NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Memphis at Iowa State

All week we have been rolling through the four power conferences with picks to win, value wagers, long shots and bets to avoid when it comes to conference title futures. And while the conference title odds are not available yet for the Group of Five conferences at many of the most popular sports books, what we do have is the opportunity to identify some preseason picks from across the AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. 

One popular theme you'll notice throughout these picks has to do with the transfer portal's impact on Group of Five teams. The narrative that these schools get picked over by power conference schools has been proven to be somewhat misguided, as some of the G5 schools with the most portal exits this offseason have also been the programs going through a coaching change. Portal exits in a coaching transition is something that not even Alabama was able to prevent, so perhaps the idea that every team outside the power conference is on the verge of losing all its best players is a little overblown. 

But there is some truth to the notion that the portal, or more specifically the current transfer rules that allow players to transfer as many times as they want without penalty, has hurt the ability of coaches at the G5 level to retain talent that they have developed. The instant impact effect of these new rules have allowed many college football programs to answer depth chart needs immediately, but it's also created situations where coaches suddenly lose pieces that were a pivotal part of the plan for the upcoming season with little to no warning. Monitoring this movement is crucial for setting expectations for 2024, and it's been applied to our picks below. 

Memphis: Over 9.5 wins (+128) 

One example of a program that's ducked the narrative of losing players to the portal is Memphis, which ranks No. 22 nationally in Bill Connelly's returning production rankings following a 2023 campaign that saw the Tigers finish with 10 wins thanks to a Liberty Bowl victory against Iowa State. The nonconference schedule can not be chalked up to four easy wins in 2024 as the slate includes a trip to Florida State in a matchup that pits Mike Norvell against his former program and Memphis coach Ryan Silverfield against his former boss. 

Silverfield has established a level of consistency since taking over for Norvell that gives Memphis a high floor, but the high ceiling for the fall is set by the program's ability to keep starting quarterback Seth Henigan from the transfer portal. The 6-3 senior has started 37 games for the Tigers over the last three seasons and in 2023 ranked in the top five nationally in passing yards (3,883) and passing touchdowns (32). 

When power conference programs were scouting quarterbacks that could help their team Henigan was an easy prospect to identify, but his commitment to Memphis speaks volumes about the current staff and what the team can accomplish in 2024. 

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Liberty at Oregon
Liberty QB Kaidon Salter withdrew from the transfer portal and returns to the Flames. USATSI

Liberty: Over 10.5 wins (+100) 

I am already on record with a bold prediction that Liberty will not only win Conference USA but also earn a bid to the College Football Playoff and proceed to pull off the first Cinderella-style first-round upset of the 12-team era. So if I'm going to go out on all of those limbs you can bet I'm feeling good about Jamey Chadwell's group being able to finish with an 11-1 record or better. 

Liberty, like Memphis, was able to retain its star quarterback after Kaidon Salter hit the transfer portal following the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oregon only to withdraw and announce his return to the program a few days later. Salter was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country last season with 32 passing touchdowns to go with 12 rushing touchdowns and over 1,000 rushing yards as the Flames mowed down most of the Conference USA competition on the way to a 13-0 regular-season record, a conference title and Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Liberty will once again be playing one of the more favorable schedules in the country and with New Mexico State, its toughest CUSA competition last season and undergoing a coaching change ,the Flames appear to be on a top tier by themselves in the league.  

Ohio: Under 6.5 wins (-105) 

Here we find what may be the prime example of how the portal can cut the legs out from under a Group of Five team. Tim Albin has led Ohio to back-to-back 10-win seasons with a 13-3 record in MAC play across the last two seasons and two bowl wins. The Bobcats have long been one of the strongest and healthiest programs in the MAC for a long time, but the depth chart has been decimated this offseason. 

The loss of star quarterback Kurtis Rourke to Indiana will draw the most attention, but he was one of seven notable players to leave Ohio for a power conference team in the winter window. Then, after the Bobcats had completed spring practice, there was another wave of players to leave for power conference teams that included as many as five projected starters. 

So, essentially this is a team that has lost more than a dozen players of power conference quality, and with those spring window exits there's not a ton of options for finding replacements. Ohio's overall program strength could still get the Bobcats to a bowl game, but I'm not ready to bet on much more than that. 

New Mexico: Over 1.5 wins (-185) 

Let's ignore the price for a second and just focus on the principle. New Mexico football is indeed in a rough spot, failing to win more than three games in a single season since 2016. The Lobos are 5-32 in Mountain West play in that time, and many of the early power ratings have them slotted among the bottom 5-10 teams in all of FBS. 

But the principle is that Bronco Mendenhall is a plus-value coach who can exceed a model's expectations to the point where we think New Mexico can win more than one game in 2024. It won't be easy, as the nonconference slate includes three power conference programs (at Arizona, at Auburn, Washington State at home) and a top 10 FCS team from 2023 in Montana State. But Mendenhall has a .625 career winning percentage and his worst season (2016 at Virginia) still included two wins. 

The Lobos have a handful of power conference transfers joining the program and only lost a couple transfers to power conference schools, so if Bronco can coach 'em up for the Week Zero opener against Montana State and get at least one more (rivalry game against New Mexico State possibly being the best chance) then this future cashes. 

Finally, a note on the price: shop this around because it will fluctuate and the market has lower numbers (-140) available that aren't as juicy. Again, we're going for principle here and it's up to you to find the best price.