CFB Group of 5 betting preview: Taking shots deep down the board
Last season was a banner year for the Group of 5 conferences in college football because of one team. The Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, and, of course, the American Athletic Conference had something to believe in thanks to Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, the Bearcats were tossed aside by Alabama in the College Football Playoff, and few teams have the chance - or capability - to beat a top brand like Notre Dame in order to even be considered by the committee this year. There won't be a repeat performance by a G5 team on a national scale, but there is plenty to bet on.
American Athletic Conference odds
Best bets: Central Florida to win AAC (+300), Cincinnati over 9 (-140)
The Bearcats have recruited, on average, the 40th-best class for the last three seasons, so after losing a handful of players to the NFL, they should take a step back. However, they don't play Houston in a regular-season schedule that has very winnable games - particularly following their showdown with Arkansas. Eight losses would be a surprising setback for a ready-made culture.
Cincinnati can win 10 games to cash tickets on its win-total over, and one of its losses may come at Central Florida. Gus Malzahn's loaded Knights host that game on Oct. 29 and also avoid Houston on their slate, so there's a good chance they get the inside track on a berth in the conference title game.
Conference USA odds
Best bets: UTEP (+2000), Charlotte (+2500)
In the smaller conferences, we're more aggressive in taking long shots, since the biggest fish in these small ponds are more susceptible to their relative equivalents in Power 5 conferences. Two teams jump out in Conference USA.
UTEP is still building after being a laughingstock, but it returns Gavin Hardison at quarterback and a good running game. With much of the Miners' defensive production also returning, their visit to UTSA in the regular-season finale could mean big things.
The Miners also visit Charlotte, so if the home team wins, the 49ers would have the edge for the rest of the season; like Hardison, quarterback Chris Reynolds can surprise. A Charlotte win in the opener at Florida Atlantic as 7.5-point underdogs would help this bet a ton, as it's the 49ers' toughest conference road game this season.
Mid-American Conference odds
Best bet: Northern Illinois (+600)
The defending champion Huskies have fallen to the fourth choice, in part because going back to back in the MAC seems antithetical to the parity that we see each weeknight in November. However, Northern Illinois returns much of its production on offense for quarterback Rocky Lombardi, plus all 11 starters on defense, and the Huskies don't visit any of the teams above them on the oddsboard.
Mountain West odds
|San Diego State||+550|
|San Jose State||+2500|
Best bets: Air Force (+400)
Troy Calhoun's Falcons led the nation in rushing last season and return enough of their production to convince us they'll have the modified option attack humming again. Defensively, they gave up fewer than 20 points per in-conference game last season and should remain similarly staunch. Their toughest road game is the finale against San Diego State, and we're still trying to figure out how the Aztecs succeeded last season. With Fresno losing its coaching staff to Washington and Boise seemingly on the descent, Air Force may run over the Mountain West this season.
Sun Belt odds
Best bets: Georgia State (+800), Southern Mississippi (+4000), Old Dominion (+5000)
We've saved the wildest for last. While the core bet is the fifth-choice Panthers, a sub-sprinkle on Sun Belt newcomers Southern Miss and Old Dominion is in order. As four teams join the league, it would be foolish to assume that they can't come over and compete. Marshall's getting credit for being capable, but after strange years in Hattiesburg and Norfolk, a return to normalcy could do wonders for the Golden Eagles and Monarchs.
Shawn Elliott gets 15 starters back for a Georgia State team that won seven of its last eight games last season, with the lone loss a four-point defeat to Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns lost their head coach, App State is still running the ill-fitting Chase Brice out there at quarterback, and Coastal Carolina lost almost everyone but quarterback Grayson McCall. The door is open wider in the Sun Belt than it's been in years.
Matt Russell is a betting writer for theScore. If there's a bad beat to be had, Matt will find it. Find him on Twitter @mrussauthentic.