The inception of the College Football Playoff gave programs from non-power conferences new incentive with the introduction of an automatic bid into one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games.
The Group of Five conferences have several worthy challengers for a New Year’s Six bid, but it’s likely only one will land in one of those games. It’s also likely that the Group of Five representative will come from either the American Athletic Conference or the Mountain West Conference — though Western Michigan crashing the party in 2016 out of the Mid-American gives hope to the other conferences. The Sun Belt had a Top 25 team last season in Troy, for example, and Conference USA has a routine contender now in Western Kentucky.
Keep your eye on these Group of Five programs ready to lead the chase for this season’s New Year’s Six bid.
Boise State Broncos
10-3 Record (6-2 in Mountain West)
Lost 31-12 in Cactus Bowl to Baylor
When you think party crashers, what program better personifies that than Boise State? The Broncos won three Fiesta Bowls in the last decade, including in 2014 as the first Group of Five New Year’s Six qualifier of the Playoff era.
The Broncos were ranked for most of the 2016 season. However, a loss to Air Force in the final week of the regular season forced them into a three-way tie with Wyoming and New Mexico for the Mountain Division. Holding the tiebreaker as a result of its win in Laramie in October, Wyoming represented in the MWC Championship Game and Boise State went to the Cactus Bowl.
Boise State has non-conference games against Washington State, Virginia and BYU. They beat both Washington State and BYU last season, but both were closely contested games played at home.
This year, they’ll be on the road for the return matches, while hosting Virginia in BSU’s half of a home-and-home. The Broncos won the road installment two seasons ago in Charlottesville, 56-14.
The Broncos also draw San Diego State on the road in cross-divisional conference play.
Boise State returns Mountain West leading passer Brett Rypien back this season, but hasa void to fill in the running game with Jeremy McNichols in the NFL. Is Alexander Mattison the answer? If he is, the Broncos have a chance at being a contender for a New Year’s Six bowl.
South Florida Bulls
11-2 overall (7-1 in AAC)
Defeated South Carolina 46-39 in Birmingham Bowl
You might not think South Florida would be in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl, especially after losing head coach Willie Taggart to Oregon. However, the school picked up Charlie Strong, fresh off his stint at Texas. Strong inherits a good team when the Bulls take the field this fall.
USF had just two losses in 2016, one in a non-conference game versus the eventual Orange Bowl champion, Florida State. The other loss came against Temple, and that was because Ryquell Armstead ran over the Bulls for 210 rushing yards and two touchdowns. That gave eventual AAC champion Temple the divisional tiebreaker.
There’s a lot to be excited about for USF this season, perhaps the biggest being starting quarterback and AAC Offensive Player of the Year Quinton Flowers. With Flowers at the helm, there’s no reason why South Florida can’t win at least 10 games again this season.
The Bulls have Illinois as a notable non-conference opponent. And hey, it’s not like anyone has had to go through Illinois to get to a New Year’s Six game before. Who did Western Michigan play again last year?
8-5 overall (5-3 in AAC)
Lost to Western Kentucky 51-31 in Boca Raton Bowl
It’s weird to think of Memphis becoming a football powerhouse, yet it’s starting to do so. The Tigers won 10 games for the first time back in 2014, and won nine the year after. The Tigers finished 8-5 in 2016, Mike Norvell’s first season as head coach. That final record includes three conference losses (Navy, Tulsa and USF).
Norvell has quite a bit going for him and the Tigers in this upcoming season. He has his AAC leading passer Riley Ferguson back for his senior season. Ferguson’s favorite target, wide receiver Anthony Miller, will also be back in the fold this season.
The most noteworthy non-conference matchup on Memphis’ schedule is a Sept. 16 home game against UCLA. By the way, that is also an 11 a.m. local start time.
It’s the perfect brunch if you like seeing Pac-12 teams struggle with the Central Time Zone.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
11-3 overall (7-1 in Conference USA)
Defeated Memphis 51-31 in Boca Raton Bowl
It might be odd to think, given it’s just a few years removed from an 0-12 finish, but Western Kentucky is a program on the rise. The Hilltoppers had back-to-back 10-win seasons and have reached a class of their own in Conference USA.
The athletic department hired new head coach Mike Sanford to replace new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. Sanford brings in quite the offensive resume to Western Kentucky. He spent the last couple of seasons as offensive coordinator at Boise State and Notre Dame.
It’s possible Sanford steps in and really takes Western Kentucky to that next level of New Year’s Six contention, which might seem tough, given that they’re in Conference USA.
That said, if a MAC team can get in, there’s no reason why one from Conference USA can’t.
Ironically, Illinois is also a non-conference opponent for the Hilltoppers. In a way, maybe the secret to being in the NY6 bowl game is to schedule (and defeat) Illinois for that all-important Power Five win on the resume.
San Diego State Aztecs
11-3 overall (6-2 in Mountain West)
Won 34-10 over Houston in Las Vegas Bowl
Yes, the Aztecs have a chance to really make some noise in 2017, even without NCAA rushing king Donnel Pumphrey. Of course, with no Pumphrey, a lot more of the workload will fall upon Rashaad Penny.
In 2016, Penny ran for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns. Imagine what he can do now that he’s the feature back!
San Diego State won the Mountain West and finished with 11 victories for a second consecutive season, and landed in the final Top 25 poll. However, the Aztecs’ three losses kept them from being ranked ahead of Western Michigan in the all-important Playoff rankings that determine New Year’s Six standing.
The non-conference loss to South Alabama definitely hurt the Aztecs. Additionally, the back-to-back losses to Wyoming and Colorado State at the end of the regular season did nothing to help the cause.
If the Aztecs want to crash the party, they’ll need their wins in non-conference to help them. San Diego State has two Pac-12 opponents in back-to-back weeks, heading to Arizona State on Sept. 9 and hosting Stanford the following week.
Wins against both of those teams, especially Stanford, can really help San Diego State’s cause with the committee. But this also assumes SDSU gets the job done in conference play — easier said than done, with cross-divisional games against Boise State and at Air Force.
Realistically, you can make cases for quite a few teams, though same face inherent challenges appealing to the Playoff committee.
One of those teams is Wyoming. The Cowboys made it to and hosted the Mountain West title game last season, the culmination of a regular season that included wins over both San Diego State and Boise State.
However, the Cowboys had some tough losses last season, including to Eastern Michigan and UNLV.
Wyoming opens the season with a road trip to Iowa City for a match-up with Iowa. UW needs to knock off the Hawkeyes if its wants any serious New Year’s Six consideration.
Another honorable mention is Old Dominion. I realize this is a long shot because they are in Conference USA, which was rated 9-of-10 among all FBS conferences last year. The Monarchs must also unseat Western Kentucky, which has been dominant in C-USA East. But, they do have running back Ray Lawry back for his senior season.
Old Dominion has North Carolina and Virginia Tech (the latter on the road) in back-to-back weeks. I don’t know that the Monarchs can beat Virginia Tech, but a win against both of those teams certainly has to warrant some consideration from the committee. It’s also worth noting the Monarchs only conference loss last season came against Western Kentucky.
One team that probably won’t get much consideration, but should, is Appalachian State. It’s tough, though, because the Mountaineers are in the Sun Belt — ranked last among FBS conferences routinely, including 2016. But they have won 10 games in back-to-back seasons, and have transitioned well from FCS juggernaut to potential New Year’s Six contender.
They even start the season at Georgia. Could you imagine if the Mountaineers knocked off Georgia…in ATHENS? A similar result almost played out last September in Knoxville, with Appalachian State leading most of the way in an overtime loss at Tennessee.
One more team to consider is Tulsa. Did you know Tulsa won 10 games last season? The Golden Hurricane were seventh in the nation in points per game and they bring back D’Angelo Brewer, their leading rusher. Anything is possible, especially if the Golden Hurricane get past their non-conference road blocks of Oklahoma State and New Mexico.