Major Impression, Minor Perspective
August 22, 2016 by Jonathan Lowe • Print Story •
Last year, I touched on the fact that the Group of Five get a seat at the Primetime table, garnering at least one bid for the New Years' Six bowls.
This year, I'm going to focus in a bit more on the favorites to grab the seat (if not multiple bids). As the season plays itself out, so many things will change. That makes this race to hard to completely simulate. However, we can get a sense of which teams might have a shot going in. Over the next month, those contenders will play some major competition, giving themselves a chance at some "credibility" points with the Selection Committee. So, which teams have that shot in Week 1?
Western Michigan @ Northwestern
I highlighted the Broncos at the beginning of last season because of their daunting non-conference schedule, which included a visit from Michigan State and a trip to Ohio State. This year's slate isn't nearly as impressive, but that means it could be much more negotiable. The offensive triplet that made me take a favorable look at P.J. Fleck's squad is back for one more go.
It starts with quarterback Zach Terrell, who should be in a heated race with Central Michigan's Cooper Rush for the MAC's top signal-caller (now that Bowling Green's Matt Johnson has graduated). The stage has cleared for wideout Corey Davis to shine, who led the league last season in receiving yards per game. After being a part of a dynamic duo that included Daniel Braverman, Davis will be the focus on Terrell's aerial arsenal. Then, there's the one-two punch in the backfield. Sophomore Jamauri Bogan and junior Jarvion Franklin accounted for nearly 1,800 yards on the ground last season. There shouldn't be overuse from last season, and one should be more than capable of stepping up if the other gets injured.
If the Broncos can get out of Evanston with a win, you would think that they have a pretty favorable journey to finish undefeated going into the MAC title game.
Colorado State vs. Colorado
The Rams went 2-2 during last year's non-conference slate. Those two losses happened in overtime. They will get the opportunity to avenge one of those when they travel to Minneapolis on the last Saturday of September. Before facing the Gophers, though, Mike Bobo's will have a chance for some "get-back" against their Front Range rival. The Buffaloes continue to make strides, and they will look to get out of the gate fast on their hopeful return to bowl consideration.
CSU should be a little more settled in 2016. Mike Bobo has a season under his belt as a head coach. Quarterback Nick Stevens has a year of playing experience under his belt. Dalyn Dawkins should get an opportunity to go over 1,000 yards as the featured tailback. There are some questions that still need to be addressed. Bobo's staff will have to develop a more pronounced receiving corps (top wideout Rashard Higgins decided to jump the to NFL). The defense will have to improve from their mid-league rankings of 2015. Alongside the opener, the Rams should expect quite a bit of resistance from the offensive-happy MWC.
I don't believe an undefeated season is in the cards in Fort Collins, but an 11-win season (including the MWC title) isn't impossible. That may be enough to vault CSU into the conversation for a New Years' Six bowl...
Boise State @ Louisiana-Lafayette
... unless you give the Broncos a say in that discussion. To me, this game is one of the most intriguing of the first weekend. Boise State now has the reputation that former coaches Bobby Bowden and Pat Hill loved to tout (anyone, anywhere, anytime). For the first time since 2008, BSU will open up their season against a non-Power Five opponent. It's an interesting position for the Broncos. They're the favorite to win the MWN Mountain Division. They should be the second favorite in the "Group of Five" race for a New Years' Six bowl, behind Houston. I'll get to the Cougars in a little bit.
But, for now, I'll turn to the home squad in this contest. The Ragin' Cajuns are in a very interesting position, on and off the field. Inside the program, they did not put together a good campaign last season. It was, technically, the first season that coach Mark Hudspeth led a sub-.500 team in his era. The reason I say technically is that there have been some NCAA recruiting violations during Hudspeth's time in Lafayette. That means the four 9-4 records that he accumulated in each of the first four years he was coach don't exist, according to the NCAA (22 of those 36 wins were vacated).
There's also the factor of the effects surrounding the devastating floods that Louisiana is continuing to endure. You would have to think that there will be a lot of emotion at Cajun Field on September 3rd.
If they can find a way to top (in my opinion) the highest-profile program in the "Group of Five" candidates, this may set up a turnaround campaign in which they will host Sun Belt contenders Appalachian State and Arkansas State.
Appalachian State @ Tennessee
I may be looking forward to peeking at this game more than any other on opening weekend (especially since it helps to kickoff the season on Thursday, September 1st). The Mountaineers have been in this position before. In 2007, the (at-that-time) defending FCS champions were guests of the Michigan Wolverines. Fans at the Big House in Ann Arbor might have been expecting a fun time with a lopsided victory. What they didn't expect was an opponent that would lead the Maize & Blue at the half. What they didn't expect was the Wolverines driving late in the fourth to set up a game-winning field goal attempt. What they didn't expect was a block at the line to secure an App. State victory over their nationally fifth-ranked squad.
Could this situation mirror itself nearly a decade later? The Mountaineers are now a full-fledged FBS member. They haven't had near the success they created in the mid-2000s, which shouldn't have been expected with this crossover. However, this current version DID just come off of an 11-2 season. The duo that accounted for 40 touchdowns (QB Taylor Lamb & RB Marcus Cox) is back for another go at it. The Volunteers are riding a lot of hype in their hopeful return to national title-contending status. Even in the wake of the 2007 shocker, could Tennessee possibly overlook the Mountaineers? You wouldn't think so, but stranger things have happened. If it does, expect Boone, N.C. to be overloaded when Miami visits on September 17th.
Oklahoma vs. Houston
On Sunday, the Associated Press released its first ranking poll of the 2016 season. Based on those digits, this matchup should be the second-best of the opening weekend (behind Ole Miss at Florida State). This might not have been the case as short as a decade. The Cougars have built a new tradition very rapidly under their recent run of head coaches. It was built under Art Briles, sustained under Kevin Sumlin, and then re-established last season under first-year coach Tom Herman. Briles translated his success into the job at Baylor. Sumlin took his talents up the road to Texas A&M. Herman was courted by several major programs this offseason, but decided to negotiate together a new contract with the program.
Now, he can look to become the new Boise State, with an opportunity to notch what I believe would be the biggest victory of the first weekend. A victory such as this would bring a lot of eyes on quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., a player in the mold of Clemson's Deshaun Watson without the same amount of attention (Ward accounted for 3,936 total yards and 36 total TDs last season). More importantly, a victory like this would set Houston up to be a top-10 team as long as they keep winning.