2018 preview: Conference USA (CUSA)

MTSU.brett stockstill 2017


1.   Florida Atlantic

Controversial coach Kiffin took the Owls from six wins to eleven and was top-10 in the nation for total offense, rushing yards, and fewest turnovers.  QB Jason Driskel quit college football and defensive coordinator Chris Kiffin opted for the NFL, but FAU ranks second nationally for most returning starters (18).  The Owls also have two transfer quarterbacks—De’Andre Johnson who was dismissed from Florida State and Chris Robison who was dismissed from Oklahoma State. Kiffin said of Robison, “He has a bit of Johnny-ish (Manzel) in him.” We suspect he wasn’t referring to public intoxication issues. Devin Singletary (1920 yards; 6.4ypc) returns at running back but has only two starting O-linemen ahead of him.  Nearly all of the starting defense returns under new DC Tony Pecoraro (S Miss) who advocates hyper-pressure and should help FAU to rise from 93rd in sacking opponents. FAU won 10-straight to end the season.  First game at Oklahoma.  Nine wins thereafter.

2.   Marshall

Coach Holiday bolstered conditioning and training—players getting stronger and tougher—and his defense became top-30 with a top-20 rush defense.  Most of that defense is back.  Eight starters return on offense but quarterback Chase Litton went to the NFL.  Former Tennessee recruit and Wagner transfer Alex Thomson is an NFL prospect if his arm has healed. New offensive coordinator will likely increase passing.  Three receivers with more than 35 receptions and both top running backs return along with the majority of the O-line.  Until Thomson proves his arm is healed and because South Carolina and North Carolina State are back-to-back, Savvy is holding at eight wins.

3.   Southern Miss

Many previewers have Southern Miss projected near 100th-ranking.  But, USM was in the top-third in total offense and the top-20 for total defense.  Ito Smith is gone and backup quarterback Keon Howard left the program, but USM may have found a unique running back in Steven Anderson, a 6’2”, 242lb converted QB.  O-line has some new faces but should again be close to 11th in the nation for fewest sacks allowed.  Quarterback Kwadra Griggs had a career of throwing interceptions until 2017 when he posted an amazing .7% rate.  Three top receivers return.  The defensive line will be strong and the linebacker group the best yet under coach Jay Hopson.  Secondary is  concern after five defensive backs departed.  USM should get to eight wins and a final ranking under 75.

4.   UTSA

We said a year ago UTSA would go 7-5 and finish 88th. The beep-beep boys finished 6-5 (no bowl game) and ranked 88th. Defense was #5 nationally and plenty of starters return although an important starter from each level is gone and secondary looks thin. Quarterbacks, quarterbacks, everywhere but not one yet good enough to start.  Only one returning receiver with more than 16 receptions and help is needed at running back behind Jalen Rhodes.  Pretty good chance to take down Arizona State in the opener and finish September 4-0.  Seven wins over all.

5.    UAB

After years of no football, UAB won eight games, posted a top-50 rushing attack, top-50 total defense, and top-25 pass defense.  Sophomore running back Spencer Brown will probably get to 1500 yards while senior NFL-prospect quarterback A.J. Erderly had just four interceptions in 338 passing attempts.  Top twelve receivers all return along with four starters on the offensive line.  Defense is solid but wasn’t able to bring pressure and now has lost top two pressure guys along with cornerback Darius Williams who had five interceptions. Weak recruiting class won’t help except perhaps for corner C.D. Daniels.  This one of the more disciplined teams in FBS.  Savvy hedges between seven and eight wins plus a bowl game.

6.   Florida International

Coach Davis surprised everyone with nine wins plus CUSA’s top recruiting class that included two, four-star defensive tackles.  Concern for replacing an outstanding quarterback was answered in the spring with Christian Alexander who “clearly separated” himself from the others.  Four receivers with nearly 100 receptions and 1200 yards are back.  O-line will need some work.  Secondary was poor last year and much of it is gone.  FIU retained 68% of its talent which is top-25 for returning starters.   Panthers will compete well and win eight.

7.   North Texas

Quarterback Mason Fine is a fiery and brash Cherokee competitor with an unstoppable will to win.  Last season, he passed for over 4000 yards and 31 touchdowns to finish as the  6th-ranked passer in all of college football.  O-line is still too weak but three outstanding receivers return.  Two returning backs rushed for over five yards per 181 attempts and without a single fumble.  Should be a top-25 offense again but cannot stymie scoring opportunities with interceptions.  Six starters graduated from the defense.  Secondary is thin but the front will be a little better.  The Savvy Index has this team at eight wins but still under scrutiny.

8.   Middle Tennessee

Rick Stockstill coaches while son Brent is the quarterbacks, at least for now.  Lots of running backs but must find a fire plug to get to the next level.  O-line is serviceable.  Receiver Ty Lee is all-CUSA after 79 receptions and 955 yards. Other young receivers abound.  Offense had too many turnovers and too many penalties.  Defense will be near the top-25 although the secondary needs more bodies and looks somewhat suspect.    Blue Raiders will sputter early but still get back to seven wins.  Recruiting has dropped from 3rd (2016) to 4th (2017) to 9th (2018) and no recruit higher than two stars.  Stockstill has been here since 2006 but the 2018 seat may be warming a bit.

9.   Louisiana Tech

A year ago, coach Skip Holtz was worried about the read-and-react passing of his athletic new quarterback, J’Mar Smith.  Smith passed for 228 yards per game and an impressive 1.2% interception rate.  We said returning receiver Teddy Veal would be all-C-USA and he had 74 receptions for nearly 1000 yards.  We think Jaquis Dancy will be the starting running back and get to 1200 yards.  The O-line should be solid.  Monster defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (highlighted in our interview with Jeremy St. Louis) is back again with all-America potential.  Coach Holtz has very strong metrics on Savvy.  Look for another seven win season.

10.  Old Dominion

Injuries and youth led to five wins.  Starting quarterback Steven Williams was a 17 year old left-hander. Williams excels at read-and-react and has a nice touch but tendency to lob produced a 4% interception rate.   ODU was #5 nationally for fewest penalties and may have a top-40 running game.  Lots of experienced and effective linemen.  Jeremy Cox will get 1000 rushing yards if he can stay healthy.  Receiving corps is solid.  Six defensive starters return but the D-line must stop the rush better.  Good secondary and over all, probably top-20 nationally for bringing pressure—especially from the weak side with NFL prospect Oshane Ximines.  Savvy-metrics are not yet solid but for now, the Index sees eight wins.  While the schedule is good for wins, it’s not much good for rankings.

11.  Western Kentucky

Coach Mike Sanford has some problems.  Passing offense finished top-7 but rush attack finished dead last in FBS.  WKU won six games but would probably have won nine except Hilltopper ground game could only muster 61ypg.   O-line blocked for just two yards-per-carry and yielded 46 sacks.  Quarterback Mike White was drafted by Dallas and three candidates haven’t looked promising. Three of the top four receivers are gone.  Defensive line won’t be better but the next two levels might be top-30.  WKU lost five of its last six and opens with two of its first three vs Wisconsin and Louisville—both on the road.  Hilltoppers currently Savvy-rated for five wins.

12.  Charlotte

Many rank the 49ers in the bottom five of the nation after 1-11 last year.  Savvy sees it different because 2017’s rash of injuries won’t repeat, youth movement will pay dividends now, four losses were by one possession, good run game will now be top-45, the schedule is better, and Charlotte has three-year starting quarterback Hussan Klugh (1500 yards passing; 500 running) back. Running backs are talented and the O-line appers be better than average.  Last year’s 14ppg offense will become 22ppg.  Defense has all but one of its top 12 tacklers back but must bring more pressure.  Coach Brad Lambert brought in two new coordinators.  Almost  bowl team the last two years.  Should be 6-6 this year.

13.  Rice

The outlier.  Only one win despite surprising metrics on Savvy.  New coach is Mike Bloomgren (from Stanford) and Savvy projects an immediate impact. Nation’s third-worst interception rate should improve—starting quarterback left the team and likely starter Jackson Tyner was “only” 5% interception rate.  Junior running back Nahshon Ellerbe could reach 1000 yards and Rice could be a top-25 rushing team. Most receivers return but none stand out.  Defense will be tougher and compete well in conference.  Secondary is better than a lot of people think although it lacks depth.  Savvy has upgraded to four wins, might get to five before opening day, and affirms that Rice won’t again lose ten straight.

14.  UTEP

Dana Dimel comes from Kansas State to a program that averaged less than 12 ppg and graduated four of its top six offensive lineman.  Quarterbacking may be better with former Crimson Tide four-star Kai Locksley taking over.   Lots of running backs and receivers but none seem outstanding and some not durable.  New scheme will open things up.  Defense was respectable—48th vs the pass.  Most of the back two levels return.  Lost by an average 25 points last year and might have problems with FCS Northern Arizona.  Savvy projects one win and margin of loss down to 17 points.