As UCF showed last year, Group of 5 teams should not be overlooked when it comes to their inclusion in the New Year's Six bowl lineup. The Knights knocked off Auburn in the Peach Bowl to put the finishing touches on their impressive 13-0 season.
Does this mean UCF is the favorite to return to the New Year's Six stage or will another team take that coveted spot? We asked Athlon editors and college football contributors to pick the team from the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West or Sun Belt that will represent the Group of 5 in the New Year's Six bowl lineup.
Which Group of 5 Team Will Get the New Year's Six Bowl Invite in 2018?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I like Boise State to finish ahead of FAU, San Diego State and UCF as the top Group of 5 team in college football for 2018. While the Knights return quarterback McKenzie Milton, the coaching transition from Scott Frost to Josh Heupel is a question mark. The Broncos have a tough road slate with games at Troy, Oklahoma State and Wyoming, but San Diego State and Fresno State both come to Boise in 2018. Coach Bryan Harsin’s team returns nine starters from a defense that held opponents to 22.9 points a game last fall. Additionally, the offense is led by senior quarterback Brett Rypien (above, right) and 1,000-yard rusher Alexander Mattison. Boise State doesn’t have many holes on the roster, but the offense needs more consistency up front and a new go-to target to replace Cedrick Wilson at receiver. The Broncos may stumble once during the regular season, but I think this team finishes inside of the top 25 and is the top Group of 5 team in the final rankings.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMark)
UCF is the reigning Group of 5 champ, if you will, and the Knights will be just as tough this year. However, it's not the same group that ran the table in 2017 with turnover happening both in the starting lineup and, more importantly, on the coaching staff. In fact, UCF may not even be the best Group of 5 team in its own conference (Memphis could win the AAC) or even the state of Florida (don't sleep on FAU). Instead, I'll head west and take Boise State to return to a stage it has been before. The Broncos somewhat quietly won 11 games last year and return plenty of firepower and experience on both sides of the ball. Bryan Harsin has built a consistent winner at his alma mater and I think this is the year Boise State gets back to a marquee bowl game.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
I'm not ready to dismiss UCF just because of the coaching change, but I'm going with an old faithful in situations like this and saying Boise State. The Broncos check off a lot of boxes: veteran quarterback, plenty of skill position talent and, perhaps most importantly, they're stout in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Their schedule is not a cakewalk but they'll be favored to get to at least 11 wins and win the Mountain West, plus have a big opportunity to win a marquee game at rebuilding Oklahoma State. I've been critical of BSU in recent years for slipping a little bit from their lofty standards but 2018 looks like it will mark a return to the big stage for the Broncos.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Boise State won eight of its final nine games last season to finish 11-3. The late surge included one of the wildest comebacks of the 2017 campaign, a conference championship-sealing defensive struggle to avenge the Broncos' only defeat in Mountain West play, and a thoroughly dominant performance against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A bevy of returning starters on defense (nine) makes Boise State formidable on that side of the ball, and the progression of quarterback Brett Rypien in the latter half of 2017 should propel the Broncos to another Mountain West title. While landing the Group of 5's New Year's Six bid isn't entirely up to Boise State -- the depth of the American Athletic Conference compared to the MWC would theoretically give the AAC champ a leg up -- a win Sept. 15 at Oklahoma State would position Bryan Harsin's club nicely.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I like Boise State. From a conference standpoint, too many other teams in the Mountain West lost significant star power. The Broncos return the core of their team -- and most importantly -- an elite college quarterback. I expect them to run the table during their conference slate -- especially with games against San Diego State and Fresno State at home.
In the non-conference portion, they have a couple of teams on the schedule in Troy and Oklahoma State who will move the needle nationally from a perception standpoint. In reality, neither team has both the talent and experience in place to handle another solid edition of Boise State early in the season. I won't be shocked to see the Broncos crash the New Year's Six on the back of an undefeated season.
Nicholas Ian Allen (@NicholasIAllen)
For the first time in what seems like a long time there's no clear favorite to represent the Group of 5 in 2018. UCF can certainly make a case, and new head coach Josh Heupel has one of the most exciting players in college football at his disposal in quarterback McKenzie Milton, but coaching transitions are often difficult to navigate and Scott Frost was a true difference-maker. Also, the Knights lost their two best defenders in addition to their top playmaking receiver. Plus, UCF faces a more difficult schedule that includes trips to North Carolina, Memphis and USF in addition to home dates with FAU, Pitt, Temple and Navy. Overall, the increased expectations, more difficult schedule and roster and coaching turnover might prove too much for a repeat.
Farther south, Lane Kiffin's FAU squad returns a lot of firepower from last year's 11-win team, and is a heavy favorite to repeat as Conference USA champs. Unfortunately, the conference slate is very weak and the non-conference schedule might prove too difficult with games at Oklahoma and UCF as well as a visit from an always tricky Air Force. Nevertheless, an upset win over the Sooners would make the Owls the team to beat for the New Year's Six slot, and a 13-0 FAU squad -- though still highly unlikely -- would be a lot of fun to see in a marquee bowl game.
However, because of the excitement surround the Group of 5 programs in the Sunshine State, Boise State is flying under the radar in the Mountain West. The Broncos have a four-year starter at quarterback (Brett Rypien), a 1,000-yard rusher (Alexander Mattison), and return nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top 25 last season -- not including top pass rusher Curtis Weaver, who recorded 11 sacks as a freshman a year ago. Boise State has a very tough September slate, including trips to Troy, Oklahoma State and Wyoming, and then hosts West Division favorite San Diego State in Week 5. But the defending Mountain West champs have the most complete team in the conference from top to bottom and every game is winnable -- the Broncos might actually be favored in every game with the possible exception of the trip to Stillwater. Bryan Harsin has won 42 games in four seasons at his alma mater, and there's a great chance he'll take the Broncos back to a big bowl for the first time since 2014.
(McKenzie Milton photo courtesy of UCF; Brett Rypien photo courtesy of Allison Corona/Boise State University)