A survey of the best teams outside the Power Five leagues means giving a long, extended look at what the American Athletic Conference has become. There are exceptional programs in the other Group of Five leagues, Boise State of the Mountain West being the most prominent of the bunch. But the depth of the AAC has come to define it in its five-year history.
Seven of the league’s 12 teams have piled up 10-win seasons within the last three years. Houston (2015) and Central Florida (2017) won New Year’s Six games (the weight of which depends on how heavily you value non-playoff bowl game results as indicators).
That doesn’t mean the AAC is assured of another Group of Five spot this season. Boise State is almost always a factor, and Florida Atlantic out of Conference USA is one of the country’s most intriguing teams.
Here’s a look at the top 10 teams residing outside the five power conferences — and yes, as long as Notre Dame is not in a conference, it resides in that group.
1. Notre Dame (No. 16 nationally, 10-3 in 2017)
All credit to the Fighting Irish for their superb makeover heading into last year. Life as a power rushing team — correction, a highly effective power rushing team — suited Brian Kelly’s program exceptionally well. With quarterback Brandon Wimbush and much of an improved defense back, Notre Dame could replicate its 10-win season from last year.
The issue, though, is how realistic is it to expect the Irish to get through a schedule that includes Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Southern California without a blemish or three (that list doesn’t even include a tricky trip to Northwestern or the annual slog against Navy). Notre Dame will be fine, but the schedule makes it hard to project a playoff berth.
2. Boise State (No. 17, 11-3)
If there’s a Group of Five team headed for an undefeated season, it’s the Broncos. A veteran defense that held opponents to 3.4 yards per rush helps. So does a tested quarterback in Brett Rypien. And so does a Mountain West that isn’t particularly deep this year.
A perfect run also requires a little schedule luck, and Boise State enjoys some this year. Both Fresno State and San Diego State — the other top Mountain West contenders — pay a visit to the blue turf. The highlight of the nonconference schedule is a Sept. 15 trip to Oklahoma State, which is a tough task. Still, it’s better to deal with the Cowboys this year than last after they graduated quarterback Mason Rudolph and wideout James Washington.
3. Central Florida (No. 18, 13-0)
The self-declared national champions (which prompted some hilarious overreactions from the sport’s stuffier quarters) probably aren’t running the table again. Just a bit too much talent left after the undefeated season, including a coaching change when Scott Frost left for Nebraska.
Replacing one former Big 12 quarterback with another, the Knights hired Josh Heupel as Frost’s replacement. Making Heupel’s job measurably easier is the presence of junior McKenzie Milton, a more-than-credible Heisman Trophy candidate after throwing for 4,037 yards, 37 touchdowns and just nine interceptions last season.
There’s enough quality programs in the AAC that Central Florida isn’t a sure thing to repeat. But it should be considered the favorite, especially with Memphis and South Florida breaking in new quarterbacks.
4. Memphis (No. 30, 10-3)
The Tigers went 10-1 in their non-Central Florida games last year, the lone setback to anyone else coming by a point against a strong Iowa State bunch in the Liberty Bowl. They’re flush with returnees on both sides of the ball, and they have a superb chance to get off to a strong start with five of their first seven games at home.
There are three caveats here. One is the graduation of two-year starting quarterback Riley Ferguson, who left as the No. 3 passer in school history. The second is a statistically shaky defense coming off a rough season against the pass. Third, and more subtle, is a plus-15 turnover margin last year that Memphis is unlikely to repeat.
Even with those issues, the Tigers are likely to be fine. Third-year Coach Mike Norvell kept things rolling after replacing Justin Fuente, and this looks like the team to beat in the American’s West Division.
5. Florida Atlantic (No. 33, 11-3)
Hand it to Lane Kiffin. The man has a penchant for getting attention, and last year he did it in the most productive way possible. In his first season in Boca Raton, he led the Owls to their first winning season since 2008, a Conference USA title and hopes that FAU can finally tap into the obvious potential that prompted the school to add football in time for the 2001 season.
(This is one of those periodic reminders that both Florida Atlantic and Florida International should be consistently solid programs based solely on their access to talent and convenient location for well-regarded South Floridian prospects who opt to transfer after a year or two. Last year marked the first time both had winning records in the same season.)
Can Florida Atlantic get better? Sure. The defense returns mostly intact, and star tailback Devin Singletary (1,920 yards, 32 TDs in 2017) should again be one of the country’s top rushers. The Owls have an opportunity to impress in one of the opening week’s most intriguing games when they visit Oklahoma.
6. San Diego State (No. 40, 10-3)
From the school that brought the sport Donnell Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, who recorded 2,000-yard rushing seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively, comes Juwan Washington. The junior managed 759 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season, and he steps into a large role in one of the most unapologetically run-heavy teams in the country.
The Aztecs have rattled off three 10-win seasons in a row, and they do so again, it will be because of a dominant ground game coupled with a defense that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points a game since 2013. The Aztecs have a great shot at their third division title in four years.
7. Navy (No. 42, 7-6)
The ultimate “you-know-what-you’re-getting” team, Navy struggled in the second half last season, a function of both injuries and minor errors that have a way of piling up fast for a team with little margin for error.
But to be clear: The Midshipmen were a pretty good team, absorbing their six losses by a total of 39 points. They’re committed to the electrifying Malcolm Perry at quarterback, a player who averaged 8.6 yards a carry last season. Their defense, often overlooked, held up well in the offense-centric American.
Barring injuries, this bunch should fare better. The first two weeks are rough (a trip to Hawaii, followed by some jet lag and a home game against Memphis), but the Mids should be a factor in the American and have a good chance to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
8. Northern Illinois (No. 44, 8-5)
The name to know in the Mid-American Conference is Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith, who piled up 29.5 tackles for losses as a sophomore. He’s the central figure on a defense that made major strides last season and should be especially tough on the line and in the secondary.
Northern Illinois should be more efficient on offense as well, with sophomore quarterback Marcus Childers even more settled after providing stability over the final half of last season. With a strong offensive line also back, the Huskies edge out Ohio and Toledo as the favorites in the MAC.
9. Houston (No. 49, 7-5)
The Cougars never really got traction last season. Their longest winning streak was two. Their longest losing streak was two. They beat Arizona (granted, before Khalil Tate became Superman) and South Florida but lost to Tulsa and an improved Tulane bunch. Basically, it was hard to get a read on Houston’s direction under Major Applewhite.
Maybe this year clears up that question. The Cougars don’t have as much back as a year ago and they added offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, but they ought to be steadier. Some early barometers loom in September: Arizona and Texas Tech, whom Houston split with last season in games decided by a field goal.
At the very least, no program will exceed Houston’s marketing genius in 2018. Behold: Ed Oliver (arguably the nation’s top defensive tackle) in bobblehead form … on a horse:
10. South Florida (No. 51, 10-2)
Speaking of teams that should enjoy a bit more continuity this year, South Florida falls into that category. The Bulls went 10-2 in Coach Charlie Strong’s first season, and it’s easy to forget they, not Central Florida, were the AAC team that was widely expected to charge into a New Year’s Six bowl.
Strong must replace quarterback Quinton Flowers, who left Tampa as the program’s career leading rusher, but a decent foundation remains up front. The key here is the defense; it improved considerably last year, the first step in an evolution toward becoming the sort of team Strong fielded during his stint at Louisville.
Here’s how the rest of the non-Power Five teams stack up:
1. Notre Dame
2. Army (No. 78, 10-3)
3. Brigham Young (No. 84, 4-9)
4. Massachusetts (No. 111, 4-8)
5. New Mexico State (No. 117, 7-6 in Sun Belt)
6. Liberty (No. 129, first year with FBS schedule)
1. Central Florida
2. South Florida
3. Temple (No. 72, 7-6)
4. Cincinnati (No. 99, 4-8)
5. Connecticut (No. 114, 3-9)
6. East Carolina (No. 119, 3-9)
4. Tulane (No. 89, 5-7)
5. Southern Methodist (No. 92, 7-6)
6. Tulsa (No. 102, 2-10)
1. Boise State
2. Utah State (No. 81, 6-7)
3. Wyoming (No. 83, 8-5)
4. Colorado State (No. 90, 7-6)
5. Air Force (No. 98, 5-7)
6. New Mexico (No. 120, 3-9)
1. San Diego State
2. Fresno State (No. 56, 10-4)
3. Nevada (No. 90, 3-9)
4. UNLV (No. 101, 5-7)
5. Hawaii (No. 122, 3-9)
6. San Jose State (No. 123, 2-11)
1. Florida Atlantic
2. Middle Tennessee (No. 69, 7-6)
3. Marshall (No. 77, 8-5)
4. Old Dominion (No. 107, 5-7)
5. Florida International (No. 108, 8-5)
6. Western Kentucky (No. 110, 6-7)
7. Charlotte (No. 126, 1-11)
1. Louisiana Tech (No. 73, 7-6)
2. North Texas (No. 85, 9-5)
3. UAB (No. 86, 8-5)
4. Southern Mississippi (No. 100, 8-5)
5. Texas-San Antonio (No. 105, 6-5)
6. Rice (No. 128, 1-11)
7. Texas-El Paso (No. 130, 0-12)
1. Ohio (No. 52, 9-4)
2. Miami of Ohio (No. 91, 5-7)
3. Buffalo (No. 95, 6-6)
4. Akron (No. 103, 7-7)
5. Bowling Green (No. 116, 2-10)
6. Kent State (No. 125, 2-10)
1. Northern Illinois
2. Toledo (No. 60, 11-3)
3. Western Michigan (No. 87, 6-6)
4. Central Michigan (No. 112, 8-5)
5. Eastern Michigan (No. 115, 5-7)
6. Ball State (No. 121, 2-10)
1. Appalachian State (No. 68, 9-4)
2. Troy (No. 79, 11-2)
3. Georgia Southern (No. 96, 2-10)
4. Georgia State (No. 104, 7-5)
5. Coastal Carolina (No. 124, 3-9)
1. Arkansas State (No. 54, 7-5)
2. Louisiana-Monroe (No. 94, 4-8)
3. Louisiana-Lafayette (No. 113, 5-7)
4. South Alabama (No. 118, 4-8)
5. Texas State (No. 127, 2-10)