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Bulls beware: Other Group of 5 teams in New Year's hunt

Veteran Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien threw for nearly 3,700 yards last season.

Photo provided by Boise State

Veteran Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien threw for nearly 3,700 yards last season.

Admit it, unabashedly idealistic Bulls fan: You've scanned the 2018 New Year's bowl slate, and have etched out tentative travel plans in your stoked cerebrum.

Road trip to Hot-lanta. Rollicking journey to Jerry's World. Duel in the desert against a Power Five foe.

Early consensus is, USF is destined for one of those spots eight months from now. Post-spring rankings peg the Bulls as overwhelming favorites to win the American Athletic Conference and earn a spot in a New Year's bowl as the nation's highest-ranked Group of Five team.

As sure as Quinton Flowers improvises, the slew of preseason magazines also will place USF atop the Group of Five summit. At this point, the Bulls simply appear too well-stocked and too well-coached not to flourish this fall. And their schedule shapes up ideally.

But a host of formidable peers won't take that summer reading sitting down; hence the reason they play the games.

Here are the other Group of Five teams -- in alphabetical order -- expected challenge USF for that coveted New Year's bowl berth. Teams' 2016 records are listed in parentheses.

Boise State (10-3)
Conference: Mountain West
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Prolific QB Brett Rypien (nearly 3,700 yards last season) enters his third year as a starter, the non-conference schedule is favorable (except for an early-season trip to Washington State), and no one in the MWC replenishes like the Broncos. Boise State has signed the league's top-ranked recruiting class each of the last five years.
Why they won't contend: Six of the seven top tacklers from 2016 are gone, and 1,700-yard rusher Jeremy McNichols -- who took a ton of pressure off Rypien -- now is employed by the Bucs. And let's face it, parity has prevailed in this league (see San Diego State, Wyoming) in recent years.

Houston (9-4)
Conference: American Athletic
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Because there's simply too much talent for the Cougars not to make a run. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen replaces dual-threat extraordinaire Greg Ward Jr., and the offensive line returns all five starters. DT Ed Oliver is arguably the conference's best defensive player.
Why they won't contend: They're bound to stumble at least once in the highly competitive AAC West, and the road to a conference title literally runs through Tampa (Nov. 4 vs. USF at Raymond James Stadium). Non-conference games at Arizona and at home vs. Texas Tech also loom.

San Diego State (11-3)
Conference: Mountain West
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: The Aztecs, seeking their third consecutive MWC title, understand the prerequisites for success. The defense, which finished 11th nationally last season, remains stout, especially at the second and third levels. While Donnel Pumphrey -- the NCAA's No. 4 alltime rusher -- has departed, RB Rashaad Penny (1,018 rushing yards) remains to spearhead one of the country's most potent running games.
Why they won't contend: The offensive line, which allowed 28 sacks last season, must be overhauled again, and the early-season scheduled (at Arizona State and Air Force, home vs. Stanford) is brutal.

Toledo (9-4)
Conference: Mid-American (MAC)
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Most of the key components of the MAC's best offense (517.8 ypg) return, including QB Logan Woodside, who led the country with 45 TD passes last fall. Two of his returning targets, Cody Thompson and Jon'Vea Johnson, combined for 104 receptions in '16.
Why they won't contend: All-time leading rusher Kareem Hunt now plays for the Chiefs, and the schedule features some tricky potholes (Tulsa, Western Michigan).

Western Kentucky (11-3)
Conference: Conference USA
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Onetime USF starter Mike White returns after a dazzling junior season (4,363 yards, 37 TDs), and the Hilltoppers' toughest non-conference games are at Illinois (Sept. 9) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 4). And presumably, some momentum from that 51-31 Boca Raton Bowl embarrassment of Memphis will carry over.
Why they won't contend: Former coach Jeff Brohm bolted for Purdue in early December (Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford replaced him), and White is among only four returning offensive starters.

Wyoming (8-6)
Conference: Mountain West
Why they'll contend for a New Year's Six slot: Continuity. Reigning MWC Coach of the Year Craig Bohl, who orchestrated one of the nation's top turnarounds (from 2-10 to 8-6) last season, is back for a fourth year. So too, is most of his defense including the entire secondary. Offensively, junior QB Josh Allen (28 TD passes in '16) and four offensive linemen also return.
Why they won't contend: Some critical offensive skill spots must be replenished, and the schedule is a bear (at Iowa, at Boise State, home vs. Oregon)

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 5:27pm]


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