NCAAF
September 24, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

10 Non-Power 5 College Football Teams You've Gotta Watch in 2020

There’s no question that the 2020 college football season will be unlike any other we’ve ever experienced before. 

But one thing that will feel familiar is there will be surprise squads outside of the power conferences that can go toe-to-toe with any team in the country. 

Here are 10 teams outside of the five power conferences that you should watch play in 2020.

Cincinnati Bearcats (AAC)

The Bearcats have finished the last two seasons in the top 25 and they look like a team that will do it again in 2020. Luke Fickell always puts together a strong defense, and this year he has 10 starters returning from a unit that gave up just over 20 points per game last year.

On offense, Cincinnati returns quarterback Desmond Ridder, a dual-threat signal caller who has some room for improvement as a passer. However, Alabama transfer Jerome Ford will help fortify the backfield, making the Bearcats a strong rushing team. While Ridder’s passing remains a question mark, the Bearcats should be able to run the ball effectively and play outstanding defense, which will make them one of the best Group of Five teams in the country yet again.

Appalachian State Mountaineers (Sun Belt)

Over the last five seasons, the Mountaineers have become a Sun Belt powerhouse and one of the best teams from outside the power conferences. Last year, they beat both South Carolina and North Carolina on their way to a 13-1 record. Things could get a little tricky in 2020 with the program’s third coach in as many seasons. However, quarterback Zac Thomas is also back for his third season as a starter. The Mountaineers also have a great wide receiver duo in Thomas Hennigan and Corey Sutton, a top-notch offensive line, and difference-makers at every level of the defense.

Appalachian State is poised to dominate the Sun Belt yet again, although they dropped their most recent game to No. 25 Marshall. 

Florida Atlantic Owls (Conference USA)

The Owls have won two of the last three Conference USA championships behind Lane Kiffin. Even with Kiffin moving on, former Oregon and Florida State head coach Willie Taggart should pick up where Kiffin left off. While there are some questions, Taggart loves to run the ball and should feed Malcolm Davidson, who averaged seven yards per carry last season. Meanwhile, former USF coach Jim Leavitt will takeover the FAU defense and make the Owls much improved on that side of the ball as well.

Memphis Tigers (AAC)

Before leaving for Florida State, Mike Norvell led the Tigers to an AAC championship and a spot in the Cotton Bowl last season. He also left the program in good shape for successor Ryan Silverfield. Quarterback Brady White returns to lead an offense that scored over 40 points per game last season. Of course, running the ball has been the bread and butter of the Memphis offense in recent years. Kenneth Gainwell exploded for over 1,400 yards as a freshman last year. Between him and White, the Memphis offense will be humming again in 2020.

The Tigers might actually be better on defense this season with seven starters returning. As usual, Memphis will be among the best teams in the AAC with some hightly anticipated head-to-head matchups against Central Florida and Cincinnati later in the season.

BYU Cougars (Independent)

The Cougars managed to schedule just eight games this season, but BYU is still among the best teams outside the power conferences. Quarterback Zach Wilson is a blossoming star who is worth watching closely. Also, with a strong offensive line, the Cougars should have a balanced, high-scoring attack on offense.

After blowing out Navy in their first game, BYU still has must-see games against Army, Troy and Houston. Plus, BYU has plenty of open dates, which could allow them to schedule more games if things get crazy and teams need to find an opponent. 

UAB Blazers (Conference USA)

It’s worth noting that UAB has only been back from its brief hiatus since 2017. In the past three seasons, Bill Clark has gone 28-13 and led the Blazers to the Conference USA Championship Game twice. Against all odds, he has the program humming again. The UAB defense has a chance to be something special this season after giving up fewer than 21 points per game last year and returning their top playmakers on that side of the ball.

The offense was underwhelming last season. On the bright side, the Blazers have five senior returning starters on their offensive line, which should help them jumpstart their rushing attack and take some pressure off quarterback Tyler Johnston, who has a big arm but needs to cut down on his turnovers.

The Blazers had a chance to make a big statement on national TV against the Miami Hurricanes, but they lost 31-14. 

Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (Sun Belt)

The Ragin’ Cajuns are one of the few teams that have a chance to challenge Appalachian State in the Sun Belt this year. It’s surprising that a bigger program didn’t poach Billy Nappier after last year’s 11-3 campaign. Nevertheless, he’ll be back with starting quarterback Levi Lewis, who threw 26 touchdown passes against just four interceptions last year.

The Ragin’ Cajuns also have returning running backs Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards last season. Finally, Louisiana returns seven starters from a defense that gave up less than 20 points per game last season. In short, the Ragin’ Cajuns are one of the nation’s most balanced teams and pose a serious threat to Appalachian’s reign at the top of the Sun Belt. 

The Ragin' Cajuns showed just how dangerous they can be in their upset of Iowa State in their season opener. 

SMU Mustangs (AAC)

Last season was a banner year for SMU, as the Mustangs won 10 games for the first time since receiving the “Death Penalty” from the NCAA. Texas transfer Shane Buechele might be the best quarterback in the country outside the power conferences. He threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 34 touchdown passes last season. With four returning starters along the offensive line, Buechele should have plenty of time to pick apart defenses.

The caveat is that there are concerns about the SMU defense, which should mean a lot of entertaining shootouts for the Mustangs, including games with Memphis, Cincinnati and Houston. Plus, SMU will get to test itself early in the season against longtime in-state rivals TCU.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (Conference USA)

The Bulldogs closed out last season with a win over Miami in their bowl game and will look to build off of that in 2020. While Louisiana Tech will have to break in a new quarterback, Justin Henderson gives them a 1,000-yard rusher to lead the offense. The Bulldogs also have impressive talent on defense, especially after adding a couple of key transfers.

Louisiana Tech should be in the mix for a Conference USA championship in 2020.

UCF Knights (AAC)

Last but not least, there’s UCF, the self-proclaimed national champions from a few years ago. While they are a little overlooked heading into 2020, remember that the Knights are 35-4 over the last three seasons. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel was impressive as a freshman with 29 touchdown passes and should be even better as a sophomore in 2020. Last year’s leading rusher Otis Anderson is also back, which should mean a dynamic UCF offense like the one that averaged over 43 points per game last season.

The Knights are also in good shape defensively, which should help make them contenders in the AAC with a home game against Cincinnati late in the year likely deciding the winner of the East Division.

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