Every year in college football, one or two teams rise out of nowhere to shock the nation and win their conference. Last year, Coastal Carolina was coming off a 5-7 season and was picked by many to finish last in the Sun Belt. Instead, they went 11-1 and would have punched a ticket to the College Football Playoff had the field been expanded to 12 teams.
In an effort to predict which sleeper teams could come out of nowhere to win their conference – which teams could become the next Coastal Carolina – we looked at the conference championship odds of every Group of 5 program. We then eliminated the top three favorites in terms of betting odds from consideration, and eliminated any team that had played in a conference championship in the last three seasons.
After eliminating those teams, we took a deep look at the roster construction of each team and identified one potential sleeping giant in each Group of 5 conference:
No. 5: East Carolina, +5000
2020 Record: 3-6
American Conference favorites:
- Cincinnati -230
- UCF +450
- Tulsa +900
With a true contender for a berth in the 4-team College Football Playoff in the American Conference, it’ll be tough for anyone to unseat Cincinnati at the top, but East Carolina has an outside shot to do so. The Pirates enter their third season under head coach Mike Houston, the year in which teams and their head coaches seem to gel best in college football.
For ECU, the story starts on offense, as the team averaged over 30 points and 400 yards per game in 2020. Holton Ahlers is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in college football, entering his fourth season at the helm of the Pirate offense. His completion percentage has risen every season, and he’s begun to rely considerably less on his legs to make plays as he gains confidence in the pocket.
As a big, athletic quarterback with a strong arm, Ahlers has had flashes of excellence in the past few seasons. He’s also very durable with a minimal injury history. He won’t be relied on entirely to lead ECU’s offense, with leading receiver Tyler Snead and top running backs Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell both returning.
While ECU lost Blake Proehl to the NFL, they bring back basically their entire stable of offensive weapons besides him. Additionally, they’ll add former Oklahoma LB Ryan Jones at the tight end position. Jones sat last season after transferring, and is expected to be deployed regularly around the formation.
On the offensive line, while D’Ante Smith moved on to the NFL, the fact that he opted out midseason gave ECU’s five returning offensive line starters a chance to coalesce. With all five starters back up front, Ahlers under center and most of the offensive weaponry returning, ECU’s offense should be one of the most dangerous G5 outfits.
But offense was not the problem in 2020 for East Carolina. The real thing that held them back was a defense that allowed 35 points and 447 yards per game. The Pirates were particularly poor against the run, going 0-6 when they gave up over 175 rushing yards, and 3-0 when they didn’t.
An emphasis on stopping the run will be immensely important, and with 14 of their top 15 tacklers returning, ECU has a chance to improve on that end. Their speed at the second level will be key, and with guys like Xavier Smith, Bruce Bivens and Jireh Wilson, they have a shot to tighten up the leaky front. The team also returns their entire starting secondary from last season, highlighted by Ja’Quan McMillian, who has nabbed 7 interceptions in his two years on campus.
While it will be hard for any underdog to topple Cincinnati in the American Conference, Eastern Carolina has a chance to contend for a conference crown, particularly if their defense can take a step forward.
No. 4: Fresno State, +2200
2020 Record: 3-3
Mountain West Conference favorites:
- Boise State +100
- Nevada +400
- San Jose State +450
In their first season aboard, head coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb drastically improved the Fresno State offense. The group finished the 2020 season ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West and No. 5 in the entire nation in passing, led by former Washington transfer Jake Haener at quarterback.
Haener threw for over 2,000 yards in just six games last season, tossing over 400 yards in two of the team’s last three games. Every single one of his receivers returns, highlighted by third-year receiver Jalen Cropper, who led the team in receptions, yards and touchdown catches.
Despite the passing productivity that Fresno State clearly is capable of, opposing defensive coordinators may have to focus primarily on running back Ronnie Rivers, one of the best returning runners in the nation. Rivers is considered a potential Day 3 draft pick heading into the season, and is one of the most dangerous backs in the country as both a runner and receiver. And although the Bulldogs lost their top offensive lineman, Syrus Tuitele, to the NFL, they’ll return three starting offensive linemen.
Like East Carolina, Fresno State’s struggles last year came on the defensive side. While the Bulldogs were excellent at generating sacks, leading to the No. 3 mark in the nation, they struggled mightily against the run (212 rushing yards per game allowed). They return every single one of their top 20 tacklers from last season, however, and have a defensive line trio of Kwami Jones, Davis Preales and Kevin Atkins that should improve with more experience. To top it off, Fresno added FIU transfer linebacker Tyson Maeva, who is expected to step in right away as a sideline-to-sideline stopper.
Last year, San Jose State seemingly came out of nowhere to win the Mountain West title. This year, it could be the Bulldogs if they can improve on defense.
No. 3: Georgia State, +1800
2020 Record: 6-4
Sun Belt Conference favorites:
- Louisiana-Lafayette +125
- Coastal Carolina +200
- Appalachian State +400
It will be tough sledding in the Sun Belt conference Group B in 2021 with Coastal Carolina, App State and Georgia Southern as stiff competition, but Georgia State has a path to a Sun Belt Conference championship.
Offensively, the Panthers bring back every single starter for a unit that failed to put up over 30 points just twice in 10 games. Their championship aspirations will start with QB Cornelious Brown, a mobile 6-foot-5 passer who threw for 17 touchdowns and ran for another 7 in 2020.
Brown will likely need to cut down on his 10 interceptions and improve on his 58.6% completion rate to lead a more consistent unit, but having back all 10 of his top wide receivers should absolutely help. That WR group will be led by 6-4 stud Sam Pinckney, who looked ready to build off his 47-catch, 815-yard, 7-touchdown season at the Panthers’ spring game.
With all five starters returning on the offensive line and top running back Destin Coates returning, Georgia State will have the firepower to win shootouts with other top Sun Belt foes.
While Fresno State and Eastern Carolina’s defenses both might hold them back, Georgia State’s is unlikely to be a detriment.
The Panthers led the Sun Belt in both sacks and tackles for loss in 2020, but are losing their top pass rusher, Jordan Strachan, and two of their best linebackers. They’ll be a little reliant on unknowns at the LB position, with Wake Forest transfer LB Shamar McCollum and career backup Jacorey Crawford stepping into starting roles.
On the bright side, leading tackler Blake Carroll returns, and defensive end Hardrick Willis will look to improve on a 6-sack campaign. This team will also have one of the better secondaries in the Sun Belt, with Quavian White highlighting a group that returns multiple talented contributors.
No. 2: Kent State, +1400
2020 Record: 3-1
Mid-American Conference Favorites:
- Buffalo -200
- Ball State +350
- Central Michigan +450
Kent State’s position on this list is almost entirely due to the ability of their quarterback, Dustin Crum. Crum is not simply the best quarterback in the MAC, he may be one of the best passers in the nation. The graduate senior is coming off a first-team all-MAC season in which he completed over 73% of his passes and averaged 295 yards passing and 60 rushing yards per game.
Crum is very composed, extremely mobile, has excellent touch, and is not afraid to chuck it down field as evidenced by his 12.3-yard average depth of target.
While he loses his top target in Isaiah McKoy, Kent State went out and added Syracuse transfer WR Nykeim Johnson to a talented incumbent corps of Ja”shaun Poke and Isaac Vance.
Surprisingly enough, the Golden Flashes were not reliant on Crum offensively in 2020, as they averaged 283 rushing yards per game, No. 3 in the country. Their top three running backs all return, giving them a solid foundation on offense.
Additionally, they’ll return all five starters up front, including all-MAC offensive tackle Bill Kuduk, who may be the team’s best player outside of Crum.
Defensively is where things fell off for the Golden Flashes in 2020, as they allowed 38 points per game. They do, however, return eight of their top nine tackles, and have a good LB trio in Brandon Coleman, Kesean Gamble and Mandela Lawrence-Burke. After adding senior Maryland transfer Antwaine Clark to the safety rotation, they should be at least somewhat improved defensively.
While Kent State’s defensive issues keep them out of the No. 1 spot in our Group of 5 sleeper rankings, their high-powered and very balanced offensive attack may be enough to steal away their first MAC championship since 2016.
No. 1: Western Kentucky, +1400
2020 Record: 5-7
Conference USA favorites:
- Marshall +250
- UAB +275
- UTSA +300
In what figures to be a wide open Conference USA race in 2021, an entirely revamped Western Kentucky offense has the potential to lead the Hilltoppers to a conference championship.
While the other teams on this list are predominantly composed of returning players with experience and familiarity, Western Kentucky is relying on a troupe of FCS transfers from Houston Baptist to take their offense to the next level.
The Hilltoppers’ championship hopes start and end with new quarterback Bailey Zappe, who put up an eye-popping 1,833 yards, 15 touchdowns and only 1 interception in just four 2020 games. Zappe had invites to multiple postseason all-star events last year, and could be on a 90-man NFL training camp roster right now, but instead elected to play out his final season in Bowling Green, Kent.
Western Kentucky not only added Zappe, but added his offensive coordinator, Zach Kittley, who will allow for a smooth transition to his Air Raid offense. As they entirely reinvent their offense for Zappe, they also brought in Houston Baptist’s top two receivers, Jerreth Sterns and Ben Ralzlaff, as well as Sterns’ younger brother and fellow receiver, Josh.
As a kicker, this entirely remade offense will feature transfers such as: 2020 third-team all-MAC TE from Buffalo, Zac Lefebvre, Oregon WR Daewood Davis and North Dakota RB Adam Cofield.
For an offensive that was anemic last season, the ridiculous amount of transfers will give them an entirely new and likely very explosive identity.
Defense was this team’s calling card last season, as they allowed just 25 points per game while keeping an underwhelming offense in most of their games. They were led by star pass rusher DeAngelo Malone, who returns as a super senior after turning down a 2020 invite to the Senior Bowl. Malone, who had buzz as a potential Day 2 pick during the 2020 season, will be the best defender in the conference.
While the Hilltoppers will not have their expected continuity in the secondary after a whopping six defensive backs transferred out, they managed to land Michigan State transfer Davion Williams and North Carolina transfer Tre Shaw, who may actually be upgrades on defense.
If Western Kentucky’s offense can harness some of Houston Baptist’s 2020 potency while maintaining their stout defense, the Hilltoppers are a potential Top 25 team.