When we heard the phrase “Group of Five” in conjunction with college football, that natural tendency is to think of the five power conferences. But there’s another Group of Five at the reverse end of the college football spectrum. Conference USA, the American, the MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt all represent the college football midmajors. We’re going to target the nine teams from these leagues mostly likely to have national impact.
Thanks to the new postseason system, the best team in these conferences is guaranteed a bid to a major bowl game. Presuming that the best midmajor doesn’t end up in the four-team College Football Playoff itself (a safe assumption), that team will be slotted in either the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach Bowls, who join the Orange Bowl as “the contract bowls” not hosting national semifinals.
This race to the best among five leagues looks to be wide-open. Boise State, the most prominent of the recent midmajor powers is going through a coaching change. Northern Illinois, who reached the Orange Bowl in 2012 is rebuilding. Other strong midmajors of recent years, from TCU to Louisville, have found new homes in the Power Five leagues.
Who’s going to step up Here’s our Notebook Nine, the nine midmajors most likely to get a shot at a major opponent come bowl time. These are not in order of preference (we’ll get to that at the end), but organized by conference.
Central Florida: We start with UCF simply because they’re the team who would have had this slot last year—and in fact, did get a Fiesta Bowl bid since the American Conference was still an automatic qualifier. Then the Knights beat Baylor. Now they have to replace quarterback Blake Bortles, the third overall pick in the NFL draft. The defensive back seven is strong, and the receiving corps is good. UCF just needs to find some playmakers.
Houston: The Cougars won eight games a year ago and played some solid defense in the process. With eight starters back, that defense is going to be even better this season and sophomore quarterback John O’Korn has a year’s experience under his belt as the starter. Houston lost close games to Central Florida, Louisville and Cincinnati last year. It won’t take much improvement for the Coogs to have a big year.
Cincinnati: Tommy Tuberville knows what it’s like to win big, having produced an undefeated team at Auburn back in 2004. This is another team with a defense that was good last year and will be better this season. The Bearcats do have serious work to do at finding a quarterback though, if they’re going to go beyond the 8-9 win level and into the 11-1 range it’s going to take win the coveted major bowl slot.
Marshall: Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato has spent his college career as one of the most exciting players in the country, and the entertainment value alone would make the Thundering Herd as marquee a name as we’re going to get out of the midmajors. Marshall went 9-4 last year, beat Maryland in a bowl game and return 13 starters. But the defense needs to get significantly better.
UT-San Antonio: I hesitated about putting the Roadrunners on this list—after all, it’s only their third year at the FBS level. But Larry Coker, the coach of the great 2001 national championship team at Miami, has done an extraordinary job here. UTSA is 19-15 over those three years, won seven games last year and has 16 starters back. Could this be the year of San Antonio, from the Spurs to the Roadrunners?
Bowling Green: Their 47-27 upset of Northern Illinois cost the Huskies a major bowl slot and vaulted the Falcons into the role of MAC favorite for the coming year. Matt Johnson is back in the saddle at quarterback, and a defense that was the best in the league last year has six starters returning. The issue? The MAC has been notoriously poor in bowl play, and in any kind of national conversation like this, it has to matter at least a little bit.
Colorado State: Jim McElwain came off of Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama after the 2011 national championship year, took just two years to return the Rams to a bowl game and then beat Washington State in last year’s postseason. Now CSU is loaded in the defensive back seven and has an excellent senior quarterback in Garrett Grayson. Look for the Rams to displace Boise State in their division of the Mountain West.
Fresno State: The Bulldogs joined Northern Illinois in the hunt for an undefeated season and major bowl bid last year, right to the last game of the year before losing. Derek Carr is gone at quarterback, but perhaps eight returning starters on defense can help that side of the ball carry a little more of the load this time around.
UL-Lafayette: I flat-out love this team. Mark Hudspeth has turned the Ragin’ Cajuns into a winner—he’s gone 27-12 over his three years here and won bowl games. Terrance Broadway is a dynamic all-around quarterback. The defensive front, secondary and offensive lines are all in good shape. A September 20 road trip to Boise probably tells whether ULL can compete for the major bowl spot, or just “settle” for being Sun Belt champs.
I’m going to pick Houston as the team who ends up getting a shot to play in a major bowl game, the first such opportunity for the Cougars since 1984, when they played Doug Flutie’s Boston College team in the Cotton Bowl. I see both Houston and Cincinnati separating themselves from UCF in the American, and the Cougars-Bearcats game then settling both the conference and the major bowl spot.
I’ve got UL-Lafayette coming up a bit short, with the lack of national cache hurting them. Granted, none of these teams really have “cache”, but ULL has even less than most. Which is, of course, not their fault, but we’ve all learned that any role that justice plays in college football bowl selection is purely incidental and never by design.
Colorado State is a team I can easily see making it all the way to New Year’s (all of the contract bowl games will be played on December 31 or January 1). The other teams I see more as contenders on the conference stage, rather than the 11-1 type of team it will take to reach a big bowl date.
SIGN UP FOR THE FREE NEWSLETTER OF THESPORTSNOTEBOOK
ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD