What's next in college football realignment? A common sense plan to bond Group of 5

·22-min read

With the addition of Cincinnati, BYU, UCF and Houston to the Big 12 essentially all close to being completed, the buzz this weekend came from what could be next for the AAC, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt.

The typical food chain reaction would have the American Athletic Conference add a few teams, deciding whether to attempt to poach the Mountain West or pluck a few members from Conference USA. Then the trickle-down would go from there.

But there’s an increasing buzz among athletic directors throughout the Group of Five that the next wave of realignment should focus on common sense instead of more poaching. By chasing TV dollars, many schools have alienated fans through non-sensible league affiliation with teams that fans don’t care about.

Do the leaders in college athletics have enough vision and smarts to build a more sensible and tenable Group of Five for the future? We’ll have a chance to find out.

“We really should hit pause before we start poaching each other’s teams and explore what this would look like if we started over today,” said an athletic director in the Group of Five. “TV has made it obvious they’re only paying for the big brands moving forward. If there’s a way to cut our travel costs by millions, let our student-athletes spend more time in class and sell more tickets because fans actually know the teams, know alums from the universities and can travel to games, we should at least spend a few weeks to discuss the thought that maybe there’s a better solution.”

Consider this a back-of-the-napkin idea for how to re-organize the Group of Five. And the collective power of the 60 or so schools could end up yielding a decent-sized television contract that could end up being weighted to the teams that command the most streams and eyeballs. And it can be done without Old Dominion and UTEP or SMU and East Carolina being in the same league but nearly 2,000 miles apart.

Again, TV money dictates everything in college sports. And a tangle of TV contracts make this more ideal in theory than reality. So the determination of value would ultimately come down to the details and the consultants. But consider this a haymaker for common sense and a better future for athletes and schools.

This is what a new Group of Five could look like:

West Coast League (14)

Division 1
Hawaii
Fresno State
Nevada
UNLV
San Diego State
San Jose State
Utah State

Division 2
Air Force
Boise State
Colorado State
New Mexico
Wyoming
UTEP
New Mexico State

Southwest League (16)

Division 1
Tulsa
SMU
North Texas
UTSA
Texas State
Rice
Arkansas State
Memphis

Division 2

Louisiana Tech
Louisiana
Louisiana-Monroe
Tulane
UAB
Southern Miss
Troy
South Alabama

Southeast League (14)

Division I

FAU
FIU
USF
Georgia State
Georgia Southern
Middle Tennessee
Liberty

Division 2
Coastal Carolina
Charlotte
East Carolina
Appalachian State
Marshall
Western Kentucky
Old Dominion

Midwest League (15)

Division 1
Miami (Ohio)
Ball State
Bowling Green
Eastern Michigan
Central Michigan
Western Michigan
Northern Illinois
Ohio

Division 2

Toledo
Akron
Kent State
Temple
UConn
UMass
Buffalo

Independent (or flexible) 2

Navy
Army

Will it happen? Who knows? But it’s better for fans, players and eases the travel strain on players. That alone makes it worth looking at. Putting Appalachian State, ECU, Coastal Carolina and Charlotte in the same league makes sense. Putting Louisiana, Tulane, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech in the same league makes sense.

But as we’ve learned long ago, college sports rarely make sense.

UCLA had a statement win over LSU on Saturday, but what exacty did it tell us? (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
UCLA had a statement win over LSU on Saturday, but what exacty did it tell us? (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Alabama aside, college football appears bunched together 

As conference realignment slid a wedge into the Big 12 and sent the entire billion-dollar enterprise of college sports scrambling this offseason, the theme of the sport was separation.

Oklahoma and Texas sought higher ground and bigger paychecks from the SEC. The Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten formed an alliance to counter that, which ultimately highlighted the Big 12’s place in the pecking order. This week, movement is expected to put into play four more teams to join the Big 12, jumping the yawning moat between power leagues and the outsiders.

That separation didn’t carry over onto the field Saturday. Certainly, Alabama reaffirmed itself as the early national title favorite, and there’s a good chance that the half-dozen blue blood teams we’ve come to expect will be in the College Football Playoff mix. But the way things looked between the lines Saturday, the college football world has rarely looked so tightly bunched together.

Six FCS teams upset FBS teams, including a historic flop by No. 20 Washington against Montana. Tulsa, Vanderbilt, UNLV, UConn and Colorado State also got vanquished.

Why the flurry of FCS upsets?

“Maybe playing in the spring helped us, gave us a little bit of an advantage,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon, two days after an upset of Tulsa. “The thing about FCS play early on, there are always guys on FCS rosters that can play at other places. But when you get later in the year, that [lack of depth] comes to bear. Those early games when everyone is relatively healthy, you have a better shot.”

The world looked pretty flat in quite a few other places. The Pac-12 North, once one of the mightier divisions in the sport, had a weekend that managed to put cement shoes on the league’s already sinking reputation. The division went 1-5, with Oregon needing a fourth quarter comeback to beat Fresno State. Star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux suffered an ankle/foot injury, and his status is unknown for a trip to Ohio State on Saturday. Who’d have thought the league would be thankful for UCLA, who is suddenly the conference's favorite after kneecapping and overpowering LSU.

The ACC appears to have some ground to make up to get a team into the CFP, as Clemson looked like that same flawed team – especially on the offensive line – that we saw against Ohio State in the playoff last season. Any chance of a North Carolina upstart moment was vanquished in a Friday night flop. And the league’s overall rep took a hit with Miami getting curb stomped by Alabama, and both Duke and Georgia Tech losing to Group of Five teams that had poor seasons in 2020.

The Big Ten had a generally undistinguished weekend, with UTSA’s upset of Illinois the only black mark. Ohio State remains the heavy favorite, but with a first-year starter at quarterback, C.J. Stroud, and inexperience at linebacker and in the secondary, there will be some growing pains.

The SEC is still chasing Alabama. Kirby Smart pointed out that Georgia’s offense needs to figure out a way to make explosive plays. Texas A&M has the best chance to knock off the Tide in the regular season, and it was hard to glean much from its opening dispatch of Kent State.

After a few weeks of separation being the theme, the world appears tightly bunched after Week 1. After the familiar blue bloods and a few other familiar faces – UCLA, Iowa and Penn State come to mind – there was a muddle of supposed upsets. Things on the field appear a lot closer than the folks in the board room have tried to get us to believe.

Mississippi running back Snoop Conner (24) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA football game against Louisville on Monday, Sept. 6, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)
Mississippi running back Snoop Conner (24) scores a touchdown in the second half of the Rebels' blowout defeat of Louisville on Monday night in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik)

Big Monday

Ole Miss became the center of the college football universe on Monday night, seizing their prime time showcase in waxing Louisville, 43-24. And it played with enough verve and defensive resistance to indicate the Rebels could be grabbing our attention in the SEC this season.

With Lane Kiffin home after testing positive for COVID-19, Ole Miss showed it’s a much-improved operation in Kiffin’s second season. Ole Miss shut out Louisville in the first half, and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby showed there’s still firepower in the Rebel's offense.

But the biggest hope for Ole Miss elevating itself amid the meat grinder of the SEC West came on defense. In coordinator D.J. Durkin’s second season, Ole Miss showed depth, versatility and an energy that comes with success. The Ole Miss defense finished last season No. 126 out of 127 teams.

Ole Miss doesn’t have to remind anyone of the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the tempo it plays on offense doesn’t set up the defensive coordinator for elite statistical success. But it was hard to not get a shot of optimism out of watching the Rebels lead 26-0 at halftime and having given up just 107 yards.

Two new additions paid immediate dividends for Ole Miss. True freshman Tysheem Johnson, who hails from Philadelphia, tied for the team lead with eight tackles. Maryland transfer Chance Campbell had an instant impact at linebacker and helped change momentum with an early fourth-down stop.

Ole Miss finished 5-5 last season, a record likely hurt by the All-SEC regular-season schedule. It’s easy to project Ole Miss at 3-0 and with significant buzz heading into the Alabama game on Oct. 2.

8 claps for UCLA 

The fallout from UCLA’s 38-27 upset of LSU at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night is an intense magnification on both programs.

The eyes on UCLA are for all the right reasons. Its dominance against Hawaii and LSU casts the Bruins as the favorites to win the Pac-12, a drastic reputation change from the Bruins who went 10-21 in Chip Kelly’s first three seasons.

UCLA has an experienced quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but they’ve dominated with him playing solid but not spectacular. The stars for UCLA have been on the offensive line, as left tackle Sean Rhyan is the linchpin of a unit that is already one of the best in the conference and could end up as one of the better ones in the country. Transfer tailbacks Zach Charbonnet (Michigan) and Brittain Brown (Duke) have really popped, exploiting the big holes.

UCLA is fun and explosive again, just not in any way we remember Kelly’s teams being fun and explosive.

LSU, meanwhile, is teetering. The mess of a 2020 season and an opening flop ushers Ed Orgeron into territory where he’s going to hear discussion about his future and job intensify after every loss. Orgeron built one of the best teams in college football history in 2019. But he’s flopped in an effort to re-create that, going 5-6 since Joe Brady and Joe Burrow left campus. Alabama projects on another planet from LSU right now, which isn't lost on decision-makers in Baton Rouge.

It was more of the tenor of the loss than the loss itself that should be concerning for LSU. If UCLA can out-physical the Tigers, what will happen in games at Alabama and Texas A&M? It’s paramount for Orgeron to steady the ship on the field and eliminate off-field issues, as the spate of problems regarding the alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct cases still hangs over the university and the football program.

New sun rises 

It’s funny how quickly perceptions can change in college football. Soon after rising up from FCS and joining the Sun Belt in 2014, Appalachian State emerged as the league’s alpha. It won or shared four straight league titles from 2016-2019.

The duality of the giddy emergence of Coastal Carolina and the stout showing by Louisiana in 2020 left App State in the shadows. That should change in the wake of a 33-19 drubbing of East Carolina, as Shawn Clark's team returned 16 starters, added Duke transfer Chase Brice at quarterback and debuted a promising new play-caller, offensive coordinator Frank Ponce.

“The last five years we have been the hunted,” Clark told Yahoo Sports. “Now we are the hunter. We feel beating an AAC team shows the nation we can compete on any level.”

It all synched up, as App State jumped out to a 20-6 lead and cruised to victory. The defense is sturdy and veteran. The offense played to the strengths of Brice (20-for-27 passing), utilizing speed to move the ball down the field. Fifth-year receiver Thomas Hennigan is healthy again after battling a hamstring injury all last season, and he went for 114 yards and a touchdown on four catches.

Hennigan played in 54 career games for App State, and he’s the kind of older and productive player who won’t be intimidated in a game at Miami this weekend. The environment and logo won't phase App State. The Mountaineers will be the hunter again, and don’t be surprised if they give the Hurricanes a handful.

Florida State's program gets boost from McKenzie Milton's miracle return

There’s no such thing as a feel-good loss at a place like Florida State. Not after Bobby Bowden led the program to 14 consecutive top-five finishes and Jimbo Fisher winning a national title there within the past decade.

But the biggest takeaway from Florida State’s 41-38 overtime loss to Notre Dame on Sunday may be that the spirit has returned to the program under Mike Norvell, even if the results haven’t arrived.

Norvell deserves a compliment for bringing in McKenzie Milton, the former UCF quarterback who suffered a devastating injury in November of 2018. Nothing was certain in terms of Milton playing, but Novell adored what he brought to the Seminole program day-to-day.

“Just the joy and excitement that he brings to every rep that he gets,” Norvell told Yahoo Sports. “Because you know how fragile the game is and the opportunities. He brings a joy to our team every day, and it's exciting to see him compete. He's got a great edge about him, but he's willing to invest in a relationship.”

That was clear with how Milton’s teammates and coaches reacted when he erased a 10-point fourth quarter lead to force overtime against Notre Dame. That included starter Jordan Travis, who described the size of his smile, the chills of joy and summed up Milton’s presence this way: “I’m blessed to have him on my team.”

Mark Milton, McKenzie’s father, described how Milton can help Norvell turn the corner after the program has endured three consecutive losing seasons.

“I really believe that this year – if he can help rebuild, get that culture headed in the right direction, which obviously tonight I think was a starting point,” Mark Milton said. “I think Florida State earned a lot of respect tonight. And then you just gotta figure out a way to get over the hump.”

If Norvell elevates FSU back to prominence, don’t be surprised if Milton is remembered as a turning point.

Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) runs against Oklahoma during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt (7) runs against Oklahoma during a NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Norman, Okla. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)

Here's how Tulane almost stunned Oklahoma for shocker of 2021 

One of the weekend’s breakout stars came from Tulane, who nearly became the feel-good story of the sports world on Saturday. Tulane recovered an onside kick with 2:18 remaining trailing No. 2 Oklahoma, 40-35.

Suddenly, Tulane had a chance to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the sport in the wake of having to evacuate the program to Birmingham, Alabama, in the wake of Hurricane Ida's devastation. Coach Willie Fritz and athletic director Troy Dannen were buried in logistics and making sure the families of players are OK.

“That was the main focus of our team, what everyone was going through back in New Orleans,” quarterback Michael Pratt told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “We weren’t only playing for ourselves, we were playing for the people back home, giving them something to cheer for.”

After a scintillating day that saw Pratt throw for three touchdowns and run for another, Tulane couldn’t muster any offense on its final drive. A sack by Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto and Perrion Winfrey set up a fourth-and-13 play, and Pratt could muster only 12 yards on a scramble.

But it was clear that Pratt, a second-year quarterback from Boca Raton, Florida, outplayed Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler. He threw for 296 yards on 27-of-44 passing with no interceptions, while Rattler threw two interceptions and went 30-for-39 for 304 yards.

While this was the season Oklahoma’s defense was supposed to play somewhere in the hemisphere of its offense, the Sooners gave up 396 yards. Pratt said that Oklahoma wasn’t ready for much of what new coordinator Chip Long prepared. Tulane expected Oklahoma to play press quarters, and Long countered with condensed formations and a bunch mesh game that the Sooners struggled to find answers for.

“It was awesome to just go out there and execute our plays, just like practice,” Pratt said. “We dialed them up. Coach Long did an amazing job calling the plays. The offensive line did an amazing job.”

UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins applauds during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins applauds during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Tulsa, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Before upset of Tulsa, UC Davis' Dan Hawkins took team to Black Wall Street  

There was a time in college football nearly two decades ago when former Boise State coach Dan Hawkins was the sport’s hottest young coach, even considered ahead of then-Utah coach Urban Meyer on some athletic directors’ short lists.

These days, the 60-year-old Hawkins is back at his alma mater, UC Davis, and on Saturday was expected to have his 11th grandchild. Of the six FCS upsets of FBS teams this past weekend, none had the throwback feel of Hawkins’ Davis team toppling Tulsa, 19-17, on Thursday night.

Hawkins always brought the vibe of a zen philosopher and intentional connector, a sideline ethos that in retrospect came a decade before it became popularized in the sport by guys like Dabo Swinney, P.J. Fleck and Will Healy.

“One of the great feelings in sports is to see the smiles on players’ faces and the happiness and joy,” Hawkins said. “You feel honored you were able to give them an experience like that.”

Hawkins took his team to Black Wall Street in Tulsa to give them a history lesson the day before the game. He called the experience “impactful” to the team.

“I’m into the circle of life and the hero’s journey,” Hawkins said. “You go down there and learn a lot about history and society and humanity. ... It really was an unbelievable experience. We always say it’s about more than football. I believe that.”

Hawkins compiled a record of 53-11 at Boise State and then went 19-39 at Colorado. He also coached in the CFL. He says that collective experience helped, including how he managed the game Saturday when Davis kicked a field goal just before half and ran out the clock at the end of the game. (His son, Cody Hawkins, is his coordinator now that Tim Plough joined the Boise staff when Andy Avalos was hired this spring.)

“All of that knowledge and information poured down into a funnel and shows up in a 19-17 win,” Hawkins said. “It’s three plays a game. It comes down to three plays, and that’s how you win 19-17 on the road. It’s just a sliver between success and failure.”

He loves being at Davis, long a coach incubator for guys like Chris Petersen. It’s also growing up, as the school has 50,000 students and Hawkins compares it to UCLA and Cal as an institution with athletic potential that Hawkins calls “firepower.” There’s a $50 million practice facility along the way and he jokes the practice fields look like “the 18th fairway at Augusta.”

Never conventional, Hawkins had a surprising answer when asked who to watch on his roster. (NFL scouts take note.)

“Our best player on our roster is our punter,” he said of Daniel Whelan, who was born in Ireland. “He’s north of 6-foot-6, and he can really bang it.”

Great debut at Presbyterian for college football's top mad scientist 

There’s no more interesting place in college football this season than Presbyterian College. The school is the smallest by enrollment in Division I and has managed through a savvy hire to become one of the sport’s biggest curiosities.

Presbyterian hired Kevin Kelley, an outlandishly successful high school coach from Arkansas who built a reputation as a football mad scientist by rarely punting and often onside kicking.

Would those methods work in college football? Well, after an 84-43 win over St. Andrews, the buzziest hire of the college offseason delivered. Was there any difference between high school and college? 

“It was 12 minutes longer,” Kelley told Yahoo Sports in a text. “That gives more time to score for both teams.”

It gave quarterback Ren Hefley, a walk-on at Michigan who transferred to Presbyterian, enough time to throw an FCS record 10 touchdown passes. Kelley’s team recovered one onside kick, but he said it attempted only six or seven because it stopped trying when up by 28. The Blue Hose did not punt.

Hefley entered the game with an advantage. He’s from Arkansas and played in Kelley’s offense from fifth to ninth grade before he transferred from Pulaski Academy, where Kelley coached in Arkansas.

Kelley joked about Hefley’s big day: “Ten touchdowns is a good and a bad thing,” he said, adding an "lol" to the text. “Nowhere to go but down.”

For Presbyterian, the unconventional hire is looking up after one week.

Reason not to snicker at Jayhawks storming the field 

One team that avoided an FCS upset was Kansas. It snapped a 13-game losing streak after coming back to defeat South Dakota, 17-14. Jayhawks students and fans celebrated by storming the field in Lawrence, a cathartic moment for an athletic department beset by scandal, uncertainty and needing to dig out of the ditch left by the twin towers of incompetence – former athletic director Jeff Long and his flop of a hire in Les Miles.

Kansas went back to basics. It hired a proven winner and program builder in former Buffalo coach Lance Leipold. And while the world snickered at Kansas fans beating the worst Dakota and celebrating with alacrity, Leipold took joy in the moment for the beleaguered Kansas players and fans.

“There’s plenty to work on, plenty to improve on,” Leipold said. “Not just to see that excitement and probably a sense of relief in some ways. It’s probably a chance to move forward.”

To show how much in flux Kansas has been in, Leipold pointed out that the school brought in two quarterbacks as mid-year enrollees and they’re already on their fourth position coach in five months.

“How many kids think that’s normal in college,” Leipold said. “That’s just a little sliver of it. For them to see something, trust and belief is tough for young student athletes today. To buy in and we’ve changed the way we do things. To see that pay off right now was critical.”

Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong (12) celebrates after a win against the California Golden Bears during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)
Nevada Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong (12) celebrates after a win against the California Golden Bears during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)

Nevada Strong 

One of the upsets that went under the radar over the weekend – likely because it occurred around last call – came when Nevada traveled to Cal and overcame a 14-point deficit to win, 22-17. It’s a signature win for coach Jay Norvell, who also has victories over Purdue and Oregon State in his time at Nevada.

There was a lot of buzz about Nevada coming out of the Mountain West this season, as quarterback Carson Strong has become a darling of NFL scouts and receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner are among the best at their positions on the entire West Coast. Strong is the returning Mountain West Player of the Year and he threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns against Justin Wilcox’s typically stout defense. 

Nevada is poised to become a trendy national team, as it has the offensive firepower and strong defensive line to hang with everyone on the Wolf Pack's schedule. Nevada is also one of the country’s most fun teams to watch, as Strong is a throwback gunslinger. He has thrived under offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, who channels some of the offensive maverick that his father, Hal Mumme, brought to the sport via the Air Raid in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Pay attention when the Wolf Pack play at Kansas State on Sept. 18 and at Boise on Oct. 2, as those two weeks give them a chance to catapult back into the rare air that the school occupied in the Colin Kaepernick era when it finished No. 11 in the Associated Press poll in 2010.

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