2016 NCAA Football Preview: Conference USA

August 28, 2016

The next conference to be covered is the only one in FBS to have two divisions that don’t have equal number of teams in each.

Let’s take a look at Conference USA.


If you’re the type of person to place bets on the finishing order of teams in college football, stay as far away as you can from Conference USA. In addition to the lighter coverage that the league receives, on an annual basis Conference USA is one of the most difficult to predict. The coaching carousel is one of the most active in the country, with young guns looking to make a name for themselves at a Division 1 school before heading off to bigger programs and more lucrative contracts.

When a team loses an NFL-caliber player, as Western Kentucky did with Brandon Doughty, it can often be a crushing blow to the program for a couple of years afterwards. But this year’s Conference USA landscape features several teams with new coaches or players at key positions that should contend for the conference championship. In other words, it is an unusual occurrence in a league that is known for its parody.

To a large extent, the casual fan won’t see much of this conference following the first few weeks of the season, when many Conference USA teams serve as tune-up games for the Power conferences competition. But there is enough depth in the league for C-USA to flex its muscle at the end of the season, when bowl games give this Group of Five league one final chance to shine.

College Football Playoff Contenders


Even the best teams in the conference, per preseason rankings, aren’t anywhere close enough to be realistically considered a College Football Playoff contender. Teams that are good enough to garner the respect of the national media come along every few years in a league like Conference USA, but this year one of those teams isn’t immediately recognizable.

When the league’s best team from a year prior loses its quarterback to the NFL and the second best team loses its head coach, you’re starting from behind the eight ball as far as national attention is concerned. Conference USA is capable of being an extremely competitive league in 2016, but it doesn’t have a team dominant enough to climb the rankings such that it would be considered for a Playoff spot or even a New Year’s Six bowl slot.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)


The Miners were very unlucky with regards to injuries in 2015, including one to star running back Aaron Jones that kept the now-junior out for all but two games. Assuming that UTEP isn’t hit quite so hard by losses to key players this season, a return to the 2014 form that saw the Miners reach a bowl game for the first time since 2010 is well within reach. Offensively UTEP is poised to be one of the best in the conference, with nearly the entire offensive line returning to block for Jones. If the addition of former Boise State assistant Brent Pease as offensive coordinator is any indication, the Miners should be better in the passing game as well.

Competing for a conference title may be slightly out of reach, but then again anything is possible in Conference USA. The defense remains a question mark for the Miners, but they get their best safety Devin Cockrell back from injury which should help. Additionally, the schedule is favorable for UTEP, which plays the toughest of its conference games at home in 2016.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Ray Lawry, Old Dominion junior running back

Old Dominion could have a tough season ahead of it, but one area that will almost surely be a bright spot is in the running game thanks to junior Ray Lawry. Conference USA’s leading rusher last year will be the focal point of an offense that will slightly adjust its scheme from the spread to just a no huddle approach.

Lawry was the only rusher in Conference USA and one of just 30 in the country to average over 100 rushing yards per contest. His smaller stature (5’10”) makes him difficult to find behind his blockers, two of which will likely be freshmen. Because of this, expect Lawry to employ a North-South running approach that wasn’t always the case in the spread offense. As difficult as he is to bring down, Lawry should benefit from the change in ODU’s offensive scheme.

Alex McGough, Florida International junior quarterback

McGough has been the starting quarterback for the Panthers since the first game of his freshman season, and for the first time is leading a team with experience on the offensive end. Including McGough, 10 starters return to the offense including the entire line, which should allow more time for the junior signal-caller to make decisions in the pocket. He has steadily increased his accuracy over the past two seasons and should be among the best in Conference USA in that category in 2016.

With as many returning quarterbacks to C-USA teams as there are, it could be easy for McGough to be overlooked for more successful quarterbacks such as Southern Mississippi’s Nick Mullens and Middle Tennessee State’s Brent Stockstill. But McGough will be the main reason Florida International goes bowling if they can get to at least six wins in 2016.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Southern Mississippi at Kentucky (September 3)

Kentucky isn’t the best team in its conference, but it is still an SEC school all the same. To a Conference USA school, going into an SEC team’s stadium and coming away with a victory is arguably as satisfying as qualifying for a postseason bowl game. Southern Miss has as good a chance of any in C-USA of achieving that feat when it travels to Lexington to open the season.

Southern Miss was one of the nation’s most potent offenses in 2015, but gone is former head coach Todd Monken in place of former Golden Eagles defensive coordinator Jay Hopson. Interestingly enough, the new offensive coordinator for Southern Miss is Kentucky’s former OC Shannon Dawson. It will be interesting to see whether this game is a chess match since Kentucky will know Dawson’s tendencies or if quarterback Nick Mullens can take advantage of a rebuilt Kentucky defense.

Middle Tennessee State at Vanderbilt (September 10)

Another SEC matchup highlights the out-of-conference games to watch for C-USA, this time featuring Middle Tennessee State’s strong offense against Vanderbilt’s stingy defense. Fans in Nashville won’t be particularly thrilled to watch a game in which the winner may score fewer than 17 points, but the C-USA squad is actually more likely to put points up on the board in this one. Vanderbilt will simply be looking to keep the scoring output to a minimum.

If the Blue Raiders can keep Brent Stockstill upright, the coach’s son has a chance to pick apart the SEC defense. The left side of the offensive line is being replaced but overall it was a very strong unit in 2015 so it wouldn’t be surprising if the big uglies got the job done for Stockstill. Because of the SEC athletes, Vanderbilt should remain in this game, but Middle Tennessee State isn’t going to lie down. Unless the Commodores surprise with an offensive outburst, the Blue Raiders will have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Southern Mississippi at UTEP (September 24)

How big of a difference will it make for UTEP to have their top offensive and defensive player back from season ending injuries in 2015? We’ll find out in this one, when the Miners open their C-USA slate against the league runner-up. A lot of points should be scored in this one since both offenses are capable of doing so and the UTEP defense could be a relative weakness for the team.

If the Miners want to surprise everyone by competing for the West Division title, winning this game would go a long way in doing so. Southern Miss is the popular pick to repeat as champions of the West and has a veteran offense leading the way. But UTEP could be a sleeping giant on the offensive end in its own right thanks to a new offensive coordinator and its most dynamic athlete in Aaron Jones healthy for the this season.

Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee State (October 15)

The Hilltoppers had one of the most potent passing attacks over the past three seasons thanks to Brandon Doughty, but now that Doughty is gone it remains to be seen if a suspect defense is essentially no problem for the team. Regardless, this game should produce a lot of points unless retooled defenses on both sides end up being better than suspected.

If Middle Tennessee State wants to challenge the Hilltoppers for the East Division title, this game feels like a must win. Brent Stockstill played well as a freshman last year against Western Kentucky, but a poor defensive showing by the Blue Raiders resulted in a blowout. In fact, three of Middle Tennessee State’s five losses were not close, suggesting that the defense could be more important to the chances of this team in big games than the performance of its signal-caller.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Middle Tennessee State (9-3, [7-1])

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

3. Western Kentucky (8-4, [6-2])

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

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

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

7. Florida Atlantic (3-9, [1-7])

West Division

1. Southern Mississippi (10-2, [8-0])

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

3. Rice (6-6, [4-4])

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

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

6. North Texas (1-11, [0-8])

Championship Game (Middle Tennessee State vs. Southern Mississippi)

Winner: Southern Mississippi

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