With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We finish with 10 things to know about Conference USA.
* * *
1. While the conference has produced several fun teams in recent years -- particularly at Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, Marshall and Middle Tennessee -- Conference USA has struggled to attract much attention in the post-realignment college football landscape. The roster of teams has changed drastically over the past decade, while the league has also been the landing spot for new FBS teams Charlotte and Old Dominion … and now, strangely, UAB. After two years without football following a 6-6 breakthrough in 2014, the Blazers are back as a total wild card. With UAB returning as a mystery team and Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis arriving as head coaches, Conference USA has been boosted with some intriguing storylines that will attract national attention, on top of the handful of fun contenders.
2. UAB is a Conference USA veteran, one of only two teams (along with Southern Miss) that was in the league back in 2004. And yet UAB's 2017 transition back to playing football is even harder to gauge than the recent leaps of Charlotte and Old Dominion. Charlotte didn't start playing football until 2013, and it spent only two years playing FCS ball before leaping to Conference USA. It has gone 6-18 overall and 3-13 in C-USA play since making the leap, and it's coming off a solid season in which all three of its league wins came on the road. The 49ers have quickly shown that they can compete, but they're likely to tread water with players who literally started the program now gone. Old Dominion's transition has gone better than anyone could have hoped. It has been in Conference USA for three years after beginning play in 2009, and it's coming off an impressive 10-3 season in which it went 7-1 in conference games and won the Bahamas Bowl. Bobby Wilder has done a fantastic job with the Monarchs, who get back star RB Ray Lawry but have to replace QB David Washington and several key players on defense. They're going to take a step back, but they'll still challenge for bowl eligibility.
UAB? It's impossible to really know how competitive it will be. Before the team folded, Bill Clark led the Blazers to six wins for the first time since 2004, which was their only bowl season ever. Clark has stayed on and tried to hold the team together. There are a few holdovers from the 2014 team, but this squad is mostly made up of new recruits and transfers who have never played a game together. While Clark is an excellent coach, it's nearly impossible to get a true read on what UAB will look like in such an unusual situation. Whatever happens in 2017, merely fielding a football team at all is a victory.
3. The Florida International-Florida Atlantic rivalry has suddenly gotten a whole lot more interesting. Expect FAU's Lane Kiffin to have the edge on FIU's Butch Davis, at least at the start. Kiffin is 35-21 as a head coach and has won national championships as a coordinator, but he nevertheless finds ways to go out in dramatic and/or controversial fashion wherever he is. At FAU, he takes over a program that hasn't had a winning record since 2008. He's brought in a lot of new blood, featuring transfers, former blue-chip recruits and/or "Last Chance U" stars, headlined by quarterback De'Andre Johnson. The Owls won just three games last year, but Kiffin and his staff (which includes Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator) have worked quickly to upgrade the talent level, particularly on offense, in addition to inheriting plenty of returning experience, so a bowl bid is possible. At FIU, the 65-year-old Davis returns to coaching after a six-season absence, taking over for Ron Turner. FIU went to bowls in 2010-11 but has struggled since then, although it did finish .500 in conference play last year. Davis does have a lot of experience to work with, headlined by QB Alex McGough and RB Alex Gardner and what is capable of being a solid defense, but the Golden Panthers are unlikely to break back into the postseason just yet.
4. UTSA is the newcomer among the Texas schools in Conference USA, but it is easily in the best shape among the four. Rice and UTEP may soon follow North Texas' path and hit reset at head coach. North Texas tanked to 1-11 in 2015 and replaced Dan McCarney with Seth Littrell, who led the Mean Green to a bizarre bowl season in which they went 5-8. It represented significant progress, but unless sophomore Mason Fine can take a big step forward at quarterback -- with a new-look receiving corps -- it's probably a year early for North Texas to truly take a leap forward into contending for a division title.
Rice and UTEP both had winning seasons two years ago, then slipped to 5-7 in 2015 … then fell again, with Rice going 3-9 and UTEP going 4-8 last year. Hot seat pressure is on both Rice's David Bailiff, who's coached the Owls for 10 years, and UTEP's Sean Kugler, who's in his fifth season. Of the two, Rice is probably more likely to bounce back a bit, but it has a redshirt freshman QB, Sam Glaesmann, and faces a brutal nonconference schedule featuring Stanford, Houston, Pittsburgh and Army, making bowl eligibility seem nearly impossible. UTEP is built around physical play and has a standout guard in Will Hernandez, but 1,700-yard rusher Aaron Jones is gone, and the Miners lack experience at both running back and receiver. They also draw both WKU and MTSU from the East.
5. Don't sleep on Southern Miss in the West Division. Southern Miss won the division two years ago but lost head coach Todd Monken, who revived the program after a horrific decline. Under Jay Hopson, the Eagles went 7-6 overall, and they'll turn to either Keon Howard or Kwadra Griggs (or maybe even true freshman Marcelo Rodriguez) to keep the offense moving at a high level. Quarterback and offensive line are both question marks, but the Eagles have a pair of fantastic offensive weapons in versatile tailback Ito Smith (1,918 yards from scrimmage) and receiver Allenzae Staggers (1,165 yards). With a favorable cross-division schedule and perhaps the best group of skill players in the conference, the Eagles are C-USA contenders. They're not the favorite, but it seems clear that the dark days of 2012-14 (4-32 record) are well in the past.
* * *
All-Conference USA Team
QB: Brent Stockstill, Middle Tennessee
RB: Ito Smith, Southern Miss
RB: Ray Lawry, Old Dominion
WR: Richie James, Middle Tennessee
WR: Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss
TE: Ryan Yurachek, Marshall
OL: Will Hernandez, UTEP
OL: O'Shea Dugas, Louisiana Tech
OL: Chandler Brewer, Middle Tennessee
OL: Reggie Bain, Florida Atlantic
OL: Nate Davis, Charlotte
DE: Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech
DE: Walter Brady, Middle Tennessee
DT: Chris Johnson, Western Kentucky
DT: Ryan Bee, Marshall
LB: Josiah Tauaefa, UTSA
LB: Emmanuel Ellerbee, Rice
LB: Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic
CB: Brandon Addison, Old Dominion
CB: Joe Brown, Western Kentucky
S: Kishawn McClain, North Texas
S: Jalen Young, Florida Atlantic
K: Jonathan Barnes, Louisiana Tech
P: Jake Collins, Western Kentucky
AP: Nacarius Fant, Western Kentucky
* * *
6. Marshall's decline wasn't quite as drastic as Southern Miss a few years ago, but the Thundering Herd nevertheless endured an ugly fall from grace. From 2013-15, they went 33-8. Last year, they went 3-9. The offense that was first in C-USA in yards per play in 2014 fell to 12th in 2016. The defense that was first in C-USA in yards per play allowed in 2015 fell to 11th in 2016. Everything went wrong last year: All but one of the nine losses were by double-digits -- including a season-ending 60-6 humiliation at home against WKU -- and the Herd had that record despite boasting a positive turnover margin. Marshall will be better than last year, but it's a long way from returning to the top of the conference. The running game was a mess with no overnight fix, and QB Chase Litton has a new receiving corps. New players like Miami transfer WR Tyre Brady will need to step up in a hurry. Throw in tricky nonconference games (Miami of Ohio, N.C. State, Cincinnati) and cross-division matchups with UTSA and Southern Miss, and bowl eligibility is a lot to ask.
7. The Skip Holtz era didn't work out at South Florida, but he's been quite reliable at both East Carolina and Louisiana Tech, missing bowls in his first season at each place but making postseason trips in each of the other seven seasons. The Bulldogs have had three straight nine-win seasons, although they're still searching for their first conference title since the WAC in 2011. Getting over the hump and winning Conference USA requires Louisiana Tech swiftly rebuilding its passing game. Ryan Higgins threw for 4,617 yards and 41 TDs last year with the help of prolific receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. All three are gone, with Taylor and Henderson taking 66 percent of the team's receiving yards with them. RB Jarred Craft and a solid line are still in place for a team that remains a postseason lock, but the Bulldogs' division title fate likely depends on the arm of sophomore QB J'Mar Smith.
8. Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, who have won the past three West titles, are still serious threats, but with new QBs in both Ruston and Hattiesburg, a window of opportunity is open for UTSA, a program on the rise under Frank Wilson. The Roadrunners have played only six years of football, and Wilson did finish under .500, 6-7, in his first season replacing Larry Coker. But this was a clearly improved team last year that went 5-3 in conference play and went bowling, and the Roadrunners return QB Dalton Sturm, their top four receivers and plenty of veterans at linebacker and defensive back. There are holes, but Jalen Rhodes is promising at tailback, Sturm is a veteran QB with running ability and UTSA has a very favorable schedule that doesn't include Middle Tennessee, WKU or Old Dominion from the East. Wilson is a coach on the rise, and he can guide UTSA to the top of the division.
9. Western Kentucky feels like it should be the safest pick in Conference USA. After all, it has gone 23-5 the past two years in winning back-to-back conference titles. It has had prolific offenses, and 4,000-yard passer Mike White returns for his senior season. Throw in the fact that both Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee visit WKU, and the Hilltoppers are a strong bet for another conference crown. There are hurdles, though. Jeff Brohm took the Purdue job, and the coaching reigns are handed to 35-year-old Mike Sanford, most recently Notre Dane's offensive coordinator. The Hilltoppers lose star tackle Forrest Lamp (a second-round pick), two receivers who combined for over 3,000 yards and 31 TDs in Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris and 1,600-yard rusher Anthony Wales. The Hilltoppers scored a national-high 82 TDs last year; while White is back, Taylor, Norris and Wales scored 61 of those. This is still going to be a potent Hilltoppers attack, but some regression is inevitable.
10. Middle Tennessee has a veteran coach in Rick Stockstill. His son, Brent Stockstill, is a prolific junior QB, and receiver Richie James is one of the most explosive and dynamic players in all of college football. While the Blue Raiders have some concerns -- RB I'Tavius Mathers is gone, and both lines have holes to fill -- the defense returns nine of its top 11 tacklers and adds transfer DE Walter Brady, who had 12 ½ tackles for loss for Missouri in 2015. With an explosive passing game and a creative offensive coordinator in Tony Franklin, there's a lot to like about MTSU's chances for a breakthrough to the top of the conference. After all, the Blue Raiders have been close, going 22-10 in Conference USA over the past four seasons. Last year's team beat Louisiana Tech and Missouri and lost to WKU by one in double-OT. With the coaching continuity on offense, the addition of former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer as defensive coordinator and the presence of a prolific passing tandem in Brent Stockstill and James, Middle Tennessee will rise to the top of Conference USA.
* * *
1. Middle Tennessee 8-4 (7-1)
2. Western Kentucky 8-4 (6-2)
3. Old Dominion 6-6 (5-3)
4. Florida Atlantic 6-6 (4-4)
5. Marshall 5-7 (4-4)
6. Florida International 4-8 (3-5)
7. Charlotte 3-9 (2-6)
1. UTSA 8-4 (6-2)
2. Louisiana Tech 7-5 (5-3)
3. Southern Miss 7-5 (5-3)
4. North Texas 5-7 (3-5)
5. Rice 3-9 (3-5)
6. UTEP 2-10 (2-6)
7. UAB 2-10 (1-7)
Conference championship: Middle Tennessee over UTSA
* * *