Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Long and Suite Preview: Non-Automatic Qualifiers

Marshall brings back star quarterback Rakeem Cato, but could the best thing the Herd have going for it be the schedule?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The BCS era may be over, but the legacy of the "BCS Buster" lives on.

You know the teams. Those plucky mid-majors that somehow run the table, upset an established power along the way, and earn respect in a major bowl game.

Central Florida was the latest small school to crash the party (Really I mean small-time program. UCF is the second-largest school in the country, as anyone that went there will tell you. Seriously, they bring it up a lot). The Knights won the American with an 11-1 regular season record, only dropping a tight one out of conference to South Carolina, and upset offensive juggernaut Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

This season we get our first taste of the "Group of Five." That is, as you might imagine, a Group of Five smaller conferences, including Conference USA, The Mountain West, The Sun Belt, The MAC and, of course, the American. The new College Football Playoff guarantees the highest ranked team in those five conferences, plus Division 1 FBS Independent teams other than Notre Dame (who qualify as a major conference school because, money), a spot in a marquee bowl game associated with the playoff.

That means that, while the likelihood of any smaller programs making the playoff is small, the spirit of the BCS Buster can live on. Here are some "Group of Five" and Independent teams to watch.

Marshall, Conference USA
Last Year: 10-4, C-USA East Champs

The Thundering Herd have to be the overwhelming favorite to run the table out of all these mid-major teams. Marshall returns star quarterback Rakeem Cato for his senior season (more on him below) along with speedy senior receiver Tommy Shuler and three starters along the offensive line.

Last year, the Herd went from a five-win team to a 10-win team, and I would expect another jump as eight starters return from a defense that surprised many to rank in the middle of the country in most categories. An aggressive defensive line led by tackle James Rouse and end end Ra'Shawde Myers will make Marshall hard for any C-USA team to run on, or keep their quarterback upright against.

The other obvious thing working in Marshall's favor is its schedule. The Thundering Herd should be favored in all 12 of their games, maybe by double digits, and face the 125th most difficult schedule in the country (out of 130) according to guru Phil Steele. The most difficult game should be a C-USA championship game rematch against Rice, who beat Marshall in that game last year, but the Owls are undergoing a rebuilding job this season.

Other than that, Ohio could present some problems, and their toughest road game will be against… Southern Miss?

This is a very user-friendly schedule and Marshall is a talented and experienced team. If the Herd don't run the table, the program may never have the stars align like this again.

UCF, American Athletic Conference
Last Year: 12-1, #10, AAC Champs, Fiesta Bowl Champs

While a ton of the offensive firepower and some of the best names ever (Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson) are gone from last year's BCS run, Central Florida should again contend for a major bowl on the back of its stellar defense.

The Knights have speed to burn on that side of the ball, and return a pair of seniors that racked up over 100 tackles last season in middle linebacker Terrance Plummer and strong safety Clayton Geathers. UCF held opponents in conference play to just over 53 percent passing, and all four starters return from that talented secondary, including Jacoby Glenn, who emerged as one of the conference's best corners as a freshman last fall.

The offense will have some rebuilding to do with the loss of the aforementioned names, but UCF does return three upperclassman receivers with starting experience and a solid senior tight end in Justin Tukes.

If the Knights can get things figured out offensively around redshirt freshman quarterback Pete DiNovo, there will be enough defense and special teams magic to lead them to another special season.

Houston, American Athletic Conference
Last Year: 8-5, NR

The Cougars quietly went 5-3 in their first season of AAC conference play last year and seem poised for bigger things in 2014. With the return of quarterback John O'Korn, who showed star potential as a freshman in 2013 (3,117 yards, 28 TD on 58%), Houston should have one of the most high-powered offenses this side of the Pac 12.

O'Korn will get three of his top four receivers back, along with Houston's top-six rushers from a season ago to run behind a line that returns three starters.

Basically, the offense is stacked, but the return of nine starters on defense has Cougar fans thinking this could be their year to reach on Orange Bowl-level game. The defense was a classic bend-but-don't-break unit, allowing nearly 380 yards per game in 2013, but those yards translated to only 16 points against in conference play, second to only Louisville in the American.

With the Cardinals off to the ACC and UCF likely to take a step back, don't be surprised to see Houston taking center stage in a New Year's Eve bowl game.

BYU, Independent
Last Year: 8-5, NR

BYU suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of Virginia to open 2013, but bounced back in a major way with a 40-21 demolition of Texas. That game introduced us to dual-threat Cougar quarterback Tayson Hill, who rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns against the Longhorns, on an absurd 15.2 yards per carry!

Hill went on to have a good year, but never again captured that day's magic, rushing for 1,344 yards and 10 TDs on 5.5 YPC on the season. Now a junior, it will be on Hill to improve as a passer, where he completed under 54 percent of his passes and posted a modest 19/14 TD to INT ratio, so that the BYU rushing attack can be fully unleashed.

He'll have to do it with a largely rebuilt receiving corps, but with all five starters returning on the offensive line, expect BYU to be slightly better throughout its offense in 2014. The defense was very young in 2013, returning only three players with starting experience, but played solid football in spurts.

This year's unit will be more experienced, but also loses the disruptive Kyle Van Noy to the NFL. The front will need someone to emerge as a pass rusher, but a talented secondary led by senior safety Craig Bills should help the Cougars transition smoothly.

The schedule features some interesting and difficult challenges (at UConn, at Texas, at UCF, Utah State and at Boise State) but the Cougars have the talent to win nine or 10 games. As for running the table and making a marquee bowl… That will depend on the progression of Hill and the emergence of a major play maker in the front end of the BYU defense.

Cincinnati, American Athletic Conference
Last Year: 9-4, NR

The Bearcats have the look of a boom or bust team, and a lot will depend on sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel. You may recall Kiel's recruiting saga from a few year's back. Then ranked as the nation's best pro-style high school quarterback, Kiel shocked the world by committing to the in-state Indiana Hoosiers, before eventually flipping to LSU.

When it came time for him to head to Baton Rouge, Kiel realized that Louisiana is not that close to Indiana, so he instead enrolled at Notre Dame. He then transferred from Notre Dame to Cincy because… I can't keep up with this stuff anymore.

Anyways, Kiel is a tall, strong armed passer that should lead another solid Bearcat attack, and he'll have an experienced, though not particularly explosive supporting cast to help him.

On defense Cincinnati returns a great pass rusher in junior defensive end Silverberry Mouhon, plus star outside linebacker Nick Temple. The Bearcats will need some play makers to emerge on offense, but they've got as good a shot as anybody in the American of following in UCF's footsteps to the major bowl promised land.

Boise State, Mountain West
Last Year: 8-5, NR

The Broncos lose legendary coach Chris Petersen to Washington, but it may have been time for the program's architect to move on.

After seven straight 10-win seasons, including unbeaten campaigns in 2006 and 2009, plus four Top-10 finishes, Boise State struggled in Petersen's final year. The 2013 Broncos limped out of the gate, getting blasted by Washington 38-6 on opening night. They also fell by 17 to BYU later in the year, and dropped close decisions to both Fresno and San Diego State.

By the time Boise State lost to an Oregon State team on a downward spiral in the Hawaii Bowl, Petersen was already gone.

Enter new coach Bryan Harsin, fresh off a season as the head man at Arkansas State. Harsin followed in Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze's footsteps as offensive innovators that led the Red Wolves to success and bolted town after one year. Boise State will hope he can match those two in terms of coaching success at a higher level, and his abilities as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach (held those positions at Texas from 2011-2012) should help senior quarterback Grant Hedrick take the next step.

Defensively the Broncos have grown up a bunch since last season, and should improve on some solid numbers (24 PPG allowed, 3.8 YPC allowed). Middle linebacker Ben Weaver led the defense as a freshman last season, and should be much improved, as should the rest of the linebacking corps and secondary, both of which return completely intact.

This isn't a great Boise State team, but it is one that should contend for a Mountain West championship, and could just snag that marquee bowl bid.

Players to Watch

Rakeem Cato, QB, Marshall

At this point, if you follow college football closely, you probably know Cato. The Miami native has been putting up video game numbers for the Herd the last few years, and helped turn them from a losing team to a division champion in 2013.

This year he has the chance to become a true household name and lead Marshall to a major bowl game. Cato posted an absurd 39 TD to 9 INT ratio last year on nearly 4,000 yards passing, but expect him to be even better in 2014 with the return of both his offensive tackles, and his favorite target, slot receiver Tommy Shuler.

He's only about 3,000 yards away from Chad Pennington's school record, and with a magical year in 2014, could go down as the greatest signal caller in Marshall history.

Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston

While O'Korn had a great freshman season starting at quarterback for the Cougars, his life was made much easier by the presence of this physical pass catcher. The 6'3'', 200 lb Greenberry is one of the toughest covers in all of college football, let alone the American.

Look for him to improve on his tremendous numbers (1,200 and 11 TD on 15 YPC) as O'Korn grows more comfortable in the offense and sophomore Greg Ward develops in the slot. Now a junior, Greenberry is attracting NFL attention, and is the one guy in the conference you simply can't afford to single-cover in the red zone.

He came to campus as Houston's first ever five star recruit, and he's lived up to that billing the last two years for the Cougars. With an experienced offense around him and another year under his belt, look for Greenberry to fight for an All American spot in 2014.

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