A collection of Group of 5 schools could step in immediately and compete in a Power 5 conference. Here are those 16 programs.
The Big 12 is once again weighing the possibility of expanding by two teams. And the era of 16-team super-conferences still might happen, as leagues look to gobble up more terrain in order to expand their geographic and television footprint.
But beyond the practicality of income statements, revenue sharing and TV households, which of the current Group of 5 and Independent programs would be most likely to compete, week-in and week-out, as a member of a Power 5 conference? Based purely on on-field potential, and recognizing that Notre Dame is too obvious to include on this list, the following schools are positioned to handle a promotion if the offer is ever made.
16. Georgia Southern
After making the transition from FCS to FBS look easy, the Eagles just might have an affinity for rising through the ranks.
In two seasons as a member of college football’s highest division, Georgia Southern has won 18 games, while going 14-2 in league play. Yeah, that league is the Sun Belt Conference, but it’s hard not to be impressed by how quickly this program has adapted to an uptick in competition. In 2015, the Eagles annihilated Bowling Green for their first-ever bowl win and fell by just six points to in-state heavyweight Georgia in Athens. Now comes the tricky part: continuing the build without influential head coach Willie Fritz.
15. Air Force
Before Navy started dominating the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, Air Force was the military branch the service academies were trying to catch.
Troy Calhoun took the baton from Fisher DeBerry in 2007 and has missed the postseason just one time since. The Falcons won 10 games two years ago, and their version of the triple-option continues to be a handful in the Mountain West, the toughest of the Group of 5 conferences. Could Air Force win the Pac-12? No. But every Pac-12 coach would breathe a little easier during the years the Falcons didn’t show up on the schedule.
The Rockets are an ultra-steady MAC program that overcame a rare rough patch under Tom Amstutz to reel off six consecutive winning seasons.
And while Toledo hasn’t won a conference championship since 2004, a sore spot on campus, it has been a stepping stone to the big leagues for its head coaches. In fact, four of the last five head coaches, beginning with Nick Saban in 1990, went on to captain a Power 5 school. And this decade, the Rockets have knocked off opponents from the Big Ten (Purdue), SEC (Arkansas) and Big 12 (Iowa State).
Now that Doc Holliday has the Thundering Herd back on track, he’s attracting the kind of talent, including high schoolers and Power 5 imports, that would help this program compete at a higher level.
Marshall has won at least 10 games the past three years, rising to the upper tier of Conference USA. The program boasts the speed and athleticism to handle a step up in weight class. Plus, fueling the program is a local community and a fan base that rabidly backs every aspect of the football team.
12. Fresno State
Remember when the Bulldogs were giant killers under Pat Hill? Fresno State may have fallen on hard times the past two seasons, but this remains a school with a rich history and one of the most underrated fan bases in the country.
The Valley has been a consistent pipeline to the NFL, going back to the Jim Sweeney era, which began in 1976. Fresno State routinely takes overlooked California recruits and transforms them into next-level talents. And with that kind of a formula, would it be inconceivable for the Bulldogs to be every bit as competitive as, say, Colorado or Oregon State in the Pac-12?
11. San Diego State
The Aztecs enjoy built-in advantages, such as their location, over many Group of 5 competitors. And they’ve finally begun to leverage them again.
It can’t be too hard to sell kids on the Mesa. San Diego is one of the finest cities in the country, and it’s not far from some of the top high school talent on the West Coast. And while it’s not quite a sequel to the Don Coryell days of the 1960s, San Diego State is winning again under Rocky Long. The Aztecs have strung together five straight winning seasons, copping the Mountain West in 2012 and 2015. A single victory in the last 26 contests against teams currently in Power 5 conferences keeps San Diego State from climbing higher on this list.
The Tigers are trending in the right direction again. The key will be to remain on course now that Justin Fuente is a Hokie and Paxton Lynch is a Bronco.
With Fuente on the sidelines and Lynch under center, Memphis delivered its best two-year run in program history, winning 19 games – including one over eventual Sugar Bowl champ Ole Miss last fall. Off the field, the administration is thinking like a Power 5 program, even drawing the attention of the Big 12. And it has the well-heeled backers, like FedEx founder Fred Smith, who are willing to inject the capital infusion needed to upgrade the university’s academic and athletic facilities.
9. East Carolina
Considering how tough the Pirates have been on the ACC, who’s to say they couldn’t be Wake Forest or better as a full-time member of the conference?
East Carolina has had a long and fruitful history as a prolific mid-sized program, whether it was Sonny Randle, Pat Dye, Bill Lewis, Steve Logan, Skip Holtz or Ruffin McNeill in charge. Consider this when evaluating ECU as a possible Power 5 team: Since 2008, the Pirates have knocked off eight opponents currently playing in major conferences, including seven from the ACC. They’ve handled Va Tech three times and NC State and North Carolina twice apiece, slapping 125 combined points on the Heels in 2013 and 2014. Yeah, ECU would hold up in the ACC.
8. South Florida
The Bulls have a limited history, beginning play in 1997, and still have a lot to prove on the field. But there’s plenty to like about their potential to evolve into the Sunshine State’s fourth Power 5 program.
Planted in Tampa, USF is in the right location to compete on a higher level and attract the attention of one of the five major conferences. USF already conducts business in an NFL stadium and in a fast growing market, both in terms of population and TV audience. The Bulls just need a spark, a la the Gators when Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990, to begin gaining greater access to a few more of the local region’s coveted recruits.
The Midshipmen are more than just a rock-solid service academy. They’re a rock-solid football program, with no need for specific labels.
Under Ken Niumatalolo, and previously Paul Johnson, Navy has become the gold-standard among military programs, winning at least eight games in 12 of the last 13 years. And by going 11-2 in last season’s AAC debut, the Mids showed they can handle the unique rigors of conference play. Navy is tough on Notre Dame, winning in 2009 and 2010, boasts recent victories over Indiana, Wake Forest and Rutgers, and has taken two straight over Pitt, including last year’s 44-28 bowl win.
Last year was an anomaly. The Knights still have a very high ceiling that could reach the Power 5.
Yeah, UCF was winless in 2015. It happens, especially when an aging coach is on the cusp of retirement. However, the Knights are a lot closer to the program that won at least eight games in seven of the previous 10 years. And don’t forget the one that went 12-1 in 2013, shocked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, finished No. 10 nationally and popped out a first-round quarterback in Blake Bortles. In terms of recruiting, UCF is in a great location, Orlando, with outstanding facilities and an enormous built-in fan base among alumni. Now that Scott Frost has replaced George O’Leary, it’s only a matter of time before the Knights begin to rock on the field and generate Power 5 looks.
5. Northern Illinois
If a MAC school ever gets promoted, it ought to be Northern Illinois.
The Huskies have been a model of consistency this century, capturing the league title three times since 2011. Jerry Kill lit the fuse first, and Dave Doeren and Rod Carey kept it from burning out. Few Group of 5 programs are consistently better at coaching up two-star recruits into all-leaguers and NFL prospects. And NIU hasn’t just feasted on the rest of the MAC. Since 2008, the team has gone toe-to-toe with the Big Ten, beating Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue (twice). Despite going 8-6 in 2015, the Huskies still lost by just 10 combined points to Ohio State and Boston College.
Coaches change, leagues change. Cincinnati remains a model of consistency throughout the better part of the last decade.
Just how good have the Bearcats been lately? Their last four head coaches either came from a larger program – Tommy Tuberville (Texas Tech, Auburn and Ole Miss) – or left to pilot one – Butch Jones (Tennessee), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) and Mark Dantonio (Michigan State). Cincy has won no fewer than nine games in seven of the last nine years, and being in Southern Ohio means short recruiting trips to some top talent both in-state and across the border in Pennsylvania. Given a chance, this program would be every bit as formidable as West Virginia, Pitt, Rutgers or Louisville, who’ve all been called up to the bigs in recent years.
The Cougars are all the rage entering 2016, but this past year is no fleeting phenomenon. Houston has a long history as a member of a marquee conference.
Back in the day, Houston used to rub elbows with Texas, Baylor and Texas A&M on a weekly basis in the defunct Southwest Conference. The Cougs even won the league outright in 1978. And with Tom Herman in charge, a two-year-old building to call home and a stiff wind at its back, Houston is working hard to build a bridge to the past. There’s a lot of potential here, and Herman recognizes it. Other than Texas and Oklahoma, which Big 12 program has a clear edge in potential that the Cougars would not be able to erase in time?
BYU is the Mormon version of Notre Dame—a university with deep ties to religion and an even deeper reservoir of support that reaches far outside the region.
The Cougars are a national program, and their ability to recruit and mobilize the base has no defined geographic boundary. And that wingspan means the team will always be competitive at a high level. Ten-win seasons were not uncommon under former coach Bronco Mendenhall, and NFL scouts know their way around Provo. Since 2010, BYU has beaten Washington, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Washington State, Georgia Tech, Texas, Virginia, Cal and Nebraska. Put the Cougars in the Pac-12 for the next decade, and they’d have a better record than more than half of the league’s current members.
1. Boise State
No one this century has embodied Cinderella more than the Broncos. And no one since 2000 has won more games than Boise State.
This program has engineered a remarkable climb, from Big Sky to Big West to WAC to its current home in the Mountain West. Along the way, the Broncos honed a blueprint for success, turning their kind of kids into all-star playmakers and pros on both sides of the ball. Under Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen, Boise State became a Top 25 fixture and a team major programs went out of their way to avoid. Petersen won three Fiesta Bowls and finished three straight years in the top 10. Boise State is a national brand that would find a way to compete in the Pac-12 if the league could ever overlook its relatively small market.