On opening week the Houston Cougars will carry the weight of all Group of 5 programs on their shoulders. Of all G5's Houston is in the best position to make a serious run at the playoffs this season. Beating Oklahoma would be the first step on a rugged road that is made smooth only for Power 5 programs massively lubricated with television money. Houston receives around 1.5 million from their AAC contract, Oklahoma receives 25 million from their Big 12 contract. This is why 17 cash strapped programs applied for a position in the Big 12.
But lack of funding isn't the only obstacle for G5's to hurdle for a playoff spot. Now that the CFP committee is using a teams non conference "strength of schedule" as a major consideration for playoff inclusion, the P5's will soon be only scheduling each other. Once these older scheduling contracts with the G5's run out we may never see again the likes of a Oklahoma vs Houston game. That is why Houston must make hay while the sun is shining in their direction.
Now about the game. Both teams have quality players so it will come down to coaching and quarterbacks.
Bob Stoops and Oklahoma were stuck in the mud until they hired Lincoln Riley away from ECU as offensive coordinator. Lincoln learned the Air Raid offense at the knee of the mad genius himself Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Leach of the pass first ask questions later offensive mind. When the high flying party broke up at Texas Tech Riley took his pilots license to ECU where he quickly turned around a grounded program and beat Power 5's on a regular flight schedule.
Houston's secondary will have their hands full covering Baker Mayfield's GPS accurate air mail deliveries. The beauty of the Air Raid is in its simplicity. Leach once said it only consists of a handful of plays with different variations. The simplicity is what makes for a quick recovery for a talented but directionless program like Oklahoma. Houston coach Tom Herman must play a bend don't break defense, and hope for a few timely interceptions along the way.
For Oklahoma to win they must find a way to stop dual threat Heisman candidate QB Greg Ward Jr. Last we saw another dual threat Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson was playing Oklahoma's defense like a fiddle. Don't think a brainiac coach like Tom Herman hasn't watched that tape a thousand times salivating at the feast a Mike Stoops defense serves up for a dual threat QB to devour. Deshaun Watson racked up 332 total yards against Mike Stoops 39th ranked defense. Greg Ward Jr compiled 305 total yards against FSU's 19th ranked defense. Last I checked Mike Stoops is still at Oklahoma, and still the weak link Tom Herman will exploit.
Prediction time. There is no evidence that a Mike Stoops defense can stop a elite dual threat quarterback like Greg Ward Jr. Ward carved up a better defense beating FSU in the Peach Bowl. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield has a tendency to throw interceptions in big games, and Houston's defense is a interception magnet, ranking #2 in the country last season. Bob and Mike Stoops are way past their sell by date, and don't hold a candle to the coaching prowess of Tom Herman. Houston is playing at home with the momentum of their Peach Bowl win. Oklahoma is on the road with vivid memories of Deshaun Watson speeding by their lumbering defense. I predict more of the same and a final score the same, Houston wins 37-17.
UCF's first game is at home against FCS MEAC member South Carolina State. UCF learned a painful lesson last season against Furman. That lesson, FCS programs will beat you if you're not properly prepared. Last season UCF was working with a socially promoted offensive coordinator, and a head coach distracted by adding AD duties to his responsibilities. UCF fans know that equation worked out to a 0-12 season, and a acrimonious mid season departure for George O'Leary.
Now UCF has new AD Danny White doing a exceptional job of rebuilding the athletic department, and Oregon transfer Scott Frost installing a proven winning system as head coach, so drama distractions shouldn't be a problem against SC State. This is not to say SC State is going to roll over in fear of Scott Frost's Oregon resume as their offensive coordinator. UCF will still be taking on a feisty 7-4 (2015) Bulldog team that co won the MEAC conference in 2014.
Historically UCF has had major problems with mobile QB's, and they will probably be facing one again in SC State's Dewann Ford. SC State's starters have yet to be announced, but Ford has shined in their scrimmages both running and passing. SC State is FBS big up front on offensive line, and has fast running backs that can get downfield quickly. This is not a good combination for a UCF defense that is mostly comprised of players that got hammered by this combination repeatedly last season.
The Bulldog defense is on the smallish size, but are quick to the ball and play smart with intensity. SC State is not Furman, they are much better than Furman. UCF will win this game, but SC State will have their moments, and will expose any weakness in UCF's run defense. This is just in time to make corrections for a big game two against Michigan.
I will break down the Michigan game next week. Stay tuned.
Under the new CFP Bowl system the Group of 5 football programs receive one coveted slot in the New Years bowl games. In the first two years of this system the Group of 5 have come away winners against their highly ranked Power 5 opponents. In 2014 Boise State beat Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, and in 2015 Houston beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. In 2013 under the old BCS system UCF made a New Years bowl appearance and beat heavily favored Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. Pretty good record for the underfunded conferences.
What each team had in common was winning their conference championships. This is a must if you want to make it to the big show. Another thing these teams had in common were regular season losses. A loss is not good but is not a exclusion from consideration. Nor is it imperative to have a Power 5 win as Boise State proved in 2014. A Group of 5 program could take two paths to the access bowl. One is to schedule other Group of 5 programs for non conference games and shoot for a undefeated season. The publicity power of a undefeated FBS team is hard to overlook for the CFP committee. Had Marshall not had its one late season hiccup against WKU in 2014 they would have gone to the access bowl over Boise State. The other more grueling path is to schedule upper tier Power 5 programs. It takes some guts for a G5 to schedule Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, TCU, and Michigan, knowing a loss could cancel your ticket to the new years festivities. But no guts no glory.
The following teams are the ones with the biggest opportunity to punch their ticket with just one win against improbable odds. They would also need to win their conference, but with a team capable of beating the best of the Power 5, that should be more than possible.
Houston- Of all Group of 5 programs Houston has the best chance to make its case for the access bowl in week one at home against Oklahoma. Playing against one of last years playoff teams on national TV is as high profile as it gets. If Houston can continue where it left off last season beating FSU in the Peach Bowl by beating Oklahoma at home, then the playoffs aren't out of the question. Especially if they steamroll through the AAC on the way to a conference championship. It would be helpful if Oklahoma went on to batter the Big 12, win the conference, and end up highly ranked. This is a lot to ask but with Tom Herman at the helm anything is possible. A loss would not exclude them from the access but would bring other teams into the equation.
Western Kentucky- WKU under Jeff Brohm just keeps getting better and better. Last season his team went 8-0 in C-USA, 12-2 overall, won the conference championship, and beat USF in the Miami Beach Bowl. Jeff is taking the no guts no glory route scheduling top tier SEC teams like LSU last season, and Alabama this season. With Alabama retooling after some major personnel departures WKU's high flying offense could give Alabama a run for their money. Even a respectable showing could get the CFP committees attention for the rest of the season. Of course a win over Alabama on the road coupled with a conference championship and undefeated season could even get them playoff consideration.
Navy- In Navy's first AAC season they went 7-1 in conference beating 5 eventual bowl teams along the way, and losing only to conference champion Houston on the road. They also ran all over Power 5 Pitt in the Military bowl on the way to a Top 20 ranking. Most teams just don't have a answer for a triple option offense run this efficiently. The emphasis on run. Makes you wonder why other small but speedy losing programs don't switch to the triple to play to their strengths, but I digress. Every season tradition dictates a Navy vs Notre Dame match up. Over the years many times Navy has given Notre Dame fits, like a giant trying to swat a bee zipping around its head. In 2007 the bee stung the giant 46 times in a triple overtime win. This season Navy gets Notre Dame and Houston at home. A undefeated season coupled with wins against ranked Houston and Notre Dame teams could get them playoff consideration, and most certainly a access bowl nod.
These are the Group of 5 teams with the most momentum coming in from 2015 to challenge for the 2016 access bowl, but there are others. Also taking the no guts no glory route are long shots like SMU who plays Baylor and TCU. Tulsa plays Ohio State, and UCF plays Michigan. If any one of these teams overachieves beyond what's expected with their new Power 5 head coaches the access bowl is anyone's guess.