2017 Preseason: Conference USA

I have some familiarity with Conference USA since I covered Southern Miss for SB Nation and beIN TV last season and have several features on this site related to CUSA  (“The Grit of S Miss”, “Practiced and Quick”, “The Strange Saga of the Impostor Opponent”, “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte”).

I hope you like this preview.  Anything you don’t like is Savvy’s fault.

So now, our preview of  Conference USA. 

 

1

W Kentucky

35 rank points

11 wins

I don’t think anyone was surprised when WKU reached 10 wins. The Hilltoppers had lotsa goodies coming back from a group that was 12-2 the year before.  I admit, I was a li’l surprised when they finished as the top scoring team in all of FBS.

Yet it seemed that while they were scoring 40+ points in all ten of their final games, Savvy seemed only impressed enough to say, “Awww, aren’t they cute?”  And, that is likely to happen again unless y’all in Kentucky can solve two of the following:  1) You can’t give up over 50 yards per game more than the elite teams you are chasing;   2) You can’t play a non-elite schedule and then lose to two non-elite teams;   3) When you get the chance to bowl-up against an elite, you can’t lose by 28 points.

I’m genuinely sorry that you lost your coach.  Honestly.  I’m sorry.  But, not for you.  I’m sorry for him.  Why?  Because coach Jeff Brohm took the job at Purdue.  Didn’t any of ya’ think to say Pur-don’t?  Poor Jeff.  Soon to be fodder-fuel for the steams of futility. (New A.D.—-already quick-jerked the emergency cord once.)  Folks, they don’t call them Boilermakers for nuthin’.   

Nonetheless, Brohm’s loss is Mike Sanford’s gain as the new HC takes over a program that is well-positioned to win its third consecutive CUSA title. 

Any team with QB Mike White is bound to win something.  Check out his passing stats:  67% completions;  4363 yards;  37 tds;  7 (SEVEN) interceptions.  Let me say it another way.  He attempted 416 passes.  Only seven were picked. That’s 1.6%—best in FBS.

White is 6’4” and 225, a nice size for the pros and you’d think they’d be a-courtin’ him about now.  Not so much.  Early July reviews show him eighth among draftable QBs.

The offensive line graduated both starting tackles and its starting center.  The guards are returners and maybe all-conference.  Tyler Camp impressed coaches in the Spring and won the starting job at center while Jimmie Sims and Matt Nord took over at the tackles.  Keep in mind though that none of that is locked in.  According to coach Sanford, “We’ll watch that jell together, because a lot of it’s personality-based, and then some of it is being able to execute a job better, maybe, at center then you could at guard.”

Although two outstanding receivers are gone, 14 H-toppers caught passes in 2016.  The leading returner is Lucky Jackson who had 400 yards. Apparently his Spring workouts double-wowed the coaches because he now occupies two starting receiver positions on the June depth chart.  It should be fun watching him run crossing routes with himself.

Returning RB D’Andre Ferby had one carry for one yard last year and yet is currently listed as the starter.  In commitment to Ferby-fairness, let’s add that he was injured on the first play of 2016 and out for the year.  That sucks and this time, yes, I do feel sorry for you.  In the meantime, Quinton Baker has been coming on strong and in the Spring game, lit the scoreboard with td runs of 38, 47, and 74 yards.  While Savvy might again call that “cute”, I’m wondering if we might instead be seeing some defensive erosion.

WKU was a top-third defense last year and about half of the starters return. The strength of this unit is the secondary with two all-CUSA candidate corners. The front end will take some time but will become competitive.

There is a new defensive coordinator in Clayton White.  Someone new to adjust to. Someone with a new scheme—the 4-2-5.  So I’m wondering … If it was only last season that WKU had trouble against the run and if it was only two paragraphs ago that Quinton Baker ran for three long touchdowns, then is exchanging a linebacker for a corner really a good idea?

On the other hand, you probably won’t have to worry about giving up another 55 to LaTech.                  

I see this defense about the same as last year—a nice little defense but not one that is elite and not one that will solve the three problems we mentioned in the beginning.

Even so, H-toppers, you have some reasons to just settle in and enjoy this season:

       One:   You don’t play Alabama

       Two:   You won’t lose sleep like Ohio St or Alabama or those other unfortunate teams that have to worry about the ‘natty.

      Three:   You’re not Purdue

Most of the analysts I’ve seen can’t seem to get this team into their top-60.  We see 11-1 and a national ranking, albeit sub-playoff.

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2

LA Tech

34 rank points

10 wins

Decades ago, Johnny Carson asked Lou Holtz Sr. how things were going in his first weeks as HC of Notre Dame. Lou Sr. grinned and answered, “Well, I’ll tell ya’, it’s like the guy who jumped out of the window and on his way down, someone asks him how it’s going. Guy smiles and waves and says, ‘Okay so far!’.”

Those might have been the words for his son, Skip Holtz (aka: Lou Jr.) after his first year finished five games worse than the coach before. But, since those tough early days, it’s been three seasons with nine wins each and three shiny bowl trophies.

It’s been thought that if the Holtz-ter could find a gun, the Bulldogs might be nippin’ at nine again. Okay, so he didn’t find a Smith and Wesson, but he did find the Smith part: J’mar Smith who came to the Spring game well armed and fully loaded. He opened-fire on the first drive with four completions, two nifty runs, and a touchdown. A few long passes proved the strength of his throwing arm.  Coach Holtz has been impressed but also hestitant. He admits that Smith is “really dangerous” but needs to continue working “to train his brain to be able to read it, throw it, and also run with his feet.” Silly me for not imagining he would run on anything else.

LTU’s offensive line was good but not great and probably similar this season since most of it returns. It was part of an offense that harvested over 7200 total yards at a 7.51 clip.

Everyone was excited when WR Adrian Hardy transferred from Oklahoma, especially when they remembered how the Sooners crooned of Hardy’s incredible athleticism. Oklahoma OC Lincoln Riley said that watching Hardy just blew him away. After a bit of a falling out, it was OU who blew Hardy away and that’s how he landed in Louisiana. Wana know something a little odd here? Despite dropping the jaws of coaches at a premier program like Oklahoma, the Sooner scholarship offer was the only one the kid had coming out of high school (Scout.com 3/10/15).

If Hardy’s baggage raises Techannoia, don’t worry because there is plenty of other talent.

Remember those long J’mar Smith passes we talked about? Five of those were grabbed by newcomer Teddy Veal who was once Tulane’s leading receiver until he went on the lamb to escape a new coach who probably wouldn’t need receivers.  Veal is going to be a big name in CUSA for the next two seasons.

Are there any good running backs? Well, there’s Jared Craft although he’s as much of a receiver as a ball-carrier. Last year, Craft led the Bulldogs in rushing (1074) and is the top returning pass catcher (42).

LTU was competitive on defense but that unit might take some time since seven starters are gone. Among the returners is All-CUSA defensive end Jaylon Ferguson who was credited with 14 1/2 quarterback sacks which raised the question, “What in the hell is a half of a quarterback?”

Tech outperformed Savvy-casts last year and the Bulldogs are even better now. Savvy has to reach to get to 10 wins and Tech will need all of that if Savvy is to predict a win over Miss St on Sept 9th.

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3

Middle Tenn

33 rank points

9 wins

This is one of the most interesting programs in America, not just because I said so, but also because of beIN TV sports anchor Jeremy St. Louis who told me a while back that I needed to do some interviews and features on the Blue Raiders.  More about that in a minute.

(Also, see our interview with Jeremy on this website:  “Practiced and Quick”.)

QB Brent Stockstill returns for his junior season (and will back next year as well) and he will lead an offense that should be just as good as last year’s #8 national ranking.

Stockstill hit for 63% completions and 3233 yards with 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. And, he has some receivers, like All-American candidate Rich James (105 receptions) and sophomore sensation Ty Lee (63).

(Note1: Ty Lee traded his jersey number [24] to an incoming freshman who wore that number in high school to honor a brother shot to death while shielding two girls from harm.)

(Note2: MTSU is also the team that had Steven Rhodes, a U.S. veteran of the Middle East, who returned to play football only to have his eligibility denied by the NCAA. Appeals brought the NCAA to its senses and he played the full season.)

(Note3:  This is the same outfit that made national news when it offered a nine year old boy a baseball scholarship. The boy may not live to see that materialize since he suffers from a rare and complicated medical condition.)

(Note4: Do we need any more reasons to root for this group?)

There are some RBs returning but MTSU seems most excited about transfer Maurice Gordon who was generally unnoticed in high school and ranked 130th by Max Preps.  Now, after a season in JC, the 5’10” boulder is set to prove his worth at the FBS level.

The OL should be as good as last year and there are two solid recruiting classes that are beginning to pay off.

On the defensive side, Walter Brady transferred from Missouri to fill one hole on the DL.  There are still three other DL spots to fill and that is a concern.  The good news is that they are backed by a strong group of LBs with all of the starters returning.

Savvy sees 9-3 and spots this team very close to a division championship.  Apart from Savvy—-for me personally—I need to see if that defensive line can hold its own. Right now, I’m sensing more of a seven win team even though my respect and admiration for this outfit wishes it was 12.


4

UTSA

32 rank points

8 wins

Ah yes, the Roadrunners. Gotta love blurry critters who can flit through cacti and drop anvils on opponents’ heads.  

UTSA outperformed expectations in a big way although the rise of this program has been expected for some time.

And now, we are seeing some pay days off of the field as this San Antonio group came up with the best recruiting class in the conference.   

We saw it coming though, this recruiting coup, because HC Frank Wilson was hired because of his recruiting excellence—five top-10 classes as an assistant at LSU; Rivals Top Recruiter of 2011; and, NFL.com Top Recruiter of 2014.   

So yeah, a lot of good things happening here.  Top recruiting class, 6-6 regular season record, a 55-32 upset of Southern Miss, the program’s first bowl game, and coming within a cactus spike of upsetting Arizona State—all in one season. 

Dalton Sturm returns at QB after passing for 2170 yards, 20 td, and 6 interceptions while running for 300 more. He hasn’t been the hottest QB in CUSA but he’s been solid, reliable, and will probably have higher numbers in 2017.

RB Jalen Rhodes rushed for nearly 1000 yards in a back up roll in 2016.  He didn’t appear in the Spring game (not unusual for RBs) but there are no challenges to Rhodes as the primary back.

The offensive line didn’t do well. It allowed over 40 sacks and could not consistently open holes for RBs. Those problems are about to be solved because UTSA has added two tackles who will be impact players.  One of those is JC transfer Josh Dunlop, 6’7″, 305, who had a surprisingly easy time in the Spring game and won at left tackle position as a sophomore.  The other rs-freshman Josh Oatis (6’6″, 290) who has made the depth chart as the backup RT.

UTSA’s defense has two returning All-CUSA talents in DE Marcus Davenport and safety Nate Gains to go with outstanding right corner Teddrick McGhee and LB Josiah Tauaefa who had 115 tackles last season.  The Roadrunner defense was in the top-half of all FBS teams and appears stronger now.

This team’s metrics on Savvy were quite favorable last season and the Index now projects that UTSA will lose its first two (Houston, Baylor) before posting a nice string of wins to finish 8-4.

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5

Old Dominion

30 rank points

7 wins

Old Dominion’s football coach Bobby Wilder is loved by everyone in the kingdom of the Monarchs, although for a time, not so popular with one.

Two months ago, coach Wilder suspended his son from  ODU football after his arrest for reckless driving and eluding police officers. A final disposition on Derek Wilder’s status has not been released. That comes as a tough blow because the younger Wilder was slotted at MLB for a defense that was in the top-half of FBS.


It is Coach Wilder’s integrity, energy, and hard work are the very reasons that fans loved him even before the Monarchs posted a surprising 10-3 record last season. 

(We have an interesting story about ODU on this website.  See “The Strange Saga of the Impostor Opponent”.)

The Monarchs have plenty of firepower returning to an offense that averaged 6.41ypp.  Yeah I know, magic man QB David Washington graduated and former walk-on Blake LaRussa mighta, sorta, maybe backed into his scholarship and the starting role, but he has been considered the primary QB and did a good job passing in the Spring game—  8/9, 140 yards with a 62-yard td.

But, he doesn’t have the position locked down because rs-freshman and former 3-star Drayton Arnold has been impressive and leads me to think that about one week into Fall practice, he will be named the starter. 

When a player has magic, good things happen that often just can’t be explained.  Like last year with David Washington when time after time he escaped the clutches of tacklers or made crucial passes that seemed impossible. You can’t really explain it.  You just gotta watch it and love it.

It seems to me that Drayton Arnold has a touch of that himself.  Besides passing for 8514 yards in high school, the DA has already shown some magic at ODU.  Like, in last year’s Spring before he redshirted, he brought his team from behind on the last play of the game with a 94-yard touchdown pass. And this year, he did it again as he again threw a touchdown pass on the last play of the Spring game, then threw a two-point conversion pass to win it.  I don’t know—some might call that happenstance, but I call it a bit of magic.

RB Ray Lawry was a beast last season and he seems even beastier now.  In 2016, Lawry rushed for over 1200 yards, 6.3ypc, 209 against Marshall, and has been over 1000 yards every season except his freshman when he could only manage 947.

How good is the OL?

Well last season, it paved the way for 197ypg on the ground and was 27th in the nation for not yielding sacks, although that number is easier to come by when you have a magician behind center.  Not only are most of the OL starters back, but it is expected that ALL of them will be back in 2018.

Jonathan Duhart (735 yards) leads an outstanding group of receivers and Norfolk people are excited about rs-freshman Noah Ellison.  Remember that last-play touchdown and two-point conversion pass?  Noah caught both. The former 3-star was ranked only 181st among receivers by Scout.com but was cited as a “sleeper” (underrated) who is quick off the line, excels in running good routes, and has strong hands to latch onto the ball.

Defense was good and should be better although there are some shortages at LB.  The defensive front is outstanding and there are enough returners to move this unit into the national top-third.  

Last year’s success was not a fluke.  Doing it again depends on finding another magician, something that may have already happened.  The Monarchs will win, but not 10 games.  Two months ago, Savvy saw this team at 7-5 but with the emergence of Arnold, it’s now forecasting 9-3 even though the schedule is tougher.

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6

S Miss

30 rank points

7 wins

I covered this team last season for SBNation and beIN Sports Television so I have some idea of the problems here.  (I promised myself I wouldn’t say a single word about Shannon Dawson being the wrong OC for this program, so…. I won’t.)  The reasons why the Golden Eagles layed rotten eggs:

  • Turnovers.  USM finished fourth-from-the-worst when it came to giving the ball away.
  • QB Nick Mullens had his worst year ever which coincides with Kentucky’s Patrick Towles a year before he left Kentucky.  Both had the same OC.
  • Soft defensive front … too small. At times, not focused. Against the run, some teams just sat right down and picnicked in the middle of the USM front.
  • Poor blitz blocking. USM was 78th in the nation for yielding sack.

Coach Jay Hopson loves Hattiesburg and the people love him.  They know his courage vs personal situations (see “The Grit of S Miss” on this website)  and that his commitment to SoMiss is strong and personal.  His daughters were born and mostly raised in Hattiesburg at the time when he was a Golden Eagle assistant.  His wife loves the community and couldn’t wait to get back.

Most figured this team for nine wins and thought it would once again challenge for the CUSA title.  But, that is not what happened.  Only with a stunning upset of Louisiana Tech did the Eagletarians not finish 5-7.

Nick Mullens graduated as a four-time All-CUSA QB and now the battle to replace him comes down to Kwadra Griggs and Keon Howard.  Coach Hopson acknowledged that Griggs has the edge.  Even so, I think Howard has the future.

Yeah I know, Howard once gave up nine turnovers in just two games but a lot of that happened when was a pure freshman starting for the first time.

With Griggs you have a player who ended his JUCO career throwing four interceptions in his final two games.  In high school, it was Howard who was 43/12 td/int while Griggs was 56/30.  Last year, Howard was noticed as one of the hardest working players in the program and a leader by example (come early, stay late, work hard) while Griggs was declared academically ineligible.   With Howard, you get a young QB to lead your program for years.  With Griggs, you have an upperclassman who will make the big play, although you won’t feel certain if it’s a big-good play or a big-bad one.

It’s always a nice story when a program brings in a problematic kid and gives him a chance.  But USM fans need to be aware that with Griggs, this may turn out to be subtraction by addition.

Of course, there are more ways to move a football than just through the QBs and that is where this team is truly exciting and fun to watch.  The GEagle skill players are very good and Ito Smith is one of the best running backs in the nation.  If the OL holds up, the names Ito and Heisman will often appear in the same sentence.  Smith is truly a special running back who had 1459 yards and 17 touchdowns to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Jalen Richard now with the Oakland Raiders.

And, USM has a WR group that seems impossible to defend.  Allenzae Staggers’ fingers are stickier than frogs’ tongues which explains why he has already broken so many USM pass receiving records.  Check this out … Against Rice, Staggers had 292 receiving yards on just six catches.  In the New Orleans Bowl, he caught 11 more for 230 yards which is the most ever by a USM receiver in a bowl game.  Only five times has any GEagle receiver gained over 200 yards and Staggers has two of those.   In all, he had 63 receptions for over 1300 yards.

Former Florida St. receiver Isaiah Jones had an impressive Spring and there are two WR freshmen with 4.3 speed and two more at 4.5.

Three starters are gone from the OL and that includes Rimington candidate Cameron Tom.  However Ty Pollard is back at LT and that will be a major help because the new left guard is a freshman.

The defensive depth chart right now is all upper classmen.  The front should be better because Xavier Thigpen is one of the most exciting DE’s in football and Riley Draper returns to start at DT.  Tightening defensive assignments up front will be important since mistakes last season too often permitted opposing RBs to blast up the middle and not be touched for 15 yards.

The secondary is experienced.  Picasso Nelson Jr. returns with some experience and some recognition for one of the coolest names in the FBS. Finding a replacement for freakish D’Narius Antoine at rover was a concern until April when former Big-12 commit Tarvarius Moore had a spectacular Spring.

Fans will get to see their first SEC team ever to visit Hattiesburg when Kentucky returns it’s home-and-home commitment.  But they ain’t comin’ to be friendly—not after you Hattiesburgers grilled them in Lexington and came from 24 down at the half to do it.

Even with an easier schedule, Savvy only sees 7-5 for USM, at least for now.  The potential for more is there but is dependent on getting better with turnovers, something that won’t be known until well into the season.  If the Golden Eagles are better than seven, then I’ll be happy for them.  Happy, but not enough to say “awesome Dawson”.

I’m sure you understand.

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7

Marshall

28 rank points

6 wins

I know T’Herders, last year wasn’t fun. You’re accustomed to winning titles and polishing trophies and anytime you’re not in some championship game, then there must be a Russian conspiracy somewhere.

I get it. You’re entitled. You’ve played more games than any other conference team and you were the mid-major headliner before there even was such a thing.

So what happened?  How did you fall from 30 wins in three years to 3-9?  That is just, plain, Thundering, UnHerd-of!

I suppose we should have seen it coming, though. That something was different.   I mean, who starts their season with a bye?  Who then doesn’t insert a bye somewhere in between week 1 and week 15?  And then, I had that sneaking suspicion that your recruiting had fallen off even though you kept winning.

But last year, it finally caught up to you when your schedule was harder.  Once the mask of soft scheduling was removed, the acne of poor recruiting was exposed. And oh my, was that embarrassing.

Louisville rang up 59.  Did you think NoTexas would get 38?  And the most horrendous strain of them all—the Akron Zits— I mean, Zips.  They scored 65!   Yoo-hoo— we’re talking Akron!  As if that wasn’t enough, you did all of those one right after the other after the other.

So now you see the pre-season critics ranking you 100+ and you are mortified. You’ve pointed to Chase Litton as the main reason they are wrong.  But, they already know that Litton is 6’6″ and a pro prospect and he threw for over a half a mile of passing yards, so if you persist in the notion that the rankings-makers should pump you up, let me tell you why they won’t.

They haven’t seen your players pumping themselves up.  That’s why the OL couldn’t get your RBs above 122nd and your secondary was 101st worst in stopping the pass.

Listen T-Herders, I didn’t say all of the above to bury you but rather because there is some reason to praise.  Despite your problems, where others see acne, Savvy sees salve.  Coach Doc Holladay has begun demanding that players spend more time in the weight room and apply more seriousness to training regimens to get stronger and to be more resistant and resilient to injuries.   Also, despite your ’16 woes, you actually had somewhat strong metrics (fundamentals of game playing) on Savvy.  Those are important factors and they have impact.

If indeed the OL is stronger, then our question moves to the backfield.  Are there any RBs?  The answer is oh-my-freaking-gosh-golly yes. In March, there were TEN of them! TEN!  All kinds—starters, returners, recruits, red shirts, gray shirts, blue shirts (yes, there is such a thing). And, the arrival of transfer Trey Rodriguez has stirred excitement. He is a former New Jersey Offensive Player of the Year and in two games at FAU as a freshman, he scored five touchdowns. He’s a serious player and he’s not coming to MU to get a measly 3ypc.

So OL, you better be better because TreyRod is in town and he means business.

There is a great deal of turnover with receivers and the only experienced one who is slotted to start is  Tyre Brady (another Miami Fl transfer).  The other two starters appear to be pure freshmen Darian Owens and Willie Johnson.  The group is strengthened by one of America’s best TEs in Ryan Yuratek.

Marshall’s defense didn’t do much last year but there are reasons why that should change:  1)  We’ve already mentioned it—training.    2)  More than half of the starters this season are former high-level recruits who have transferred in from other D-1 programs.   3)  It is unthinkable that Marshall would again have as many injuries, and  4)  The better parts of the defense have returned.

Personnel in the defensive front will be about the same although physically stronger.  The linebackers are upgraded by another Miami (Fl) transfer, Juwon Young who has already taken over the OLB position.   The secondary is a concern both because it is short on talent and also because it is very thin.  However, former VaTech safety C.J. Reavis has looked good at FS.

Even if newcomers beef things up, the defensive group is only going to be a little better.  Nonetheless, it has the capability of getting down to 30ppg and that should be enough to bring in a couple more wins.

Savvy is holding at 6-6 and, now that it’s August and with this team on the Savvy “watch list”, an adjustment of one game up or down might be forthcoming.

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8

N Texas

28 rank points

6 wins

How crazy is it that two teams (N Tex and Army) that combined for just ONE win in 2015, met each other in the regular season, then each made it to a bowl game— to play each other?

Okay, so N Texas only finished 5-8, but it was the first year for coach Seth Littrell and the fans in Denton are excited.

QB Mason Fine, a Cherokee Nation citizen, is under six-feet tall, not heavily recruited, committed late, and threw almost as many interceptions as touchdowns last season. Yet, he is the starting QB.

You see, there’s another angle to this Fine story.  He is Oklahoma’s all-time high school passer, he’s a high-spirited competitor, a natural-born leader, agile, and his will to win is contagious.

I personally can’t even begin to predict the ceiling for this team once Fine hits the groove. He hadn’t hit it as of spring practices and coach Seth Littrell said he would not name a starter until August, so there’s still some wait-and-see in Denton.

The OL is adding only two new starters and one of those, Jordan Murray, has become somewhat of a big deal if for no other reason than he is 6’9”, 351.   Odd that he only had two offers coming out of high school.  Yes, he had some technical difficulties such as footwork and learning tall-player leverages but what recruiters missed was his commitment to learning, his hard work, and the potential to become what he is now—a starter at RT.

Outstanding RB Jeffery Wilson returns and will contribute 1000 yards on the ground and another 300 catching the ball out of the backfield.

The Mean Green has 16 returning players who caught passes last year.  It appears coaches have whittled those down to three sophomores as starters, Jalen Guyton, a former Notre Dame recruit, Michael Lawrence who only caught one pass last year, and Ricco Bussey who’s said it 100 times, “No, I’m not Gary’s kid.”  What he is, however, is the leading receiver in spring ball with eight receptions, 146 yards, and a touchdown.

UNT lost seven defensive starters and one of two DCs (yeah-2 DCs; don’t ask me; just the messenger) from the nation’s 89th total yardage defense.  Kansas State transfer Bryce English will provide instant help on the DL while  Eji Ejiya has claimed the MLB spot.  Most of the DBs are back and, except for one safety, the entire defense is juniors and seniors.

This year, there will be some dents in Denton because this group plans to bring pressure, pressure, pressure. No one is quite sure if NoTex has the players to get away with that, I mean what with still having to actually cover receivers one-on-one and all, but they’re going to give it a go anyway.

If April was an indication, they might just be on to something because they posted six sacks in the spring game.

There are plenty of skill players, a serviceable OL, and a QB with high potential.  If those all come together, NTex will have a very good offense.  The defense has talent but I’m skeptical of an intense blitz scheme because, in my studies, those generally backfire and also because I don’t think you try something that high-risk with seven new starters.

Early August has shown little change and no reason to adjust the 6-6 projection rendered last month.

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9

UTEP

27 rank points

5 wins

Last year I thought, yeah, the Miners. I can dig it. And had they not committed so many of those pesky penalties, this could have been a 6-6 team.

RB Aaron Jones was the focus of the offense but he is now gone to the NFL and his expected replacement, Quardraiz Wadley injured his shoulder in April and has an uncertain return date.

Kevin Dove is expected to be the secondary back and coach Sean Kugler likes what he’s seen because Dove is 230lbs and has shown he can add blocking support. Walter Dawn has been switched back to RB and has shown some promise.

Ryan Metz returns at QB but don’t expect an expansion of the passing attack since Metz’ average pass attempt amounts to 5.5 yards.   Yes, he was a Metz-lab of the dink-and-dunk and yeah, he had 71% completions,  but it’s disturbing to be into August and not see long-ball effectiveness.

It’s my guess that as things get rolling, we might see a Metz dispenser—like local star Mark Torrez who finished his high school season with 3837 yards, 71% completions, 41 touchdowns, and only nine interceptions.  And just for something to do, he was also the  5th-leading rusher in his conference while averaging 8.8ypc.  In just one playoff game, he passed for 545 yards and ran for 149 more.

Torrez showed great competitiveness in spring practices and coach Kugler was impressed. “Probably the guy that really had a great spring, and it’s not a surprise to me, is Mark Torrez.”    Translated: Torrez is the guy who can get us yardage even if he has to do it all by his own self.

I find it amusing that despite those kinds of passing and rushing stats, analysts still show Torrez as a pocket passer and not dual threat.

Starting receivers have graduated but three juniors have experience led by Terry Juniel and Kavika Johnson.

The OL is one of the best with All American candidate Will Hernandez at LG and potential Rimington candidate Derron Gatewood at center.  Keep an eye on the newbies however because the OL gave four sacks in the spring game.  Maybe that explains even more why Kugler wants that 230 pound Dove in his backfield.

Last year, the defense was middle-of-the-road in terms of total yards allowed and was next to the last in the entire FBS in tackles for a loss.  The front four is suspect but might pick up some with the addition of Josh Ortega who impressed in the spring.  The back seven has two All-CUSA candidates in SS Devin Cockrell  and BuckLB Alvin Jones.  It’s a group that can compete with anyone.

Kugler likes this team. “They’ve got a chip on their shoulder. They’re hungry. They work hard. This is the group we’re going to move into the season with and I feel good about that.”

There seems to be a consensus that UTEP won’t be able to move the ball.  I suppose that is founded on the Miners being 102nd ranked last year for total yardage.  But I mean, these are the Miners, so let’s dig a little deeper and discover that

1)  UTEP didn’t put up as much yardage because the Miners aren’t high tempo and don’t run as many plays.

2)  They averaged over 6ypp and we all know that is competitive.

3)  This offensive line is good.

4)  UTEP was in the top-30 for not turning the ball over.

Three of those elements will elevate the Miners’ offense yardage into the 80’s and if Kugler can find an “arm” or the players control those awful penalties, they will get into the 70’s.

Reviews of this team point to rankings somewhere around 115th.  Savvy says the schedule sets up for 5-7 right now but with so much potential still not determined, the team could re-review at 6-6.  It is a team on the Savvy “watch” list.

Now can I have a ticket to finally attend a game in your unique stadium setting?   It’s the one venue that I am most eager to experience for the first time.

How about if I promise to write nice?

                         ___________________________________________

10

Florida Atl.

26 rank points

4 wins

There was great fanfare at FAU after the hiring of Lane Kiffin. At the time, I wondered if the initial energy would last or if Kiffinism would nosedive like it had at Tenn and USC. I figured we would know after the first half of the season but I didn’t have to wait that long.  The spring game had more foul than Owls in the stands and I found myself thinking that Kiffatigue might already be setting in.

I do think this team will start well and it’s obvious that Kiffin hasn’t lost his knack for recruiting. In a very short time, Lane latched on to enough playmakers to produce the conference’s top recruiting class.

I mean, just one day after he arrived in Boca and even before the Kiffinink had dried, he somehow landed QB De’Andre Johnson who was once a prized recruit for Florida State.

But, here’s a problem. As of Spring ball, Johnson had not beaten Jason Driskel for the job. I mean, if Johnson is Kiffin’s “guy”, and if he’s a former Mr. Florida Football, and an Under Armour All American, then how could he not have already beaten a guy who threw more interceptions than tds last year?

Could it be that he is not as focused on football as he should be?  After all, he was not a stranger to the Tallahassee night scene and the reason he left Florida St. was because coach Jimbo Fisher dismissed him.  It seems even Florida State has standards against hitting women in the face.

Let it be said that De’Andre has paid his dues and everyone deserves a new start.   Even so, I wonder … is he still as distracted and hanging out at late night bars or has he become serious about his opportunities in college football?  Fellow players have called him a fun player at practice; coaches have used other words.

At the Spring game, Kiffin said, “In talking with the guys that had him (Johnson) last year they said the same thing. When the lights come on he really performs well.”  In other words:  he turns it on in games but shines it on in practice.

Despite coming off of three straight 3-9 seasons, this FAU team is one to be respected because the Owls are stuffed with new talent, excited about their new pub (publicity De’Andre—publicity), and they have some really nice talent returning, especially on offense.

FAU has one of the best RBs in Devin Singletary who rushed for over 1000 yards last year as a pure freshman and— check this out—he did it by averaging 6.7ypc.

He will have a somewhat-improved OL to help him because many veteran starters return and there are some really good freshman coming in.  Don’t expect great gains, but it should be better.

De’Andre will have one of Florida’s best receivers in Kalib Woods who grabbed 68 passes for 934 yards and is a certain All CUSA selection.

FAU is switching from 4-3 to 3-4 on defense even though the depth chart in June still showed four linemen.   To get four linebackers, coaches have scrambled through defensive players and found such little help that they have decided to switch one or more RBs to LB.  That strikes me as a little risky since the group of proven RBs was quite thin to begin with.

FAU gave up over 500 yards per game last season and couldn’t stop the run (246ypg) mostly because the defensive front was weak.  Although the DL has some nice new recruits, none of them have yet made the two-deep chart and none of the returners look better than last year.  The back end is pretty strong, but then, that’s what we all said a year ago.

As with any change in coaches, there are many questions here and it’s probable that Lane doesn’t have the kind of talent he needs to make it all work right away.

Even so, Savvy sees FAU going 4-8 against the schedule.

For me, the future of this outfit is about two points of leadership, Kiffin and Johnson. How long until aloof Kiffindifference sets in and how long before D’Andre fully commits?

I’m sure Boca Ratonians know that Lane doesn’t linger and he’s probably already an Owl on the prowl for a bigger gig.  But don’t fret Owlettes because if he stays for two years you will have a dang-purdy roster and probably a bowl game as bounty for your next coach.

                                    ___________________________________

11

Florida Intl.

26 rank points

4

The big news here is Butch Davis (Miami (F), North Carolina) although some are more taken by the shiny new scoreboard. That’s fine with Davis because he makes no bones that he really wanted the Miami (F) gig.

This season’s offense is “AA”-rated—-as in Alex and Alex—QB Alex McGough and RB Alex Gardner.

After the Spring game, McGough was applauded by the Miami Herald for making it through the day with no interceptions. The fact that such an observation was even needed tells you a lot about the state of FIU’s passing attack. McGough was 13/11 td/int. That must change.

Meanwhile, the other Alex, Alex Gardner, ran for nearly 1000 yards last season and he’ll have help from Anthony Jones who was the best RB in spring ball. And fans can relax because so far, neither has thrown an interception.

The offensive line was anything but offensive last season. It was more of a nicey-nice line and polite enough to allow opponents to sack Panther QBs 31 times. Thankfully, only two of the starters return and coaches mixed and matched and shuffled this group quite a bit in spring ball.

Twins have surfaced to help the OG position. Dallas and Douglas Connell have been quite impressive as sophomores. Everyone agrees that Dallas is a better player and even better looking although no one can tell them apart.

WR Thomas Owens gives the Golden Panthers a true threat although rs-sophomore Austin Maloney was the star receiver in the spring game.

TE experienced graduations and defections and that is not good news for QB McGough because those quick TE passes beat blitzing defenses that have no respect for your OL.

On the defensive side, there are lots ‘n lots of goodies.

DE Fermin Silva is a monster and the leader of nine returning starters. To show you what kinda guy Silva is, he was asked what it was like to not be able to tackle QBs in the spring game. His face winced and his head went slowly side-to-side and he answered, “It hurts!”

Coach Davis hopes that LB stars Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint can bring down the 6.34ypp from last year but with no DBs of distinction, that number may actually go up.

It’s too early to expect any big changes here because it was too late for Davis to impact recruiting enough to find any freshmen starters.

Analysts are placing this team well over a 100th ranking. Savvy agrees this team won’t be stronger but the schedule is a wee bit easier and should lead to a 4-8.

       _______________________________________________________________

12

Charlotte

26 rank points

4 wins

Charlotte rocked college football last year with back-to-back upsets Marshall and SMiss, although by season’s-end neither of those opponents seemed as good as expected.

Still, it’s small wonder that Coach Brad Lambert is popular in Charlotte. I mean fans are excited—for a losing team. For a team that lost half of its starters, then finished only 113th-ranked in recruiting it’s quite remarkable!

Listen, 11,469 Charlottens showed up just for the Spring game and that’s with a stadium that sells out at 15,314.  That’s 75% compared to USC which was 15% after winning the Rose Bowl.

There is a point to this. You can’t have this much enthusiasm and support without coming into success at some point.

Yeah, they love Lambert in Charlotte. And the guy has a plan. Always did. Started years ago when the 49ers were FCS in transition to FBS.

In just their second FBS season, the 49ers were on the verge of making a bowl game and their lot was so impressive that I wrote a feature titled “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” that appears on SB Nation and also on this website.

Will they do it again?

Well, QB Hasaan Klugh is back and he had an excellent spring. He’s also over 200 pounds which has been an important part of his training goals. His off-season training added to his strength which has made his dual-threat abilities even harder to defend.

He has reliable receivers and T.L. Ford II caught 36 passes for over 400 yards as a secondary target last year. There are many adequate receivers to fill the other two positions and it appears that speedster Mark Quattlebaum may have locked up the slot.

Robert Washington is thought to be the favorite for starting RB since he had nearly 500 yards. But I’m seeing a strong push from converted WR Uriah LeMay who was once a Georgia Bulldog and had offers from Ohio St., Clemson, Oklahoma, and other premier programs. .

The defensive front was strong last year but has vacancies now. Graduated All-CUSA DL Larry Ogunjobi went from 49er to 49er when he left Charlotte for San Francisco of the NFL.

No one expects Tyler Fain to replace Ogunjobi but at least he will take up the same kind of space. DE Nick Carroll is the only returning DL starter but the 49ers had strong spring performances by freshmen LBs Jonathan Francois, DaQuavius Reid, and Jordan Starnes.

The secondary looks strong and has some depth.

In watching this team through the spring, I have gotten a strong sense that Charlotte’s defense is better than most expect. The offense will move the ball in all but one game, so if the defense is much better than previously thought, this could be a gosh-darned good team. (‘Scuse the language but Charlotten enthusiasm is contagious).

I love you charlotte, but for now Savvy-metrics and your schedule say 4-8, but just a dustspeck under 5-7.

Last year, I never said “next year” but this year, I’m saying it.  Next year, sweet Charlotte; next year.

                              ______________________________

13

Rice

26 rank points

4 wins

There’s a theory floating about elite circles that Rice football won’t ever become a perennial power because it’s just too hard to recruit to academically-elite institutions.   I don’t suppose those elites soil their fingers much with lunch meat, but I’ll say it anyway:   baloney!

Rice has a great stadium, recent upgrades, abides in a recruiting mecca, recently signed a dozen recruits all at one time, snagged coveted OL James Bagnell, and despite a 3-9 record caused Riceheads to extend coach David Bailiff to keep him in their court.

So doubters, still not convinced that my baloney goes with your Rice?

Check this out:  To recruit a highly sought after QB, Rice coaches learned that the player loved his cat.  So, coaches recruited the cat.  No really.  Letters were sent to “Kitty Granato” and “Feline Granato” and the Owls got their cat.  See—you can recruit to Rice.  Just takes some imagination.

But, no amount of creativity could save the loss of QB Tyler Stehling because he graduated.  And now there are some problems in finding his replacement.   As of 8/7/17, coaches were still unwilling to name a starter from among three candidates.

Jackson Tyner is the current leader but he only tossed 67 passes and only completed 48% of them a year ago.   He played in three games and was quite erratic.  The week before Thanksgiving, he struck 18-for-25 and 196 yards while the week-of, he was 10-for-37.  Tyner is 6’5″, 240 pounds and has a bit of a dual-threat to him.

He was as unconvincing in spring ball as he was last fall and so far in August, he has not separated himself from the others although he is listed as the favorite.

Having the QB competition still open is good news for  rs-sophomore J.T. Granato because it means he has a chance to become the man—although, as shown above, he was recruited as a cat.

Rice has Kylen Granson as the only proven receiver although freshman Aaron Cephus (6’4″) seems likely to push Lance Wright off the starting block.   Robby Wells has shown excellence as a TE and offers Rice an outstanding option.

The Owl OL returns all five starters and then some.  It has massive size and fabulous depth so if this offense doesn’t move, then accusing fingers won’t point here.  Watch for Calvin Anderson to make the All CUSA team.  He has been a starter since he first arrived on campus three years ago.

That OL will help RB Samuel Stewart who is much, much better than most of the country knows.  I know—he didn’t have 500 yards rushing last year, but I did some researching and cipherin’ and I discovered that in the four games in which Stewart was given the ball more than 10 times, he averaged 100.5 yards per game at 6ypc.  That’s over 1200 yards for a season and if his knee holds up, those numbers will climb because the OL is better.

I wana say it before anyone else:   Samuel Stewart is the biggest star that America does not yet know.

His backup is Austin Walter who was the only RB to play in every game last season yet in none of those did he create a newsworthy ruckus.  Despite several chances, Walter’s best game fell short of 100 yards (75).

I wonder if Rice and Swiss cheese go well together. They didn’t on defense last year as this unit had holes at all levels.  The Rice defense …

  •  Gave up over 40 points seven times.
  •  Yielded 504.5 yards per game (123rd).
  •  Only picked five passes  (117th).
  •  Had  porous pass efficiency defense – 3452 yards/25 tds allowed  (128th)
  •  Allowed opponents THIRTY-TWO plays over 40 yards.

Even so, I’m seeing reasons why this defense will be at least a little better.

Last winter, Rice hired Nebraska’s Brian Stewart as its new DC.  There are some oddities with this.  For example:  Brian Stewart was a position coach at Nebraska and not a DC.  He has elected to switch from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 defense.  Trading out a d-back seems a curious way to fix the problems listed above and it almost seems a d-back betrayal because Stewart’s history is as a DB position coach.

Stewart wants more pressure even though one of Rice’s defensive strengths was getting sacks (91st or 35 spots better than most other stats).  The gamble is to get more QB pressure but the risk is whether the under-performing secondary can hold  up if the front doesn’t get to the QB.  Now, with one less DB, the question becomes quite critical.

In spring ball, the secondary did not look good.  It seemed to not communicate well which is understandable given the scheme change, but that doesn’t answer to the issue of DBs not reacting to ball-in-the-air fundamentals.  The long-ball problem seemed worse but Stewart is a DB master so there’s hope it will get better.

Perhaps the best sign of this new and aggressive theory is that everyone was ball-hawking on every play much more than in the past.

The DL appears strong, experienced, and ready to make a sizable dent in opposing rushing attacks that put up more than 200ypg in 2016.

The LB corps is strong but will need more depth.  All CUSA LB Emmanuel Ellerbee is one of the best in the nation and he led CUSA in average number of tackles per game (10.7).  Three weeks ago, Ellerbee was named to the Nagurski Trophy candidate’s list.

The new defensive plan means finding new LBs and getting them all to catch on soon enough to avert disaster in the too-early (August 26th) opener against PAC-12 powerhouse Stanford.  This isn’t going to be pretty but it also should not be used to judge if the defensive side is working.

Of course, if we get to Thanksgiving and Houston still reeks of rotting Swiss, then what?

Well for Stewart it won’t be a big deal.  This is his third “gig” since 2015 so if it all goes south, he’ll just roll up his vagabond tent and move on.  But for fans and players, it means another DC, another scheme, and another year of uncertainty.

Some think this is a bowl team.  Not so sure.  Rice is replacing its starting QB, top receiver, and primary RB.  The defensive scheme is changing and appears to be taking quite a risk.  Rice will defend the run much better but my opinion is that those long plays on the back end will be as many and as aggravating as before.

Personally, I see the logic in figuring Rice for a 6-6 team.  But, there are too many loose ends that have yet to be successfully tightened so for now, I’ll stick with Savvy’s 4-8.

You can say, “Baloney!” and I might not argue.  However, I might give a head-nod to that pile of Swiss and say it can’t be ignored.  Until that is dealt with, we can look away and pretend it is all better, but that smell is still going to be there to remind us.

______________________________________

14

UAB

24 rank points

3 wins

Does it seem odd a program which hasn’t existed for two years and is eager to show itself would schedule its spring practice grand opening for April Fool’s Day? (Smh)  So, are they back or are they just fooling us?

Anyway, this is a fascinating task, previewing a team that hasn’t existed, at least not for the past two years. It feels like I’m trying to find a mole on someone’s shadow.

Nonetheless, we press on.

Coach Bill Clark returns from having coached the 2014 team, the year he won CUSA Coach of the Year.

I’m going to take some guesses here about what to expect. I’m thinking spread offense and probably a 4-2-5 defense.

QB A.J. Erdely (tranf Mid Tenn) will lead an offense that should put points on the board behind a decent line led by Shaq Jones from the original 2014 team and Lee Dufour who stressed that the Blazer OL has been dedicated to weight and strength training for 16 months even though the team did not yet exist.

Another original, WR Collin Lisa, received raves at the Spring game and is the top target for Erdely.

There are three RBs who seem capable although not exceptional. Kalin Heath is the likely starter but there are challengers behind him and nice depth.

It’s hard fill holes when the defense is built from scratch. I mean, how do you know where the itches are?

Coach Clark took a major step forward on the “D” side when he somehow convinced 3-star recruit Thomas Johnston to lead his linebackers. Johnston had offers from the SEC and Big-10. He will be a major part of UAB’s defensive plans.

The defense won’t finish in the top-100, but should be enough to hold its own in CUSA.

Over 7500 fans turned out in the Spring and that was many more than I expected.  So maybe I’m wrong to think that the UAB fan base will soar and then fade.  I’ve been projecting 24,000 on opening day and through the first three weeks before the losses come and the fans don’t.

Savvy actually sees 3-9 for this startup which I think most of us would agree is pretty good.   And, UAB has committed itself to this program with the recent approval of $20-million to upgrade facilities.

There are those who believe UAB is the weakest team in the FBS but I disagree for two reasons.  One is that Bill Clark is a great coach, and the other is the contagious work ethic and dedication of those who never left..

++++++++++++++++ end ++++++++++++++++

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