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2015 College Football Conference Preview: Group of Five Leagues

The preview in which we pretend these programs play in the same division as the Power 5 conferences.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Are we still several years away from a Group of Five team making the CFB Playoffs? Will it ever happen? Who are the teams that will challenge for the Peach or Fiesta Bowls? Let's find out.

Top Storylines

Will Boise get through September unscathed? Will it matter?

The Blue Turf Train just keeps on rolling with a Fiesta Bowl victory last year while heading into the off-season with 9 straight wins. The  Broncos were the only team outside the Power 5 to be ranked in the Coaches Poll and it wasn't even close. Early games against Washington, BYU, and Virginia will be big early tests and resume padding against a terribly weak Mountain West schedule.

Memphis looking for back-to-back 10 win seasons

The Tigers exploded last year, nearly taking out UCLA in the Rose Bowl then winning their last 7 games to finish 10-3 and share a conference title. Head coach Justin Fuente is near the top the DGT™ list and is getting a lot of benefit to replace nearly half his starters (and most on defense) to repeat another tremendous season.

Will Kiel get some defensive help?

Our former friend Gunner Kiel had a successful first season with the Bearcats and is expected to lead a very potent offense that could score their way to an AAC title. The defense, which gave up an average of 44.7 points in Cincinnati's 4 losses last season, is still rebuilding and replacing the bulk of their front seven. A 3-game stretch against Memphis, Miami, and BYU could define their season and major bowl opportunities.

BGSU set to out-score everyone in the MAC?

Quarterback Matt Johnson missed nearly all of 2014 with a hip injury and returns to guide a ton of returning starters which should be the best in the conference. The Falcons are like their in-state brethren in Cincinnati with an offense no one may catch but a defense completely rebuilding and likely to let the team down at some point.

Underestimate Northern Illinois at your own risk

Bowling Green is the trendy pick to win the MAC but don't forget the Huskies from NIU. You know, the team that beat BGSU by 34 points in the MAC title game and has won 57 games over the last 5 years. They might not be as explosive on offense, yet Northern Illinois has a much more stable defense. They should mosey into the league championship game once again.

A new secondary could drown UCF

The Knights have quietly gone 31-9 over the last 3 years and must be considered one of the favorites in the AAC once again. However, they have to replace their entire secondary and that is not good news with some of the firepower at the top end of the league. While they miss Memphis they have to go to Cincinnati after playing solid conference competitors in Temple and Houston.

Chuckie Keeton returns for his 9th year

If there's a team that could take down Boise State in the Mountain West it's probably only Utah State. Keeton returns from injury to lead an offense with an experienced line. There are also enough pieces on defense to give any team fits. They'll get the Broncos at home, although that game is sandwiched in between road games at Fresno and San Diego State.

Western Kentucky offense ready to dominate

In the Group of 5 conferences there are a couple things that are easy indicators to like a team--a dominant offense and a strong finish to last season. The Hilltoppers check both boxes. As favorites in the Conference-USA they might lead the entire country in scoring this year (5th last year) and simply overwhelm everyone in the league.

Will revenge to end the season matter for Marshall?

Last year the Thundering Herd were one of the hot picks to make a major bowl game. It looked entirely likely after a 11-0 start before Marshall faltered in overtime in the regular season finale against WKU. Now, they're expected to take a major drop-off after losing 12 starters. Still, the schedule is entirely manageable and a trip to Western Kentucky to end the season may decide the conference.

Skip Holtz' stock is back in the game

A 3-9 finish at USF and 4-8 debut season at Louisiana Tech had everyone down on Skip Holtz. Then, the Bulldogs won 9 games last year, made the Conference-USA title game, and beat Illinois in their bowl game. They return a solid group of veterans and look to be the favorite in the East division for 2015. One thing to watch for is Florida transfer Jeff Driskel doing Jeff Driskel things to the offense should he win the QB job.

Western Michigan a smart pick to win the MAC

If you're in Vegas soon you might want to throw some money down on the Broncos winning the MAC. They aren't among the few favorites so it could be a nice payout. P.J. Fleck & Co. took tremendous strides last year (1 to 8 win improvement) and they've run away with the best recruiting in the conference over the past 2 seasons. With only 4 lost starters this might be the year Fleck truly becomes a national name.

Will App State run away with the Sun Belt?

The Mountaineers first year in FBS went reasonably well with a 7-5 record and only 2 losses in league play. For 2015, they're returning 20 starters, get their toughest league games at home, and came together winning their last 6 games a year ago. That's a lot of momentum which should guide them to the Belt title.

New Coaches

Tom Herman, Houston

Former OC at Ohio State is jumping into his first head coaching position at any level.

Chad Morris, SMU

One of the country's top offensive minds walked away from Deshaun Watson at Clemson to take his first college head coaching position.

Phil Montgomery, Tulsa

Spent almost a decade at Baylor as their OC and now jumps up north to guide the Golden Hurricane.

Lance Leipold, Buffalo

Totaled a ridiculous 109-6 record at Wisconsin-Whitewater while winning 6 D-III National Championships in 8 seasons.

John Bonamego, CMU

Has spent the last 15 years kicking around the NFL as a special teams coach. Returns to coach his alma mater where he played receiver in the mid-1980's.

Mike Bobo, Colorado State

Long-time assistant coach at Georgia, and OC for the Bulldogs since 2007, takes his first head coaching job while replacing Jim McElwain in Fort Collins.

Tony Sanchez, UNLV

Spend the last decade as a high school head coach, the last 6 at Bishop Gorman, and moves across town to take over the Rebels.

Neal Brown, Troy

Takes over for Larry Blakeney (24 seasons!) where he was an assistant from 2006-09. Spent the last few years at Texas Tech and Kentucky.

The Favorites and Confidence in Said Favorites

Boise State or Cincinnati or Memphis or Western Kentucky or App State or Bowling Green

I think these are the 6 teams who have the best shot(s) to make a major bowl game. Due to being in the Sun Bowl I could see App State going unbeaten but even that unblemished record might not be enough. No respect for the SBC!

Boise State is the safe pick but could be out of the race after a few weeks. I don't know if any other team has the clout, schedule, and resume to make the top non-playoff bowls. Such is life.

Top Non-League Matchup

Boise State at BYU

Boise State opens up hosting Washington in the return of former coach Chris Petersen. The Broncos figure to be decent favorites in that but then travel to Provo in week 2 to face Tayson Hill-led BYU. That's likely to be Boise's toughest game of the season. Make it through 2-0 and they will only need not to trip up the rest of the way and win convincingly to make their case for the Playoff Committee.

Top League Matchup

Cincinnati at Memphis

Marshall's rematch at Western Kentucky is the glamorous pick if you think the Herd can keep up in the C-USA all thr way through the season. From a national perspective, the Bearcats traveling to Memphis in week 4 is likely to be the top game from the Group of 5 games that could decide a conference and/or put someone in the driver's seat for a major bowl appearance. They could also meet again in the league title game, too.

Freshman to Watch

Tristan Payton, WR, UCF

WR Desean Holmes was the top rated Group of Five recruit (154th overall Composite) but won't be academicallyeligible this season. Kanya Bell, also another WR, was the next highest rated recruit (241st) but was dismissed from San Jose State this summer following a domestic battery arrest.

That leave receiver Tristan Payton at 250th overall as the highest rated recruit among the non-Power 5 teams. Payton has already excelled in the Knights fall camp and should play a lot this season.

Sell that Stock

East Carolina

Shane Carden is gone at quarterback, as are the top 2 wideouts who combined for 2,510 yards last year. There are also plenty of other holes on the roster and a schedule that is among the most difficult in the Group of 5 leagues. The Pirates have road games at Florida, Navy, BYU, and UCF plus home dates versus Virginia Tech, Temple, and Cincinnati. A record below .500 wouldn't be crazy at all.

Buy that Stock

Miami (OH)

Chuck Martin lost 7 games in 6 seasons as head coach at Grand Valley State. He lost 10 games at Miami (OH) just last year alone. But as most Notre Dame fans will tell you emphatically, "He took over a program that was at rock bottom."

So really nowhere to go but up and Martin brought in the best recruiting class in the MAC outside of Fleck's Western Michigan. An early season slate versus Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Western Kentucky will likely bury them but there's a lot of returning starters on defense to find 4 or 5 wins against the likes of Kent State, Ohio, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, or Akron.