not in the starting roster.
That’s not to say we haven’t seen first round picks invested at the spot on ‘can’t miss’ prospects, such as Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall selection in 2013, the highest pick at the position in recent years. Of course Cooper was to suffer season ending injury in his rookie season and has bounced around the league ever since. Germain Ifedi of Texas A&M and Stanford’s Joshua Garnett have since then heard their name called in the first round, but the value for the position will always lie between rounds 3-5 and the most successful higher selections have come in the draft’s second round. In comparison, Kansas City’s flexible Guard/Center Zach Fulton has been an excellent addition on the game day roster having been selected in the sixth round with he 193rd pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, predominately as a starter during that time.
A contributing factor too that must be emphasised is that both the center and guard positions are seen by many teams as interchangeable with similar requirements on a team by team basis, with many moving players around between both, while others like Fulton can play all three interior spots, like many late round or even priority free agent collegiate talent.
Unless you are a marquee draft selection and happen to be a wide receiver, running back, linebacker, tight end, corner or safety you have to find your way onto the starting offense or defence by proving your worth on special teams. This is also true at the amateur level, where special team aces such as the likes of D’Anthony Thomas, Ryan Switzer, Jakeem Grant and Marcus Sherels are only drafted in conjunction with productivity as a part of that collegiate team’s offense. A one-trick pony will find it tough to firstly be drafted then be able to stick on an NFL roster.
It is important, however to recognise, as a scout that in fact an inside linebacker that the NFL would recognise as such is a rare commodity. The majority are undersized run and chase linebackers or ‘tweeners’ as they are known who are more athletic than physical run stuffer types. The issue for personnel staff is that many productive MLBs in college win thanks to outstanding athleticism and instincts but find they are too small to stay in that spot at the next level and undersized to stand up and defend the run on the outside. This common thread immediately reduces their value, with only a handful such as Cleveland Browns’ Keith Kelsey, Alabama’s Rueben Foster and Minnesota’s Kendall Beckwith develop physically to stand up to the pounding.
In evaluation, while every team needs talent at those three spots the priority for NFL teams is certainly going to remain dominated by all things quarterback and the effects on the passing game.
Friday 30th September
0030 ~ Duke Vs 14 Miami
0330 ~ 16 Washington St Vs 5 USC
Saturday 31st September
1700 ~ 21 Florida Vs Vanderbilt
2030 ~ Tennessee Vs 7 Georgia
*2300 ~ 13 Auburn Vs Mississippi St
0100 ~ 12 Virginia Tech Vs 2 Clemson
*BT Sport 1
Otherwise BT Sport/ESPN