2014 College Football Preview: The Group of Five and the Independents

With the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? Previously: the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12, the Big Ten, and the Big 12. To conclude: Assorted noisemakers from the Group of Five conferences and the independent ranks.

Click here for more from our 2014 preview. 

Spotlight Team: Marshall

Unranked, unheralded, and seemingly staring down a smooth road to and-0 glory: We’ve seen these can’t-miss mid-major preseason bets before, and rarely do the campaigns end prettily; but even more rarely does a team encounter a setup as favorable as the one the Thundering Herd will face in 2014. Last year’s 10-win squad, which lost three regular-season games by a field goal, a touchdown in triple overtime, and a short pass at the final whistle, respectively, enters this season having received 41 points in the Associated Press poll, and may have the best shot of any FBS program at stringing together an undefeated season. The Herd have lost their share of starters, but return some guys you’re about to know very, very well, and have a schedule that’s practically rolling over for a tummy rub: If you’d like a visual aid, check out this entrancing display of schedule strength from Brian Fremeau and Chartball.

Marshall enters this season captained by quarterback Rakeem Cato, himself the product of some celestial lab out to craft a narrative capable of making Tom Rinaldi mist up: an upbringing in Miami’s Liberty City fraught with heartbreak; an escape through football into higher education that came with a steep emotional learning curve; two new lives, and the chance to give them better than he got; an undersized frame, but 10,000-plus passing yards already to his name, and billboard appearances. It’s all there for the fourth-year QB.

All Cato has to do now is play lights-out ball for 13 games, hope his teammates do the same, avoid a repeat of last year’s C-USA title game face-plant, and wow a stingy playoff committee despite playing just five regular-season opponents carrying winning records over from 2013. And get some help: 1,000-yard running back Essray Taliaferro has graduated, and once-ballyhooed back Kevin Grooms has landed at Liberty on a streak of very bad decisions. Key receiving cogs Gator Hoskins1 and receiver/return man Devon Smith are gone, and both lines have several holes to fill, most notably replacing second-team all-conference left tackle Garrett Scott. But with a season opener at Miami (Ohio), which went winless in 2013, a home date with a Rhode Island team that went 2-6 in the CAA last year, matchups against two mid-pack MAC teams, and a bye week to finish off September, Doc Holliday has all the time he could desire to work in new starters, their backups, and their backups’ backups. “Every FBS team has equal access to the playoff based on its performance,” quoth the College Football Playoff, and while that is kind of a floppy lie, this Herd seems more equal than most to the task.

Story Hour

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Assorted plotlines to follow into the mists of 2014.

Really gets your championship chakras aligned. College football’s various realignments over the past few years ended up conveniently timed for Marshall’s ascendancy, with the Herd left behind to assume power in Conference USA. It hasn’t worked out too poorly for the realignees, either, three of whom will tangle for control of the AAC in 2014. Will it be Central Florida again, weirdly slighted in both major preseason polls after beating Baylor in last season’s Fiesta Bowl? There is, in fact, more to the Knights than the draft-departed Blake Bortles; UCF fielded a top-20 defense in 2013 and returns the vast majority of that unit. A playoff bid doesn’t look realistic this year, with a redshirt freshman starting at quarterback, the loss of running back Storm Johnson, three all-conference departures on the offensive line, and an early schedule that encompasses Penn State, Missouri, Houston, and BYU. But if the defense is up to anything like a repeat of last year’s better performances, it’ll keep opponents from getting too far out in front of the Knights. We’re already looking way, way forward to seeing how UCF handles the Pirates’ offense in their regular-season finale at East Carolina.

Speaking of which! The Pirates! If you hurry now, you may catch one of a dwindling number of seats on the ECU bandwagon, and if you’re into scheduling up, is this ever the program for you: The Pirates play at South Carolina, at Virginia Tech, and at home versus North Carolina within the first four weeks of the season. Two of those games are grudge matches, in opposite directions: ECU lost to the Hokies 15-10 in 2013 and mowed over the Tar Heels 55-31 in Chapel Hill. An upset this season in Columbia in Week 2 is, of course, unlikely, but the more East Carolina pesters South Carolina’s fledgling defensive backs in the process, the saltier Steve Spurrier’s postgame interviews get, and that’s a win for all of us at home. Getting through that gantlet unscathed is an unlikely bet, but honestly, we’re just happy the Pirates exist in their current form.

One more conference champ contender to throw out there, while we’re talking about unseemly gobs of points: Houston, which returns a quarterback who put together a 3,000-yard passing season as a true freshman in John O’Korn, a 1,200-yard receiver in Deontay Greenberry, and every running back of significance from last season’s squad. The Cougars also play defense!2 They finished 2013 second only to Florida State in interceptions with 25 picked passes; returning safeties Trevon Stewart and Adrian McDonald combined for 10 of those.

Notre Dame: Now what? As always, this is a weird place in the previews to put the Fighting Irish, given their decided bureaucratic advantage over their have-not peers when it comes to the playoffs. But independent-ish the Irish want to remain, so here they stay.

This also happens to be the worst possible time to try to deduce what will become of the Irish this season, following a moment of peak preseason uncertainty for the preseason no. 17 program:

That’s four players, including three starters, who aren’t practicing with the team while the university conducts an academic misconduct investigation.3 By the time the season opener versus Rice rolls around, this could all be over and all four could be back in action, serving as much-needed contributors amid a slate that includes Stanford and Florida State dates in October. Or all four could remain out, and we could start noodling on how much ground their replacements will be able to cover between now and a starkly menacing November schedule that sends the Irish to Navy, Arizona State, and USC.4 Please hold, and fill your waiting moments with Jaylon Smith highlight videos. And at the risk of saying something that falls into the Notre Dame Is Special department: We love these uniforms. We absolutely love these. Embrace their historically appropriate gaudiness, please.

• Deep in the MACscrum. There’s no runaway playoffs-crashing favorite to be found in everybody’s favorite weeknight league. Ball State has the most favorable schedule of the MAC front-runners, but we’ll have to see what the Cardinals look like without quarterback Keith Wenning. Over in Dekalb, Jordan Lynch isn’t walking through that door5 for NIU, and with a new quarterback and without running back Cameron Stingily, we don’t like the Huskies’ chances of making it through three September road games without some scrapes. We do like their chances of firming up offensively in a hurry: The line is solid and a host of experienced receivers return, and the middle of the schedule should make for happier Huskies. Defensively, the losses are numerous, but since when have we watched the MAC for defense?

[Rewinds to 2013 conference championship game.]

… Right, avoid paying attention to defense at the risk of being throttled by Bowling Green. The Falcons look scary, again, even with a first-year head coach at the helm. (The first-year head coach being this guy helps a lot.) Watching Dino Babers mold quarterback Matt Johnson and running back Travis Greene in his image will be appointment television. Defensively, Bowling Green has some replacing to do in all areas, but interested onlookers can get a really good early look at how that reloading mission is going in Week 4 in Madison, against Wisconsin’s rightly feared rushing attack.

Who’s That Guy? BYU’s Taysom Hill 

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Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Who Is He? BYU quarterback Taysom Hill.

Where Is He From? Hill hails from Pocatello, Idaho.

Years Played: Hill is entering his third season with the Cougars.

Follow the Bouncing Ball: He played in six games for the Cougars as a freshman, starting two, before losing the rest of the season to a knee injury. During his resurgent sophomore campaign, he recorded the third-most rushing yards (1,344) in a season in program history.

Bio Tidbit: But for some scheduling issues, Hill would have donned the cardinal for the Cardinal.

Social Media Presence: He’s on Twitter at @T_Hill4 and also on Instagram, where you can see that, like Grantland’s entire college football team, he got married this summer:

Career Highlight: Hill is a very talented dual-threat quarterback with a lot of mileage left on him, but in terms of stories he’s likely to tell his future grandchildren, it’s going to be awfully hard to top “remember that time I rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns against Texas, by myself?”

Should We Know Him? It’s safe to say that Hill will be in the conversation for some quarterbacking hardware this winter, and he’ll get plenty of chances to throw himself against some real talent: Well-regarded defenses like Utah State’s and UCF’s lurk in the middle of BYU’s schedule this year, not to mention whatever Charlie Strong will dial up in Austin in Week 2.

Breakout Hits

Lesser Group of Five luminaries destined for bigger things in 2014:

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State. This “new Johnny” honoree delivered a spectacular redshirt sophomore season that was somewhat overlooked under the muffling veil of Boise State’s 8-5 campaign. Expected to once again contend for the Mountain West crown, the Broncos will helpfully provide a high-profile opportunity to watch Ajayi operate exactly one week from tonight, when they open against Ole Miss’s considerable ground defenses in the Georgia Dome in the first leg6 of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. And if you like dramatic setups with far-reaching consequences, Boise State’s schedule is for you: Ajayi and the Broncos are set to play their most dangerous divisional foes, the Utah State Aggies, in their regular-season finale. Ajayi enjoyed his second triple-digit rushing performance versus USU last season, running for 109 yards on 22 carries in Logan.

Derron Smith, FS, Fresno State. Individual defensive performances can easily pass unremarked on a team fielding Derek Carr on offense and allowing a ton of points on defense, as Fresno did in 2013. So let’s take a moment to appreciate Smith’s 14 career interceptions as he returns for his final season of eligibility. When he’s not bringing the ball down this year, count on some early opportunities for him to follow up on last year’s eight tackles for loss and four sacks with some of his hard-won hitting skills: The Bulldogs play a beast of an early schedule, with back-to-back road trips to USC and Utah followed by a visit from Nebraska.

Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire, RBs, Louisiana. Occasionally, the universe provides: In a year in which the Ragin’ Cajuns seem poised to run away with a Sun Belt title, they’re equipped in the rushing department to quite literally run away with very many footballs. Senior Harris and sophomore McGuire combined for more than 1,800 ground yards last season and return, along with ageless quarterback Terrance Broadway and his 400-plus rushing yards, behind four starters on the offensive line. The Cajuns get their crack at Ole Miss two weeks after Boise does, then curiously travel to Boise the very next week. We should probably craft some kind of rivalry cocktail for this three-way series. It should probably be chile-laced milk punch in an electric-blue mug.

Hey, How’s P.J. Fleck?

Glad you asked! Our favorite Western Michigan coach has a young, young team this year, but will that stop the rowing of the boat? It will not:

Plan Your Initial Intake Accordingly

A four-week primer on the highest potential nonconference entertainment value in early Group of Five and independent play.

Week 1: Utah State at Tennessee. It’s the long-awaited re-return of Chuckie Keeton, and the Aggies QB gets to do it against a turnover-ravaged Vols squad that’s still a year away from really looking like a football team again. Between this game and Wake Forest in Week 3, Utah State could come out of September with two power conference pelts on its wall. For more Week 1 intrigue, see also: UCF at Penn State,7 Wake Forest at Louisiana-Monroe, Boise State vs. Ole Miss, Ohio State at Navy, Fresno State at USC, and Appalachian State at Michigan.

Week 2: East Carolina at South Carolina. Pinball passer Shane Carden gets both of his favorite receivers back, but will have to work quickly behind a line light on experience. See also: BYU at Texas, Missouri at Toledo, Fresno State at Utah, and Arkansas State at Tennessee.

Week 3: UCF at Missouri. We dubbed this meeting of a defending BCS bowl champ and an SEC division winner the “Fuck the Coaches’ Poll Bowl” in our SEC preview. See also: East Carolina at Virginia Tech, Houston at BYU, Indiana at Bowling Green, Nebraska at Fresno State, and Louisiana at Ole Miss.

Week 4: Bowling Green at Wisconsin. For the smashy-force reasons stated above. See also: North Carolina at East Carolina, NIU at Arkansas, and Louisiana at Boise State.

Outlandish Prediction

We had a whole harebrained plan plotted out down here that involved discussing Marshall’s undefeated odds in the lead, then sketching out here, in far-fetched detail, how and why the Herd would have the most trouble with two nearly new programs: Old Dominion from within the division and UTSA from without. We had a plan, and then the past week happened, and does anything jump out at you about this here Navy football schedule? Anything about the two highest-profile opponents in particular, like how one just lost its starting quarterback and the other may be losing multiple starters? Isn’t it strange for both of those things to happen in tandem, to the only Navy opponents who are ranked this preseason, and likely the only two that’ll be ranked at the end of it? And wouldn’t it be indelibly American to have a service academy team cover itself in glory? And don’t the stars seem to agree, right now, that this is a thing that should happen?

Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Are you thinking 12-0 Navy? It would be un-American not to think 12-0 Navy, wouldn’t you agree?8

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, Group of Five, College Football Independents, NCAA, College Football Playoff, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Navy Midshipmen, BYU Cougars, Marshall Thundering Herd, Boise State Broncos, Central Florida Knights, Houston Cougars, Fresno State Bulldogs, Northern Illinois Huskies, MACtion, Holly Anderson

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Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson