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Group of Five Wild Card Players in 2016

Author:
Jalen Robinette

Jalen Robinette

All college football teams have one player who, if he steps up and plays to or above his potential, could be the catalyst for a magical season. The teams in the Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt) are no different, as many of them have key players who could be the difference between another season of flying under the radar nationally and possibly crashing the party that is the New Year's Six bowls.

Here now are the Wild Card players from the Group of Five:

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American Athletic Conference

Billy Atterbury, OT, South Florida

The Bulls are favored by many to win the AAC East Division. For that to happen, Atterbury — a freshmen — will need to own the right side of the offensive line like a seasoned upperclassmen. With a quarterback as mobile as USF's Quinton Flowers, there is no such thing as a blind side of the line. 

Duke Catalon, RB, Houston

We all know how talented Cougars QB Greg Ward Jr. is. Judging by some of the things head coach Tom Herman has said about Catalon recently, Houston could end up having the most dangerous backfield in the nation. There is already NFL talent all over the field. If Catalon plays up to his potential, there may not be a Group of Five team that can hang with the Cougars.

Tago Smith, QB, Navy

Navy is going to do what Navy does, year in, year out.  We all know that. This season, however, is different. Smith steps in under center to replace one of the best players in the country from a season ago, Keenan Reynolds. Additionally, Smith also will be taking over an offensive unit with limited experience. His ability to hit the ground running early on will be key to Navy competing for the conference title.

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Conference USA

Ryan Higgins, QB, Louisiana Tech

The Bulldogs have a talented receiver corps and figure to be in the mix for the C-USA West Division title in 2016. Higgins, now a senior, will step in as the full-time starter at quarterback for the first time since his freshman season. His maturity and ability to deliver the ball to his talented playmakers could have his team competing for a conference title.

Carlos Johnson, OT, MTSU

The sophomore left tackle will be the newbie on the Blue Raider offensive line. Luckily for him, his quarterback, Brent Stockstill, is a lefty, so Johnson won't be tabbed with blind side responsibilities. That said, the underclassmen's inexperience will be researched and tested as a vulnerability by opposing defenses all season. He'll need to be on top of his game for the MTSU offense to be the powerhouse it was a season ago.

Ty Pollard, OT, Southern Miss

Golden Eagle quarterback Nick Mullens IS right-handed, which means he will rely on Pollard — a freshman — to protect his blind side. Southern Miss is the favorite to win the conference this fall. As the most talented team in Conference USA, those predictions are legit, but Pollard needs to play beyond his years for this team to reach its full potential.

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Mid-American Conference

Ronnie Moore, WR, Bowling Green

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The Falcons had one of the most dangerous offenses in the country ago, and that scheme is not likely to change with a new head coach. Moore had a solid season in 2015, but will need to step up as the primary threat and play at an elite level for Bowling Green to repeat the success it had last year.

Sebastian Smith, WR, Ohio

Frank Solich's Bobcats are going to be a real threat to earn the unofficial title of "Best Group of Five Team." For that to happen, Smith will need to play up to the NFL-caliber potential some think he has and make the Ohio passing game close to as dangerous a threat as the ground game is expected to be.

Justin Tranquill, S, Western Michigan

The Broncos have the tools in place on offense to make a serious conference title run. Defensively, they'll need to withstand multiple barrages weekly from some high-powered offenses in order to win would-be high-scoring affairs. Tranquill be the the last obstacle standing between opposing skill players and the end zone. The freshman will need to play focused, mistake-free football at the position.

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Mountain West Conference

Dylan Sumner-Gardner, S, Boise State

I had DSG on this list last season and he didn't disappoint. The difference in 2016 will be the overall talent level on defense. He'll need to be a leader — both vocally and with his play on the field — in order to elevate the Boise State defense to a level where the unit can be considered an complement to what looks to be an elite offense.

Christian Chapman, QB, San Diego State

Chapman steps in under center as the full-time starter in 2016. The Aztecs are one of the more talented squads in the Mountain West, and Chapman will have plenty of options in terms of who to deliver the ball to. Eventually, teams are going to game plan around stopping running back Donnel Pumphrey. When that happens — especially in big games — Chapman will likely need to make a game-changing play with his arm.

Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force

Air Force could end up being one of the biggest stories in college football in 2016. A lot of that has to do with its defense, which is expected to be among the nation's best by some. Robinette is a Power Five-caliber talent at the receiver position. He'll be catching passes from a quarterback who can make every throw — a rarity when it comes to Air Force football. If Robinette can deliver on his talent, Air Force could claim the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, the Mountain West title and possibly more.

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Sun Belt Conference

Justice Hansen, QB, Arkansas State

The sophomore JUCO transfer will obviously play a key role in the new offensive scheme being installed in Jonesboro. He'll have the luxury of playing behind a line that returns five starters. Beyond that, however, the success the Red Wolves have on offense will rest heavily on Hansen's skill set and performance.

Jeremiah Theus, G, Georgia Southern

Few programs run the football as effectively as Georgia Southern. The blocking scheme that the Eagles implement is a big reason for their success, helping their top back average nearly eight yards per carry a season ago. Theus will likely be one of the few freshmen in the country to start at the guard position. The nature of Georgia Southern's attack will put even more attention on Theus' performance every week. If he can excel, Georgia Southern should roll.

Jordan Davis, QB, UL Lafayette

Davis has sort of fallen into the starting role due to a couple of situations beyond his control. That said, he's a big, strong athlete who very well might end up being the catalyst that takes this talented team to the next level. There are few athletes like him at the position — especially in the Sun Belt. If he can just be above average, the Ragin' Cajuns will be a tough out.

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.