The Upper Crust of the Group of Five

Do “blue bloods” exist in the Group of Five?  I contemplated this after reading an article on Yahoo Sports

Of course, the Yahoo article was talking about the kingpins of college football such as Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and (begrudgingly) Clemson.   The article discussed the recent relevancy of programs, the prestige (history), mystique, fan support, and money associated with these true “blue bloods” and asked the question if traditional powers such as Michigan, USC, and Texas still held “blue blood” status. 

The article begged the question, is there an equivalent “blue blood” status for the Group of Five?  In other words, are there G5 programs that have an air about them, that others want to emulate?  

To answer this question, we at G5 Gurus dug into our archives and looked at a number of candidates to search for the answer.  Since we are talking the Group of Five, the term “Blue Blood” just doesn’t fit.  Instead, we chose the term “Upper Crust”.   We evaluated each candidate program on six criteria to determine who would make the cut:

  • Recent (last 10 years) success
  • Historic success (last 35 years)
  • Post Season success
  • Notoriety (national attention)
  • Facilities
  • Fan Support (attendance)

We considered 19 teams based on a mix of tradition and recent success.  The 19 teams considered for the Upper Crust were:

  • Air Force
  • Appalachian State
  • Army
  • Boise State
  • BYU
  • Central Florida
  • Cincinnati
  • Fresno State
  • Georgia Southern
  • Houston
  • Liberty
  • Louisiana Tech
  • Marshall
  • Memphis
  • Navy
  • Northern Illinois
  • San Diego State
  • Toledo
  • Western Michigan

Teams selected were required to have a minimum of 35 years playing football at the division 1 (FCS, FBS) level.  We included all service academies due to their long history in football and national exposure. We also included G5 teams that have earned bids to a New Year’s 6 (NY6) Bowl since these bids began in 2014.    Finally, we included teams have demonstrated strong winning traditions over the years, trying to pick at least two representatives from each G5 conference. 

Without further ado, we present the . . .

Group of Five Upper Crust

(1) Boise State.  This selection shouldn’t surprise anyone.  The Broncos are the epitome of an Upper Crust program.  They led the G5 in winning percentage over the past 10, 20, and 35 years.   They have major wins, including 3 Fiesta Bowl titles.  Their home field is instantly recognizable, and they have filled it to 90% of capacity over the past five years (2020 excluded).  The Broncos boast 7 AP top 25 finishes in the last 10 years.  To top it off, they haven’t had a losing record since 1997.  In our scoring, the Broncos were darn near perfect.

(2) UCF.  UCF’s consistency does not match Boise, but their penchant for big game success does.  Knocking off Auburn and narrowly losing to LSU in back-to-back major bowls.  Their 5 top 25 finishes in the last 10 years are second only to Boise State.  The Bounce House is a great place to watch a game and the fans show up to the tune of nearly 80% capacity over the past five years.  The recent big splash hire of Gus Malzahn doesn’t hurt either.

(3) BYU.  Some BYU fans might argue they are not really part of the Group of Five.  Honestly, they are a bit of a hybrid.  Each year they play 4-6 games against Power 5 opponents and 5-7 games against the G5.  BYU traditions run deep with a national championship in 1984.  Yet, for all their success and tradition, they have not played in a NY6 bowl since 1996 despite 7 seasons with 10 wins or more.  In our numeric rankings, BYU finished 5th for Upper Crust, but we simply can’t ignore the tougher schedule and the tradition the Cougars bring to the party. 

(4) Appalachian State.  This selection may surprise some people but hear us out.  The Mountaineers are a solid #2 in winning percentage over the past 10, 20, and 35 years.  They have only experienced two losing seasons in the past 35 years.  The have been bowl eligible six seasons and have six bowl wins to show for it.  Kidd Brewer Stadium routinely makes the list as one of the top stadiums in college football and App fans have filled it to almost 80% of capacity across the last five years.   The Mountaineers don’t have the national recognition of Boise and UCF, but they are quickly becoming known for more than their upset of Michigan in 2007. 

(5) Cincinnati.  The Bearcats don’t have a long history of success as evidenced by their 53% winning percentage over the past 35 years.  However, they have become a fixture in the national discussion under Luke Fickell.  The Bearcats also have the distinction of being the having played the most season of any team in the G5 (in fact only four colleges have played more years).  The Bearcats have 3 consecutive AP Top 25 finishes including #8 in 2020.  Nippert Stadium is highly regarded, and like UCF and App State, their fans have filled it to 80% capacity over the past five years.

As of this writing it looks as though three of the Upper Crust will be moving to the Big 12 (UCF, BYU, and Cincinnati).  While this will leave a void, we see several other programs ready to step forward in the G5.  

The Next Tier

(6) Navy.  Of the programs we considered for the G5 Upper Crust, the service academies are the most well-known and have some of the deepest traditions in all of college football.  From 1953-1963 the Middies were in four NY6 bowls and had four Top 5 finishes in the AP Poll.  The only thing holding them back from the upper crust is their recent relevancy.  Navy has won 58% of their games over the past 10 years.  That percentage drops to 48% for the past 35 years.  In the past 35 years Navy has been to 15 bowls, posting an 8-7 record.  The Midshipmen have the highest percentage of stadium capacity filled (nearly 96%) in the G5. 

(7) Marshall.  The Thundering Herd has an extremely loyal fan base and one of the most amazing stories in all of college football.  The tragic plane crash in 1970 and rebirth of the program was immortalized in the movie “We are Marshall”.  However, this shouldn’t overshadow the success the program has enjoyed.   The Herd ran off 17 consecutive winning seasons beginning in 1987 with 2 I-AA National Championships and 4 runner-up finishes.  They transitioned to FBS in 1996 and went to seven consecutive bowl games (winning six straight after losing the first).  Their 66.5% winning percentage over the last 35 years is fourth best in the G5.    Joan C. Edwards stadium ranks at or near the top of CUSA and The Herd routinely leads CUSA in attendance.

(8) Georgia Southern.  From 1985 to 1990, no program in college football was more successful than the Eagles.  They won 4 of 6 I-AA championships, posting a record of 74-14.  Their 69.5% winning percentage over the past 35 years trails only Boise and App State in the G5.   What holds the Eagles back from the Upper Crust has been recent relevancy and fan support.  While being good, the Eagles have not had a breakthrough year.  They have had only one 10-win season since joining the FBS, with 5 or more losses in 4 of their past 6 seasons.  Also. the Eagles have never been ranked in the AP Top 25. Paulson Stadium generally ranks well among the Sunbelt conference, but attendance has lagged in recent years, being filled to only 53% capacity from 2015-2019. 

(9) Houston.  Houston is a team that most would expect to see higher on this list.  Houston is well known in basketball and has enjoyed some breakthrough seasons under Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman.  They are in a major metro area and have strong fan support (filling TDECU to almost 82% on average the last 5 years).  Consistent performance is what holds the Cougars back.  Houston played in a bowl game 14 of the last 18 years.  However, in that same time, they have won 9 or more games only five times.  Their average record is 8-5 over those 18 years.  The 17 years prior, they only had 5 winning seasons.  In our analysis of the past 35 years, the Cougars were one of four teams in our candidate group to have an overall losing record (49.9%).  Houston will be moving to the Big 12 in the next few years, so obviously it has a lot going for it.  But they will need to step up their game to be a factor in the Big 12. 

(10) Toledo.  The Rockets have enjoyed a great run over the past 12 years.  The Rockets last losing season was 2009.  Their past 10-year winning percentage of 67% is tied for third on our list.  Over the 35-year span, the Rockets have won 62% of their games, ranking sixth on our list.  The Rockets play in the iconic Glass Bowl, originally built in 1937 and renovated numerous times over the past two decades.  They have the support of their fans, filling the Glass Bowl to 78% capacity over the past five years.   The Rockets have been to 8 bowl games since 2010, winning 3.  The lack of post season success, coupled with the lack of signature wins (have not finished in the top 25 since 2001) are the only things holding the Rockets back.

(11) Army.  The Black Knights began playing football in 1890.  They were a fixture at the top of the national rankings in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Yet, they did not play their first bowl game until 1984.  In fact, in 131 seasons, the Black Knights have only been to 9 bowl games.  Decisions by the US Government and the Army coaching staff prevented the cadets from participating bowl games for decades.  Despite this, Army has a very rich tradition and enjoys significant national recognition.  They play in beautiful Michie stadium and fill it to nearly 85% capacity over the past 5 years.  The lack of success over the past few decades is what holds them back on our list.  The Black Knights fortunes began to turn in 2016 as they have enjoyed 4 winning seasons in 5 years, resulting in a 3-1 bowl record.  Prior to 2016, the Black Knights had only 1 winning season in the previous 19.  That season was one of only two over the 19 years where the Knights won 5 games. 

(12) Air Force.  Compared to Army and Navy, the Falcons are “newbies”, starting their program in 1955.   However, the Falcons quickly established themselves and went to the 1958 Cotton bowl where they tied TCU.  Among the service academies, Air Force trailed Navy in 10 and 20 year winning percentage, but led in 35 years at 59.7%.   They have won 10 of their 21 bowl games, going 3-1 in their last four.  They don’t have quite the national attention of Navy and Army, but they are well known.  Their games against the other service academies are heavily watched.  Falcon stadium is a great venue, but it has only been filled to 57% capacity over the past 5 years.  The Falcons can definitely move up the list with more seasons like 2019 where they capped off an 11 win season with a bowl win over Washington State. 

The Final Tier

While this is the final tier in our Upper Crust Rankings, please realize, these programs are still among the top 1/3 of the Group of Five.  Each has unique qualifications for consideration in the Upper Crust but has more work to do to gain entry. 

(13) Louisiana Tech.  While they lack in national recognition, the Bulldogs have been playing football since 1901 with mixed success.  During a 12 year run in the WAC the Bulldogs went to 3 bowl games, going 1-2.  The Bulldogs joined CUSA in 2013 and missed going to a bowl.  They haven’t missed since, going to seven straight bowls, winning six in a row before losing in 2020.  This streak raised their overall bowl record to 8-3-1.  To move to the upper crust the Bulldogs need some bigger seasons.  They have reached 10 or wins only 6 times in their 120-year history and only once since 1984.  They have appeared in the top 25 twice, but never finished a season ranked.  A frequent foe of the SEC, the Bulldogs are 5-40 in their last 45 games against the SEC.  Joe Aillet Stadium ranks mid-pack in CUSA and Bulldog fans have filled it to nearly 77% capacity over the past 5 years.  A couple of strong seasons and a couple of high-profile wins would greatly bolster the Bulldog’s case for the next level. 

(14) San Diego State.  The Aztecs moved to Division I football in 1969 and promptly went 11-0 under the coaching legend Don Coryell.  The program fell into a state of mediocrity, going 127-162-4 before a breakthrough season with Brady Hoke in 2010.  Since then, the Aztecs had not had a losing season, winning over 67% of their games and claiming victories over five different Pac-12 foes.  The program gained national recognition with players such as Marshall Faulk and Rashaad Penny being drafted in the NFL first round.   In fact, the Aztecs had had players taken in 17 of the last 20 drafts.  Aside from the mixed record on the field, the Aztecs played for years in the aging San Diego Stadium, five miles off campus, with almost all home games at night.  Attendance numbers were decent, but only filled the stadium to 62% of capacity in the last 5 years.  A new state-of-the art facility is planned to open for the 2022 season.   Continued winning and new digs will do wonders for the Aztecs’ status. 

(15) Liberty.  Liberty is another name that will surprise people to be on this list.  The Flames will enter only their fourth season in FBS in 2021.  Prior to that, the Flames had a long run as a I-AA (FCS) program.  They have not had a losing season since 2006, winning almost 65% of their games.  They gained notoriety with coaching hires including Sam Rutigliano, Turner Gill, and Hugh Freeze.   In 2020 they knocked off Virginia Tech and Syracuse in the ACC and defeated previously unbeaten Coastal Carolina to finish #17 in the AP poll.  Arthur Williams Stadium has been continually renovated and fans fill it to 68% capacity.  Liberty needs a few more years of demonstrated success and a bit more fan support to continue its rapid rise in the G5. 

(16) Fresno State.  In the past 10 years, it has been a study in extremes for the Fresno State program.  Three seasons with 10 or more wins and five seasons with 8 or more losses.  As a result, they were near the bottom of our candidates in terms of 10-year winning percentage at 51%.  However, the Bulldogs have a solid record of success over the years, posting a 60.5% winning percentage over 35 years, which ranks 7th among our candidate programs.   The Bulldogs bowl record is decidedly mixed at 10-12 the last 35 years.   Bulldog Stadium seats 41K but was ranked only 112 out of 125 ranked stadiums in Stadium Journey’s 2020 ratings.  Fans fill the stadium to 74% capacity over the past 5 years.  For Fresno State, getting back on a consistent winning track and getting a few more P5 wins will go a long way towards their journey to the upper crust.

(17) Memphis.  Funny, when I ask people about the “top” G5 programs, Memphis almost always comes up somewhere in the conversation.  Perhaps it is the recent relevancy playing out as the Tigers have finished in the Top 25 three times in the last 7 years or that they play in the 62K capacity Liberty Bowl or have recently played in a NY6 bowl.  However, when you dig into the Tiger’s history, it mixed at best.  In the last 35 years the Tigers have 15 winning seasons and 20 losing ones.  Their 35 year winning percentage was second lowest in our group of candidates.   The Liberty Bowl is aging, but still has its charm.  The Tiger faithful fill it to 62% of capacity, which numbers-wise, equates to the second highest attendance in the G5.  The Tigers have the street cred, they simply need some more of the winning culture to back it up. 

(18) Northern Illinois.  Talk about dominance.  Beginning in 2010, for five years the Huskies won at least 11 games.  Their 12-1 season in 2012 earning them a #22 final AP ranking.  Since that run, the Huskies are a more pedestrian 34-37, including an 0-6 campaign in 2020.  Their 35-year winning percentage is only 51%, but the program really seemed to begin to show signs of life in the early 2000’s with a 10 win season in 2003.  Unfortunately, their fans seem to have forgotten the dominance from a few years prior as the Huskies have averaged only 12K fans per game, representing a dismal 51% of capacity, the lowest in our comparison group.   For the Huskies to be part of the upper crust, they need to relearn their winning ways and their fans need to show them some love. 

(19) Western Michigan.  Western Michigan caught lightning in a bottle with P.J. Fleck in 2016 going 13-0, winning the MAC, beating Northwestern and Illinois, before falling to Wisconsin in a one score game in the Cotton Bowl.   Unfortunately for Broncos fans, there just haven’t been enough of those types of years.   Their record has been essentially mediocre, with the magical 2016 season being the only one in 115 seasons with double digit wins.  The program is solid, producing more winning seasons than not, but just not special.  Their 35-year winning percentage is 52.9%, which isn’t awful, but they are tied with Louisiana Tech with only one double digit win season in that time span.  Waldo Stadium is a good place to watch a game, but the Bronco fans are only filling it to 62% of capacity over the past 5 years.  To move up in our ratings, the Broncos need some more dynamic seasons (10 wins or more) and stronger fan support. 

The scoring and rankings for the 19 candidate teams are provided in the table below.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting article. Look forward to seeing how the Upper Crust evolves as conference realignment continues to change the landscape.

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