The 8 Group of 5 teams that could be land mines for SEC squads
There’s always one.
Last year it was Troy vs. LSU. The year before that, it was South Alabama vs. Mississippi State.
The always-overlooked Group of 5 upset vs. an SEC team always makes big national headlines, and it makes people wonder whether the conference is losing steam. I’ll save that discussion for another time.
Instead, let’s look at the Group of 5 teams that could provide nightmares to SEC teams in 2018.
SEC matchup — Sept. 8 at Alabama
OK, so we aren’t exactly starting off with the most realistic upset here. In all likelihood, Alabama will be favored by at least 4 touchdowns and nobody will think twice about penciling in the mammoth upset. But it’s worth noting that the Red Wolves lost 4 of their 5 games by 7 points or fewer last year. It’s also worth noting that an extremely young Tide secondary is going to face a third-year starter in former Oklahoma transfer Justice Hansen (he threw for 3,630 yards and 34 touchdowns last year). I’m not saying Arkansas State stays in the game for 60 minutes, but keep an eye on that spread.
SEC matchups — Sept. 8 vs. Arkansas, Sept. 15 at Florida
Can we call that Florida game the Jim McElwain bowl? Please? McElwain won’t be on either sideline, but the Rams are led by former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Last year, the Rams put up 23 points against Alabama in Tuscaloosa and they finished with the No. 31 scoring offense. The Arkansas matchup might be the closer game, especially considering that’s being played in Fort Collins. What’s the good news for its SEC foes? CSU replaced both coordinators and is dead last in FBS in returning production.
SEC matchups — Sept. 15 at South Carolina
Immediately after the Gamecocks’ monstrous Georgia showdown, the Thundering Herd will invade Columbia. That’s not going to be any time for the Gamecocks to take a breath. I know everyone is excited about South Carolina’s new-look offense, but we’re going to find out how good it is not only with that 2-week stretch in the first 3 weeks of the season. Marshall was No. 17 in scoring defense last year, and it returns 81 percent of its defensive production. South Carolina won’t be out of the woods when Georgia leaves town.
SEC matchups — Sept. 15 at Arkansas
So Arkansas doesn’t have to face a Power 5 team in nonconference play, but it does have a pair of tricky Group of 5 matchups. North Texas is one of them. Led by Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year Mason Fine, the Mean Green can light up the scoreboard.
They had a top-20 offense last year, and they rank 29th in returning offensive production. Seth Littrell is one of the top up-and-coming coaches in the country, and he’d love nothing more than adding an SEC win to his ever-growing résumé.
SEC matchups — Sept. 22 at LSU, Nov. 3 at Mississippi State
Why is Louisiana Tech on this list? Well, LSU and MSU both suffered that ever-embarrassing Group of 5 loss at home in the past 2 years. Skip Holtz did win 9 games in 4 of the past 5 years, and he nearly won at South Carolina last year. That’s not bad for a team ranked No. 26 in returning production. Not buying the chance of an upset at either of those schools? Well, the week before Louisiana Tech, LSU is at Auburn. The week after Louisiana Tech, MSU is at Alabama. Louisiana Tech has definite sleeper game potential.
SEC matchups — Sept. 29 at Auburn
The 8-win Golden Eagles did stay within 2 touchdowns of a pair of SEC teams last year, though that was Kentucky and Tennessee. Auburn will be a different kind of challenge, especially for a team with massive turnover like Southern Miss. But I still remember a certain FCS Jacksonville State squad walking into Jordan-Hare and pushing No. 6 Auburn into overtime back in 2015 (the Tigers went 2-6 in SEC play that year). I’m not saying that’ll repeat itself, but you better believe Gus Malzahn has that on the back of his mind every time his team is supposed to roll in non-conference play.
SEC matchups — Nov. 17 at Texas A&M
I think I actually predicted that the Blazers would beat Florida last year. At the time, it didn’t seem that far-fetched. In hindsight, a 36-7 Gator romp proved that I was a bit too bullish on UAB. Am I too bullish on UAB again this year to suggest they can hang with the Aggies during cupcake week? Perhaps. But 8-win UAB isn’t a typical cupcake. Nobody in America returns a higher percentage of their offensive production than the Blazers. Spencer Brown ran for 1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman. He and an experienced UAB squad — one that played like it had nothing to lose last year — won’t just take its fat check and lie down.
SEC matchups — Oct. 20 at Mizzou
Probably the toughest team on this list, Memphis is going to be quite the matchup for a Mizzou squad that has been known to allow a few points. In all likelihood, the Tiger Bowl is going to turn into the Points Bowl. Memphis did take down Josh Rosen last year, so facing another first-round quarterback prospect in Drew Lock won’t faze the Tigers. Memphis does have some major holes to fill — quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller are the big ones — but this is still a Mike Norvell offense. Memphis didn’t win 10 games by accident last year. They still have a loaded backfield, too. All signs point to a shootout in Columbia. If you’re going to tune into an SEC vs. Group of 5 matchup, this could easily be the most entertaining of the bunch.