Group of 5 Conferences: Preview and Predictions for 2022 Season
Outside the realm of the Power Five conferences in college football, 60 programs are asking themselves the same question: Why not us?
Last season, the Cincinnati Bearcats smashed the glass ceiling and became the first program from a Group of Five league—the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt—to reach the College Football Playoff.
The reality is that's unlikely to happen often in the four-team CFP format. But, officially, there is irrefutable evidence that it can be done.
Heading into the 2022 season, B/R is breaking down the Group of Five by looking at top players, key challengers, critical games and a whole lot more.
Across the G5 landscape, there is a strong collection of established quarterbacks in 2022.
Tucked in the Sun Belt is Coastal Carolina's Grayson McCall, who broke the FBS record for passing efficiency rating in 2021. Over the last two years, the dual-threat star has posted a 70.3 completion rate with a staggering 10.9 yards per pass attempt and accounted for 64 touchdowns (53 passing, 11 rushing) against just six interceptions.
Houston signal-caller Clayton Tune headlines the AAC after throwing for 3,546 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. The senior is likely to receive some NFL attention, especially if the Cougars can build on their 12-win campaign.
The same goes for Fresno State standout Jake Haener. He tallied 4,096 yards and 33 touchdowns through the air in 2021, guiding the Bulldogs to a 10-win season.
UTSA quarterback Frank Harris helped lead the program to unparalleled success in 2021. The champions of Conference USA, the Roadrunners leaned on Harris for 3,722 total yards and 33 touchdowns.
More top players are Central Michigan running back Lew Nichols III, Troy linebacker Carlton Martial and brotherly Cincinnati linebacker duo Ivan Pace Jr. and Deshawn Pace.
Note: We're not covering any independent team in-depth, but Army edge-rusher Andre Carter II fits the bill. He finished second nationally with 15.5 sacks last season.
This is a massive, ongoing G5 story.
Soon after Oklahoma and Texas announced plans to join the SEC, the Big 12 swiped Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American. Subsequently, the AAC grabbed six Conference USA programs—which also led three C-USA schools to become part of the Sun Belt. Conference USA has since reshaped its membership too.
The most notable move features the three C-USA programs—Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss—now in the Sun Belt. Unlike the others, they're all part of their new league in 2022.
Overall, it's highly unlikely we've heard the last of G5 realignment, and this cloud will linger throughout the season.
Cincinnati's Encore Performance
Whether the Bearcats' trip to the CFP was partially the result of multiyear success is a reasonable discussion—one further showing the challenge for G5 programs to contend nationally—but that's not our focus.
Rather, the target is solely on the aftermath of success.
Cincinnati smashed a program record with nine selections in the NFL draft, including five top-100 picks. The headline departures were two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year-winning quarterback Desmond Ridder and All-American corners Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant. Cincinnati lost seven more All-AAC performers too.
That's an enormous group of high-level contributors to replace, even as UC coach Luke Fickell has built a thriving program with a 44-7 record in the last four seasons.
The Chaotic, Lovely Mountain West Race
We acknowledge that preseason polls are not a perfect indicator of what to expect. Still, the Mountain West had five programs receive votes in the initial AP Top 25.
This race could, and hopefully should, be dramatic.
While the reigning champion is Utah State, the preseason media favorites were Fresno State and Boise State, with San Diego State and Air Force up next. Utah State—and even Colorado State—also landed a first-place vote to win their division.
Not since 2014 has the league appeared in a New Year's Six bowl, but the MWC has a handful of contenders this season.
Not only should the American be home to another great championship race, it's lately been the premier G5 league. The highest-ranked G5 champion secures a bid to a prestigious New Year's Six bowl, and the AAC owns a five-year streak in that department.
On paper, that is the most probable result again in 2022. Cincinnati and Houston were ranked in the preseason AP poll, and UCF landed a notable number of votes. SMU is worth watching, as well.
If there's a different NY6 rep, it will likely be from the MWC. As mentioned, the quintet of Air Force, Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State headline the league.
Sun Belt power Louisiana has closed the last two seasons in the CFP Top 25. Coastal Carolina did in 2020, following Appalachian State in 2019. Don't count out the Sun Belt, particularly after it added Marshall.
Conference USA and the MAC are both unlikely to contend for the NY6 slot, barring an undefeated season.
The main candidates are UTSA and UAB in C-USA and one of Central Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Toledo from the MAC. These two leagues tend to have a lone 10-win team, if any.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
AAC: Jeff Scott, a longtime Clemson assistant, headed to South Florida with a well-deserved reputation for elite recruiting. But as the Bulls attempt to make progress on that front, the on-field product has been lacking. USF is just 3-18 in his two seasons, including a 1-14 mark in conference play. He's on the hottest seat within a seemingly stable AAC.
C-USA: Two schools in the Lone Star State headline a small C-USA contingent. North Texas boss Seth Littrell engineered back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018 but has since slipped to 14-21. Mike Bloomgren, meanwhile, has mustered an 11-31 record at Rice. While it's a traditionally difficult job, Rice may consider a change as a move to the American looms next season.
MAC: Similarly, the MAC has a couple of programs in the Buckeye State to watch. Scot Loeffler is just 7-22 in three seasons at Bowling Green, which has consistently ranked among the nation's worst offenses in his tenure. Down at Ohio, Tim Albin found himself thrust into the coaching role after Frank Solich's retirement. That's not an ideal situation for Albin, who finished 3-9 in his debut season. But a $0 buyout after Dec. 31 means the school has no financial barriers to a change.
MWC: Few changes even appear possible in the Mountain West, given the half-dozen changes since 2020 and relative calm elsewhere. One name to monitor is Marcus Arroyo, who is 2-16 in two seasons at UNLV. While he's not occupying a scorching seat, another rough year would at least heighten the scrutiny on Arroyo.
Sun Belt: Since joining the FBS in 2012, the Texas State program hasn't managed much traction. Jake Spavital, who arrived in 2019, has overseen a 9-27 three-year run. The good news is the Bobcats hit a Spavital-best four victories last season, but improvement is needed in 2022.
Best Games on Tap
AAC: SMU at UCF (Oct. 1); Cincinnati at SMU (Oct. 22); Cincinnati at UCF (Oct. 29); Houston at SMU (Nov. 5)
C-USA: Western Kentucky at UTSA (Oct. 8); UAB at Western Kentucky (Oct. 21); UTSA at UAB (Nov. 5); UTEP at UTSA (Nov. 26)
MAC: Central Michigan at Toledo (Oct. 1); Toledo at Northern Illinois (Oct. 8), Central Michigan at NIU (Nov. 2); Miami at NIU (Nov. 16)
MWC: San Diego State at Boise State (Sept. 30); Fresno State at Boise State (Oct. 8); Air Force at Utah State (Oct. 8); Boise State at Air Force (Oct. 22); SDSU at Fresno State (Oct. 29)
Sun Belt: Louisiana at Marshall (Oct. 12); Coastal Carolina at Marshall (Oct. 29); Appalachian State at CCU (Nov. 3), App State at Marshall (Nov. 12)
Nonconference Games vs. Power 5
AAC: Cincinnati at Arkansas (Sept. 3); Houston at Texas Tech (Sept. 10); South Florida at Florida (Sept. 17); TCU at SMU (Sept. 24)
C-USA: UTEP at Oklahoma (Sept. 10); UTSA at Texas (Sept. 17); WKU at Indiana (Sept. 17); UAB at LSU (Nov. 19)
MAC: CMU at Oklahoma State (Sept. 1); Miami at Kentucky (Sept. 3); Pitt at Western Michigan (Sept. 17); Toledo at Ohio State (Sept. 17); NIU at Kentucky (Sept. 24)
MWC: Fresno State at USC (Sept. 17); SDSU at Utah (Sept. 17); Utah State at BYU (Sept. 29); BYU at Boise State (Nov. 5)
Sun Belt: North Carolina at App State (Sept. 3); Georgia State at South Carolina (Sept. 3); App State at Texas A&M (Sept. 10); Louisiana at Florida State (Nov. 19); CCU at Virginia (Nov. 19)
Nonconference Games vs. Group of 5
- Houston at UTSA (Sept. 3)
- Miami (Ohio) vs. Cincinnati (Sept. 17)
- Boise State at UTEP (Sept. 23)
- Toledo at San Diego State (Sept. 24)
In the fast-paced spread era, three candidates stand out as the most prolific units.
SMU and Fresno State ranked 13th and 14th in total offense last season, while Houston ended 15th in scoring average. Not coincidentally, they're bringing back signal-callers Tanner Mordecai, Haener and Tune.
Compared to that trio, Appalachian State and UTSA have a more run-focused philosophy. Both programs have a veteran offensive line and a high-upside position group—the running backs at App State and receivers at UTSA—with returning quarterbacks Chase Brice and Harris, respectively.
One under-the-radar possibility is Air Force, which has a stable of experienced linemen from a Joe Moore Award finalist group. Plus, QB Haaziq Daniels and top runners Brad Roberts, DeAndre Hughes and Emmanuel Michel all return to the triple-option offense.
More to know: Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Northern Illinois Huskies, Utah State Aggies, UCF Knights
The traditional powers are atop the list again.
Stout defense has become a trademark of Fickell's time at Cincinnati, which has boasted a top-15 unit nationally in three of the last four seasons. San Diego State has matched that trend exactly, while UAB has registered four consecutive top-20 defenses.
Appalachian State has a few notable voids, but the Mountaineers have routinely had a top-tier Sun Belt defense since joining the league in 2014.
Although recent years haven't been quite as excellent, Boise State is a familiar option too. This season's unit brings back 15 of its top 18 tacklers from a group that led the Mountain West in scoring defense.
The newcomer to know is Houston. Three seasons ago, the Cougs had the nation's fourth-worst defense, as measured by yards allowed per play. They ascended all the way to 14th and have a rising star in coordinator Doug Belk.
More to Know: Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, Toledo Rockets, UTSA Roadrunners
AAC: Houston Cougars
Conference USA: UAB Blazers
MAC: Toledo Rockets
Mountain West: Fresno State Bulldogs
Sun Belt: Appalachian State Mountaineers
New Year's Six bowl representative: Houston Cougars
Trips to UTSA and Texas Tech will be challenges, as will a trip to SMU and a possible AAC title matchup with Cincinnati. By no means should Houston be considered a heavy favorite to secure the NY6 nod. Still, an experienced roster led by Tune—a potential NFL-caliber quarterback—with a manageable schedule is a promising combination.