Friday Five: The Group of Five teams most likely to earn a New Year's Six berth
UCF was No. 2 on last year's list, but where does it rank this year
I swear, I don't like to toot my own horn, but the truth of the matter is that I'm correct so infrequently that I almost feel like I have to when the opportunity presents itself. So, much like last week's Friday Five(as well as Joe Moorhead and Jeremy Pruitt), I am once again going to do a quick victory lap.
This week's Friday Five topic is another annual edition. I'm ranking Group of Five teams I believe are the most likely to crash the party and earn a New Year's Six berth. Well, last year I had Memphis at No. 1. I was wrong, but it's the team I had at No. 2 that I'm proud of.
UCF before last season:about
I'm sure some readers are wondering how I could put UCF ahead of USF on this list considering that the Bulls have been the better team the last few years, but it's pretty simple. First of all, USF is entering its first year with a new coach while UCF's Scott Frost is entering his second campaign. Frost is a coach that's shown he can turn things around rather quickly, as he took over a team that went 0-12 in 2015 and won six games last season. Furthermore, UCF has a schedule that provides a few more chances at marquee wins than USF does. That's not to say Maryland and Georgia Tech are juggernauts, but wins over them would look better on a resume than Illinois (USF's only P5 opponent). None of this is to say there aren't concerns. UCF had one of the better defenses in the AAC last year, but it will have to replace a lot of tackles from that unit this year. Also, overall, UCF will be one of the younger teams in the conference. The good news is that while there's plenty of inexperience on this roster, the offensive line has plenty, and I tend to think teams with experienced lines are more likely to improve than those without.
Now, had I known UCF was going undefeated, I'd have put it at No. 1, but I'm still proud of the prediction. I received quite a bit of grief for ranking UCF ahead of USF because the Knights had gone 6-6 in 2016 while USF was coming off an 11-2 season and had Quinton Flowers returning for his senior season.
So will I be bragging about this week's Friday Five next summer? I don't know, but I hope so. Anyway, here are the five Group of Five teams I believe have the best shot at winning that NY6 berth.
5. Temple: The Owls are a bit of a sleeper in the American Athletic Conference this season. Temple was the youngest team in the AAC in 2017, and it was in its first season without Matt Rhule, and it showed early in the season. But the late part of the season is where the Owls hit their stride, winning four of their last five games, though that one loss was a 26-point loss to UCF. So, even if I like Temple's chances in 2018, there are reasons I'm not putting it higher than fifth. I want to see it compete with the AAC's best before anointing it, and even though the Owls gained a lot of experience last season, they still have one of the least experienced offensive lines in the conference.
4. Florida Atlantic: Look, more Owls! FAU went 11-3 in Lane Kiffin's first season, and those three losses came against Navy, Wisconsin and a three-point loss on the road to Buffalo. In Conference USA, the Owls were 9-0 and won those games by an average margin of 22.3 points per game. Clearly, they were a level above the rest of their competition, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen again. Still, even if it happens, I can't put them any higher than fourth just because C-USA doesn't get the same kind of respect that the AAC or Mountain West does. Having said that, the Owls have nonconference road games against both Oklahoma and UCF. If they play well in those games or possibly pull off an upset in one of them, it would go a long way in covering the rest of the SOS.
3. Boise State: I didn't include Boise State in last year's list, and it felt weird to not even give the Broncos an Honorable Mention. I should have, seeing how the Broncos finished the year at 11-3 and won the Mountain West, but they were never seriously considered for that NY6 spot because of early losses against Washington State and Virginia. This year they have a chance to reassert themselves in the eyes of the selection committee. The Broncos return 10 starters on what was one of the best defenses in the MWC last season and have a senior quarterback in Brett Rypien. Games against Troy and Oklahoma State give the Broncos a chance to boost their resume, and within the conference, they'll play both San Diego State and Fresno State on the blue turf. This is a team that has been one of the best Group of Five teams in the country for what seems like forever, but in recent years, it's had difficulty avoiding that second loss that proves detrimental to teams looking to earn that bid.
2. UCF: There are two ways you can react to this UCF fans. The first is to think I'm disrespecting your team by only ranking them No. 2. The second is to thank me because I had them No. 2 last year and we all know how that worked out. I'm sure you'll lean toward the first option, but I do have my reasons for this. The biggest, obviously, is that the man who engineered the turnaround is gone. Scott Frost and his entire staff have left for Nebraska. This is Josh Heupel's ship now, and I'm not just going to assume Heupel is going to step in and keep things running as smoothly as they had been. That just rarely happens. All that being said, the Knights still have one of the most talented teams in the AAC, and McKenzie Milton is still at quarterback. I've no doubt this will continue to be one of the best teams in the conference and is one of the favorites to win it. I just think there's another AAC team better positioned in 2018.
1. Memphis: We'll start with the biggest knock against Memphis in 2018. It doesn't have Riley Ferguson returning at QB nor Anthony Miller at wide receiver, and that will be difficult to overcome. It's a legitimate concern, but it's one that's alleviated a bit by what else Memphis does have returning. The Tigers have the most experienced offensive line in the AAC, and that's one of the reasons I looked at UCF as a real possibility last season. If you have an inexperienced QB, it's best to have him behind a line that knows what it's doing. Furthermore, while I don't think anybody would consider Memphis' defense elite (it allowed 32.5 ppg last year), most of that unit returns as well with some improvement expected. The Tigers also have a friendly schedule. It's the kind of schedule that I think would keep it out of the College Football Playoff if it went undefeated, but you don't have to go undefeated to get that NY6 spots. You just have to win your conference while racking up 10 wins or more, and Memphis has a schedule that could allow them to do both.
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