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 be as strong top to button as the other Group of 5 conferences, the top half of C-USA is legit. Several of the top programs are ones that are capable of upsetting a Power 5 team and many will get a shot against the big boys.
Conference USA College Football Preview & Predictions
Last year FAU was the overwhelming favorite coming into the season and some actually thought they could hand with Oklahoma in their opener. The Owls lost 63-14 to the Sooners and ended up with a losing record at 5-7.
Middle Tennessee would emerge on top of the East with a 7-1 conference record, finishing just 1-game in front of both Marshall and FIU.
On the other side of the conference, UAB continued their remarkable return to the FBS by winning the West Division with a 7-1 record.
Note they were 7-0 in league play before losing to the Blue Raiders in the final game of the regular season. They would get their revenge with a win over Middle Tennessee in the title game and finish up at 11-3.
North Texas, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech all finish 2-games back of the Blazers with a 5-3 mark in conference games.
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.
Now is a great time to look at the Week 1 betting odds.
2019 C-USA Projected Standings, Rankings & Betting Odds
While I have FAU running the table at 8-0, I want to be clear that Marshall and FIU are serious contenders in the division. The key here is that Florida Atlantic gets both the Thundering Herd and Panthers at home. If either Marshall or FIU were to upset FAU on the road, they would be tied on top at 7-1 and hold the tie-breaker to go to the C-USA title game.
There’s also a lot to like about the Owls team this year. Everyone knows about head coach Lane Kiffin and his ability to get a lot of whatever offensive talent he has to work with. A big reason they struggled last year is they didn’t get the production you would expect from the quarterback position. That shouldn’t be a problem after adding in FSU transfer Deondre Francois. They also replace star running back Devin Singletary with Alabama transfer B.J. Emmons.
Marshall will have 14 starters back from last year’s squad, including C-USA Freshmen Player of the Year, quarterback, Isaiah Green. With that said, Green needs to take a big step forward if the Thundering Herd are going to be a legit treat to FAU.
As good as the Owls may be, FIU might be the best team in the league. Butch Davis has done a remarkable job in his first two years. He got them to 8-5 in year one after they hadn’t won more than 5 in the previous 5 seasons. Most had them picked to regress with just 11 starters back, but they instead improved to 9-4. This year they have 16 returning starters and one of the top QB’s in the conference in James Morgan.
All the talk is going to be about these top three teams, but don’t sleep on the other teams in the division.
While I got Middle Tennessee missing out on a bowl (largely because they have to replace their all-time passing leader in Brent Stockstill), they not posted a losing record since 2011. The schedule is also brutal. They got 3 non-conference games against Michigan, Duke and Iowa.
Old Dominion returns just 9 starters, but there’s hope in Norfolk that one of two transfers (Messiah deWeaver & Stone Smart) at quarterback can make them a player in the East.
The Hilltoppers are coming off a 3-9 season, but were a lot closer to 6-6, as they had 4 losses by exactly 3 points. They are also bringing back 16 starters, including 10 on offense. The problem is they must learn a new offense under new head coach Tyson Helton (brother of USC head coach Clay Helton).
That leaves Charlotte in the basement, which isn’t a big shocker. However, this 49ers team is one that could be better than expected. First year head coach Will Healy is a young 33 and did some big things at Austin Peay. He took a program that was working on a 1-45 stretch and got them to 8 wins with 3 of their losses to FBS foes. If not this year, this team will be a factor for sure in 2020.
It’s a similar story in the West Division, where you have multiple teams that could finish on top. My pick to win the division is Southern Miss. The Eagles have 16 returning starters and this will easily be the best team in the four years under head coach Jay Hopson.
I have UAB, Louisiana Tech and North Texas all finishing 1-game back at 5-3, which speaks volumes to the parity at the top of this division.
There will certainly be some who will look to jump on North Texas this year, as the Mean Green should have a dynamic offense under senior quarterback Mason Fine, who threw for nearly 4,000 yards with a 27-5 TD-INT ratio. Fine has 7 other starters back on offense and that unit will need to score a lot, as the defense figures to take a step back.
The fact that UAB only returns 8 starters (4 offense, 4 defense), speaks volumes to the talent they have been able to recruit under head coach Bill Clark. He just might be the best head coach in the conference. The big blow for them is they have to face Southern Miss (coming off a bye) on the road after playing at Tennessee the week before.
Louisiana Tech was my pick to win the West last year and weren’t too far off. They finished the year with 8 wins and that’s with two losses against LSU and Mississippi State. The big reason they didn’t win the division, is quarterback J’Mar Smith didn’t make that jump from year one to year two that so many expected. If he takes that next step, this team will be really tough to beat.
As much is there is to like about the top 4 teams on this side, there’s little to get excited about with the bottom 3. Don’t be fooled by UTEP’s projected 3-5 record in league play. They get UTSA, Charlotte and Rice all at home. UTSA has 13 starters back, but were dead last in 2018 getting outgained by over 200 ypg in league play.
I don’t have the Owls winning a game, but there’s really not a lot that separates them from UTSA and UTEP. The thing is they have to play both of those teams on the road. Their 4 non-conference games are against Army, Wake Forest, Texas and Baylor. They have to play LA Tech, Southern Miss Marshall and North Texas at home.
C-USA Championship Game Prediction: FAU Defeats Southern Miss
2019 C-USA Win Totals