A variety of outlets are filling the 12 remaining weeks before college football season begins with countdowns of the best games, whether nonconference, intra-league or across divisions. Well, I feel pretty confident writing that in the sea of college football listicles, the following — spotlighting the best Group of Five nonconference games in the coming season — offers something unique.
What little bit of the spotlight the Group of Five gets from national outlets is a sliver, typically granted in the context of the Power Five. Say, remember that time Georgia Southern beat Florida! LOL!
Oh yeah, the Eagles also won nine games the following season, and came five combined points away from beating two, quality opponents from the ACC — one of which won the Orange Bowl.
Georgia Southern may not have Florida on the slate this season, but the Eagles are hosting Western Michigan in a Group of Five nonconference game well worth checking out. And it’s just one in a number of
Scour the Group of Five schedules, and there’s a number of outstanding crossover games with unique appeal. Potential conference champions, New Year’s Six contenders and some of the nation’s most exciting players square off in some of the below games.
WYOMING at APPALACHIAN STATE, OCT. 3
Appalachian State was the standard-bearer for the FCS throughout the mid-2000s, only ceding its mantle shortly before current Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl took it over at North Dakota State.
Both Appalachian State and Bohl made their FBS debuts in 2014 with varying results. The Mountaineers won their final six games to finish bowl eligible, though could not accept a bid as part of the NCAA’s regulations on transitioning programs.
With one of the most veteran rosters in all of college football, Appalachian State is a strong contender to win the Sun Belt Conference championship.
Wyoming’s season went in the opposite direction, with losses in seven of the Cowboys’ last eight after a promising, 3-1 start. We’ll have been able to glean which, if either, team’s 2014 finish carried over into 2015 by the time the Cowboys visit Boone for this showdown of former FCS heavyweights.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE at LOUISIANA TECH, OCT. 3
The first indicator that Louisiana Tech was headed for a great 2014 came in the Bulldogs’ 48-20 rout of in-state counterpart Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns are among college football’s most consistent winners under head coach Mark Hudspeth, last year reaching nine Ws for the fourth consecutive season, but on that day last September they had no answer for La. Tech running back Kenneth Dixon.
Dixon is back and will add to his nation-leading rushing touchdown totals. However, it’s a loss that could have more significant impact on this year’s in-state meeting for Louisiana Tech — specifically, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Diaz went to Mississippi State after rejuvenating his career with an excellent 2014 under Bulldogs head coach Skip Holtz.
La.-Lafayette typically features one of the more potent and multifaceted offenses in the Group of Five, much in the same vein as La. Tech’s C-USA counterparts Marshall and Western Kentucky.
ARKANSAS STATE at TOLEDO, SEPT. 26
Two of the most consistent Group of Five programs in recent years meet for the second time in 2015. Toledo beat Arkansas State in January’s GoDaddy.com Bowl, 66-43, with running back Kareem Hunt capping a stellar season via five touchdown runs.
At 8.0 carries per game, Hunt was one of the most effective ball-carriers in 2014. He enters 2015 as the nation’s leading returning rusher. Speaking of returning, Arkansas State returns head coach Blake Anderson.
That’s noteworthy because Redwolves coaches have typically dipped out after one successful year: Hugh Freeze went to Ole Miss after 2011; Gus Malzahn returned to Auburn following 2012; Bryan Harsin returned to Boise State after 2013.
Anderson oversaw the offense for Larry Fedora at North Carolina, and that influence carried over nicely to Jonesboro with Arkansas State averaging better than 36 points per game in 2014.
Frankly, I’m disappointed ESPN isn’t using this matchup as an early start for either #SunBeltTuesdays or midweek #MACtion. Nevertheless, I’m anticipating a fun game.
WESTERN MICHIGAN at GEORGIA SOUTHERN, SEPT. 12
Georgia Southern and Western Michigan both reached nine wins in two of the bigger surprises of 2014. The Eagles won the Sun Belt Conference in their debut season as members, while the Broncos enjoyed the nation’s single greatest one-year turnaround, improving from a 1-11 finish in 2013.
Both broke out employing some stellar offense: Georgia Southern averaged more than 39 points per game and ranked 10th in the nation in scoring, while Western Michigan put up better than 33 points per. Each team returns top playmakers, with Georgia Southern bringing back top rusher Matt Breida and Western Michigan once again featuring wide receiver Corey Davis and running back Jarvion Franklin.
Although a different version from that which Georgia Southern ran in 2014, Western Michigan’s defense struggled against a variation of the triple option in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl loss to Air Force.
CINCINNATI at BYU, OCT. 16
For purposes of nonconference scheduling, the ACC and SEC recently granted BYU power-conference designation. But in every other facet, BYU is more comparable to a Cincinnati than it is Notre Dame. Thus, the Cougars are Group of Five for purposes of this breakdown, and that’s a good thing.
BYU’s 2015 slate features some intriguing matchups with American Athletic and Mountain West Conference members, including East Carolina and a rivalry weekend tilt against Utah State. Of its three AAC contests, however, a Friday night matchup with Cincinnati in mid-October stands out.
The Bearcats are favorites to win the American Athletic’s East division, which would seemingly put them along the inside track to the New Year’s Six. BYU probably has something to say in the matter, however, as the Cougars have their own designs on a breakout season after injuries and mid-season collapse derailed 2014.
Cincy and BYU feature two of the premier quarterbacks in the Group of Five in Gunner Kiel and Taysom Hill. With a national, Friday night broadcast all to their own, Kiel and Hill should put on a show.
MEMPHIS at BOWLING GREEN, SEPT. 19
Justin Fuente and Dino Babers are two of the most fascinating names in the Group of Five coaching ranks, albeit for different reasons. Fuente is something of a wunderkind, leading Memphis to a historically successful season that culminated with a Top 25 ranking. At just 38 years old, Fuente is riding a rocket ship of coaching success that could, and probably will, take him anywhere he wants.
Conversely, Dino Babers didn’t get his first head coaching opportunity until 2012, when he was 51 years old and had nearly 30 years of assistant’s experience to his credit. Babers has made up for lost time quickly, however, leading two Eastern Illinois teams to the FCS Playoffs before winning the MAC East in his first season at Bowling Green.
Fuente and Babers spent time working with two of the game’s fast-growing rivals: Fuente with TCU’s Gary Patterson, Babers with Baylor’s Art Briles. That won’t have bearing on the Memphis-Bowling Green contest, mind you, but the offensive chops both demonstrated as assistants with their respective Big 12 programs will impact this game.
BOISE STATE at BYU, SEPT. 12
An opening month that includes a matchup with former head coach Chris Petersen and Pac-12 program Washington doesn’t get much easier for Boise State, as the Broncos must travel to BYU just one week later for a game that could decide the Group of Five’s automatic bid into the New Year’s Six.
Boise State was wildly successful in head coach Bryan Harsin’s first season, winning 12 games — including the Fiesta Bowl and a blowout decision over BYU — and the Broncos’ first outright Mountain West championship since joining the league in 2011.
As Harsin’s star rises, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall is under some pressure. Mendenhall reassumed defensive play-calling duties in the wake of a midseason meltdown last year, the second time he’s done that in the last half-decade.
While defending the Broncos’ prolific offense is certainly a challenge, quarterback Taysom Hill limiting mistakes against one of college football’s best secondaries is the sub-plot to follow in this burgeoning G5 rivalry.
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF’S TROPHY SERIES
OCT. 3: AIR FORCE at NAVY
NOV. 7: ARMY at AIR FORCE
DEC. 12: ARMY vs. NAVY (in Philadelphia)
The round robin pitting Air Force, Army and Navy against one another is a highlight of any college football season. With Navy joining the American Athletic Conference and Air Force’s home conference’s commissioner voicing concerns over the timing of the Army-Navy Game, there’s an added element of contention at play this year.
Of course, offseason debate played out in the media fails to match exciting on-field product, and last year’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series featured exciting bouts between both Air Force & Navy and Navy & Army.
The Falcons claimed the trophy en route to a shocking 10-win campaign — the best of Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun’s altogether impressive tenure.
— U.S. Air Force (@usairforce) May 19, 2015
Replicating last season’s success will prove challenging with Air Force losing seven starters on defense. Ken Nuimatalolo’s Navy roster loses the same total number of starters as Air Force, but the Mids have proven well-equipped to sustain amid turnover.
Returning quarterback Keenan Reynolds for his fourth year as starter certainly doesn’t hurt.
The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy doesn’t spend much time away from Annapolis, and this year the Midshipmen will try to add it to a trophy case that could also house a conference title for the first time in program history.