[vc_single_image source="featured_image" img_size="large"]
Going into the 2022 football season, one of many popular trends is to predict what group of five teams will beat power five opponents en route to having a memorable season for football fans. When thinking of these teams, many from recent seasons come to mind. My favorites include the 2017 national champions, the UCF Knights, and the loaded Cincinnati squad from last season.
We must weigh a few critical factors to identify teams that could make a memorable run. Of course, the first factor is what the team's roster looks like, including potential star power and overall depth. Secondly, the out-of-conference schedule must allow for competitive matchups and potential upsets over notable power five programs. Third, you must have a clear path to go undefeated or close to it in conference play. If a team can meet all of these criteria and win their matchups, they may have a chance at competing in college football's postseason or a new year's six-bowl game.
I will get ahead of this before people take issue with it. I mention a lot of AAC teams in this article. Some may feel this list is biased towards the AAC. Honestly, it is, but it's with good reason. The AAC has been the best group of five conferences in recent years. Cincinnati made the playoffs just last year. Additionally, the best teams in this conference have done so well for themselves that they are leaving to join the Big Twelve next year.
Teams that just missed the cut but still deserve mention include Northern Illinois, Liberty, San Diego State, Fresno State, and Appalachian State.
Heading into year one under Rhett Lashley, SMU has enough talent to do the AAC job. However, after losing Ulysses Bentley and other key players to the transfer portal, a lack of depth at some key positions could hold the Mustangs back in year one. That being said, Camar Wheaton is a huge pickup and should raise the floor for the Mustangs this season.
Casey Woods was an excellent hire as offensive coordinator. As for the defensive coordinator, stealing a rising star like Scott Symons from Liberty is a massive get. Symons was excellent at his past three stops at Incarnate Word, Memphis, and Liberty, leaving all three defenses far better off than they were upon his arrival. Under the new staff, I wouldn't be surprised to see SMU move into the actual watch list in years two and three. Once UCF, Cinncinatti, and Houston depart for the Big Twelve, I expect the AAC to run through Dallas for the foreseeable future.
A mainstay in the history of the elite Group of Five programs, Boise State, is coming off of one of its worst seasons in decades. Also worth mentioning, they went seven and five in 2021. By most program's standards, that would be considered a good year. However, for Biose State, it is regarded as a letdown. That speaks to the winning culture that has been built by coaches and players in the Broncos program over the last two decades. I would expect this culture to persist, despite a down year the prior season.
I wouldn't expect the Broncos to run the table this year, but I would project that at least eight wins could be their floor. As shown in the past with this program, if the team builds momentum early and mid-season, the ceiling can be pretty high in Boise, Idaho. I won't be shocked if they emerge as the Mountain West champs at the end of this season.
Last season's Cinncinatti team was one of the greatest Group of Five teams ever. Following last season, it is a tall ask for Cincy to maintain the same level of play. Being realistic, Cincy should struggle some next season. They lost a ton of players to the NFL draft. Specifically, they lost their starting QB, RB, WR, and six starters on the defense. Cincy has brought in some highly rated recruits over the last few years, so they should be able to replace some of the production. However, it will be nearly impossible to replicate the level of play that Cincy had last season. With so many new starters on both sides of the ball, I'd expect them to regress a bit this year. However, a slight regression for Cincy could still mean they finish with ten plus wins.
Looking at Cincy's schedule in 2022, there are only two games on the schedule that pose a severe risk. Week One against Arkansas will be a tough matchup. Cincy could upset Arkansas, but with the transfers and returning players on the Arkansas roster, it is unlikely. Assuming Cincy drops this game, the next tough matchups will be weeks seven and eight at SMU and UCF. They will need to win at least one of these matchups on the road. Winning both could guarantee them a spot in the conference championship game. Splitting could leave them in or out, depending on who they beat. If Cincinnati wins out through the conference championship, they could again make the playoffs. Finishing with two or fewer losses and winning the AAC and Cincy should be playing on New Year's Day.
Last season the UAB Blazers finished with an eight and four record in the regular season. Only two of their games, Liberty and Georgia, were non-competitive. The other losses came to a top 25 UTSA team and an upset by the Rice Owls. In their bowl game, the Blazers successfully upset 13th ranked BYU with a final score of 31-28. Heading into 2022, the Blazers return their starting QB in Dylan Hopkins, who passed for around 2,300 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. They produce both starting running backs and most of their receivers as well. They will have to adjust some with star tight end Gerrit Prince having moved on to the NFL. UAB is one of the only teams at the Group of Five level that has survived the crazy transfer portal attrition with most of their key players still on the roster.
Heading into 2022, the Blazers have a very workable schedule. The big test for this team will be their rematch at Liberty in week two. The away game at Western Kentucky in week seven. The home against UTSA in week nine. Lastly, the week 11 matchup against LSU in Death Valley will likely be a loss.
Barring a miracle, we can expect UAB to drop one, likely two, of these games. Going two and two in these big matchups would be great. Assuming that one loss is to LSU, being out of conference, and going three and one in the others, winning their other eight games should place them in the C-USA championship game. If they win the C-USA championship, UAB could sneak into a New Years Six game with some luck. If not, they will land in a big bowl game matchup similar to last season against BYU.
Coming off of a season where starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel and many other significant contributors went down with injuries, you wouldn't expect UCF to finish 8-4 in the regular season. Yet they did, proving they have the depth necessary to win games without their best players. Going into the 2022 season, the UCF Knights will be without Dillon Gabriel. Instead, they will be led by either Mikey Keene or John Rhys Plumlee. Depending on what head coach Guz Malzahn envisions for the offense, either one may start. I would lean towards Keene for his passing abilities. If Plumlee can develop into a semi-consistent passer, I expect him to start, given that he fits the Malzahn system better.
Cincinnati is losing nearly all its best players to the NFL, and SMU is likely still a couple of years out from their ceiling. Cincy's biggest obstacle is Houston, but they won't play them unless they are in the AAC championship game. UCF has the pieces necessary to go out on top of the AAC before departing for the Big Twelve. They will likely have to beat Houston in the conference championship game to make this a reality. As UCF has proven in recent years, they are fully capable of outperforming expectations. This habit for winning built in recent years is why their program is in a better place than their in-state counterparts.
Looking at the regular-season schedule for UCF, their path to a double-digit win season is doable. They draw two Power Five opponents in weeks two and four in Louisville and Georgia Tech. Louisville will likely be very competitive, being one of the only true 50/50 games on their schedule. On the other hand, UCF is expected to beat up Georgia Tech. The toughest stretch for the Knights will be the three weeks they travel to Eastern Carolina, host Cincinnati, and travel to Memphis.
Based on the quality of the opponents and the road atmospheres, it will be very challenging to will all three of these matchups. If they can go at least two and one, making sure to beat Cincy, they should be on pace to make the conference championship. From there, don't drop a game to Tulane or Navy, then embarrass USF again to wrap up the regular season. From there, winning the conference championship game could set you up for a New Years Six game trip.
2. Coastal Carolina
One of America's favorite teams from last season, Coastal Carolina garnered significant national attention after blowing out Kansas in week two last season. Overall, the Chanticleers finished the season 11-2, beating Northern Illinois in the Cure Bowl. Of the two games lost last season, at App State and hosting Georgia State, they lost by a combined total of five-point. Seven of eleven wins were by double-digit margins. Large win margins and small margins in losses project well for Costal. Looking at the roster, Costal returns many starters from last year's team, including star QB Grayson McCall. McCall could play his way into NFL draft conversations with a dominant season.
Looking at Coastal's schedule in 2022, they have the clearest path of any Group of Five teams to play in a New Years Six game. Assuming that they can avoid a bad upset like what happened last year with Georgia State, they will have six winnable games that should be competitive. In chronological order, week one against Army, week four at Georgia State, week eight at Marshall, week nine hosting App State, week eleven against Virginia, and week twelve against James Madison.
I expect Costal to be favored in half of these games. They will probably be underdogs against App State, Georgia, and Virginia. I can see Costal winning two games they aren't favored in. If they win the rest of their games and the Sun-Belt conference championship, they should be a lock for a New Years Six game. Their strength of schedule isn't good enough to make the playoffs if they run the table. If they manage to go undefeated, they could face a similar scenario to 2017 UCF.
The top team on my list, Houston, is the team that I believe has the highest ceiling in 2022. In 2021 the Cougars went 12 and 2, making their conference championship game and beating Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. Their only losses came to a talented Texas Tech team in week one and Cinncinatti in the AAC conference championship game. Towards the 2022 season, Houston is returning a lot of talent from the 2021 team. They are bringing in a loaded prep and transfer recruiting class. They added multiple four-star players from the transfer portal, eight top 1000 prep prospects, and five top 40 JUCO players.
On paper, this team is more talented than last year. They added speed at skill positions with Oklahoma transfer Cody Jackson and USC transfer Brandon Cambell. They also added quality QB depth with Arkansas transfer Lucas Coley. Star QB Clayton Tune threw for 3,546 yards, 30 TDs, and 10 Picks in 2021. With significant additions at all the skill positions, Tune is primed for a career year.
Looking at Houston's schedule in 2022, five matchups should be competitive on their schedule. In week one, they travel to UTSA. Next in week two, they travel to Texas Tech. In week six, they travel to Memphis. In week nine, they go to SMU. Lastly, in week eleven, they go to Eastern Carolina. With the roster they have constructed, I wouldn't be surprised if they go four and one or better in these road games. They should be borderline double-digit favorites in the rest of their games in the regular season. Going 10 and 2 or better should be enough for them to make the AAC championship game. Once there, they probably have to beat either UCF or Cinncinatti. Doing so should place them in a New Year's Six games.