As notable as the 2016 season has been for the run of Western Michigan, the ability of Navy to stay relevant in the post Keenan Reynolds era, the disappointment of Houston’s season, and other interesting stories, the rise of traditional non-powers to the postseason has been outstanding to watch.
I feel the need to preface this by saying that it is much easier to earn a trip to a bowl now that it was even 3-4 years ago. An 8-4 record for some teams (Temple) was not enough to get the call. Conferences like the Sun Belt were working on two, sometimes three if they were lucky, bowl tie-ins and several above average teams were being left out in order to get the #11 team of the Big Ten.
With the invention of several new bowls and new contracts, there are too many open bowl slots to fill. Never in my life did I think I would see a 5-7 North Texas team make a bowl, but that is the world we are living in.
Back to my original point, we had the privilege of seeing several teams come from nowhere to secure bowl berths that seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year. Idaho won NINE GAMES, Wyoming played in the MWC title game, Eastern Michigan ended the nation’s second oldest bowl drought, Old Dominion and UTSA went bowling for the first time ever, and even Army capped off an unlikely season with a win in the Heart of Dallas Bowl over the previously mentioned North Texas.
That being said, are there any teams that have the opportunity to make a run to the postseason that look to the nation like Idaho or EMU or Wyoming from last year? Which teams will flip the script and shock the world in 2017?
I have looked at all five G5 conferences and these are my picks for teams to watch in 2017.
Go ahead and get those laughs out of your system. The Green Wave have been nothing short of disappointing since a 12-0 season in 1998 under head coach Tommy Bowden. Since then, they have ended the season at .500 or above in 2000, 2002, and 2013. That’s it. Former head coach Curtis Johnson had that one oddity of a season in 2013 that ended in a 7-6 record and a bowl berth, but went 8-28 in his other three seasons.
After Johnson was fired, Georgia Southern head coach Willie Fritz stepped in and led the Wave to a 4-8 record last season. While 4-8 isn’t great, that season came while Fritz was installing a new offense, a fairly new defense, and attempting to fix roster holes with new recruits. They were surprisingly close to a 6-6 season with a four-point loss to Wake Forest, a 21-14 loss to Navy, a four-point loss to SMU, and a 24-14 loss to Memphis. A few plays go differently and Tulane was bowling last season.
I think we can all agree that the 2012 firing of Mario Cristobal was a huge mistake by the administration. Bringing in Ron Turner to replace him was an odd decision, backed by a 1-11 season in 2013. Turner got the Panthers as close as 5-7, but was flat-out terrible in 2016 and ended up in the unemployment line during the season. Ron Cooper was able to steady the ship, but the season was too far down the drain for him to save.
The Panthers went with Butch Davis to fix this mess of a program. Davis is an excellent coach and recruiter with the ability to get players that can make FIU a bowl game contender, instead of what they were last fall. The pieces are there for a Davis to go bowling in 2017.
The Cardinals looked to be in good shape at 3-1 and heading to winless Northern Illinois last season. All they had to do was keep the foot on the pedal to put themselves in position to go bowling. Instead they lost 31-24, one of six losses on the season by 10 or fewer points. Ball State is in a similar spot to Tulane, needing to make 1-2 crucial plays go their way to flip from a four win team to a bowl eligible team.
They have a very nice and versatile running back, a quarterback poised for a great 2017 season, and a defense that keeps them in games. Those are the calling cards of a team ready to break the glass ceiling and go bowling again for the fifth time since 1996. Now, breaking through and getting their first bowl win in school history is another task altogether.
The Tony Sanchez experiment will be in year three for the 2017 season and it will be time to put up or shut up for the decorated high school head coach. The Rebels showed some promise in beating bowl teams Hawaii and Wyoming, but have ugly losses to San Jose State and Nevada that overshawdow the progress made.
Until UNLV can pass the ball effectively, they will struggle to find six wins on their schedule. Running backs Charles Williams and Lexington Thomas are very good players, but an overall 46.9% completion rate is historically bad. All three quarterbacks that saw extensive action in 2016 are scheduled to be back in 2017, so that may be the G5 position battle to watch in the spring.
New Mexico State:
I was way off base last season in picking the Sun Belt team to surprisingly make a bowl. The Aggies limped to a 3-9 record with most of the damage coming from a defense that struggled to stop anyone from gaining ridiculous offensive totals, other than Georgia State but that is another column for another day.
The reasons I have some faith in the Aggies next season are a full offseason under defensive Frank Spaziani, a healthy Larry Rose III, and the ability of Conner Cramer to add a running dimension from the quarterback position. He still has to prove he can make the throws for Doug Martin and company, but he produced nearly 200 yards rushing in his only two extensive appearances of the season. Not to mention, it would be a great F*** you moment if the Aggies end their 40+ year bowl drought and then ride off into the sunset away from the Sun Belt Conference.