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Ever since the BCS gave way to the College Football Playoff, the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences (AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) has been guaranteed a spot in one of the New Years Six bowl games. They’ve represented themselves well in the five games so far, going 3-2 with both losses being decided by less than 10 points. While UCF has been the G5 representative the past two years, there are some other teams who could make a run at that coveted bowl spot. We’ll take a look at some of the G5 teams, as well as an independent that could end up sneaking in to a New Years bowl game.
For all the slack UCF gets for their self-proclaimed National Championship in 2017, this team has gone 25-1 in the past two seasons, with the lone loss being an 8-point defeat to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl. It’ll be tough to complete a third straight undefeated regular season, but the Knights may just have the talent to do it.
Adrian Killins Jr and Greg McRae return to lead a rushing attack that accounted for over 3,000 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2018 and could go for even more this season behind a solid offensive line that returns three starters. Gabriel Davis and Tre Nixon come back to a receiving corps that has seen success recently, and it will likely be up to Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush at quarterback to get them the ball.
With McKenzie Milton still recovering from the gruesome leg injury he suffered against USF, and Darriel Mack Jr, who took over for Milton, coming off a broken ankle in a non-football related activity, the job should fall to Wimbush. While Wimbush can run the ball well, his accuracy and decision making could use some work, he completed 52% of his passes last season with 4 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. If Wimbush struggles, look for freshmen Dillon Gabriel or Quadry Jones to step in.
The Knights defense will need to step up as well, as they allowed over 400 yards per game last year, although only gave up an average of 21.3 points. They likely return one of the best secondary units in the conference led by safety Richie Grant who, led the team in both tackles and interceptions last season. The line should be solid with Brendon Hayes and Randy Charlton both showing promise.
The biggest question on defense is at linebacker, where there is very little experience outside of Nate Evans and Eric Mitchell. UCF does have two Power Five opponents on the schedule this season in Stanford and Pittsburgh, as well as some improved competition in the AAC. The Knights travel to face Temple and Cincinnati, who will be looking to improve on their 11-2 record last season, but they do get to play Houston and rivals USF at home.
With no Memphis on the regular-season schedule either, the Tigers have led the Knights in the second half in each of the last three matchups. UCF will get pushed by Memphis if they meet for a third consecutive time in the conference championship game; Cincinnati and Houston will challenge the Knights as well, but as of this writing, it looks likely that Josh Heupel and company will be standing atop the AAC once again. For now, the Group of Five route to the New Years Six runs through Orlando.
Utah State Aggies
Yes, head coach Matt Wells left for Texas Tech. Yes, head coaches who return to past jobs, like Gary Andersen is doing coming back to Utah State, don’t always do great. Yes, Fresno State and Boise State look like hotter teams coming out of the Mountain West. However, the Aggies do return seven starters to a defense that only allowed 23 points per game, and also led the FBS in interceptions last season with 22; six of which were returned for touchdowns.
Two of those starters, edge rusher Tipa Galeai and linebacker David Woodward, combined for 15.5 sacks and 198 total tackles in 2018. Also returning for Utah State is quarterback Jordan Love, who threw for over 3,500 yards with 32 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions in 2018. Running back Gerold Bright also had a solid 2018 season, rushing for 888 yards and 10 scores while splitting time with Darwin Thompson, a Kansas City Chiefs sixth-round pick.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, that’s about all that returns on offense. Four of their top six pass catchers are gone, with only one starter returning to an offensive line that only allowed 9 sacks last season.
Their first four games (at Wake Forest, Stony Brook, at San Diego State, Colorado State) are all winnable, but a trip to LSU in Week 5 will prove daunting and in all likelihood, unwinnable. Still, if Utah State can get off to a 4-0 start, they’ll send a warning to conference opponents Fresno State and Boise State that this could just be the Aggies year in the Mountain West. It will take a conference championship and some outside help.
North Texas Mean Green
If you haven’t seen Mean Green quarterback Mason Fine play yet, you’re missing out. Already UNT’s career leader in passing yards and back-to-back C-USA Offensive Player of the Year, Fine will have plenty of help in 2019. UNT brings back three of their top four receivers from last season, as well as their top two rushers in WR Rico Bussey and RB DeAndre Torrey.
However, this offense will run through its quarterback; just look at how they performed in the New Mexico Bowl last year after Fine left with an injury. Keeping head coach Seth Littrell will also be a boost for the Mean Green after he was linked with the Kansas State and North Carolina jobs. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell is gone, but was replaced by Bodie Reeder, who led Eastern Washington’s offense to 43.1 points per game and 582.2 yards per game. If the line can keep Fine upright, this offense should be explosive.
Although the Mean Green defense made some big strides from 2017 to 2018, they lost their leading tackler and their top two defensive backs. There is still some talent remaining, however, Khairi Muhammad and Taylor Robinson return to the secondary. This is also the case with All-Conference lineman LaDarius Hamilton, who led the team in sacks last year.
SMU, Cal, and Houston will be tough nonconference games for the Mean Green, but if they can take two out of three, there’s no reason they couldn’t go undefeated in conference play and waltz into a New Years Six bowl. They do play Houston and likely C-USA challenger UAB in Denton, where UNT has gone 11-1 over the past two years. This isn’t bad for a team that just four years ago lost 66-7 at home to FCS Portland State.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
Head coach Scott Satterfield left for Louisville after posting double-digit wins in three of his last four seasons with the Mountaineers, but there’s plenty left for new coach Eli Drinkwitz to work with. They return nine starters on offense, seven of which were All-Sun Belt. In addition, they have the Conference Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Zac Thomas, who threw for 2,000+ yards last season and keeps all of his top weapons around him.
Darrynton Evans and Marcus Williams Jr combined to rush for 1,600+ yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and both could improve behind a line that returns four starters. Deep threat receiver Corey Sutton averaged 17.6 yards per reception and caught 10 touchdowns, but only hauled in 44 passes all season. Drinkwitz’s offenses at North Carolina State have ranked top-20 in pass attempts over the past two seasons, so Thomas and Sutton may end up connecting more often.
Appalachian State only returns six starters from a defensive unit that was ranked 6th nationally in allowing only 15.7 points per game. Leading tackler Akeem Davis-Gaither and top corners Desmond Franklin and Josh Thomas return, but the secondary has questions about depth; as does the defensive line after losing nose tackle MyQuon Stout.
New, but experienced defensive coordinator Ted Roof will look to keep the Mountaineer defense inside the top-50 of the S&P+ rankings for the fourth consecutive season. As far as their schedule, App State has a chance to make some noise with an early road game against North Carolina, along with a trip to face South Carolina later in the season. This team is favored in every Sun Belt game, and should win at least a share of a conference championship for the fourth straight year. This roster is experienced, and has what it takes to go at least 11-1 and into a NY6 bowl.
Army Black Knights
While not a Group of Five team, Army has the talent to make a New Years Six bowl, and they proved it 2018. They won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy for the second straight year, the first time they’ve ever done that, and also posted their second consecutive 10-win season. They’ll look to achieve both once again led by quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr, who returns after becoming the first Army player to reach 1,000 yards both passing and rushing.
Their triple-option offense takes a hit by losing fullbacks Darnell Woolfolk and Andy Davidson, but senior Connor Slomka returns, as does slotback Kell Walker, who tied for the team lead with 11 receptions in 2018. The Black Knights don’t throw the ball very often, as they only attempted 98 passes last year. However, they were able to go deep, averaging just over 20 yards per completion.
Hopkins may be one of the most accurate passers in recent Army history (54.8%), but don’t expect the Black Knights to move away from their rush first, grind the clock offense. It works for them, and with three starters also returning to the line in 2019, it should work well once again.
Led by linebacker James Nachtigal, Army’s defense was top-10 in fumbles forced and yards allowed last year. Although he is now graduated, second-leading tackler Cole Christiansen returns, as do three starters in the secondary. The defensive line isn’t huge, so keeping everyone rested will be key. The Black Knights open the season against Rice, then follow that up with a trip to Ann Arbor to face Michigan.
Army gave Oklahoma everything they could handle last season before eventually falling in overtime, so beating Michigan isn’t entirely out of the question. Although they have the talent to go anywhere between 10-2 to 12-0, the fact that Army remains independent may end up keeping them out of the New Years Six, depending on how the Group of Five conference champions do. They may not be the most exciting team to watch, but they will grind you down and hold on to the ball, which may be enough to get them playing on New Years.
Also Considered: Cincinnati Bearcats, Memphis Tigers, Houston Cougars, UAB Blazers, Boise State Broncos
Featured Image: 247 Sports