Non-Power 5 picks: Irish will be haunted by how they miss playoff

AMERICAN

The American race should be highly competitive, with at least five teams – Cincinnati, Temple, UCF, Memphis and Houston – capable of winning the league. I’m particularly bullish on the Owls, which return every single starter from the nation’s 11th-ranked defense last year. But Justin Fuente has assembled a talented roster at Memphis led by QB Paxton Lynch. The Tigers pull an upset in the first-ever league title game. — SM

Predicted standings:

Championship: Memphis over Temple

CONFERENCE USA

Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty is one of the best-kept secrets in college football and deserves way more pub. The 6-3, 220-pounder threw 49 TDs and just 10 INTs last season and closed the year on a 24-2 stretch in WKU’s five-game win streak. Look for the Hilltoppers to keep on rolling behind Doughty and stud RB Leon Allen. Big Michael Birdsong (Marshall) is one of two intriguing transfer QBs who figures to make a big impact in C-USA this year, with ex-Gator Jeff Driskel (La. Tech) the other. Driskel takes over a team that has some talent on D and will be the team to beat in the West. — BF

Predicted standings:

Championship: Western Kentucky over Louisiana Tech

INDEPENDENTS

I’m extremely bullish on Notre Dame, which boasts top-flight NFL talent like tackle Ronnie Stanley and linebacker Jaylon Smith. Malik Zaire should breathe life into the offense. Ultimately, dropping one of several trap games – like the second of consecutive trips to Pennsylvania (Temple and Pitt) – will cause the Irish to miss the playoff. BYU suffered a huge blow with the loss of RB Jamaal Williams, and a grueling first month (at Nebraska, Boise State, at UCLA and at Michigan) will dampen momentum for Taysom Hill and company. — SM

MAC

Northern Illinois has been the class of the MAC for a half-decade and QB Drew Hare will lead the Huskies to a sixth straight division title. Toledo is a tempting choice as well what with stud RB Kareem Hunt, but a rebuilding offensive line could hold the Rockets back. Both Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck and Ball State’s Pete Lembo lead rising programs as well. But watch for second-year Bowling Green coach Dino Babers to emerge as the MAC’s breakout star this year. With 10 starters back on offense, Baber’s Baylor-clone system could be hard to stop. Finally, this is the year Akron’s Terry Bowden ends the program’s nine-year bowl drought.  — SM

Predicted standings:

Championship: Bowling Green over NIU

MWC

Bryan Harsin returns the most talented team in the league, but the Broncos are missing two key pieces from last year’s 12-win team — star RB Jay Ajayi and QB Grant Hedrick. BSU is loaded on D, returning tackling machine Tanner Vallejo at linebacker and some terrific DBs. That should be good enough to squeeze past a good Utah State team powered by a more bulked-up Chuckie Keeton at QB and two stellar LBs in Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell. As much as I like CSU star WR Rashard "Hollywood" Higgins, I think the Rams will miss Garrett Grayson a lot, and they’ll end up behind a solid Air Force team, which quietly won 10 last year (beating CSU and Boise State). The Mountain division is the much stronger side, although the West has the two best backs in Donnel Pumphrey (San Diego State) and Marteze Waller (Fresno State), and the most intriguing newcomer in the league: Hawaii’s Max Wittek, the strong-armed former USC QB. — BF

Predicted standings: 

Championship: Boise State over San Diego State

SUN BELT

Willie Fritz’ souped-up triple option spread hybrid system at Georgia Southern gives rival coaches headaches. Sparked by QB Kevin Ellison and RB Matt Breida, the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, the Eagles again will have defenses reeling, but Ga. Southern will be pushed by two other solid squads in ULL and Appalachian State. Ragin’ Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth keeps cranking out good teams, and he has a stud in RB Elijah McGuire, the Sun Belt’s preseason offensive player of the year after amassing 1,848 total yards last season. The bottom half of the Sun Belt, on the other hand, is dismal. — BF

Championship: Georgia Southern

EAST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Temple 10-2 (7-1) 
Cincinnati 9-3 (6-2)
UCF 8-4 (6-2)
East Carolina 5-7 (4-4)
UConn 4-8 (2-6)
USF 2-10 (1-7)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Memphis 8-4 (6-2)
Houston 8-4 (5-3)
Navy 8-4 (5-3)
SMU 4-8 (2-6)
Tulane 4-8 (2-6)
Tulsa 4-8 (2-6)

PREDICTED STANDINGS

TEAM RECORD
Notre Dame 10-2
BYU 7-5
Army 3-9

EAST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Bowling Green 8-4 (7-1)
Akron 7-5 (5-3)
Ohio 6-6 (4-4)
UMass 5-7 (4-4)
Buffalo 5-7 (3-5)
Kent State 3-9 (2-6)
Miami 2-10 (1-7)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Northern Illinois 10-2 (7-1)
Toledo 9-3 (6-2)
Western Michigan 7-5 (5-3)
Ball State 7-5 (5-3)
Central Michigan 3-9 (2-6)
Eastern Michigan 2-10 (1-7)

EAST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Western Kentucky 9-3 (7-1)
Marshall 10-2 (7-1)
Middle Tennessee 6-6 (5-3)
Florida Atlantic 5-7 (4-4)
FIU 4-8 (3-5)
Old Dominion 3-9 (1-7)
Charlotte 2-10 (1-7)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Louisiana Tech 8-4 (7-1)
Rice 7-5 (5-3)
UTEP 6-6 (4-4)
Southern Miss 4-8 (3-5)
North Texas 3-9 (2-6)
UTSA 2-10 (2-6)

MOUNTAIN

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Boise State 10-2 (7-1) 
Utah State 9-3 (6-2) 
Air Force 8-4 (6-2)
Colorado State 7-5 (5-3)
Wyoming 5-7 (2-6)
New Mexico 4-8 (1-7)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
San Diego State 8-4 (6-2)
Fresno State 7-5 (6-2)
Nevada 7-5 (5-3)
Hawaii 5-8 (3-5)
San Jose State 2-10 (1-7)
UNLV 1-11 (0-8)

PREDICTED STANDINGS

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)  
Georgia Southern 9-3 (8-0)  
UL-Lafayette 9-3 (7-1)  
Appalachian State 8-4 (6-2)  
Arkansas State 6-6 (5-3)  
Texas State 6-6 (5-3)  
Troy 5-7 (4-4)  
South Alabama 4-8 (3-5)  
ULM 4-8 (3-5)  
New Mexico State 1-11 (1-7)  
Georgia State 2-10 (1-7)  
Idaho 1-11 (0-8)  

POWER 5 CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

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