The 2016 Conference USA football preview, featuring the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat.
Continuity. At last.
For the first since the beginning of this decade, Conference USA will enter a new season with the same eclectic mix of members it housed in the prior year. The same 13 programs that competed on grass last fall will be back on the field in September, with UAB set to rejoin the league in 2017 to make for two balanced divisions of seven. For a vulnerable conference forced to be reactionary during the height of realignment machinations, no news has been good news this offseason.
The balance of power in the league will continue to slant toward the East Division, home of the last two champs, Marshall in 2014 and Western Kentucky a year ago. The Herd and the Hilltoppers, who meet in Huntington on the final weekend of the regular season, will again be favored to represent their half of the league in the title game.
The Hilltoppers must replace their record-setting quarterback, Brandon Doughty, much the way the Herd had to handle the graduation of Rakeem Cato in the prior season.
In all likelihood, the remainder of the East will spend November posturing for the league’s automatic bowl berths. Led by the dynamite pitch-and-catch combo of Brent Stockstill to Richie James, Middle Tennessee is the best of the rest. Though Florida International could be feisty if the defense improves.
The West is lagging behind the East for a reason. Everyone has a major issue that could derail their 2016 goals. Southern Miss and defending champ Louisiana Tech have the best returning talent, and will justifiably be the strongest contenders. But the Bulldogs lost three of their top players to the NFL Draft, including quarterback Jeff Driskel, while the Eagles were blindsided when head coach Todd Monken left for a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the end of January.
It’s a good thing for La Tech and USM that what lurks behind them in the division isn’t particularly daunting. Rice can never be overlooked under David Bailiff, especially since the Owls are targeting a rebound after going 5-7. And UTEP has a shot to bowl now that running back Aaron Jones is healthy again. Still, North Texas and UTSA have a long way to go for first-year coaches Seth Littrell and Frank Wilson, respectively.
Sure, it’s possible that a realignment ripple could reach Conference USA if the Big 12 expands on the back of the American Athletic Conference. For now, though, Conference USA is enjoying a rare stretch of tranquility, focusing on what’s to come on the field instead of being forced to respond to the administrative minutiae away from it.
Conference USA Football Team That Will Surprise
Florida International – The Panthers and Ron Turner are beginning to feel a sense of urgency to snap their streak of losing seasons at four. The fourth-year coach might finally have the personnel and the direction to get over the hump.
FIU has improved in each of the last two seasons under Turner, going 5-7 in 2015. Furthering that trend could mean a coveted bowl berth for the first time since 2011. One brick at a time, Turner is laying a foundation in Miami. And the offense, spearheaded by the trio of quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and tight end Jonnu Smith, brings nearly everyone back. If the defense can regroup and pull even a little more of the weight after collapsing last November, the Panthers are capable of taking the next step in their evolution.
Conference USA Football Team That Will Disappoint
Louisiana Tech – The last time the Bulldogs weren’t led by a transfer quarterback from a Power 5 school they went 4-8 in 2013. The 2016 edition, sans a seasoned quarterback, won’t lose eight, but it also won’t match the nine wins of the past two seasons.
While Skip Holtz has built one of the deeper programs in Conference USA, he’s going to have a tough time reaching the bar he set in 2014 and 2015. Three of his former kids were drafted this spring: quarterbck Jeff Driskel, running back Kenneth Dixon and defensive tackle Vernon Butler, a first-round selection of the Carolina Panthers. That’s a lot of talent for a Group of 5 team to replace, especially in the backfield. The drop-off from Driskel to likely heir Ryan Higgins will be noticeable. Yeah, La Tech is still too talented to miss the postseason, but this program will be more vulnerable on both sides of the ball than it has been the last two years.
Conference USA Football Game Of The Year
WKU at Marshall, Nov. 26 – Sure, their history is limited to only a pair of games spanning the last two seasons. But the Herd and the Toppers are on the brink of becoming the main players in Conference USA’s premier rivalry in the years ahead. Western Kentucky has captured both meetings between the budding rivals, including a 67-66 instant classic in 2014 that ended 11-0 Marshall’s dream of a perfect season. In all likelihood, the winner of this November’s tilt will wrap up the East Division to take a gigantic step toward winning the league crown a week later.
Five Conference USA Football Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight
These five Conference USA stalwarts are recognized playmakers within league circles. However, each is talented and productive enough to warrant more of a national following this fall.
1. QB Nick Mullens, Southern Miss
2. WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee
3. LB Alvin Jones, UTEP
4. WR Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky
5. DT Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte
Top 5 Conference USA Coaches on the Hot Seat
Unless you’re an old-timer carrying a gig into retirement, Conference USA coaches typically fall into two categories—those using a mid-major as a stepping stone to the big leagues and those making a case for more time to turn things around. The five head guys below are facing the greatest pressure to produce results in 2016.
1. Ron Turner, Florida International
2. Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic
3. Sean Kugler, UTEP
4. David Bailiff, Rice
5. Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA Better Take Very, Very Seriously
Conference USA teams will get ample opportunities to make splashes at the expense of Power 5 programs, as is always the case in September. However, on the way to cashing big checks and swinging for the fences, league members must avoid getting tripped up in the following winnable out-of-conference pairings.
1. Akron at Marshall, Sept. 17
2. Troy at Southern Miss, Sept. 17
3. Louisiana Tech at Massachusetts, Oct. 15
4. Army at UTEP, Sept. 17
5. Bethune-Cookman at North Texas, Sept. 10
5 Best Conference USA Pro Prospects
1. OL Forrest Lamp, WKU
2. CB Jeremy Cutrer, Middle Tennessee
3. S Xavier Woods, Louisiana Tech
4. OT Clint Van Horn, Marshall
5. DE Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic
5 Biggest Conference USA Shoes To Fill
1. Western Kentucky QB Mike White or Nelson Fishback for Brandon Doughty
2. Louisiana Tech DT Courtney Wallace for Vernon Butler
3. Louisiana Tech RB Jarred Craft for Kenneth Dixon
4. Middle Tennessee S Jovante Moffatt for Kevin Byard
5. Western Kentucky TE Steve Donatell for Tyler Higbee