The Year of the Underdog: Non-Power Five Conferences

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By Ron Johnson

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While all the hype will be focused on the Power Five Conferences, the non-power five are scratching, clawing and grinding for the opportunity to get some respect of their own. There are other conferences that are looking to shake up the foundation of College Football Playoff picture right out of the gate.

So out of those conferences, who will be this season’s Ultimate Underdogs?

Is the American Athletic Conference Still Legit?

“Change is the biggest storyline for the American Athletic Conference.” (Lassan, 2023) If out with the old and in with the new is the theme for this season, the American has taken this advice to heart fully. The departures of Houston, UCF and Cincinnati have brought forth the arrival of Charlotte, North Texas, Rice, UTSA, UAB and FAU. 

Out of this new bunch, there are a few teams (UAB, UTSA, FAU) that made some noise and rocked the foundation of the CFP in the past. But the conference itself has a powerhouse of its own in the Tulane Green Wave. Early forecast has Tulane finishing atop the conference with the Roadrunners following closely behind and SMU boasting about their ‘favorable schedule’ finishing third. With Lassan predicting Tulane over UTSA, I like to play devil’s advocate and pick UTSA over Tulane for the AAC Crown.

Should Anyone be concerned about Conference USA anymore?

One lifetime ago, Conference USA was a force to be reckoned with. But ever since Realignment Season began, this conference has not fared well in terms of keeping teams. After losing three to the Sun Belt last season and six teams jumping ship to The American prior to this one, the conference needed some new blood fast and in a hurry. “With a significant amount of turnover in this conference over the last two years, it’s not easy to get a good read on C-USA going into ’23.” (Lassan, Conference USA Football 2023 Predictions, 2023)

But that is not to say they attracted some teams heading into the new season as Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston have joined the ranks of the conference and look to bring it back to its once intimidating status.

Western Kentucky is listed as the perennial favorite to lay claim to the conference followed by newcomer Liberty, Middle Tennessee and New Mexico State (although I wouldn’t worry about these Aggies). Lassan has Western Kentucky over Liberty for the crown, so I’m going to go with Liberty over Middle Tennessee just for kicks.

Can an FBS Independent Return to the College Football Playoff?

A few years ago, we watched as Notre Dame got into the College Football Playoff and proceeded to make a complete and total ass of itself. The Irish looked overmatched and underperformed in almost every capacity one can think of. They went out and got brutalized by a motivated Alabama Crimson Tide team that proceeded to do the same amount of punishment to Ohio State.

This time around, there are only four teams that remain as Independents, the Irish being one of them: Notre Dame, Army, UConn and UMass. Clearly, at least two of these schools (Both U Schools) cannot wait for basketball season to start as that is where they shine. But Notre Dame tried the whole conference thing and decided they can be bad all by themselves. Is there a chance that the Irish will be back to their Fighting ways this season? Maybe. But then again, they will never forget what happened the last time they chose to anger the Football Gods.

Return of the MAC?

“Although Toledo is a clear favorite in the West Division, the outlook in the East is more competitive. A strong case can be made for Ohio or Miami (Ohio) at No. 1 in the division, with Buffalo and Bowling Green a step behind.” (Lassan, MAC Football 2023 Predictions, 2023) The Mid-American Conference (MAC) had a rather impressive output last season with nine of its 12 team roster getting at least five wins. Even though the chances of them vying for a College Football Playoff berth are slim to none, do not expect the MAC Conference to just roll over and die.

Out of the East Division, it is forecasted that the Redhawks of Miami (Ohio) will reign followed by Ohio. However, there are two key games on their upcoming schedule that may crush their chances of claiming it: a battle with Toledo as well as a showdown with Ohio.

From the West, Toledo gets the nod, and with 16 starters set to return, it is no surprise. The Rockets have a lethal combination through the air and on the ground to beat opponents with this upcoming season. Eastern Michigan is slated to finish behind the Rockets, while the Rockets are slated to win the MAC over the Redhawks. I like the Redhawks chances, but I actually agree with Steve on this one. I’m taking Toledo as well.

Will the Mountain West FINALLY Get Its Groove Back?

There was a time that the Mountain West had a few teams aiming to shake the CFP, but can it get back to that, or is it doomed to stay on the Island of Irrelevancy? “The Mountain and West Divisions are gone, with a 12-team, one-division format inserted in its place.” (Lassan, Mountain West Football 2023 Predictions, 2023) The conference is aiming high as it tries to return to its once dominant stance that they had in 2014. 

Boise State is slated to be the top dogs in the conference followed by Air Force and Fresno State. Once a couple of proud programs to play for, Colorado State and Hawaii has been so dismal that they are more likely to end up on the back of a milk carton than in the conference championship. Regardless, Boise State is slated to win the conference over Air Force, but it does feel like the Falcons could play their own version of underdogs. I’ll go Air Force.

Is the Sun Belt Crown a Four Team Race?

The one thing I love about the new crop of shifts is the potential rivalries that will blossom from them. But just because the CFP is not in their future does not mean these teams should be looked at as afterthoughts. Athlon Sports has South Alabama and Troy as the top two teams to beat, but they do have Coastal Carolina enjoying the East Division all on their own. But do not be surprised if you see Marshall or James Madison making a case for the top spot. 

While everyone else is keeping their eyes on the Georgia Bulldogs, they are all in agreement that two other Georgia teams, Georgia State and Georgia Southern, may not see a positive outlook in the conference. I think that it is truly a toss-up with this conference. Between South Alabama, Troy, Coastal Carolina, Marshall, James Madison and a few others, the Sun Belt may be looked at as an afterthought conference, but they may provide some excitement on those Saturdays where the Power 5 Conferences may lay a massive brown bomb on us.

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