Last year saw a Group of Five team make the College Football Playoff for the first time in its history. While it's going to be very tough for another G5 squad to make it back to the CFP, here are the teams that are going to take the first step and win their respective conferences.
American Athletic Conference - University of Houston
The ACC is considered the best of the group of five leagues. The defending AAC champions, Cincinnati Bearcats, are coming off a historic season last year under Coach Fickell. The Bearcats finally got over the hump and put together an undefeated regular season and a conference championship to make it to its first college football playoff. Although they came up short against Alabama in the CFP semifinal, Coach Fickell led his 2021 team to arguably his best season thus far as Cincy's headman. They also had nine players drafted from last year's team as well.
Surprisingly, Cincinnati isn't my pick to win the AAC this year. My pick to win the conference is the University of Houston, a fellow conference mate going to the Big 12 conference alongside Cincinnati next year. Unlike the Bearcats, who have lost a ton of production from the previous year, the cougars return their starting quarterback Clayton Tune and playmaking wide receiver Tank Dell. Pair that veteran offense with a returning veteran defense, and I believe the cougars will build off of the momentum from last year's 12-2 team and win the conference this season.
Conference USA - UTSA
This was a tough decision for me; it was a toss-up between the Blazers of UAB and the Roadrunners of UTSA. Although both programs are coming off great seasons, I ultimately gave the Roadrunners the nod to repeat as Conference USA champions. UTSA returns their star quarterback, Frank Harris, coming off of a brilliant season where he threw for Three thousand one hundred seventy-seven yards, 27 touchdowns, and only threw six interceptions. Also returning to the Roadrunners are Harris' top three targets from last year, wide receivers Zakhari Franklin, De'Corian Clark, and Joshua Cephus. Each of these three receivers eclipsed 50 receptions and 700 yards a piece, with Franklin being the lone receiver receiving over 1,000 yards with 1,027, along with 12 touchdowns.
But that's not all, although they lost their every down running back, Sincere McCormick, who now plays for the Las Vegas Raiders, replaced him with transfer running back Trelon Smith from Arkansas. Returning all of the production from a year ago on the offensive side of the ball and a slew of Seniors returning on both sides of the ball, I believe the Roadrunners are poised to become back-to-back conference champions this season.
Mid-American Conference - University of Toledo
This conference was the toughest to choose from of all five picks. There are at least four to
five teams that could take home the MAC crown this year in what I deemed to be a wide-open
race this year. Northern Illinois has a chance to go back to back this year, which hasn't been done in this conference since 2011-12. Ironically enough, the NIU Huskies was the last program to pull off this feat. That said, my pick to win the MAC this year is their division rival University of Toledo Rockets. I look for Toledo to build on last year after finishing 7-5 during the regular season and making it to a bowl game, where they lost to Middle Tennessee by a touchdown.
Coach Jason Candle is entering his 7th season as head coach of the Rockets with exceptional talent and depth at multiple positions. Starting quarterback Dequan Finn is primed for a breakout year after taking over the starting role midseason last year. He finished with 2,067 passing yards, throwing 18 touchdowns and only two interceptions, and rushing 501 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Finn is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback who can get it done in the air and on the floor. I project him to put up some gaudy numbers this season, his first full year as a starter. Finn's top target from last year, wide receiver Devin Maddox, also returns for the rockets this season. Not to mention, on the defensive side of the ball, 4-year starter at mike linebacker, Senior middle linebacker Dyontae Johnson will man the middle and lead the Rocket's defense this season. I expect a breakout year from Johnson as well.
Mountain West Conference - Fresno State
This conference was also challenging to predict a champion for, but I chose Fresno State as my pick to take the MWC conference crown. Although I'm picking the Bulldogs to win; there are other teams in the race as well. Boise State, San Diego State, and defending champion Utah State are formidable contenders in the conference. The Bulldogs have arguably the best player in returning in senior quarterback Jake Haener. Haener is coming off a very productive year last season, throwing 4,096 yards, 33 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions.
I expect senior running back Jordan Mims to have an extended role this year with Ronnie Rivers off to the NFL. He rushed for 710 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. I project him to be a thousand-yard rusher this season and achieve double-digit rushing touchdowns. The Bulldogs also return their top two receivers from last season, Jalen Cropper (899 yards, 85 receptions, 11 touchdowns) and Josh Kelly (778 yards, 52 receptions, three touchdowns). With a high-powered offense returning and a projected improved defense from last year, I see the Bulldogs taking the MWC championship.
Sun Belt Conference - Appalachian State
Shawn Clark is entering his third full year as the head coach of Appalachian State, and he has
had a winning season in each of his first two seasons. The mountaineers won ten games last
season, achieving a 10-4 record (7-1 in conference) and winning the SBC east division title. Unfortunately, the mountaineers lost to Louisiana in the conference championship game, but this year, I'm picking them to take the next step and win the conference championship game. I have confidence in returning quarterback Chase Brice, who threw 3,337 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Brice also finished with a completion percentage of 62.1% and a quarterback rating of 151.1.
The Mountaineers will be expecting wide receivers Christian Wells, Christian Horn and Dashaun Davis to step up in bigger roles this year. There will be plenty of opportunities for each of the three receivers to step up with Sutton (904 yards, 61 receptions, 7 touchdowns), Hennigan (823 yards, 60 receptions, six touchdowns), and Williams (819 yards, 52 receptions, seven touchdowns) all gone now. Also, App State returns, in my opinion, the best running back tandem in the Sun Belt in sophomore Nate Noel (1,128 yards and four touchdowns) and Camerun Peoples (926 yards and 14 touchdowns). Having that type of threat on the ground should open things up in the playbook for Brice. Alongside a high-powered offense and one of the most solid defenses in the conference, I project the Mountaineers to win the SBC championship.