2017 Group of Five and Independents preview

Other previews: Big 12, ACC, Pac-12

Before we roll out our previews for the Power Five conferences, we have to show some love to the rest of the FBS leagues. To one conference, the American Athletic Conference, it should be the “Power Six” conferences, not Power Five.

The AAC has been pushing out a “Power Six” talking point throughout the offseason as the league tries to put itself on the same level as the other top conferences. The AAC is pretty much in a league of its own, a purgatory of sorts, between the Power Five conferences and the rest of the so-called “Group of Five” — Conference USA and the Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences.

The AAC has had some really good teams over the last few seasons, with the 2015 Houston team that beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl topping them all. In 2017, it looks like South Florida — No. 18 in our Top 25 — is the clear favorite. Now with former Texas head coach Charlie Strong running the show, the Bulls have a star at quarterback in Quinton Flowers. The offense should be explosive and the schedule is one where wins should accumulate quickly. Much like Western Michigan last year, USF could find itself in the national conversation as the season progresses.

The AAC is trying to brand itself as a peer to the most powerful leagues in college football in the hopes for creating a Power Six. (AP Photo/Ralph D. Russo)

Behind USF are a slew of solid teams that could play spoiler, especially in the West division. Memphis returns Riley Ferguson at quarterback while Houston and new coach Major Applewhite should have Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen running the offense with Ed Oliver wreaking havoc on defense. Look out for Tulsa, too, and its high-powered offense. SMU may not be ready to make a jump to the top of the heap quite yet, but it has one of the best receivers in the country in Courtland Sutton.

In addition to Strong and Applewhite, the league boasts a quite a few other new head coaches. Former Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins takes over for Matt Rhule at Temple, which is coming off consecutive 10-win seasons and the 2016 AAC title. However, the Owls are one of the least-experienced teams in the conference this year. Still, they’re always a tough team to play. Elsewhere, longtime Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell takes over at Cincinnati and Randy Edsall is back at UConn.

Oh, and you can never overlook Navy, which seems to outperform expectations on a yearly basis. Ken Niumatalolo is one of the best coaches in the country.

Predicted order of finish

East: USF, Temple, UCF, Cincinnati, East Carolina, UConn
West: Memphis, Houston, Navy, Tulsa, SMU, Tulane
Championship: USF over Memphis

Conference USA

Western Kentucky had a few slip-ups early in the 2016 season, but by the end of the year, the Hilltoppers were far and away the best team in the conference. The Hilltoppers scored at least 45 points in their final 10 games, including a 58-44 decision over Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA title game.

WKU, now with Mike Sanford as head coach, feels like the favorite again based on its offensive talent alone. But the Hilltoppers will have plenty of competition. In the East division, Middle Tennessee has one of the best QB-WR duos in the country with Brent Stockstill and Richie James, but can MTSU stop anybody defensively? Old Dominion, which won 10 games and its first-ever bowl, should contend in the East once again, while Marshall — after a disastrous three-win season — could be poised to bounce back.

Can Brent Stockstill (12) and Middle Tennessee challenge Western Kentucky in the C-USA East? (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Oh, and then there’s Florida Atlantic, led by Lane Kiffin. Kiffin’s presence alone made FAU relevant, but then he brought in a series of high-profile transfers, including ex-FSU QB De’Andre Johnson. At the very least, the Owls will be interesting.

The West division isn’t as deep as the East, but Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss are always capable of putting up huge numbers offensively. UTSA is a sneaky contender in the West, too. Former LSU assistant Frank Wilson has already proven to be a great hire as he led the Roadrunners to their first-ever bowl game in his first season. The 2017 season also marks the return of UAB, which is a very good thing.

Predicted order of finish

East: Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Marshall, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Charlotte
West: Louisiana Tech, UTSA, Southern Miss, North Texas, Rice, UTEP, UAB
Championship: Western Kentucky over Louisiana Tech

MAC

Western Michigan ran away with the MAC in P.J. Fleck’s final season, going undefeated until a loss to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. The Broncos, now with Tim Lester as head coach following Fleck’s departure to Minnesota, should have a lot more competition in 2017.

For one, Toledo, coming off nine wins in 2016, has Logan Woodside returning at quarterback. The senior is on the radar of NFL scouts and could make the Rockets the favorite in the MAC West alongside WMU. The Rockets consistently field good teams, but haven’t been to the MAC title game since 2004. With their games against WMU and Northern Illinois both coming at home, this could be the year Toledo returns to the top of the conference.

Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside is on the radar of NFL scouts. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Of the two divisions, the West is stronger. Beyond WMU and Toledo, Northern Illinois, which had six straight MAC West titles, should return to a bowl at the very least. Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan are both coming off bowl appearances as well (EMU for the second time ever).

The East is more jumbled. Ohio was the division’s only team to finish above .500 and gave WMU a close game in the MAC title game. The Bobcats will be in the mix again with Miami (Ohio), which miraculously reached a bowl after an 0-6 start. Look for Bowling Green to have a bounce back season as well. The Falcons won their final three games in 2016 after a 1-8 start.

Predicted order of finish

West: Toledo, Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Ball State
East: Ohio, Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green, Akron, Buffalo, Kent State
Championship: Toledo over Ohio

Mountain West

The Mountain West is another conference that is top-heavy to one division compared to the other — maybe more so than any other conference. In the Mountain division, you could argue Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming as legitimate contenders to win the league. In the West division, only San Diego State really stands a chance.

Wyoming had a 6-2 conference record along with Boise State and New Mexico, but won the division based on tiebreakers. New Mexico, while still a potential bowl team, looks like it’ll really struggle on defense in 2017, so the Lobos probably won’t be in the mix for the division. But Colorado State, in its third season under Mike Bobo, looks primed to make a jump up the standings. CSU returns Nick Stevens at quarterback, Michael Gallup at receiver and its top three rushers (all of whom topped 500 yards), but will need to improve on defense to win the division.

Some project Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen as a possible No. 1 pick. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang, File)

Boise and Wyoming also have stellar quarterbacks. Wyoming’s Josh Allen is considered a future first-round pick, while Boise’s Brett Rypien has thrown for 6,999 yards and 44 yards for his career and is only a junior. It will be a really fun race for the division.

On the other side, it’s hard to see any team in the West division coming close to topping San Diego State, which is coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and MWC titles. All-time FBS rushing leader is in the NFL now, but Rashaad Penny (1,018 yards in 2016) should pick right up where Pumphrey left off.

Beyond SDSU, there may only be one other bowl team in the division. I’d lean toward it being Hawaii, which is coming off a surprising bowl appearance and is on an upward trajectory under Nick Rolovich. Nevada is in its first year under Jay Norvell and has Alabama transfer David Cornwell at quarterback. The Wolf Pack could be pretty fun on offense.

Predicted order of finish

Mountain: Boise State, Colorado State, Wyoming, Air Force, New Mexico, Utah State
West: San Diego State, Hawaii, Nevada, UNLV, Fresno State, San Jose State
Championship: Boise State over San Diego State

Sun Belt

It’ll be kind of a weird year in the Sun Belt ahead of its realignment in 2018. It has added Coastal Carolina (which will be without coach Joe Moglia due to health reasons) while giving New Mexico State and Idaho the boot. Next year there will be 10 teams with two five-team divisions, but with Idaho and NMSU hanging around for one more year, there are no divisions and no conference title game in 2017.

The Sun Belt has been fairly unpredictable the past few years with teams rising and falling all over the place. For example, Georgia Southern was a combined 14-2 in conference play in 2014 and 2015 but fell to the middle of the pack at 5-7 (4-4) last year. The Eagles should be in the crowded middle of the conference with the likes of Idaho, South Alabama and Louisiana-Lafayette.

Since it joined the league, Appalachian State has been one of the better teams in the Sun Belt. The Mountaineers are the favorites in 2017 based on their talent and a very favorable schedule. Troy, with quarterback Brandon Silvers, and Arkansas State, which is 15-1 in conference play over the past two seasons, should be right there with App State.

Predicted order of finish: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Troy, South Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana-Monroe, Coastal Carolina, New Mexico State, Texas State

Independents

Notre Dame is No. 22 in our preseason Top 25, so we already covered the Irish in depth. But what about the other independent programs?

We’ll start with BYU, which didn’t see a drop off during the transition from Bronco Mendenhall to Kalani Sitake. The Cougars started 1-3 with losses to Utah, UCLA and West Virginia by a combined seven points. From there, BYU won eight of its final nine games, including a 24-21 decision over Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl, to finish 9-4.

The Cougars have another tough schedule with games against LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Boise State, but three of those contests will be played in Provo (LSU is in Houston). Tanner Mangum is back at quarterback behind a solid offensive line, but most the team’s top playmakers, including RB Jamaal Williams, are out of the picture. And the defense should be solid yet again. With a favorable bowl draw, BYU could get to nine or 10 wins.

In 2016, Jeff Monken led Army to its first win over Navy in 14 years. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Army finally broke its 14-game losing streak to Navy in 2016, when it finished 8-5. Jeff Monken has led quite a turnaround for the Black Knights. The Black Knights return a majority of their starters, including quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw and leading rusher Andy Davidson. The biggest challenge on defense will be making up a ton of production at linebacker.

Army’s schedule is a little tougher this year, but another bowl trip should be in the cards. The Black Knights have a chance in every game other than a Week 3 trip to Ohio State, and we’re already looking forward to this year’s Army-Navy game in Philly.

UMass should be better in 2017. How much better remains to be seen.

The Minutemen went 2-10 in 2016, but played competitively against some good teams and had three losses by less than a touchdown. UMass can cause some damage through the air with Andrew Ford connecting with high school teammate Adam Breneman. Breneman, a tight end transfer from Penn State who came out of retirement to join the Minutemen, had 70 catches for 808 yards and eight scores last year. Wideout Andy Isabella (62-801-7) is back as well. Defensively, UMass also returns nine starters, so there should be some improvement. This may not be a bowl team, but the Minutemen could push four or five wins, which would be the most since UMass moved up to the FBS level.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!