Group of Five conference championship game previews, picks against the spread

·10-min read

Welcome to conference championship week.

While a lot of the focus is going to be on the Power Five conference title games, don’t forget about the Group of Five matchups. They could prove to be some of the best games of the weekend.

Cincinnati has a chance to get into the College Football Playoff, UTSA is looking to cap a historic season with its league title, San Diego State can get to 12 wins for the first time in program history and the MAC and Sun Belt title games both should be highly competitive. 

These games are going to be a lot of fun.

(Note: All times ET, odds from BetMGM)

C-USA: Western Kentucky at UTSA

Time: 7 p.m. Friday | TV: CBSSN | Line: WKU -3 | Total: 72.5

How these teams got here

Western Kentucky (8-4, 7-1 C-USA): WKU, working in a completely new offensive system, played a difficult non-conference schedule and ended up starting the year 1-4 despite putting up big numbers in the passing game. Once the Hilltoppers got to conference play, though, that offensive production turned things around in the win column in a big way. With transfer QB Bailey Zappe leading the way, WKU won its final seven games and the C-USA East, while averaging 45.4 points per game in conference play.

UTSA (11-1, 7-1 C-USA): After winning seven games combined in 2018 and 2019, UTSA has been given a huge boost by coach Jeff Traylor. The Roadrunners went 7-5 last year before an 11-1 record this season. UTSA had its undefeated season spoiled last weekend with a loss to North Texas, but that 11-0 start had the Roadrunners in the CFP rankings for multiple weeks. UTSA has only been playing football since 2011 and this has been the program’s best season by a significant margin.

What’s on the line

Western Kentucky: WKU won back-to-back C-USA championships in 2015 and 2016 when Jeff Brohm was leading the program. There were a few down years since then, but Tyson Helton has the program back to the top of the division and with a chance to claim its third C-USA title. And with a win here and in the bowl game, WKU can also get to 10 wins for the first time since 2016.

UTSA: This has already been UTSA’s best season and the best way to cap it off would be with its first conference championship and its first bowl win. The previous high for wins in a season was when the Roadrunners went 8-4 in 2012.

Players to know

Western Kentucky QB Bailey Zappe: 406-of-580 (70%), 4,968 yards, 52 TDs, 9 INTs

UTSA RB Sincere McCormick: 262 rushes, 1,275 yards, 12 TDs

Picks: Nick: UTSA +3; Sam: WKU -3

UTSA running back Sincere McCormick (3) heads to end zone to score a touchdown in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
UTSA running back Sincere McCormick (3) heads to end zone to score a touchdown in the second half against Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La., on Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

MAC: Kent State vs. Northern Illinois

Time: Noon | TV: ESPN | Line: Kent State -3.5 | Total: 73.5

How these teams got here

Kent State (7-5, 6-2 MAC): The Golden Flashes won the MAC East with a 48-47 win over Miami in the last week of the season. Kent State and Miami were the only two teams that finished at or above .500 overall in the East. Kent State has been outscored 415-401 this season, but that’s largely because of losses to Texas A&M, Iowa, and Maryland. The Flashes were blown out by Western Michigan and Central Michigan in their two conference losses this season but beat Northern Illinois 52-47 when the teams met in the regular season.

Northern Illinois (8-4, 6-2 MAC): The Huskies opened the season with a 22-21 win against Georgia Tech. That win was followed by losses to Wyoming and Michigan. NIU then reeled off five consecutive wins before that Kent State loss and that stretch included wins over Eastern Michigan, Toledo, and Central Michigan. Western Michigan was the only team in the MAC West to beat NIU; every team in the division finished 6-6 or better.

What’s on the line

Kent State: Kent State hasn’t won eight games in a season since an 11-3 campaign in 2012. The Golden Flashes failed to win the MAC that season after losing to, you guessed it, Northern Illinois in the title game. A conference title would be the second in school history.

Northern Illinois: The Huskies would win a conference title after going 0-6 in 2020. NIU has won eight games in four of the last seven seasons and this is the first winning season in Thomas Hammock’s three-year tenure. A conference title would be the first for NIU since 2014.

Players to know

Kent State QB Dustin Crum: 217-of-334 passing, 2,813 yards, 132 carries, 565 yards, 26 total TDs

Northern Illinois RB Clint Ratkovich: 89 rushes, 424 yards, 13 catches, 113 yards, 13 total TDs

Picks: Nick: Northern Illinois +3.5; Sam: Kent State -3.5

Mountain West: Utah State at No. 19 San Diego State

Time: 3 p.m. | TV: Fox | Line: SDSU -5.5 | Total: 50.5

How these teams got here

Utah State (9-3, 6-2 MWC): Utah State was in a bad place as the 2020 season came to a close, but Blake Anderson came in and executed a quick turnaround. Anderson, the former Arkansas State coach, inherited a 1-5 team and led it to a 9-3 record and a division title. The Aggies won six of their final seven games and boast the second-best offense in the Mountain West, averaging 458 yards per game.

San Diego State (11-1, 7-1 MWC): On the San Diego State side, it’s been mostly about defense. Brady Hoke’s Aztecs don’t put up a lot of points, but they can really run the ball and have both the Mountain West’s best defense and the nation’s best punter in Matt Araiza. Defensively, the Aztecs only allow 17.3 points per game and 4.56 yards per play. Both figures rank in the top 10 nationally.

What’s on the line

Utah State: Utah State moved from the WAC to the Mountain West in 2013 and has only played for the conference championship once. It came in that first year, and the Aggies fell 24-17 to Fresno State. Since then, USU has been fighting to get back to this moment. And after the disaster that the second tenure of Gary Andersen ended up being, this bounce back being capped off by the program’s first Mountain West title would be significant.

San Diego State: San Diego State was a consistent conference championship contender under Rocky Long. The Aztecs won the Mountain West in 2012, 2015 and 2016 but have gone four years without a conference title. On top of that, San Diego State can get to 12 wins with a victory over the Aggies. That would set a program record.

Players to know

Utah State WR Deven Thompkins: 87 receptions, 1,543 yards, 9 TDs

San Diego State DL Cameron Thomas: 66 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks

Picks: Nick: SDSU -5.5; Sam: USU +5.5

San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UNLV Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)
San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke looks on during the first half against UNLV on Nov. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)

Sun Belt: Appalachian State at No. 24 Louisiana

Time: 3:30 p.m. | TV: ESPN | Line: App State -3 | Total: 53.5

How these teams got here

App State (10-2, 7-1 SBC): The Mountaineers won the Sun Belt’s East, thanks to a 30-27 win over Coastal Carolina on Oct. 20. That game was the start of a six-game win streak that lasted through the end of the season. None of the five games after the Coastal game was decided by fewer than 21 points.

Louisiana (11-1, 8-0 SBC): Louisiana was by far the best team in the Sun Belt West and has demonstrated that it is the best in the conference over the course of the season. Louisiana beat App State 41-13 on Oct. 12, and the team’s only loss this season came in Week 1 to Texas. The success led to coach Billy Napier landing the head-coaching job at Florida. Napier will coach the Ragin' Cajuns in Saturday's game before heading to Gainesville. 

What’s on the line

App State: The Mountaineers have won at least 10 games in five of eight seasons in the Sun Belt. An 11th win would be the fourth 11-win season in that timeframe. A win on Saturday would be App State’s fifth Sun Belt title. The Mountaineers won the 2018 and 2019 Sun Belt title games over Louisiana.

Louisiana: The Ragin’ Cajuns haven’t won the Sun Belt since they tied for the conference title in 2013 with Arkansas State. That was the last season without App State in the conference. Louisiana is the only team to qualify for all four Sun Belt title games but has never won any of them. There were the two losses to App State, and the 2020 game vs. Coastal Carolina was called off due to COVID-19.

Players to know

App State QB Chase Brice: 215-of-338 passing, 2,903 yards, 25 total TDs

Louisiana RB Chris Smith: 144 carries, 834 yards, 9 total TDs

Picks: Nick: Louisiana +3; Sam: Louisiana +3

AAC: No. 21 Houston at No. 4 Cincinnati

Time: 4 p.m. | TV: ABC | Line: UC -10.5 | Total: 53.5

How these teams got here

Houston (11-1, 8-0 AAC): UH opened its third season of the Dana Holgorsen era with an ugly loss to Texas Tech. Since then, though, the Cougars have rattled off 11 consecutive victories to get back to the AAC title game for the first time since 2015. Houston has one of the better passing offenses in the AAC, but the team has been led throughout the year by its defense. UH is first in the AAC in total defense and second in scoring defense and yards per play allowed.

Cincinnati (12-0, 8-0 AAC): Cincinnati marched through the 2020 regular season without a loss and won the AAC title, only to be left at the No. 8 spot in the final CFP rankings. This year, the Bearcats are sitting at No. 4 entering Saturday’s game. To get to this point, the Bearcats opened their season with non-conference road wins over Indiana and Notre Dame before embarking on another unbeaten run through conference play. More than anything, that Notre Dame win is holding up at the top of Cincinnati’s CFP resume.

What’s on the line

Houston: Houston can win its first conference championship since 2015, when it went 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl under Tom Herman. After two disappointing seasons to start Holgorsen’s tenure at UH, that would be an excellent sign of the program’s progression as it gets closer to its move to the Big 12. On top of that, UH has the chance to play spoiler for Cincinnati and knock the CFP picture into some flux.

Cincinnati: With a win, Cincinnati would be on the precipice of becoming the first program from a Group of Five conference to reach the College Football Playoff. Many observers thought it couldn’t be done, but the Bearcats have put themselves in position to make history. All they have to do is avoid an upset, and they will probably crack the top four on Sunday.

Players to know

Houston CB Marcus Jones: 46 tackles, 12 passes defended, 5 INT, 4 return TDs (2 punt, 2 kickoff)

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder: 223/338 (66%), 3,000 yards, 27 TDs, 8 INT

Picks: Nick: Cincinnati -10.5; Sam: Houston +10.5

Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder (9) changes the play against East Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Greenville, N.C., Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder (9) changes the play against East Carolina during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Greenville, N.C., on Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
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