2023 NCAAF: Conference USA Preview

August 26, 2023


Similar to the AAC, Conference USA received a makeover that would make even some diehard college football fans do a double take. Unlike the AAC, this conference has been accepting of FBS newbies, which is what has saved it from becoming more of a loose, seven program coalition rather than a legitimate conference.

With the addition of Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State, Conference USA is a nine-team conference with a title game at the end of the regular season. Kennesaw State will make the jump from FCS to FBS next year to make it an even ten.

While the conference is the smallest in FBS, it retains much of the charm that it possessed when it was a two-division behemoth with uneven numbers on each side. The challenge now despite the downsizing, of course, will be travel – best of luck to New Mexico State, which must make the 1,660 mile trip to Jacksonville to face Rich Rodriguez’s Gamecocks in the season finale.

Teams I Like

Western Kentucky

Tyson Helton has put together a high-flying offense in Bowling Green that holds a somewhat unique distinction: it doesn’t need to do so simply to compensate for a lackluster defense. No, the Hilltoppers are about as close to a complete football team as you can get from a mid-major program, and that will be on display throughout their Conference USA schedule this season.

Two of the key pieces to the offense, quarterback Austin Reed and wide receiver Malachi Corley, are back for another season and were walking highlight reels in 2022. While there are a few landmines on the slate, it would not be an understatement to say that anything but a conference championship would be a disappointment for this squad.

Louisiana Tech

The Bulldogs are coming off of a disappointing 2022 campaign, finishing 3-9 and dropping every game on the road. Much of the blame could be placed on the defense, which statistically was one of the worst in FBS and only once (against FCS opponent Stephen F. Austin) held an opponent to fewer than 24 points.

Things could turn around in a hurry, though, thanks to a bevy of transfer portal additions on the defensive side and veteran quarterback Hank Bachmeier joining from Boise State. Bachmeier seemingly saw the writing on the wall with the success of Taylen Green and decided to head South – he has the potential to flourish in Sonny Cumbie’s Air Raid attack.

New Mexico State

Las Cruces may be the Island of Misfit Toys, but you know what? Those toys work pretty well. Jerry Kill & Co. surprised the country last season by qualifying for a bowl game, but didn’t stop there, going up to Detroit and winning the Quick Lane Bowl on the back of one Diego Pavia, one of the best underdog stories currently going in college football.

What Pavia may lack in raw talent he makes up for in leadership skills and pure grit, which parallels Jerry Kill’s style as a head coach quite well. Many outlets aren’t talking much about the Aggies again in 2023, but there is a chance that New Mexico State is battling for a conference title in November given its manageable early schedule.

Not High On

Sam Houston State

To clarify, this one isn’t personal. The Bearkats are simply going to take their lumps coming up from the FCS ranks, where they were a competitive outfit for many years. The roster is indicative of one that has made the jump recently, so depth and a talent gap compared with its competition is going to be evident in many games this season.

While no one is predicting major success for Sam Houston State in year one of its Conference USA journey, simply winning more than a single game would be considered a surprise.

Players to Watch

Austin Reed, Western Kentucky quarterback

Reading about the Hilltoppers as a team earlier in this preview, it had to be clear that a glowing review of Reed was incoming. The senior was being courted by larger programs in the offseason, but decided to stick with Tyson Helton, which isn’t a bad decision for a guy with fringe NFL prospects. Helton’s offensive scheme allows Reed to shine – he was the FBS leader in passing yards last season, and threw for the third most touchdowns.

Expect more of the same from Reed this season as he gets used to a somewhat retooled offensive line and the Hilltoppers navigate a new look Conference USA.

Hank Bachmeier, Louisiana Tech quarterback

It has been a somewhat arduous road to Ruston for Bachmeier, who spent four injury-riddled seasons at Boise State before deciding to transfer to Louisiana Tech in January. Were it not for those injuries and Taylen Green, the Bulldogs may have never landed the former four-star recruit.

Always a gamer while at Boise State, Bachmeier amassed a 20-9 record and threw for 41 touchdowns to just 19 interceptions during his time in Idaho. If he can be slightly more accurate throwing the football, Louisiana Tech may have an all-conference quarterback on its hands as it looks to return to the postseason after a poor 2022 showing.

Games to Watch (Non-Conference)

Western Kentucky at Ohio State (September 16, 4 PM ET)

The Hilltoppers took a Big Ten opponent (Indiana) to the wire in 2022, so they won’t be afraid of the competition. While the Buckeyes are expected to be much more potent than the 2022 Hoosiers, expect jabs to be traded by both offensive units in a game that will likely be entertaining at least for a half.

Louisiana Tech at Nebraska (September 23, TBA time)

The Cornhuskers will still be adjusting to the beginning of the Matt Rhule era when this game is played, so it will be interesting to see if any of Scott Frost’s residue is still leftover in Memorial Stadium. If it is, Louisiana Tech will be happy to know that Georgia Southern came up to Lincoln and left with a 45-42 victory in 2022.

Games to Watch (Conference)

New Mexico State at Liberty (September 9, 6 PM ET)

The Flames and new head coach Jamey Chadwell will get their first taste of Conference USA early in the season when the Aggies travel to Lynchburg. Chadwell is known for being one of the most creative minds in college football, which may come in handy against a team that is poised to ruin some conference title hopes throughout the season.

Liberty at Western Kentucky (October 24, 7:30 PM ET)

The most anticipated matchup on the Conference USA schedule is between Chadwell’s Flames and Helton’s Hilltoppers, which has the potential to produce fireworks offensively. By this point in the season, Chadwell should have settled on a quarterback and have them up to speed with his system.


  1. Western Kentucky (10-2, [8-0])
  2. Liberty (9-3, [6-2])
  3. New Mexico State (9-4, [5-3])
  4. UTEP (7-5, [5-3])
  5. Louisiana Tech (8-4, [5-3])
  6. Middle Tennessee State (6-6, [4-4])
  7. Florida International (3-9, [2-6])
  8. Jacksonville State (2-10, [1-7])
  9. Sam Houston State (1-11, [0-8])

Conference Title Game

Liberty at Western Kentucky

Conference Champion: Liberty

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