Every Friday, the Friday Five will rank something in the world of college football -- anything and everything from the logical to the illogical. This week, we rank the five schools we believe have the best chance to be this season's Group of Five powerhouse.
Houston had a fantastic 2015 season. If not for a hiccup against UConn on a cold November night in Storrs, in which the Cougars did not have quarterback Greg Ward Jr., Houston would have finished the year with a 14-0 record. Even at 13-1, the Cougars were extremely impressive, picking up wins against Louisville, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Temple, Navy and Florida State along the way.
Odds are Houston will be good again this year, and they're the likely favorite to repeat as the American Athletic Conference champion and earn the Group of Five's automatic bid to one of the New Year's Six bowls.
But let's say that the Cougars stumble along the way. I don't think it will happen, but I've followed college football long enough to know that there's nothing college football is better at than making you look stupid. So if Houston takes a step back in 2016, who are the five schools from outside the Power Five that I believe have the best chance to be the next Houston?
That's the subject of this week's Friday Five.
After breaking down schedules and rosters, these are the five schools I believe have the best chance to have special seasons in the Group of Five. Maybe not 13-1 special, but good enough to get a shot at the big boys at the end of the season.
5. Appalachian State: All right, in the interest of being honest with you, I have to start this off by saying I believe the odds of Appalachian State playing in a New Year's Six game are somewhere between "yeah right" and "never going to happen." Not because I believe that Appalachian State isn't good enough as a football team, but because of where Appalachian State plays.
I would say that a team could go 12-0, and win its games by an average of 25 points, but if at the end of the day it's done so in the Sun Belt, the committee isn't going to put it in. It may not be fair, but it's the reality of the situation.
Now, it's not impossible. After all, if the Mountaineers go 12-0 during the regular season this year, that means they'll have beaten Tennessee in Knoxville and Miami in Boone. Yes, that's right, Miami is actually playing Appalachian State at Appalachian State this year.
I guess they want to play in a full stadium for once (rimshot!).
Anyway, that's an impressive non-conference schedule, and a chance to add two statement wins to a resume. I don't think the Mountaineers win both of those games (I'm not ruling out beating Miami, but I'm not picking it, either), but I do believe this is a team that will be the class of the Sun Belt.
It's just, as I said, being the class of the Sun Belt won't be alone in and of itself.
4. Western Michigan: The Broncos have been rowing the boat for P.J. Fleck for a few years now, and coming off consecutive 8-5 seasons, along with the first bowl victory in program history, this is a team that is poised to take a step forward in 2016. The problem for the Broncos is that they suffer from the same affliction that Appalachian State is.
Northern Illinois may have been able to bust down the walls of the BCS, but it was after consecutive years of very strong play. Western Michigan hasn't won 10 games in a season since, well, ever.
So even if the Broncos have a big season and win the MAC, two non-conference wins against Northwestern and Illinois likely wouldn't be enough to truly boost their resume.
Still, the Broncos do get both Northern Illinois and Toledo at home this year, which gives them a realistic shot to win the MAC, and winning a Group of Five conference is a pre-requisite for that automatic bid.
3. Temple: Temple didn't have as much success as Houston did last season, but the Owls were still very impressive, finishing with a 10-4 record and going 7-1 in conference to win the AAC's East Division. With both quarterback P.J. Walker and running back Jahad Thomas returning, the Owls will once again be a threat to win the division in 2016.
What concerns me about the Owls, however -- aside from a couple of key losses on defense -- is the schedule.
Temple's biggest non-conference game is a road trip to Penn State. Temple was able to beat Penn State last season, but the biggest win on its resume would have been Houston had Temple won the AAC title game. Houston would have been the game that put Temple over the edge for that automatic bid, not a win over a Penn State team that finished 7-6.
So if Temple beats Penn State again, it's going to need Penn State to go on and have a monster season, because aside from the Penn State game, Temple's non-conference slate includes Army, Stony Brook and Charlotte. Sure, the AAC is a solid conference overall, but going 8-0 in conference play won't be enough with that non-conference schedule.
What works in Temple's favor, though, is that it was good last year, and it was close to getting the bid in 2015. Having two strong years in a row will boost their stock in the eyes of the selection committee.
2. San Diego State: The Aztecs had what has to be one of the quietest 11-win seasons in recent memory last year, and there's a reason for it. You see, San Diego State began the season 1-3 after losing to Cal, Penn State and South Alabama.
Once San Diego State got into conference play, however, it tore things up, finishing 8-0 against Mountain West opponents, winning by an average of 24.9 points per game.
While the Aztecs lost a good amount of players from last year's team, key players like running back Donnell Pumphrey return.
The Aztecs will need some help, however.
While they were strong last year, on the whole, the Mountain West had a down season. San Diego State definitely needs a stronger Mountain West from top to bottom, one that can be considered as strong as the AAC. A rejuvenated Boise State would go a very long way to making this happen, as the Broncos would be SDSU's likely opponent in the conference title game were they to get there.
And the Aztecs need that resume boost, because while non-conference games against Cal and Northern Illinois are nice, wins over either wouldn't exactly be the biggest attention grabbers.
1. South Florida: The Bulls finished with an 8-5 mark, but that record wasn't a great reflection of how the team played. The Bulls were slow out of the gate, starting 1-3 with losses to Florida State, Maryland, and a Memphis team that went on to have a strong season of its own. Another loss came on Halloween on the road against Keenan Reynolds and Navy.
Meanwhile, in South Florida's six conference wins, it beat its opponents by an average of 22.8 points per game, including a 38-point win over Cincinnati and a 44-3 romp of rival UCF. This is a team that went 7-1 over its final eight regular season games, and returns just about everybody important from the team.
The schedule includes two non-conference games against Power Five opponents in Florida State (in Tampa) and Syracuse (which USF beat 45-24 last year), as well as a game against Northern Illinois. The conference schedule is manageable, though the game against Temple is in Philadelphia, but if USF can get through its non-conference slate at 3-1 (the likeliest loss being FSU, but a win over the Noles would be huge) and then win the East, it will likely face off against Houston in the AAC title game. A win over the Cougars would be another big resume booster for the committee to consider.