Top Non-Power 5 Must-Watch Games for 2020 CFB Season
Even in a season without two of college football's five power conferences, the ACC, Big 12 and SEC will own the headlines. The Group of Five leagues—or, better said in 2020, the Group of Three—will be a sidebar in the national conversation.
Sorry, AAC, you're still not a power conference. Well, if everything breaks perfectly, maybe! But probably not.
However, championship races in the American, Conference USA and the Sun Belt are no less important to those programs. And a smaller group of Football Bowl Subdivision teams participating in the fall will result in more exposure for the conferences' best games.
The list of featured matchups is largely based on preseason expectations, so the contests between top contenders are highlighted. The order is chronological based on kickoff date.
Saturday, Oct. 3: Memphis at SMU
Led by quarterback Brady White, Memphis is considered a top AAC threat along with UCF and Cincinnati. The Tigers won the conference last season and reached the Cotton Bowl.
SMU, though, is right on the fringe. An early-October game is a key moment for the Mustangs.
Though offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left for Miami, quarterback Shane Buechele returns after throwing for 3,929 yards and 34 touchdowns last season. Key target Reggie Roberson Jr. and Kylen Granson are also back, as is a veteran offensive line.
Memphis' star running back, Kenneth Gainwell, opted out of the 2020 season, so this matchup—while still difficult—is a little less daunting for SMU. If the Mustangs pull off the victory, they'll officially join what is already an intriguing AAC race.
Wednesday, Oct. 7: Louisiana at Appalachian State
In both 2018 and 2019, Louisiana fell to Appalachian State during the regular season and in the Sun Belt Championship Game.
Can the Ragin' Cajuns finally dethrone the Mountaineers on Oct. 7?
Louisiana takes on Georgia State and Georgia Southern in September, but this Wednesday night showdown is the first conference game for Appalachian State. It's a terrific chance for Sun Belt fans and new casual viewers alike to check out the conference's top teams.
Since the programs are in opposite divisions, the result won't necessarily define their regular seasons. Still, the winner of this ESPN-televised matchup will be labeled the Sun Belt front-runner.
Saturday, Oct. 17: UCF at Memphis
UCF won the AAC title in 2017 and 2018, and Memphis has reached the AAC Championship Game in three straight years.
In short: This outcome has massive implications in the AAC race.
Now that Cincinnati is a strong program, the championship game may be an either/or proposition for UCF and Memphis. The margin for error is much thinner. Throw in the dissolution of divisions after UConn's departure, and tiebreakers might determine the identity of at least one of the teams headed to the AAC title game.
For whatever it's worth in a 2020 season with fewer or no fans in attendance, Memphis has home-field advantage for this Oct. 17 tilt. But a UCF roster with 14 returning starters is capable of overpowering the Tigers.
Saturday, Oct. 31: UAB at Louisiana Tech
After defeating Central Arkansas to open the 2020 season, Bill Clark and UAB have gone a perfect 19-0 at home since 2017.
Fortunately for Louisiana Tech, this Oct. 31 clash isn't in Birmingham. And there isn't a more important C-USA contest for either program.
UAB boasted the league's best defense last season and lost only a few contributors. As a result, the Blazers are the deserved favorite in Conference USA, not simply the West division. Nevertheless, Louisiana Tech is the primary competition.
The Bulldogs will be breaking in a new quarterback—the competition isn't quite decided—and have revamped the defense. But with six straight seasons of seven-plus wins, Skip Holtz's squad has earned a strong benefit of the doubt.
Saturday, Oct. 31: Memphis at Cincinnati
Memphis is the swing team of 2020, apparently.
SMU's first matchup with a top-three AAC contender is against the Tigers. UCF and Memphis routinely battle for a title. Other than Ohio State, only Memphis knocked off Cincinnati in 2019. As if that's not enough, this October 31 tilt between the Tigers and Bearcats is a rematch of the 2019 AAC Championship Game.
Cincinnati's defense—which returns nine starters and has a rising star in coordinator Marcus Freeman—should be the best unit on the field. However, the game may be decided on the opposite matchup.
The Bearcats have a two-year starting quarterback in Desmond Ridder, but he mustered just 6.7 yards per attempt last season. Additionally, two-time 1,200-yard rusher Michael Warren II jumped to the NFL (though he's a free agent again) along with tight end Josiah Deguara. If the offense doesn't improve much, Memphis can handle Cincinnati.
While the possible impacts are numerous—solidifying an AAC front-runner or creating chaos in the top tier, for example—there's no doubt Cincinnati and Memphis view this as a vital win.
Saturday, Nov. 7: Arkansas State at Louisiana
Appalachian State is simply a tier above its East division counterparts in the Sun Belt. But if any West division team is to topple Louisiana, it's probably Arkansas State.
The biggest concern for the Red Wolves is retooling a defense that both struggled in 2019 and needs to replace more than a handful of key players. The unit ceded a terribly ugly average of 35.1 points in eight conference games last season.
However, this offense can score.
Arkansas State has a quarterback dilemma, but it's better to pick between Layne Hatcher (2,946 yards, 27 TD, 10 INT) and Logan Bonner (1,052 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT) than two frustrating options. And by Nov. 7, that situation should be settled.
As long as the Red Wolves don't have two Sun Belt losses heading into it, this matchup will be critically important in the West division race.
Saturday, Nov. 7: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic
While Conference USA's West division takes the spotlight on Halloween, the East division moves to center stage the following week.
Florida Atlantic is entering the Willie Taggart era after Lane Kiffin moved to Mississippi. Following the departure of quarterback Chris Robison this offseason, the Owls aren't quite as heavy of a favorite to win the league. Still, they return a handful of experienced running backs and receivers, with three power-conference transfers ready to contribute.
Western Kentucky is a huge challenge for that talent, though.
The defense returns nine starters, including star defensive end DeAngelo Malone. He racked up 21 tackles for loss and earned C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2019.
In fairness, both FAU and WKU will have played Marshall by the time this Nov. 7 matchup happens. If the Thundering Herd win both, then Marshall will likely control the division. However, our expectation is the East will largely hinge on the Hilltoppers vs. the Owls.
Saturday, Nov. 21: Cincinnati at UCF
While we're not suggesting this is likely, an undefeated AAC team has a College Football Playoff argument. Granted, a perfect AAC champion might not leap a power-conference program anyway. Fair or not, that's the reality of the system.
But even if this contest doesn't pit 8-0 teams against each other, Cincinnati's Nov. 21 trip to UCF might be a preview of the AAC Championship Game.
Perceptions may change soon, sure. At least entering September, though, Cincinnati and UCF are expected to have the AAC's stingiest defenses. UCF showcased the conference's most prolific offense in 2019 and returns a fair majority of that production.
It would be stunning if neither team is part of the AAC title game in December. Win here, and that's probably what the future holds for Cincinnati or UCF.