It’s more or less halfway, just work with me here.
It’s been yet another interesting season of college football, so why not take some time to assess which teams have been the biggest surprises in both good and bad ways from each conference in the Group of Five/
First, let’s rank the conferences:
- Mountain West
- Sun Belt
- Conference USA
The caveat to this list is that the MWC is closer to the Sun Belt than the American. Boise is the best team in the Mountain West by S&P+, but they would be just ahead of Temple for seventh in the American.
The American has two teams (ECU at 101 and UConn at 126) below 90th in S&P+ and seven in the top 45.
The Mountain West and the Sun Belt both have the same kind of set up at the moment. A clear top team (Boise and App State) and a handful of close runners up (Air Force and Utah State, Louisiana), then everyone else.
Take another leap and you hit Conference USA, which has six teams in the bottom 25 and UAB leading the pack at 75th.
Take another leap, then fall off the cliff, roll across the street under a few 18-wheelers and you’ll be looking at the MAC. Western Michigan is the highest-rated team at 96th, and they have almost half of the teams in the bottom 25.
As for specific surprises though, let’s tackle the good first.
AAC – Tulane, SMU, and Cincinnati
These are relative surprises, plus a hat-tip to Navy for their early defense-driven resurgence.
SMU was supposed to be good as long as Shane Buechele clicked with the new offense, but I’m not sure anyone anticipated them clicking to the point of being 7-0 and ranked 16th in the country.
They’re far from out of the woods since they play in the tougher division, have five divisional games left, and have four of them on the road. But I think it’s safe to say that SMU is back.
Cincinnati is the Mustangs with a road trip to Ohio State on their record. Their defense is strong and their schedule is weak, but they found a way to beat UCF and they’re unlikely to be tested again until they end the season with Temple and Memphis.
Tulane is another team that has been hanging out in “if they could just connect all the dots” territory for a while, and it looks like Willie Fritz’s hard work is finally paying dividends. After seasons of being good on only one side of the ball, they finally have a strong offense and a decent defense.
They too have played a relatively weak schedule, and last Saturday’s bad loss to Memphis tarnished the shine on this year a bit. That said, this is still the earliest the Green Wave have been bowl eligible since the 1998 National Championship* season, and the first time in the same span they’ve been bowl-eligible in consecutive seasons.
Mountain West – San Jose State
Sure, we could put Air Force and their resurgent offense here as they now sit a single win away from bowl eligibility, and perhaps it’s odd to see San Jose State here after you look at the standings and see the Spartans in their usual spot at the bottom.
That said, they’re competing for the first time in a while, and that’s an important stepping stone to winning. They’re only 3-4, but they took down Arkansas on the road and nearly beat Nevada on the road as well.
Sure, they’re unlikely to be favored in any game except perhaps their trip to UNLV, but 3-4 is an accomplishment after 3-22 the last two seasons combined. Josh Love has made the leap in his senior season, and the Spartans at a minimum have enough offense to be interestingly bad and keep most of their games close for most of the time.
I know that’s a lot of faint praise, but it really is nice to be able to talk about SJSU positively.
Sun Belt – Georgia State
It’s honestly a bit of a miracle that this Georgia State team is in position to return to a bowl game this season.
Sure, they shocked the world with a road win against Tennessee. But that win looks even more surprising considering what has happened since. The Panthers needed 48 points to defeat Furman by a touchdown, then got smoked 57-10 by a Western Michigan team that has scored more than 31 points once in five games since.
They followed that by losing in triple overtime to a Texas State team that has no other FBS wins, but they went out last week and took down Army.
They’ve got a strong offense, which should come as no surprise to anyone who caught the Tennessee game, but it’s still surprising to see Dan Ellington on pace for almost 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Tra Barnett has also found his groove with 100+ yards in four of the last five games.
The only sure win left on their schedule is South Alabama, but the only sure loss is Appalachian State, so a lot is still possible for this Panther team.
A close second is Louisiana-Monroe, who is doing this season what we had been waiting for under Matt Viator – the same “plenty of offense and just enough defense” that Georgia State has executed and Troy wanted to execute. It has still been surprising to see that attack led by Josh Johnson as much as Caleb Evans.
Conference USA – Western Kentucky
Three weeks into the season, things couldn’t look much worse for the Hilltoppers. They were 1-2, lost at home to FCS Central Arkansas, and had just watched Stephen Duncan – their starting quarterback to that point – have season-ending surgery.
What have they done since then? Not much. Only defeat four teams in a row behind the play of Ty Storey, the Arkansas transfer who nearly won the quarterback job during fall camp.
It’s up for debate as to whether Storey has truly been better on paper. Duncan completed 59% of his passes for 6.6 yards per attempt, 263 yards per game, and five touchdowns to four interceptions. Storey has completed 70% of his passes for 7.7 yards per attempt and only one interception to five touchdowns, but he also has been sacked nine times to Duncan’s two.
The offense is more efficient, as seen in Gaej Walker’s yards per carry, but the defense has been the real star. A unit that surrendered 10 touchdowns in their first three games has only given up four in the last four games, two of which came on either the first or last drive of the game.
They’re not clearly the best team in the conference – CUSA has seven teams ranked between 75 and 89 in S&P+ and they’re sixth in that group. But at 4-0 in conference their next two weeks could have the division locked up early with continued defensive dominance and just enough offense.
Mid-American – Kent State and Ball State
In the 30 seasons prior to this one, the Golden Flashes had 6+ wins three times, and three or fewer wins 20 times. This season marks only the fifth time that Kent State has reached three wins by mid-October, which says as much about the program’s history as Sean Lewis’ success, but is still a big positive.
Bowl eligibility is still a reach, but the MAC is even more wide open than usual this season.
Ball State was entering a make-or-break year for head coach Mike Neu since it turns out injuries weren’t his only limitation, and expectations were relatively low after the transfers of Riley Neal and James Gilbert.
Instead, Drew Plitt has been an absolute revelation in his junior season. He was completely shut down by Northern Illinois but the Cardinals found a way to win anyway.
In their other six games, Plitt has completed 68% of his passes for 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions, a full-season rate on par with what Logan Woodside accomplished in his last season in Toledo.
Expectations have definitely shifted after they absolutely boat-raced Toledo, and they’re the lone team in the MAC to rank inside the top 100 for both offense and defense, but again. See previous caveat about the conference.
Independents – Liberty
I’m still figuring out just how much of a surprise this is. We knew that a Liberty team that returned one of the most talented and experienced quarterback/wide receiver dous in the country and added Hugh Freeze’s offensive mind would likely put up some numbers.
They haven’t really blown anyone away except for the two FCS opponents they faced, and they’re 0-2 against teams rated in the top 100 of S%P+. But they did just enough to beat both New Mexico and New Mexico State, and they’re now one win away from bowl eligibility with Rutgers and UMass up next.
The Flames won’t play another home game until their season finale against NMSU, but they’ve played well enough that they’re looking at a likely 8-4 season, which was an absolute best-case scenario two months ago.