Oh, August. When optimism is high, and all fan bases, big and small, are free to dream big – conference trophies, bowl berths, and even possibly getting in the playoff and winning the biggest prize. In August, everyone is a champion. Even Pitt.
If the rest of 2016 has been any indication, college football is going to skid into bowl season a little bit on fire, smudged and dirty, ugly, scarred, and exhilarated. The power five schools are well documented, but what about the little guys? Group of five schools from Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt, and the American are all dreaming just as big as their Power Five brethren. Every year teams with better recruits, more plentiful resources, and playoff affiliation are beaten by schools who aren’t supposed to have a chance. It’s half the beauty of college football. Is the world the same without Utah beating Bama, without Appalachian State beating Michigan, without Boise State taking down Oklahoma? Absolutely not. So will 2016 be the year of the underdog? Doubtful. But a few teams will make some noise by beating damn near everyone on their schedule until deep into the year, with only one possibly getting an invite to the big kid’s table in a New Year’s bowl game.
Unless the Idaho Vandals are up there in their glorified Quonset hut preparing their first successful plan in some decades to win more than twice a season, the cast that has a horse in the race should not be too much of a shock.
- Central Florida Knights
The Knights always seem to show up in the pre-season as a G5 team to beat. Still not sure why this is – the only team that chokes like UCF seems to in the clutch is Oklahoma – except the Sooners aren’t nearly as obnoxious about it. Watching UCF play is a little like existing in Florida at all – it’s somehow raw and would be exciting if it wasn’t all destined to fail spectacularly. All we can hope is that no faces get eaten after UCF drops two conference games in November and fade into the annals of “Aw, they almost had it.”
- San Diego State Aztecs
The problem with trusting a Mountain West team who isn’t clad in blue and orange is the heartbreak. The Aztecs are going to run roughshod through much of their schedule after somehow beating Cal and losing to Northern Illinois, and should contend for a MWC championship. The issue lies in that that championship is likely going to be against Boise State, and the Aztecs won’t have enough firepower. Unfortunate. Maybe Rocky Long can be convinced of that Boise Mystique after all.
- Brigham Young Cougars
BYU is going to be an extremely good football team. If they can make it through their absolutely brutal independent schedule no worse than 10 – 2, they will have an amazing case for not only a big bowl berth, but playoff inclusion. However, it’s equally as likely that they’ll drop 2 games in September and this pick will look as silly after the fact as it feels to be making it right now.
- Boise State Broncos
Boise is returning a ton of great players, and may even be able to replace what was lost to the NFL last season. Offense and defense should both be strong, and if they have figured out how to stop the few big heartbreaking plays that led to the 8-5 finish from last season, then look out. However, the Bronco’s schedule isn’t doing them any favors, unless WSU, BYU, and Oregon State end up being a lot better than they have been in recent seasons. The rest of the Mountain West will have to do their parts to get Boise to the NY6 by winning OOC unless Boise manages to go undefeated.
- Houston Cougars
The Cougars return a Heisman candidate in Greg Ward Jr. and should have a great defense. They went 13-1 last season, and beat Florida State in their bowl game. This team is stacked and has a friendly, if not easy schedule. They could run the table, but will have to in order to play on New Year’s. For a team arguing for inclusion in the Big 12, 2016 could be a huge season for Houston. Not only as a program, but as a university.
Watching group of five football is intense. The jockeying at the top of the playoff rankings is crazy and drives a lot of conversation, but look closer. At the top of the G5 conferences, the discussion is just as commanding of attention, but with much higher stakes. Teams that reside on the fringes have a much smaller margin of error. 8-5 is nice, but it’s not going to build a new locker room or pay anybody’s cost of attendance stipend. MACtion isn’t just a mid-week distraction, it’s an extra $500k in the pockets of schools who can use that money to really improve their student’s situations, not to put a new marble fountain in the entryway of the coach’s offices. The more of these teams who make noise, the less of an argument that remains for a lack of playoff inclusion. That’s why it’s important to watch – because one of these teams might break that barrier and unleash the most chaotic ending to a football season ever. Besides, drunkenly watching Hawaii/UNLV at 1 AM with Twitter is a pretty decent time – playoff inclusion or not.