Written By: Colby Dant (@TheColbyD) also check out:
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Conference USA Preview
Hey this America baby, and what better than a conference with the USA in its title. Okay maybe the American but still you can’t go wrong with “USA”. The Conference USA has really been hit with all the conference realignment the past decade or so. Remember at one time Louisville of the ACC and TCU of the big 12 were battling it out in the conference USA.
Still, after all of that the conference has lost along the way it’s still a pretty good football conference. Right now in every conference in america it seems, that there is one division that is loaded with multiple teams that could win their division while the other division is as wide open as you can get and that’s no different when you talk conference USA football. The Conference USA East is loaded with great teams while the west is still figuring things out.
Conference USA – East
1. Middle Tennessee
Hey I’ve been to a home game here and I’ve seen how crazy the fans get. This is the year they finally get over the hump and win a conference USA title under Rick Stockstill. Sure they got a Sun Belt title back in 2006 but this a new conference and despite the good seasons they’ve had Marshall and Western Kentucky have been better than the Blue Raiders. Coming back is star QB Brent Stockstill (go figure). Schedule wise the Blue Raiders out of conference have meetings vs Alabama A&M, @Vanderbilt (Watch out SEC), @Bowling Green, @Missouri (Watch out SEC), realistically I’m thinking 2-2 but watch out for Bowling Green they’re still a good football team.
I can still see the Blue Raiders upsetting Vandy but hey they’ll be underdogs. In conference they have home games vs Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Texas-San Antonio, & Florida Atlantic. They should at least be able to go 3-1 in those but 4-0 is what they need. Western Kentucky is the reigning champion they must dethrone them if they want the division. On the road they get games @North Texas, @Florida International, @Marshall & @Charlotte. 3-1 is realistic as I doubt they beat Marshall in Huntington. At the end of the day I have MTSU winning the division and making a nice bowl but it must handle Western Kentucky in Murfreesboro to do that.
The Thundering Herd have been in and out of different conferences a lot in the past two decades but one thing that hasn’t changed is that they’re a team the big boys don’t really want to face because more times than not the Herd put it to them. This year might be another reason to be excited if you’re a fan of the Herd. Head Coach Doc Holliday is back and same with soph QB Chase Litton.
Schedule wise the Herd get these out of conference games vs Morgan State, vs Akron, vs Louisville (upset watch in full effect), @Pitt. They’ll only be favored in two of those games but let me tell you I wouldn’t bet against the Herd playing at home when Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals come to town. So lets say 2-2 before conference play starts. The Herd have conference away games @North Texas, @Southern Miss, @Old Dominion & @Florida International. They should go 3-1 in those games but are capable of winning all four.
3. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers just go from one coach to another consistently winning. It’s as if it doesn’t even matter. Gone is Brandon Doughty he’s now in the NFL but Jeff Brohm is still the head coach and one of the hottest coaching candidates in the country. The out of conference schedule is this @Alabama, @Miami (OH), vs Vanderbilt, vs Houston Baptist. Well I can actually see them going 3-1 here since they get Vandy at home but I still expect Vandy to be a slight favorite.
In conference they open week 1 with a conference game home vs Rice the other home games include Old Dominion, Florida International, & North Texas. I’m thinking if they get past Rice they should be undefeated at home in conference play. On the road conference wise they have games @Louisiana Tech (dangerous one might I add), @Middle Tennessee, @Florida Atlantic & @Marshall. I think 2-2 is destined but it very well could end up being 1-3 in conference away games.
Head coach Bobby Wilder has been there throughout the entire 1AA jump to single A process and last year was a bit of a disaster but the recruiting has gotten better and he’s too good of a coach for the program to repeat last seasons disappointment. Out of conference wise they have games vs Hampton, @Appalachian State, @NC State, vs UMass. The Monarchs should go 2-2 in those games.
Then comes the conference play with away games @Charlotte, @Western Kentucky, @UTEP, & @Florida Atlantic. If they can go 2-2 there they should be happy. 1-3 may be more likely I think it comes down to the game @Florida Atlantic. At home they host Texas-San Antonio, Marshall, Southern Miss, & Florida International and I think 2-2 is a realistic home conference record which would mean if they can win the games they’re supposed to and win the toss up game against Florida Atlantic the Monarchs could go bowling and at least be bowl eligible.
5. Florida International
No this is not an airport it’s a university and the Golden Panthers are led by former Illinois head coach Ron Turner (Norv’s brother). Turner has been steadily building at FIU and they’ve been getting better each year. Could they possibly hit the postseason this year? Let us take a further look. Out of conference the Panthers get games vs Indiana (they played them tough last year, could we see an upset?), vs Maryland, @Umass and vs Central Florida.
They’ll only be favored in one of those games (Umass) so fans should be happy with only coming away with one victory here. In conference they have away games @UTEP, @Charlotte, @Western Kentucky & @Old Dominion. I think 2-2 is a best case scenario here but 1-3 might be more likely they really need to win that Old Dominion game. At home they host Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and the Marshall Thundering Herd. I only see them coming away with one of those as well so if you do the math you’re looking at four win season unless they can pull a few upsets.
6. Florida Atlantic
It’s year three in the Charlie Partridge coaching experiment and this year there needs to be signs of life. Could this be the year? Out of conference wise the Owls get games vs Southern Illinois, @Miami (FLA), @Kansas State, vs Ball State. They really need to go 2-2 in that stretch. Ball State is in year one with a new coach so the owls must come away with that one. In conference they have away games @Florida International, @Marshall, @Rice, @Middle Tennessee.
There’s a great chance they go winless on the road in conference they really need to show up for the Florida International game if they want any shot at bowling. The Owls home schedule is vs Charlotte, Western Kentucky, UTEP, & Old Dominion. I expect them to be underdogs in every game except the Charlotte game and maybe they can get by Old Dominion and go 2-2 at home which would mean they would just miss out on being bowl eligible but hey it would be an improvement from back to back 3-9 seasons.
The 49ers started a football team from scratch a few years ago and then entered the 1A ranks not shortly after. Last year the niners won their first two games and then dropped ten in a row. Hey, these are the normal growing pains you go through when you not only move up to 1A but also when you just start a football program in general. Well the good news is that you a QB transfer in Kevin Olsen coming in and he was once a prized recruit. Perhaps he can ignite some magic into the 49er offense.
Schedule wise Charlotte gets out of conference games @Louisville, vs 1AA Elon, vs Eastern Michigan, @Temple. They’ll be lucky to go 2-2 in that stretch. The game against Eastern Michigan really could go either way. Lets hope for 2-2. Then comes conference play with road games @Florida Atlantic, @Marshall, @Southern Miss, & @Texas San Antonio. They’ll be underdogs in all 4 but I think its possible they go 2-2. They’ll need to do that if they really want to make great strides this year. At home they get games against Old Dominion, Florida International, Rice, and Middle Tennessee they’ll likely lose all four but is possible they could steal one or two. All in all they’ll be at the basement of the division but hey these things take time.
Conference USA – West
I know every expert for the most part is picking Southern Miss to win the conference but they have a new head coach at the helm and UTEP made great strides last season. It’s year 4 for head coach Sean Kugler and normally throughout history the 4th year in a coaches reign has always been the year everything comes together and I’m thinking its that time in El Paso. Star running back Aaron Jones is back after missing a big chunk of last season.
Plus they don’t have to play Middle Tennessee, Marshall or Western Kentucky?? What luck! Out of conference the Miners get games vs New Mexico State, @Texas, vs Army, vs Houston Baptist they should go 3-1 in those games. In conference they have away games @Louisana Tech (a big time game for both schools), @Texas-San Antonio, @Florida Atlantic, & @Rice those are all winnable games. At home they get Southern Miss, Florida International, Old Dominion & North Texas so if they can beat Southern Miss they can run away with the division and I think they will.
2. Southern Mississippi
The Golden Eagles had a nice 9 win season last year and things were looking up for the program when all of a sudden head coach Todd Monken steps down as head coach to take an assistant job for the Tampa Bay Bucs? I’m still shocked at that decision. So in comes Jay Hopson who takes over a team that still has a lot of good talent from last years team including quarterback Nick Mullens. Schedule wise the Golden Eagles out of conference schedule goes like this @Kentucky (watch out SEC), vs Savannah State, vs Troy, & @LSU.
Fans should be happy with getting 2 of the 4 and just hope for an upset in Lexington. Still with 2 out of the 4 they can still have a great year but they need to win the conference opener @UTEP which I don’t think happens. The other away games in conference include @Texas-San Antonio, @Old Dominion & @North Texas which they should all win. At home they get Rice, Marshall, Charlotte & Louisiana Tech. They should be favored in all four but the games against Marshall and Louisiana Tech are certainly not gimmes. At the end of the day I think they still have a great season and go bowling but they don’t play for the conference championship.
3. Louisiana Tech
I’ve always been a big Skip Holtz fan and I think he’s already done a great job at Louisiana Tech but everyone expects them to take a big step back this year and I get it Jeff Driskel and Kenneth Dixon are gone but still Holtz has a way of getting more out of players. Schedule wise the Bulldogs out of conference games line up like this @Arkansas, vs 1AA South Carolina State, @Texas Tech, @Umass. 2-2 is very likely but maybe just maybe Holtz can shock one of the big dogs he almost did it last year @Kansas State only to lose in overtime.
In conference play the Dogs get away games @Middle Tennessee, @Florida International, @North Texas, @Southern Mississippi. Once again 2-2 is likely and then comes the home games vs UTEP, Western Kentucky (back to back weeks might I add) , then home against Rice and Texas-San Antonio. If they can steal one of the games against UTEP or Western Kentucky they can have a winning season if not they’re looking at a 6-6 season which will at least make them bowl eligible.
David Baliff has proven to be a good coach for Rice despite the 5-7 season last year. This year looks even harder if you as me but hey Rice has some talent and maybe some of those close games they lost can go their way in 2016. The out of conference schedule is @Army, vs Baylor, vs 1AA Prairie View A&M & @Stanford. 2-2 must happen. The Army game is a must win if the Owls want any shot at bowling.
In conference they start conference play in week 1 with a game @Western Kentucky! Ouch. The other conference road games include trips @Southern Miss, @Louisana Tech, & @Charlotte. I’m thinking they go 1-3 on the road in conference which would give them three wins before looking at the conference home games. Those home games are vs North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Florida Atlantic & UTEP. I think the owls could go 3-1 here but Florida Atlantic game could really go either way. If they can go 3-1 at home in conference play the Owls just might do enough to go 6-6 and go bowling.
San Antonio (UTSA) – The Larry Coker era is over in San Antonio and he did some good things while he was there but now its Frank Wilsons time. Year one is always tough when it comes to coaching because systems are changing and you don’t have players that fit the system you have so it takes time. Let us take a look at the UTSA schedule. Out of conference the games are vs Alabama State, @Colorado State, vs Arizona State & @Texas A&M.
Well they better win the Alabama State game because the other games are all going to be losses. In conference the roadrunners get away games @Old Dominion, @Rice, @Middle Tennessee, & @Louisiana Tech. They’ll be underdogs in every one but maybe they can knock off Old Dominion and get a road victory. At home they get Southern Miss, UTEP, North Texas & Charlotte. If they can go 2-2 in that stretch I will say year one in the Wilson era is a good one. They miss out on bowling put things in place for next season.
6. North Texas
First year head coach Seth Littrell is now in charge at North Texas and there’s reason to be excited Littrell comes over from running UNC’s high tempo offense. Perhaps this is the hire the Mean Green have needed for years. They have a grad transfer from Alabama in Alec Morris maybe just maybe the Mean Green won’t finish in the basement. Schedule wise out of conference they get vs SMU, vs Bethune Cookman, @Florida, & @Army.
I’m thinking a 2-2 record would be great but first get past Army. In conference they have away games @Rice, @Texas-San Antonio, @Western Kentucky & @UTEP. Ouch. If they can one they should be happy (I’m looking at you UTSA). At home the Mean Green get Middle Tennessee, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss! Perfect just perfect haha. There’s no way they win any of those so just hope you beat UTSA on the road and you don’t finish in last place again.
Conference USA Championship: Middle Tennessee vs UTEP
Winner: UTEP in the upset