Conference USA West Preview

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(SU - Straight Up, ATS - Against the Spread, O/U - Over/Under)

Looking for the most misleading record in the country last season? Try Louisiana Tech (2017 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-6; O/U 6-7), which needed to scramble in late November to even get bowl-eligible for the fourth straight year. Along the way last fall, Bulldog HC Skip Holtz probably needed daily pep talks from papa Lou after his team lost three times by one point each, including a beyond-bitter 17-16 loss at South Carolina on September 23, when the Gamecocks hit a deep 41-yard pass from Jake Bentley to Bryant Edwards to set up a game-winning FG with 4 seconds to play. That denied Tech its first win in its last 8 tries vs. an SEC foe, but also preceded subsequent one-point losses to UAB and North Texas and a double-OT crusher vs. Southern Miss. “What the hell is going on here?,”Vince Lombardi might have once bellowed at such developments. Skip might have been saying the same things at midseason, but by end of the campaign was feeling a bit better, especially after a shock 51-10 blowout of SMU in the Frisco Bowl that created a feel-good buzz and anticipation for 2018 throughout the offseason in Ruston.

By comparison to several high-scoring recent editions, last year’s offense could “only” tally 31 ppg, which was almost 14 ppg less than in 2016. Look closer, however, and you’ll note that jr. QB J’Mar Smith (2974 YP, 16 TDP and just 5 picks LY) is in line to be the first Bulldog pilot to top the depth chart in consecutive campaigns since 2010. By the end of 2017, Smith had developed rapport with what was a mostly rebuilt receiving corps; now the targets return experienced this fall with four of the top five pass-catchers from 2017 remaining in the fold. Included among the returnees is sr. WR Teddy Veal (74 catches and 7 TDs last fall), plus former Utah transfer Alfred Smith, who flashed big-play potential in 2016 but who played only 2 games before injury ended his 2017 campaign. Holtz has also featured a 1000-yard rusher each of the past four seasons; a pair of them (Boston Scott and Jarred Craft) departed after 2017, with jr. Jaqwis Dancy and 230-lb. former TE Kam McKnight trying to continue the streak this fall. Four starters also return along a veteran OL.

Tech has not made a habit of winning games with its defense in the Holtz era but all things considered, last season wasn’t too bad, ranking in the middle of the stats in most categories, not a bad accomplishment in a video football league like C-USA. Last year’s stop unit improved almost across the board from 2016 and ended up ranked 7th in interceptions (19) and contributed its part to a No. 5 rank in TO margin (+13). Playmakers return at every level, including DE Jaylon Ferguson, a two-time All-C-USA pick with 27.5 career sacks. Soph CB Amik Robertson earned Frosh A-A honors and picked off five passes in his debut a year ago as the secondary upgraded from a flammable 2016. The top impact newcomer in Ruston might be ballyhooed juco LB Connor Taylor, who posted an astounding 139 tackles at Snow College in Utah last fall.

Holtz has never ducked anyone at Tech and takes two more shots at the SEC (LSU and Mississippi State) this fall after the near-miss at South Carolina last September. At this stage, however, would expect those two SEC tests and perhaps a trip to Lane Kiffin’s FAU in late October as the only games where La Tech figures not to be favored. Another Skip bowl trip looks very likely, with Tech a deserving favorite in the West and with a chance to match or exceed the nine wins Holtz posted each year from 2014-16.

Spread-wise, Holtz has posted winning marks each of the past four seasons, and has been especially good as an underdog, recording a 13-5 mark getting points since 2014. He’s also a spotless 4-0 SU in bowls the past four seasons.

Hmmm. They’re pleased at punch at North Texas (2017 SUR 9-5; PSR 8-6; O/U 8-5-1) with the progress of the program under HC Seth Littrell, who enters his third season this fall after steering the Mean Green (moribund upon Littrell’s arrival) to bowls in his first two years on the job. In fact, we’re sure that many in Denton would like Littrell to stick around as long as Metzler’s BBQ, which has been serving scrumptious ribs and brisket to the locals since 1947. But at UNT, which sits under an early approach to DFW from the north, they know there’s a big world outside of the Metroplex, and that North Carolina, from where Littrell moved to the Big Green, might soon be in the market for a new coach after Larry Fedora dug himself a bit deeper ditch at this summer’s ACC Media Days in Charlotte. Should they ever be looking for a new coach in Chapel Hill, and it mgiht be soon, it is likely that Littrell (should he keep getting the Mean Green into bowls) is likely going to be on a short list. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, Littrell, who looks the part of a rodeo cowboy as much as his name sounds, ought to further burnish his credentials with the return of 17 starters from last year’s entry that won the West half of C-USA. Littrell’s spread concepts, honed during his stint as Fedora’s o.c., returns an electric triggerman in jr. QB Mason Fine, who was last year’s C-USA Offensive MVP after throwing for a whopping 4052 yards and 31 TDs for a potent attack that scored better than 35 ppg. Five of Fine’s top six receivers, led by sure-handed jr. Michael Lawrence (62 catches LY), also return, but this was not a Mike Leach all-pass air raid a year ago, as RBs Jeffery Wilson, Nic Smith and Evan Johnson combined for better than 2000 YR (only Wilson doesn’t return). If there is a concern it’s along an OL that allowed too many sacks last year (39), but some of those might have been more the fault of Fine, who needs a bit more schooling in the fine art of throwing the ball away. Three starters are back along the forward wall.

Eight starters are back on “D” though coordinator Troy Reffert will be asking several jucos and true frosh to step into the depth chart. Take out the 110 points that Lane Kiffin’s FAU piled up in two games vs. UNT last fall and the stats might have looked a bit better, though Reffert’s gambling 3-3-5 platoon did concede too many big plays while conceding 40 or more points on four other occasions when not facing Kiffin, including a fat 50 posted by Troy in the New Orleans Bowl. There is some real experience at the back end with four starters returning in the secondary; we'll see if they learned from errors last fall. Pressure up front will be key; versatile Roderick Young, who can shift between NT and DE, might emerge as one of the top defenders in C-USA.

The tone for the season might be set in the opener at Apogee Stadium vs. nearby SMU in a revenge game for the Mean Green, which also allowed 50+ vs. the Mustangs last season. SMU’s former coach, Chad Morris, will get another shot at UNT with his new Arkansas team on September 15. On the plus side, expected C-USA West showdowns vs. both La Tech and Southern Miss (each a loser vs. UNT last fall) will take place in Denton. A stat to watch might be TO margin, which was badly inverted (-11) a season ago even when the Mean Green still won the West half of the loop.

Spread-wise, note that Littrell has been apt to streak (win and lose) the past two seasons. Also no surprise that the Mean Green has been trending “over” (10-5-1 since late 2016).

Was that Dr. Phil hanging around Hattiesburg in the offseason? Well, if not, Southern Miss (2017 SUR 8-5; PSR 8-5; O/U 7-6) HC Jay Hopson might want to give a call, or perhaps book himself as a guest on the Doc’s TV show after the Golden Eagles continued their bipolar pattern a year ago. Yes, Hopson, who succeeded at previous stop Alcorn State, has taken the Golden Eagles “bowling” the past two seasons, but keep in mind that the modern postseason was made for Conference USA, which sent nine (!) of its teams to minor bowls like the New Mexico, Gasparilla, Camellia, and Cure (among others) last December. (Indeed, what would “Bowl Week” look like on ESPN without Conference USA?) But Hopson’s USM has blown very hot and very cold over the past two autumns, doing things like allowing 55 points to UTSA and 51 to Old Dominion, losing to Charlotte and getting blown out by North Texas and UAB, but beating an SEC foe (Kentucky, in Hopson’s debut game in 2016) plus topping La Tech not once, but twice. How, we wonder, will the locals respond to the Golden Eagles at the new in-state sports books in places like Biloxi and Gulfport?

Hopson’s offenses have mostly been able to move the ball vs. C-USA stop units the past two seasons, but that was with waterbug RB Ito Smith, who provided a legit big-play dimension before getting drafted by the Falcons in the 4th round last April. Smith’s departure is just part of an exodus of most of the skill-position weaponry, though USM usually finds some playmakers, and RS frosh RB Steven Anderson did open some eyes in spring. The receiving corps, however, is mostly untested, and then there’s the QB job that appears up for grabs entering fall camp. Hopson used both jr. Keon Howard (6 starts) and sr. Kwandra Griggs (7 starts) last fall; with 16 TDP and only 2 picks, Griggs was the more effective, but things changed in summer when Howard transferred to Tulane and Griggs was hit with a suspension, which means touted juco Jack Abraham (onetime at La Tech) likely gets the first call. Three starters do return along the OL, and sr. PK Parker Shaunfield has one of the biggest legs in C-USA.

The “D” might even have more questions after losing eight starters to graduation as well as coordinator Tony Pecoraro, who moved in-conference to Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic. New d.c. Tim Billings, promoted from DB coach, will immediately be looking for reinforcements to his secondary that lost all five starters from last fall, with only a couple of returnees having seen any significant playing time. There are fewer questions along the line, where sr. DEs LaDarius Harris and Darian Yancey have a combined 41 career starts. Sources say juco Tyree Evans and RS frosh Santrell Latham could emerge as forces at the LB spots, though the big question with the “D” remains in the secondary.

After splitting with SEC Kentucky in openers the past two seasons, the Golden Eagles ramp up a bit more slowly this September with Jackson State and UL Monroe at home out of the gate, and there’s a chance Hopson’s team is 4-0 before taking a shot at Auburn on September 29. Given the schedule, it would be a disappointment to not qualify for another bowl (where there is plenty of room for eligible C-USA sides). If the pieces fall in place, contention in the West is also well within reach.

Spread-wise, Hopson’s USM has not provided good value laying points, just 5-10 as chalk the past two seasons, though the Golden Eagles did cover all three of their chances laying double digits in 2017 after failing in 6 of 7 such tries the previous fall.

By us, we would have had no problem if UAB (2017 SUR 8-5; PSR 8-4-1; O/U 3-9-1) HC Bill Clark earned some national Coach of the Year votes last season. In fact, we’re not sure any coach outside of Gerard Gallant for the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights pulled as many rabbits out of his hat over the past 12 months as did Clark, who was re-starting the Blazer program after it was put into the freezer following the 2014 season. When, it should be noted, UAB also punched above its weight, but after the operations were shuttered, only a handful of players stuck around for the resurrection last fall. Plus Clark, who stayed on payroll in hopes that the program would be re-started. After succeeding at previous stop Jacksonville State (the home team of the Talledega Super Speedway), Clark would out-do himself as the Blazers reached their first postseason since Watson Brown’s 2004 team played in the Hawaii Bowl. The 41-6 loss in the Bahamas to Frank Solich’s Ohio was admittedly a bit of a downer, but in no way detracted from the monumental accomplishment of Clark and staff as UAB made it to only its second bowl game in history.

The one guy who was apparently not pleased by everything in 2017, however, was Clark, who dismissed o.c. Les Koenning after the season and re-enlisted Bryant Vincent, who coordinated a school record-setting Blazer attack in 2014 before moving on to South Alabama (where he would be unceremoniously dumped early last season). UAB exploded on occasion a year ago but in the end the attack would be choppy at best, reflected in a ho-hum 98th overall ranking in offense and that feeble display in the Bahamas vs. Ohio, prompting Koenning’s dismissal. Though the pieces are different than four years ago, Vincent does inherit an experienced platoon with eight starters in the fold from last year, including QB discovery A.J. Erdely (2331 YP, with 16 TDP and only 4 picks), the top three RBs and ample experience at the wideout spots. Further augmenting the skill position weaponry is bulldozing 245-lb. RB Kingston Davis, who returns home after transferring from Michigan. Along with punishing 223-lb. soph Spencer Brown (1329 YR in 2017) and four starters returning along the OL, the Blazers should at least be able to jar their way downfield. Top pass catcher WR Andre Wilson (54 receptions last fall) also returns to the mix.

Most of the holdover experience on last year’s squad played on stop unit, and the departures of a handful of these key cogs who were with the program through the shut-down could be impactful. A potential monster in d.c. David Reeves’ 3-4 looks is 6-7 OLB Stacy Kelly, who looks like a pterodactyl when swooping in from the edge (when he’s healthy, that is). Three starters are also back in the secondary led by S Broderick Thomas, who established himself as one of C-USA’s best last season. We’re also keeping an eye on all-name frosh DT Fish McWilliams. Clark also stresses versatility from his DBs, most of whom play multiple positions. Where UAB might be vulnerable, sources say, is depth, as a spate of injuries could expose a roster still short on numbers just a year after resurrecting.

UAB helped itself a year by ago by scheduling only one Power 5 foe in non-league play and follows the same path this fall, with a mid-November trip to Texas A&M the lone “payday” assignment. The Blazers could easily be 4-0 by the time they trek to Ruston on October 6 for what could be a C-USA West showdown vs. revenge-fueled La Tech, looking to atone for a bitter 23-22 loss last year. But there will be no sneaking up on anybody this fall, so matching last season’s 8 wins would be another job well down by Clark. It is reasonable, however, to expect another bowl appearance.

Spread-wise, Clark has also acquitted himself well, with a 15-9-1 mark against the line over his two seasons (with that two-year gap in between) in charge at venerable Legion Field. Clark’s best success has come in the dog role in which he is 9-5 over his two seasons in charge of the Blazers.

Now we get to find out why UTSA (2017 SUR 6-5; PSR 3-8; O/U 3-8) hired HC Frank Wilson off of the LSU staff a couple of years ago. Wilson, who inherited a decent core of talent from predecessor and program architect Larry Coker, won six games each of the past two seasons and steered the Roadrunners to their first-ever bowl (New Mexico Bowl in 2016) in the process. A significant reload, however, is in store for this fall with a slew of multi-year starters having graduated. But Wilson was hired partly for his deep recruiting ties in the region, and we’ll get a better idea this fall if those efforts are ready to bear fruit. After all, they’re shooting high these days in the Alamo City, with a burgeoning program that has the best stadium in Conference USA (the 65,000-seat Alamodome) and perhaps poised to take advantage for future expansion by bigger conferences. The Roadrunners could yet become a “player” in the gridiron landscape and many in the region would not be surprised if UTSA becomes the dominant team in the loop. If, that is, coaching is up to the challenge.

Wilson, however, needs more out of an offense that even with veterans on hand would stumble down the stretch last November and fail to score a TD in the last two games. All part of what was an underachieving 23.5 ppg, which ranked only 104th in the nation. The well-traveled o.c. Al Borges, with more career stops (among them Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Indiana, Auburn, and Michigan) than Oakland A's pitcher Edwin Jackson, has been enlisted to inject some life into the attack, but first must decide upon a QB after the graduation of 3-year starter Dalton Sturm (in the Dallas Cowboys camp this summer). It could be pocket-passing soph Bryce Rivers (who threw all of 8 passes last fall) or juco Cordale Grundy; RS frosh Frank Harris was part of a 3-man race in spring and might have been the favorite to win the job before suffering an ACL tear. Wilson’s offenses, with the benefit of a mobile QB in Sturm the past two years, have focused on a power-run game, and expect sr. RB Jalen Rhoads (1486 YR over the past two seasons), if he can avoid the injury bug, to get plenty of work. The forward wall has some experience but the receiving corps is mostly rebuilt; RS frosh WR Tariq Woolen is one of those Wilson recruits who will be expected to contribute. Soph OK Jared Seckett can usually salvage points form stalled dirves after converting 19 of 22 FG tries as a frosh.

Those not paying attention to C-USA last fall (don’t worry, no penance required!) might be surprised the Roadrunners had a top ten defense in 2017, though key cogs DE Marcus Davenport (Saints 1st-round pick) and d.c Pete Golding (who joined Nick Saban’s Bama staff) have departed. New d.c. Jason Rollins will likely keep the 4-2-5 alignments used by Golding, with jr. LB Joshua Tauaefa (a Frosh A-A in 2016) a possible breakout star after missing much of last fall with injuries. Davenport's spot could be filled by touted juco DE Lorenzo Dantzler. Another injury casualty last season, soph CB Teddrick McGhee, missed all of 2017 but appears ready to go in the fall. A “pedigree” name to watch is jr. NT King Newton, son of former NFL Pro Bowler Nate Newton.

A slow start might be expected this fall with the rebuilt “O” and three Power 5 foes (Arizona State, a revenge-minded Baylor, and Kansas State) out of the chute, with only the Baylor game at the Alamodone. But if the strike force comes around, UTSA should have a shot at its second bowl, as the schedule eases considerably after the challenging opening. Much depends on what Borges can do on the offensive end, as all indicators are that the “D” should be robust once more.

Spread-wise, interesting to note that the Roadrunners were favored in 10 of their 11 games last season (the Houston opener was a Hurricane Harvey casualty), but only covered 2 of those 10, dropping their chalk mark to a woeful 7-19 since 2014. As an underdog, however, Wilson’s UTSA is 6-2 the past two seasons.

It is fair to ask why Dana Dimel, or anyone not desperate for a paycheck, would take the reins at UTEP (2017 SUR 0-12; PSR 2-9-1; O/U 3-7-2) after the Miners were almost ceded to Juarez, Mexico just a four-wood across the Rio Grande from campus, following a hideous winless mark a year ago. Things started bad (a 56-7 loss at Oklahoma) for UTEP and got progressively worse; within three weeks the o.c. had been fired, and two weeks later HC Sean Kugler walked the plank. All before Columbus Day. Summoned to keep the Miner ship from capsizing was former HC Mike Price, but after a near-miss in his return to the sideline vs. Western Kentucky, Price was ready to return to the golf course a few weeks later as the efforts got steadily worse and the home crowds steadily smaller. We’re not even sure the dust storm has lifted yet at the Sun Bowl after the Miners would rank last nationally in both scoring (11.8 ppg) and total offense (barely 230 ypg). For Dimel, who a generation ago succeeded Joe Tiller at Wyoming and did well enough to get hired at Houston, it’s a last chance to re-establish his HC credentials after spending the past nine years on Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff. Maybe there is a method to Dimel’s madness; if the Miners do better than expected, perhaps he could get in the queue at his alma mater to succeed Snyder. Dimel’s credentials would certainly be burnished if he can forge any sort of a turnaround in El Paso.

Dimel’s background as an o.c. on two different occasions for Snyder might have helped his candidacy at UTEP, which had to hire someone with chops on that side of the ball after the offense stalled last fall. The spring game suggested that the pigskin will be flying this fall at the Sun Bowl after Miner QBs went to the air 63 times. At some point, touted juco dual-threat Kai Locksley would figure to win the job, though holdover Ryan Metz, who has started games each of the last two years, remains in the mix. C-USA sources suggest the receiving talent is not as bad as last year’s numbers suggest and that the new Dimel scheme might unlock sorts such sr. wideouts Kavika Johnson and Warren Redix, who enjoyed the new-found attention and emphasis in spring. We’ll see, however, if Dimel can balance the offense on the ground, and how much the OL might miss punishing G Will Hernandez, a 2nd-round pick by the Giants last April.

Whatever improvements Dimel and o.c. Mike Canales might squeeze out of the “O” might go for naught if the “D” doesn’t begin to stop the run, which it hasn’t done too well since the school was known as Texas Western in the ‘60s, and last year’s porous 120th rank in rush defense confirms. New d.c. Mike Cox began to implement new 4-2-5 looks in the spring, and has several pieces in place (maybe not a good thing) from a stop unit that among other horror-inducing stats allowed 32 rush TDs in 2016. Passing against the Miners was a bit tougher a season ago, perhaps because foes were running instead, as returning corners Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly were regarded as two of the best in C-USA. The 4-2-5 seems a decent idea with the strength (such as it is) and depth of the platoon in the secondary. All things considered, the “D” did not hold up too badly last season considering the “O” never scored more than 21 points.

Unless UTEP moves to the Southland Conference, there is no such thing as a schedule break for the Miners, but aside from a trip to Tennessee (which is breaking in its own new coach), the non-league portion of the slate is not especially frightening, and, let’s face it, C-USA is not the SEC. No one is expecting miracles in El Paso, but Dimel is not a head coaching newbie, and punched above his weight for a few years at Wyoming with a 22-13 SU mark. Even though that was long time ago (1997-99), most insiders believe the Miners could have done a lot worse with this hire. Maybe the new lighter shade of orange on the helmets will help a bit, too.

Spread-wise, like almost everything a year ago, things went kaput (2-9-1). The best UTEP team of the Kugler era, the 2014 entry that made it to the New Mexico Bowl, made a spread fortress out of the Sun Bowl (undefeated in six at home vs. line that season), which will be a good place for Dimel to start.

There really was a time when Rice (2017 SUR 1-11; PSR 4-8; O/U 6-6) was a formidable gridiron presence. Why, back in 1957, Jess Neely’s Owls were good enough to win the old Southwest Conference and advance to the Cotton Bowl, where they would lose to one of the best Navy teams. Two Rice QBs would be NFL draftees after that season; King Hill, the number one overall pick by the Chicago Cardinals, and Frank Ryan, a fifth-round pick of the Rams who would go on to a more decorated pro career, winning a title along the way with the Browns in 1964 and earning a his doctorate, preceding an eventual (and distinguished) career in applied sciences. Neely would keep Rice relevant into the mid 60s, and the Owls would hire Bill Peterson away from Florida State (my, how times have changed!) in 1971. But in the last 56 seasons, the Owls have made it to bowls only five times, four of those under David Bailiff, who nonetheless walked the plank after last year’s 1-11. Considering the obstacles at Rice, with its high academic standards and among the smallest enrollments in the FBS ranks, we’d have thought naming a campus building after Bailiff might have been more appropriate.

Apparently, someone still wants to win at the school, so the Owls have switched coaches for the first time since 2007. Mike Bloomgren, most recently an assistant to David Shaw at Stanford, inherits what has been a mostly-thankless task since the LBJ Administration. Wide-eyed, Bloomgren seems intent on importing the Palo Alto model, emphasizing a physical style of play. That sort of bully ball has been almost as foreign at Rice as humid-free summers in Houston, but we admire Bloomgren’s spunk, if nothing else.

This pro-style offense needs to identify lots of new parts after returning only two starters from last season. Though not without experience; jr. QB Jackson Tyner has seen action the past two years and exited spring as the favorite to win the job after Miklo Smalls, who performed with some flair as a true frosh last fall, left school to enroll at a JC. The new Bloomgren offense will likely feature RS jr. RB Emmanuel Esukpa, who gained 165 yards in the spring game, as the Owls’ version of Bryce Love. (Well, that’s what Bloomgren hopes.) But a nearly new OL that lost four starters including key LT Calvin Anderson, who transferred to Texas, would seem unlikely to emerge as Stanford-like road-graders. Soph wideout Aaron Cephus was a dangerous deep threat last season when averaging almost 25 yards on his 24 catches; expect him to be targeted often when Rice isn’t trying to play smash-mouth. (Rice and smash-mouth...still doesn’t quite click.)

While Bloomgren talks about installing Stanford’s offense, he might want to bring along the defense from The Farm, too, after almost every foe did what it wished to the Owls a year ago (including Bloomgren’s Stanford, which dropped a 62-point bomb in the Sydney opener). New d.c. Brian Smith has moved from Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan staff and stresses strong man coverage on the back end, which seems a worthwhile fundamental change after last year’s platoon recorded a meager 3 picks, partly responsible for nation’s worst -23 TO margin. There might be a couple of playmakers in this mix (maybe DT Roe Wilkins, whose 6.5 sacks were best for a CUSA interior lineman last fall, and soph FS George Nyakwol), and regional sources say true frosh LB Antonio Montero is worth a look. But Rice hasn’t won with its defense since the Neely years a long time ago.

Bloomgren might have wanted to check the Owls’ schedule before taking this job; non-conference tests include crosstown Houston, Wake Forest, and LSU, all bowl teams last season, though maybe Bloomgren just wanted to get to Hawaii, a foe from the old WAC days and where Rice plays September 8. While we will give Bloomgren time before judging this hire, no one in Houston is expecting anything from the Owls this season, so we won’t either.

Spread-wise, keep in mind that better Rice editions from the Bailiff and Kenny Hatfield eras often posted some decent numbers, as the Owls have been routinely discounted for decades. But Rice has been just 10-19 as a dog the past four years as Bailiff’s one-time spread magic went poof.