Week 7: Conference USA Previews, Predictions

North Texas (2-3) at UAB (3-2) Oct. 11, 3:30, American Sports Network 

Here’s The Deal: UAB bounced back from a tough loss to Florida International, surprising Western Kentucky on the road, 42-39. In so doing, the Blazers dispatched a message to the rest of the league that they’re no longer a pushover, and they might contend for bowl-eligibility in Bill Clark’s first season in charge. Defending Conference USA champ North Texas is on shakier ground as the season approaches the halfway point. Save for a meaningless rout of Nicholls State, the Mean Green has dropped its last two games, fading a week ago at Indiana. 
Why North Texas Might Win: In Birmingham, the offense is way ahead of the D, which affords the Mean Green opportunities to make plays downfield. Redshirt freshman QB Dajon Williams continues to evolve as the regular, throwing three touchdown passes in each of his first two starts. He’ll have success, as will the seasoned backfield tandem of Reggie Pegram and Antoinne Jimmerson. 
Why UAB Might Win: Clark’s offense gives the Blazers a chance to win games that would have been out of reach when Garrick McGee was the coach. UAB averages 37 points per game, which includes 34 against unbeaten Mississippi State. Jordan Howard and D.J. Vinson pace the ground game, creating looks for QB Cody Clements to find TE Kennard Backman or speedy WR Jamarcus Nelson on play-action. 
Who To Watch Out For: The Blazers’ biggest concern on defense will be stopping Jimmerson and Pegram, forcing Williams to operate outside of his comfort zone. If DE Diaheem Watkins and LB Jake Ganus can make contact at or near the line , it’ll result in the kinds of third-and-long situations that compel young quarterbacks to force throws into traffic.
What’s Going To Happen: UAB is playing with confidence and improved execution, the basis for continued success. The Mean Green D can never be taken lightly. But the way the Blazers are spreading the ball around, they’ll locate the soft spots in the defense, building on last week’s upset of Western Kentucky. 
Prediction: UAB 31 … North Texas 24 
Line: UAB -6.5 o/u: 62.5 
Must Watch Factor: 5: Last Week Tonight – 1: Bad Judge … 1.5 

Middle Tennessee (4-2) at Marshall (5-0) Oct. 11, 12:00, Fox Sports Net 

Here’s The Deal: Conventional wisdom suggests that Marshall will run away with not only the East Division but also the Conference USA crown this season. Middle Tennessee is traveling to Huntington this weekend to toss a match on conventional wisdom. The Blue Raiders, in fact, lead the division following three shootout wins over league foes. And they will not be intimidated by this trip. The Herd has been cruising along as expected, winning all five of its games by at least two touchdowns. Included in the routs is a 48-17 spanking of Akron, which upset Pitt and nearly did the same to Penn State. 
Why Middle Tennessee Might Win: Few offenses in the league are potent enough to keep pace with the Herd. The Blue Raiders are one of them. They’re averaging 38 points per game behind a balanced attack. Not only is Middle Tennessee No. 2 in the league in rushing, led by Reggie Whatley and Jordan Parker, but Austin Grammer has improved as a passer. Over the last two games, he’s completed more than 80% of his passes for four touchdowns and no picks. 
Why Marshall Might Win: The Herd is more prolific offensively … and much stingier on D. Marshall is ringing up 47 points a week, and every bit as diverse with QB Rakeem Cato and big-play backs Devon Johnson and Remi Watson. But the team’s biggest edge comes on D, where it allows 15 points a game and leads the league in pass efficiency defense. The Herd will neutralize Grammer’s passing, making the Blue Raider running game less effective. 
Who To Watch Out For: The Marshall secondary is excelling this season at jumping routes, batting down balls and generally blanketing receivers. Opposing passers are completing just 51% of their throws, due in large part to the play of CB Darryl Roberts. The senior has broken up eight passes, which has caught the attention of pro scouts. 
What’s Going To Happen: Middle Tennessee will be feisty. It often has been during the Rick Stockstill era. But knocking off Marshall these days is a tall order, especially in West Virginia. The Herd will gradually pull away over the final two-plus quarters, corralling an offense that still must prove it can dent a quality D through the air. 
Prediction: Marshall 44 … Middle Tennessee 24 
Line: Marshall -23 o/u: 73.5 
Must Watch Factor: 5: Last Week Tonight – 1: Bad Judge … 2 

Rice (2-3) at Army (2-3) Oct. 11, 12:00, CBS Sports Network 

Here’s The Deal: Standing at 2-3, both Rice and Army are hungry to reach the .500 mark at the halfway point in the season. Doing so will make bowl-eligibility a more realistic possibility. The Black Knights rebounded from a gut-wrenching loss to Yale with a much-needed win over Ball State. The Owls will arrive in West Point with momentum as well, courtesy of back-to-back wins over Southern Miss and Hawaii. 
Why Rice Might Win: Army has blown fourth-quarter leads this fall, while generally struggling in the second half, because of the play of the defense. The Knights are too often overmatched against the run and the pass. The Owls have generated close to 40 points a game over the last three weeks, riding the dual-threat skills of QB Driphus Jackson, the running of Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard and the return to health of WR Jordan Taylor. 
Why Army Might Win: While Rice has improved against the run since the Notre Dame and Texas A&M games, the Cadets present a very different challenge. They’re relentless in their approach, hammering away with FB Larry Dixon, QB Angel Santiago and a cadre of veteran backs. Army will wear down an Owl front that really misses the presence of Stuart Mouchantaf next to Christian Covington on the inside. 
Who To Watch Out For: Teams with talented passers have hurt the Rice D this fall, but that won’t be a worry on Saturday. Santiago is just 18-of-23, with no touchdowns. The Owls will flood the box with safeties and linebackers, like Alex Lyons and James Radcliffe, to create congestion near the line of scrimmage. 
What’s Going To Happen: Rice is gradually turning things around, which will continue with an important road win Saturday. The Owl D is gelling, and the offense is surrounding Jackson with more weapons than he had in September. Army will get its usual rushing yards, but not enough points for the victory. 
Prediction: Rice 31 … Army 27 
Line: Rice -1 o/u: 59 
Must Watch Factor: 5: Last Week Tonight – 1: Bad Judge … 1.5 

Florida International (3-3) at UTSA (1-4) Oct. 11, 3:30, ESPN3 

Here’s The Deal: At this stage of the season, Florida International was supposed to be tanking, while UTSA made a darkhorse run at a divisional title. Instead, both programs have flipped the script. The Panthers opened the season with a home loss to Bethune-Cookman, yet have rallied back to .500, and are 2-0 in the league following back-to-back upsets of UAB and Florida Atlantic. While the Roadrunners raised awareness with an opening day upset of Houston, it’s yet to win since. In fact, UTSA has lost to New Mexico and the same Florida Atlantic squad FIU routed last week, 38-10. 
Why Florida International Might Win: The D has been shockingly good. It’s giving up 20 points per game, while leading the nation in takeaways behind the big-play heroics of DE Michael Wakefield and CB Richard Leonard. Now, the Panthers will square off with a rickety UTSA offense that can’t establish the run, has thrown more picks than touchdowns and was just held to nine points by the Lobos. 
Why UTSA Might Win: If the defense isn’t creating points and short-field opportunities, the FIU offense isn’t likely to generate many fireworks on its own. The Panthers are running for 2.8 yards per carry, while young QB Alex McGough is completing less than 50% of his passes. For all of its problems the past month, UTSA boasts a veteran, well-coached defense. If the Roadrunners can protect the ball, the D is capable of doing the rest. 
Who To Watch Out For: The Roadrunners need to take the ball out of the hands of mistake-prone QB Tucker Carter, which means picking up rushing yards on first and second down. Veteran David Glasco hasn’t been the answer, but sophomore Jarveon Williams showed a spark with 95 yards on nine carries last week. If Carter faces too many third-and-long situations, he will throw multiple picks. 
What’s Going To Happen: Playing desperate and conservatively, UTSA will snap its four-game losing streak, but it won’t be easy. Florida International is playing with a ton of confidence for Ron Turner. The Roadrunners will stiffen on defense, forcing McGough to beat them through the air in a low-scoring game. 
Prediction: UTSA 21 … Florida International 19 
Line: UTSA -13 o/u: 45
Must Watch Factor: 5: Last Week Tonight – 1: Bad Judge … 1.5 

Old Dominion (3-3) at UTEP (2-3) Oct. 11, 8:00, American Sports Network 

Here’s The Deal: Buckle up. It ought to be a bumpy ride with Old Dominion and UTEP in the same building. Both teams are home to offensive playmakers, but not much on the defensive side of the ball. And both are looking to snap two-game losing streaks that saw them battered by double-digits. This is the first meeting between the Monarchs and the Miners. 
Why Old Dominion Might Win: Taylor Heinicke’s eyes will widen as he watches the tape of the UTEP defense. The Miners have allowed 113 points over the last two games, while being bludgeoned on the ground. The multi-dimensional Heinicke is capable of exploiting of exploiting the Miners’ weaknesses versus the run and the pass. 
Why UTEP Might Win: The Miner D is bad. ODU’s stoppers aren’t any better. The Monarchs have yielded 97 points the past two weeks, and are still operating like an FCS unit. UTEP’s version of Heinicke will be RB Aaron Jones, who’s second in Conference USA rushing. 
Who To Watch Out For: Old Dominion has been heinous on third-down stops, ranking next-to-last in the country. It’ll be up to UTEP QB Jameill Showers to take advantage this week. The senior has been a major disappointment since transferring from Texas A&M in 2013, standing tenth in league pass efficiency rating. 
What’s Going To Happen: Can anyone make a stop in El Paso Saturday night? Heinicke vs. Jones ought to be intriguing, as both make pitches for all-conference honors. Playing at home, with a better chance of achieving offensive diversity, UTEP will escape with its first win in a month. 
Prediction: UTEP 35 … Old Dominion 30 
Line: UTEP -3 o/u: 71.5
Must Watch Factor: 5: Last Week Tonight – 1: Bad Judge … 1