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David KenyonFeatured Columnist IVAugust 19, 2023Group of 5 Conferences: Preview and Predictions for 2023 Season0 of 8

Michael PrattMatthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While realignment shifts the power balance in college football, Group of Five conferences continue to evolve.

During the 2023 season, both the AAC and Conference USA will have significantly different looks. Those changes follow a busy 2022 within the Sun Belt last season, and the Mountain West could undergo a shakeup before next fall—stay tuned on that front.

But today, we’re focused on what’s happening on the field in 2023.

Among the many topics we’ll cover: Which programs from a G5 league may contend for a New Year’s Six bowl? Who’s going to win each conference? Which players and games do you need to know?

Let’s get to it.

Biggest Stars1 of 8

Frank HarrisRonald Cortes/Getty Images

As always, there’s an interesting group of quarterbacks.

Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall is, quite literally, the most efficient passer in college football history. Michael Pratt guided Tulane to a stunning 12-win season with a Cotton Bowl victory over USC, and Frank Harris has propelled UTSA to back-to-back conference titles.

For good measure, Western Kentucky’s Austin Reed paced the Football Bowl Subdivision with 4,744 passing yards last year.

Marshall’s Rasheen Ali took a leave of absence for much of 2022 but rushed for 1,401 yards and a nation-high 23 touchdowns in 2021. Also in the Sun Belt, Frank Gore Jr.—yes, the son of the longtime NFL back—scampered for 1,382 yards at Southern Miss last season.

Reed’s favorite target is Malachi Corley, who reeled in 101 passes for 1,293 yards and 11 scores in 2022. Colorado State’s Tory Horton finished with 1,131 yards, the 12th-most in the country.

Marshall has two standout defenders in edge-rusher Owen Porter and cornerback Micah Abraham, while Troy’s defensive front is stacked with T.J. Jackson, Javon Solomon and Richard Jubinor.

Old Dominion linebacker Jason Henderson racked up a mind-numbing 186 tackles last season.

Top Storylines2 of 8

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Tulane and the New-Look AAC

Cincinnati, Houston and UCF have joined the Big 12, and their departures sting the American. There is no doubt about that. However, the league rebounded in commendable fashion and basically just raided Conference USA. Six programs are set to make their AAC debut in 2023: Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. Their goal will be to dethrone Tulane, which surprisingly won the AAC before representing the G5 in the Cotton Bowl last year.

Conference USA’s Rebuild

As those six schools departed, Conference USA welcomed four programs—Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston—to the fold. Jacksonville State and Sam Houston are particularly notable because they’re transitioning into the Football Bowl Subdivision this year.

NY6 Breakthroughs?

As part of the College Football Playoff system, the Group of Five has guaranteed access to a New Year’s Six bowl. Through nine years, the AAC has dominated the list with six straight appearances and seven overall. While both C-USA and the Sun Belt has never played in an NY6 game, the Mountain West last did in 2014 (Boise State) with the MAC (Western Michigan) in 2016. Can anyone overtake the AAC?

Top Challengers3 of 8

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In the AAC, newcomer UTSA has a terrific chance to make a grand entrance. But defending champion Tulane is still the front-runner with SMU and Memphis as the leaders of the chasing group.

Conference USA, meanwhile, looks like a two-horse race between Western Kentucky and Liberty.

However, the MAC has a much deeper field of expected contenders. Reigning champ Toledo is the favorite, but Buffalo and Ohio have intriguing offenses with Miami likely ready to showcase a feisty defense.

Fresno State is aiming to repeat in the Mountain West, but prime challenges should come from a well-rounded Boise State and an experienced Air Force roster. San Diego State deserves a mention, although its offense is a significant question once again.

James Madison’s ineligibility for the postseason makes Coastal Carolina the East Division favorite ahead of Marshall. The front-runners, though, are West Division foes Troy and South Alabama.

Coaches on the Hot Seat4 of 8

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AAC: Despite finishing 5-7 in the regular season last year, Rice managed to steal a bowl bid thanks to its academic progress rate (APR). And it might’ve saved Mike Bloomgren, who is 16-39 in five seasons at the school.

C-USA: On the bright side, Dana Dimel helped UTEP make a rare postseason trip in 2021. However, a 5-7 record last season with a career 17-40 mark is enough to be moderately concerned about his future.

MAC: Continued progress would be helpful for Scot Loeffler, given his middling 13-29 record in four years at Bowling Green. Thomas Hammock needs a bounce-back season after Northern Illinois plummeted from a nine-win record and a MAC title to nine losses in 2022. Joe Moorhead shouldn’t get too comfortable if Akron doesn’t improve on its 2-10 campaign.

Mountain West: Perhaps the hottest G5 seat belongs to Danny Gonzales. In his three years at New Mexico—even as the 2020 season merits an asterisk—the Lobos are 7-24 with a maximum of three wins.

Sun Belt: Arkansas State tallied no fewer than seven victories in every season of the 2010s. That recent history of winning may quickly become a problem for Butch Jones, who is 5-19 in two years.

Best Games on Tap5 of 8

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Conference Games

AAC: Tulane at Memphis (Oct. 13), UTSA at Florida Atlantic (Oct. 21); SMU at Memphis (Nov. 18); UTSA at Tulane (Nov. 25)

C-USA: New Mexico State at Liberty (Sep. 9); Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky (Sep. 28); Middle Tennessee at Liberty (Oct. 17); Liberty at WKU (Oct. 24)

MAC: Northern Illinois at Toledo (Sep. 30); Ohio at NIU (Oct. 14); Toledo at Miami (Oct. 21); Miami at Ohio (Oct. 28); Buffalo at Toledo (Oct. 31); Ohio at Buffalo (Nov. 7); Eastern Michigan at Toledo (Nov. 8)

MWC: Boise State at San Diego State (Sep. 22); Air Force at San Jose State (Sep. 22); SDSU at Air Force (Sep. 30); Boise State at Fresno State (Nov. 4); Fresno State at SJSU (Nov. 11); Air Force at Boise State (Nov. 24)

Sun Belt: James Madison at Troy (Sep. 16); Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State (Oct. 10); Marshall at Coastal Carolina (Oct. 28); South Alabama at Troy (Nov. 2); Marshall at South Alabama (Nov. 18)

Nonconference Games vs. Power 5

AAC: Ole Miss at Tulane (Sep. 9); SMU at Oklahoma (Sep. 9); FAU at Clemson (Sep. 16); Oklahoma at Tulsa (Sep. 16); UTSA at Tennessee (Sep. 23); Memphis vs. Missouri (Sep. 23); SMU at TCU (Sep. 23)

C-USA: Middle Tennessee at Alabama (Sep. 2); WKU at Ohio State (Sep. 16), New Mexico State at Auburn (Nov. 18)

MAC: Miami at Miami (Sep. 1); Buffalo at Wisconsin (Sep. 2); Toledo at Illinois (Sep. 2), Eastern Michigan at Minnesota (Sep. 9); Iowa State at Ohio (Sep. 16); Miami at Cincinnati (Sep. 16)

MWC: San Jose State at USC (Aug. 26) and Oregon State (Sep. 2); Boise State at Washington (Sep. 2); Fresno State at Purdue (Sep. 2); UCF at Boise State (Sep. 9); UCLA at SDSU (Sep. 9); Fresno State at Arizona State (Sep. 16); SDSU at Oregon State (Sep. 16)

Sun Belt: Coastal Carolina at UCLA (Sep. 2); Appalachian State at North Carolina (Sep. 9); Troy at Kansas State (Sep. 9); South Alabama at Oklahoma State (Sep. 16); Virginia Tech at Marshall (Sep. 23)

Nonconference Games vs. Group of 5

Ohio at San Diego State (Aug. 26)South Alabama at Tulane (Sep. 2)Western Kentucky at Troy (Sep. 23)Boise State at Memphis (Sep. 30)Best Offenses6 of 8

Austin ReedJohn Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UTSA’s offense should translate well to the AAC, where Memphis could overshadow a questionable defense with superb offense. Each one returns its quarterback save for SMU, but the Mustangs are turning to former blue-chip recruit Preston Stone anyway.

Led by Reed and Corley, Western Kentucky sports a dynamic group that ranked seventh in total offense last year.

Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke had an excellent year in 2022 before a late-season injury sidelined him in November and for the MAC Championship Game.

In the Mountain West, Boise State returns nearly every key skill-position player. San Jose State is a team to watch thanks to dual-threat quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, an under-the-radar breakout candidate.

Coastal Carolina is an obvious pick because McCall, who briefly looked around in the transfer portal early in the offseason, is back. South Alabama and Georgia Southern both have intriguing upside with nine returning starters apiece.

Best Defenses7 of 8

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Let’s start with a reality check: I’m not confident in listing any AAC defense. Maybe it’s Navy? At the very least, the Midshipmen return 11 players who recorded 20-plus tackles last season. Tulane is worth a mention, though the Green Wave are rebuilding at linebacker and safety.

Conference USA’s outlook is offense-heavy, but newcomer Sam Houston has a superb group of linebackers to lead a veteran defense. Even if the Bearkats don’t thrive as a team, this unit should command respect.

Toledo finished 12th in yards allowed per snap last season, and it’s entirely plausible the Rockets have a similar year. This time around, Miami may join Toledo, too.

Three of the Mountain West’s top contenders—Air Force, Fresno State and San Diego State—are defense-drive teams. The best unit, however, might just be Wyoming because of its tantalizing front seven.

Sun Belt front-runners South Alabama and Troy should be outstanding, and Marshall’s individual talent may propel the defense.

Projected Champions8 of 8

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AAC: UTSA Roadrunners

Conference USA: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

MAC: Toledo Rockets

Mountain West: Boise State Broncos

Sun Belt: Troy Trojans

New Year’s Six bowl representative: Boise State Broncos

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