Complete preview for Conference USA in 2018.
The list of top contenders in Conference USA for 2018 has to start with the two teams that played for the league title in ’17. FAU and North Texas won their respective division last season and take the top two spots once again in the 2018 Conference USA predictions. The Owls are a contender for the top Group of 5 ranking, but Marshall and MTSU won’t be easy outs in the East. Old Dominion is also expected to improve in 2018, while FIU and WKU are two wild card teams to watch. The Mean Green got the nod at No. 1 in the West, but there’s very little separation between coach Seth Littrell’s team and Louisiana Tech and UAB. Southern Miss is projected to make a bowl game, with UTSA just missing at five predicted wins. Rice and UTEP are starting over with new coaches in 2018.
The Owls underwent numerous personnel changes during the offseason, both in the coaching staff and in some key offensive positions. That turnover will likely lead to inconsistent play to start the season. By the time C-USA play begins, however, there’s no reason to believe that the Lane Train won’t be chugging in high gear. At the very least, Kiffin’s offensive mind should have FAU headed for its second consecutive bowl appearance.
While it will be a difficult road to get back to eight wins — considering the losses at the skill positions and throughout the back end of the defense — if the young talent recruited by Butch Davis can mature quickly, there is plenty of reason to believe that the Panthers can flirt with a winning record in 2017. FIU benefits from a schedule that features five of the first seven games at home, as well as key C-USA East rivals Florida Atlantic and Marshall coming to Riccardo Silva Stadium in November.
Marshall’s defense will keep the team in position to win plenty of games, so even at new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey’s high-octane pace, the offense needs to take care of the ball and put the quarterback in position to be a game manager. If Marshall is able to limit turnovers and find suitable replacements for Kaare Vedvik in the kicking game, the Herd could have a special season in 2018.
A 1-5 finish ended coach Mike Sanford’s honeymoon, but reaching bowl eligibility for the eighth straight year with an unproven roster would make for a positive 2018. The Hilltoppers have young talent thanks to strong 2017 and ’18 recruiting classes that focused on talent-rich Georgia. The more those players see the field this season, the more experience they’ll gain for what Sanford hopes is a return to the top of C-USA.
Getting to bowl eligibility won’t be an easy feat with non-conference games against SEC foes Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky, and only five home games overall. Plus, two of MTSU’s toughest C-USA games lead off its league schedule in a visit from Florida Atlantic and a trip to Marshall.
If the Blue Raiders can survive the first half of the schedule, they should collect wins in the back half. But again, keeping the younger quarterback Brent Stockstill upright is paramount. MTSU is possibly a conference title contender with its senior QB behind center, but it likely posts a losing record without him.
With plenty of starters back and wins in three of their final four games last season, there’s reason to believe that the Monarchs can make another jump forward.
“We feel like we can do that, with a lot of veteran players and the amount of guys back,” coach Bobby Wilder says. “There’s going to be a lot of competition all across the board. When you come off of a season where you don’t go to a bowl game, every spot is up for grabs.”
Brad Lambert has been the only coach the 49ers have known, and with some encouraging seasons early in the program’s history, he has built some equity. But with a new athletics director taking the reins this year, it’ll be important to show serious improvement in order to avoid more changes.
Early non-conference games should yield at least two wins, helping to put another bowl bid in reach. Plus, conference home games against Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and Florida Atlantic offer the opportunity to make another run in the West.
Expectations will be high this year, due in part to the return of Bryant Vincent as the offensive coordinator and a defense that should remain stout despite the loss of some key personnel. This team should be a factor in the C-USA West title chase.
The influx of new starters and ongoing uncertainty behind center make the 2018 forecast even hazier. Settling on a reliable week-in, week-out starter will be the top priority; if QBs Kwadra Griggs, Jack Abraham, or one of the younger players emerges as that guy, filling the vacancies around him should be par for the course. If not, the absence of an all-purpose workhorse on the level of Ito Smith will likely loom very large.
The lineup boasts as much top-to-bottom experience as any in Conference USA. This may not be Skip Holtz’s most talented outfit, and the conference schedule doesn’t do it any favors. But in a wide-open C-USA West race, the Bulldogs have the pieces in place to return to the top.
UTSA will again hang its hat on defense. The Roadrunners may feel like they let an opportunity get away last season when a veteran group dropped four games by seven points or fewer en route to a 6-5 record. This year, three Power 5 opponents greet a rebuilding UTSA squad to open the year, so a slow start may be in the cards. However, the talent is there, especially on defense, for this team to be a factor in the C-USA race. By the end of the season, if a quarterback emerges, the Roadrunners could be dangerous.
With a game at Hawaii, the Owls will play a 13-game schedule that includes eight bowl teams from 2017, including games against Houston, Wake Forest and LSU. Don’t expect head coach Mike Bloomgren to be a miracle worker as he builds the program for the long haul.
Things can only get better, both for a new-look offense that will put a premium on creativity, and for the final record, where any wins would represent infinite progress. Wins figure to be hard to come by, but a step forward shouldn’t be, as UTEP begins a massive rebuild.