Each year in each conference, there are a couple of teams that seem to overachieve well beyond what was expected of them before the season starts. These teams are what makes college football the product that it is. Before Alabama began its now near-decade long tear through the sport, it was much tougher predicting who would be the national champion. Sans recent years, the final AP top five usually looks different each season.
Individual conference’s still see sleeper team’s rise above expectations each season. From the Mississippi schools of the SEC rising to the national spotlight in the last five years to the sudden reemergence of a once dominant Troy team in the Sun Belt last season, surprise stories are unfolding across the landscape every fall. Today, we’ll take a look at which teams from each Group of Five conference can be nuisance to the preseason favorites.
The headlines in the American Conference are dominated by South Florida and the usual suspects in Houston and Memphis. The established second tier is occupied by Navy and Temple with Central Florida making a push. So which team can disrupt the pecking order around here? I’m going to roll with the Southern Methodist Mustangs.
The Mustangs are poised to have one of the best, if not the best, offenses in the conference. When last years opening game starting quarterback Matt Davis went down for the season in the first game, it ended up being a blessing in disguise for the future of the offense. Freshman Ben Hicks took over and gained invaluable game-time experience. With a year under his belt, and some heated competition behind him, Hicks will be much improved after a shaky freshman year.
To make things better for Hicks, he’ll have the top receiving corps in the conference to throw to. Led by projected first round pick Courtland Sutton, the Mustangs return 238 receptions from a year ago. Throw in former LSU Tiger Trey Quinn and you’ve got a highly dangerous group. The passing attack is complimented nicely by the return of SMU’s three leading rushers from 2016. Head coach Chad Morris, the architect of several successful Clemson offenses, could have a damn near unstoppable offense this season.
SMU’s season will hinge greatly on how much the defense can improve. As the Mustangs dealt with nasty depth issues, the SMU defense began to fall apart at the end of the year and it culminated in a 75-31 thrashing at the hands of Navy. Of SMU’s seven losses in 2016, only three were within two possessions.
Even without an improved defense, the offense can close the gap and be much more competitive. With an improved defense, the Mustangs could make some serious noise in a division that is expecting a down year.
The East division of Conference USA is home to the highest profile G5 division race of the season and all eyes will undoubtedly be on the November 17th bout between Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State. The most interesting race, however, is in the west. Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi figure to lead the race while UTSA is joining the mix. There could be a fourth team vying for a division title, though and that team is North Texas.
Year one for head coach Seth Littrell went pretty well, all things considered. After a historically bad 2015, in which the Mean Green finished 1-11, UNT won five games last season and played in a bowl game. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that this improvement came with a ground-focused offensive attack. Both Littrell and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell come from the air raid background. With another year with quarterback Mason Fine and a proven ground game, the Mean Green could be in position to knock a few pins down.
Fine started 10 games as a true freshman before injury forced him to sit the remainder of the season. His stats didn’t jump out at you but he did have an exceptional interception rate, tossing just five picks in 258 attempts. Take away the game against the vaunted Florida secondary and Fine completed a respectable 62.3 percent of his passes. While receivers Thaddeous Thompson and Kenny Buyers leave with their 75 receptions, Fine has a plethora of talented experience thanks to Littrell and Harrell making a point to rotate several pass-catchers into the game.
On defense, UNT’s front seven will have several new faces this year. This isn’t a good sign, especially since the run defense was eminently ineffective last year. The good news is that the majority of the secondary is returning. If the offense sees improvement while the defense merely stagnates, seven to eight wins isn’t out of the question.
After Toledo and Western Michigan, the MAC is wide open this year. While the Rockets and Broncos will duke it out for the west division title, any one of four Ohio schools could represent the east division in the championship game. Miami (Ohio) and Ohio are the favorites but there could be a surprise contender in Akron.
Head coach Terry Bowden enters his sixth season with Zips and is looking to produce his second winning season as the Akron head man. He somehow found his way to five wins last year despite fielding a team that was ravished with injuries. He does return quarterback Thomas Woodson who is promising when healthy. He’ll only have two targets returning that caught more than 10 passes last year but the wide receiver group is still deep in potential talent.
Van Edwards and Manny Morgan are back at running back after combining for 909 yards on 181 carries in 2016. They will have a strong offensive line to run behind as well, with four starters returning. If the offense can maintain starting lineup consistency, Akron can improve on its 27.4 points per game from last season.
The defense could be a piece of work. Akron was extremely thin in 2016 due to injuries and are now replacing several starters on the front and back ends. The linebackers are the strongest unit on this defense and Ullysees Gilbert returns after leading the team with 121 tackles as a sophomore.
Akron will have a tougher time than the other teams on this list in reaching the top of the division. To make things worse, It somehow drew both Toledo and Western Michigan as cross-division opponents. The underclassmen on this team received more experience than expected last year and that just might pay off this season.
The Mountain West, like just like every other Group of Five conference, has an extremely lopsided pair of divisions. The east division is jammed with Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming. The west division is led by San Diego State and is hoping for a second bowl eligible team in Hawaii. The east could find a third post-season team, though, in UNLV.
The Rebels were gutted with injuries last season, losing nearly all of their playmakers for extended periods of time. Despite this, and having to start a cornerback at wide receiver, Nevada-Las Vegas maintained the same level of productiveness in 2016 as it had in 2015. If healthy, the Rebels offense can be a load to control in 2017.
UNLV used three quarterbacks last year but the man under center on week one will be one that has yet to throw a pass in a college game. Redshirt freshman Armani Rogers, a highly touted recruit in the 2016 class, will take over as the new starter.
His upside combined with the deepest wide receiver unit in the conference will be a handful. Receiver Devonte Boyd returns after logging 746 yards in 10 games last season. He’ll also have a talented stable of running backs behind him with an experienced offensive line in front.
While Rogers and the offense is oozing with potential, the defensive upside isn’t nearly as great. A chunk of the secondary must be replaced but former Syracuse safety Chauncey Scissum will add valuable leadership to the group. The front seven also took several big hits and will have a lot of new faces in the box this season.
The defense stayed relatively injury free and the result is the opposite of what happened to the offense. On the ball side, many underclassmen received bountiful experience and now bolster the returning veteran play makers. The Rebels will get in its fair share of shootouts this season but do have a favorable schedule.
All eyes will be on Appalachian State and Troy this year with Arkansas State expected to give both a run for their money once again. After those three, its tough to predict who makes up the middle tier. For the Sun Belt I have two sleeper teams. The first one I expect to reach at least six wins. The other is the Georgia State Panthers.
Shawn Elliot is taking over in Atlanta and has the excitement building around the program. As Georgia State moves into Turner Field, Elliot could have the most talented squad in Panther history. Quarterback Conner Manning returns under center and, while star receiver Robert Davis is now in the NFL, he will benefit from the return of 2015 star Penny Hart who had 1,099 yards as a freshman.
The Panthers used a handful of ball carriers last season in an effort to find some semblance of an efficient ground game. Elliot’s background as an offensive line coach, coupled with an experienced O-line, could lead to more production from the run game. Running back Kyler Neal showed flashes of potential in 2016 while Glenn Smith has great hands. Taz Bateman, another player who missed all of 2016, will also play a role.
The Panther defense is the best part of this team. The secondary is the best in the conference with Jerome Smith and Chandon Sullivan (18 passes defensed and three interceptions between the two) leading the way. Last year, Georgia State allowed just eight passing touchdowns while registering 11 interceptions.
The majority of the front seven returns, including lineman Mackendy Cheridor who had 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. While the Panthers were seventh in the conference in rushing defense, they did see more carries per game than any other team. They weren’t particularly hurt by this, as the Panthers were eighth in the Sun Belt in rushing yards allowed per contest in games won.
Georgia State could land anywhere between five and eight wins, that’s just the way of the Sun Belt. However, the Panthers will soon provide the conference with another competitive team and give the league a strong middle tier for the first time.