Conference USA 2023 college football preview

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Conference USA 2023 preview

College football realignment has impacted each Group of Five conference differently, but the changes to Conference USA are really significant for the 2023 season. UTSA, UAB, Charlotte, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, and Rice all moved to the AAC, paving the way for former Independents Liberty and New Mexico State to join C-USA, along with FBS newcomers Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State.

 

The conference goes from 11 teams to nine (no divisions) and has been substantially weakened by the departures. It was never that strong of a conference anyway, but teams like UTSA, UAB, and FAU have at least made noise in the Top 25 at times. If I were to rank the conferences 1 through 10, Conference USA would now be the worst, even with some of the awful teams in the MAC.

Western Kentucky is the only holdover to have a winning record in conference play last season and one of two to reach bowl eligibility. The only other team in the conference to go bowling is New Mexico State, who joins a conference for the first time since leaving the Sun Belt in 2017.

Futures intrigue is pretty limited here, as Western Kentucky (+130) looks quite a bit better than anybody else, though Liberty (+240) and Middle Tennessee (+450) are also considered contenders. Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State are not eligible for the conference title game until the 2024 season, so only seven of the nine teams have a chance to win the conference crown.

On the plus side, one cool wrinkle is that this will be the only conference in which teams will play every single conference opponent. That will change next season when Kennesaw State joins the league.

Another cool wrinkle is that the conference will play games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays in September and October, so it would benefit you to be familiar with the teams to wager on those mid-week matchups.

 

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

The likely class of Conference USA is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who went 9-5 overall last season and outscored conference foes 38-19 while outgaining them by an average of 136 yards per game. Even though he was ready to leave, starting QB Austin Reed decided to stay and has the chance to put up absurd numbers with a watered-down schedule and weaker defenses. With three nine-win seasons in Tyson Helton’s four years as head coach, this could be the first with double-digit dubs.

Offense

Reed threw for 4,744 yards with 40 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions last season. The West Florida transfer filled in perfectly for Bailey Zappe, who took his talents to the NFL, and a similar fate could be in store for Reed with the stats he can compile this season. Leading receiver Malachi Corley caught 101 balls for 1,293 yards, but his supporting cast of Daewood Davis and Jaylen Hall moved on. However, with how much Western Kentucky threw the ball (623 pass attempts), guys like Michael Mathison and 6-5 Cincinnati transfer Blue Smith will put up numbers.

While WKU didn’t throw for 434 yards per game as they did in 2021, they were still second to Washington in passing yards per game with 352.1 and second in attempts to Mississippi State. For good measure, the Hilltoppers also rushed for 4.9 yards per carry. For a team that throws as much as WKU does, a +21 turnover margin in the last two seasons is remarkably impressive, and more of the same is likely in the new-look C-USA, especially with Mike Leach Air Raid disciple Drew Hollingshead as the new offensive coordinator.

Defense

This team isn’t all about the aerial assault and lighting up the scoreboard. The defense was also really stout last season, holding opponents to 23.4 points per game and just 5.2 yards per play. In the four seasons under Helton, the Hilltoppers have not allowed more than 5.6 yards per play, and the defense took another step forward under new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers last season. In his second year, Summers only has four returning starters, but the caliber of opposing offense has gone down.

Leading tackler and head sack man JaQues Evans is one of the four returnees. A lack of experience hits every level of the defense, especially the back seven. Fortunately, this is a good time for that to happen, given the state of the conference, but it will be interesting to see what WKU looks like in road games at Ohio State and Troy in Weeks 3 and 4 with a lot of newbies.

Outlook

My numbers have WKU with 9.17 wins, and they are favored in every game except for those aforementioned matchups in the nonconference on the road. In fact, I have Western Kentucky favored by a touchdown or more in every other game. Their season win total is just 8.5 with the Over at plus money, and this is one of my favorite season win total wagers. If they pull the mini upset at Troy, it would take a complete catastrophe not to go Over.

Pick: Over 8.5

 

UTEP Miners

Even though expectations are understandably low at UTEP, there have been some whispers that maybe Dana Dimel is in a make-or-break year. Given how the conference is now the opposite of formidable, it does make sense that a 5-7 campaign wouldn’t cut it. Bowl eligibility is the baseline, and achieving something more should be expected. With most of the offense back and a chance to bring a little exposure to El Paso with those weeknight games, this is a big year for the Miners.

Offense

Eight starters return from an offense that actually regressed in 2022. The Miners had 25.1 points per game and six yards per play in 2021. They dropped to 24.4 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2022. Senior QB Gavin Hardison is back to add to his numbers and is currently the third-leading passer all-time in program history, but it would take over 4,000 yards to move up any higher. UTEP will just settle for a better season than last year, with a 52.1% completion rate and an 11/8 TD/INT ratio.

Scotty O’Hara goes from the wide receivers coach to the offensive coordinator in hopes of sparking something in the passing game. Top WR Tyrin Smith is back after catching 71 balls for 1,039 yards, but no other returnee caught more than 21 passes. UTEP’s running game falls on the shoulders of 235-pound bruiser Deion Hankins, who was a conference second-teamer last season, and he’ll be running behind a veteran offensive line.

Defense

The defense also took a step back from 2021 to 2022, perhaps leading to skepticism about Dimel’s future. UTEP went from 25.2 points per game to 27 points per game allowed and from 5.2 yards per play to 5.9 yards per play allowed. UTEP finished with a negative turnover margin for the eighth straight season, despite an odd amount of fumble luck, with 11 recoveries on 19 fumbles. The Miners only forced five interceptions, tied for 124th in the nation.

What’s odd is that UTEP was in the top 40 in third-down defense and the top 50 in red zone TD%, but still couldn’t convert that into enough victories. Leading tackler Tyrice Wright is back, and so is third-leading tackler Kobe Hylton, but top sack artist Jadrian Taylor took 9.5 of the 28 QB takedowns with him.

Outlook

This is such a hard team to figure out. Conference USA hasn’t been very good for a while and is clearly weaker this season, but nothing stands out for UTEP that would suggest an uptick in results or production. My projections have UTEP with just 5.92 wins, but there are a handful of toss-up games on the schedule with lines around +/-3. Falling short of a bowl game in this version of Conference USA would likely result in a pink slip for Dimel, so that’s a storyline to watch this season. With the line at 5.5, I’d peg UTEP likelier for six wins than for five.

Pick: Over 5.5

 

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

The biggest benefactor of the arrivals and departures in Conference USA could be Middle Tennessee. Head coach Rick Stockstill begins his 18th year with one of the more talented teams in the league, but the Blue Raiders feel like they’ve been floating in mediocrity for a while. Perhaps that changes with a much weaker field. Two of MTSU’s four conference losses were to teams now gone, but the performances against the holdovers weren’t all that impressive either.

Offense

Nick Vattiato was pressed into duty in 2021 when the Blue Raiders had a rash of injuries at the quarterback position. The redshirt he was supposed to use in his true freshman season got burned, as he started five games. Last season, though, departed starter Chase Cunningham stayed healthy enough for Vattiato to redshirt, and now this is unquestionably his offense. Vattiato has a 7/7 TD/INT ratio and a little over 1,300 passing yards in his collegiate career.

Unfortunately for him, three receivers that accounted for 180 of the team’s 341 receptions are gone. MTSU was actually ninth in completions last season and 11th in attempts, so Vattiato’s performance will determine the ceiling for this squad with second-year offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart calling plays. It makes sense to throw the ball, as the Blue Raiders only managed 3.1 yards per carry last season.

Defense

What’s concerning about Middle Tennessee is that they are +23 in turnover margin over the last two seasons and just 15-11 in those 24 games. The Blue Raider defense tied for third in takeaways with 30 last season, trailing conference foe Western Kentucky and Illinois. MTSU’s 20 interceptions were the second-most in the nation. Eight starters are back, including elite corner Teldrick Ross, who had 20 pass breakups and two of those interceptions.

Decorian Patterson is not back, though, and he led the team with seven picks. Also missing from the equation is Jordan Ferguson, who had nine sacks and eight tackles for loss. So, the Blue Raiders are replacing some real impact dudes on defense, but they do have Ross and leading tackler Tra Fluellen back. This group allowed 27.7 points per game, 5.5 yards per play, and 293 passing yards per game, so the turnovers played a huge role. Without them, this was not a very good unit, so they’ll have to continue ball-hawking under defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.

Outlook

Middle Tennessee could really benefit from the new Conference USA members. Some teams in the league don’t take good care of the football, and that could allow this defense to keep forcing takeaways. The offense may get a boost from weaker defenses as well. And, yet, you wonder how high the ceiling is for MTSU, given that they haven’t surpassed eight wins since 2009. MTSU has not won a conference title since being the co-champs in the 2006 Sun Belt. That seems like a program still destined to be mediocre, even with a weaker schedule. I only have them down for 5.87 wins with a win total of 6.5.

Pick: Under 6.5

 

Liberty Flames

The wild card of Conference USA is Liberty. The Flames have a new head coach in Jamey Chadwell, who took Coastal Carolina to new heights in his five seasons with the Chanticleers. Hugh Freeze was very successful in Lynchburg, Virginia with a 34-16 record, plus some Top 25 appearances. The Flames are a conference member for the first time since joining FBS in 2018 and ease into it with the members of C-USA, but they also beat Arkansas and took Wake Forest to the wire last season.

Offense

The Chadwell hire should be a good one, but Year 1 could be rough. His complex offense is full of pre-snap motion in hopes of creating mismatches and outnumbered situations for defenders. It took Coastal Carolina a quarterback like Grayson McCall and basically three seasons of the offense to get it figured out. He was the one-year interim for a 3-9 season in 2017 and then served as the offensive coordinator in 2018 with a 5-7 showing and just 26.7 points per game. As head coach, the Chants were 5-7 in 2019 but did score over 30 points per game. After that, the team went 31-7 over three years.

It remains to be seen how close Kaidon Salter is on the McCall scale, but this is not an easy offense to master. Salter and Johnathan Bennett shared time as the starter last season while also sharing time in the training room. Returning starters are few and far between on both sides of the ball for Liberty, but Dae Dae Hunter’s 6.6 yards per carry and Demario Douglas’s 79 catches will be missed. It is, however, a mostly clean slate for Chadwell.

Defense

Liberty has had really good defenses in each of the last three seasons, but there are huge losses here and a new coaching staff. The Flames bid adieu to their top three tacklers and five of the top six, including Durrell Johnson, who had 18.5 tackles for loss. Liberty racked up 45 sacks, with nine from Johnson, six from departed Dennis Osagiede, and five more from departed Treshaun Clark.

Offensive growing pains could really hurt a rebuilding defense such as Liberty’s. This group allowed 4.8 yards per play in 2021 and five yards per play in 2022, but everything is brand new here. This is also the remnants of a defense that allowed 36 points to UConn and 49 points to New Mexico State down the stretch.

Outlook

Liberty plays a really bad schedule. Joining Conference USA kept New Mexico State on the slate, plus the other C-USA teams are not great. The nonconference schedule also features Bowling Green, Buffalo, Old Dominion, and UMass. As mentioned, this is a good way to ease into Chadwell’s offense and being a conference member, but it is not an easy scheme to learn, and Grayson McCall is not walking through that door. Nevertheless, Liberty has a win total of 8.5 with that pathetic schedule. I have them down for 8.23 wins, so I lean Under, but they could be favored in as many as 11 games.

Pick: Under 8.5

 

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

It was a rough first season for Sonny Cumbie and the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. For the second straight season, the Bulldogs went winless on the road and have lost 14 in a row away from Ruston. All three wins came at home, and one of them was against FCS Stephen F. Austin, whose former defensive coordinator is the DC at LA Tech. Coincidentally, that was also the team’s best defensive performance. But I think things are looking up, and this might be a surprise team this year.

Offense

Cumbie got a decent first season out of Parker McNeil, but all three QBs from last season have left the program. Hank Bachmeier transfers in from Boise State after posting 6,605 yards and a 41/19 TD/INT ratio. A quarterback with experience like Bachmeier should allow Cumbie, formerly the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and TCU, to open up the playbook a bit more. Bachmeier doesn’t get the services of leading receiver Tre Harris, but he does get Smoke Harris and also Cyrus Allen, who had nearly 23 yards per catch as a true freshman. All-name-team member De’Coldest Crawford could also be in the mix after redshirting.

While LA Tech’s rushing numbers weren’t great overall, both Marquis Crosby and Charvis Thornton hit at least five yards per carry, with Thornton actually leading the way with 5.8 yards per pop. Cumbie’s deep ties in the Lone Star State should lead to an infusion of talent, and the offense could be much more explosive this season after managing 5.6 yards per play last year.

Defense

The defense was actually the problem for this team last season. The Bulldogs surrendered 6.5 yards per play and gave up 6.1 yards per carry while incorporating an all-or-nothing defense under defensive coordinator Scott Power. Only four starters are back from this group, which is probably a good thing based on last season’s performance. The Bulldogs did rack up 11 interceptions, but they blitzed a lot and rarely got to the QB with 16 sacks.  Finding somebody to regularly harass the passer is the most important goal of this unit.

Unfortunately, Cumbie and his staff weren’t really big players in the transfer portal, so a lot of the guys that were in the program last season will hold key roles this season. It is the second year in Power’s scheme, but the Bulldogs didn’t exactly get better throughout the season. UAB ran for 406 yards on them in the last game, and they gave up at least 414 yards to every C-USA opponent except FIU.

Outlook

This could be a really good team to bet Overs with because Bachmeier should add more legitimacy to the offense, and the defense projects to be awful yet again. The second season under an offensive-minded coach like Cumbie should create more chances to score points. I think it helps LA Tech that some of the conference’s better teams are gone. They gave up 47 to North Texas, 42 to Rice, 51 to UTSA, and 37 to UAB. The betting markets also like them, with a win total of 5.5 juiced heavy on the Over. My projection is for 6.44 wins.

Pick: Over 5.5

 

New Mexico State Aggies

One of the best stories in college football last season was one that nobody really paid attention to because it happened in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The New Mexico State Aggies, led by first-year head coach Jerry Kill, went 7-6 and won the Quick Lane Bowl over Bowling Green. The Aggies, who were limited to two games in 2020, had won seven games total over the last three non-COVID seasons. What does Kill have in store for an encore?

Offense

It is really hard to read too much into the stats for New Mexico State. Their athletic department is dependent on getting blown out from time to time, and it happened with a 38-0 loss to Minnesota with 91 yards of offense and a 66-7 loss to Wisconsin. On the other hand, the Aggies also dropped 65 on Valparaiso to get bowl-eligible and hung 51 on Lamar. So, you take the good with the bad.

Now, though, the Aggies won’t play an Independent schedule anymore, though they will rekindle the I-25 rivalry with New Mexico and still draw UMass. Overall, the Aggies racked up 5.7 yards per play, the most since 2017, when they last went to a bowl game. They rushed for 4.6 yards per carry, and sack avoidance helped the passing attack with just 16 allowed. Diego Pavia’s job was to get the ball out as fast as possible, and that will be the case again with nine starters back, including every pass-catcher except the one that led the team in receptions.

Defense

What happened on defense was simply stunning. New Mexico State did play a much weaker schedule, but the Aggies went from 40.4 points per game allowed and 7.4 yards per play allowed to 23.9 points per game and five yards per play. That was the lowest yards per play allowed by an Aggies defense in Division I-A. Defensive coordinator Nate Dreiling will turn 33 in October, and I think he’ll be in line for a big job upgrade following this season.

Let’s see what Dreiling does this season, as five of the top six tacklers are gone, including Lazarus Williams and Chris Ojoh, who combined for 12.5 of the team’s 28 sacks. FBS transfers generally aren’t interested in programs like New Mexico State, which means scouring the JUCO ranks or making do with what you’ve got. It will primarily be the latter for Dreiling, as only four returning starters are back, but the rising DC might be a magic man.

Outlook

New Mexico State has a really interesting travel spot right before the bye. One road game at Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, feeds into the rivalry game against New Mexico, a game that the Aggies won for the first time in four tries last season. After that, the Aggies fly to Honolulu to face Hawaii. Then they’ll play four road games in five weeks in October and November, including a trip to get pummeled at Auburn. The schedule is still weak, so my projections call for 5.68 wins with a win total line of 5.5, but I think the travel could be a real bear.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Florida International Panthers

Florida International was 4-4 last season after eight games, and I was saying on the VSiN College Football Podcast that Mike MacIntyre should get serious consideration as the Coach of the Year. The program was in total disarray when he took over, as previous head coach Butch Davis shed some light on the lackluster facilities, hand-me-down uniforms, and the lack of raises for his assistants. MacIntyre came in, and all of a sudden, had a team looking bowl eligibility in the face. Well, FIU lost the final four games by a combined 122 points, and the season ended with a whimper.

Offense

Even though things were really bad in 2021 with a 1-11 record, the offense was a lot better. FIU managed just 18.7 points per game and a measly 4.7 yards per play. While the Panthers cut 23 sacks off of their total from the previous season, they threw for less yardage, made very small gains on the ground, and posted a 16/16 TD/INT ratio. Grayson James had 11 of the 16 TD passes but also 11 of the interceptions while throwing for under 2,000 yards in 10 starts. Perhaps Year 2 under respected offensive coordinator David Yost will go better, but his favorite target, Tyrese Chambers, is gone.

The low sack total was one of the few bright spots for the Panthers last season, but they’ll have to work in three new starters on the offensive line and are thin with upperclassmen, so experience is an issue. James is fairly mobile, which helped the sack numbers last season, but it might make sense for Yost recruit Keyone Jenkins to play in his freshman season.

Defense

The FIU defense was one of the worst in the nation in 2021, and that side of the ball did improve under MacIntyre, at least until the complete lack of depth caught up with them late in the season. The Panthers only shaved 2.4 points per game off their ledger but did shave 0.7 yards per play off and had seven more sacks. This side of the ball does return seven starters and seven of the top nine tacklers.

At least MacIntyre had the full 85 scholarships to work with this season, which was not the case previously, so there’s some hope that this side of the ball can continue its upward trajectory, especially with a lot of underclassmen playing big roles last season. MacIntyre knows defense, and it could really show through this season.

Outlook

UTSA, North Texas, and FAU all rolled over FIU last season, and they’ve gone to the AAC, but Western Kentucky and UTEP are still around. So, there’s some give and take in the schedule. FIU plays in Week 0 against Louisiana Tech, which means two byes during the regular season and some opportunities for a young, depth-shy roster to catch its breath. I only have FIU favored in one game, and it’s against FCS Maine. Their win total line is three with heavy Over juice, and they got to four last season with a stronger schedule, but I don’t see much upside on this roster with a projection of 2.28 wins.

Pick: Under 3

 

Sam Houston State Bearkats

Head coach KC Keeler and the Sam Houston State Bearkats have been very successful at the FCS level. Keeler was the National Champion in the spring of 2021 when the FCS played due to COVID. The Bearkats were 11-1 in the fall of 2021 with the quick turnaround, but only played nine games in 2022 and also redshirted a few players to maintain their eligibility for the first year as an FBS member. Keeler was 85-27 with SHSU in FCS, but now the task becomes much more difficult in Conference USA.

Offense

FCS programs have fewer scholarships available, not to mention they lack the financial pull, especially in the NIL era, of FBS schools. It will take time for the Bearkats to really build up to FBS standards, but they return a lot of starters and a lot of production for the upcoming campaign. After scoring 41 points per game with 6.6 yards per play in 2021, the Bearkats only mustered 18.3 points per game and 4.7 yards per play in 2022, as very, very heavy losses in production and experience took their toll.

QB Keegan Shoemaker and former Arizona recruit and North Texas transfer Grant Gunnell will battle it out for starting reps, while Washington State transfer Xavier Ward may also get a look. Shoemaker’s numbers were not strong with a 6/5 TD/INT ratio and just a 46.6% completion rate, so the job should be pretty wide-open. The Bearkats were a little more effective on the ground behind Zach Hrbacek, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry. With the huge losses from the 2020-21 teams lingering, it’s a bad time for the Bearkats to make the leap.

Defense

While the offense took a major nosedive, the defense still performed admirably, and maybe even more so without help from the other side of the ball. The SHSU defense allowed just 20.8 points per game while being extremely stout against the run. The pass defense held opponents to a 56% completion rate, but they went from 26 sacks to 16, albeit with three fewer games played.

This is an experienced defense full of upperclassmen, so this part of the team looks much more formidable and likely able to compete in a weak conference. Most of the starters in the secondary are six feet tall or bigger, which will help in a conference that does have some pass-happy offenses. If this group can force some takeaways and turn defense into offense, or even put some points on the board themselves, the projections for the Bearkats would be a lot more promising.

Outlook

The Bearkats have a season win total of 4, and my projections call for 3.27 wins, so I’m a bit on the low side. They should be favored in at least two games, if not three, depending on how Jacksonville State looks at the outset. The offense doesn’t appear to be FBS-ready, but the defense does, so it’ll be interesting to see how the totals are lined for their games in a rough defensive conference. I think it’ll be a tough transition to FBS.

Pick: Under 4

 

Jacksonville State Gamecocks

The state of Alabama has its sixth FBS team with Jacksonville State making the move this season. The Gamecocks, led by head coach Rich Rodriguez, went 9-2 last season with a 54-17 loss to Tulsa as a 10-point underdog. It was Rich Rod’s first year in Jacksonville, so there’s a chance that the Gamecocks are successful in their opening season, though they are ineligible to play for the Conference USA championship.

Offense

Quarterback Zion Webb appealed to the NCAA for another season of eligibility and won, so Jacksonville State heads to FBS with most of the offense intact. Webb was effective at times as a passer with 1,737 yards and a 10/9 TD/INT ratio, but he was a successful runner with 13 rushing scores and 5.6 yards per carry. The Gamecocks rely quite heavily on the run, as feature back Anwar Lewis had 7.1 yards per pop on 115 tries. Louisiana-Monroe transfer Malik Jackson will also mix in, as JSU ran 493 times compared to 227 pass attempts last season.

On the whole, the Gamecocks averaged 5.6 yards per carry in Rodriguez’s first season and the first season for offensive coordinator Rod Smith. Between Sam Houston State and Jacksonville State, the Gamecocks appear better equipped for the step up in class, as they return more production off of a more successful season. However, it’s still a step up in talent, size, and depth, so Jacksonville State has to stay healthy.

Defense

Despite a heavy influence on the run, Jacksonville State still had to defend more plays (814) than they ran (720), but the defense more than held its own. The Gamecocks allowed just 5.4 yards per play, 4.1 yards per carry, and held opponents to just 22.9 points per game. A lot of starters are back on this side of the ball as well, including most of the team’s 27 sacks.

The Gamecocks also worked in a lot of guys to stay fresh, as nobody had more than 72 tackles and 14 guys had at least 20 tackles. Defensive coordinator Zac Alley is in his second season and is only 30 years old. He was a grad assistant under Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables at Clemson and also worked at Boise State and was the youngest DC in college football at 28 with Louisiana-Monroe. He’s a smart guy, and this group can grow together.

Outlook

Jacksonville State has the fifth-smallest enrollment of any non-service academy, so this is a small school, but the home stadium seats 24,000 and there should be a lot of excitement for the first year in FBS. The Gamecocks have a very experienced team and run the ball well in a conference where stopping the run is hit or miss. With a game in Week 0 against UTEP, the Gamecocks will begin Conference USA play right away and also have two bye weeks. The win total is 5 and my numbers call for 4.66 wins, but I only have them favored in three games. That said, they have a higher ceiling with their experience and a good head coach.

Pick: Over 5