Group of 5 Spotlight: Navy Says Aloha, Heisman Hopefuls and Wyoming's Cowboy Tough D on Tap for Week 1

Group of 5 brings marquee games and star players ready to roll to help kick off the season

Week 0 ushered in the first college football action of the 2018 season, including some noteworthy performances from the Group of 5 conferences. But beginning Thursday, Week 1 truly kicks off the campaign in earnest.

 

Here are five storylines to know with the first partial weekend transitioning into the first full week of competition.

 

5 Things to Watch in the Group of 5 for Week 1

 

1. Frequent Flyer Miles

The ground-based, flexbone offense has long been the defining trait of Navy football, and that won't change in 2018. However, the Midshipmen will end the season one of the nation's leaders in at least one aerial category.

 

Starting with their Week 1 trip to face Hawaii, the Mids will log roughly 13,000 miles traveled. That's more than half of the circumference of the Earth. Three trips account for the bulk of Navy's travel: an October matchup with Notre Dame in San Diego; the first leg of the Commander in Chief's rivalry against Air Force in Colorado Springs; and this Week 1 trip to Honolulu, which is roughly a 10-hour flight.

 

Long trips require certain elements of preparation. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the focal points include hydration, nutrition and sleep. So long as the Mids aren't eating fast-food hamburgers in the airport terminal or relying on the terminal gate seats for a comfortable snooze, they are faring better than most airport travelers.

 

"The old coaching saying, 'Control the things that are controllable,'" he said.

 

Navy will not be the most traveled team in 2018; Hawaii always wins that designation for a reason Niumatalolo best summarized.

 

"It's not like we can pull the Islands closer to the West Coast or anything," he said.

 

2. Race to the New Year's Six

Jockeying for the Group of 5 conferences' New Year's Six bowl bid begins from Week 1, giving a sense of urgency to the season right out of the starting block, as Troy head coach Neal Brown touched upon.

 

"Whoever wins this game on Saturday puts themsleves in great position right out the gate to put themselves at the top of the Group of 5," Brown said of his team's Week 1 home date against No. 22-ranked Boise State. "And the loser's probably out."

 

That's a hefty proposition for the first weekend of the season, but one that Brown and the Trojans embrace.

 

"The positives completely outweigh the negatives," Brown said.

 

Boise State's been the benchmark for non-power conferences approaching almost two decades -- the "preeminent program in the Group of 5," according to Brown, and that facts back up that assertion.

 

Utah in 2004 became the first representative from a non-BCS conference to reach a BCS bowl, but Boise State's defeat of Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl set the gold standard for such programs. The Broncos were the first non-power conference program in the New Year's Six, winning the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, and Bryan Harsin's team is a popular pick to claim the bid again this season.

 

With a Top 25 ranking in 2016, and an 11-win season that included both a road win at LSU and Sun Belt Conference championship, Troy has the foundation to be recognized as one of the leading Group of 5 programs in its own right. A win at home against Boise State would mark another milestone in that process.

 

3. Heisman Hopefuls

The Group of 5 conferences have not produced a Heisman Trophy finalist since before the Group of 5 was a thing. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch earned an invitation to New York in 2013.

 

Since the inception of the College Football Playoff, however, worthy contenders like Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds and San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny were left on the outside looking in. That could change in 2018, with a pair of Group of 5 stars generating Heisman-caliber buzz in the offseason.

 

UCF Knights QB McKenzie MiltonUCF quarterback McKenzie Milton and Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver enter 2018 in the national spotlight, both coming off stellar 2017 seasons. Milton passed for more than 4,000 yards with 37 touchdowns through the air and another 613 yards and eight touchdowns rushing.

 

Gone is former head coach Scott Frost, but replacement Josh Heupel has quite the cornerstone in Milton.

 

"I'm sure McKenzie Milton ... has had some input [on the offensive look]," said UConn head coach Randy Edsall, whose team faces UCF on Thursday. "At least, I'd make sure he had some input."

 

On the other side of the ball, Oliver recorded 22 tackles for a loss as a freshman in 2016, a staggering number from the interior line. Facing more double-teams and chip blocks in 2017, he recorded a still-impressive 16.5 TFL with 5.5 sacks, while piling up 73 total tackles.

 

Oliver's hypothetical candidacy bucks another trend. Defensive players rarely end up in New York, with only former Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers the only finalist of the playoff era. But Oliver makes such an impact on the defensive end, it translates directly to the Cougars' offense, head coach Major Applewhite explained.

 

"We saw it with this team when Greg Ward [another Heisman dark horse] was playing quarterback," Applewhite said. "The defense knew, ‘Hey, we just give him the ball back, we have a chance to score and we have a chance to win this game.’ Probably the same way the offense sees in a run situation: ‘We’ve got a great player on the defensive line, we can slow this run down.’"

 

4. Cowboy Tough

Perhaps quietly, Wyoming boasted one of the stingiest defenses in college football a season ago. The Cowboys held opponents to just 17.5 points per game, good for ninth-best in the FBS, with the 13th-lowest passing yield.

 

Nothing about Wyoming's Week 0 performance was quiet. With the national spotlight all to themselves, the Cowboys took advantage of a restructing New Mexico State offense, holding the Aggies to just one score and seven first downs -- the first of which did not come until the closing seconds of the first half.

 

Most impressive is a statistic that quite possible no other defense in college football will match this season: A final rushing output of negative nine (-9) yards.

 

Wyoming isn't likely to surrender much on the ground in Week 1, either, although that's a byproduct of facing the pass-heavy, air-raid offense of Washington State. The Cowboys' effort against an aerial attack will give a telling indicator of just how good and how complete Craig Bohl's bunch can be this season.

 

5. I'm Lovin' It

The breakout star of Week 0 was Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald. McDonald paced the Rainbow Warriors in a Mountain West road upset of Colorado State, setting a Rainbow Warriors record for a debuting quarterback with 418 passing yards and another 96 rushing. He also accounted for all five Hawaii touchdowns with three via the pass and two on the ground.

 

The offensive eruption invoked not-too-distant memories of the run-and-shoot offenses that defined Hawaii last decade under coach June Jones.

 

Likewise, McDonald has a look reminiscent of 2007 Hawaii Heisman finalist Colt Brennan, with a long, lean physique and flowing locks of hair waving out of his helmet. But while comparisons to past Rainbow Warriors quarterbacks are unavoidable, McDonald showed a game uniquely his own.

 

"They've got their core of run-and-shoot principles, but adding on some of their [run-pass option] stuff and some of their quarterback runs that weren't necessarily of their run-and-shoot package with Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan," said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "They're running the football because McDonald's so athletic."

 

So long as the comparisons to quarterbacks of Hawaii's past come up, at least one does apply directly to McDonald's remarkable debut: the record McDonald broke previously belonged to Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich.

 

-- Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of TheOpenMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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