2013 NCAA Football Preview: Conference USA

August 25, 2013
By K. Becks

We’re less than a week away from the start of the college football regular season (games start this Thursday for those of you with your head in the sand), and my hope is to try to get all of my conference previews finished before then.

With seven previews remaining it may be tough, but I think I’ll be able to just barely beat the start of the season. I’ll have to stop worrying about these meaningless first few paragraphs, though, because they take me more time to write than almost any other section in the entire preview. So let’s get going on the Conference USA preview.

For those of you holding your conference specific questions, here is the rundown: after this preview I’ll be covering the SEC, Sun Belt and Big 12 in that order.

Overview

With the addition of two new teams to the league, Conference USA now stands atop the FBS division (along with the SEC) as the biggest conference in the nation. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. The addition of Louisiana Tech (from the now defunct WAC) and Middle Tennessee State (from the Sun Belt) highlights the potential downside to the conference expansion we have seen over the past few years from the Big Six conferences. As the schools with potential to attract more television viewers and bring in more money for the conferences are gobbled up, more than half of the FBS division schools are left behind. And with the current uncertainty as to where college football will end up a decade or more down the road, those teams are sticking together to create the beginning of what we might come to know as “super conferences”. Only these super conferences won’t be competing for FBS national titles. Perhaps, they’ll eventually break off and create their own division to better compete for meaningful rewards.

But for now, we’re left with a 14 team conference of schools that seem to like to let the world know what color they are (see: Blue Raiders, Mean Green, Golden Hurricane, Golden Eagles, Green Wave). These teams will play good football within their conference, and a few of them will even show up in some bowl games in December you didn’t know existed. For the most part, however, they’ll go unnoticed on the score ticker unless a team ends up scoring more than their basketball team can in a game (which is likely to happen at least once this year).

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

None

Despite what the overview may suggest, the teams in this conference are not lacking confidence in themselves or tradition on the gridiron. Teams such as Tulane, Marshall and even Louisiana Tech last season have been very close to breaking through and busting the BCS party. But not surprisingly, no one has ever suggested that one of these teams actually compete for a national title.

This will not change in 2013. Normally, a team from a conference such as C-USA will have to stand out amongst its competition months before the season begins to have a snowballs chance at making a BCS game. The voters will have to know that the team exists far in advance of actual success so that they can shift their attention to a random Conference USA matchup in mid-November, something they’re not used to doing.

Teams in C-USA know that a perfect record is rarely enough to assure them a spot in a primetime bowl matchup. But this year, a perfect record by one of those teams would be surprising. Even if it weren’t, a national championship bid would be about as likely as the Big Ten plucking Marshall and Middle Tennessee State from the conference to round out a 16 team super league.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

UAB

There haven’t been a whole lot of successful seasons in Birmingham since the Blazers transitioned to the top tier of college football (just one bowl appearance, in 2004), but 2013 could be a huge step in the right direction. UAB is returning a lot of pieces from a team that was just one win shy of becoming bowl eligible last season and there are enough winnable games on the schedule this year for the Blazers to make it back to the postseason.

The biggest challenge for Garrick McGee will be on the defensive end, where the Blazers struggled mightily in 2012. Eight times the Blazers gave up at least 35 points last season, and all eight of those times UAB ended up with an “L”. If the defensive line, which returns essentially every starter, can get enough penetration to take some of the workload off of the secondary, then the Blazers should improve on that side of the ball. That will keep them in several more games this season, and could potentially translate into a couple more victories and a spot in a bowl game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Kenneth Dixon (So.), Louisiana Tech running back

I spent some time covering Louisiana Tech last season while they were still in contention for a BCS bowl bid, so forgive me for being a bit partial towards the Bulldogs that I got to learn a lot about in 2012. Kenneth Dixon, now the FBS record holder for most touchdowns scored by a freshman (27), is the real deal from a team that just got shafted last season. Unfortunately for Dixon, he’s essentially the only piece left from the 2012 offense.

Since Dixon will be running behind a complete set of new linemen and quarterback, it will make everything he is able to do that much more impressive. His quickness allows him to do some pretty amazing things when he gets into open space, and if the offensive line pans out then he will also be a major threat in the red zone. Expect Dixon to be the focal point of an offense that may have to figure out its identity on the fly in 2013.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Rice vs. Texas A&M (August 31st)

Rice found its groove at the end of the 2012 season, ripping off five straight wins including a 33-14 statement against the always difficult Air Force squad in the Armed Forces Bowl. That kind of momentum is made even sweeter considering that the players responsible for that run are for the most part right back at it again. Eight starters on offense and an astounding 10 starters on defense return for the Owls this season, which should give them an edge over younger teams especially early in the season.

Texas A&M is undoubtedly one of the most hyped teams in the nation heading into this season, and the spotlight could not be any brighter on their star quarterback Johnny Manziel. Rice doesn’t have the kind of talent that the Aggies have, but they showed near the end of last season that they can put a lot of points on the board. If Texas A&M isn’t focused heading into this game (and with all the distractions this summer, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were a little rusty), Rice could give them a scare. At least for a half.

In-Conference Game To Watch

East Carolina vs. Middle Tennessee State (October 5th)

These two teams face off as conference foes for the first time, and it’s primed to be a good matchup. East Carolina will have one of the most potent passing attacks in Conference USA thanks to junior slinger Shane Carden and will look to expose a Middle Tennessee State defense that greatly improved in 2012 but could take a step back this season if they aren’t ready for the C-USA slate of games.

Carden’s play will probably have a lot to do with the outcome of this game. Despite being a fairly accurate passer (66.1 percent of passes completed), Carden still turns the ball over a bit more than Coach Ruffin McNeill would like. Middle Tennessee State had 12 interceptions on the year in 2012, and if they can bait Carden into making mistakes, it won’t matter how potentially powerful the East Carolina offense can be. Since these are two of the better teams in the East Division, expect this game to play a major part in deciding who heads to the conference title game.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Marshall (8-4, [6-2])

2. East Carolina (7-5, [6-2])

3. Middle Tennessee State (8-4, [6-2])

4. UAB (6-6, [4-4])

5. Florida Atlantic (4-8, [3-5])

6. Southern Mississippi (3-9, [2-6])

7. Florida International (1-11, [0-8])

West Division

1. Tulsa (9-3, [8-0])

2. Rice (9-3, [7-1])

3. Louisiana Tech (7-5, [5-3])

4. UTEP (4-8, [3-5])

5. North Texas (3-9, [2-6])

6. UT San Antonio (3-9, [2-6])

7. Tulane (3-9, [1-7])

Championship Game (Marshall vs. Tulsa)

Winner: Marshall

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding C-USA or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

- K. Becks

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