The 6 Group of 5 teams that could embarrass the SEC in nonconference play in 2022
It’s not a matter of “if.” It’s a matter of “when.”
Even the big, bad SEC falls victim to a handful of Group of 5 teams in nonconference play every year.
Actually, let me back up. Technically, the only Group of 5 team to beat an SEC squad in nonconference play in 2021 was Memphis taking down MSU, though that game featured a blown illegal touch non-call on a punt return for a touchdown. Technically, East Tennessee State beating Vandy didn’t count because ETSU was an FCS squad, not a Group of 5 team.
Of course, there were close calls galore. Remember Rice-Arkansas? Shoot, South Carolina beat East Carolina on a walk-off field goal and MSU needed its biggest 4th-quarter comeback in program history to survive mighty Louisiana Tech.
It happens. It’ll probably happen again, even to teams with relatively high expectations.
These are the most likely Group of 5 teams that could make the SEC a punching bag for a Saturday afternoon this fall:
SEC opponent — MSU
When — Sept. 3
Why it could happen — Well, it already happened twice in the past 3 seasons. Memphis beat both teams from the Magnolia State in thrilling fashion. This time, the game will be played in Starkville, though the aforementioned dud opening performance against Louisiana Tech last year should serve as a reminder that cowbells don’t guarantee laughers. Considering how inconsistent MSU was in 2021, nothing is a given with Mike Leach’s squad.
The good news for the Bulldogs is that Memphis will be playing in its first game without Calvin Austin III, who torched them for 3 touchdowns, including that infamous punt return score. He’s off to the NFL. Defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre is off to FIU, so the Tigers will be dealing with a significant change on both sides of the ball. MSU, on the other hand, returns more of its production than any SEC team, including prolific signal-caller Will Rogers.
This should be a revenge game for MSU after last year’s strange finish in Memphis.
SEC opponent — Arkansas
When — Sept. 3
Why it could happen — Yeah, it’s a changing of the guard with the Bearcats. They won’t be on the level of the 2021 Playoff squad that had Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford and Sauce Gardner. It’ll be the first time that Luke Fickell starts a new quarterback since Year 1 back in 2017. That’s advantage, Arkansas. Specifically, that’s advantage, Barry Odom. Jalen Catalon, Bumper Pool and Drew Sanders should be able to capitalize on the fresh faces on the Bearcat offense.
But don’t sleep on KJ Jefferson’s first game of the post-Treylon Burks era coming against Fickell’s defense. That group flies to the football. Even though they have stars to replace with Myjai Sanders and Coby Bryant, we should probably assume that Cincinnati’s defense is going to still have plenty of dudes ready to step into bigger roles.
This game figures to stay competitive. It could come down to something like explosive kick returner Tre Tucker taking advantage of some potential early-season issues on special teams.
SEC opponent — South Carolina
When — Sept. 3
Why it could happen — See “2019 Tennessee.” Shawn Elliott is still at Georgia State 3 years after he famously stunned the Vols to open the 2019 season (we should also not forget he was an Appalachian State assistant for the famous Michigan upset in 2007). Of course, South Carolina fans should be plenty familiar with Elliott. He was the Gamecocks’ interim coach back in 2015 after Steve Spurrier resigned midseason. Elliott is coming off an 8-win season that saw him nearly upset Auburn if not for some late TJ Finley heroics. Georgia State also ranks No. 25 in FBS in percentage of returning production.
This is a tricky spot for South Carolina because of this offseason of nothing but good vibes. There will be a ton of eyes on Spencer Rattler in his debut. Does the offense look a bit anxious? Can the offensive line take care of business against a Georgia State team that prides itself on its play in the trenches or will Elliott be part of another major opening weekend upset?
Don’t rule out the latter.
SEC opponent — Vandy
When — Sept. 3
Why it could happen — I’m not sure how Vandy got roped into playing a pair of Group of 5 road games, but I suppose if you’re gonna travel, Hawaii is a perfect destination. Vandy couldn’t be catching the Rainbow Warriors at a better time, too. The fallout of the bizarre Todd Graham situation means that Timmy Chang, who spent the past 5 years coaching receivers and tight ends at Nevada, will make his debut against Vandy. Hawaii has also been absolutely hammered by the transfer portal and ranks No. 130 out of 131 FBS teams in percentage of returning production.
The bad news? It’s hard to treat Vandy like a Power 5 team when it has yet to beat a Power 5 team in the 2020s. Mike Wright showed some flashes of brilliance down the stretch, and Year 2 of Clark Lea’s defense should be an improvement. Those 2 things might be the only things that can save Vandy from a not-so-friendly “aloha” to start the season.
SEC opponent — Vandy, Kentucky
When — Sept. 17, Sept. 24
Why it could happen — I don’t really need to dig into the likelihood of the Vandy upset very much. That’s a road game for the ‘Dores. Northern Illinois is coming off a MAC Championship season and the Huskies rank No. 8 in FBS in percentage of returning production. The Huskies will likely be favored.
Why did I include Kentucky in here, as well? I get that Mark Stoops’ program is in a much different place now compared to when Southern Miss could roll into Lexington and spoil the season-opener. But that aforementioned Chattanooga game came in the midst of one of Kentucky’s best seasons of the post-Bear Bryant era. Granted, it was early in the season with a new offensive scheme that still had some kinks to work out. Still, though.
That’s not a game that Kentucky can put it on cruise control. We need to see those new Kentucky wideouts get separation and not put Will Levis in tough spots. Speaking of Levis, NIU is also led by a former Big Ten East transfer. Rocky Lombardi found his footing last year with an offense that ranked in the top 1/3 in FBS.
For Kentucky, it’s probably a good thing this game is in late-September and not in Week 1 or Week 2. Either way, the Cats should be on upset alert.
SEC opponent — Texas A&M
When — Sept. 10
Why it could happen — Hmmmmmmm. I seem to remember a time when Appalachian State stunned a preseason top-5 team. Could lightning strike twice this century? Of course, the Mountaineers have made significant strides since the 2007 stunner at Michigan. For starters, they moved up to the Group of 5 ranks. In case you haven’t noticed, they’re a pretty solid Group of 5 program, too. A 10-win season last year marked the 5th time they hit 9 wins in the Playoff era.
That defense lost a lot of talent, including Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year D’Marco Jackson and all-conference defensive back Shaun Jolly. It’ll be interesting to see if former Memphis/Texas State transfer Brady McBride can lead what’s typically been a potent App State offense. Quietly, the Mountaineers have had a top-30 offense each of the last 5 years. They could put some pressure on an A&M defense that’ll be in Game No. 2 with a new defensive coordinator with first-time starters galore on the defensive line.
Let’s just say it would be less than ideal if A&M found itself lining up a game-winning kick to try and avoid a monumental upset.