(This is the second in a series previewing the Group of 5 conferences based on their O/U win totals, as provided by Draftkings. For the AAC Preview, click here.)
With all the talk of realignment, college football is going to look at lot different in the future. But in Conference USA, the future is now.
Gone are Marshall and Old Dominion, choosing to take their talents to the Sun Belt. Leaving for the AAC after this year are UTSA, UAB, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice, FAU. Arriving after this year are Liberty, New Mexico St., Jacksonville St. and Sam Houston St. Got all that?
There are a lot of questions that can be asked that will make this last season of C-USA as we know it interesting? What will UTSA do for an encore? What will UAB look like without Bill Clark at the helm? Can Western Kentucky’s offense come close to producing at the level they did last year? Will there be any bad blood between the teams leaving and the teams left behind? The answers will reveal themselves over time, but as for now, here’s how I would bet these teams (based on lines provided by DraftKings as of July 10).
UAB (O/U 8.5) – UAB is about to provide the answer to an existential question.
How important is a head coach to a team’s success.
Make no mistake about it, Bill Clark is as important to the UAB program as any coach in college football. He essentially brought the Blazer football program back from the dead and turned them into enough of a force that the American Athletic Conference wanted to add them to their conference amidst all the upcoming realignment. They went from dead to a sleeping giant to a full-fledged G5 powerhouse in seven years. Not bad.
Here’s the bad news…Clark retired in June due to a debilitating back injury that requires a spinal fusion. First and foremost, I hope that the surgery works and he makes a full recovery. Back injuries are no joke, so hopefully he is 100% sooner rather than later.
So where does that leave the 2022 Blazer football team? The team really shouldn’t miss too much of a beat as offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent takes over. He has arguably the top RB combo in the conference with Dewayne McBride and Jermaine Brown, who combined for over 2,000 yards last year, stud receiver Trea Shropshire and four starters on the offensive line returning. The key is at quarterback, where Dylan Hopkins returns but will be pushed by Baylor transfer Jacob Zeno. Defensively, the Blazers should be their traditionally nasty selves. They led the conference last year giving up 23.2 points per game and were 11th in the nation against the run.
The magic number is 8.5 as provided by Draftkings, and looking at the schedule, things line up pretty well for the Blazers. Last year’s squad had to start with 3 of 4 games on the road (including one at eventual National Champ Georgia) while their new stadium was being completed, then they christened Protective Stadium by losing to a Liberty team that flirted with the Top 25. In 2022, they begin with 4 of 6 at home, with their road games at previously-mentioned-but-not-as-strong Liberty and at Rice. And while they to travel to an SEC school, it is at LSU in mid-November. While Death Valley is traditionally difficult to play, the Tigers are a complete wildcard this year and have been prone to clunkers in the past. The Blazers also get conference champion UTSA at home in a game that should this year’s champion.
Despite the loss of their coach and quarterback play that doesn’t instill a ton of confidence, it’s safe to assume the Blazers will be better than 8-4. Take the Over.
UTSA (O/U 8.5) – I love UTSA. Like seriously love them. The kind of love that only the crazy version of Tom Cruise that jumped on a couch on the Oprah Winfrey Show can understand. Anyone who read anything I wrote last year can vouch that I am not hopping on an already crowded bandwagon, I’m driving the damn thing. This team started off 11-0, are the defending conference champions, return starting quarterback Frank Harris and every significant weapon outside of Sincere McCormick. Nothing can stop them.
Except maybe the first three opponents on their schedule.
Houston at home. At Army. At Texas. All before conference play. Bruh….that’s brutal.
The good news is, the conference slate is very manageable, with a road game at UAB likely to determine the conference champion. The number is 8.5, which means the Under hits with an 8-4 record.
Houston at home. At Army. At Texas. At UAB. That’s 4 very hard games.
I don’t care. Like Tom Cruise said…U(TSA) Complete Me. Take the Over.
Western Kentucky (O/U 8.5, 13 games) – Unless you were a fan of whoever they were playing, Western Kentucky was fun as hell last year.
The Hilltoppers implemented a fast paced offense behind first-year head coach Tyson Helton and quarterback Bailey Zappe, who both came to Bowling Green, Kentucky from Houston Baptist. As a result, the team led the nation in passing yards and finished second in points per game and total yards per game.
Zappe isn’t walking though that door, but the Hilltoppers aren’t going to turn into a ground-and-pound offense, because former West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege has arrived to try and keep the offense humming.
Notice I said try.
Despite what they were able to do last year, I don’t have the same confidence in this year’s squad. Obviously it would be asking a lot for them to replicate what they were able to do last year, but Doege wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in Morgantown. They also lose their offensive coordinator from last year (who went to Texas Tech) and the element of surprise that they had last year.
Draftkings has the O/U at 8.5, but the Hilltoppers do play 13 games thanks to a trip to Hawaii. While the Warriors are kind of a mess, they are coached by Timmy Chang, who was flinging the ball around the field long before it was trendy. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that game ends up 54-51 one way or the other. Teams such as UTSA and Indiana also have the firepower to go toe-to-toe on the scoreboard, and teams like UAB, Auburn, North Texas and even Troy have the defense and rushing attacks to keep the pace of play to their preference. What they have going is plug-and-play, to a point. So they could either keep the train rolling or it come to a screeching halt in Year Two. As a result…Stay Away.
North Texas (O/U 6.5) – On October 23, 2021, the Mean Green were 1-6, with only a season opening win against Northwestern St. on their resume. Seth Littrell was possibly coaching for his life heading into a game against Rice.
But to quote Michael Scott, my how the turntables have turned.
North Texas beat the Owls in overtime, and at that point, everything clicked. They won the rest of their regular season games, including crushing the dreams of Roadrunner Nation by ending UTSA’s undefeated season. That was enough to make the AAC, a conference they will be joining in 2023, take notice. They did all this behind the #5 rushing attack in the nation and steady if not unspectacular quarterback play by Austin Aune.
Whether it was a timely hot streak or the start of something sustainable could be answered Week Zero, when they open the season with a conference game at UTEP. Honestly, I tend to think it was the former.
Taking a closer look at the Mean Green, while they will still have a formidable rushing attack, they do lose 1,200-yard rusher DeAndre Torrey, their entire front four and every safety who started last year. And while Aune was the man to right the ship behind center, he still finished with 9 touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 9 games. He has to cut down on turnovers.
The schedule is more than tricky. The first five games contains only one gimme (against Texas Southern) and four games that could swing either way (at UTEP, SMU, at UNLV, at Memphis). In fact, the Mean Green also plays UTSA, UAB and Western Kentucky all on the road. Expecting a 7-5 record with that schedule is asking a lot. Take the Under.
FAU (O/U 5.5) – The easy answer to figuring out FAU is “Is Willie Taggart coaching? Then Stay Away.” But if you have gotten this far reading about Conference USA, I should probably offer a bit more analysis.
Everything about FAU is….ok. The Owls definitely have talent, with Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry at quarterback, Johnny Ford at running back and a couple solid receivers. But consistency is an issue. The defense is nothing really to write home about, only returning four full-time starters. All this from a team that lost the last four games of the season when they only needed to win one to make a bowl. It’s all just…whatever.
Games against UCF and at Purdue are probably not winnable, but beyond that, the schedule isn’t all that daunting. UAB and Western Kentucky come to Boca Raton and there is no UTSA to be found. Week Zero they host conference rival Charlotte in a game they won handily last year and can get them off to a 3-0 start. But will they put it all together this year or should we expect the unexpected again?
Sometimes the easy answer is the right one. Stay Away.
Middle Tennessee (O/U 5.5) – I kinda hate to say it, but much like FAU, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about with Middle Tennessee. Sure, they made a bowl game, and even beat a solid Toledo team. But that was last year.
This year’s squad will look a lot different. In a conference that has some pretty potent offenses, Middle Tennessee returns two starters on that side of the ball, sophomore receiver Jaylin Lane and center Jordan Palmer. Either Nick Vattiato or Chase Cunningham will start at quarterback, and while both are solid, neither are world-beaters. They also need to find a running attack to provide balance. They are going to be an up-tempo team, but there are teams in the conference who are already doing that and better. Can this team win a couple shootouts when the situation calls for it?
Defensively, the Blue Raiders return their front four, which is a good thing in a conference that has some teams that can run the ball well. But they return only one member of a secondary that helped the team lead the nation in takeaways. That’s not a sustainable model for success.
Then there’s the schedule…
The first seven games look as follows: at James Madison (Think they won’t be fired up for their first game as a member of the FBS?) at Colorado St., Tennessee St., at Miami, UTSA, at UAB, Western Kentucky, at UTEP. November is much more manageable, but there’s a chance it’s too little too late for longtime coach Rick Stockstill and the Blue Raiders are just riding out the rest of the season at that point. Take the Under and lock it in.
UTEP (O/U 5.5) – Remember all the talk about College GameDay possibly going to El Paso last year for UTSA vs. UTEP? While a big part of that hype was because of the magical run the Roadrunners was on, the reality is that ESPN wouldn’t have considered it if their opponent weren’t having a successful season at that point as well.
UTEP got off to a fast start last season thanks to the combo of quarterback Gavin Hardison and running back Ronald Awatt. Both return, along with a defense returning their entire Front 7. That’s a pretty solid foundation.
I’ve mentioned earlier the Week Zero game against North Texas and how big that is for both teams, but I really like the Miners in that game. They need to replace their entire secondary, but UNT is more interested in beating you with a run game that plays right into UTEP’s hands. After a game at Oklahoma that won’t be very fun, they face both New Mexico St. and go to New Mexico. It would behoove of the Miners to win those games before Boise St. comes to the Sun Bowl. The remainder of the home schedule is very forgiving, with FAU, Middle Tennessee and FIU all home games. I see 5 very winnable home games, and at least three winnable road games (at New Mexico, at Louisiana Tech, at Rice).
There is probably a clear Top 2 in the conference, but that next tier is wide open. UTEP can make a move to that next level and easily clear 5.5 wins. Take the Over and lock it in.
Charlotte (O/U 4.5) – I have to admit something about Charlotte that is going to sound ridiculous.
Early on last year, they were reminding me of 2020 Coastal Carolina. They had a young coach and quarterback combo in Will Healy and Chris Reynolds coming off a Week One win over a Power 5 team (For CC it was Kansas, for Charlotte it was Duke.) While they definitely came back down to Earth, they did get off to a 4-2 start and I was mentally preparing myself for the reality that I was going to choose between then and UTSA for conference supremacy. (Psst…It was always you Roadrunners. It was always you.) Then the 49er defense went off the rails to a comically bad level, losing 5 of 6 and giving up no less than 38 points in each of their losses.
I’m not saying that I love Charlotte this year, but Healy is still there, Reynolds is still there (along with seven other starters on offense), and the defense cannot be that bad again. So what am I missing?
The schedule is definitely not easy, with a Week Zero game in Boca Raton against FAU. The Owls were directly responsible for the implosion of the 49er season last year, beating them 38-9 in Charlotte. So this could be a bit of revenge against an inconsistent team. From there, Charlotte has FCS opponent William & Mary before five consecutive games that could exploit this year’s defense: Maryland, at Georgia St., at South Carolina, UTEP and at UAB. The Maryland, South Carolina and UAB games are likely losses, but Charlotte COULD win two of those. The back half of the schedule is much easier, with games against FIU, at Rice, a likely shootout against Western Kentucky, at Middle Tennessee and a season finale against Louisiana Tech. There are wins to be had there.
Draftkings set the O/U at 4.5, and Charlotte has the offense to beat William & Mary, FIU, Rice, Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. That’s good enough to hit the Over, but they might want to get a couple more to justify their place in the AAC in the future. Take the Over.
Louisiana Tech (O/U 4.5) – This line feels awful low. After all, coach Skip Holtz has some pretty serious momentum after leading the Birmingham Stallions to a USFL Championship in the offseason.
I’m kidding, but how weird was it for Bulldog fans to see recently fired Skip Holtz and former quarterback J’Mar Smith holding a professional football championship trophy? But I digress.
Louisiana Tech is now coached by Sonny Cumbie, a Mike Leach disciple who will be bringing the Air Raid to Ruston. However, look no further than Leach’s first season in Starkville to see what it looks like without an experienced playmaker at quarterback. It can be rough. I suggest get the ball to Smoke Harris as much as possible and get out of the way.
Defensively, they return their entire defensive line and both safeties, but um….remember earlier when I talked about how bad Charlotte’s D was? They tied La. Tech by giving up 34 points a game. So returning a lot may not be a great thing. Also not great, Louisiana Tech’s non-conference schedule. At Missouri, home against Stephen F. Austin, at Clemson, at South Alabama. They can get that last win, but they may need to go 2-2 before conference play to get over 4.5. There is a stretch of games midseason (Rice at home, at FIU and Middle Tennessee at home) that could put them over the hump. But they might need all 3 because the closing stretch is at UTSA, at Charlotte and at home against UAB.
There may be some growing pains this year in Ruston, but it may be just as well. C-USA is going to look a lot different in 2023, and the Bulldogs may be well positioned to be one of the upper echelon teams then. But as for 2022….Stay Away.
Rice (O/U 3.5) – How lucky is Rice? Some people may say “very” while others would say “not at all”.
Once Houston agreed to move to the Big XII, the AAC decided they still needed a footprint in the city. Luckily Rice is sitting right there, and despite not being much to write home about on the football field, got the call to what many feel is an upgrade in conferences once the dust settles. What kind of team they have once they make the move will depend primarily on what they get out of the 2022 version, because there is a lot of youth.
There are definite pieces in place. They have two solid running backs in Ari Broussard and Dean Connors and an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starts from last year. Defensively, they are solid on the defensive line and have their entire secondary (what admittedly was 123rd in pass defense) coming back. So there is experience there if nothing else. They need to figure out their quarterback situation, as someone needs to show they can make plays at that position.
The reality is, Rice wasn’t far off last year from making a bowl. They finished 4-8, including a win over UAB, but lost two games in overtime. Reverse those fortunes, and they likely got a trip to the Bahamas or wherever. But looking at this year’s schedule, they open the season at USC. Very, VERY bad luck. They also go to Houston and host Louisiana on their non-con slate. (As well as host McNeese St.) You are probably just looking at one win there. And while they can beat teams like Charlotte and Louisiana Tech, not having Middle Tennessee and FIU just makes finding three conference wins hard to do. Take your 2-10 record to the AAC and have fun. Take the Under.
FIU (O/U 3) – If you have gotten this far in the C-USA preview, this may be where I lose you, Dear Reader. But FIU may not be that bad.
Sure, there are only two starters returning on offense and three on defense, but that may not be such a bad thing. They have some solid pieces, namely wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, who gained over 1,000 yards and scored nine touchdowns on 45 catches. Having that kind of deep threat gives you a chance as long as the quarterback as the arm to get you the ball. In at quarterback is Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg, who passed for over 2,300 yards last season in the ACC. And at the helm is Mike MacIntyre, who has orchestrated turnarounds at San Jose St. and Colorado in the past.
DraftKings set the O/U at 3, and honestly, that feels right on. Week One they host Bryant, an FCS school. They also have games at New Mexico St. and at home against UCONN that are winnable. Say they split those, then catch someone like Louisiana Tech, FAU or Middle Tennessee at home. I’m not saying they are going to be great, or even good, but I’m saying there’s a chance. Since I feel pushy…Stay Away.
Overs – UAB, UTSA, UTEP, Charlotte
Unders – North Texas, Middle Tennessee, Rice
Stay Aways – Western Kentucky, FAU, Louisiana Tech, FIU
4. Western Kentucky
6. North Texas
8. Louisiana Tech
11. Middle Tennessee
So here is my deep dive into Conference USA. If you use any of my recommendations, feel free to tweet me what your bet is (@justincripe). And if you are the parlaying type, we will probably become best friends.
Meep Meep For Life.