The 2018 college football season was another successful one for “Group of Five” programs.
Six G5 teams finished in the AP top-25, with UCF leading the way by finishing in top-15 and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl game for the second consecutive season.
Given the recent success of G5 programs, here’s my annual look at seven teams who are on the rise and could challenge for the NY6 bowl spot in the coming years.
The criteria for “Under the Radar” is if one or more of the following applies:
- The program hasn’t won a conference championship in the previous four seasons.
- Has made a coaching change within the previous four seasons.
- Has had multiple losing seasons withing the previous four seasons
- Was a member of FCS within the previous four seasons.
Each program will be ranked 1-7 in the following categories: Overall, Head Coach, Stadium/Facilities, Location.
I’ll take two steps outside of UDD’s coverage range for this list.
The first of those steps starts with the Aggies, who finished 22nd in the nation last season and won the New Mexico Bowl over another G5 stalwart in North Texas.
Former head coach Matt Wells left Utah State in great shape when he took the Texas Tech position in the off-season.
The team won 11 games and returns arguably the best linebacker in the G5 in David Woodward. Starting QB Jordan Love has also been recognized as one of the top quarterbacks in the G5.
There’s more than enough room for the Aggies to once again contend for a conference championship in 2019.
Head Coach: 3
Wells’ departure opened up room for Utah State’s reunion with Gary Andersen, who compiled a 26-24 record while serving as Utah State’s head coach from 2009-2012.
The 55-year-old Utah native is coming off of stints at Wisconsin (2013-2014) and Oregon State (2015-2017).
He left USU following an 11 win season and a top 20 finish in the final AP rankings, including a victory in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Logan, Utah won’t be a selling point to very many.
However, its proximity to California makes it a destination that will attract recruits from the Golden State. Additionally, their roster includes multiple players from Florida and Texas.
Maverik Stadium has undergone various upgrades in the past two decades, and being in Utah allows for it to be one of the more scenic venues in CFB.
Their football facilities are state-of-the-art, with both the ICON Sports performance center and Laub Athletics-Academics Complex being built in the past ten years. The former of which boasts four floors and 21,000 square feet worth of room.
The Panthers come in at number two on this list after a program record for wins in a season (9) and a bowl victory over Toledo last season.
FIU’s 18 years of existence have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride.
Their formative years saw little success, then the hiring of now Oregon Ducks HC Mario Cristobal yielded back-to-back bowl appearances. After Cristobal was fired, Ron Turner never saw his program get back on the rails.
Enter Butch Davis in 2017, and the program is its most stable in their relatively young life. The team returns 19 starters and two of Conference USA’s best players in QB James Morgan and LB Sage Lewis.
Head Coach: 1
Davis has had a see-saw of a career himself as a head coach.
He went 51-20 at Miami, taking over a program that was riddled with sanctions and scholarship restrictions.
His recruiting with the Hurricanes paved the way for arguably the greatest CFB team ever in the 2001 Miami Hurricanes.
After a stint in the NFL, he took the North Carolina job, where he led the Tar Heels to three straight bowl games.
However, that stint ended abruptly when he resigned due to an academic scandal.
No penalties were levied against him and he’s gone 17-9 in his first two seasons at FIU.
Yes, the Panthers play in Miami.
Technically, they're the only CFB team to do so (Miami plays its home games on the Dade/Broward county border). However, they're far and away behind the Hurricanes in relevance.
Additionally, South Florida hasn’t been known as a great sports area (unless you’re winning).
What they do have the luxury of is sitting squarely in the midst of the top college football recruiting ground in America.
Davis has been able to land homegrown talent and as a result, he’s put together one of C-USA’s most impressive rosters.
The positive is that the facilities are on the upswing and recruits are talking. $15 million dollars in upgrades have been pledged or already enacted since Davis’ hiring in 2017.
Those include new practice fields, upgrades to the weight room and $3.75 million dollars towards Riccardo Silva Stadium.
However, being in South Florida, practices run the risk of being canceled due to weather without an IPF (Indoor Practice Facility).
Riccardo Silva Stadium at its peak can be a very loud environment. The issue is there aren’t enough fans to bring the stadium to half-capacity on most Saturdays.
Willie Fritz and the Green Wave are looking to take the next step and compete for an AAC West title after their first bowl victory in 16 years.
The time for Tulane to strike is now. AAC division foes Memphis and Houston lost numerous players to the NFL draft, while the Green Wave return their leading passer, rusher and receiver.
This is the first full season with Fritz’s roster being stocked with his own recruits. At each stop in his 22-year coaching career, his teams have never regressed with his talent in place.
Head Coach: 2
While Fritz might not be a proven commodity at the FBS level just yet, there’s no doubt about his ability to win games. He has a career record of 170-90 over four stops (Tulane, Georgia Southern, Sam Houston State, Central Missouri).
After four and five-win seasons in his first two years in New Orleans, he won seven games last season and Tulane was a tie-breaker away from winning the AAC West.
It may sound hypocritical to downgrade FIU for being in Miami and give Tulane the edge for being in New Orleans.
Hear me out.
Yes, the Big Easy is just as much a party as South Beach.
However, in terms of being in an area that has more invested when it comes to CFB, New Orleans takes the edge.
Now, that fandom doesn’t quite extend to Tulane. The difference is, Tulane's the only game in town, compared to FIU’s battle against UM.
Yulman Stadium will celebrate its fifth birthday one week after the Green Wave’s week one game (coincidentally against FIU) and is a top notch on-campus facility, that seats 30,000 fans and has the ability to expand to 40,000 in the coming years.
The ancillary facilities are housed at Yulman and as a result, are up to par with AAC and G5 competition.
After getting a little off-track under Tyson Summers, the Eagles are coming off a double-digit win season and a bowl victory.
The aforementioned Willie Fritz led Georgia Southern’s ascent into FBS football in 2014 and in their first season being bowl-eligible, they won the GoDaddy Bowl.
Former UCF defensive coordinator Tyson Summers took over and was dismissed 18 games later after a 5-13 record.
Insert Chad Lunsford and the Eagles are back on track.
He went 10-3 in his first full season and the team looks to win their first Sun Belt Conference title in 2019.
Head Coach: 5
Lunsford took over with six weeks remaining in the 2017 season and went 2-4 after Summers was fired.
The Elberton, Georgia native, who was part of Fritz's staff prior to Summers, has deep ties to recruiting in the state and was able to make the most out of the homegrown talent that Summers wasn’t.
Like Utah State in Logan, Statesboro, GA won’t be bringing anybody in on vacation.
However, it’s a four-hour drive to Charlotte, a three-hour drive to Atlanta, and a two and a half hour drive to Jacksonville.
That means Statesboro is driving distance to three of the most fertile high school football recruiting states in the nation.
Allen E. Paulson Stadium has been labeled, “The Prettiest Little Stadium in America.” While it certainly can live up to that billing, it is a 35-year-old facility.
Newer doesn’t always mean better, however the facility won’t wow anyone. With that being said, it’s not a detriment and is more than adequate enough to attract talent.
The same goes for the facilities, with the Gene Bishop Field House and Ted Smith Family Football Center, which are newer buildings and are on-par with G5 counterparts.
The Rebels have been a trendy pick as an under the radar program playing in Las Vegas. Now they’re on the cusp of making those visions an actuality.
In a city known for gambling, I’m truly betting on an unproven commodity with UNLV football.
With just one bowl appearance in 19 years, and only one other season with a .500 record in that span, UNLV football isn’t exactly a sure bet.
But they have enough talent to get their proverbial ducks in a row. QB Armani Rogers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in America when healthy, although the passing aspect of that dual-threat presence can lack at times.
The defense returns enough talent to be competitive and the offensive line will pave the way for the run game.
Head Coach: 6
Tony Sanchez is a legend in Las Vegas and the State of Nevada.
He won six straight state championships at Bishop Gorman High School in Vegas.
More importantly for his current job, he's sent dozens of players to FBS schools during his time at the prep level.
However, on the collegiate level, it’s been a work in progress finding success.
His club improved in wins in each of their first three seasons, but when it looked like everything would come together, Rogers went down with injury and UNLV regressed to three wins. While I don’t believe it should be, 2019 could possibly be a make or break year for Sanchez.
Las Vegas is world-renowned for many things. Sports aren’t one of them.
Until recently, that is.
With the success and more importantly, fan support of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, “Sin City” has proved that it can be a sports town. Pencil in the Raiders coming to town in 2020 and the sports scene is truly on the upswing.
It’s proximity to California is certainly a plus and the fact that Sanchez’s brother is now the coach at the local powerhouse that he left behind doesn’t hurt the recruiting efforts.
Can wait till 2020 be a good enough answer? The Raiders $1.8 billion dollar palace is set to open in 2020 and along with that, it will house both the Raiders and Rebels.
The Feritta brothers (of UFC fame and wealth) are donors to UNLV and are funding the eponymously-named football complex to be built in the coming years for UNLV's practice facility.
Located in the Queen City, the crown jewel of Conference USA may very well be the Charlotte 49ers.
If FIU is just becoming an adult at 18, Charlotte is just entering the second grade. Entering their eighth year of existence (5th in FBS), the Niners are 25-52.
However, last season’s five-win campaign gave room for hope for a few reasons.
First, the team was able to compete for a bowl without consistent quarterback play. Second, Ben Lemay established himself as arguably the top rusher in C-USA. Third, the defense excelled and returns various key pieces.
Head Coach: 7
Will Healy is a rising star in the coaching ranks, whose relative inexperience is fitting for the youthful program.
The 34-year-old former Richmond Spiders quarterback is 13-21 as a collegiate head coach.
While the record is nothing exceptional, the key is in the details.
Healy took an Austin Peay program that had one victory in its previous four seasons to an eight-win campaign in 2017.
He brings youth and enthusiasm to a program, that, quite frankly, may need a shot in the arm after Brad Lambert’s seven seasons.
Charlotte tops my list, because it’s the perfect blend of location and recruiting grounds. The Queen City is one of the fastest growing cities in America, but still holds a rural feel to it.
When I covered the FIU/Charlotte game last season, I was struck by how appealing the campus was, tucked about 30 minutes away from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
In the 2019 NFL Draft, the usual states were represented.
In order, the states that boasted the most draft picks were: Florida, Texas, California, Georgia and Ohio. But closely following was North Carolina, which had nine players selected.
The point is, if Healy can recruit Charlotte and the rest of the Tar Heel state well, he’ll have hit the proverbial gold mine.
Jerry Richardson Stadium seats just over 15,000 people, and at six years old, is an underrated facility with great potential.
The stadium does get loud and, because of its small capacity, provides a very intimate feel.
The football field house and offices are housed at Jerry Richardson Stadium and are top-notch.
The Flames are the new kids on the block in FBS football, with their first year of bowl eligibility being the upcoming season.
Liberty takes the final spot in the overall rankings purely because of their youth.
The program has been around since 1973, but competed at various levels (NAIA, D-II, FCS) before joining FBS in 2018.
Ex-Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill did a more than admirable job in guiding the program though the past seven seasons, and has since turned the reigns over to former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.
Head Coach: 4
To call Freeze (and AD Ian McCaw) controversial is an understatement. The fact of the matter is this - this duo couldn’t exist at many other FBS programs.
Quite frankly, this may be the only place it would work. But, they’re in place at Liberty and the chips will fall where they may.
Under Freeze, the Ole Miss program committed various violations that caused the Rebels to forfeit 33 victories during his tenure and give itself a two-year bowl ban.
Freeze himself resigned shortly after those penalties became public. On the field, he’s a winner and that’s what Liberty hopes he’ll be able to do.
Without the above penalties, Freeze has a record of 45-25 at three stops (Lambuth, Arkansas State, Ole Miss).
Lynchburg, Virginia is a scenic, hill-city in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Like Utah State and Georgia Southern, Liberty won’t get recruits who are infatuated by bright lights. But like those two schools, its proximity to states rich with football talent make it serviceable from a football perspective.
Wait and see is the appropriate response here.
Williams Stadium was built in 1989 for a then Division II program, but the university has plans to put almost $40 million dollars into expanding the stadium, which will bring the capacity of the facility from its current 25,000 seats to a potential 60,000.