Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. As we continue today with Conference USA, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games from each conference.
Here we go.
1. Florida Atlantic
Winners of 10 straight, Lane Kiffin’s bunch is the class of Conference USA following an 11-3 season that featured losses to Navy, Wisconsin and Buffalo. Devin Singletary is among the most explosive running backs in the nation and a defense that allowed 32 points in the final three games of 2017 is champing at the bit to return.
The Thundering Herd probably have the best chance of any league team to take down FAU. Marshall, which went 8-5 in ’17, has new coordinators on both sides of ball but returns nine starters on offense and 10 on defense.
3. Middle Tennessee
Keeping quarterback Brent Stockstill healthy is priority No. 1 after injuries have limited him to 17 games over the last two seasons. Ty Lee (142 receptions and 14 touchdowns the last two years) is one of the top receivers in Conference USA.
4. Florida International
In Butch Davis’ first season as coach, FIU matched a school record with eight victories and enjoyed its first winning campaign since 2011. This year could be tougher as the Panthers must find a quarterback. However, lineman Fermin Silva (six sacks) returns to lead a solid defensive unit.
5. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers made a bowl for the fourth straight season in ’17, but underachieved at 6-7 while favored to win the Conference USA East. Under first-year coach Mike Sanford, WKU averaged 20 points fewer (45.5 to 25.5) from 2016. It doesn’t help that the quarterback position hasn’t been settled.
6. Old Dominion
Following a surprising 10-win season in 2016, the Monarchs went 5-7 last year. The good news for ODU fans: the program returns 18 starters. It will be interesting to see how much quarterback Steven Williams matures from his freshman season.
The 49ers have totaled seven wins in their three seasons on the FBS level, four of which have come in Conference USA. The pressure will be on coach Brad Lambert to turn things around following last year’s 1-11 disaster.
1. North Texas
In 2015, the Mean Green won one game, but in the two years that have followed under coach Seth Littrell, they have 14 victories. Nine of those came last season along with a second consecutive bowl berth. North Texas returns 16 starters, led by reigning Conference USA Offensive Player of Year Mason Fine (4,052 passing yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions).
No doubt, the Blazers were the feel-good story of college football in 2017. Shut down for two years, the UAB program returned to finish 8-5 and earn a spot in the Bahamas Bowl. With 16 starters back, the Blazers might have a legitimate chance of challenging North Texas for the top position in the West.
3. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs won their fourth straight bowl game in as many seasons in ’17, but that concluded an underachieving 7-6 slate for Skip Holtz’s group. J’Mar Smith is a versatile quarterback with some upside. Louisiana Tech, however, must improve on its 3-4 home mark from a year ago.
4. Southern Mississippi
Southern Miss has appeared in three consecutive bowl games, but extending that streak could be a bit difficult. The Golden Eagles need consistency at quarterback and must replace key losses in the backfield and at wide receiver.
The Roadrunners went 6-5 last season but didn’t make a bowl like they did the year before. Defensive lineman Kevin Strong Jr. returns to lead a unit that allowed 17 points per game. Four of UTSA’s losses last season came by a total of 17 points.
David Bailiff’s 11-year run as Owls coach ended after a 1-11 disappointment and third consecutive losing season. Former Stanford assistant Mike Bloomgren must find a quarterback and clean things up after Rice had a minus-23 turnover margin.
Dana Dimel takes over a Miners program which was the only winless team in the FBS last season. It averaged just 11.8 points while giving up 36.8 per contest. The good news is that UTEP probably can’t get much worse.
Players to watch
Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic: The 5-foot-9 Singletary made a national name for himself by leading the FBS with 33 total touchdowns and finishing fourth with 1,920 rushing yards as a sophomore. He’s also receiving some Heisman buzz.
Jaylon Ferguson, DE, Louisiana Tech: Likely the most NFL-ready player in Conference USA. Ferguson, who possesses above-average speed, has registered 27 1/2 sacks and 41 1/2 tackles for loss during his three seasons for the Bulldogs.
Sept. 15: North Texas at Arkansas. Favored in the Conference USA West, the Mean Green might have a good chance to spring the upset on the rebuilding Razorbacks.
Sept. 21: Florida Atlantic at UCF. These schools haven’t met since 2003, but it can be argued that they are two of the top three teams currently in the state of Florida.
Oct. 20: Florida Atlantic at Marshall. This could prove to be the Owls’ toughest Conference USA game. They beat Marshall for the first time in five tries last season.