The Boise State football team begins the 2019 New Year’s Six race the same way it ended the past two seasons: looking up at UCF.
The Knights haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2016 and are coming off back-to-back trips to New Year’s Six bowl games as the representative of the Group of Five lower-revenue conferences.
And they start 2019 as the only Group of Five team ranked in the preseason polls, landing at No. 17 in the AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
Here are the top contenders for the big-money bowl slot this year. The highest-ranked champion of a Group of Five conference (Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American, American Athletic and Conference USA) gets that spot automatically.
1. UCF: This could be more of a transition year for the Knights than last year, when they went through a coaching change, because so many key players must be replaced. But the talent is still there, they have the reputation edge after two straight New Year’s Six bowl bids and the schedule doesn’t have an obvious loss on it. The Sept. 14 home date with No. 25 Stanford is an important test, and conference road trips to Cincinnati and Temple could be tricky.
2. Utah State: The Aggies are in a similar spot to UCF last year — coming off a terrific season (11-2) and returning a star quarterback (Jordan Love), but changing coaches (from Matt Wells to Gary Andersen). The problem: a wicked road schedule. Utah State travels to LSU, San Diego State, Fresno State and Air Force this season. That’s big opportunity — and they’ll get Boise State and BYU at home — but it’s difficult to imagine the Aggies getting through all that with fewer than two losses.
3. Boise State: The Broncos have the opposite of the Aggies’ problem — unless Florida State or BYU gets hot, the schedule strength will be horrible. Boise State misses Fresno State and San Diego State in the Mountain West scheduling rotation and catches Florida State coming off its first losing season in 42 years. The Broncos also are breaking in new starters at quarterback and running back, which makes an undefeated season seem unlikely.
4. Appalachian State: If App State wins Sept. 21 at North Carolina, the Mountaineers could reach the Nov. 9 game at South Carolina unbeaten. They went 11-2 last season and are loaded with returning talent under new coach Eliah Drinkwitz, who was Boise State’s offensive coordinator in 2015 and tight ends coach in 2014. Drinkwitz, though, will have to avoid what happened with his former Boise State colleague Mike Sanford, who inherited a rising Western Kentucky program and couldn’t sustain that success.
5. Cincinnati/Fresno State: The Bearcats play at Ohio State and host UCF, leaving little margin for error for a team that surprised with an 11-2 mark last year. A competitive loss to Ohio State and a win against UCF would put the Bearcats in prime position for the New Year’s Six spot, but they also have to visit Marshall, Houston and Memphis.
The Bulldogs have played in back-to-back Mountain West championship games and could grab the early momentum with an opening win at USC, but it’s a rebuilding/reloading year in Fresno.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s Assistant Editor and sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.