Chadd Cripe

Is Boise State the favorite to earn a major bowl berth in 2018? Not quite.

Highlights, locker room celebration from Boise State’s big win

Check out some of the top plays and postgame scenes from Boise State’s 17-14 win over Fresno State in the 2017 Mountain West championship game. (Video Courtesy of Mountain West)
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Check out some of the top plays and postgame scenes from Boise State’s 17-14 win over Fresno State in the 2017 Mountain West championship game. (Video Courtesy of Mountain West)

It’s easy to see why the Boise State football team is a trendy pick to reach its fourth major bowl game in 2018.

The Broncos return 10 starters on defense, a veteran offensive line and one of the most valuable assets in college football, a four-year starter at quarterback (Brett Rypien). They also have the pedigree (three Fiesta Bowl wins), they get respect from poll voters and other influencers, and they have four opponents who received votes in the preseason polls.

In fact, a six-writer panel at Athlon Sports unanimously picked the Broncos this summer to be the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences when the College Football Playoff selection committee prepares its final rankings in December. That team gets an automatic spot in the New Year’s Six, which likely would mean another visit to the Fiesta Bowl for Boise State.

But the problem for the Broncos is the same one that showed up last year: The American conference will get more respect, and its champion will have a built-in edge. The American finished with three Top 25 teams last season, and Sports Illustrated’s 2018 New Year’s Six projections favor the American (three writers picked Houston, two picked UCF) over Boise State (two) by a 5-2 margin.

So while the Broncos are a trendy pick, they probably don’t have as strong of a chance as the American champ — whoever that is.

Here are the top five Group of Five contenders for 2018 (the Group of Five, by the way, occupied nine of the top 33 spots in AP voting at the end of last season):

1. UCF: The Golden Knights went 13-0 last year and finished No. 6 in the AP poll. They lost their coach but return their quarterback among 14 starters, landing at No. 21 in the preseason AP poll. And the schedule is manageable with nonconference games against North Carolina, Pitt and FAU. The bigger challenge for the Knights will come in conference, where they’ll have to play at fellow contenders Memphis and South Florida.

UCF is undefeated this season but is only No. 15 in the College Football Playoff because of a schedule weakened by the hurricane-related cancellation of a game against Georgia Tech. John Raoux AP

2. Boise State: The Broncos closed out 2017 with wins against Fresno State and Oregon to finish No. 22 in the AP poll and spark all that talk of a big year in 2018. They’ll have to show the consistency that has been lacking since that historic run from 2008 to 2011 (50-3) — and they’ll need to come out ready to play. Three of the first four games are road trips, to Troy, Oklahoma State and Wyoming, and the fifth game is a home encounter with San Diego State. All but Wyoming have received preseason Top 25 votes. The front-loaded schedule gives the Broncos a chance to grab the pole position — a lead they’ll need as the schedule weakens.

3. Memphis: The Tigers are well-regarded in the American after a No. 25 finish in the AP poll last season. They’ll need to replace their superstar QB-WR combo, but the first half of the schedule is super soft, with the exception of Navy on Sept. 8. Second-half games against UCF, Missouri and Houston provide spotlight opportunities, and two of the three are at home.

4. FAU: Florida Atlantic enters the season with a 10-game winning streak and an incalculable advantage with the hype machine that surrounds coach Lane Kiffin. The problem for the Owls is the schedule: They play at Oklahoma (Sept. 1) and at UCF (Sept. 21). Win both games and they’re the clear favorites. But that’s unlikely — and the weakness of the rest of the schedule leaves little room for error.

5. Troy: The Trojans, who delivered a shocking win against LSU last season, have two early chances to prove they have one of the top Group of Five programs in the country. They open at home against Boise State and also play at Nebraska (Sept. 15), where former UCF coach Scott Frost’s rebuilding project might be ripe for an upset. The Sun Belt schedule is a problem, but the regular-season finale against Appalachian State could provide a 10-win opponent.

Other teams to watch: Houston (defensive lineman Ed Oliver has been ranked the nation’s best player), South Florida (finished No. 21 in AP last year), Fresno State (Bulldogs play at UCLA, Minnesota and Boise State), Arkansas State (Sun Belt favorite plays at Alabama), Appalachian State (opener at Penn State), San Diego State (Aztecs collapsed after 6-0 start last year, open at Stanford) and Ohio (MAC favorite).