Group of 5 rankings, Week 1: Who is UCF’s biggest threat for a New Year’s Six bid?

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 17: Adrian Killins Jr. #9 of the UCF Knights runs in a touchdown during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bearcats on November 17, 2018 at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 17: Adrian Killins Jr. #9 of the UCF Knights runs in a touchdown during the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bearcats on November 17, 2018 at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

Group of 5 rankings entering Week 1 takes a look at who the top threat is to UCF for a New Year’s Six bowl bid. Is it Houston? Boise State?

The Group of 5 kicked off the season with Hawaii upsetting Arizona in a 45-38 shootout in Hawaii. Despite turning the ball over seven times, the Rainbow Warriors managed to emerge victorious thanks to a game-saving tackle at the goal line.

Even though they opened their season with a win against a Pac-12 opponent, Hawaii does not top these power rankings. No, that honor goes to the UCF Golden Knights, who have gone unbeaten in their last two regular season campaigns and forced their way into the national spotlight with a 1-1 record in New Year’s Six bowl games against SEC teams.

How does the rest of the Group of 5 compare to the Golden Knights?

Despite a victory over a Pac-12 team, the Rainbow Warriors come in at tenth in the first power rankings of the season. Cole McDonald started the game and threw for over 250 yards and 4 TDs… and 4 interceptions. Backup Chevan Cordeiro came into the game and went 5 of 7 with 1 TD to close it out. Until Hawaii gets their quarterback situation in order and limits their turnovers, it’ll be tough for them to crack the top five of this list.

After winning their first seven games of 2018, the South Florida Bulls dropped their last six, including a blowout loss to the UCF Golden Knights. Look for the Bulls to improve in Charlie Strong’s second season. Alabama and Arizona State transfer Blake Barnett has finally found a landing spot where he appears comfortable and will try to lead the Bulls to the top of a crowded American Athletic Conference.

The Marshall Thundering Herd is coming into 2019 after its second consecutive winning season, going 9-4 in 2018. They boasted one of the best defenses in the C-USA last season, allowing only 21.8 points per game. The offense will need to improve in Isaiah Green’s second season. The Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year completed just 57 percent of his passes last season with fifteen touchdowns and ten interceptions. If the offense can grow in Green’s second year and the defense can continue to excel, the Thundering Herd will contend for the C-USA title.

The Fresno State Bulldogs had a fantastic season in 2019, finishing 12-2, winning the Mountain West championship, and beating Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. So why aren’t they ranked higher? The Bulldogs are replacing their starting quarterback and their top two receivers. Under any circumstance, it would be tough to replicate a defense ranked 17th in the country in total defense. The Bulldogs have to replace five starters. The passing attack may take a couple of games to develop its chemistry, and the defense may take a step back this season which could lead to a couple of extra losses for Fresno State.

In Butch Davis’ second year at the helm, the FIU Panthers set a program record for wins (9) and a Bowl victory. 2019 is looking to be an even better year. The Panthers return Sage Lewis, preseason C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, their quarterback, James Morgan, and seventeen starters. The offense led the C-USA with 34.6 points per game last season and will look to pick up where they left off. The defense will have to improve against the run after allowing nearly 200 rushing yards per game last season. If this defense can step up, the Panthers should be contending for a Conference USA title.

The Appalachian State Mountaineers should blow the door off their Sun Belt opponents this year. They had the best scoring offense in the conference last year and paired it with a defense that allowed the fewest points in the Sun Belt. This year that offense should be even better, as it returns eight starters, including quarterback Zac Thomas. The defense may take a step back after losing cornerback Clifton Duck, a three-time first-team All-Sun Belt selection and safety Austin Exford. However, if it can maintain its 2018 production, look for the Mountaineers to jump up this list quickly.

Three of the top four teams in this power rankings are from the American Conference, giving some insight into how loaded the conference is this year. The Cincinnati Bearcats went 11-2 last season, but their offensive line returns only one starter and they lost their top receiver in Kahlil Lewis. This offense was good but not great last year, ranking fourth in points per game and yards per game. Cincinnati’s defense should be the best in the American again with seven starters returning. If their offensive line can hold up and the offense can marginally improve, the Bearcats could challenge UCF for the American Athletic Conference Title.

The Boise State Broncos lost a ton of talent after a 10-3 season, including veteran quarterback Brett Rypien. His replacement is true freshman Hank Bachmeier, a four-star recruit. The Broncos’ offensive line was pretty bad in pass protection but should improve as all five starters return this year. Boise State has consistently had one of the best defenses in the Group of 5, and this year should be no different as the Broncos are projected to rank 24th in S&P+. After losing to Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship, Boise State should be coming into this season with a chip on their shoulders. Anything short of taking back the Mountain West would be seen as a failure.

The Memphis Tigers have played the UCF Golden Knights in the American Athletic Conference Championship in each the last two seasons, with the Tigers falling short in both contests. They will be looking to change that this year, with another high-powered offensive attack. Despite losing two-star running backs, Tony Pollard and Darrell Henderson, to the NFL, this offense should continue to rank among the nations’ best. The defense was wildly inexperienced in 2018, especially in the secondary, but that should pay off this year as those young starters return. Anything less than an American Athletic Conference Championship should be disappointing for the Tigers this season.

Who else would top this list? The Golden Knights have gone undefeated in the regular season the last two years, won the last two American Athletic Titles, played in two New Year’s Six bowl games, and proclaimed themselves National Champions. After losing McKenzie Milton to an absolutely devastating injury in 2018, UCF will turn to Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush under center. Wimbush went 13-3 as a starter for the Irish and should be more than competent enough to continue UCF’s reign of terror in the American Athletic Conference. If the Golden Knights have one weakness, it’s stopping the run. They ranked 117th in the country while allowing almost 225 yards per game last season. However, they still managed to go 12-1 with this deficiency last year, and it would be hard for them to be much worse this season. A New Year’s Six bowl bid for the Group of 5 is UCF’s to lose.

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