Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 13:57 PM
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Conference USA - East Division
To many, Butch Davis dropped off of the radar when his coaching career at North Carolina ended somewhat ignominiously in 2011, apparently running afoul of the NCAA (which, in its subsequent report, never mentioned Davis by name; when it comes to the NCAA and Chapel Hill, what ever makes sense anyway? But we digress...). To those who might not be paying attention to what has been going on lately in Conference USA (don’t worry, we won’t hold it against you), Davis resurfaced at Florida International (2018 SU 9-4; ATS 10-3; O/U 8-5) and quickly made the Golden Panthers relevant, with bowl visits in each of his two years in charge. Time, perhaps, to begin to acknowledge Davis as one of the underappreciated coaches of his generation?
After all, he re-ignited the Miami Hurricanes program before taking a stab in te NFL with the recently-reincarnated Browns, whose only playoff qualification in their second iteration has come under Davis in 2002. Butch then won consistently at Chapel Hill before quickly getting FIU on the right track. It’s the proverbial good fit for everyone in Miami, with the Golden Panthers more than happy to have such an accomplished coach, and the 67-year-old Davis intending to make this the last stop of a long career that first came to prominence as Jimmy Johnson’s d.c. for Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl winners in the early ‘90s, after a decade working for Johnson at Oklahoma State and “the U” before moving to the NFL.
The pieces are in place for not only another bowl run but something much more meaningful for the Golden Panthers this fall (we’ll get to the schedule dynamics in a moment). The key link on offense, former Bowling Green transfer QB James Morgan, remains in the fold for another year after becoming a revelation in 2018 with almost 2800 YP and 26 TDS (vs. just 7 interceptions) and pacing an attack that led C-USA in scoring at nearly 35 ppg. Morgan even missed the Bahamas Bowl win over Toledo due to injury but was back in the mix in spring and welcomes most of his key receiving targets; nine of the top ten pass-catchers from 2018 return, led by WR Maurice Alexander (40 catches LY). The top four rushers are also back for an encore, paced by slashing jr. D’Vonte Price (560 YR in 2018). The question on the attack end is along the OL where four starters must be replaced, though many of last year’s rotation pieces will simply slide into the starting lineup, and LG Logan Gunderson is a touted juco addition. And when drives stall, there’s always jr. PK Jose Borregales, who nailed five FGs of better than 40 yards a year ago.
Davis, a defensive coach by trade, was working with co-d.c.’s Jeff Copp and Jerod Kruse in spring to improve techniques and coverages for the D, but enough playmakers return to make the Golden Panthers respectable once again on the stop end. Especially in the secondary, which probably rates as the best in C-USA if not the entirety of the Group of 5 ranks, with three of four starters from an accomplished 2018 pass defense still in the mix. Last year’s switch of the regal sounding Stanley Thomas-Oliver from WR to CB paid dividends when he broke up a team-high 10 passes. Senior MLB Sage Lewis led C-USA in both solo (83) and total (132) tackles a year ago. The concern on the platoon is shoring up the run defense that leaked a bit much last season, hoping to set up more second-and-long and third-and-long situations that ought to play right into the hands of the ballhawks in the secondary who helped key the Golden Panthers’ C-USA best TO margin (+9).
Oh yes, that schedule. It is not beyond reason to project FIU at 9-0 heading into the home stretch in November. That's when things could get very dicey, closing with East showdown games at nearby FAU in the Shula Bowl and Marshall, sandwiched around a rare home date vs. the local Miami Hurricanes who were convinced to play the Golden Panthers on the road in a venue that seats about 45,000 less than their Hard Rock Stadium home a few miles north. September dates at Tulane and La Tech are tricky, but the Golden Panthers have a better than puncher’s chance vs. each, and a third straight bowl for the first time in school history should be a lay-up. No surprise if the East title comes down to the finale on the road vs. the Thundering Herd. And who knows? If everything falls into place, FIU could become an unlikely contender for a New Year’s Six bowl spot reserved for the top Group of 5 entry.
Spread-wise, FIU was one of the nation’s best performers a year ago when recording a 10-3 mark against the number, including covers in all six games away from home. The Golden Panthers were also 4-0 as a dog, and Davis has now covered his last six getting points in regular-season action. Also note that Davis is 6-0 as a home dog the past two seasons, though only 2-6 as chalk at FIU Stadium that span. The Golden Panthers also covered all five of their games outside of C-USA a year ago.
They’re used to winning at Marshall (2018 SU 9-4; ATS 5-8; O/U 9-4), which looks to have made a pretty good deal for itself when hiring Doc Holliday off of the West Virginia staff nine years ago. All Holliday has done is stabilize a program that had stagnated for predecessor Mark Snyder. Best of all, Holliday (70-46 in nine seasons at Huntington) has never appeared interested in leaving the Herd, which gave him his first head coaching opportunity at the age of 53. Having spent most of his life in the state (including playing days in the late 70s for the Mountaineers), Holliday has proven a great fit at Marshall, while using his connections in the south that were developed during assistant stints at NC State and Florida to good advantage. The Sunshine State pipeline continues pumping at Marshall, too, as several Floridians, along with Georgians, dominate the latest Herd list of recruits.
With seven starters back from a well-balanced offense that gained 166 ypg rushing and 228 ypg passing a year ago, Doc looks to have another C-USA contender on his hands. Plenty of upside exists for soph QB Isaiah Green, who still had a few rough spots to smooth over as a frosh but ended up passing for almost 2500 yards and 15 TDs in his debut, earning a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman team in the process. There is established depth in the backfield with RBs Tyler King (656 YR before a midseason leg injury) and Brenden Knox (655 YR after taking over the featured role following King’s injury). Though Green will be looking for another go-to target after the departure of WR Tyre Brady (NFL Jags camp this summer), who led Herd receivers each of the past two years, VPI transfer Tavin Richardson could alleviate some of those concerns, while sr. Obi Obialo (42 catches in 2018) emerged as a solid possession receiver a year ago. Four starters also return along the OL plus 350-lb. LT Josh Ball, who started nine games at Florida State in 2017 before transferring to Butler JC last fall. Holliday thinks he hit a homerun with the hire of his new d.c., Brad Lambert, who fashioned one of the region’s gnarliest stop units while HC at Charlotte a year ago. The key will be replacing four starters along a front seven that helped the Herd post the nation’s 8th-best rushing defense a year ago. To fortify the line, Lambert moved Ty Tyler from DE to DT in spring, which also provided room for Darius Hodge (who played well late in 2018) and Koby Cumberlander to get on the field at the same time and pressure opposing QBs from DE spots. Even though decorated S Malik Grant left a year early for the NFL Draft, the strength of the platoon should be the secondary which returns plenty of experience, including sr. CB Chris Jackson, who will become a 4-year starter in the fall. For the first time in five years, Marshall doesn’t get any Power 5 conference foes on the schedule. But don’t think the Herd is taking it easy, as a trip to perennial Group of 5 power Boise State, plus a home date vs. a Cincinnati side that won 11 games a year ago, highlights the non-league portion of the slate. There’s also a Huntington date vs. Frank Solich’s Ohio squad that might be the preseason pick to win the MAC. Even if the Herd comes up empty in all of those, expect Doc to get Marshall back to its sixth bowl in seven seasons, and perhaps involved in a C-USA East showdown for all of the marbles in the season-ender on November 30 vs. Butch Davis and FIU.
Spread-wise, Holliday has alternated winning and losing seasons the past four years, though recently has performed much the best in the underodg role (8-2 the past two seasons, with 6-0 of that coming in 2017). Also note four straight wins and covers in openers, though this year that will mean laying a mountain of points to big underdog VMI. And when we get to December, don’t forget six straight wins and covers in bowls for Holliday, with the Herd actually 7-0 SU and vs. the line in howls since 2009 (the year before Doc arrived) after last December’s 38-20 romp past USF in the St. Pete Gasparilla Bowl.
We’re sure glad Lane Kiffin hasn’t decided to paraphrase Richard Nixon’s famous quote after losing the Caifornia gubernatorial election to Pat Brown in 1962 (“You don’t have Kiffin to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference”). We rather enjoy the unpredictability and inanity of Kiffin, who’s a bit on the periphery these days at Florida Atlantic (2018 SU 5-7; ATS 3-8-1; O/U 6-6). Boca Raton is a long way from the Southern Cal, Tennessee, Alabama, and the Oakland Raiders, all employers of Kiffin at one time or another the past 12 years. And after a rousing 11-3 breakthrough and C-USA title in his maiden season with the Owls in 2017, many believed Kiffin’s stay at FAU would be brief. But no serious offers materialized, and it can't be the fault of super-agent Jimmy Sexton, whose powers of persuasion are probably good enough to get Sean Hannity hired atCNN. So, while the bridges burned in the past are still under some repair, Kiffin, for the moment, seems content in Boca Raton, though for now probably had no other choice as the "Lane Train" from 2017 never got on the tracks in the dip to 5-7 a year ago. Which meant Sexton’s cell phone wasn’t buzzing with calls from many Kiffin suitors last winter.
With two such differing campaigns on Kiffin’s watch at FAU, the Owls rate as a bit of a hard team to peg entering the fall. The departure of almost all of the top skill-position weapons, including ultra-productive RB Devin Singletary (1348 YR in 2018 plus 66 career TDs), from last year’s 31 ppg offense, suggests a return to 2017 form might be a bit far-fetched. Though Kiffin’s offensive mindset and up-tempo attack, honed at the knee of the respected Norm Chow during Pete Carroll’s days at USC, remains capable of big production. It might simply come down to getting improved QB play for the Owls to soar again this fall, and for a time in spring it looked as if ex-Florida State pilot Deondre Francois was about to enroll in Boca Raton. But Francis was ultimately denied admission and at last report was looking at landing spots in the SWAC, leaving the QB spot to returnee Chris Robison, who has had something of a rollercoaster career to date.
That might be putting it mildly; Robison had already been dismissed at Oklahoma before taking a snap at FAU, where he stared 11 of 12 games a year ago, before another suspension in January related to a sexual battery allegation. Those charges were eventually dropped and Robison reinstated in June, but not before he would miss all of spring practice. Regional observers expect Robison to beat out Indiana transfer Nick Tronti and take snaps again in the fall, but after just 12 TDP and 12 picks a year ago, there is room for improvement while Kiffin and staff hope that Robison (who was earlier kicked out of OU for public intoxication) has grown up and will become a bit more responsible like Baker Mayfield and not another Johnny Manziel.
Kiffin’s job is cut out for him in the fall, however, after so many of his skill performers opted early for the NFL Draft; besides Buffalo Bills draftee Singletary, backup RB Kenneth Whyte and his 866 YR were drafted by the Bears in the 7th round, and key WR Jovan Durante and his 65 catches in 2018 also left early. Durante’s departure, on top of four other wideouts who transferred out, has left the Owls a bit thin at WR, though Robison still has some established targets in slot-back Willie Wright (46 catches last year) and TE Harrison Bryant (45 catches in 2018), who has NFL scouts interested. During his o.c. days at Bama, Kiffin became familiar with RB B.J. Emmons, who has transferred from Tuscaloosa and likely to get the first crack at taking most of Singletary’s carries. The OL got good news in the offseason when C Junior Diaz was granted a sixth year of eligibility.
Kiffin is also working on his third d.c. in as many years after Tony Pecorano’s stint did not go well in 2018. But Kiffin thinks he has landed a ringer in ex-Charlotte d.c. Glenn Spencer, who coordinated a surprisingly-stout 49er defense last fall before getting the boot with the rest of Brad Lambert’s staff. Players were said to have embraced Spencer’s read-and-react schemes in spring, with sr. OLB Rashad Smith appearing the star of the platoon after leading FAU in tackles a year ago. Up front, a couple of former transfers, ex-USC Noah Jefferson and ex-juco Charles Cameron, look like potential disruptors on the 4-man line. Sources believe FAU might have as much talent as any C-USA team in the secondary, with jr. SS Zyon Gilbert a likely future NFL draftee. If we admire anything about FAU, it’s the Owls’ machismo; after getting napalmed by Oklahoma 63-14 in the opener last season that got 2018 off on the wrong foot, Kiffin draws...Ohio State in Columbus to kick things off this season. Then comes UCF, which at least will be trekking to Boca Raton, but has lost just once over the last two seasons combined, and dropped a 56-point bomb on the Owls a year ago in Orlando. If Kiffin can find a suitable QB and a runner to replace the ultra-productive Singletary, however, it would be no surprise if FAU has fully recovered by time of a midseason East showdown at home vs. Marshall. There should be enough wins in this schedule to get Kiffin back to a bowl, but we are not holding our breath for anything resembling the 11-3 fun ride of two years ago.
Spread-wise, Kiffin authored a cautionary tale last fall; be careful not to assume spread success will continue from one year to the next. After FAU closed 2017 on a 10-2-1 spread uptick, the Owls sagged to 3-8-1 a season ago, when Kiffin also covered just 1 of 8 chances as chalk after a 9-2 mark laying points in 2017. FAU also dropped all four vs. the line in non-league play last season.
Forgive us for sometimes thinking that QB Brent Stockstill was as much a permanent fixture at MiddleTennessee (2018 SU 8-6; ATS 8-6; O/U 7-7) as his dad, head coach Rick, the former QB for some of Bobby Bowden’s best early editions at Florida State and beginning his 14th season as a Murfreesboro institution this fall. But it only seemed as if the young Stockstill had ten years of eligibility with the Blue Raiders, for whom he totaled 12,483 passing yards in a decorated career. And, for what it’s worth, papa Rick had taken MTSU to four bowls even before his son took a college snap. For the latter reason, we don’t expect the Blue Raiders to drop off of the map this fall, as if nothing else, the program has achieved a level of consistency for Stockstill. Thus getting back to a fifth straight postseason appearance appears within reach, even though MTSU is not rated among the favorites in the East.
But since Brent (who, by the way, decided not to give it a go as a free agent in NFL camps this summer and has instead embarked upon a coaching career like his dad, and hired as an assistant by Lane Kiffin at FAU) is no longer taking snaps, lots of attention is going to be paid to the QB spot in Murfreesboro. Holdover soph Asher O’Hara saw brief work in relief of Stockstill as a frosh, though most eyes at MTSU seem to be on juco transfer Randall Johnson, a bruising 235-lb. dual threat who also rushed for almost 800 yards at Reedley (Cal.) College last fall. Stockstill and o.c. Tony Franklin, a spread devotee, are likely to work in some calls to take advantage of Johnson’s mobility, which should also help an infantry that generated only 133 ypg a year ago, ranking 108th. Electric soph RB Chaton Mobley, who gained 660 YR as a frosh, should benefit from having another runner in the backfield, even if it's the QB (should Johnson win the job). Senior WR Ty Lee also returns after a team-best 71 catches a year ago, and soph wideout Zack Dobson hinted at becoming a big-play threat as a frosh. The question mark remains an OL that struggled at times the past two seasons and will not have the benefit of protecting a QB with a quick release as Brent Stockstill the past few years.
The Blue Raiders have also evolved defensively the past couple of seasons years under former Syracuse HC Scott Shafer, whose blitz packages helped MTSU force the most turnovers in C-USA a year ago. Though only five starters return, safeties Jovante Moffatt (who lead MTSU with 101 tackles in 2017 before missing much of last season with a shoulder injury) and Reed Blankenship (team-best 107 tackles LY) might be two of the top NFL prospects in the league and provide extra cover in the last line of defense. OLBs Khalil Brooks and D.Q. Thomas also each recorded 14.5 tackles for loss a year ago and provide reliable pressure from the edge. But finding a new pair of CBs and developing some depth will be crucial factors to the platoon preventing a step backwards this fall.
Schedule-wise, MTSU usually doesn’t duck anyone in non-conference play and won’t this fall, either, as the Blue Raiders will be substituting their normal paydays at SEC locales for trips into the Big Ten at Michigan and Iowa. Stockstill does get Duke, another annual bowl qualifier these days, at home, and we think it’s interesting how a school like MTSU can have a far more-challenging non-conference slate than almost any entry from the SEC or ACC. (We’re not holding our breath, however, for Georgia or Alabama or Clemson to schedule games at Michigan and Iowa). If MTSU isn’t too beaten up by its challenging non-C USA slate, it might be able to slip into a fifth straight bowl, and if it does so will probably be rallying down the stretch when the schedule eases considerably in November.
Spread-wise, Stockstill has been remarkably consistent, right around .500 each season for the past several years, much as his SU record. Within those numbers, the Blue Raiders have performed best lately at home, covering 8 of 12 at Murfreesboro the past two seasons. One positive for MTSU this season is no Vandy, as Derek Mason has made sure his Commodores handled the nearby Blue Raiders, winning and covering each of the four meetings since 2015. MTSU has also lost big and failed to cover its last three on the road vs. Power 5 foes, which might not bode well for trips to Big Ten land at Michigan and Iowa. Just in case Stockstill reaches the postseason, note he’s covered in just 1 of his last 6 bowl visits.
Well, so much for loyalty! Tasked with the difficult assignment of getting a start-up program at Charlotte (2018 SU 5-7; ATS 7-5; O/U 6-6) competitive at the FBS level after two ramp-up seasons, you’d think that Brad Lambert would have been due a little slack after the 49ers just missed bowl eligibility a year ago when finishing 5-7. But Lambert also hadn’t produced a winning record in six campaigns, so maybe it wasn’t a matter of Charlotte doing a George Steinbrenner imitation after all. Whatever, Lambert was moved out after last season and replaced by 34-year-old Will Healy, who thinks inheriting the 49er job is a dream compared his last assignment at Austin Peay, which was 1-34 in the 35 games before Healy took command in Clarksville. After an 0-11 debut, his Guvs won a combined 13 games the next two seasons, including a second-place finish in the Ohio Valley. Healy’s enthusiasm is said to be infectious, which might be another reason he was brought to Charlotte, where the program needs a proper promoter to sell itself to a city more preoccupied with the NFL and NBA these days.
Though Healy could be as glib as Muhammad Ali once was and nobody outside Charlotte’s 980 area code would notice, he does inherit a few building blocks in this prototype under-the-radar assignment. Though only five starters return on offense, they include most of the key contributors, including blasting RB Benny ("Curtis") LeMay, who burned for 1243 YR a year ago without much help from the passing game. Top receiver Victor Tucker (54 catches, third among the nation’s frosh in 2018) and All-CUSA LT Cameron Clark are also still in the fold. As are both of the QBs (soph Chris Reynolds and former Miami transfer Evan Shirreffs) who took snaps a year ago. Though there is a chance that South Florida grad transfer Brett Kean, resigned to sitting behind Blake Barnett in Tampa and desiring a chance to play somewhere before his eligibility exhausted, could be taking snaps for Healy and o.c. Alex Atkins in the fall. With background as a passing game coordinator during his pre-Peay assistant days at Chattanooga, expect Healy’s offense to be a bit more creative, if northing else, than the Lambert offenses that mostly lacked personality or identity. Look for plenty of zone-read as well as play-action on passing downs in the new-style 49er offense, which will also have to re-school the OL (two starters back, including aforementioned LT Clark) in the fall.
The encouragement at Jerry Richardson Stadium, however, is on the defensive side where a robust collection of eight starters return from what was quietly one of the better platoons in the region last season. You could win a few bar bets and fool adversaries who might have no idea that the 49ers ranked 9th nationally vs. the rush and a very respectable 22nd overall a year ago. Healy is hoping that his preferred 4-2-5 looks translate to the returning personnel., which features All-CUSA DE Alex Highsmith and last year’s top two 49er tacklers, S Ben DeLuca and LB Jeff Gemmell. Tennessee grad transfer CB Marquill Osborne played three years for the Vols and could work his way into the lineup.
No game is a gimme for Charlotte, so we’re hesitant to forecast a real breakthrough. But we’ll say that it is very likely the 49ers split their non-conference games (wins at home vs. Gardner-Webb and UMass; a likely loss on the road at App State...and, well, do we have to comment upon the game at Clemson?). But given that Charlotte was one win from bowl eligibility last fall, it would be no surprise to see Healy get the 49ers competitive this fall. After all, compared to the rebuild Healy had to deal with at Austin Peay, he might feel like he’s at Notre Dame this year.
Spread-wise, Charlotte’s brief history at the FBS level has seen the 49ers live almost exclusively as an underdog; Lambert’s teams were made favorites just four times in the past four seasons combined. Within those parameters, Charlotte fared best as a home dog, especially the last two seasons when covering 6 of 9 getting points at Jerry Richardson Stadium. We assume new HC Healy is going to be working within some of the same pointsprad parameters this term.
The ride has become pretty bumpy the last couple of years at Old Dominion (2018 SU 4-8; ATS 5-7; O/U 9-3), which made a smooth transition to the FBS ranks and even earned a bowl bid in 2016 for HC Bobby Wilder, who has overseen a revival of the program in Norfolk that resurrected in 2009. Wilder quickly got the Monarchs relevant in the FCS ranks and featured a swashbuckling QB, Taylor Heinicke, who won the Walter Payton and Dudley Awards in 2012 and continues to kick around in the NFL, where he is likely to be featured again in August as Cam Newton’s primary backup for the Panthers. After the move up the FBS level and C-USA, Wilder continued to get good QB play from a converted WR, David Washington, in the Bahamas Bowl season of 2016, though QB play has sagged since. As has the defense, which really struggled in 2018 (more on the stop unit in a moment).But Wilder remains well-respected, and proved he could cobble together some big efforts when the Monarchs won outright twice a year ago as heavy double-digit underdogs against Virginia Tech and North Texas.
To be a bit more consistent and perhaps get in the bowl mix again this season, more reliability is needed from the QBs, though ODU did score better than 30 ppg a year ago. Who orchestrates the offense remains to be seen; Blake LaRussa, who piloted last year’s huge upset of VPI, left school to join the seminary, and soph Steven Williams, who as a 17-year frosh in 2017 was thrown to the wolves and earned C-USA All-Frosh honors, likely contributes more at WR this fall. A pair of jucos, all-name Messiah deWeaver (he’d better be good with a first name like that) and Stone Smartt, will likely resolve their battle for the starting job in fall. Wilder has enlisted ex-Virginia Tech aide Bryan Stinespring to enliven what was a sporadic infantry a season ago, and improvement there will be important as not only will Wilder be likely breaking in a new QB, but 92% of last season’s receptions have also departed. It is hoped that VPI transfer Eric Kumah, who caught 42 passes for 7 TDs with the Hokies last fall, could become a force in C-USA. Though in all, Gs Tony Barnett and Isaac Weaver are the only starters returning on the attack end.
Whatever might happen when ODU has the ball, there won’t be a return to a bowl for the first time since 2016 if the D doesn’t make upgrades from a leaky platoon that allowed nearly 36 ppg and ranked in triple digits in all relevant categories last season, including a poor 118th in total defense. Seeking improvement, Wilder enlisted vet d.c. David Blackwell, who has experienced past success at ECU, Jacksonville State, and Fordham with his aggressive 4-2-5 schemes. Blackwell’s employment of a “Bandit” (a versatile OLB used to attack QBs when not dropping back into pass coverage) is one main difference from a year ago, though effectively replacing star DE Oshane Ximines (3rd round pick of the Giants) will be crucial. Soph Marcus Haynes, a DE last fall, seamlessly stepped into the new Bandit role in spring. Still, only four starters return, so Wilder and Blackwell hit the jucos hard looking for a quick fix; 11 of those alone arrive to help on the stop end.
Though ODU ought to be able to break quickly with its opener against cross-town Norfolk State, we’re not sure this Monarch edition is up to facing the two ACC big boys from the Commonwealth in the next two games. Especially with both on the road; more especially with VPI looking to avenge last year’s stunning 49-35 loss as a near 4-TD favorite in Norfolk, before the Monarchs are saddled as a big underdog at Virginia on September 21. What appear to be the more-winnable C-USA games are being played at home, but after getting overrun on so many occasions last season, we’re not sure there’s enough offense in Norfolk to compensate and get ODU back into the bowl mix.
Spread-wise, the brief period of magic that Wilder experienced in 2016 has been absent the past two seasons as the Monarchs have underachieved vs. the number. ODU has been particularly unreliable as chalk, covering just 2 of 8 tries the past two campaigns. Wilder has also covered just 4 of 11 in Norfolk the past two seasons after an undefeated mark in his preceding eight games (7-0-1) as host.
What in the name of Vance Joseph is going on at Western Kentucky (2018 SU 3-9; PR 6-5-1; O/U 5-7)? It wasn’t quite the demolition job that we saw at New Mexico when Mike Lockelsy was in charge of the Lobos a decade ago, but the precipitous drop the Hilltoppers endured from the heady years of the Jeff Brohm era suggested a blown coaching hire. To their credit, WKU administrators admitted their mistake on Mike Sanford, who merely became the latest decorated coordinator ill-suited to a head coaching job. Not even a brief rally at the end of a desultory 3-9 campaign last fall could save Sanford, who, like NFL counterpart Joseph in Denver, would last just two disappointing years on the job.
Riding to the rescue in Bowling Green is brash Tyson Helton, a former aide on Brohm’s Hilltopper staffs and most recently the o.c. at Tennessee. If the last name sounds familiar it’s because brother Clay is HC at USC (where Tyson was QB coach and passing game coordinator during 2016-17), and papa Kim was HC a couple of decades ago for the Houston Cougars. Unlike the personable, but a bit droll, Clay, Tyson is a buzzsaw of energy, outgoing and effervescent. Though Dale Carnegie students will think that’s all swell, will WKU regret going the coordinator route as it did with Sanford, who was also a well-regarded, up-and-comer from the offensive side hired a couple of years ago?
Helton does inherit plenty of experience on attack, where nine starters return, but we’re not sure that’s a good thing after WKU sagged to 118th nationally in scoring at just 21 ppg, a far cry from the 44 ppg offense the Tops featured when Helton was last on staff at this locale with Brohm. Improved play at QB is a must; it could come from Arkansas grad transfer Ty Storey, who passed for 11 TDs and almost 1600 yards last year for the Razorbacks, and who likely gets the nod heading into fall over holdover jr. Steven Duncan, who flashed a bit of upside when taking over the job down the stretch in 2018. Most of the key weapons return, including slashing RB Joshua Samuel (641 YR in 2018), and top pass-catcher Lucky Jackson (51 catches LY). The OL is also back en masse. But the big play was mostly absent from the WKU attack the past two years, and one of the first chores of Helton and his new o.c. Bryan Ellis is to better stretch the field.
Helton thought enough of d.c. Clayton White to hold him over in the same role from the Sanford staff. White’s 4-2-5 looks should feature familiar pressure from the edge where DEs DeAngelo Malone and Juwaun Jones generated a recurring push a year ago. The transfer of LB Ben Holt (LY’s leading tackler now playing for dad Nick, who is d.c. at Purdue, with Brohm) was a bit of an offseason jolt, as was the spring foot injury suffered by former Kentucky transfer LB Eli Brown, who on occasion resembled a real playmaker last fall but whose status for 2019 remained a bit up in the air into summer. There is some returning experience in the secondary with CB Roger Cray and SS Devon Key both C-USA honors candidates. Six starters return for a stop unit that mostly held its own a year ago, not always easy with the offensive shortcomings, all of which impressed Helton enough to keep d.c. White on board.
Schedule-wise, we suppose Helton could have it worse, though we cringe at the Army matchup in mid-October, with no extra time to prepare for the punishing Black Knight option and accompanying brutal trench warfare. And if Louisville and Arkansas improve to prior levels after their respective poor efforts of 2017, the non-conference part of the slate could end up looking downright diabolical. If one assumes that all of the Tops’ problems the past two years were simply down to Sanford being over his head, perhaps a quick recovery is in the cards. (And that seems to be a popular opinion in Las Vegas.) But we’re not so sure; Helton is awfully reminiscent of predecessor Sanford two years ago, and unless Helton’s rah-rah ignites a spark, maybe the recent slide continues. We’re not ready to impose a glass half-full scenario just yet for WKU.
Spread-wise, Sanford recovered slightly a year ago (6-5-1 vs. line, compared to 4-9 in 2017) as the Tops took advantage of some heavy numbers laid by the opposition, but the better days of the Brohm era still seemed way back in the rear-view mirror. Note that WKU was a double-digit dog five times alone last season compared to just three times for the entirety of the preceding Brohm regime (2014-16). Will Helton get the benefit of big prices as did Sanford a year ago?
Conference USA - West Division
He’s found his niche. We’re talking about HC Skip Holtz, whose career looked like it might be at a dead end a few years ago at South Florida, only to be revived at Louisiana Tech (2018 SU 8-5; ATS 7-6, O/U 4-9). Indeed, the Bulldogs have become an annual fixture on ESPN’s Bowl Week with five straight postseason appearances. Holtz has won all of those, too, including a rousing 31-14 success in the Hawaii Bowl last December, rallying to pull clear of the host Rainbow Warriors in the second half at Honolulu. Though most believe Holtz is perfectly content to see out the rest of his career in Ruston, he has been peripherally mentioned as a candidate for Power 5 jobs in recent years, and it would not surprise us to see Holtz, now 55, get another chance at a bigger locale, and a corresponding paycheck, after earlier successes at UConn ((as the Huskies were getting ready to transition to the old D-I level, now the FBS, in the late ‘90s) and East Carolina, neither a place where winning comes very easily.
Holtz, who adopted the spread offense rather quickly upon his hire at Tech, has featured some high-octane attacks in Ruston, though the Bulldogs flew at a bit lower altitude last year as they struggled often to score points (just 24.7 ppg ranked 97th). Yet the thought remains among many C-USA onlookers that the best is still to come from sr. QB J’Mar Smith, who disappointed a bit io his second year as a starter but reminded all of his upside in the bowl win at Aloha Stadium. Smith, though, needs to become a bit more efficient this fall after tossing just 15 TDs along with his 3160 yards a year ago. He has some established targets, including last year’s breakout star, WR Adrian Hardy, who caught 75 passes good for 1145 yards in 2018. Regional sources also say to watch electric RS frosh “Smoke” Harris, a 5-6 whippet who wowed ‘em in spring and could be a dangerous combo deep threat/kick return threat. The ground game did disappoint a year ago, but Tech runners usually find room to rumble in space, and injuries are partly to blame for no Bulldog reaching 1000 YR for the first time in four years. If sr. RB Jaqwis Dancy can stay healthy, he could be dangerous, given that he’s averaged almost 6 ypc in his career. The OL has experience with six who have started in the past, and will be looking to fit in a couple of jumbo-sized juco transfers, G Antawn Lewis and T Carter Habich.
We actually have less concern about the offense than the D which has performed at a fairly high level the past couple of years, but will be minus its coordinator (Blake Baker, off to work for Manny Diaz at Miami) and NCAA career sack leader DE Jaylon Ferguson (3rd round pick of the Ravens). Vet d.c. Bob Diaco, who had considerable success in the past in the same role for Brian Kelly’s defenses at Cincinnati and Notre Dame (we won’t talk about Diaco’s difficult ride as HC at UConn, where Holtz was a predecessor), knows the ropes but will have to decide if he wants to scale back the aggressive schemes of the Baker defense. Diaco inherits a vet secondary full of ballhawks among its four returning starters led by All-CUSA CB Amik Robertson (nine picks the past two years, the most of any returning player in the nation), who is likely to hear his name called in an upcoming NFL Draft. In spring, Diaco toyed with the idea of moving CB L’Jarius Sneed to a safety spot. Many of last year’s rotation pieces will have opportunities to step into the starting lineup on the line, and still around to clean up is active LB Collin Scott, who lead Tech with 87 tackles to go along with a couple of picks, 4 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss a year ago.
Looking beyond the opener at Texas, the rest of the non-conference slate appears forgiving, as Holtz expects to be a solid favorite vs. Grambling, Bowling Green, and UMass. Though Tech does draw a bit tougher than other West contenders in its crossover games from the East (FIU and Marshall). Still, the West appears up for grabs. And the momentum the Bulldogs took into the offseason after the Hawaii Bowl win has infused the program with new confidence. Holtz has been a bowl regular the past five years and is a safe bet to be in the mix again in the West. A big year from sr. QB Smith, of which he is capable, could catapult Skip into the C-USA title game.
Spread-wise, Holtz has established himself as one of the top underdog coaches in the county; since 2014, La Tech is 16-6-1 getting points, and is 27-12-1 vs. the number away from Ruston. Conversely, the Bulldogs are apt to play to the level of their competition, and are only 3-9 vs. the line at home in Joe Aillet Stadium the past two years.
We have long known at TGS that some of the best coaches in college football are not necessarily those at the marquee programs. (That applies to college hoops as well, but we digress.)From the days before TGS was published and sorts such as Columbia’s Lou Little, to Vandy’s Art Guepe, to Navy and Virginia’s George Welsh, to Arizona, Purdue and Army’s Jim Young, present-day mentors such as Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Wake Forests’s Dave Clawson, and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, the collection of master coaches might also now include Bill Clark at UAB (2018 SU 11-3; ATS 10-4; O/U 6-8), whose credentials are so pristine we wonder if he could ever be properly appreciated at an SEC or ACC locale. Clark was a legendary high school coach in Alabama who won back-to-back state titles at Prattville High, won big in his only season at nearby FCS Jacksonville State (the home school of the Talladega Super Speedway), and has kept the Blazers punching well above their weight in Conference USA. And talk about dealing with adversity; as you might recall, UAB shut down its program for two years (2015-16), though with Clark under contract had to keep him on payroll. We knew Clark was good when he got the Blazers to an unexpected 6-6 in his Legion Field debut season of 2014. But for UAB to resurrect after two years off and actually improve defied logic and explanation. The post-resurrection Blazers are 2-for-2 in bowl trips and won Conference USA a year ago in an exciting 27-25 title win at MTSU.
After reviving the program from hibernation two years ago, a little thing like just three returning starters on offense should be no worry to Clark. Especially since one of those returnees is livewire soph QB Tyler Johnston III, who ignited the Blazers down the stretch last season, winning the C-USA title game in exciting fashion at Murfreesboro before passing for 373 yards in the Boca Raton Bowl romp past Northern Illinois. So much is the excitement for Johnston that they’re not even worried at the nearby Dreamland BBQ just up from campus on 14th Ave about the top five receivers all having departed, as sorts such as jr. Austin Watkins and sr. Kendall Parham simply need a chance to play. Opening up the aerial lanes could be the infantry diversion provided by slamming RB Spencer Brown (1227 YR & 16 rush TDs LY), who along with Johnston makes for a mighty 1-2 punch in the backfield. Only sr. C Lee Dufour returns among the starters on the OL, but other rotation pieces from last year have experience and are merely sliding into starting roles this fall.
That UAB could have a top ten defense in both scoring and overall a year ago, not to mention third nationally in sacks (48), just two years removed from the program being on ice, was perhaps Clark’s most remarkable achievement. Only five starters return, but once again, why should that worry the ultra-resourceful Clark? Seniors LB Fitzgerald Mofor (second in team tackles with 75 a year ago) and DE Garrett Marino were impact players last year, and a couple of transfers, 355-lb. juco DT Tony Fair, and ex-Florida and juco LB Jordan Smith (expected to gain eligibility), plus all-name RS frosh DT Fish McWilliams, should provide more options for Clark and d.c. David Reeves. Junior Kris Moll, who excelled at the STAR (rover) position last year, has moved back to LB. The secondary has a bonafide star in jr. CB Brontae Harris, considered perhaps the best shutdown corner in C-USA.
UAB has been careful not to overschedule itself since it resurrected the program in 2017, limiting its exposure to Power 5 foes to one big payday at an SEC locale; this year it’s Tennessee after trekking to Florida and Texas A&M the past two seasons. Moreover, those games have all been later in the season, another shrewd calculation in Birmingham. That should allow Clark to break quickly again vs. Alabama State, Akron, and South Alabama, and the Blazers won’t face the meat of the C-USA until November. It would be no surprise if UAB hits the game at Knoxville at 7-0 on November 2. Clark has dealt with more distractions before than replacing several starters, and no reason to think the Blazers will not contend again in the West and have a chance to defend their C-USA title. It will be a bigger surprise if suitors aren’t knocking at Clark’s door if UAB overachieves again this season.
Our further respect for Bill Clark is reflected in his pointspread prowess. In three years as HC with the Blazers, he’s always had winning spread seasons, and indeed has been one of the best in the country the past two years with a combined 18-8-1 mark vs. the line. Counting the 2014 campaign that preceded the temporary shutdown of the program, UAB is 13-6 as a dog on Clark’s watch, and the past two seasons has fashioned a 10-1-1 mark vs. the number at Legion Field. There’s a lot to like about what has been going on lately with the Blazers!
At the end of last September, we and many others would have bet that HC Seth Littrell would not be at North Texas (2018 SU 9-4; ATS 4-9: O/U 1-12) in 2019. That’s because Littrell became a coach du jour during the first month of last season when the Mean Green had roared to a 4-0 start, blowing out SMU and Arkansas (on the road at Fayetteville) in the process, and pocket-sized QB Mason Fine ((10 TDP and just 1 pick in first four games) was briefly the rage of the nation after his extra-fast break from the gate. It seemed almost a fait accompli that Littrell would be moving to a Power 5 opening; rumors were flying that Littrell’s wife was scouting real estate in Lubbock in anticipation of an opening at Texas Tech. But UNT would lose momentum, dropping close decisions to La Tech and UAB, and by November was running on fumes, losing at 14 ½-point dog ODU, and barely getting past a struggling FAU and a subpar UTSA, before getting bombed 52-13 by Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl. Littrell’s phone (or his agent’s phone) was not ringing as much thereafter, and when Texas Tech opted instead for Matt Wells (whose Utags would whip the Mean Green in the bowl), Littrell was staying put in Denton for at least another year. Which is perfectly fine for the UNT boosters, who believe their program has a lot to offer because of its locale at the north end of the Metroplex, futuristic new stadium, and chance to be a flagship program in C-USA.
Littrell, a spread devotee and disciple of Larry Fedora, from whose North Carolina staff he arrived at UNT in 2016, should get the Mean Green to their fourth consecutive bowl on his watch, though we have tamped our enthusiasm a bit after the late fade a year ago. The offense, with gunslinger sr. QB Fine (3793 YP and 27 TDP in 2018), should continue to fire away in similar fashion after leading C-USA in scoring at 35 ppg. Fine has many returning weapons with three of his top four receivers from a year ago, led by WR Rico Bussey Jr. (68 catches LY), while All-CUSA RB DeAndre Torrey gained 977 YR and caught 25 passes out of the backfield in 2018. If there are questions on the attack end it will be replacing the bookend tackles on the OL; Virginia Tech grad transfer D’Andre Plantin could fill one of those spots. Littrell and o.c. Brodie Reeder are reportedly ready to speed up the tempo even more this season to take advantage of Fine’s smarts and quick release, and also to perhaps mitigate any inexpedience at the tackle spots. Also keep in mind that UNT outgained every team on its regular-season slate a year ago.
While HC Littrell and QB Fine got a lot of credit for the added exposure for the program last season, much-improved defense also helped the Mean Green get noticed when cutting the point allowance from 35 down to 24 ppg. Coordinator Troy Reffett’s 3-3-5 finally began to resonate, though graduation has removed some key cogs from the defensive operation. A pair of starting corners and two LBs who were the team’s top tacklers from a year ago must all be replaced. But some established playmakers remain; DE LaDarius Hamilton was All-CUSA in 2018 when recording 11 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. There is also quality experience in the secondary, where returning safeties Khairi Muhammad and Taylor Robinson, along with nickel back/LB Tyree Davis, combined for 7 of the Mean Green’s 18 interceptions, which was fifth best in the FBS ranks. How quickly new CBs Cam Johnson and Jordan Roberts step into the breach will be crucial to the D continuing as it mostly was a year ago.
If this is going to be a special year in Denton, we will probably know by mid-September, because the Mean Green has some higher-profile non-conference dates, including the Metroplex battle at revenge-minded SMU, and at Pac-12 Cal. Dana Holgorsen’s Houston pays a visit later in the month, so any success in these non-conference games (where a 2-1 mark would be considered good work) have the opportunity of providing UNT a bigger platform. If QB Fine stays healthy, Littrell certainly ought to get back to another bowl, though any acceleration of his expected departure date for greener pastures elsewhere likely probably depends at least upon having some success in the non-league part of the schedule.
Spread-wise, North Texas was a cautionary tale last season; after the Mean Green became the flavor of the month with the road romps at Arkansas and Liberty last September, and some began to hype Mason Fine as the “Patrick Mahomes of C-USA,” North Texas spreads began to distort too quickly. The Mean Green would become greatly overvalued and covered just one if its last nine games, with spread Ls in its last six, including the New Mexico Bowl drubbing inflicted by Utah State. Also note UNT’s rather stunning 12-1 “under” mark a year ago, again a reaction to “totals” being posted too high thanks to the early-season exploits of the offense.
And then there was one. In fact, it’s been that way for a while for Southern Miss (2018 SU 6-5; ATS 6-5; O/U 5-6), the last remaining member of C-USA’s football lineup in 1996, the first year of the league. Which, for those who don’t remember, was mostly an amalgamation of the old Metro and Great Midwest Conferences, both basketball loops that didn’t conduct football competition. (Houston also sought refuge in C-USA after the old Southwest Conference disbanded.) Most of the original C-USA lineup had been competing as football independents for years, and the new league provided a home of sorts for those long disenfranchised entries. As the years have progressed, however, C-USA has had to re-make its look more than Khloe Kardashian, and the Golden Eagles remain the only original football member. (Note: UAB was part of the original Conference USA alliance, but not for football, waiting until 2000 to join on the gridiron, before shutting down its FB operation for a bit in 2015-16). USM has also often been the flagship program in the league and has held itself to a higher standard, not-so-gently pushing long-serving HC Jeff Bower out the door after 2007, and pulling the plug after just one disastrous 0-12 season under Ellis Johnson in 2012.
Thus, despite holding their own the past few seasons under 4th-year HC Jay Hopson, the Golden Eagles are expecting a bit more, and were an angry fan base in the offseason when bypassed for a bowl despite being eligible with their 6-5 mark (the App State game on Sept. 15 was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence). With seven eligible bowl teams and only six locked-in bids for C-USA, USM was the odd-man out. The natives in Hattiesburg had already become a bit restless when the offense became imbalanced a season ago, prompting Hopson to consider enlisting Art Briles as the play-caller, but a predictable backlash nixed those ideas, and Buster Faulkner has instead been imported from Arkansas State. Faulkner inherits a productive QB in jr. Jack Abraham, who led the nation in completion pct. (73.1) with mostly short throws; Faulkner hopes to develop a better downfield threat, though Abraham (only 15 TDP in 2018) has limited ability to stretch the field. Soph Tate Wadley, who started three games when Abraham was hurt last fall, is another option. The OL was a bit of a mish-mash in 2018, and though seven are back with starting experience, there was plenty of position shifting in spring, and the arrival of several jucos, plus new OL coach Ryan Stanchek, suggests the adjustments up front might continue into the fall. Key wideout Quez Wadkins, who enrolled at a JC in January and summer school at USM to hopefully get his grades in order, is waiting to become academically reinstated after catching a team-best 72 passes with 9 TDs a year ago, and his availability would be a plus. (If Wadkins gets eligible, all 11 who started on offense for the 2018 finale at UTEP would return this fall). But more is needed from the infantry after top RBs Trivenskey Mosley and Steven Anderson had only four runs of 20 or more yards between them last fall.
Given that USM had a top ten defense last season (278 ypg allowed ranked third nationally), the thought around Hattiesburg is that the team should have done better than a mere 6-5.Under first-year d.c. Tim Billings, the Golden Eagles also allowed fewer first downs than any FBS entry. A revamped 2ndary, paced by jucos CB Ty Williams and SS Ky’el Hemby, who combined for nine interceptions, helped the defensive backfield emerge as an unexpected strength. Meanwhile, the stout rush defense ranked sixth nationally (102 ypg), led by honors candidate DE Jacques Turner. Junior LB Racheem Boothe returns as an established playmaker, and since Hopson is a defensive coach by trade, his stop units have reflected that influence. Six starters, plus various other rotation pieces, return on the platoon, so regional sources don’t expect much drop-off. Now, can the offense pull its weight?
Schedule-wise, USM runs a three-week non-league gauntlet, all on the road, on September, with consecutive road games at Mississippi State, Troy, and Alabama, and will only play five home games at cozy Roberts Stadium in Hattiesburg. In a league like C-USA, however, a team needs to score points to keep pace, and this locale is one of the most demanding in the loop, as mentioned above, having pushed coaches out the door quickly in the past when they haven’t lived up to expectations. Hopson is thus feeling a little heat, which will only intensity with another bowl miss (bowl-eligible or not).
Spread-wise, Southern Miss has often punched above its weight in the past, and under Hopson has continued to be formidable as an underdog, standing 8-3 its last eleven getting points since late in the 2016 campaign. For what it’s worth in the Aug. 31 opener vs. in-state SWAC rep Jackson State, note that the Golden Eagles have covered their three openers during the Hopson era.
Well, who knows if there is anything to the rumor that Gov. Abbott might be tempted to deal the football team at UTEP (2018 SU 1-11; ATS 5-7; O/U 7-5) to Mexico in any border dispute involving the adjacent Rio Grande. The Miners have been bad enough to deport the past couple of seasons, having won just once the past two years combined. They were almost seeking volunteers to coach prior to last season, after Sean Kugler (who has landed on his feet as an NFL assistant) and Mike Price (coaxed out of retirement and the golf course to serve as the interim HC) couldn’t notch a win in an unsightly 0-12 debacle in 2017. Taking on the challenge was Dana Dimel, regarded as an up-comer in the coaching ranks a generation ago after succeeding Joe Tiller at Wyoming, then moving to Houston. A subsequent long stint on Bill Snyder’s Kansas State staff might have tempted Dimel to try and replicate at UTEP the resurrection that Snyder authored at K-State when he took a similar thankless job in Manhattan 30 years ago.
But a K-State style renaissance isn’t close to being in focus at the Sun Bowl. Partly because Dimel still has a lot of work to do with an offense that was one of the nation’s worst a year ago, scoring barely 17 ppg (ranking 127th out of 130). But after ranking last nationally in both scoring and total offense in 2017, there was at least some improvement. A rash of injuries across the OL did not help things a year ago, and certainly made things tougher for juco transfer QBs Kai Locksley (son of Maryland’s HC Mike) and Brandon Jones. A glass-half-full analysis would suggest that the forward wall gained better depth by forcing more players into action a year ago (indeed, nine who have started remain in the fold), and Locksley, slowed by ankle problems a year ago when he tossed 9 picks and just 3 TDs, should benefit. How much, we’ll see. RB Quardraiz Wadley (627 YR in 2018) has run with some flair in the past when helped just a bit by his blockers. There are no established receivers of note; then again, with the passing game mostly a shambles last season, it was hard for any targets to emerge. Good news? Veteran assistant Mike Canales had cobbled together some serviceable offenses during past o.c. stints at South Florida and North Texas and is a valuable complement for Dimel.
Before the dreaded injuries also took their toll on the stop end last fall, the defense wasn’t half-bad, holding its own against the likes of Tennessee, North Texas, and La Tech. The top four tacklers, however, have graduated. C-USA sources say returning sr. DEs Denzel Chukwukelu and Chris Richardson have potential to emerge as playmakers, and two LBs who missed 2018 due to injury, Jayson VanHook and Dylan Parsee, are now back in the fold. Dimel also thought going the juco route for immediate help was the best option to replenish the CB spots depleted by graduation, and JC transfers Duron Lowe and Robert Conner III might be asked to step in immediately at the corners. As a year ago, lack of quality depth across the platoon looms as a potential problem if another spate of injuries occur. The D also needs to become more opportunistic, as its inability to force many fumbles or picks helped result in a -17 TO margin, second-worst in the nation.
Last season, Dimel was hoping that an opener vs. a Big Sky foe from the FCS level would at least provide a winning start to the campaign. So much for those well-laid plans of mice-and-men; Northern Arizona won in a 30-10 romp. This year, Dimel tries it again with Houston Baptist in the opener before being offered as a sacrifice at Texas Tech. Though we expect Dimel to forge modest improvement in his second year, the fact we’re not picking UTEP at the bottom of the West is only because we think less of a couple of other entries. Read onward to unveil the rest of that C-USA mystery.
Given what Dimel had to work with last season, covering five games against the number wasn’t a bad accomplishment. The Miners also covered 3 of 4 getting 20 or more points, which might be a familiar role again in the fall. Somewhere down the road, however, UTEP is going to need to develop seem sort of an edge as host in the Sun Bowl, which can start with spread success. That hasn’t come close to happening lately at home, where the Miners have dropped 13 of their last 17 vs. the number.
It might be time to fish or cut bait at UTSA (2018 SU 3-9; ATS 4-8; O/U 6-6) for HC Frank Wilson, who enters his fourth season with the program looking to have lost plenty of steam. Most regional observers know that Wilson did not inherit a bare cupboard from program architect Larry Coker, who also left a livewire QB in Dalton Sturm, all helping Wilson’s first Roadrunner team into the New Mexico Bowl in 2016. But as the era of Wilson (previously a well-regarded LSU assistant and noted recruiter) has progressed, the offense has become more predictable, which at least last year might be putting things a bit mildly. Only Rutgers scored fewer than UTSA’s 14.2 ppg, which suggests there was more to it than mere injuries that slowed down the Roadrunner attack. This has not been well-received in the Alamo city, where the locals are expecting the program, thanks to its location and top facility in the league (the 65,000-seat Alamodome), to begin bossing C-USA.
As noted, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the issues a year ago were on the attack end, which never seemed to recover from touted QB Frank Harris missing the season due to a knee injury suffered in the spring. Harris, a dual-threat lefty, has returned, but to blame the poor Roadrunner offense on the absence of Harris is stretching things a bit far (losing Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence, maybe, but Harris having that much impact?). Harris does look an upgrade over sr. Cordale Grundy (who tossed only 3 TDP in his 220 attempts a year ago), as the soph, who redshirted in 2017 before last year’s injury, can move and possesses a soft passing touch, so there’s reason for encouragement. Especially with the OL back almost en masse (four starters) from a year ago. But there were no big-play threats on offense last season, certainly not in a pedestrian RB corps and a 128th-ranked rushing offense (jr. B.J. Daniels is the leading returning rusher after gaining just 322 yards in 2018). Some of the returning wideouts showed promise last fall as frosh, and true frosh Dywan Griffin (from Wilson’s old recruiting stomping grounds in New Orleans) was the top UTSA addition in the offseason. But something was structurally and schematically wrong with the beyond-bad offense in 2018; unless QB Harris is something special, we’re not sure things will alleviate much this fall.
Given that the defense was on the field too much a year ago and not given much help, the stop unit performed somewhat admirably. The ‘Runners mostly held their own vs. the run in 2018 and return three of four starters along the DL, where DEs Lorenzo Dantzler and Jarod Cater-McLin flashed some star power last fall, and former Dallas Cowboys lineman Nate Newton’s son King is a 295-lb. NT. The cornerbacks also all return in Wilson’s 4-2-5 defensive alignments, and sr. SS Carl Austin is a 2017 starter who is back in the fold after missing all of last season due to injury. Though after LB Josiah Tauaefa (a FA signee by the Giants) left early for the NFL Draft and S Brenndan Johnson departed as a grad transfer to UL-Lafayette, UTSA is minus a couple of key playmakers from a year ago.
The Roadrunners season could take a flying leap off of the nearby Tower of the Americas at HemisFair Park if they can’t beat crosstown Incarnate Word in the opener, because Baylor, Army, and Texas A&M expect to do significant damage in the other out-of-conference games. If Wilson continues to try and reinvent the football wheel by surviving without an offense, his regime might be in imminent danger. Continued slippage will put him on the hot seat, and the non-league schedule makes a run at a bowl bid highly unlikely. The supposed recruiting inroads have to begin paying dividends...soon.
Spread-wise, it’s pretty tough to cover numbers when you can’t score any points. To that end, maybe UTSA’s four covers last season (which matched the 2017 total) was a pretty neat trick. Another problem with Wilson’s Roadrunners lately is that the lack of scoring punch has made them a risky (and that’s putting it mildly) investment as a favorite; laying points, UTSA was 1-5 last season and 2-9 the last two years combined.
There was a time when Rice (2018 SU 2-11; ATS 7-6; O/U 6-7) was one of the brand-names in college football. Indeed, early in the TGS era, Jess Neely’s Owls were often ranked and a Southwest Conference contender in the late 50s and early 60s, earning a Cotton Bowl bid in the first TGS season of 1957 with a team featuring a pair of future NFL QBs, Frank Ryan and King Hill (who would be a first pick by the Cardinals in the NFL draft). Neely’s 1960 team was also good enough to make it to the Sugar Bowl where it made a fist of things vs. one of Johnny Vaught’s best Ole Miss sides. But after a Bluebonnet Bowl invitation the following 1961,and after JFK’s famous “moon” speech in September 1962 at Rice Stadium, the Owls would go into a decades-long eclipse and not return to the bowl mix until 2006 under Todd Graham. Thus, when David Bailiff got Rice to three straight bowls in 2012-14, some longtime observers though he maybe should have been given a lifetime contract. Instead, Bailiff was given the pink slip after a subsequent downturn, as administrators turned to Stanford o.c. Mike Bloomgren to pick up the baton.
Trying to emulate the private schools like Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, and Wake Forest that have been able to survive and occasionally flourish with the proper coach, however, is not as easy as it seems. And Bloomgren’s Stanford roots might not translate to Rice, where the power-game that David Shaw has mostly used to good effect on the Farm has not ever been a recipe with the Owls. Bloomgren found out the hard way a year ago when Rice was usually non-competitive, its pair of wins sandwiched around ten mostly-heavy losses. Expected growing pains, or an indicator of an improper fit with Bloomgren?
We’re not sure other than there’s no way the Owls get competitive again until they get their offense in gear. Last year’s measly 18.9 ppg ranked a subterranean 124th nationally, and unless the Owls are running the sort of option they did during the Kenny Hatfield era that at least kept foes off balance, keying the attack around the infantry remains a hard sell at this locale. Especially in a state (Texas) where most of the high schools are now using Texas Tech-like spread offenses. An intriguing situation has developed at QB, where an Ivy League transfer, ex-Harvard pilot Tom Stewart, has a big arm and might rate an edge over RS frosh Wiley Green (who made a few starts last November but didn't lose a year of eligibility) and dual-threat true frosh Jovoni Johnson. Grad transfers from Stanford (C Brian Chaffin) and NC Central (RG Nick Leavitt) might bolster an OL that returns three starters, but there do not seem to be any heavy-duty backs in the RB mix. If there is a strength on the strike force, perhaps it is the established targets for the QBs, as wideouts Austin Trammell and Aaron Cephus combined for 102 catches last year. But if Bloomgren is trying to develop a personality with this offense based upon the ability to move the ball on the ground, he’s facing an uphill climb.
Not since the Neely era has Rice played much defense, either, as the Owls have been traditionally undersized on the stop end. The one area in which Rice was surprisingly not as bad as usual last season, vs. the run, took a hit in the offseason when tackles Roe Wilkins and Zach Abercrumbia decided to transfer out. Bloomgren and d.c. Brian Smith do, however, like the speed on the platoon, which mostly dominated the offense in spring (perhaps more of an indictment on the attack end?). Junior OLB Anthony Epke is a hybrid who can rush the QB or drop into pass coverage, keying a veteran LB group, but in a wing-it league like C-USA, having a pass defense that rankled 125th nationally a year ago is a red flag, especially with new corners having to be introduced into the mix. Moreover, Bloomgren is looking for new kickers this season. The adjustment phase is thus likely to continue, though we’re not sure if there is any reason to hoot, or a sign of light at the end of the tunnel, just yet for the Owls.
If Bloomgren was looking for any relief from his non-conference slate, he’ll be bitterly disappointed. Rice is saddled with three Power 5 foes (though Wake Forest and Baylor visit Houston, and the Texas game will be played down the street at the Texans’ NRG Stadium). Plus what might be the one of the top non-Power 5 entries, Army, the same West Point that laid 70 on Houston in last December’s Armed Forces Bowl. It’s almost like this is a cruel joke on Bloomgren; the last thing a struggling program like Rice needs (on the field, at least) is to play a brutal non-conference slate full of bowl qualifiers from a year ago. Playing a couple of the games at home also denies the program a desired big payday or two. There’s not even a SWAC entry like Prairie View as in last season’s opener to help add a needed W. Into late summer, we don’t see a spot where the Owls might be favored except an outside chance in road games at UTSA and UTEP, and that’s only if both the Roadrunners and Miners are more wretched than they were a year ago. It goes without saying that we’d be surprised if Rice escapes the West basement.
Spread-wise, things weren’t quite as bleak for the Owls last season, though results must be viewed in context. Rice was a respectable 7-6 vs. the number, but only because Bloomgren was able to stay inside (mostly barely) some out-of-space numbers. To wit: the Owls were 5-1 getting 23 points or more, and in none of those games did they come closer than 19 points. Hardly a sign of progress being made in the program, but from our perspective, another reminder that, as Brent Musburger is apt to say these days on VSIN, “It’s all about cashing tickets!”