2022 G5 Preview: UTSA's Title Defense Begins
The 2021 season was magical for the Roadrunners. Now, it's time to prove its worthiness of the crown.
This is part of the C-USA Preview, the second conference in the Outside Zone’s Group of Five season preview package. Check out the preview landing page for all previous stories. All previews and the entire Outside Zone archive are available for only $5 a month or $50 a year.
As I’ve noted before, I like to mention specific team beat writers whose writing was especially helpful for the sake of writing these previews. This time, I’d like to mention Jared Kalmus of Alamodome Audible, The Runners Rising Project and Underdog Dynasty.
It’s easy to fall short when just about everyone has you tabbed as a breakthrough candidate. Look no further than Iowa State and North Carolina in 2021. Both teams had, largely, respectable seasons relative to program history. They both went to bowl games. Both knocked off top teams – North Carolina beat Wake Forest in a shootout to knock it from the ranks of the unbeaten, Iowa State kept Oklahoma State out of the CFP. Both fielded top 20 units on one side of the ball.
These aren’t title contenders historically, and when compared to their pasts, these seasons ranged anywhere from “fine” in UNC’s case to “pretty good” for the Cyclones. Top 10 victories, top 20 offenses and an NFL draftee at quarterback (likely in the first few rounds) don’t come around every year in Chapel Hill, nor do bowl seasons in Ames, which had seen only 12 bowl games before Matt Campbell’s arrival and just saw its fifth under his direction.
Yet both seasons felt, correctly, like major disappointments. North Carolina had been touted as the next team up in the ACC for two seasons now because of elite recruiting classes, but as Clemson faltered, it showed no signs of improvement. That offense, despite its ability, left something to be desired as QB Sam Howell failed to reach Heisman expectations. The defense sucked hugely.
Iowa State was pushed too as a potential CFP team, and a down season for Oklahoma should have only helped that. The Cyclone roster was packed out with one of the best classes in school history – a large portion of which decided to return specifically for title contention this season. Instead, the Cyclones watched Dave Aranda do their thing but better all the way to a Big 12 title, and then watched a pair of teams also doing their thing but better qualify for the playoff in Cincinnati and Michigan.
Garnering expectations in this sport as a non-traditional power is a lot like having the Sword of Damocles dangled over your dome piece. You’re going to know real quick if you’re ready for primetime when the lights come on. The Tarheels and Cyclones weren’t. Most teams picked as the “surprise contender of the season” aren’t.
There are several reasons for this, from the weight of those expectations themselves to the small-sample nature of the sport, but it really comes back to two things.
Firstly, we (the general we in college football) aren’t any good at picking winners. Those gambling books are in business for a reason. It’s a hard sport to predict. There are 22 people moving independently, many of them in competition with each other, on every single play of every single game. Almost all of those people are somewhere between 18-23 years old, with the majority skewing right around 21.
It’s especially hard when picking teams to break through because there was a reason they hadn’t done that before. It’s not bold to say that Alabama is going to be good. You can pick an Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State playoff every year and clean up, but most people don’t really want to do that. There’s a reason the surprise pick is a surprise, and in a lot of cases, that reason proves immutable as the season develops.
Secondly, this is not a sport that moves quickly. In moments, like the summer of 2021, it feels like it does. But on a program development scale? On the determination of who is and isn’t going to contend yearly? That takes years. Breakthroughs, like the kind predicted of Mack Brown and Campbell’s groups, just don’t happen like that.
Clemson spent years on the precipice, so much so that it developed a nickname for it, before doing it. LSU recruited at a top 10 level forever and proved to be only a quarterback and some coordinators from taking advantage of that. Blue bloods aren’t born overnight. Even for the new faces in the CFP in 2021, and for the new champion in Georgia, the rise to power was preceded by several years of very very good football.
Michigan was one game (the same game, even) away from the playoff in 2018, 2016 and one game plus a blocked punt away from it in 2015. The Wolverines won that game, and poof! Playoff. Cincinnati should have made the damn thing in 2020 and was fantastic in 2019 and 2018 too. The Bearcats are 44-7 since 2018. They were no surprise.
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have essentially the same story as Michigan, finishing a win over Alabama short of the playoff in 2020 and 2018, a win over LSU short in 2019 and a play against Alabama short of the national title in 2017 – and that’s to say nothing of the Mark Richt era. You don’t just become the king without some serious prep or a generational coach to protect you from that sword.
That’s the question for the 2022 UTSA Roadrunners. You’ve made it. You bucked the trend and broke through with a fantastic season just as many had speculated (read: hoped) you could, winning the C-USA and making a serious run at an unbeaten season in the process. It was a year that will never be forgotten among a fanbase that absolutely deserved that kind of year and the reward for an extremely strong job of coaching done by Jeff Traylor.