Conference USA Football Predictions
The effects of conference realignment have hit Conference USA in 2013. The league loses UCF, Memphis, Houston and SMU to the newly formed American Athletic (formerly known as the Big East). They have replaced those teams with Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Florida Atlantic and FIU out of the Sun Belt, and Louisiana Tech and UTSA out of the WAC. Western Kentucky, Old Dominion and Charlotte will join the conference in 2014, while East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane join their fellow foes in the AAC.
What was once considered to be one of the premier small conferences, will likely be one of the weakest after this season. With that said, their is still reason to be excited for the upcoming season. While there’s not as much parity from top to bottom, both divisions could have a heated battle at the top. Rice appears poised to give defending champ Tulsa a run for their money in the West, while East Carolina and Marshall both look to be very strong out of the East.
There’s also a couple sleepers to watch out for in both divisions, as I could see both UAB (East) and Tulane (West) being greatly improved in 2013. While I don’t expect any of the four newcomers to contend for a spot in the title game, I think Middle Tennessee and North Texas have a shot to finish with a winning record. Here’s a quick look at how I think the two divisions will unfold. If you want a more in-depth preview of each team, just click on the team link in the table at the bottom of the article.
1. Marshall – Most experts will have East Carolina picked to win the East, but I think the Thundering Herd are primed for a breakout season in the fourth year under head coach Doc Holliday. Marshall nearly went on the road and upset the Pirates in the regular season finale, losing 59-65 in double-overtime. With 15 starters returning, including my top rated quarterback in the league in Rakeem Cato, I look for Marshall to knock off East Carolina at home and finish with a 7-1 record inside the conference.
2. East Carolina – There’s not a lot that separates the Pirates from the Thundering Herd, as I’m actually calling for both teams to finish at 7-1. East Carolina will return 18 starters to a team that closed out the regular season with five wins in their final six games. One of my big concerns with the Pirates is their brutal non-conference schedule, which features Virginia Tech, North Carolina and NC State.
3. UAB – I think the Blazers are going to be a much improved team and will easily top last year’s win total of three, but they won’t be a threat for the top spot, as they have to go on the road to face both Marshall and East Carolina. What has me picking UAB in the top half of the standings is four very winnable home games and a couple of favorable road matchups against FIU and UTSA.
4. Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles made history last year by becoming the first team to finish 0-12 after a 12-win season the previous year. While expectations will be low in the first season under head coach Todd Monken, I think Southern Miss will avoid finishing in the basement of the East with the three new additions from the Sun Belt and a schedule that has them avoiding both Tulsa and Rice out of the West. A lot is riding on the arm of new starting quarterback Allan Bridgord, who transferred here from Cal.
4. Middle Tennessee – The Blue Raiders could easily exceed my expectations and finish much higher in the standings, as they return 16 starters to a team that wen 8-4 last year, which included an impressive 49-28 win on the road over Georgia Tech. My big concern with Middle Tennessee is a defense that was very fortunate to only allow 28.0 points per game in 2012, as they allowed 441 yards/game. They also avoid Rice and Tulsa out of the West, but with home games against East Carolina and Marshall, most of their winnable games come on the road.
6. Florida Atlantic – There’s not a lot to be excited about in what will be the second season for head coach Carl Pelini. The Owls got a tough draw with Rice and Tulane out of the West. The only thing that will keep them out of the basement in the East is a home game against in-state rival FIU.
7. FIU – The Panthers are coming off a very disappointing 2012 season where they went just 3-9 and finished in a tie for eighth in the Sun Belt. There were several experts who had them winning their conference last year. With just eight starters back, four on each side of the ball, FIU will struggle to stay competitive in the first season under new head coach Ron Turner.
1. Rice – The Owls closed out 2012 with five straight wins, including an impressive 33-14 win over Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. While they went just 4-4 inside the conference, three of their four losses came by four points or less. While they have to go to Tulsa, I believe that’s a game they can win (lost 24-28 at Tulsa last year). They also avoid having to play both Marshall and East Carolina, while the Golden Hurricane must face off against both in back-t0-back weeks.
2. Tulsa – It didn’t take long for head coach Bill Blankenship to make his presence felt at Tulsa. In just his second season on the job, he guided the Golden Hurricane to an 11-win season (tied school record), a conference championship, and a dominant bowl win over Iowa State. While the offense will be strong with the return of senior quarterback Cody Green and senior running back Trey Watts, I have major concerns with a defense that brings back just three starters.
3. Tulane – It’s been over a decade since the Green Wave have been to a bowl game, but I think the streak will finally come to an end in 2013. Tulane returns 16 starters and have added in junior college transfer quarterback Nick Montana, who originally signed with Washington. Yes, he’s the son of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. After four straight seasons finishing in the basement of the West, it’s time for the Green Wave to make some noise in C-USA.
3. Louisiana Tech – If it wasn’t for the Bulldogs being able to replace Sonny Dykes with Skip Holtz, I would have likely picked them even lower in the standings. While there’s reason to be excited about Texas Tech transfer Scotty Young taking over at quarterback and the return of running back Kenneth Dixon (1,194 yards and 27 touchdowns as a true freshman), Louisiana Tech has just seven returning starters and only four come on a defense that allowed 38.5 points and 526 yards per game in 2012. I simply don’t think the offense will be able to score enough for the Bulldogs to be a contender in their first season.
3. North Texas – I’m looking for big improvements for the Mean Green in 2013, as head coach Dan McCarney is finally starting to get his recruits on the field. North Texas also has a transfer expected to start at quarterback, as they add in former Kansas signee Brock Bergland. As a whole the Mean Green have 17 starters coming back and, with a couple of favorable non-conference matchups, I’ll call for them to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
6. UTEP – I had a difficult time picking the Miners to finish in the bottom half of the conference, as they might end up having the best new transfer at quarterback in Jameil Showers, who has spent the last two seasons at Texas A&M playing behind Ryan Tannehill and Johnny Manziel (almost beat out Manziel for the starting job last year). Unfortunately UTEP has just five home games and must close out the season with five of six on the road.
7. UTSA – Don’t be fooled by the Roadrunners 8-4 record from last season. UTSA played an extremely soft schedule and have still not beat a team with a winning record. This is why you see them pegged for the basement in the West, despite the fact that they return 18 starters. I will call for them to pull off one upset, but don’t expect to see this team come anywhere close to their 8-4 finish from last year.
Conference USA Championship Game Prediction – Rice defeats Marshall
|East Carolina||Florida International||Florida Atlantic||Marshall|
|Middle Tennessee||Southern Miss||UAB|
|Louisiana Tech||North Texas||Rice||Tulane|
|ACC||Big 12||American Athletic||Big Ten|
|Conference USA||Independents||MAC||Mountain West|