5 TEAMS THAT COULD GET THE GROUP OF FIVE'S "NEW YEAR'S SIX" BOWL BID
BOISE STATE, Mountain West
The Broncos are poised to earn the G5's bid again. After a home opener against Washington, Boise has two chances to boost its résumé with games at BYU and Virginia. Even a nonconference loss won't derail the Broncos as long as they take care of business in the Mountain West—especially their Oct. 16 game at Utah State.
UTAH STATE, Mountain West
Dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton was granted a fifth year of eligibility after knee injuries cut short his past two seasons. With Keeton and one of the conferences' better defenses, the Aggies could make a case if they beat Boise and succeed on the road against Pac-12 foes Utah and Washington.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN, Sun Belt
As first-year members of the FBS last year, the Eagles were barred from the postseason despite going 8--0 in conference play. To make the leap from no bowl to a New Year's Six game, Georgia Southern will need to fare well in tests at West Virginia and Georgia and go unbeaten in the Sun Belt again.
CINCINNATI, American Athletic Conference
The Bearcats are good enough to win the AAC. The question is whether they are good enough to win nonconference games against Miami (home) and BYU (away). A loss in either would reduce Cincinnati's margin for error during conference play, which includes formidable matchups at Houston and Memphis.
TOLEDO, Mid-American Conference
The Rockets' hopes could be dashed before October. After a home opener against Stony Brook, Toledo travels to face SEC riser Arkansas, then welcomes the Big 12's Iowa State. Those games—the first in particular—will be difficult, but winning both would keep Toledo in the conversation heading into the MAC campaign.
The highest-rated champion from one of the Group of Five conferences earns a spot in a New Year's Eve/Day bowl.
5 PLAYERS WHO DESERVE ATTENTION
Wide receiver, Colorado State
Higgins was named a first-team All-America by SI after he made 96 catches, 17 for touchdowns, and led the nation with 145.8 receiving yards per game last season. The 6'2", 190-pound junior could put up similar numbers again even though he lost his coach (Jim McElwain to Florida) and quarterback (Garrett Grayson to the Saints).
Running back, San Diego State
At 5'9" and 180 pounds, Pumphrey may not seem built to carry a big workload, but no running back returning to the Mountain West logged more carries (276) than he did in 2014. After gaining a league-high 1,867 rushing yards, the junior, a shifty one-cut runner, will get plenty of touches while the Aztecs work in a new quarterback.
Kiel verbally pledged to two schools (Indiana and LSU), signed with another (Notre Dame) and then transferred to a fourth (Cincinnati) before playing his first snap. After helping the Bearcats win a share of the AAC championship as a sophomore, Kiel, aided by a strong receiving corps, could push them to double-digit wins.
Defensive tackle, Louisiana-Monroe
Rarely do tackles lead their teams in, well, tackles. Johnson (6'1", 290 pounds) did so last year with 93, including 12½ for a loss and six sacks, earning All--Sun Belt recognition for the second consecutive season. Eight starters return to a defense that tied for first in the conference in yards allowed per play (5.3).
Quarterback, Utah State
In his last full season, as a sophomore in 2012, Keeton completed 67.6% of his passes, rushed for 4.8 yards per carry and accounted for 3,992 total yards and 35 touchdowns. If he regains that form after twice tearing his left ACL, the fifth-year senior could once again be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
5 KEY MATCHUPS
WASHINGTON at BOISE STATE
Boise State will have a chance to make its case early. While Washington must replace multiple first-round draft picks from its defense and has yet to settle on a starting quarterback, the Huskies will be sure to supply a little extra effort for their coach, former Broncos head man Chris Petersen, in his first return to the blue turf.
OLE MISS at MEMPHIS
The Tigers performed so well last season (10--3) that fourth-year coach Justin Fuente was connected to several "big-time" vacancies. Fuente, 39, could become an even more coveted candidate this off-season if he can upset the Rebels, a nine-win SEC team that held a Top 5 ranking for part of 2014.
UTAH STATE at UTAH
In the 112th meeting of the rivalry, the Aggies will be seeking a signature nonconference victory over a Utah team that will have just faced Michigan in a tough season opener. Utah State snapped a 12-game losing skid in the series in 2012, then fell by only four points in '13, when the Utes struggled to stop Keeton.
MISSOURI at ARKANSAS STATE
A game against the reigning SEC East champion at Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark., offers an opportunity for the Red Wolves to score a marquee win before their Sun Belt season begins. Senior QB Fredi Knighten is back to pilot an offense that has nine returning starters and ranked second in the conference with 36.7 points per game.
MIAMI at CINCINNATI
This is the Bearcats' best chance to boost their bona fides outside the conference. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, the ACC's rookie of the year in 2014, will test a suspect defense, but Cincinnati will counter with one of the better passing games in the AAC. A Miami loss would turn up the heat on coach Al Golden.
PROJECTED CONFERENCE CHAMPION
CONFERENCE USA: Western Kentucky
Quarterback Brandon Doughty is back after completing 67.5% of his passes for a nation-best 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns. The Hilltoppers are well-equipped to win shootouts, with eight starters back on offense, including standout running back Leon Allen (1,490 yards). Still, even marginal improvement on D would help: Western Kentucky ranked 124th in the nation last season in yards allowed per play (6.66).
MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE: Toledo
The Rockets bring back one of the MAC's top rushers in junior Kareem Hunt (866 yards), two quarterbacks with starting experience (junior Logan Woodside and senior Phillip Ely) and an imposing front seven led by second-team all-conference tackles Orion Jones (senior) and Treyvon Hester (junior). One snag: The offensive line needs five new starters. If that unit coalesces, Toledo should hold off Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE: Cincinnati
After dropping their AAC opener last season, the Bearcats rattled off seven straight wins in conference before losing to Virginia Tech 33--17 in the Military Bowl. Cincinnati could be better this season if its defense—which lost linebacker Jeff Luc and DE Terrell Hartsfield—can make strides. A strong receiving corps is headlined by seniors Shaq Washington, Mekale McKay and Chris Moore.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Boise State
Expect the Broncos to take another step forward after they won 12 games and upset Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl 38--30. Despite losing quarterback Grant Hedrick (graduation), top tailback Jay Ajayi (the NFL) and coordinator Mike Sanford (Notre Dame), the offense is strong, led by receivers Shane Williams-Rhodes and Thomas Sperbeck. Key contributors remain from a defense that held its final three regular-season opponents to fewer than 20 points each.
SUN BELT: Georgia Southern
After last year, anything short of a perfect conference campaign would register as a letdown. Junior running back Matt Breida leads a triple-option attack that paced the nation in 2014 (379.2 rushing yards per game), and a pair of all-conference honorable-mention performers in junior linebacker Antwione Williams and sophomore defensive lineman Jay Ellison should help offset a shaky secondary.
FULL CONFERENCE STANDINGS
1. Western Kentucky
2. Middle Tennessee
4. Old Dominion
5. Florida Atlantic
6. Florida International
1. Louisiana Tech
3. Southern Miss
6. North Texas
1. Bowling Green
6. Kent State
7. Miami (Ohio)
2. Western Michigan
3. Northern Illinois
4. Ball State
5. Central Michigan
6. Eastern Michigan
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE
3. East Carolina
5. South Florida
1. Boise State
2. Utah State
3. Air Force
4. Colorado State
5. New Mexico
1. San Diego State
2. San Jose State
3. Fresno State
1. Georgia Southern
2. Arkansas State
3. Appalachian State
5. South Alabama
7. Texas State
10. Georgia State
11. New Mexico State
EUGENE TANNER/AP (HIGGINS)
LENNY IGNELZI/AP (PUMPHREY)
AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KIEL)
COURTESY OF UNIV. LOUISIANA MONROE (JOHNSON)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KEETON)
JOHN DAVID MERCER/USA TODAY SPORTS (HUNT)
KAREEM HUNT RB, Toledo
TAYLOR BALLANTYNE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HELMETS)
CHAD MATTHEW CARLSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BOISE STATE)
JOE ROBINS/GETTY IMAGES (ACTION)