Predicting the best G5 college football teams in 2017

Thursday, May 25, 2017 marked 100 days until kickoff for many college football teams across the nation. Your Twitter feed was most likely filled with that reminder. Therefore, it is time, my friends, to predict the best Group of 5 teams in the country for 2017.

In a technicality, you could call this “Predicting the 10 best G5 teams…” but ranking teams is not necessarily the intention of this piece. Rather, let’s look at these teams in terms of tiers.

Tier 1 – will probably end 2017 as the best of G5

Tier 2 – some uncertainty surrounds team, but could be a dark horse

TIER 1

(in no particular order)

Boise State

Image Source: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise, [not] surprise…Boise State makes an appearance on this list. Can you blame us? The Broncos are the epitome of “best Group of Five football programs” With the rise of other G5 programs, Boise State might not necessarily be the clear-cut leader that they used to be, but they have definitely not given us a reason to cross them off the list.

This is a pivotal year for Boise State and head coach/alumnus Bryan Harsin: for better or for worse. Since his first year in 2014, the Broncos have gone 31-9, 1x MWC conference champions (2014), 1x division champions (2014), 1x division co-champions (2016), and won 2/3 bowl games (2014 and 2015). They have been good – better than a vast majority – but consistency would silence any doubters who have a watchful eye on Harsin. At Boise State, those statistics qualify as a “drought.” Year four is critical for coaches as it marks one recruiting cycle through the program. And with the #1 recruiting class in the Mountain West for 2017, this could be “The Year of Harsin.”

Key Losses: Jeremy McNichols, Thomas Sperbeck, Chanceller James, Sam McCaskill, Jonathan Moxey, Travis Averill, Mario Yakoo, Tanner Vallejo, Joe Martarano, Ben Weaver, Darren Lee

Key Returners: Brett Rypien, Cedrick Wilson, David Moa, Mason Hampton, Alexander Mattison, Jake Roh, Cameron Hartsfield, Jabril Frazier, Blake Whitlock, Kekoa Nawahine

Potential Problem(s)/Must Improve: 

Closing

There is no doubt that the Broncos were hot in the first half: outscoring opponents 277 to 131. However, teams would bounce back with 128 fourth quarter points…after scoring 175 points in the first three quarters. A cliché as old as time…Boise State has to play all four quarters.

Creating Turnovers

In 2016, the Broncos only created 9/nine/N-I-N-E turnovers: 2 fumble recoveries and 7 interceptions. In 2015, the Broncos had 31 takeaways and 22 picks. So simply put, the defense has to create turnovers. This should be resolved as the staff has implemented more of an aggressive attack and more blitzes.

Primary Strength(s)/Improved Areas:

Quarterback

After losing some offensive weapons, the Broncos will look to junior quarterback Brett Rypien to lead the team. Rypien had his ups and downs in 2016, but overall showed tremendous poise during his sophomore campaign: throwing a league-best 3,646 yards and had 24 touchdowns. Many have predicted that he will be the league’s best.

Must Win(s): This is difficult to pinpoint considering just how much the MWC improves each year. Boise State must be on their A-game because not only does San Diego State pose a problem, but Colorado State, Wyoming, and Air Force, as well. The road will be difficult, but there is no reason to believe that Boise State will not compete for the conference title.

Want more of the Broncos? Check out these links:

Navy

Image Source: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

Navy is that team for whom you should not dare leave off of your radar…but too many people choose to do so. The Midshipmen have a habit of winning and have winning records in 13 of the past 14 season. Transitioning as an Independent to the AAC has been a non-issue for Navy. During their first season as an AAC member in 2015, the Midshipmen went 11-2, #18 in the nation, co-division champions with Houston, and defeated Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl. Ken Niumatalolo leads one heck of a team.

However, 2016 seemed a bit flat compared to previous seasons. The Midshipmen went 9-5, lost to Air Force and Army, won their division, lost to Temple in the AAC Championship game, and lost to Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl. Then again, Navy had quality wins over Houston, Memphis, Notre Dame, and Tulsa. With Niumatalolo at the bow (yes, a very terrible pun) and some key returners, Navy could lead the AAC West division. Navy is Navy, and with their triple option and success, we are not about to be those people who leave the Midshipmen off of our list.

Key Losses: Will Worth, Jamir Tillman, Calvin Cass Jr., Josiah Powell, Dishan Romine, Shawn White, Amos Mason

Key Returners: Tre Walker, Darryl Bonner, Chris High, D.J. Palmore, Micah Thomas, Hudson Sullivan, Jarvis Polu, Alohi Gilman, Sean Williams

Potential Problem(s)/Must Improve:

Young Offense

Navy’s offense will feature a mere 4 returning starters…that is compared to the 7 returning starters on defense. Quarterback Zach Abey will be the team’s least experienced starting quarterback to open a season for the Midshipmen since 2012. In addition, the Midshipmen will have to replace wide receiver Jamir Tillman who had 91 catches for 1,626 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. However, Chris High returns; the workhorse’s presence should be relieving to Navy fans.

Primary Strengths/Improved Areas:

Secondary 

As mentioned, the defense features 7 returning starters: 4 of which come from the secondary. Safeties Alohi Gilman and Sean Williams ranked second and third on the team in tackles. While safeties leading tackling raises concerns regarding the front seven, the secondary should be more experienced and even more improved in 2017.

Must Win(s): Other than the obvious – Houston, Memphis, and Air Force – Navy needs to watch out for UCF. The Knights went from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-7 in 2016 (head Scott Frost’s first season with UCF). In his second season as head coach, Frost has the Knights in position to build off last season.

Want more on the Midshipmen? Check out these links:

Western Kentucky

Mike White
Image Source: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like every year – despite 6-straight winning seasons, 3 consecutive bowl wins, and back-to-back conference championships – people still doubt the Hilltoppers’ ability to sustain success. However, WKU has a knack for exemplifying the “next man up” mantra. They win, and they win with flash, pizzazz, and trick plays. Now, we will have to wait and see if newly hired Mike Sanford – the youngest coach in FBS – can follow-suit and be the “next man up” after offensive genius, Jeff Brohm, departed for Purdue. As with every team, WKU lost some STUDS, but they return some guys receiving a lot of nods heading into the 2017 season. One thing is for sure, I would not want to bet against them…

Key Losses: Forrest Lamp, Taywan Taylor, Ace Wales, Nicholas Norris, Nick Dawson-Brents, Keith Brown, Max Halpin, Darrell Williams Jr., Omarius Bryant

Key Returners: Mike White, D’Andre Ferby, Quinton Baker, Dennis Edwards, Lucky Jackson, Nacarius Fant, Marcus Ward, Chris Brown, Kylen Towner, Skyler Simcox, Brandon Ray, Joe Brown, Jake Collins, Joel

Potential Problem(s)/Must Improve: 

Receivers 

WKU still has one of the best quarterbacks in the nation with Mike White. In addition, fans seem convinced that running backs D’Andre Ferby and Quinton Baker could lead the conference. Receiving-wise, it had been the “Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris Show” for the past couple of seasons. While guys like Lucky Jackson and Nacarius Fant have proven they can be playmakers, they have some mighty large shoes to fill.

Secondary & Linebackers

In 2016, the Hilltoppers’ passing defense ranked #122…out of 128. This might necessarily be “The Biggest Question” heading into 2017, but rather, a “Must Improve” area. WKU returns plenty of guys to the backfield that should increase depth. Linebackers are probably the other biggest question after losing TJ McCollum (to Purdue) and Keith Brown. Both McCollum and Brown led the Hilltoppers in tackles: #3 and #1, respectively.  If the pass defense improves and the rushing defense is even half of what it was last season (SOLID), the defensive unit, as a whole, will be just fine.

Primary Strengths(s)/Improved Areas: 

Quarterback & Special Teams

In addition to Mike White and the running corps? Special Teams. What more is there to say other than that they were one of the best in the nation last season (and fun to watch).

Must Wins: Illinois and Vanderbilt. WKU has made it clear that they are kings of CUSA (right now), but they MUST defeat both P5 teams if they want to see themselves in a Top 25 or remain one of the best G5 teams. A perfect season is in due time; the 2017 schedule seems feasible for such. Now, it’s just up to those Hilltoppers.

Want more on the Hilltoppers? Check out these links:

*update: 6 Hilltoppers have been indicted and suspended indefinitely on charges stemming from an altercation with a WKU fraternity.

San Diego State

Image Source: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the AAC is, arguably, the best G5 conference, San Diego State is helping the MWC say “Not for long, AAC!” Simultaneously, this has caused issues for Boise State. The Broncos used to sit atop the MWC. No one could touch them. Now, the Aztecs have made a name for themselves within the conference…and nation.

Despite losing running back Donnel Pumphrey, we would not advise you to anticipate the Aztecs vacating the premises for the foreseeable future. They are loaded with talent and depth; anything less than 9-3 would shock us here at TRU Sports.

Key Losses: Donnel Pumphrey, Domontae Kazee, Tanner Blain, Calvin Munson, Malik Smith, Alex Barrett, Nico Siragusa, Daniel Brunskill

Key Returners: Christian Chapman, Rashaad Penny, Mikah Holder, David Wells, Parker Baldwin, Antonio Rosales, Ronley Lakalaka, Dakota Turner, Kameron Kelly, Trey Lomax, John Baron II, Ron Smith

Potential Problem(s)/Must Improve: 

Offensive Line & Corner

Primary Strengths(s)/Improved Areas: 

Experience from the right people

Must Win(s): Air Force and Boise State will be the Aztec’s toughest conference opponents, but it is their Week 2 game that could set the tone for the season. Although Arizona State went 5-7 in 2016, the Sun Devils are not in short supply of playmakers. Sure, Arizona State is still predicted to round out the bottom of the Pac-12, but San Diego State faces two Power Five (both Pac-12) teams in 2017 – Arizona State and Stanford – and it is crucial that the Aztecs at least win 1/2 of those matchups.

Want more on the Aztecs? Check out these links:

South Florida

Image Source: Jason Behnken/Getty Images

Right now, South Florida seems to be the most heavily favored G5 team heading into the 2017 season. In 2015, the Bulls started out the first five games 1-3. The criticism grew louder that it was time for [then] head coach Willie Taggart to hit the road. Including those first five games of 2015, the Bulls were 7-21 under Taggart. However, Taggart and the Bulls ended up putting together a solid 8-5 campaign: beating #21 Temple, coming in 2nd in the AAC’s East Division, and appearing in the Miami Beach Bowl where the Bulls fell to Taggart’s alma mater and previous head coaching gig (WKU). In 2016, South Florida played like an entirely new team. The Bulls posted an 11-2 record, ended the season AAC East Division co-champions, defeated South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl, and were ranked #19 in both Coaches and AP Polls.

Despite Taggart’s departure to Oregon, South Florida should be in more than capable hands with Charlie Strong.

Toledo

Image Source: Andrew Weber/Getty Images

TIER 2

Memphis

Wyoming

Houston

Western Michigan

 

If you thought to yourself, “Um, these seem like rankings from 2016,” you are not alone. As I put together this list, I had the same thought. However, I believe what we are seeing is much like what we see in the Power Five (Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson consistently dominating). In the same respect, the teams listed above have set themselves apart the past few seasons and consistently top the Group of Five.

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