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With the college football season’s kickoff less than a month away, it’s time to take a look at not only the teams that may contend for the national title, but for conference titles, as well. Which teams will win their respective conference crowns and have bragging rights for the 2018 campaign? We’ll be breaking down each conference and the contenders over the next few days so watch out for your favorite team or conference to see what kind of success we’re projecting. Today, we take an in-depth look at Conference USA.
2017 Conference USA Season in Review
No team from the conference ended up ranked in the Top-25 during the season. While nine of the 14 teams from the conference reached a bowl game, there was a wide variance in performance from team to team. The conference went 4-5 in bowls as Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Marshall each picked up victories. The bottom three teams that failed to reach a bowl were abysmal, as Charlotte, Rice and UTEP finished a combined 2-34 overall and 2-22 in conference play. In the Conference USA title game, it was Florida Atlantic winning as they rolled past North Texas by a 41-17 score.
2018 Conference USA Season Preview
Which team might come up with the upper hand in Conference USA to win the conference title this season? Can anyone upend Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic after their impressive season in 2017? Could North Texas, Florida International, Southern Miss or UAB take a step forward? Let’s take a look at every team in the conference, based on their finish in their respective divisions from last season:
Florida Atlantic Owls (11-3 overall, 8-0 conference): Florida Atlantic had their best season in school history since joining the FBS in 2004 and their first winning season since 2008. The season was capped with a 50-3 whipping of Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. The Owls were a force offensively in Kiffin’s first year with the school, finishing 8th in the FBS by averaging 40.6 points per game on the year. He had some changes in his coaching staff this season as Charlie Weis Jr. takes over as offensive coordinator while Tony Pecoraro is the new defensive coordinator. Florida Atlantic has to find a new QB as Jason Driskel moved on, and it looks like Florida State transfer De’Andre Johnson will get the first crack. There is talent at the skill positions, led by RB Devin Singletary (301 carries, 1918 yards, 32 TD) along with WRs Willie Wright (56 catches, 657 yards, six TD), DeAndre McNeal (23 catches, 317 yards, two TD) and TE Harrison Bryant (32 grabs, 408 yards, five TD). The Owls return 10 starters on defense from a season ago, when they were 35th in the FBS in scoring defense. If FAU can solve the QB issue, they’ll be good to go.
Florida International Golden Panthers (8-5, 5-3): Butch Davis put together a winning record for FIU in 2017 even though the team was outscored on the season by 37 points. The team even went to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Florida International brings back seven starters on offense but has to replace QB Alex McGough: Bowling Green transfer James Morgan (96 of 212, 1260 yards, nine TD, seven INT) is in a battle with Christian Alexander. There are some excellent pieces around as Napoleon Maxwell (81 carries, 477 yards, five TD) should be the lead back. Tony Gaiter IV (34 catches, 314 yards, TD) and Austin Maloney (21 receptions, 304 yards) provide a couple of veteran receiving options. The defense has some holes to patch up as well: the team may contend for a bowl but is expected to have a tough time to match 2017’s performance. Fermin Silva (50 tackles, 14.5 TFL, six sacks) and Sage Lewis (55 tackles, five TFL) are a pair of solid linebackers that will be the anchor of the defensive front seven.
Marshall Thundering Herd (8-5, 4-4): Marshall had their issues last season, but they are bringing back 18 starters from last season’s team. The Thundering Herd did pick up a win in the New Mexico Bowl as they downed Colorado State 31-28. Replacing QB Chase Litton (266 of 443, 3115 yards, 25 TD, 14 INT) and TE Ryan Yurachek (54 receptions, 490 yards, 10 TD) will be the big tasks for Doc Holliday and new offensive coordinator, Tim Cramsey. The duo of Tyler King (820 yards, seven TD) and Keion Davis (812 yards, six TD) provides a solid 1-2 punch in the ground game while Tyre Brady (62 receptions, 942 yards, eight TD), Marcel Williams (41 catches, 512 yards, two TD) and Willie Johnson (36 grabs, 443 yards, four TD) provides a trio of reliable targets. The offensive line returns four starters as well, providing plenty of protection for whoever starts. Marshall brings back nine starters on defense from a unit that was 18th in the FBS in scoring defense by allowing 19.9 points per game. If the QB play holds up, the matchup at home against FAU on October 20 could go a long way to determining the East Division champion.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (7-6, 4-4): Middle Tennessee failed to reach their eight-win mark from 2016 as they were hurt by the injury that cost starting QB Brent Stockstill (138 of 239, 1672 yards, 16 TD, eight INT) six games last season. The Blue Raiders roll back 17 starters from a season ago: the loss of receivers Richie James (31 receptions, 290 yards, four TD) and Shane Tucker (25 grabs, 381 yards, two TD) will hurt. There is a three-headed unit for the Blue Raiders at running back with Tavares Thomas (507 yards, nine TD), Brad Anderson (491 yards) and Terell West (308 yards, four TD) all capable of sharing the load. Ty Lee (79 grabs, 955 yards, five TD) was the team’s leading receiver last season and is back again. The defense finished 46th in the FBS by allowing 24.7 points per game in defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s first year running the show. With a tough back seven led by safety Jovante Moffatt (team-high 101 tackles, 4.5 TFL, INT) and linebacker Khalil Brooks (73 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks), the chances for improvement in 2018 are good.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-7, 4-4): Western Kentucky stumbled in their first season under coach Jeff Sanford as they fell under .500 with a bowl loss to Georgia State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl. The Hilltoppers had their struggles on offense as they dropped to 89th in the FBS in scoring offense with 25.5 points per game. Western Kentucky has some serious holes on offense as QB Mike White along with WRs Cameron Echols-Luper, and Nacarius Fant are gone. That means senior Drew Eckles, who threw just ten passes last season, is expected to get the starting job. The offensive line was awful last year, giving up 48 sacks and not creating space in the run game as the team averaged just 60.8 yards per game. On the plus side, the defense brings back seven starters from a season ago and adds Eli Brown, a transfer from Kentucky, to the mix. One thing the Hilltoppers have to improve defensively is their ability to get after the opposing QB. The secondary, led by Devon Key (91 tackles, 4.5 TFL, INT) and Drell Greene (74 tackles, 3.5 TFL, two INT) at the safety spots, should be one of the best in the conference.
Old Dominion Monarchs (5-7, 3-5): Old Dominion narrowly missed reaching a bowl game in back-to-back years for the first time in school history: they finished the year strong with three wins in four games after a 2-6 start. The Monarchs look to improve on offense after finishing 115th in the FBS in scoring offense with 20.7 points per game last year. Steven Williams (147 of 263, 1528 yards, six TD, 11 INT, 293 rushing yards, two scores) is back under center looking to improve on his freshman year. Jeremy Cox (147 yards, 621 yards, four TD) is the lead back in the ground game while the line returns all five starters. If Jonathan Duhart (seven catches, 121 yards, two TD) can come back and contribute to a group including Isaiah Harper (39 catches, 462 yards) and Travis Fulgham (30 receptions, 394 yards, TD), the team should improve offensively. On defense, the front seven is good, led by DE Oshane Ximines (44 tackles, 14 TFL, 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles) and DT Miles Fox (57 tackles, nine TFL, 5.5 sacks) but the secondary is a point of concern.
Charlotte 49ers (1-11, 1-7): The 2017 season was a lost one for Charlotte as they continue to sputter under coach Brad Lambert, who is 17-41 in five years at the school. On the year, the 49ers were just 128th in the nation in scoring offense (14.2 points per game) and only 103rd in scoring defense as they allowed 32.8 points per contest. Hassan Klugh (133 of 279, 1524 yards, 10 TD, 13 INT, 532 rushing yards, nine TD) saw most of the reps under center, but he’ll be in a battle for the starting job. The run game brings back Ben LeMay (732 yards, two TD), who led the team in rushing last season. Mark Quattlebaum (team-high 31 catches, 343 yards, TD) and Workpeh Kofa (25 receptions, 338 yards, TD) are back to try and lead the passing game. The good news for Charlotte: They bring back almost their entire starting defense from last season. The bad news? Those guys weren't very good last season. LB Jeff Gemmell (106 tackles, 7.5 TFL, sack) and safety Ben DeLuca (102 tackles, TFL, six pass defenses, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries) are the anchors defensively. Until the offense gets up to speed, Charlotte has to hope their defense can keep them within striking distance in contests.
North Texas Mean Green (9-5 overall, 7-1 conference): North Texas managed to win the West Division crown in Conference USA, but they dropped their last two games, losing the Conference USA title game and the New Orleans Bowl 50-30 to Troy. North Texas was 19th in the FBS in scoring offense with an average of 35.5 points per game, and they bring back one of the deepest sets of skill position players in the conference. Mason Fine (324 of 511, 4052 yards, 31 TD, 15 INT) is back at quarterback while Nick Smith (138 carries, 684 yards, six TD) leads a trio of talented backs. Receivers Michael Lawrence (62 grabs, 819 yards, four TD), Jalen Guyton (49 receptions, 775 yards, nine TD), Rico Bussey Jr. (47 catches, 677 yards, seven TD) and Jaelon Darden (32 grabs, 281 yards, three TD) provide a ton of weapons for Fine. The defense has to improve on last season’s numbers when they allowed 35 points per game (111th in the FBS): on the plus side, they have eight returning starters. If LBs E.J. Ejiya (108 tackles, 12 TFL, seven sacks) and Brandon Garner (68 tackles, 6.5 TFL, two sacks) step up defensively and make plays, the Mean Green should be in good shape again in 2018.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles (8-5, 6-2): Southern Miss reached a bowl game for the third straight year and improved one game in Jay Hopson’s second season with the program. The Golden Eagles saw their season end with a thud as they were walloped 42-13 by Florida State in the Independence Bowl. Southern Miss has a truckload of holes to fill with a conference-low nine starters returning this season. That’s going to put a lot of pressure on QB Kwadra Griggs (148 of 265, 1879 yards, 16 TD, two INT, 268 rushing yards, three TD), provided he holds on to the starting job. Tez Parks (53 carries, 272 yards, TD) is the expected starter now that Ito Smith has graduated. Quez Watkins (23 receptions, 337 yards, two TD) is the team’s leading returning receiver. Tim Billings takes over as defensive coordinator, but he’s working with a patchwork unit. Ladarius Harris (37 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one sack) and Darian Yancey (29 tackles, four TFL) are the edge rushers while Jeremy Sangster (56 tackles, seven TFL, two sacks) should plug in at linebacker. The Golden Eagles could be a decent team, or they could fall off a cliff this season: which way will they go?
UAB Blazers (8-5, 6-2): UAB returned from a two year absence from football and reached a bowl game for the first time since 2004. The Blazers won the most games in school history at the FBS level, even with their 41-6 loss to Ohio in the Bahamas Bowl. With A.J. Erdely (205 of 338, 2331 yards, 16 TD, four INT, 326 rushing yards, 13 TD) back running the offense, UAB should improve from being 72nd in the FBS (27.8 points per game) in scoring offense last season. Spencer Brown (1,329 rushing yards, 10 TD) is the feature back while Andre Wilson (54 receptions, 677 yards, six TD) and Collin Lisa (33 receptions, 439 yards, TD) return as the top two receivers. The defense has to step up despite losing leading tackler Tevin Crews (102 tackles, 12 TFL, three sacks): that means safeties Will Dawkins (37 tackles, TFL, INT) and Broderick Thomas (90 tackles, three TFL, two INT) are going to have to be the anchors. The Blazers get the break that North Texas and Southern Miss come to town this year: that gives them a chance at competing in the West Division.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (7-6, 4-4): Louisiana Tech brings back 15 starters from a team that finished with a winning record for the fourth straight season and won their fourth straight bowl game, beating SMU 51-10 in the Frisco Bowl. Coach Skip Holtz should have his team primed for another run toward the West Division crown. J’Mar Smith (229 of 409, 2974 yards, 16 TD, five INT, 371 rushing yards, six TD), who threw for more than 300 yards three times last season, is back at quarterback. The big hole is at running back, as both Boston Scott and Jarred Craft graduated, so we’ll see a new starter at the position. Teddy Veal (74 receptions, 950 yards, seven TD), who led the team in receptions after transferring from Tulane, and piled up three 100-yard games, is back as well. The defense brings back eight starters from a unit that was 54th in the FBS in scoring defense: DE Jaylon Ferguson (38 tackles, 12.5 TFL, seven sacks), who wrecked UTSA and Western Kentucky last season, is back as the anchor. Louisiana Tech should challenge for the West Division crown. It will be a challenge though as the Bulldogs travel to LSU, Mississippi State, FAU, Southern Miss and North Texas.
UTSA Roadrunners (6-5, 3-5): UTSA won six games for the second straight season, but the team didn’t reach a bowl game. The Roadrunners are going to have a tough time this season as they are bringing back only ten starters from a year ago. Quarterback is a black hole for the program as Dalton Sturm graduated while Frank Harris tore his ACL in spring practice. That leaves an uninspiring group of Bryce Rivers, D.J. Gillins, and Cordale Grundy to compete for the starting job. Jalen Rhodes (659 rushing yards, five TD) is back at running back and should be the focal point offensively given the fact that QB is such an uncertainty. Also, the top two pass catchers from a year ago are out of eligibility, so Greg Campbell Jr. (27 catches, 300 yards) is the de facto #1 receiver. Defensively, the Roadrunners have to replace the wrecking ball that was the first-round pick Marcus Davenport: can new defensive coordinator Jason Rollins find the pieces in place to bring the team success?
Rice Owls (1-11, 1-7): Rice was dismal in 2017 with their lone win a triumph in week two over in-state rival UTEP, 31-14. Five of the Owls’ losses were by at least 31 points, and they were limited to 14 points or less in seven of their 12 games last season. Rice was miserable on both sides of the ball, ranking 125th in the FBS in offense (16.2 ppg) and 113th in scoring defense (35.8 ppg) on the year. The school has a new head coach as Mike Bloomgren takes over after being Stanford’s offensive coordinator and line coach. There is uncertainty at the quarterback spot as Jackson Tyner, and Sam Glaesmann are both battling for the spot after they combined to throw just five touchdowns against 11 interceptions. Aaron Cephus (25 catches, 622 yards, five TD) was the team’s leading receiver last year. Defensively, the Owls bring back just five starters from last year: the secondary, which was a sieve last season, has to improve for the team to have any success in 2018.
UTEP Miners (0-12, 0-8): UTEP has seen their win total drop from seven to five to four to zero from 2014 to 2017, and there isn’t a ton of optimism for this season. The Miners were last in the FBS in scoring offense with a dismal 11.8 points per game and didn’t score more than 21 points in any game on the year. After Mike Price and Sean Kugler both failed to win a game last season, the Miners picked Dana Dimel as their new head coach. There’s plenty of work to be done, especially on offense as just two starters return from a season ago. UTEP was carved up on defense last season, ranking 119th in scoring defense by allowing 36.8 points a game. That includes horrific numbers like 6.24 yards per play and the fact that they allowed at least 41 points in five games. When only one game was decided by less than 14 points, the Miners have a major hole to dig out of this season.
2018 Odds to Win Conference USA
North Texas +550
Middle Tennessee +650
Louisiana Tech +1200
Old Dominion +3500
Southern Miss +3500
Western Kentucky +6000
There aren’t a ton of clear-cut things in Conference USA when you look at it objectively. There are questions about each of the contenders. With that said, FAU is the defending champion, and they bring a lot of firepower back to the mix this season. Marshall, provided that they can resolve their QB spot, will have an excellent shot, while the race in the West Division with North Texas, Louisiana Tech and UAB will be competitive. In the end, though, you have to watch out for Kiffin’s group: he and Florida Atlantic get the nod here.
Pick: FAU Owls -125