2019 NCAAF Preview: Conference USA

August 28, 2019
By K. Becks

Don’t call Conference USA a complement to the MAC.

In essence, those are fighting words to the players competing in this league. While there are some similarities in terms of the type of player that the schools in both conferences can recruit, C-USA is generally regarded as a deeper league top to bottom. There are also better prospects of a New Year’s Six bowl bid being handed to one of the programs from C-USA.

The 2019-2020 season appears to be no different, with several teams in this league that would be capable of competing with some Power 5 schools on a week-to-week basis.

College Football Playoff Contenders

None

As a whole, there isn’t really enough sex appeal from Conference USA to warrant any real conversation about a New Year’s Six bowl contender unless some of the preseason league title contenders can make noise in the non-conference schedule. That will be easier said than done, with perennial title threat Marshall taking on Boise State on the blue turf in early September and North Texas travelling to Cal and then hosting Houston two weeks later.

If one of those two teams can survive the non-conference slate unscathed, you could hear some conversation about whether they could end up in a NY6 bowl. But the league schedule is unforgiving, and it’ll take a perfect record in C-USA to keep any early season momentum going into December.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers are a real unknown this season, but the hiring of Tyson Helton incite good memories from the fan base. Helton was the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky in 2015, when the Hilltoppers were third in the country in scoring offense (44.3 PPG) and won 12 games. While there is no Brandon Doughty at quarterback for this year’s team, Helton does get to work with a group that brings back nine starters on offense. It will take the new head coach’s creative mindset to transform the group into one that averages more than 21.1 PPG.

Assuming Helton is the real deal as a head man and the defense is at least serviceable, there is enough talent on this football team to make a run towards bowl eligibility. The feeling around the program is that former coach Mike Sanford wasn’t doing enough with the weapons at his disposal, but Helton understands what this program wants to do with the guys it recruits.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Mason Fine, North Texas senior quarterback

In the event that you haven’t heard of Fine, understand that he is currently the NCAA’s active leader in passing yards with over 9,400 in his career. Keeping their star quarterback upright has been an issue at times throughout the past three seasons for North Texas, but as a starter since his freshman campaign Fine is as good as anyone at going through his progressions quickly and finding an open target. Luckily for him, his favorite from last season, fellow senior Rico Bussey Jr., returns and will form a deadly combination with Fine.

The Mean Green have high hopes for the 2019 season, with an outside shot of making a New Year’s Six bowl game if the team can maintain national relevance (i.e. stay undefeated) deep into the year. Much of that depends on Fine, who commands his offense as well as any signal-caller in the country.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

Marshall at Boise State (September 6)

Boise State has been the gold standard for the so-called “mid-major” programs over the past two decades, but save for a few down years, Marshall hasn’t been too shabby in that respect, either. Both are poised to compete for conference titles in 2019 and a non-conference victory over the other would be a great feather in the cap to have heading into league play.

Both the Thundering Herd and Broncos could be in a situation where they are still nudging the development of their young quarterbacks along when this one rolls around. If that is the case, the defensive unit that is more aggressive and forces a few turnovers may end up winning the day.

Miami (FL) at Florida International (November 23)

This late season non-conference battle could end up being a very tough outing for the Hurricanes. Florida International’s offense is solid, with quarterback James Morgan and a host of returning skill position players returning from a squad that ranked No. 26 nationally in scoring.

While the Hurricanes should be strong defensively again this season, it’s going to take more than that to completely shut down the Panthers. In 2018, Butch Davis’s team came within a couple of touchdowns of knocking off Miami on the road. Things could be even more difficult for the ACC school this season.

In-Conference Games to Watch

UAB at North Texas (November 30)

The Champion will take on the Challenger in this West Division battle that is almost sure to have a large say in deciding who wins this side of the conference. UAB brings enough back from last season’s 11-win team to be competitive in 2019, but North Texas appears to be the team to beat in the conference this season.

The Blazers revel in the opportunity to be the underdog, so expect them to come out ready to play in this one. The defense will need to have an answer for Mason Fine, though, and previous game film may not uncover many weaknesses in the Mean Green senior’s play.

Florida International at Marshall (November 30)

The Panthers have a daunting November schedule, with two in-state opponents followed by this one to wrap up the regular season. If things go well leading up to it, this one will mean the most as it could be a de facto play-in game to the C-USA conference championship.

It’s difficult before the season has even begun to predict who will win this game, as both are pretty even on paper. But predicting a close game also assumes that Marshall is getting solid production out of Isaiah Green at quarterback – without that component, the Thundering Herd could end up in a much different position at the end of the year than ATC prognosticates.

Conference Predictions

East Division

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

2. Florida International (8-4, [6-2])

3. Florida Atlantic (7-5, [5-3])

4. Middle Tennessee State (7-5, [5-3])

5. Western Kentucky (5-7, [4-4])

6. Old Dominion (4-8, [2-6])

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

West Division

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

2. UAB (9-3, [6-2])

3. Louisiana Tech (7-5, [4-4])

4. Southern Mississippi (5-7, [4-4])

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

6. UT-San Antonio (2-10, [1-7])

7. Rice (1-11, [1-7])

Championship Game: Marshall vs. North Texas

Winner: North Texas

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