Group of Five conference power rankings entering 2018 college football season

Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong. With this post, we also ranked the Group of Five conferences by strength from the AAC to Sun Belt. We gave the independents some love, too.

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American

12. East Carolina (2017 record: 3-9): The firing of Ruffin McNeill looks worse and worse by the day. Perhaps his replacement, Scottie Montgomery, can dig himself out of a hole with a few more wins.

11. UConn (3-9): Randy Edsall didn’t inherit much from Bob Diaco, so he gave a lot of freshmen significant playing time last year. Perhaps it will pay off with a more competitive 2018 season.

10. Tulsa (2-10): Tulsa was surprisingly bad last year. The defense was abysmal and the usual Tulsa passing attack was nowhere to be found. It could be another rough year.

9. Cincinnati (4-8): Luke Fickell is recruiting really well, but it’s going to take time to get back among the top half of the conference. Still, a bowl game is not out of the question in 2018.

8. Tulane (5-7): It’s taken Willie Fritz a little bit to get things going at Tulane, but with most of the starters back on offense, the Green Wave have a great shot to play in a bowl game in 2018.

7. SMU (7-6): Sonny Dykes inherits a program on solid footing — especially on offense — thanks to Chad Morris, but the Mustangs may be another year or two away from competing for the AAC West.

6. Navy (7-6): It’s never a good idea to underestimate Navy. With speedy Malcolm Perry at QB, Navy should improve from last year, but we have concerns about the defense.

5. Temple (7-6): The Owls got better and better as Geoff Collins’ first year progressed and will be right there with USF for the second-best squad in the AAC East. They’ll be especially tough on defense.

4. USF (10-2): USF won 10 games in Charlie Strong’s first year, but that felt like underachieving. With QB Quinton Flowers and others gone, the Bulls may not have enough to compete with rivals UCF.

3. Houston (7-5): The UH offense finally got its footing when D’Eriq King was in at QB full-time. Couple King and the offense’s progression with an Ed Oliver-led defense and you’ve got a dangerous team.

2. Memphis (10-3): While QB Riley Ferguson and WR Anthony Miller are gone, there shouldn’t be much of a decline on offense with ASU transfer Brady White at QB. Memphis looks like the best of the West.

1. UCF (13-0): Coming off a 13-0 “national championship” season, who else would be No. 1? The Knights will be really good again — especially on offense with QB McKenzie Milton. It’s unrealistic for UCF to go undefeated again, but it’s hard to envision much of a drop off. Read our full UCF preview here. 

Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) runs out of the pocket against Auburn during the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) runs out of the pocket against Auburn during the first half of the Peach Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Mountain West

12. San Jose State (2017 record: 2-11): Brent Brennan threw a lot of young players into the fire in his first year. That should help the Spartans be more competitive in 2018.

11. Hawaii (3-9): With so much talent lost, including the unexpected transfers of QB Dru Brown (Oklahoma State) and Dylan Collie (BYU), it’s hard to see Hawaii improving.

10. New Mexico (3-9): After a tumultuous offseason, Bob Davie is switching things up and employing a new offense. With the tough schedule, it probably won’t make much of a difference.

9. Nevada (3-9): There were early growing pains, but the Wolf Pack showed improvement as year one under Jay Norvell progressed. The offense is legit. The defense? Probably not.

8. Air Force (5-7): The last time AFA had a losing season, it won 10 games the next year. That many wins doesn’t seem likely, but the Falcons missing a bowl would be a surprise.

7. Colorado State (7-6): CSU didn’t live up to big expectations in 2017, and now has to replace a slew of starters, especially on offense. Washington grad transfer QB K.J. Carta-Samuels should help.

6. UNLV (5-7): UNLV rebounded from one of the worst losses ever to nearly make a bowl. Like Nevada, offense won’t be a problem, but the defense could be. Still, a bowl is expected.

5. Wyoming (8-5): No Josh Allen, no problem? Well, maybe not, but if the Cowboys can run the ball consistently, the defense is good enough to make Wyoming a tough out in the Mountain.

4. Utah State (6-7): USU won 19 games in Matt Wells’ first two seasons and 15 in the last three. This looks like the year the Aggies, led by a strong defense, make a move up the standings.

3. Fresno State (10-4): The revival of FSU was one of CFB’s best stories last year. With QB Marcus McMaryion and WR KeeSean Johnson, plus a stellar group of LBs, the Bulldogs are ready to compete for a conference title again.

2. San Diego State (10-3): Is Juwan Washington the next great SDSU back? If the Aztecs can present a competent passing game to go with the run game and defense, they’ll be tough to beat.

1. Boise State (11-3): Yahoo Sports’ top Group of Five team, BSU returns QB Brett Rypien and 10 starters on defense. At the very least, Boise should win another MWC title, but there’s potential for a UCF-like season. Read our full Boise State preview here. 

Conference USA

14. UTEP (2017 record: 0-12): New coach Dana Dimel inherits the only FBS program not to win a game in 2017. There’s nowhere to go but up, right?

13. Rice (1-11): Mike Bloomgren has a major rebuild ahead of him, especially after some of the Rice’s better players transferred to bigger programs.

12. Charlotte (1-11): Charlotte’s transition to FBS hasn’t been easy. The 49ers failed to win a single conference game last year, and it really feels like Brad Lambert is just treading water at this point.

11. Old Dominion (5-7): After the 10-win triumph of 2016, ODU took a step back last fall. The Monarchs were really young last year, and it might be another season before ODU is back in a bowl game.

10. UTSA (6-5): Frank Wilson has recruited well and the 2018 team, his third, will be youthful. The program could take a step back before it takes a step forward toward contending.

9. Western Kentucky (6-7): After C-USA titles in ’15 and ’16, WKU took a bigger step back than expected after Jeff Brohm left. With QB Mike White gone, 2018 could be a year where WKU claws to reach a bowl.

8. Southern Miss (8-5): USM doesn’t return many starters. One was expected to be QB Kwadra Griggs, but he was recently suspended indefinitely. Without Griggs, it makes the USM a lot tougher to predict.

7. Florida International (8-5): In Butch Davis’ first season, FIU matched the best record in program history. Without an established QB and a mostly-inexperienced defense, the FIU will take a step back.

6. Middle Tennessee (7-6): With QB Brent Stockstill back from injury, the offense should be really explosive, but three SEC opponents will make it tough to pile up wins. MTSU will be a team nobody wants to play.

5. Louisiana Tech (7-6): After three losses by one point (seriously), La. Tech was able to reach (and win) a bowl with a late-year rally. There’s no reason to think that late-season success won’t carry over into 2018.

4. UAB (8-5): UAB winning eight games in its first year back as an FBS program shows was remarkable. In 2018, the Blazers, who return 17 starters, should be even better.

3. Marshall (8-5): We’ll see if the Alex Thomson hype is real. Thomson, a grad transfer QB from Wagner, chose Marshall over Tennessee and Baylor. With 18 starters back, he has a chance to lead Marshall back to the C-USA title game after a three-year absence.

2. North Texas (9-5): The Mean Green rode an 8-1 stretch to win the West last fall. With 17 starters back, UNT has a great chance to win the conference before Littrell inevitably moves on to an FBS job.

1. Florida Atlantic (11-3): Lane Kiffin completely transformed the Owls in just one year en route to the program’s first C-USA title. Now FAU is set up for a repeat, especially with RB Devin Singletary and LB Azeez Al-Shaair returning.

Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary (5) had 32 rushing touchdowns in 2018. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Florida Atlantic running back Devin Singletary (5) had 32 rushing touchdowns in 2018. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

Mid-American

12. Kent State (2017 record: 2-10): With Auburn transfer Woody Barrett at QB, the Golden Flashes should be a little more exciting on offense under first-year coach Sean Lewis.

11. Ball State (2-10): The 2017 season was an injury-filled disaster. With QB Riley Neal and RB James Gilbert healthy, the Cardinals will be much more competitive.

10. Bowling Green (2-10): BGSU has the potential to be one of the better offensive teams in the MAC East, but not much has gone right since Mike Jinks arrived.

9. Central Michigan (8-5): After a season with four one-possession wins, CMU has a lot to replace. RB Jonathan Ward will carry the load, but there’s not much else on offense.

8. Akron (7-7): Last year’s East champions should have one of the league’s best defenses, but, on offense, QB Kato Nelson might not have much help from the other skill positions.

7. Eastern Michigan (5-7): EMU lost six straight games by seven points or fewer last year, and now needs a replacement for Hard Knocks star Brogan Roback at QB. Even without Roback, there’s talent.

6. Western Michigan (6-6): A step back after P.J. Fleck was inevitable. Now WMU is back on solid footing and gets both Toledo and NIU at home. Would it surprise anyone if WMU won the West?

5. Miami (5-7): Miami lost five one-possession games last year. With 16 returning starters, including QB Gus Ragland and WR James Gardner, some of those will flip to wins.

4. Buffalo (6-6): Tyree Jackson to Anthony Johnson is the best QB-WR connection you’ve never heard of. Lance Leipold’s first three seasons have been building toward this: a legitimate shot to win the MAC.

3. Ohio (9-4): Ohio blew its chance to win the East last year, but returns as the favorite despite losing most of its front seven. The offense, led by dual-threat QB Nathan Rourke, should get the Bobcats back to Detroit.

2. Toledo (11-3): After a 13-year drought, Toledo finally won the MAC. Now they have to replace QB Logan Woodside, an all-time MAC great. The team’s ceiling could depend on the QB play.

1. Northern Illinois (8-5): After five straight West titles, NIU has had a two-year absence from the MAC title game. In 2018, it has the talent to get back there, especially in the trenches led by DE Sutton Smith.

Northern Illinois Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith (15) had 14 sacks last fall. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)
Northern Illinois Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith (15) had 14 sacks last fall. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Sun Belt

10. Texas State (2017 record: 2-10): It’s been tough sledding for Everett Withers in San Marcos. Now the rebuild is entering year three and it’s tough to foresee a big jump in wins.

9. Coastal Carolina (3-9): CCU played its first FBS season without coach Joe Moglia (health). Now he’s back and takes charge of a team that had five one-possession losses. A few more wins are in order in 2018.

8. Georgia State (7-5): Shawn Elliott has the Panthers on the right track, but GSU has a tough schedule. Another bowl trip would be a surprise despite the return of stud WR Penny Hart.

7. Georgia Southern (2-10): In the long run, the 2017 season is going to look like a strange blip. With Chad Lunsford putting the option back in place, GSU will be a team others hate facing.

6. South Alabama (4-8): With the SBC splitting off into divisions, don’t be surprised to see USA, in Steve Campbell’s first year, pull off some upsets in the West.

5. UL Lafayette (5-7): Billy Napier has some talent to play with on offense in his first season. After Arkansas State, the West has a lot of parity. UL-L could make a bowl with an improved defense.

4. UL Monroe (4-8): Like Lafayette, Monroe can get back to a bowl game with improved defensive play. The Warhawks could have one of the SBC’s best offenses.

3. Appalachian State (9-4): App State loses its QB and DC, but has one of the most-talented rosters in the SBC again, led by RB Jalin Moore and CB Clifton Duck.

2. Arkansas State (7-5): The offense, led by QB Justice Hansen and a deep group of WRs, is the real deal. It’d be a shock if the Red Wolves didn’t play in the first Sun Belt title game.

1. Troy (11-2): There’s a clear distinction between the top 3 and the rest of the SBC. The Nov. 24 trip to App State will likely decide the East. Because of its defense, we like Troy as champion for a second year in a row.

Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen threw for nearly 4,000 yards last year. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Independent

6. Liberty (N/A): Liberty is entering its first FBS season. The Flames played one FBS team last year and upset Baylor 48-45. They’ll be able to move the ball but can they stop anyone?

5. BYU (2017 record: 4-9): BYU was surprisingly bad last year and now has a new offensive coordinator in place in an effort to turn things around in Kalani Sitake’s third year.

4. UMass (4-8): UMass played really close games against tough competition last fall. With QB Andrew Ford leading a talented offense, the Minutemen can clinch its first FBS bowl berth.

3. New Mexico State (7-6): In its last year in the Sun Belt, NMSU made its first bowl since 1960. Facing an independent schedule could make a return bowl trip tough, but the defense could lead it there.

2. Army (10-3): Jeff Monken has done a phenomenal job at Army. The Black Knights have played in back-to-back bowls for the first time since the 80’s and beat Navy twice in a row. It could be three.

1. Notre Dame (10-3): Provided Brandon Wimbush improves as a passer, there’s no reason to think the Fighting Irish can’t be in the CFP mix in 2018. Read our full preview here.

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