Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

It’s another new era for Conference USA.

At various points over the 28 years of the league’s existence, schools like Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, SMU, TCU, Tulane and UCF have been members of C-USA.

The conference has been ravaged by realignment on numerous occasions and was pushed to the brink in late 2021. The American Athletic Conference, itself pillaged of three members by the Big 12, raided C-USA for six teams — Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. Soon after, the Sun Belt snagged Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss.

Left behind were just Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Western Kentucky. The conference had to go on the offensive to stay alive and plucked independents Liberty and New Mexico and called up Jacksonville State and Sam Houston from the FCS level (Kennesaw State will make the same jump next year) to create a nine-member league for 2023.

Here’s what you need to know about C-USA on the field with the season fast approaching.

Can WKU’s high-powered offense lead it to a C-USA title?

Of the five holdover teams in C-USA, Western Kentucky looks most equipped to have a big year. The Hilltoppers are coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons since coach Tyson Helton made a major change to his team’s offense.

In 2021, Helton brought in coordinator Zach Kittley and quarterback Bailey Zappe from Houston Baptist to run a prolific Air Raid offense. In one year, WKU went from No. 120 in the nation in total offense to No. 2. Kittley left for Texas Tech after just one season, but Ben Arbuckle was promoted to keep the success going with Division II transfer Austin Reed at QB.

Though Arbuckle has moved on to Washington State, Reed is back for another season after tearing up C-USA defenses for 4,744 yards and 40 TDs last fall. The Hilltoppers lost a few offensive linemen to the transfer portal and will have a bunch of transfers of their own on defense, but the return of Reed and receiver Malachi Corley on offense makes WKU the C-USA favorite.

Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed throws a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed throws a pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

WKU will likely be favored in 10 of its 12 games. Perhaps there’s one C-USA game where WKU could be an underdog — the Oct. 5 trip to Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are entering their second season under Sonny Cumbie, and they showed some signs of life despite going 3-9.

Cumbie’s offense had some positive moments even with a slew of injuries at quarterback, but that position should be much stronger with the addition of Boise State transfer Hank Bachmeier. With Bachmeier at QB, Baylor transfer Sqwirl Williams at RB and Smoke Harris back at receiver, there’s potential for this offense to take a big step forward. If the defense can improve, the Bulldogs could be a sneaky tough team.

Middle Tennessee really should benefit from the weakened state of C-USA as Rick Stockstill enters Year 17 at the helm. MTSU has had a winning record in seven of its 10 seasons in C-USA, but has never gone beyond the eight-win mark. It’s hard to envision MTSU exceeding that mark in 2023 when it has to replace QB Chase Cunningham and its top three receivers. The defense was the better side of the ball last year, and that should be the case again.

Elsewhere, UTEP could get to a bowl game for the second time in the Dana Dimel era. The Miners are 12-13 over the past two seasons after winning five games combined in Dimel’s first three seasons. Losing top lineman Jeremiah Byers to Florida State was a tough blow, but the Miners have four other starters back up front with QB Gavin Hardison, WR Tyrin Smith and RB Deion Hankins and some decent returning production on defense.

The other C-USA returnee is FIU, which is entering its second season under Mike MacIntyre. The Panthers somehow won four games last year, but seven of their eight losses came by at least 20 points (including a 73-0 loss to WKU). FIU was hit hard by the portal with seven players landing at Power Five schools. To make matters worse, top RB Lexington Joseph tore his ACL during spring practice. It could be a long year.

Liberty loses Hugh Freeze, but adds Jamey Chadwell

Liberty has invested heavily into football and found a conference home for the first time as an FBS member. The Flames went 34-15 in four seasons under Hugh Freeze and now are led by Jamey Chadwell, who led Coastal Carolina to 31 combined wins over the past three seasons.

Liberty has all the resources to succeed, but could this be somewhat of a transition year? Chadwell brings a unique offensive system and there could be some growing pains for his first season at LU. The Flames don’t have a quarterback anywhere close to the caliber of Grayson McCall (Johnathan Bennett and Kaidon Salter will compete to start) and much of the skill position talent is unproven. The defense also lost seven starters, but the Flames will benefit from an easy schedule that doesn’t have a single Power Five opponent.

Liberty quarterback Johnathan Bennett (11)scrambles with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Connecticut in East Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Liberty quarterback Johnathan Bennett (11)scrambles with the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Connecticut in East Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

The other formerly independent team in the league is New Mexico State. NMSU is an extremely tough place to win, but Jerry Kill did something remarkable in his first season by guiding the Aggies to a 7-6 record that included a win in the Quick Lane Bowl.

Before 2022, NMSU had just one winning season in its previous 18. It was also just the program’s second bowl appearance since 1960. To make that happen, the Aggies won five of their final six games and there’s reason to believe Kill’s team can carry that over into 2023. The Aggies return QB Diego Pavia and have three of their top running backs and four offensive line starters back. There should be a lot of cohesion on defense with a few Power Five transfers increasing the overall talent level of the unit.

Kill has the Aggies believing that they can compete for a C-USA title.

How will the new FBS members assimilate?

Jacksonville State and Sam Houston became the 132nd and 133rd FBS members when they joined C-USA, and both had plenty of success at the FCS level.

Jacksonville State notched double-digit victories six times between 2013 and 2020 and are coming off a 9-2 record in 2022, the program’s first season with the well-traveled Rich Rodriguez as head coach. Yes, that Rich Rodriguez.

If there’s one thing we all know about Rodriguez, it’s that he can coach an offense. The Gamecocks averaged 36.2 points per game and return veteran QB Zion Webb with four offensive line starters and their top two running backs, both of whom averaged more than seven yards per carry. If the defense can hold up in the trenches, Jacksonville State should be pretty solid.

Sam Houston is only a few years removed from an FCS national title. The Bearkats went 5-4 last year but won 20 of their previous 21 games between 2020 and 2021. Last season, they redshirted several players who had a year of eligibility left in an effort to be competitive right away in the FBS.

Last year’s offense struggled mightily, especially passing the ball. But the defense was strong and should be able to keep the Bearkats in games. If the offense improves, Sam Houston could win a few more games than expected.

Which C-USA team is most overrated?

Sam Cooper: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders went 8-5 last year but beat just one team with a winning record and that came in a bowl game vs. San Diego State where they gained 170 total yards. MTSU has the third-best odds to win C-USA, but I just don’t think this team is very good. The schedule doesn’t help. MTSU plays Alabama and Missouri and then has a stretch with five games in 25 days. Yikes.

Nick Bromberg: Liberty. As Sam mentioned above, there could be a few growing pains for the Flames after Freeze’s departure. I trust Chadwell to have a consistent winner, but this is a team that could actually be worse than it was in 2022 even if its record is better because of the extremely soft schedule.

Which team is a sleeper to contend for the C-USA title?

Sam: New Mexico State. This is a long shot but it’s hard not to be impressed by NMSU under Jerry Kill. I like what the Aggies return on offense and the transfers on defense should help them overcome some losses to graduation. Most of this league is mediocre, and the two new FBS teams are ineligible, so maybe NMSU can find itself in the championship game.

Nick: Louisiana Tech. There aren’t many contenders for this category in a league that has two teams ineligible for the conference title, but perhaps Hank Bachmeier can succeed in Ruston. Four starters return on the offensive line and the defense brings back four starters on the front seven. The non-conference schedule is rough with games at SMU and Nebraska, but things should be better in year two of Sonny Cumbie’s tenure.

What is your favorite C-USA win total bet?

Sam: UTEP over 5.5 wins. The Miners know what they’re good at. They are strong on the offensive line, have a veteran quarterback and can lean on the run game and play-action pass. There are also some pretty good players in the front seven on defense. There are enough toss-up games on this schedule that I see UTEP getting to a bowl game.

Nick: Western Kentucky over 8.5 wins. I’m stunned this is at plus money at +110. WKU has tough non-conference games at Ohio State and Troy, but the latter is winnable. Throw in a conference that’s significantly depleted and I like this bet a lot.

Who is your pick to win the C-USA title?

Sam: Western Kentucky. WKU has the best offense in the conference by a significant margin and no longer has UTSA standing in the way as it tries to win the league title. The Hilltoppers win C-USA for the first time since 2016.

Nick: Western Kentucky. Liberty may get to nine or 10 wins just because of a cake schedule, but Western Kentucky is the better team with Reed coming back for another season. With Liberty visiting WKU, the Hilltoppers’ toughest conference road game could end up being at UTEP or Louisiana Tech.

Conference USA title odds

Note: Jacksonville State and Sam Houston cannot win the conference title or qualify for a bowl game due to NCAA rules about transitioning from the FCS to FBS level.


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