While the media scrum critiques the rights and wrongs of the college football playoff committee’s inaugural rankings of the year (amazing achievement by Georgia!), we believe the most exciting race to the postseason is gaining on intensity in the often overlooked Group of Five.
Just one month removed from our previous look inside the five mid-major conferences, as is the nature of college football, so much of the landscape has changed in the race to be the representative to take their place in January’s Peach Bowl at Atlanta’s newly christened Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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’ on the back of such success.
We take a look at the favourites.
Much can be said for the tumultuous nature of college football, no better illustrated than our omission altogether of Scott Frost’s revolution in Orlando back in September. Having previously taken a significant step back with 0-12 and 6-7 campaigns, the outstanding head coach and offensive mind has come in and turned around a programme, ailing ever since the highs of the Blake Bortles, Fiesta Bowl winning campaign of 2013.
Whereas conference powerhouses, Houston, South Florida and Navy were heavily favoured to be locks to fight it out at the top, it is in fact the Black Knights surpassing all before them in the American Athletic, with an unblemished 7-0 start to the campaign. The college football playoff committee couldn’t fail but to be impressed, awarding them with the #15 ranking in the country, the highest of all the Group of Five schools. The dominant, week three 40-13 defeat of Memphis, notably coming in at #22 this week, stands out and crucially arms Frost’s program a key head to head advantage in a exceedingly tight race to the finish between similarly matched teams.
The 42 year old, former Oregon Head Coach and Offensive Co-Ordinator has unsurprisingly manufactured an attacking jugernaught in Orlando, the Knights possessing the number one scoring offence in all of college football, averaging a fearsome 51 points per contest, besting the likes of power five schools Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Arizona.
— UCF Admissions (@UCFadmissions) October 29, 2017
However, no matter how much Central Florida have impressed this campaign, they still must overcome face two tough upcoming road trips, beginning this Saturday in Texas to face 6-2 SMU, themselves in contention, riding a two-win streak, armed with the ninth best offence in the country. It will make fascinating viewing.
Win out and the Knights will be making the trip to Atlanta. Of all the front runners, UCF face the sternest remaining schedule (see below). Should they stumble, entirely plausible given the tumultuous nature of the 2017/18 campaign to date, three teams are in line, ready to take advantage.
The Rockets, one of our postseason favourites, still remain very much in the running. Sitting at 7-1 with just four games remaining, the experienced and talent-heavy roster, led by head coach Jason Candle (5 All-Conference returnees) remain one of the heavyweights of the Group of Five, their only loss coming on the road at a currently still unbeaten Miami (30-52).
There’s no shame in such a blemish to the current ACC Coastal leaders. It is on offence where the Rockets pose the greatest threat, led by promising 2018 NFL Draft, mid-round quarterback Logan Woodside, to yet again be withinin the top ten units in the country, themselves averaging a mere 40 points per contest.
Toledo are undoubtedly the most battle-tested roster in the race and have the experience to carry them through what is a tough looking fortnight to come. All this achieved despite losing one of the hottest names in coaching circles, the much in demand Matt Campbell, who has turned around an Iowa State program causing chaos in the Big Ten. Yet, the next two upcoming fixtures will test the Rockets to the limit, against two teams with great momentum and themselves looking to crash to Peach Bowl party. Toledo also have the small matter of dislodging the Northern Illinois Huskies from the summit of the MAC West, no mean feat against Rod Carey’s Huskies, themselves riding a four-game winning streak.
Memphis’ rise from a middling yet still promising 8-5 last season to the pinnacle of an intensely competitive American Athletic Conference, has been one of the more impressive storylines of the 2017/18 college football campaign to date. Head Coach Mike Norvell has done a stellar job in just his second season, having replaced the excellent Justin Fuente (now in his second campaign at Virginia Tech) a year ago. The Tigers have put themselves firmly in the reckoning on the back of a four-game win streak, a statement of intent on the back of a disappointing blow out defeat to the aforementioned UCF in the season’s third week.
Riley Ferguson has been the catalyst at quarterback. A hugely impressive talent who is flying up draft boards in the wider media at present who had previously criminally underrated him. The conductor at the centre of America’s eighth best scoring offence, Ferguson orchestrates one of the premier receiving corps, maximising their myriad talents. The senior has spread the ball around impressively between them, most notably, to his go-to guy and potential second round NFL Draft pick, Anthony Miller (61-859-10), who alone is averaging 14 yards per reception.
The Tigers will take some stopping and have the kindest of all remaining schedules amongst the challengers, but crucially have one less contest to play. That said, Memphis will have to overcome that potentially damaging head to head, bad day at the office at the hands of the very team they are attempting to catch. They need to win out and hope both UCF and South Florida slip up along the way.
Saturday’s road trip to an improving Houston (5-3) always looked on paper as a hugely tough challenge to overcome for an unbeaten Bulls and it certainly proved to be so for head coach Charlie Strong’s American Athletic Conference heavyweights.
Armed with the toughest defence in the mid-majors, led by NFL star of the future in defensive tackle Ed Oliver, Houston became the first team to limit dual-threat danger man Quentin Flowers et al to under thirty points this season in a hugely damaging, potentially season-defining 28-24 road defeat. However, falling to an outstanding Cougars roster on the road is certainly carries little shame.
Like Memphis, the Bulls have just three games remaining on their schedule and arguably less likelihood of stumbling a second time. However, akin to the Tigers, Charlie Strong will only be too aware of the little room for error his squad now have and are walking a tight rope the rest of the way.
However, the Miami school still retains an ace in its sleeve, with a final day road game against Central Florida at Spectrum Stadium to come. I fully expect the Bulls to get through the next two weeks unscathed setting up what promises to be a monumental, winner takes all clash on Saturday 24th November.
In the Wings
Troy (6-2) have put together an outstanding campaign, hitting the headlines with their outstanding 24-21 upset victory on the road in Death Valley in week five. However, in an intensely competitive Sun Belt Conference they remain 3rd, a full game back from the title and having dropped two games (at Boise State and South Alabama) they rely on the favourites dropping multiple games to get to the Peach Bowl now.
The same is true for San Diego State (6-2). The heavily talented Aztecs, powered behind the outstanding running back Rashaad Penny had looked clear favourites to represent the sub group just three weeks ago with an unbeaten 6-0 resume. However, following successive home losses to Boise State and Fresno State it is a tough ask for a team, built to lead the Group of Five in Atlanta, to catch the front runners now without requiring them falling off a cliff over the proceeding four weeks of the season.
Boise State (6-2), the historically traditional mid-major powerhouse, rolling on the back of a four-win streak and putting together an impressive, potentially division winning campaign in the Mountain West Conference, have the same dilemma as the Aztecs, as do Northern Illinois (6-2), Marshall (6-2) and Ohio (6-2) with time running out for all four schools. However, glory for them will come in divisional, conference championships and already confirmed bowl eligibility for each.
What a fitting finale for an enthralling race to represent the Group of Five. Forget the committee’s final four rankings, it is with the mid-major schools and the race to Atlanta where the excitement really lies. Who have you got?
Live College Football
⇒ Saturday 4th November
00:00 Tulsa Vs Memphis
13:00 ESPN College Gameday
16:00 Indiana Vs Wisconsin
19:30 Georgia Vs South Carolina
⇒ Sunday 5th November
00:00: Miami Vs Virginia Tech (BT1)
00:00: Alabama Vs LSU
1100: NC State Vs Clemson
Coming up at ukdraftguide.com
⇒ We catch up with 2016/17 All-American kicker and Lou Groza award winner Zane Gonzalez on his stellar college football career, hectic offseason and the transition from amateur special teamer to professional place kicker with the Cleveland Browns.
⇒ Small school, Big on Talent: We introduce you to a Division II quarterback intent on making the NFL sit up and take notice of him & his Plus he reveals his determination to secure a place on an the hugely competitive All-Star game circuit this offseason.