Conference USA was once considered one of the top non-Power 5 conferences in the country. That was until a number of their top teams jumped ship a few years back to the American Athletic.
While it might not stack up well as a whole with the other Group of 5 conferences, the top of C-USA is legit. There’s at least a handful of teams in this league that not many Power 5 schools want to see on their schedule.
Conference USA College Football Preview & Predictions
The teams in this conference are also not afraid of scheduling the big boys. All 14 teams have at least one game against a Power 5 program and half the league has more than one.
Last year C-USA had six different teams win 7 or more games, with two reaching double-digits. The top dog was Western Kentucky, who finished 11-3. That includes a 14-point win over LA Tech in the title game and 20-point blowout of Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. Two of those three losses were to SEC foes in Alabama (10-38) and Vanderbilt (30-31 OT).
The league also had six teams that went 4-8 or worse. While there still figures to be some bad teams in 2017, I’m expecting more parity throughout. That’s because C-USA had two splash hires. Both coming in the state of Florida.
New Head Coaches
|Name (School)||Previous Job||HC Exp (Record)|
|Mike Sanford (WKU)||OC/QB at Notre Dame||None|
|Lane Kiffin (FAU)||OC at Alabama||5 yrs (35-21)|
|Butch Davis (FIU)||HC at North Carolina||10 yrs (79-43)|
FAU landed Lane Kiffin, who most of you are familiar with. Kiffin spent last year as the OC for Alabama. The only game he didn’t coach was the only game the Crimson Tide lost all year.
The other big hire was at FIU, where the Panthers welcomed Butch Davis back to the college game. Davis made a name for himself at Miami back in the late 90’s. He most recently coached at North Carolina from 2007-2010. Arguably his best accomplishment came in his short time as an NFL coach. He took the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs in 2002.
The other new head coach in the league comes at Western Kentucky. Mike Sanford Jr. will replace Jeff Brohm, who left to take over at Purdue. It was the third straight HC at WKU to get signed on by a Power 5 team. The previous two being Willie Taggart and Bobby Petrino. Sanford Jr. might lack experience as the main guy, but he’s been groomed for this role.
This year Conference USA welcomes back UAB, bringing the league up to an even 14-teams, 7 in each division. I’ve put together my projected standings both inside league play and overall for all 14 teams. If you want to see who I have winning every conference, check out my overall predictions.
2017 C-USA Projected Standings, Rankings & Betting Odds
I have the Hilltoppers maintaining the top spot in the East, but I don’t think it’s a sure thing. Not only to I have high expectations for Sanford Jr., but he steps into a great situation. WKU returns senior quarterback Mike White, who threw for more than 4,300 yards with 37 TDs to 7 INTs. White is currently the only C-USA player with odds to win the Heisman.
The talent level is real, which is why they have been able to compete with the Power 5 teams. So while they will be installing some new schemes and have only 10 starters back, they are the team to beat.
As you can see, there’s no much separation in this division. My big sleeper is one that I think people won’t be surprised if it happened, but just aren’t confident enough to call for it. That’s Kiffin stepping in an immediately turning FAU into a power. Kiffin landed the leagues top rated recruiting class. No bigger signing than quarterback De’Andre Johnson. A former Florida State recruit who was kicked off the team for domestic violence. I’m not a fan of what the kid did, but the fact of the matter is he’s a talented football player.
It wasn’t just players that Kiffin recruited to Boca Raton. His offensive coordinator is Kendal Briles, who is the former Baylor OC. On defense, he lured away his brother, Chris Kiffin from Ole Miss to be the defensive coordinator. Not to mention he added on his dad, Monte Kiffin, as an assistant. If it wasn’t for the fact that they have play WKU, La Tech and ODU all on the road, I might have picked them to win the East.
The other surprise, at least based off last year’s record, is Marshall. The Thundering Herd had gone 33-8 the previous 3 seasons before finishing 3-9 last year. Doc Holliday has been in this spot before, taking a team that finished 5-7 to 10-4.
Another legit threat to win the East is Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders are going to be potent on offense behind junior QB Brent Stockstill. If the defense improves from last year, they easily could eclipse my projects. My big concern is how they handle a brutal start with games against Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Minnesota to start the year.
No disrespect to Old Dominion, who I have picked 5th after they went 7-1 in league play last year. I know head coach Bobby Wilder has a way of getting great QB play. I just think it will be tough to duplicate the great numbers from last season. They also lose their two best defensive players.
I have FIU picked alongside the Monarchs at 4-4, but wouldn’t be surprised at all if Davis had this team in the mix. The Panthers have 15 returning starters and will be one of the most experienced teams in the country. It’s just a matter if they can get more out of an offense that only managed 24.0 ppg last year.
Charlotte made decent strides last year, winning 4-games in just their 2nd full season at the FBS level. Brad Lambert is recruiting well but they go from one the most experienced teams to one of the least. It certainly doesn’t help that the other 6 teams are all legit contenders on this side.
There’s not near the same depth of quality teams in the West as the East. That really makes life easy for Skip Holtz and Louisiana Tech. I got the Bulldogs easily taking home their 3rd division title in the last 4 years. Note that I got them going 9-3 after a 1-3 start. As they host Mississippi State and play at WKU and South Carolina after their opener.
The only concern with this year’s team is at quarterback. LA Tech has to replace Ryan Higgins, who threw for 4,617 yards and 41 touchdowns. The good news is this is nothing new for the Bulldogs, who have had to break in a new QB each of the last 3 years. With a defense that looks to be much better, there’s potential here for a double-digit win season. A feat they have came up short on by 1-game each of the last 3 seasons.
Most are going to point to UTSA as the top threat to dethrone Louisiana Tech. I would agree. The Roadrunners took a huge step forward in 2016, which was the first under head coach Frank Wilson. UTSA scored almost a touchdown more per game and gave up almost a touchdown less than the previous year. With 14 starters back, including starting QB Dalton Sturm, they have every reason to expect more improvement.
Southern Miss was a huge disappointment last year. The Golden Eagles went just 4-4 in league play and 7-6 overall. Not what people were expecting given the talent they returned. That has me concerned on whether or not they made a good hire with Jay Hopson and his staff last season.
My sleeper team in the West is North Texas. The Mean Green went 5-7 and got invited to a bowl in the first year under Seth Littrell. That came after a disastrous 2015 campaign where they went 1-11. I like there chances of building on the big turnaround and giving some of the top teams a run for their money.
You could also throw UAB into that sleeper category, though I don’t give them a legit shot at winning the title. Most will write off the Blazers after the program took the previous two years off. Not playing doesn’t help, but this isn’t you typical start up program. There’s more talent on this roster than you would expect. I also like head coach Bill Clark. He got this team to surprise in his first year on the job back in 2014. They went 6-6 after winning 5 or fewer each of the previous 8 seasons.
A team I’m clearly not high on is Rice. I could see some people picking them to do better with 15 starters back. I just don’t like the direction the team is headed under David Bailiff. Rice has saw their scoring output decline each of the last 4 years. The defense hasn’t been much better going from 24.4 ppg in 2013 to 37.3 ppg last year.
UTEP lands in the basement of the division in large part because of their schedule. Three of the four league home games are against La Tech, UTSA and WKU. That means most of the winnable games are on the road. They also have a brutal non-conference slate.
C-USA Championship Game Prediction: Louisian Tech over WKU
|Players (Pos, School)||Odds|
|Mike White (QB, WKU)||+5200|