Even the most casual football fan knows that Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma will be pretty good in 2017, but what about the next Western Michigan? The Group of Five includes the AAC (American Athletic Conference), Conference USA, MAC (Mid-American Conference), Mountain West, and the Sun Belt. Seemingly every year a team from the Group of Five goes deep into the season undefeated, lands into a New Year’s Day bowl and beats a Power Five team. Boise State over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Utah over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (yes Alabama has played in other bowls besides the National Championship game) TCU over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl are a few of the more contemporary examples. The challenge of programs in the Group of Five is retaining quality head coaches. The Power Five conferences are littered with Head Coaches that started in the Group of five, built up a program then took a job in the Power Five. Athletic directors then have to find another Head Coach. This turnover leads to parity amongst the group of five, because of this turnover and parity the group of five has one or two teams that will land a New Years day bowl.
The AAC lost three head coaches this off-season: Matt Rhule, formally of Temple, took the head coaching position at Baylor. Willie Taggart of South Florida took the Oregon job and Tom Herman became the new Head Coach at Texas. Rhule is an excellent hire for the Bears. Unless you are a blue blood program of college football you have to zig when everyone is zagging. Rhule’s offenses at Temple were based on running the football, controlling the clock, and winning field position. The Big 12 is filled with high-octane spread offenses that utilize the no huddle as primary means of moving the football. Baylor is attempting to be the “Stanford” of the Big 12. South Florida will have to replace the best coach in the program’s history in Taggart. Charlie Strong was quickly hired to succeed Taggart. Houston lost Head Coach Tom Herman to Texas. Each program enjoyed success under each head coach that will be difficult to replicate.
The program that will break out this season in the AAC is the SMU Mustangs. SMU was on the brink of becoming a blue blood program in the late 1970’s but recruiting scandals led to the first ever death penalty. ESPN covered SMU’s history in the 30 for 30 program the Pony Express. June Jones led a brief SMU comeback in the late 2000’s but the program fell flat. Chad Morris, the former offensive coordinator at Clemson, has been at SMU for two seasons and has improved the program each year. Along with Morris offensive coordinator, Joe Craddock and defensive coordinator Van Malone will be in their third season together next season. Morris has recruited well over the past two seasons finishing second in the conference in recruiting behind Houston last season.
Conference USA has been in a state of flux the past few seasons with teams leaving the conference and teams being added. Houston, Tulsa, Memphis, and ECU have all left the conference since 2013. Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Florida International joined Conference USA in 2013. Since joining Conference USA Western Kentucky has had an incredible run of hiring coaches: Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm that have led to two conference titles in the past two seasons. New Coach Mike Sanford may end up being an excellent hire but the 2017 season is a mystery due to Sanford being a first-time head coach. Marshall won 10, 13, and 10 games from 2013-2015, 2016 was not as successful going 3-9 but given Doc Holiday and the Thundering Herd history, they should have a bounce back season. Louisiana Tech has enjoyed recent success with Head Coach Skip Holtz winning nine games the past three seasons.
Conference USA’s breakout team in 2017 is Old Dominion. Old Dominion is a newcomer to Conference USA after making the jump from FCS three years ago. Normally it takes a new team a few years to compete in a new conference and Old Dominion was no different winning six games in 2014 than five in 2015. Last season the Monarchs won ten games. Success is not new to Head Coach Bobby Wilder. Wilder has compelled a record of 67-30 in eight seasons at Old Dominion. Given Wilders sustained success and the underrated recruiting grounds in Norfolk Virginia led me to believe that Old Dominion will break out and contend for the Conference USA Championship next season.