College Football Previews
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The Conference USA has always been a solid mid major conference. Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee are constantly thorns in the power 5 schools side. This year should be no different. Here is Colby Dant’s Conference USA college football preview.
1. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders – The Blue Raiders have been so close so many years, could perhaps this be the year they win the USA? Last year they were decimated by injuries at so many skill positions including their star quarterback and coaches son in Brent Stockstill. Well the good news is that it’s a new year and all those players that were injured are now healthy. Stockstill is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation let alone the Conference USA and their loaded at wide receiver led by junior Richie James. Out of conference wise the Blue Raiders are really going for it with games vs Vanderbilt, @Syracuse, @Minnesota and home to Bowling Green.
I expect them to give all three power 5 schools a hell of a run and I have them beating Bowling Green in Murfeesboro. In conference their toughest stretch comes in the final two weeks of the season when they play at defending champ Western Kentucky followed by the ever improving Old Dominion team. All in all I think with Western Kentucky breaking in a new head coach and all the experience Middle Tennessee is bringing back I expect this to be year the Blue Raiders win the East Division and play in the conference championship and go to yet another bowl game.
2. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers – The question is can Mike Sanford keep the ball rolling? Western Kentucky has been able to do it before replacing several coaches Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and now Jeff Brohm who’s now at Purdue. I think the answer is yes, mainly because Sanford is inheriting somewhat of an experienced team led by star quarterback and NFL prospect Mike White. With White under center the Hilltoppers were a top 10 offense in the country so that shouldn’t change much. Schedule wise the out of conference breakdown has games vs Eastern Kentucky, @Illinois, vs Ball State & @Vanderbilt.
They are capable of winning all four but more realistically is to expect to be 3-1 in those games and at worst 2-2. Anything else would be a total disappointment. In conference they drawl Louisiana Tech and UTEP from the west but get LA Tech at home Bowling Green, KT. Their biggest tests will be the home game vs LA Tech and Middle Tennessee if they can win both those they have a great shot at taking the division and possibly the entire conference. Their toughest conference road game has to be the Oct. 20th matchup @ Old Dominion which is a very winnable game. I think they fall just short of Middle Tennessee but have another great year and another trip for a bowl game.
3. Old Dominion Monarchs – Bobby Wilder is doing quite the coaching job in Norfolk, VA. He brought the Monarchs up from 1AA football to single A and last year took them to their first bowl game in which they won. Sad news is that star quarterback David Washington is gone but Wilder should still be able to have success with the Monarchs. Blake LaRussa is supposed to be the new QB under center after a good performance in the spring game. He’s undersized some and wasn’t highly recruited but he played well last season when came off the bench and earned himself a scholarship this offseason.
Schedule wise ODU gets out of conference games vs Albany, @Umass, vs UNC, & @Virginia Tech. 2-2 is the likely outcome of those games but getting UNC to travel to Norfolk could be dangerous. They can’t afford an upset loss to Albany or Umass though. In conference they have road games @Marshall, @North Texas, @Florida International & @Middle Tennessee. North Texas & Middle Tennessee were bowl games last year and Marshall is supposed to be back to being Marshall this year so I would expect the road games to be the key to the Monarchs having another successful season this year. Realistically 3-1 is what I’m thinking but i could see 2-2 as well. They can’t afford to go 1-3 in those games. At home they get Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, Charlotte & Rice. They should be 3-1 in those games as well but the Florida Atlantic game could be a tough out.
4. Florida Atlantic Owls – Lane Kiffin was one of the hottest coaching hires this offseason. I remain on the fence on the hire of Kiffin after seeing him fail at Tennessee & USC. Sure, he did a great job coordinating at Alabama but let’s be honest we all could have right? Needless to say Kiffin is the man in Boca Raton and he’s brought some potential heavy hitters in with him hiring offensive coordinator Kendal Briles son of Art Briles and former OC at Baylor and De’Andre Johnson at quarterback who was once one of the top recruits in the nation before getting into some trouble. Johnson could instantly be a game changer for the Owls and teamed with Briles this could be potent.
Out of conference the Owls get games vs Navy, @Wisconsin, vs Bethune-Cookman & @Buffalo. I’m thinking 2-2 is the most likely scenario but maybe they pull off an upset against a tough Navy team. In conference the Owls have road matchups against Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech & Charlotte. That’s pretty brutal since 3 out of those 4 went bowling last year and should be bowling again this year. Best case scenario they go 2-2 there but it’s very possible they go 1-3 in those games which means if they want to go bowling they have to take care of work at home. The home games in conference are against Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Marshall & Florida International. 3-1 is likely but they could also lose to any of those. I got them at 2-2 at home and barely missing a bowl game.
5. Marshall Thundering Herd – I was one of many people last year who thought Doc Holliday had coaches his last game at Marshall but somehow he dodged being fired and has a chance for redemption this year. Holliday may have a chance at that since he brings back about the only good thing the team had last year in quarterback Chase Litton. Litton threw 24 touchdowns last year and only had 9 interceptions so it’s not on him. The out of conference schedule has games vs Miami (OH), @NC State, vs Kent State & @Cincinnati. It’s tough to say what their record will be in those.
My first thought was 1-3 since Miami OH and NC State were bowl teams last year and should be better this year and Cincinnati is a team that has talent and a new coach. They could maybe go 2-2 in those games but I’d bet on 1-3. On the road in conference the Herd have games at Charlotte, Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic & UTSA. I’m thinking 1-3 there but maybe 2-2 if they can really get the offense going. At home the Herd have games vs Old Dominion, Florida International, Western Kentucky & Southern Miss. That’s a tough slate of games. I’m thinking 1-3 there or at best 2-2. All in all I’m thinking 4 to 5 wins for the Herd and the firing of coach Doc Holliday.
6. Charlotte 49ers – I know most publications have Florida International here but Charlotte started to impress me towards the end of last season. I know they lost a lot up front but they return QB Hasaan Klugh who is a pretty good playmaker. Last year they had a very young defense and a pretty terrible secondary so it can’t get any worse right? The out of conference schedule has games @Eastern Michigan, @Kansas State, vs North Carolina A&T, & vs Georgia State. I’m thinking 2-2 if not 1-3 there but gimme 2-2 as the 49ers barely win vs GA State.
On the road in conference they have games at Florida International, Western Kentucky, Old Dominion & Southern Miss. That’s a tough slate of games that many see as winless but i think the 49ers may be able to get by Florida International to be 1-3 in those games. At home the niners get Marshall, UAB, Middle Tennessee & Florida Atlantic. I’m thinking 1-3 or 2-2 at best. I’m thinking a 4-8 or 5-7 season for the 49ers but things are still looking bright for a team that just started playing football in the past decade.
7. Florida International Panthers – The Panthers made a interesting hire by bringing in former Miami (FL) and UNC head coach Butch Jones who clearly has ties to the area. I think it was worth the shot and a good hire I just think it may take a few years to get everything in place. The Panthers do have solid lines on both sides of the ball which is always good so maybe just maybe I could be wrong about them. They do have a senior quarterback Alex McGough who’s got experience, the only problem is he wasn’t very good last year (just 13 TDs to 11 INT’s) If Butch Davis can improve the TD to INT ratio maybe the Panthers can really be players in the East.
The out of conference schedule has games @Central Florida, vs Alcorn State, @Indiana, vs Tulane. I’m thinking 1-3 out of those four but maybe they get past Tulane at home. In conference on the road they have games vs Rice, Middle Tennessee, Marshall & Florida Atlantic. I doubt they’ll be favored in any of those but maybe the Rice game. So let’s say they go 1-3 on the road in conference. Then at home they have matchups vs Charlotte, UTSA, Old Dominion & Western Kentucky. I’m thinking 1-3 there or at best 2-2 which would leave them with 4 wins on the year, but maybe I’m underestimating Butch Davis we’ll see.
1. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs – Skip Holtz might of been a let down at South Florida but he did a great job at ECU and now he’s doing a great job at Louisiana Tech. Three straight 9 win seasons are the main reason why Louisiana Tech is the favorite in almost everyone’s Conference USA West predictions. J’Mar Smith is now their full on starting QB. He started a few games for them last year and played pretty well so it shouldn’t be much of a drop off. The bulldog defense should be the strength of their team yet again. The out of conference schedule slate has games vs Northwestern State, vs Mississippi State, @South Carolina, & vs South Alabama.
On first glance I’d say 2-2 in those games but getting Miss State to come to Ruston, LA is huge and they’ve played the SEC pretty well recently so they could also upset South Carolina on the road. I’ll still say 2-2 but wouldn’t be surprised if they did better. The in conference road games are Western Kentucky, UAB, Rice & UTEP. There’s a great chance to be 4-0 here, worst case scenario is 3-1 with the one loss being West. Kentucky. At home the Bulldogs have games vs Southern Miss, North Texas, Florida Atlantic & UTSA. There’s a chance all four teams go bowling this year so they need to not take these games lightly, however they should be favored in all four. All in all I expect the Bulldogs to be playing in the conference championship and potentially a double digit win season.
2. UTSA Roadrunners – I think we all were uncertain about head coach Frank Wilson when he came over from LSU to replace Larry Coker at head coach. Wilson has answered that call with some great recruiting and a bowl game last season. Despite losing the bowl game and having a losing season the Roadrunners are definitely heading in the right direction. The Runners should be solid again under center this year with senior QB Dalton Sturm who’s 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions have plenty of fans excited for his senior campaign.
Out of conference UTSA has games vs Houston, @Baylor, vs Southern, & @Texas State. First thought is 2-2 but maybe they can catch Houston or Baylor while they’re still breaking in their new coaches. Regardless 2-2 should still leave fans happy and excited about conference play. The road games in conference are North Texas, UTEP, Florida International, & @ Louisiana Tech. They should be favored in all three before the season finale against Louisiana Tech. 3-1 is likely but maybe they can pull the upset and go 4-0. At home they have in conference matchups vs Southern Miss, Rice, UAB & Marshall. 4-0 is what fans should want here but I’d keep a close eye on the matchup vs Southern Miss. All in all i’m thinking a 8 or 9 win season for UTSA.
3. Southern Miss Golden Eagles – Southern Miss might of been a little bit of a let down last season after opening up with a win in Lexington against the almighty SEC and Kentucky, still they could very well end up a serious player in the Conference USA. Bad news is star QB Nick Mullens is now a San Francisco 49er so they’ll need to find a replacement. Keon Howard has been battling Kwadra Giggs but we have no idea who’ll be the starter come August. For those reasons alone I have them 3rd in the west.
The out of conference schedule lines up with games vs Kentucky (payback for last year?), vs Southern, @Louisiana Monroe, @Tennessee. I’m thinking 2-2 but they better watch out for Louisiana Monroe who’s supposed to be much improved. The road games in conference are @UTSA, @Louisiana Tech, @Rice & @Marshall. Once again I’m thinking 2-2 but playing Marshall on the road could be a trap game. At home they Eagles have conference games vs North Texas, UTEP, UAB, & Charlotte. They should be 4-0 in these games but I could also see 3-1, anything less would be quite the disappointing season. All together I have Southern Miss going 6-6 or 7-5 but they need not slip.
4. North Texas Mean Green – Seth Littrell was in his first season last year and took over the Mean Green after a 1 win season. Somehow despite a 5-7 regular season Littrell got the Mean Green to a bowl game and despite them losing that to go 5-8 people are optimistic in Denton, TX. So optimistic that they gave Littrell a five year extension after one year. One thing Littrell did right was find a gem last year in freshman QB Mason Fine, and one would think he would only be better this year after more experience within the offensive system. Perhaps Fine can lead them to a winning season?
The out of conference games are vs Lamar, @SMU, @Iowa & vs Army. On first thought you think 1-3 since Army beat them in a bowl last season but maybe just maybe the Mean Green can upset either SMU or Army or both. Regardless, I think any fan would be happy with 2-2 in those 4. The in conference road games are Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech & Rice. That’s pretty brutal so I have them at 1-3 in those. With those road losses that means if North Texas wants to see a post season they have to take care of business at home. The home slate in conference has matchups vs UAB, UTSA, Old Dominion, & UTEP. I’m thinking 2-2 in those but maybe they can knock off UTSA or Old Dominion and make a bowl at 6-6 but realistically I’m thinking 5-7 but hey maybe they still go bowling.
5. UTEP Miners – Man did I get burned by UTEP last year. I had them as my surprise team in the Conference USA and boy did they let me down. They were awful, so awful that I figured there is no way they bring back coach Sean Kugler for a 5th season but yet somehow, someway the Miners did just that. Kugler is back and maybe just maybe he can salvage his job and perhaps take the Miners bowling. It’s a veteran team led by QB Ryan Metz but still they weren’t very good last year.
Out of conference wise the Miners get games @Oklahoma, vs Arizona, @New Mexico State, & @Army. Best case scenario is 2-2 but they very well could end up 0-4 but I’m gonna say 1-3. In conference on the road they have matchups vs Southern Miss, Middle Tenn, North Texas & UAB. I’m thinking 1-3 but maybe they can get past North Texas for 2-2. At home they host Rice, Western Kentucky, UTSA, & Louisiana Tech. That’s where the wheels fall off. I’m thinking 1-3 here which would leave the Miners at 4-8 and I would assume the firing of Kugler but hey anythings possible.
6. Rice Owls – Head coach David Bailiff had a few decent seasons at Rice but suddenly things took a turn for the worst and Rice went 3-9 last year. Now Bailiff enters 2017 on the hot seat if things don’t get better fast but first thing that has to happen is to fix the nation’s worst rated defense and to do it fast because the schedule is brutal. The out of conference schedule starts in Australia of all places against top 25 Stanford then has games @Houston, @Pittsburgh & vs Army (all 4 bowl teams last year).
I really can’t see them winning any of those but maybe just maybe they upset Army at home. On the road in conference they have games vs UTEP, UTSA, UAB & Old Dominion. I’m thinking 1-3 here but maybe 2-2. At home in Houston they get Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss & North Texas (3 bowl teams last year). I’m thinking 1-3 at best and probably 0-4. The AD didn’t do any favors for Bailiff with a rigorous schedule like that. I hope 3 wins is enough to keep his job.
7. UAB Blazers – After a two year absence the UAB football program is back playing football. I remember back in the early 2000s UAB had some decent football years that produced good NFL players like Roddy White and Bryan Thomas but now that they quit football and started back up again well, expect some challenges. Bill Clark the former UAB coach just waited the two year storm out and he’s back at head coach which is good since he’s had success at the 1AA level before. The out of conference schedule has games vs Alabama A&M, @Ball State, vs Coastal Carolina, @Florida.
I’m thinking 1-3 with the win vs Alabama A&M but maybe they can upset the other new team to 1A ranks and Coastal Carolina and go 2-2. I’m not betting on it though. The in conference road schedule has games vs North Texas, Charlotte, Southern Miss, & UTSA. I’m thinking 0-4 but maybe they can get past Charlotte. At home the Blazers get Louisiana Tech, Middle Tenn, Rice & UTEP. I’m thinking 0-4 here but maybe they can upset Rice. All in all I wouldn’t expect much in year one but if they somehow win 3 or 4 games every Blazer fan should be really optimistic.