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Group of Five, Independents preview

By Eye on College Football staff
Deontay Greenberry and Houston might be the best team in the American Athletic Conference. (USATSI)
Deontay Greenberry and Houston might be the best team in the American Athletic Conference. (USATSI)

More college football: Conference Predictions | Playoff: A closer look

Dennis Dodd

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall . The hope of Huntington, Conference USA and Cinderellas everywhere. Once a slight 150-pound prospect, Cato came out of Liberty City in Miami to glory. His 39 touchdown passes were third nationally last season. The Thundering Herd should go undefeated. Cato should be invited to New York.

Defensive player of the year: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. Perhaps the top safety available in '15 draft. His 14 career interceptions, No. 1 among returning players.

Top newcomer: Brandon Cornette, QB, Fresno State. As a graduate transfer from Duke, comes to the Central Valley with ready-made credentials.

Coach of the year: Dino Babers, Bowling Green . The former Eastern Illinois coach tore up FCS averaging almost 600 yards and 50 points per game. Babers doesn't hide the fact that he copies everything Art Briles does. Call the Falcons Baylor Jr. and watch them fly.

Most underrated team: Texas San-Antonio . A lot of folks expect the Road Runners to be in the Conference USA championship game. But consider UTSA is in only its fourth year of football and returns 38 seniors. Larry Coker has worked miracles in San Antonio.

Most overrated team: UCF . Coming off a season for the ages, the Knights will finish third in the American. No Blake Bortles and a tough schedule means Cincinnati and Houston will battle for the American Athletic Conference title.

Most intriguing conference game: Fresno State at Boise State , Oct. 17 (Mountain West).

Most intriguing non-conference game: Michigan at Notre Dame , Sept 6 (last in the current series).

Bold prediction: Marshall will finish in the top 10.

Jeremy Fowler

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Cato is the story among small-conference players after 10,000-plus passing yard and 91 touchdowns in three years. He'll have individual numbers, but for a Heisman invite the magic number might be 12 -- regular season wins for Marshall.

Defensive player of the year: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame. No player exemplifies the state of Notre Dame football more than Smith: Young, immensely talented, much more to prove. Smith is a rangy linebacker with natural instincts that fit any system.

Top newcomer: Brandon Connette, QB, Fresno State. The Duke transfer scored 27 touchdowns for the Blue Devils. Now he'll likely replace Derek Carr in Fresno's high-powered offense.

UL-Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth is one of the best coaches in the nation. (USATSI)
UL-Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth is one of the best coaches in the nation. (USATSI)

Coach of the year: Mark Hudspeth, UL-Lafayette . After back-to-back-to-back 9-4 seasons in Lafayette, Hudspeth seems primed for a double-digit breakout. The clear Sun Belt favorite returns most of its key players.

Most overrated team: Cincinnati . Not that the Bearcats won't be solid in Year 2 under Tubs. But Cincinnati was picked as the preseason favorite in the American. Houston and UCF should have a slight edge.

Most underrated team: Houston . The Cougars return almost every starter, have a loaded offense and will break in a new stadium this year. The American could have another of its new-look members win the conference, following the path of UCF last year.

Most intriguing conference game: Fresno State at Boise State, Oct. 17. Last year's game featured 81 points of offense and the emotional arrival of Fresno under coach Tim DeRuyter. Once again these two are the favorites in the Mountain West. This will be Bryan Harsin's first marquee conference game in Idaho.

Most intriguing nonconference game: Michigan at Notre Dame, Sept. 6. In what could be the last time we see this rivalry for a while, both programs need each other to see how far off -- or close -- they really are from contending. The atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium, with the new turf, should be the best of Week 2.

Bold prediction: BYU makes a sneaky run into the top 15 and creates November playoff buzz before fizzling out.

Jon Solomon

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Cato is an NFL-caliber player whose easy schedule is set up for success. Marshall should be favored in every game and, barring a loss, should be in the mix for an upper-tier bowl.

Group of Five/Independents All-Stars
PosPlayerYrSchool
QBRakeem CatoSr.Marshall
RBJay AjayiJr.Boise State
RBTravis GreeneJr.Bowling Green
WRDevante DavisSr.UNLV
WRDeontay GreenberryJr.Houston
TEBen KoyackSr.Notre Dame
OTCyril LemonSr.North Texas
OTEric LefeldSr.Cincinnati
OGDaniel QuaveSr.UL-Lafayette
OGChristian LombardSr.Notre Dame
CNick MartinJr.Notre Dame
DEMartin IfediSr.Memphis
DEBrock HekkingSr.Nevada
DTChristian CovingtonJr.Rice
DTJames RouseSr.Marshall
LBJaylon SmithSoph.Notre Dame
LBTyler MatakevichJr.Temple
LBZach VigilSr.Utah State
CBLorenzo DossJr.Tulane
CBKeiVarae RussellJr.Notre Dame
SDerron SmithSr.Fresno State
SDechane DuranteSr.Northern Illinois
KJeremiah DetmerSr.Toledo
PAustin RehkowSoph.Idaho
KRCarlos WigginsJr.New Mexico
PRJJ WortonSr.UCF
All-PurposeJustin HardySr.East Carolina

Defensive player of the year: Brock Hekking, DL, Nevada . He terrorized quarterbacks last year with 14.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound end has the speed and strength to make high-impact plays.

Top newcomer: Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati. Kiel has taken a long journey: Committed to Indiana and LSU, transferred from Notre Dame, and now finally playing his first college game. The Bearcats could win the American if the former five-star recruit delivers as promised.

Coach of the year: Mark Hudspeth, UL-Lafayette. The Ragin' Cajuns have three straight 9-4 seasons and play high-profile 2014 road games against Ole Miss and Boise State. It's only a matter of time before Hudspeth gets a new job.

Most overrated team: Notre Dame. The Irish, ranked 17th in the preseason poll, will go as far as their defense takes them. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brings a new 3-4 alignment.

Most underrated team: Texas San-Antonio. The Roadrunners' inaugural season was in 2011. Now under former Miami coach Larry Coker, they could win the C-USA West division in a very short period of time.

Most intriguing conference game: UCF vs. Cincinnati, In Our Dreams. The American wants to be considered a power conference. But arguably its two best teams don't play each other in 2014. If either team goes undefeated, this scheduling quirk won't help that team.

Most intriguing nonconference game: Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 6. This will be the last scheduled game in the current installment of the rivalry. Surely, they'll play again. But conference realignment and Notre Dame's ACC scheduling relationship have impacted the series.

Bold prediction: ACC folks will be screaming in December when Notre Dame gets a spot in the ACC bowl rotation over a more deserving team. Get used to it, ACC. This is the tradeoff for filling more seats and getting more TV eyeballs.

Jerry Palm

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Cato enters his senior year having thrown for over 10,000 yards and 91 touchdowns. He's not going to catch the passing record of former Houston QB Case Keenum (or get close), but Cato has a good chance to finish in the top 10 all-time.

Defensive player of the year: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. Smith may not be well known to the casual college football fan, but NFL scouts love the Bulldogs free safety. Smith had eight interceptions a year ago and is a two-time, first team all-Mountain West performer.

Top newcomer: Nyles Morgan, LB, Notre Dame. Morgan was a top five recruit at his position and will likely have to pitch in right away for the Irish defense, which lost much of its front seven and its defensive coordinator from last year.

Coach of the year: Doc Holliday, Marshall. Going undefeated is hard, even against a relatively easy schedule. If the Thundering Herd pull it off, Holliday will deserve the accolades, even if the selection committee decides their schedule isn't CFP host bowl-worthy.

Most overrated team: Notre Dame. Everett Golson is back at QB, which is a big boost to the offense. That offense is going to have to be very good to overcome a suspect defense and difficult schedule.

Most underrated team: UL Lafayette. The Rajin' Cajuns have won nine games three straight years and could do better than that this time with 17 returning starters. They figure to be underdogs twice, at Ole Miss and at Boise State. Don't be shocked if they win one of those.

Most intriguing conference game: Cincinnati vs. UCF. Oh wait, that's not on the schedule. Let's go with Utah State at Boise State, Nov. 29. The Broncos get their two toughest competitors in the Mountain West at home in the regular season. The game with the Aggies could decide the division.

Most intriguing nonconference game: Cincinnati at Ohio State, Sept. 27. Are the Bearcats worthy of a host bowl? They'll get a couple chances to show it in non-conference play. They play at Miami also, but there's no bigger game in the recent history of the program than the one at the Horseshoe.

Bold prediction: Neither Cincinnati nor UCF will lose a game in the American conference, leaving the selection committee to decide between the two as the top contenders for the spot in a CFP host bowl.

Tom Fornelli

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Marshall is the preseason "Cinderella" this season, and it's for good reason. It has a favorable schedule, and it has a very good quarterback in Rakeem Cato. He's not going to win the Heisman, but he'll be the Hipster Heisman candidate.

Rakeem Cato will look to lead Marshall to an undefeated season. (USATSI)
Rakeem Cato will look to lead Marshall to an undefeated season. (USATSI)

Defensive player of the year: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame. The Notre Dame linebacker was very impressive as a true freshman last season, and will have an even bigger impact in 2014. He's an athletic freak that's only going to improve as he becomes a smarter football player, and I think this season will be the year he becomes a national name.

Top newcomer: Nick Kurtz, WR, BYU. Kurtz isn't a freshman, he's a juco transfer, and he comes to BYU at a good time as the Cougars lose three of their top four receivers from last season. At six-foot-six and 205 pounds he's going to be a tough matchup for just about any corner trying to cover him, and he'll be a major threat in the red zone.

Coach of the year: Tony Levine, Houston. The third year of a coaching tenure is usually when a program takes the step forward or stalls out. Coming off an 8-5 season last year, Tony Levine's Houston team enters 2014 with 17 returning starters and some major talent on both sides of the ball. I think the Cougars end up as the "mid-major" team that breaks into the access bowl in the first season of the playoffs, and Levine is rewarded for it.

Most overrated team: UCF. The Knights had a fantastic 2013 season, but I can't see anything but a significant step backward in 2014 now that the Knights need to replace both Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson. This isn't the kind of program that just reloads.

Most underrated team: BYU. The Cougars performed well against a tough schedule last season, and this year things should be a bit easier. If things break right, and the right players stay healthy, this is a team that could finish with nine or 10 wins.

Most intriguing conference game: Marshall vs. Rice , Nov. 15. When you look at Marshall's schedule this year, it's really tough to find a loss. This may be the best chance for an upset, and it could be the game that keeps Marshall from going to an access bowl.

Most intriguing nonconference game: Notre Dame at Michigan, Sept. 6. It won't have an impact on the national title race, but it could be the last time Notre Dame and Michigan play a football game for a while. For somebody who grew up looking forward to this game every season, that's a tough pill to swallow.

Bold prediction: Although Army will struggle for most of the season, Jeff Monken's first season in charge will end with Army's first win over Navy since 2001.

Jerry Hinnen

Offensive player of the year: Taysom Hill, QB, BYU. It wasn't just the Texas game as the Cougar Cam Newton finished the 2013 season as BYU's leading rusher (1,595 yards, 5.5 yards per-carry) and threw for 62 yards shy of 3,000 in the air. In coordinator Robert Anae's ludicrous-speed offense, those numbers should only get bigger in 2014.

Defensive player of the year: Kyler Fackrell, DE, Utah State . Such has been the (understandable) excitement over Chuckie Keeton that not nearly as many college football observers have noticed that the Aggies play even better defense than they do offense, and the wood-laying, hard-charging first-team All-Mountain West outside linebacker is the biggest reason why.

Top newcomer: Brandon Connette, QB, Fresno State. Hi, are you poised to become Fresno State's starting quarterback? Congratulations, you are also poised to throw for a ginormous pile of yards and lead one of the most potent offenses in the country.

Coach of the year: Bryan Harsin, Boise State. The Broncos are the consensus choice to win the Mountain West in Harsin's first season, and you won't find any dissent here; between Harsin's knowledge of the Bronco program and the power running of Jay Ajayi, Boise should be able to win the Mountain West Mountain and take its first MW championship game.

Most overrated team: Notre Dame. The Irish aren't lacking at all for quality talent on either side of the ball, but would any team outside of Florida State live up to its billing playing the Irish's 2014 schedule? Visiting Tallahassee, Tempe, and Los Angeles is bad enough, but dealing with Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Northwestern and Louisville at home is insult (and insult, and insult) to injury.

Most underrated team: Texas-San Antonio. There's probably more than a few college football fans who aren't even aware the Roadrunners exist, but there's nonetheless a good chance they bring home the Conference USA West title in their first year of postseason eligibility.

Notre Dame plays Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC this season. (USATSI)
Notre Dame plays Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC this season. (USATSI)

Most intriguing conference game: Boise State vs. Fresno State, Oct. 17. The Broncos owned the Bulldogs lock, stock and barrel for years, but that changed in 2013. Can the Broncos restore order on a Friday night in Boise?

Most intriguing nonconference game: Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 29. The Trojans may have their eyes on some major prizes by this stage of the season -- a Pac-12 title? A playoff spot? -- but the Irish have been a huge thorn in their sides on plenty of occasions before.

Bold conference prediction: Notre Dame will lose five games in the regular season. With Everett Golson, Jaylon Smith, Florida transfer Cody Riggs, Sheldon Day, and no shortage of other top-shelf athletes, the Irish might be better than they were when they went 9-4 a year ago. But -- again -- against that schedule, it may not matter.

Chip Patterson

Offensive player of the year: Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall. Marshall could go undefeated and Cato will be the biggest reason if they do. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson could be right on par, production-wise, but the Falcons have a tougher schedule.

Defensive player of the year: Derron Smith, S, Fresno State. There is a great crop of defensive backs in football this year -- arguably the best in a while -- and that unfortunately means that Smith might get overlooked. He studies film like a quarterback, could be one of the nation's leaders in interceptions.

Top Newcomer: Gunner Kiel, QB, Cincinnati. The Bearcats quarterback will have to beat out Munchie Legaux for the starting job, but he's been practicing with the team for two years and should have a chance to live up to his five-star billing.

Most overrated team: No one. For the first time in 15 years, there was not a single team from a non-power conference in the preseason coaches poll. Teams from all 5 leagues are underrated, and no team has enough clout to be overrated.

Most underrated team: East Carolina . The Pirate' defense may have a tough transition to the AAC, but the offense, led by Shane Carden and Justin Hardy, won't miss a beat against the tougher competition. ECU scored 55 against North Carolina and 42 against NC State in 2013 and I expect the unit will be in the top two or three of the AAC in 2014.

Most intriguing conference Game: Bowling Green at Toledo, Nov. 19. Wednesday night #MACtion between two teams that could end up playing for the conference title just a few weeks later.

Most intriguing nonconference Game: Stanford at Notre Dame, Oct. 4. This early season matchup in South Bend comes one week after the Cardinal play Washington in Seattle and a month after Stanford-USC. Where Stanford (and Notre Dame) sit after this game will give us a much better idea of each team's ceiling down the stretch.

Bold prediction: Even if Marshall goes undefeated, the selection committee will select a one-loss conference champion from the American (let's say Houston) to represent the other five conferences in the College Football Playoff access bowls.

American Athletic Conference Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
1.CincinnatiHoustonCincinnatiCincinnatiHoustonCincinnatiCincinnati
2.UCFUCFUCFUCFCincinnatiUCFHouston
3.HoustonCincinnatiHoustonHoustonUCFHoustonUCF
4.East CarolinaSouth FloridaEast CarolinaEast CarolinaEast CarolinaEast CarolinaEast Carolina
5.TulaneEast CarolinaSMUMemphisSMUSMUSouth Florida
6.SMUSMUTulaneTulsaTulsaTulsaSMU
7.TulsaMemphisTulsaSouth FloridaMemphisMemphisMemphis
8.UConnTempleUConnTulaneSouth FloridaSouth FloridaTemple
9.South FloridaUConnSouth FloridaUConnTulaneTempleUConn
10.MemphisTulsaMemphisSMUUConnUConnTulsa
11.TempleTulaneTempleTempleTempleTulaneTulane

Conference USA Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
East
1.Marshall*Marshall*Marshall*Marshall*Marshall*Marshall*Marshall*
2.Middle TennesseeWestern KentuckyWestern KentuckyMiddle TennesseeFAUMiddle TennesseeMiddle Tennessee
3.W. KentuckyMiddle TennesseeMiddle TennesseeFAUMiddle TennesseeW. KentuckyW. Kentucky
4.Old DominionFAUFAUW. KentuckyW. KentuckyFAUFAU
5.FAUUABUABOld DominionOld DominionOld DominionOld Dominion
6.UABOld DominionOld DominionUABUABUABUAB
7.FIUFIUFIUFIUFIUFIUFIU
West
1.Texas-San AntonioRiceRiceRiceRiceTexas-San AntonioTexas-San Antonio
2.RiceTexas-San AntonioTexas-San AntonioTexas-San AntonioNorth TexasRiceRice
3.North TexasLa. TechLa. TechNorth TexasTexas-San AntonioNorth TexasNorth Texas
4.La. TechNorth TexasNorth TexasLa. TechLa. TechLa. TechLa. Tech
5.UTEPSo. MissSo. MissSo. MissUTEPUTEPSo. Miss
6.So. MissUTEPUTEPUTEPSo. MissSo. MissUTEP

Mid-American Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
East
1.Bowling Green*Bowling Green*Bowling Green*Bowling Green*OhioBowling GreenBowling Green*
2.OhioBuffaloBuffaloBuffaloAkronOhioOhio
3.BuffaloOhioOhioOhioBuffaloAkronAkron
4.AkronAkronAkronAkronBowling GreenKent StateBuffalo
5.Kent StateKent StateKent StateKent StateKent StateBuffaloKent
6.Miami OhioMiami OhioMiami OhioMiami OhioMiami OhioMiami OhioMiami Ohio
7.UMassUMassUMassUMassUMassUMassUMass
West
1.ToledoN. IllinoisN. IllinoisN. IllinoisToledo*N. Illinois*Toledo
2.N. IllinoisToledoToledoToledoBall StateToledoN. Illinois
3.Ball StateBall StateBall StateBall StateN. IllinoisBall StateBall State
4.C. MichiganC. MichiganC. MichiganC. MichiganC. MichiganC. MichiganC. Michigan
5.W. MichiganW. MichiganW. MichiganW. MichiganW. MichiganW. MichiganW. Michigan
6.E. MichiganE. MichiganE. MichiganE. MichiganE. MichiganE. MichiganE. Michigan

Mountain West Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
Mountain
1.Boise State*Utah State*Boise State*Boise State*Boise State*Boise State*Boise State*
2.Utah StateBoise StateUtah StateUtah StateUtah StateUtah StateUtah State
3.WyomingColorado StateColorado StateColorado StateColorado StateColorado StateColorado State
4.Colorado StateWyomingWyomingWyomingAir ForceWyomingAir Force
5.Air ForceNew MexicoAir ForceAir ForceWyomingAir ForceNew Mexico
6.New MexicoAir ForceNew MexicoNew MexicoNew MexicoNew MexicoWyoming
West
1.Fresno StateFresno StateNevadaFresno StateNevadaFresno StateSan Diego State
2.San Diego StateSan Diego StateFresno StateNevadaFresno StateNevadaFresno State
3.NevadaNevadaSan Diego StateSan Diego StateSan Diego StateSan Diego StateNevada
4.UNLVUNLVUNLVSan Jose StateSan Jose StateHawaiiUNLV
5.San Jose StateSan Jose StateSan Jose StateUNLVHawaiiUNLVSan Jose State
6.HawaiiHawaiiHawaiiHawaiiUNLVSan Jose StateHawaii

Sun Belt Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
1.UL-LafayetteUL-LafayetteUL-LafayetteUL-LafayetteUL-LafayetteUL-LafayetteSouth Alabama
2.Arkansas StateSouth AlabamaArkansas StateArkansas StateLa.-MonroeArkansas StateUL-Lafayette
3.South AlabamaArkansas StateLa.-MonroeSouth AlabamaSouth AlabamaSouth AlabamaLa.-Monroe
4.La.-MonroeLa.-MonroeSouth AlabamaLa.-MonroeArkansas StateLa.-MonroeArkansas State
5.Texas StateTroyTroyTroyTexas StateTroyTexas State
6.TroyGeorgia SouthernTexas StateTexas StateTroyTexas StateTroy
7.IdahoTexas StateAppalachian StateGeorgia SouthernIdahoGeorgia SouthernAppalachian State
8.Appalachian StateGeorgia StateGeorgia SouthernAppalachian StateNew Mexico StateNew Mexico StateIdaho
9.Georgia SouthernAppalachian StateNew Mexico StateIdahoGeorgia SouthernIdahoGeorgia Southern
10.New Mexico StateIdahoIdahoGeorgia StateAppalachian StateGeorgia StateNew Mexico State
11.Georgia StateNew Mexico StateGeorgia StateNew Mexico StateGeorgia StateAppalachian StateGeorgia State

Independents Predicted Order of Finish
Finish

Dodd

Fowler

Solomon

Palm

Fornelli

Hinnen

Patterson
1.Notre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre Dame
2.BYUBYUNavyBYUBYUBYUBYU
3.NavyNavyBYUNavyNavyNavyNavy
4.ArmyArmyArmyArmyArmyArmyArmy

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