Entering the 2019 season, there has been a feeling that the Group of Five representative is already a forgone conclusion. UCF has represented well on the big stage, taking down Auburn in 2018 and losing a hard fought battle against LSU in 2019. In the middle of this run, they have dominated headlines with a 25-game win streak and a self-proclaimed national championship to boot.
However, with star quarterback McKenzie Milton on the mend and with a program another year removed from the infrastructure laid out by former head coach Scott Frost, the Knights might not be a lock as the media is making it out to be. Being the champ three years in a row is a tall task. After all, we did just witness the Golden State Warriors, pursuing their own three-peat, ultimately fall short of hanging another banner. Are the Knights destined to follow the same path?
Mountain West Wire’s Jeremy Mauss and Hustle Belt’s James Jimenez, join UDD staff members to discuss the best teams in the 2019 season and give their pick for who will represent the G5 in the NY6 bowl at season’s end.
Most underrated team that could reach the New Year’s Six
Eric Henry: North Texas. The Mean Green will need a fair amount to break their way. Namely, zero teams going undefeated from the higher profile leagues (AAC, MWC). However, if they can run the table in a convincing fashion, I think they have an outside shot of getting there. They play a power-five opponent in Cal, have two non-conference games against the AAC (SMU, Houston) and they have a bonafide star in QB Mason Fine.
Aikman Chambers: Appalachian State. With a new coaching staff, many people have cooled on App State compared to the past two years in national G5 preseason talk and rightfully so. However, with the majority of talent returning on both sides of the ball App State still has a path to a NY6 bowl if the cards fall right. App will need a few breaks in the form of losses by UCF and Boise State to make this possible. The Mountaineers will also need to run the table and take out both power five opponents in UNC and South Carolina. The Sun Belt does not have depth after about four teams so one loss in conference play will spell doom.
Josh Farnsworth: Utah State. Track records for coaches returning to a school they once steered are not superb. However, Gary Andersen’s second go-round in Logan means inheriting a 10-2 team with star quarterback Jordan Love and a defense that returns seven starters. Those starters include All-American linebacker David Woodward and a secondary that will give opposing OCs headaches. If Love can get production from a new cast of receivers and support from the O-Line, the Aggies present Boise State with a huge Mountain West opponent to scale.
Joe Serpico: Memphis. Everyone is already crowning UCF the champions once again in the AAC, but this could finally be the year the Tigers dethrone them. They’ve held leads in back-to-back conference championship games against UCF, and with Brady White and his explosive weapons on offense having another year under Mike Norvell’s system, White could be the AAC Player of the Year once it’s all said and done.
Jeremy Mauss: Air Force. Hear me out on this. Part of my answer is because I follow the Mountain West pretty close but Air Force (hold for laughter). Had Cole Fagan stayed with the team the confidence would be higher but the Falcons still have plenty of solid running backs with Kadin Remsberg and Taven Birdow running the ball. On offense, QB Donald Hammond III is a playmaker for the Falcons and is a guy that can command the offense and should finally be the main guy ahead of Isaiah Sanders. The Air Force offense will always be fine but the defense is what will make the difference this year with seven starters back and a very underrated defensive lineman in Jordan Jackson who will have some consideration for Mountain West player of the year in a crowded field.
James Jimenez: Fresno State. There’s several teams that could qualify as being under the radar. Sadly, my beloved MAC has none of those teams.
Fresno State loses a lot on offense, but returns the majority of a defense which averaged 14.1 points per game in an offense-happy conference, which should be plenty to carry them through in the divisional race. Jeff Tedford has done an outstanding job getting that team back into contention and should be able to reconfigure the offense in time to really make some noise. The talent is certainly there.
Fresno State is the likeliest team to take down the juggernaut that is Boise State should they meet once again in the Mountain West Championship Game. It would certainly stand to make sense they would be considered as a potential underdog which could go far in this particular scenario, which is ultimately an exercise in probability.
Most overrated team that’s receiving hype to get the New Year’s Six bid
Eric Henry: UCF. No, I don’t think the Knights are overrated. However, I do believe that their quest for a third consecutive NY6 bid is significantly harder without McKenzie Milton. The 2017 Colley Matrix National Champions will have to work-in a new QB and replace defensive stalwarts Pat Jasinski, Kyle Gibson and Trysten Hill. With UCF having been the standard for G5 football the past two seasons, teams like Boise State and Army have gone overlooked, despite having really good success in the same time frame. Additionally, they’ll have to face a legit Cincinnati team, along with rivals South Florida and Memphis.
Aikman Chambers: Boise State. More than likely the Broncos still find themselves in the MWC Championship game but a lot of questions still linger, the biggest being who replaces Brett Rypien at QB. There is still uncertainty with the running back situation too. The defense should be really good, bringing back the majority of their starters from a year ago and the O-Line which struggled at times with pass protection does return their entire starting unit. I feel the past two seasons Boise had a prime opportunity and couldn't get it done. Games against Florida State and Marshall are not gimmies for this group.
Josh Farnsworth: UCF. It’s hard to top perfect. Near-double-perfect is even harder. Yes, this is a super-unfair assessment of the highest order. The Knights have earned a special place in G5 lore over the past two seasons. However, as Eric mentions above, no Milton for an entire season will be daunting. The AAC will have more quality contenders to throw everything at the champs. The Knights could go 10-2 and look solid, but still look flat compared to two perfect regular seasons.
Joe Serpico: UCF. Not to continue hammering the Knights in this section, but going undefeated one year is incredible. Doing it two years in a row is absurd. It would be unthinkable for it to happen a third time without the key cog to their run: McKenzie Milton. The upcoming schedule is arguably the hardest yet, and the AAC East is really tough this season.
Jeremy Mauss: Utah State. The thing is, there isn’t a team that has been getting an overly amount of hype for a big-time bowl bid from the Group of Five. UCF is going to be ranked in the top 25 and one could say they might be overrated a bit just because they have made the past two NY6 games and going to a third is tough, plus they will have a new starting quarterback. No one would be overly surprised if they make it again though.
Army could fit into the group because while they likely will be a good team, they first have a really low strength of schedule but more importantly, they are an independent and need to be ranked somewhere in the top 10 to get a bid and that seems unlikely.
So, my actual answer is Utah State. Not only do the Aggies have a new coaching staff, albeit Gary Andersen was there before, but they are losing its entire offensive line, most of its receiving group and RB Darwin Thompson is now in the NFL. It is hard to imagine with so many new parts on offense that the scoring barrage of last year will be close to what was under Matt Wells.
It could be due to living in Utah and closer to Aggie fans than others but a lot see the team being about the same as last year because of QB Jordan Love and the amazing defenders in David Woodward and Tipa Galeai, who are both legitimate All-American candidates. The schedule sets up nicely as well with the only guaranteed loss is at LSU. There are a lot of toss up games like Boise State, San Diego State, Wake Forest, and Fresno State, but with three of those are on the road it seems unlikely they will run that table and finish 11-1 and earn a New Year’s bowl game.
James Jimenez: UCF. A cursory scan of the internet really wants a Notre Dame-UCF matchup, but I’m really not sure UCF can get to a NY6 bowl three seasons in a row, especially since they might start a new grad transfer QB in former Golden Domer Brandom Wimbush. I tend to go by the adage that grad transfers leave for a reason, and Wimbush is by no means a perfect prospect. He lost out on the QB1 job to Ian Book because he simply could not make the decisions he was expected to in the Brian Kelly offense, which is predicated on the pass.
Wimbush will have to improve in that area in a hurry and develop a rapport with a UCF team that has not shown any form of patience since bursting onto the national scene if they hope to get back to the NY6. Dynasties are hard to sustain for a reason, and I think the pressure of that, combined with a conference that’s catching up quickly, will eventually get to UCF.
Who do you think will get the New Year’s Six bid
Eric Henry: UCF. Okay, so this seems contradictory, but hear me out. I think UCF’s being summarily crowned because of all of the attention they’ve garnered the past two seasons. On and off the field. However, at the end of the day, in my opinion they’re the best team in the G5. For two years, it was McKenzie Milton running the show. This year, they’ll show that they can get the job done with one of the best offensive line groups in the nation and two dynamic running backs in Greg McCrae and the electrifying Adrian Killins. Cincy and Memphis will push them, while Boise State should win the MWC. But the Knights have enough on offense and the defense will be more settled in their second year under DC Randy Shannon.
Aikman Chambers: UCF. As much as I am ready to see somebody new I still feel at the end of the day UCF has the best team in G5. Without Mckenzie Milton this does make things more interesting week-to-week for this team, but every offense starts with the “hogs” upfront and without a doubt UCF has a great line to protect either Mack or Wimbush. With no Memphis on the regular season schedule the only games that could scare the knights are the trip to Cincinnati and the home date at seasons end against USF. I look for UCF to still be the G5 kings when the smoke settles and the dust clears in 2019.
Josh Farnsworth: Appalachian State. The Sun Belt lives. There will be little room for error (Read: None) in conference play. Road games at Louisiana and Troy will be difficult, but a healthy App State should take care of these challenges. Zac Thomas is the odds-on-favorite to take the mantle as Sun Belt Player of the Year and should get plenty of help from Darrynton Evans, who looked like a feature back after stepping in for the injured Jalin Moore last season. I see them beating UNC and slipping past South Carolina on the road to get the nod.
Joe Serpico: Memphis. The Tigers have a shot to put themselves in the national conversation really early if they can pull off a home upset against Ole Miss in Week 1. Even with a loss against the Rebels, 11-1 is not out of the question. A road game at Houston will likely determine the winner of the AAC West once again, and if they can finally knock off UCF, they should be in prime position to represent the G5 in the NY6.
Jeremy Mauss: Cincinnati. UCF seems to be the front runner but going three straight years seems unlikely. Others considered are Boise State but they lose a lot and will be starting a new quarterback and a new running back, Memphis loses its top back, Utah State, as mentioned above, lost a ton, so let’s go with a team that returns its starting quarterback and running back in Cincinnati.
The Bearcats have QB Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren back and Luke Fickell showed huge strides from his first to second year as their head coach with 11 wins in 2018. They do play at Ohio State but a loss to a top-10, or higher, team is not a big deal. UCLA at home is very winnable and they get to host UCF at Nipper Stadium. A few other tricky games on the road include USF, Memphis, a Marshall team who could end up winning C-USA, and Houston.
James Jimenez: Houston. I’m gonna go really outside the box here and say Houston. They have knocked on the door of the NY6 for several years now and the last couple seasons proved that Houston’s problem wasn’t the talent, but rather with management. It was very clear the locker room no longer jived with Major Applewhite, and the administration finally admitted change was necessary.
Enter Dana Holgerson, whose offensive philosophy at West Virginia, combined with his hardened experience at the Big XII level should translate extremely well in Houston. It’s not every day a coach at a Power Five school with security leaves willingly for a job of this caliber. Holgerson is obviously there because he believes he can propel Houston to heights unknown, and the roster in place certainly has the ability to get there. The vast majority of the offense that averaged nearly 513 yards per game and 44 points per game in 2018 is back (and most importantly, healthy) and that in and of itself should be enough to carry a defense going through a major transition in the secondary and scheme wise, a 3-4 to a 4-3 front.
Houston is expecting results NOW, and this roster, combined with a little uncertainty at the top of the American, makes it ripe for plucking.