Welcome to the College Football Preview Series! Over the next few weeks, I will be replacing the Student of the Game (don’t worry it will return) with this preview series. The first several posts will be a breakdown of each conference, breaking down the Power 5 into two posts apiece to cover everything in a manageable size. In each post, I will answer what I deem to be the five most important questions about each conference or division. The preview series will conclude with an individual awards post and a New Year’s Six predictions post. Enjoy and please leave comments!
The third edition of the CFB preview series will feature my five questions for Conference USA. While the C-USA may not have the reputation as the strongest Group of Five conference, it’s important to remember that its members are by and large relatively new programs or “afterthought” schools in recruiting hotbeds like Louisiana, Texas and Florida. That being said, there is plenty of good football to be found in the conference and even where there isn’t there are usually some offensive fireworks to keep you amused.
Will Western Kentucky continue to “hilltop” the conference?
That was a terrible joke I know, but I’m also not going to apologize for it because it is an accurate description of how Western Kentucky has handled the conference the last two seasons. The Hilltoppers have won two consecutive C-USA titles and amassed a 17-1 conference record over that span. The question is: will they do it again this year? I tend to think so. Jeff Brohm may have taken his talents to West Lafayette (doesn’t ring as well as South Beach), but Mike White is back at quarterback after racking up over 4,000 passing yards, 37 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions last year.
White isn’t the only reason to be high on WKU’s chances to “three-peat” though. Western Kentucky had the best special teams unit in the country last season and the whole gang returns, including dangerous return men Kylen Towner and Nacarius Fant. Offensively, White shouldn’t have to do everything himself with running back D’Andre Ferby returning from a shoulder injury that cost him virtually all of last season. Leon Allen is another story that will hopefully have a good ending. Allen rushed for over 1,500 yards in 2014, but suffered a career threatening injury in 2015 and missed all of last season too. He has been granted a sixth year of eligibility contingent upon completion of two summer classes, but some physical issues have kept him off the field for most of spring and summer practice. I’m not sure if WKU can really bank on much production from him, but here’s to hoping that he can give them something.
The biggest concerns threatening a WKU repeat are the offensive line and depth on the defensive side of the ball. Three all-conference offensive linemen, including second round NFL draft pick Forrest Lamp, need to be replaced up front, but guards Brandon Ray and Dennis Edwards do provide a decent foundation. Defensively, the starters should stack up favorably with anyone in the conference, but they won’t be as deep as they have been the last few years which is something to monitor as the season progresses or, heaven forbid, injuries occur. All in all, the schedule sets up nicely for another C-USA title run for the Hilltoppers and 13-0 isn’t completely out of the question if the line shapes up and the defense stays healthy.
Is Brent Stockstill-Richie James the best QB/WR combo in the country?
One of my closest friends growing up, and still to this day, is 4 Down Territory contributor Chris Kratzer. We lived in the same neighborhood growing up and bonded over three things: Star Wars, the Charlotte Hornets and backyard football. Playing ball in the backyard, Chris used to claim that we had a “Steve Young-Jerry Rice” connection.
Brent Stockstill and Richie James also have that connection and are one of the best QB/WR tandems in the country, but are they THE best? I have them third behind Mason Rudolph-James Washington and Jake Browning-Dante Pettis with Trace McSorley-Daesean Hamilton right behind Stockstill and James. To be clear, I obviously recognize the greatness of quarterbacks like Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, but none of those guys has a proven stud at receiver this season on par with Washington, Pettis, James and Washington. Likewise, Christian Kirk is a stud for Texas A&M, but the Aggies have yet to name a starting quarterback.
For those of you who want the credentials on Stockstill and James rather than just blindly agreeing with me, good for you. Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, is 6th among active FBS players in passing yards, despite being a junior and missing three games last season. As a freshman in 2015, he topped 4,000 passing yards and went over 3,000 yards in ten games last season. He also has a career 65% completion percentage and a 61-to-17 touchdown-interception ratio. James is a multi-dimensional terror who made both Phil Steele’s and Athlon’s preseason 2nd team All-America list. He is the active NCAA leader in both receptions and receiving yards (just 29 yards shy of 3,000). Last season against Charlotte, with Stockstill sidelined, he rushed 22 times for 207 yards, caught 4 passes for 120 yards and completed five passes for 76 yards. Once again, that was in one game. These two should run through the conference again this season and I think they will get the Blue Raiders to a second consecutive eight-win season.
Is Conference USA going for a football version of “Groundhog Day” in 2017?
If that reference is too dated for all you “Millennials” out there, then I’ll just take this opportunity to remind you that you’re ruining America. (JK I also qualify as a Millennial). Anyway, if you truly didn’t get that reference then go here. In all seriousness though, my projections for the C-USA do look eerily similar to last season’s, which probably just means that I will be completely wrong.
For starters, I have Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky meeting again in the conference championship game again, and leaving that game with the same win totals they had a year ago. I also have three other teams (Southern Miss, Rice and the aforementioned Blue Raiders) matching their win totals from a year ago. Four other teams are projected to finish within two games of their win totals from a season ago. Furthermore, the only team that I have not returning to a bowl game this season is North Texas, who only made a bowl game last season because they had the second highest APR among 5-7 teams. The only team I have qualifying for a bowl game that didn’t last season is Marshall. I do have Florida Atlantic getting to 5-7, but with Lane Kiffin in charge I have serious doubts about what their APR (Academic Progress Rate) will look like four months from now.
Who will be the most fun C-USA team?
Southern Miss was a train-off-the-tracks balls-to-the-walls 7-6 team last season and if my “Groundhog Day” theory is correct then that’s exactly what they will be again this season. There are things other than my poorly thought out theories that indicate this though. For starters, the Golden Eagles have some of the best skill position players in C-USA with RB Ito Smith and WR Allenzae Staggers (All-Name team nominee). Those two and others should provide plenty of highlight reel plays throughout the season. A new quarterback will have to be broken in though with Nick Mullens gone, which could also lead to some spectacular plays from opposing defenses.
Defensively, Xavier Thigpen and Darian Yancey return to wreak havoc up front, and they have plenty of help. Thigpen and Yancey forced three fumbles and had 7.5 sacks between the two of them last year. Those are good things for Southern Miss fans. The potentially scary thing is the fact that the Golden Eagles have to break in two new safeties on a defense that was extremely vulnerable to giving up huge plays last season. While that may be scary for USM fans, for the rest of us that adds to the excitement factor. So, if you find yourself looking for games to watch on Saturdays before or after your team plays, give the Southern Miss game a few minutes and you shouldn’t be disappointed. The 2017 Southern Miss Golden Eagles should be a wild ride again in what I would like to think is a direct homage to the patron saint of Southern Miss football: Brett Favre.
Is there a question that will allow me to organically mention the other eleven teams in the conference?
Unfortunately, I’m going to have to say that’s a negative (insert “Ghost Rider”). Even if there is, I’m not nearly clever enough to think of it. What I will give you is a statement or a question about each of the remaining teams with a really bad segue connecting each one to the last. Here. We. Go:
UAB football is BAAAAACK!!!
Speaking of being back, Lane Kiffin is back in the head coaching ranks and he has brought Kendal Briles and De’Andre Johnson back to the FBS ranks with him. Granted, I’m not sure that’s a good thing considering those three guys are associated with picking up co-eds using a truly awful alias, potentially being complicit in covering up sexual assault, and punching a woman in a bar. Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and say this probably ends up being a bad thing.
Speaking of bad things, UTEP football may experience some serious growing pains this season, but offensive guard Will Hernandez is a beast and cracked both Phil Steele’s and Athlon’s preseason All-America teams (2nd and 3rd team respectively).
Speaking of beasts, UTSA should have the best defense in the conference with Marcus Davenport and Josiah Tauaefu leading the way. The also should build upon last year’s 6-7 record.
Speaking of building on things, expect Marshall to return to bowl eligibility after a tough rebuilding year in 2016.
Speaking of rebuilding, when will Charlotte’s end? Here’s a hint: Not this season.
Speaking of not-this-season, don’t expect this to be the season that Rice has any kind of a break through.
Speaking of break throughs, look for Old Dominion to take a small step back after last year’s 10-win season, the first in program history. They haven’t recruited particularly well with Athlon giving them the C-USA’s 13th best recruiting class, despite being in a fertile recruiting ground.
Speaking of fertile recruiting grounds, how will Butch Davis fare in his return to the “State of Miami”? (It will take time but I’m optimistic).
Speaking of returning, Louisiana Tech should be able to make a return trip to the conference championship game, but expect them to be the bridesmaid and not the bride yet again.
Speaking of brides, after a great first season for North Texas, by relative standards, under coach Seth Littrell. How will Year 2 go now that the “Honeymoon Phase” is over?
Ok yes, I know that last one was terrible. In fact, they were all terrible but I did it anyway and hopefully there was at least something entertaining or informative in that bit. That’ll do it for the C-USA. Next up, get ready for some MACtion.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports