NCAA Football 2017 Season
C-USA West Division Preview
Louisiana Tech is the favorite to win the C-USA West division once again. The Bulldogs have some key voids to fill, but coach Skip Holtz should keep this team at the top of the West. UTSA and North Texas headline the sleeper teams to watch in the division this fall, while UAB returns to the gridiron after a two-year hiatus. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech has a 19–5 record in conference play over the last three seasons and has won the Conference USA West division twice during that time. Returning to the C-USA title game will certainly be a challenge with the losses on the offensive side of the ball, but scoring points has not been an issue for the Bulldogs in recent seasons. What has been a problem: fielding a capable defense. There is, however, room for optimism on that side of the ball with a strong line led by defensive end Jaylon Ferguson. Outside of a road game vs. Western Kentucky, the conference schedule lines up favorably. If the defense can improve, another division title is within reach.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Southern Miss opened 2016 as a heavy favorite to win Conference USA, and in that context it’s hard to spin the 7-6 finish in coac Jay Hopson’s first season as anything but a wasted opportunity. Prior to last year, USM looked like a program on the rise, climbing from the depths of a 23-game losing streak in 2012-13 to mount a surprise run to the C-USA title game in 2015. But the promised breakthrough in Nick Mullens’ – the former starting quarterback – senior year never materialized (in part due to his health), which makes a serious run in his absence that much more unlikely.
Still, year in and year out the talent level in Hattiesburg is arguably the best in the conference, and this year’s lineup just so happens to be dominated by upperclassmen. With even a modicum of consistency behind center, the Eagles could be favored in every C-USA game. The real question, again, is which team will show up from one week to the next.
North Texas Mean Green
Head coach Seth Littrell pulled off quite a turnaround, going from 1–11 in 2015 to 5–8 and an appearance in the Heart of Dallas bowl in his first season. He was rewarded with a new five-year contract in the offseason, but there is more incremental work ahead.
If senior running back Jeffery Wilson avoids injury and carries the ground game, it should allow the passing attack to develop. If the re-tooling of the front six on defense yields more pressure to support a talented secondary, the unit will take the next step. Neither of those outcomes is guaranteed, but 2016 progress suggests more to come under Littrell. If North Texas can win a couple of non-conference games, another bowl bid should be within reach.
The Miners could take the field with 15 players with starting experience (the good news) returning from a team that was 4–8 (the bad news). The party line is that improvement in the second year of new offensive and defensive systems, combined with a more settled quarterback situation, will get the team back to a bowl for the first time since 2014. The fear is that a tougher schedule, both in and out of conference, the loss of one of their all-time greats in Aaron Jones (the school’s all-time leading rusher) and a lack of proven playmakers on both sides of the ball will result in another losing season.
This is a critical year for head coach David Bailiff, who has two years left on his contract. Entering his 11th season, Bailiff is under pressure to turn around a program that has gone 5-7 and 3-9 the past two seasons since going to a school-record three straight bowls. The margin of error is slim at a small FBS school like Rice, so avoiding a repeat of the injury bug is paramount for a bounce-back season. The opening month is a grind, with four of the first five games on the road, including the opener against Stanford in Sydney, Australia.
You can never count out a team coached by Bill Clark. The Blazers were among the worst teams in the country going into 2014, but he coached them to a six-win season. UAB has a deep front seven on defense and should be physical on the offensive line. With a new team, it’s hard to pinpoint many definite wins on the schedule, but Clark signed several junior college players and Division-I transfers so that the Blazers would be competitive from the start. If some playmakers can emerge on the offensive side of the ball, UAB can win a few games in its first season back from a two-year hiatus.
Can UTSA win its first C-USA division title in the seventh year of the program? That is the next step for the Roadrunners, who broke through in Year 6 with a bowl appearance. And while UTSA will not be the preseason favorite, a favorable schedule could have it in the mix down the stretch. The Roadrunners will not face the top teams from the East Division, and Louisiana Tech does not show up until the final game of the season.
The defense will likely show progress across the board. If the offensive line can improve its pass blocking, UTSA will be able to put up plenty of points. Depth is still an issue on both sides of the ball, but a strong recruiting class should be able to respond if called upon. A second straight bowl game for the Roadrunners is a reasonable expectation.