Conference USA Outlook
July 5, 2018
By Joe Nelson
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Conference USA made some noise last season with Florida Atlantic dominating the conference with a 9-0 campaign and a dominant bowl win under the guidance of firebrand Lane Kiffin. UAB’s revival also provided a great storyline while Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State were also bowl winners as underdogs.
This season the East discussion will again start with Kiffin and Florida Atlantic as he surprised many by not making a leap after one season to a major conference program. Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA East and an early outlook for the 2018 season.
Florida Atlantic: The Owls outscored conference foes by an average of more than three touchdowns per game then winning the title game by 24 points and their bowl game by 47 points. The Owls will need to replace quarterback Jason Driskel but nearly the entire defense is back in action this season. The opening month offers three difficult non-conference games including games at Oklahoma and at UCF as the Owls will get a chance to shine in a bigger spotlight this season. The gap between FAU and the rest of the East was severe last season and that could be true again but the Owls will have to play three road games against the likely stronger teams in the division. The crossover draw of Louisiana Tech and North Texas is also a difficult pairing as FAU will earn a repeat title if they accomplish what they are heavily favored (-150) to do in this conference. Devin Singletary could emerge as a potential Heisman long shot if he can surpass his 1,900 yard 2017-18 season and should the Owls stun a re-tooling Sooners team in the opener (currently +21) this squad will be certainly be on top of the Group of 5 rankings.
Marshall: Doc Holliday is 61-42 in eight seasons at Marshall including 5-0 in bowl games. The Herd bounced back from an ugly 2016 campaign to finish 8-5 last season despite going just 4-4 in conference play. Marshall lost those Conference USA games by a combined total of 19 points including a five-point loss in Boca Raton with the Herd out-gaining Florida Atlantic but struggling with turnovers. Marshall has a lot of starting experience back for the 2018 season however excellent quarterback Chase Litton is not among the returnees which will make ascending to the top of this division a challenge with a much more pass oriented offensive scheme than Florida Atlantic relies on. Marshall was fantastic defensively against the run last season allowing just 121 yards per game on 3.4 yards per carry and the Herd get to host both Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic for a favorable division draw. Marshall also pulls UTSA and Southern Miss from the West for one of the better overall schedules in the conference as a return to the postseason looks likely for this team. A pair of games vs. the SEC and ACC in September also allows for marquee opportunities with the program picking up wins over Purdue and Cincinnati in the past three seasons.
Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders played much of the 2017 season with a backup quarterback and having Brent Stockstill for the entire season could make Middle Tennessee State a serious threat in Conference USA. Middle Tennessee State won four of its final five games including a bowl win over Arkansas State with the lone miss coming in triple overtime. Middle Tennessee State beat Syracuse last September and three SEC schools are on the schedule this season which will make the postseason margin of error much smaller than most of its division counterparts. The conference draw isn’t ideal as while the Blue Raiders will host Florida Atlantic, three of the four road games in C-USA play are challenging and they will also have to play one of the top west division threats in geographically misplaced UAB, though that game is the home finale. Facing seven road games and three power five games make the path to a great season difficult for the Blue Raiders but a lot of experience returns on both sides of the ball for a team that will be a threat to win in every conference game.
Old Dominion: After a 10-win 2016 season Old Dominion slipped to 5-7 last year but after a 2-6 start the Monarchs picked up wins in three of the final four games. The five wins last season were of extremely low quality however and against top competition the Monarchs were out-classed with three losses by at least 30 points against the top tier of Conference USA. The offense took a huge step back last season from the 2016 numbers scoring just over 20 points per game but the returns could be stronger in 2018 with nine starters back in action. Old Dominion will need to win seven games to make a bowl game as they will play two FCS foes but a rebuilding Rice squad is part of the West draw and East Carolina is also on the schedule as it won’t be a shock if the Monarchs get back to a winning ledger. Old Dominion gets many of the key division race swing games at home and the returning roster should lead to better statistics on both sides of the ball after the team was soundly out-scored and out-gained last season.
Western Kentucky: Mike White wound up with strong numbers at quarterback last season but the Western Kentucky offense dropped dramatically in production with a coaching change. Mike Sanford still got this team to a bowl game but it took some good fortune with several narrow wins. The offense has very little returning experience and production and making a fifth straight bowl game will be a great challenge for the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky has road games at Wisconsin and at Louisville in non-conference play while also going on the road against three of Conference USA’s projected top teams. Pulling UTEP from the west is a plus while the home slate in league play is manageable but ultimately this program looks likely to land several tiers below the great squads of 2015 and 2016.
Florida International: It was a season of redemption for Alex McGough and Florida International with an 8-5 2017 season led by Butch Davis in his first season ‘back’ in Miami. The long-time quarterback has departed however and the season ended with a lopsided bowl loss against Temple. The 2018 schedule offers many of the easiest conference games coming on the road while two power five non-conference tests will add to the loss column as a step backwards in record is likely. The offense lost top players at every position while the defense was gutted with the top four leading tacklers from last season departing. This was a fortunate team that went 4-4 in league play despite being outscored and out-gained by more than 50 yards per game on average. Florida International hasn’t had a winning road record since 2011 and the best opportunities this season will be in some of those road games. Ultimately this looks like a team that won’t be able to compete with the top division rivals.
Charlotte: in three seasons in Conference USA Charlotte has just four league wins. The 49ers finished 1-11 last season and the lone win was an overtime result at home. There were a few close calls along the way but the offense managed just over 14 points per game on average for the season. Charlotte has a chance to surpass last season’s win count early this season as the opening month slate is favorable with four of the first six games at home without any overly demanding matchups. The 49ers don’t get to play any of the bottom West teams in the draw however and a road heavy late season schedule will take a toll. The program has been patient with Brad Lambert in his sixth season and improvement in record is likely this season though competing for a bowl bid likely will need to wait. This could be a very respectable defensive team but the offense isn’t going to be able to compete with the top teams in the conference.
The West offers a muddled collection of teams with a case for five different squads to be on top. It won’t be a surprise if several teams wind up tied at 6-2 or 5-3 and tiebreakers are needed in the West in 2018 as there is no clear front runner as there is on the East side. Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA West and an early outlook ahead of the 2018 season.
Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs made a major statement in bowl action with a 51-10 win over SMU in the Frisco Bowl. That win clinched a fourth straight winning season for Skip Holtz in Ruston and after slipping to just seven wins last season this year’s team has a chance to get back to the nine-win campaigns of the previous years. Facing two SEC teams on the road limits the overall ceiling for this group and the Bulldogs have to play at Florida Atlantic in the East draw as well to put several major hurdles on the slate. J’Mar Smith emerged as a quality playmaker at quarterback last season however and the running game has always been productive under Holtz. Last season’s defense was among the better units in Conference USA and it should remain a quality group in 2017. It likely won’t take perfection to win this division as the Bulldogs will be in the mix and they get to host one of the top threats in UAB.
North Texas: The Mean Green improved by four wins last season and Mason Fine returns as likely the top quarterback in the conference coming off throwing for 4,000 yards with 31 touchdowns last season for a nine-win team. North Texas was the division champion at 7-1 last season but there were numerous close calls as the Mean Green only outscored foes by 21 points if you count the conference championship loss. Both league losses came to the same Florida Atlantic squad last season however but the Mean Green again draws the East favorite this season along with a capable Old Dominion team in the crossover games. Despite the strong record last season this wasn’t a quality defensive team but the Mean Green could flip a -11 turnover margin from last season as well. With five wins by seven or fewer points last season the 2017 squad was fortunate but having a great quarterback helps one win those types of games and the Mean Green are a threat for another solid season.
UAB: After ending the football program for two years UAB returned as one of the feel-good stories of the season as Bill Clark led the team to an 8-5 record last season. UAB had a lot go right last season as the scoring and production numbers were more indicative of a .500 squad and four wins came by seven or fewer points. The West is clearly the lighter side of Conference USA however as there will remain favorable opportunities for wins and three of the four non-conference tests are also of the winnable variety. This year’s team has most of last season’s offensive production back in action and while the defense must replace a few key players this can again be a competitive team that can return to the postseason and compete for the division title. A good offensive line and a veteran quarterback can go a long ways as the Blazers could rise to the top of the West.
Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles won eight games last season as Jay Hopson has kept the program in the postseason in both of his seasons in Hattiesburg. This will be one of the least experienced teams in the conference however even with the return of the two viable quarterback options for Southern Miss. This was a very respectable defensive team last season that was steady against the run and the pass but some of the numbers were built with a few dominant showings against the bottom of this division. Southern Miss will play one of the weaker schedules in the nation this season with only a September game at Auburn in the ‘certain loss’ camp as they avoid Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State and will play games with Marshall and Louisiana Tech at home. This year’s team likely isn’t as strong as last season’s squad with the Golden Eagles posting fairly dominant numbers in a 6-2 league campaign but matching last season’s record isn’t out of the question with this slate.
Texas-San Antonio: The Roadrunners finished with a winning record last season but they played just 11 games thanks to a hurricane-related cancelation. The schedule starts with a bang this season facing three power five teams in succession to open the season but it won’t be a surprise if UTSA can reverse course with three wins in a row after that. UTSA draws two decent teams from the East and has a fairly tough set of home games in league play for a squad with little returning offensive experience other than running back Jalen Rhodes. The defensive numbers from 2017 are eye-popping with just 17.0 points per game and 288 yards per game allowed albeit through what wound up being an extremely weak schedule. Losing a great deal of leadership from last season plus facing a more challenging schedule likely leads to a decline in San Antonio this season however the gap between the top five teams in this division isn’t likely to be substantial.
UTEP: Dana Dimel is the new leader at UTEP after a long run as a Kansas State offensive assistant. Inheriting a 0-12 program there are obvious issues at UTEP but expectations will be quite grounded. UTEP managed only 12 points per game on average last season as clearly the worst offensive team in the country and the defense faced great strain as well despite keeping the team in a handful of games. There is a lot of player turnover on the roster but the opportunity for quick improvement is possible. Quarterback injuries plagued the team last season as the Miners had to dig far down the depth chart and the 2018 schedule offers a handful of promising opportunities with only a few games where UTEP has little chance to compete. Dimel won’t be able to deliver a miracle turnaround in year one but getting the team in the win column looks likely especially if a few transfers with potential live up to their billing.
Rice: The Owls mad a change with David Baliff let go after more than a decade in Houston. The 1-11 season and four straight seasons of decline in record made the move justifiable especially with last season’s offense averaging only 16 points per game. The Owls had very little production in the passing game last season and making a quick improvement for the program will be challenge for new head coach Mike Bloomgren, a Stanford assistant since 2011 that doesn’t really have ties to the program or area. It will likely be a long transition season for the Owls although in this division there are opportunities for wins. Rice plays at Hawai’i and will play 13 games this season though seven of those games are on the road. Topping last season’s win count looks likely with numerous favorable chances including a FCS opener but there will likely be several lopsided losses as well as a marginal defense lost the top five tacklers from last season.
20-10 L4 Sat, 33-15 Run, +1,905 TY
6-0 Saturday, 12-3 L15 Guarantees
13-4 L17, 23-6 Win Streak
19-6 L25 G-Plays, 64% +1,737 TY
6-1 Last 7 Guaranteed Plays
19-10 L29 Picks, +1,139 TY
7-2 L5 Sat, 12-6 Picks, 62% Overall
11-4 G-Plays, 38-22 L11 Saturdays
7-2 L9 NCAA FB Guarantees
12-4 L3 Saturdays, 8-3 L11 Totals
4-1 L5 G-Plays, 17-7 CFB Totals TY
12-5 L3 Saturdays, 59% +1,031 TY
8-1 L9 Totals, 4-2 Week 11
10-5 L4 Saturdays, 3-0 L3 G-Plays
13-5 L18 Totals, 16-4 L7 Fridays
5-1 Saturday, 8-2 L10 Picks
7-2 G-Play Run, 15-8 L23 Picks
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