No conference has been picked clean more than Conference USA, which has seen 14 programs – an entire conference’s worth of teams – depart for larger affiliations since 2005. Nine of the 12 teams in the American Athletic Conference were plucked from the ranks of C-USA, including all three of the top contenders for this year’s conference title. It’s somewhat of a minor miracle that C-USA still exists considering what they’ve lost.
Still, there’s a lot of good football left within the conference, especially with the surge of fairly new FBS programs like Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, and the resurgence of programs like Marshall and Southern Miss. And while most teams in C-USA would love to be included in the money and prestige of the SEC or Big 12, they nonetheless put on a good show on most Saturdays.
Like most of the non-Power Five conferences, Conference USA has a wide disparity between the teams at the top and the bottom of the league. Once you get past the top two or three teams in the division, the rest are generally cannon fodder for the conference leaders. But the way that teams like Western Kentucky have quickly built a winning tradition should serve as an inspiration to the rest of the conference. Each non-winning team in C-USA is just one good coach or recruiting class away from becoming competitive and having a shot at a bowl.
- Marshall (9-4). If there’s a program in Conference USA that should be poised to become a perennial powerhouse, at least in the East, it’s Marshall. Rising from the ashes of the tragic plane crash that almost killed the program in 1970, Marshall steadily increased its competitiveness until, in 1987, it had its first-ever 10-win season. Last year, the Thundering Herd had its 16th 10-win season, and its third in a row, and narrowly missed out on the C-USA title game. A repeat double-digit year might be difficult in 2016, largely because the schedule features non-conference foes Louisville and Pitt, and a road game to Southern Miss on Oct. 29. The 10th win might have to come in the conference championship, which we project the Herd to reach, but there they’ll probably find a rematch with the Golden Eagles. Marshall only returns nine starters, but the base of talent is still strong, especially at quarterback, where Chase Litton has all-conference potential. Litton’s line is young, with three sophomore starters, but two seniors on the right side – OT Clint Van Horn and OG Michael Selby – should help gel the unit. Defensively, the Herd returns only four starters, which usually is a bad sign. But the depth behind last year’s group was solid enough that Marshall should suffer very little drop-off. DE Gary Thompson is a force on the outside, and Tiquan Lang should be a force at free safety. If the Herd can keep opponents below 20 points per game (and it should), then the Eastern division should be well within reach.
- Middle Tennessee (8-4). People in Murfreesboro used to have little good to say about the Blue Raiders. For years, the team seemed mired in mediocrity and was unable to win consistently against even its second-rung conference opponents. But in 2006, Rick Stockstill took over as head coach, and the Raiders’ fortunes changed dramatically. Since 2009, MTSU has finished the regular season with a losing record only once, and has reached the postseason four times. This year, the Raiders actually have a chance at winning the C-USA East for the first time, but everything will likely hinge on a Nov. 12 game at Marshall. In MTSU’s corner is the heart of its dangerous passing offense – QB Brent Stockstill and receivers Richie James and Terry Pettis, along with TE Ryan Yurachek. If the line gels with two new starters, MTSU should be able to improve on last season’s impressive 34 ppg. Defensively, the bulk of the line is intact, led by DT Shaquille Huff, who gets his own ZIP code in the middle. The linebacking corps is a concern, as all three starters will be first-timers. However, the corners – Michael Minter and Jeremy Cutrer – might be the best duo in the conference. We should learn a lot about the Raiders in a three-game September stretch that features Vanderbilt, Bowling Green and Louisiana Tech.
- Western Kentucky (7-5). Most prognosticators are picking the Hilltoppers to win the C-USA East, and maybe the entire conference. We, however, see 2016 as a big rebuilding year for a program that, over the past five seasons has built one of the best offenses in the nation. Each year since 2011, Western Kentucky has scored more points than the year before, and finished with a winning season. That culminated in last year’s 12-2, 620-point season, which included a win over USF in the Miami Beach Bowl. That looks difficult, however, with only nine starters returning, including the entire skill-set of the offense, save for WR Nicholas Norris. On the plus side, the offensive line will probably be the best in the conference, led by stout OT Forrest Lamp and OG Brandon Ray on the left side. Transfer QB Mike White from USF is the favorite to lead the rebuilt offense, but it’s doubtful WKU will repeat last year’s scoring frenzy. The defense has been gutted by graduation and will feature five new starters in the front seven. OLB T.J. McCollum is one of the best in the league, and will likely lead the team in tackles for a second straight year. The safety duo of Marcus Ward and Brandon Leston is unheralded, but should provide the Hilltoppers with solid deep coverage. The problem for WKU is that other teams in the conference are improved, and the Hilltoppers three toughest conference games (Louisiana Tech, MTSU and Marshall) all come on the road. If WKU looks good against Alabama on Sept. 10, then its chances in C-USA are probably much-improved.
- FAU (5-7). Of all of the projected losing teams in C-USA, none has more potential to break out more than FAU, which returns 14 starters, including our projected Defensive Player of the Year. A three-win team last season, the Owls could just have easily won seven games if the ball had bounced a little differently here or there. The highlight of the season was the team’s 20-14 overtime loss to Florida on the road – which was partly due to the Owls’ aggressive play, and partly due to the Gators’ season-end meltdown on offense. In 2016, QB Jason Driskel is the favorite to lead the offense. While a little smaller and less athletic than his more famous brother, Jeff, Driskel showed some poise in his limited use last year. The line, led by OT Reggie Bain, is decent and should be better with four returning starters. With most skill players also returning, the Owls will likely improve on last season’s dismal output of just 22.5 ppg. Defensively, DE Trey Hendrickson is our pick for the Defensive POY, having picked up 13.5 sacks a year ago. He anchors a unit that brings back key pieces in each area of the defense, including OLB Azeez Al-Shaair, who was last year’s leading tackler. If the Owls beat rival FIU on the road Oct. 1 and stave off letdowns thereafter, they might be looking at a bowl for the first time since 2008.
- Old Dominion (5-7). If FAU is the best candidate for a breakout season, Old Dominion is candidate 1A. The Monarchs reignited their 69-year dormant football program in 2009, and have only had one losing season since – last season’s 5-7 finish, which was only their second full year in C-USA. Of course, part of the reason for the downward trend is the fact that the Monarchs are no longer playing FCS fodder like Campbell, Howard and Norfolk State and now face conference foes like Southern Miss, Marshall and Western Kentucky, in addition to non-conference foes Appalachian State and N.C. State. With all of those games lining up almost certainly as losses, ODU will have to feast on the rest of its conference competition to have a hope at a bowl game. The odds against that are pretty steep, in spite of bringing back a whopping 16 starters. At issue is the talent level of those 16 starters, who scoring only 24.3 ppg, while giving up 35.8 ppg last season. The Monarchs have perhaps the conference’s best running back in Ray Lawry, and he will run behind a line that is strong in the middle, but will start freshmen at both tackle spots. The passing game returns most of its pieces, but other than WR Zach Pascal, that part of the offense is rather weak. Defensively, eight starters are back, led by all-conference OLB T.J. Ricks, who led C-USA in tackles a year ago. Other than Ricks, however, the Monarchs are a step behind most of their opponents. They gave up more than 3o points nine times, and three victories were score-fests where both teams exceeded 30. They may score more and allow less, but unless they can improve by a touchdown or more on both sides of the ball, this will be another rebuilding year for the young program.
- FIU (2-10). A number of sites have the Golden Panthers higher than this, but to do so is to discount what will be a brutal schedule for FIU. Even if the Panthers are improved somewhat, consider three early home games against Indiana, Maryland and UCF, which are almost certain losses. The same is true road games to UTEP, WKU and ODU, as well as home matchups against Louisiana Tech, MTSU and Marshall. The Panthers will have to stage upsets in at least three of those games to have any chance at a bowl, and we just don’t see that happening. Granted, FIU brings back two very capable Alexes in QB Alex McGough and RB Alex Gardner, who should provide stability on offense. TE Jonnu Smith and C Michael Montero might be the best at their positions in C-USA. Still, there is a lot of room for improvement over last season, when FIU posted just 25.5 ppg and 348 ypg. Defensively, the Golden Panthers were better, but they lose key players in every phase on that side of the ball. The team’s leading tackler, OLB Anthony Wint, returns and will be key to the rebuilding project. But unless FIU can keep opponents on the underside of 30 ppg, a bowl will definitely be out of reach, and exceeding three wins may be close to impossible.
- Charlotte (2-10). One word comes to mind when thinking about the Charlotte football program: Why? Not, “Why did Charlotte start a football program?” But rather, “Why did Charlotte move their football program to the FBS level so soon?” Consider that fledging FBS programs like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Western Kentucky jumped into the bigger pool only after decades of competing – and having success – at the lower division. Charlotte has only been playing football for three seasons, and the first two were losing campaigns at the FCS level. Last year was Charlotte’s first year in FBS, and the program’s unreadiness was exposed as the 49ers were blown out in six of the team’s 10 losses. This year doesn’t get any easier. We project just two wins again, but that means Charlotte will have to get past Eastern Michigan or FIU at home, or UTSA or Elon on the road. (Note: FCS Elon beat Charlotte two years ago.) The team’s hopes rely largely on 15 returning starters, including RB Kalif Phillips, who narrowly missed 1,000 yards a year ago. The problem: last year’s offense was anemic, scoring 10 points or fewer six times. Unless Phillips can pass and receive his own passes, a major improvement is unlikely. Defensively, prospects are almost as bad. The 49ers surrendered 36 ppg and 419 ypg last year. DT Larry Ogunjobi and CB Terrance Winchester are standouts, but Charlotte’s defensive talent base is likely in its last two recruiting classes and might not see the field much this year.
- Southern Miss (11-2). Two words should never be spoken again in Hattiesburg – Ellis Johnson. A year after Larry Fedora guided the team to a 12-2 finish in 2011 and parlayed that into a head coaching job at North Carolina, Johnson took over and ran Southern Miss into the ground with a winless, 0-12 record. It took three years to come back from that, and last year, Todd Monken completed the rebuild – the Eagles went 9-5, won the C-USA West and got back to a bowl game. Monken has now departed to be the OC of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so it’s up to Jay Hopson, who comes in from a successful stint at Alcorn State, to continue that trend. All signs point to that being the case. He inherits this year’s projected Offensive POY in QB Nick Mullens, as well as RB Ito Smith, who was a force on the ground last season. The interior offensive line is intact, though both tackle spots will have new starters. C Cameron Tom is the best in C-USA. Five new starters will debut on defense, but each segment of the defense returns a substantial amount of experience. DT Dylan Bradley anchors the line, LB Elijah Parker will shore up the middle and CB Cornell Armstrong will provide leadership in the secondary. The schedule is extremely favorable. Aside from road games at Kentucky and LSU, Southern Miss has no major tests. Marshall and Louisiana Tech both visit Hattiesburg, while all of the conference road games are against C-USA’s second rung teams.
- Louisiana Tech (8-4). Looking at Louisiana Tech’s roster, the casual observer might conclude that this will be a rebuilding year at best, and a rough losing season at worst. However, the Bulldogs benefit from several factors that will aid them in finishing second in the West, and potentially doing better if several pieces come together. Tech returns just five starters and is one of the least experienced teams in the nation. The entire backfield and most of the offensive line is gone, though both of the team’s top two wide receivers – Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson – will make prime targets for new starting QB Ryan Higgins. Matching last season’s 37.5 ppg total will be difficult, but exceeding more than 30 ppg should be well within reach. Amazingly, the defense is even more gutted than the offense, with just two returning starters. Sophomore DE Jaylon Ferguson will be stepping up to full-time starter and has the potential to change any game. FS Xavier Woods might be the league’s best, but will have to provide leadership for a unit that needs to improve from last season’s 99th national rank. One of the biggest bonuses for Tech is that it’s a down year in the West, and that are seven games that should be “easy” victories. The key to doing better will be winning an upset or two against MTSU, WKU or USM.
- Rice (6-6). Rice isn’t a winning program. It never really has been, and it certainly isn’t right now. In days gone by, the Owls found their way to six major bowls through the 1960. But from 1961 through 2005, Rice labored in futility. One broadcaster once joked that the Owls were so back that he would pick beans over Rice. However, David Baliff has done a decent job of building at least an expectation of winning in his nine years with the Owls, going 53-60 during that time, including a conference championship and four bowl games. This year the schedule gods have served up what should be a fifth bowl game to the Owls, with five winnable games at home and a couple of others on the road. This comes in spite of only half of last year’s starters returning (six on offense, five on defense). While the Owls bring back a lot of experience, most of those players still need to step up in order for Rice to have an improvement on both sides of the ball. Senior RB Derik Dillard will be decent on the ground, but only if a retooled line gels with three new starters. QB Tyler Stehling also needs to improve on the Owls’ passing output from last year, but will have a decent receiving corps as targets. Defensively, Rice should improve – and needs to. The almost 36 ppg from 2015 won’t fly if the Owls are to reach bowl eligibility. MLB Alex Lyons is a preseason all-conference favorite and must lead a youth movement on a defense that features five underclassmen. With minor improvements on both sides of the ball, Rice should win at least one more game in 2016 and find itself in the postseason again.
- UTEP (5-7). Read our summary about Rice and move the first half of it into this space. UTEP has even less of a winning tradition than do the Owls, having had only one 10-win season (1988), one conference championship (1984), one conference championship (2000 – not counting a 1956 championship in a conference defunct since the early 1960s), and no bowl wins since 1967. A 6-6 record and a trip to a bowl would be a victory for the Miners, but that may prove to be near-impossible for a team that must replace a host of players on both sides of the ball – and last year’s units weren’t that great. Offensively, UTEP scored just 20.7 ppg and allowed 32.9 ppg, and ranked 113th in turnover differential. None of the likely starters on offense had impressive seasons in 2015, so there’s definitely room for improvement. The part of the offense with the best scoring potential might be the special teams, where PK Jay Mattox is one of C-USA’s best. The defense has better potential for an upswing, and will count on preseason all-conference MLB Alvin Jones to provide vital leadership. The biggest friend to UTEP’s bowl hopes is the schedule, which puts the Miners at home against five very beatable opponents, starting opening day against New Mexico State. The Miners must win all five of those and then find an upset among the other seven games in order to reach the postseason.
- UTSA (4-8). Like Charlotte, UTSA started its football program several years ago. The Roadrunners figured that founding the program with a notable coach would pay big dividends, and it seemed to work for a few years. In UTSA’s second and third seasons under founding coach Larry Coker, the team had winning records, but wasn’t bowl-eligible. Then in seasons four and five, the Roadrunners couldn’t score and couldn’t stop opponents from scoring, which led to just seven wins in two years. Now the program is hoping that a coach from Les Miles’ coaching tree will take the program to the next level. Frank Wilson comes to UTSA from LSU, where he served as running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. His first year won’t be easy, as he’ll have to coach up a lot of players to achieve tons more than they did in 2015. Wilson isn’t yet naming a starter at QB, which isn’t a good sign, given that last year’s starter, Dalton Sturm averaged just over 175 ypg. RB Jarveon Williams is the brightest spot on the offense and should eclipse 1,000 yards again. Most of his line returns, though the right side may present some problems. On defense, seven starters will be replaced from last year’s unit, which gave up almost 450 ypg. The line may be a bit improved, with strong leadership from DE Marcus Davenport and DT Kevin Strong Jr. The linebacking corps is completely rebuilt and may be a bit green. The schedule is rough – of six home games, only four look winnable, and the Roadrunners will be heavy underdogs in all six road games.
- North Texas (2-10). Just three years ago, the North Texas football program looked like it was on the way up. A year after going 4-8, the Mean Green went 9-4, almost won the C-USA West and did win the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Since then, North Texas has turned into the gum on the bottom of Conference USA’s collective shoe. That may seem harsh, but last season’s 66-7 loss to Portland State (a good team in FCS, but an FCS team nonetheless) was a low watermark in program history. The Mean Green ranked in the bottom seven in the NCAA in both scoring offense and scoring defense and surrender upwards of 500 ypg on defense. With that in mind, it might be a good thing that only three starters return on offense, and seven on defense. A ton of fresh blood could be just what North Texas needs to forget what was probably the worst season in its history. Even so, putting a new quarterback with a line that features four new starters hardly seems a recipe for success.New coach Seth Littrell is a disciple of Mike Leach and will try to employ aspects of Leach’s “air raid” attack in an effort to reinvent the offense. RB Jeffrey Wilson has potential, but might have a hard time finding openings. The Mean Green defense has more experience, but FS Kishawn McClain is the only player with all-conference potential. The rest of the unit will have to grow up quickly to have any chance of climbing out of the cellar. The Sept. 10 game against Bethune Cookman might be North Texas’ best chance at a win. The following week, the Mean Green visits Florida – avert your eyes if you don’t enjoy carnage.
Bowl teams: Southern Miss, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Rice.
Offensive player of the year: Nick Mullens, QB, Southern Miss
Defensive player of the year: Trey Hendrickson, DE, FAU
Coach of the year: Jay Hopson, Southern Miss
Tomorrow: 2016 FBS Independents preview
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt