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.

Florida Atlantic

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.

FIU

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

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.

Western Kentucky

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.

Middle Tennessee

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.

Old Dominion

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.”

Charlotte

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.

North Texas

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.

UAB

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.

Southern Miss

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.

Louisiana Tech

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

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.

Rice

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.

UTEP

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.

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Posted in CFB

NCAA Football 2017 Season

C-USA East Division Preview

WKU has claimed back-to-back Conference USA titles and is a slight favorite over MTSU to win the East Division this fall. The Hilltoppers have a new coach in former Notre Dame assistant Mike Sanford, but this program shouldn’t miss a beat behind a dynamic offense. FAU is the wild card, and they should be worth a watch with the Kiffin family running the show there. The new season of fantasy college football kicks off Saturday August 26 at FanPicks

WKU Hilltoppers

WKU made three straight solid coaching hires in Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm, all of whom are now coaching at Power 5 programs. After Brohm left for Purdue, athletic director Todd Stewart turned to Mike Sanford, who spent the last two years as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. He’s just 35 years old, but the coaches he’s worked under or played for include Chris Petersen, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. The son of longtime college coach Mike Sanford Sr., the younger Sanford has been groomed his whole life for the chance to lead his own program.

The key returnee for Sanford is quarterback Mike White, who piloted WKU to an FBS-best 45.5 points per game and 7.7 yards per play last season. Program stalwarts Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor are gone, but there’s enough of a foundation that Sanford doesn’t have to completely rebuild. The two-time defending Conference USA champion Hilltoppers won’t give up their league crown without a fight.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Head coach Rick Stockstill’s track record says that Middle Tennessee will be explosive on offense, especially as long as his son Brent is behind center taking snaps. Just that should lead the team to a bowl bid. The Blue Raiders have been bowl-eligible in seven of the past eight seasons. Reaching beyond that will be a tougher task. Middle Tennessee has never earned an outright league championship in the school’s FBS era.

The Blue Raiders knocked off Missouri last season, and there are similarly winnable non-conference games early on against Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Minnesota and Bowling Green. A good record in that first month could yield a special season, but a 2–2 split would be a reasonable feat.

There’s little mystery to this team’s deciding factors. They reside on the respective lines. If the Blue Raiders can fill the gaps on the offensive line, Brent Stockstill and company again will attack the record book. And if the inexperienced defensive line can grow up fast, it will support an otherwise strong defense. If neither happens, Middle Tennessee could fall into inconsistency. But either way, the potent offensive weapons should ensure a bowl appearance.

Old Dominion Monarchs

While falling a game shy of a league title, Old Dominion’s 10-win 2016 campaign was undeniably a breakthrough. And with 15 starters back, the Monarchs have every reason to expect that success to continue.

Florida Atlantic Owls

FAU has athletes on offense, and with head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles guiding that side of the ball, the Owls are almost certain to score more points. Under the guidance of Chris and Monte Kiffin, the defense can’t help but improve, right? After the Owls lost four games by less than a touchdown last season, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision FAU as a bowl-eligible team, as long as the new coaches, transfers and returning players mesh quickly.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Marshall is looking to erase the taste of a year in which everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Whether it was on-field execution or off-field chemistry, the Herd had countless issues during the 3–9 campaign. However, there is plenty of new talent coming in, providing reason for optimism. What remains to be seen is how the chemistry holds once adversity hits. If the Herd can solve that issue, a rebound season is in order.

FIU Panthers

On paper, FIU has a solid outlook heading into the 2017 season. Head coach Butch Davis is a proven winner, and the Panthers have one of the nation’s most experienced rosters taking the field. The new staff also landed an outstanding recruiting class in his first two months, which could provide instant depth.

The two areas crucial to immediate success are improvement along the offensive front and more consistency from the punting game. If FIU can improve in those two areas, the team could be in position to go to its first bowl game since the 2011 season.

Charlotte 49ers

Charlotte’s third season in FBS and fifth overall will feel strange since it’s the first without the 19 players who made it through from the program’s initial recruiting class. So not only is the group trying to fill some major holes on the field, but it’s also trying to find its identity off of it.

Last season’s four wins doubled the output from the year before. And with three losses coming by a touchdown or less, that improvement could have been steeper. But this season, Charlotte will likely need to keep its expectations in check. While the 49ers have potential, they’ll also likely need to draw on plenty of patience.

Posted in CFB

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

Conference USA (30-4, 17-1)

 by Joel Welser

Middle Tennessee shocked the college basketball world last season by beating #2 seed Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Raiders lost their next game to Syracuse 75-50, but that did not deter the Cinderella story. Coach Kermit Davis returned much of the talent from that team and this is a group ready for a little more March magic.

Big Wins: 11/25 vs UNC-Wilmington (68-63), 12/8 Vanderbilt (71-48), 12/14 at Belmont (79-66)

Bad Losses: 11/19 Tennessee State (63-74), 12/21 Georgia State (56-64), 2/4 at UTEP (54-57)

Coach: Kermit Davis, Jr.

Why They Can Surprise:

MTSU relies heavily on their big three players. Giddy Potts is again the team’s top shooter. He averages 15.8 points per game and connects on 39.2 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Potts may be a shooter, but he is also extremely tough and will attack the basket effectively and help out on the glass. But most of the rebounding is done by Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams. Upshaw is the dynamic scoring threat who can bang in the paint and step outside and knock down some jumpers. Williams, who leads the team with 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds, is the more traditional post player. He transferred in from Arkansas and has really helped with his experience and interior toughness.

Why They Can Disappoint:

With wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and the domination of Conference USA, the Blue Raiders are in a good position to make things interesting again in the postseason. There are some concerns though. This is not a good rebounding team and there is not much size on the perimeter. Last year Coach Davis had big wings that could help rebound and use their length to cause havoc on defense. That is no longer the case and the defense has suffered because of it.

Probable Starters:

Giddy Potts, Junior, Guard, 15.8 ppg, 1.9 apg

Tyrik Dixon, Freshman, Guard, 5.8 ppg, 3.3 apg

Edward Simpson, Junior, Guard, 3.5 ppg, 2.2 apg

Reggie Upshaw, Senior, Forward, 14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.4 apg

JaCorey Williams, Senior, Forward, 17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg

Key Role Players:

Brandon Walters, Junior, Forward, 4.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg

Xavier Habersham, Senior, Guard, 5.4 ppg, 1.8 apg

Antwain Johnson, Sophomore, Guard, 4.4 ppg

By the Numbers:

Scoring Offense: 74.2 (155th in nation, 5th in conference)

Scoring Defense: 63.1 (20, 2)

Field-Goal Percentage: 48.7 (15, 1)

Field-Goal Defense: 42.1 (85, 3)

Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 6.3 (272, 8)

Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 36.4 (114, 5)

Free-Throw Percentage: 69.7 (188, 9)

Rebound Margin: 5.4 (37, 2)

Assists Per Game: 15.1 (74, 4)

Turnovers Per Game: 10.5 (17, 1)

Recent Postseason Appearances:

2016    NCAA Round of 64 win over Michigan State

2016    NCAA Round of 32 loss to Syracuse

2015    CIT      First Round loss to Kent State

2013    NCAA Opening Round loss to St. Mary’s

2012    NIT     First Round win over Marshall

2012    NIT     Second Round win over Tennessee

2012    NIT     Quarterfinal loss to Minnesota

2010    CIT      First Round loss to Missouri State

1989    NCAA Round of 64 win over Florida State

1989    NCAA Round of 32 loss to Virginia

1988    NIT     First Round win over Tennessee

1988    NIT     Second Round win over Georgia

1988    NIT     Quarterfinal loss to Boston College

1987    NCAA Round of 64 loss to Notre Dame

*all team stats through 3/5

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Posted in CBB

Hawaii Bowl Preview

Hawaii Rainbow Warriors vs Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

The Hawaii Bowl is the only college game on December 24, so this is your best excuse if you need a trip away from the in-laws on Christmas Eve (Enter Contest). Under the direction of first-year coach Nick Rolovich, Hawaii is back in the postseason for the first time since 2010. A former Hawaii quarterback, Rolovich helped the Rainbow Warriors earn a three-game improvement in the win column this season. Hawaii’s offense won’t bring back memories of the June Jones era just yet, but this group improved its per-game average by nearly 10 points.

The Rainbow Warriors will have their hands full on defense against MTSU’s high-powered attack. Of course, there’s an asterisk by the Blue Raiders’ offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill suffered a collarbone injury in early November and missed the rest of the 2016 campaign. Stockstill’s status for this game is uncertain. If Stockstill can’t go, freshman John Urzua will start, with the MTSU offense leaning heavily on running back I’Tavius Mathers (2,093 total yards) and receiver Richie James (160.8 total yards per game). In terms of bowl selections, MTSU has the market cornered on the best destinations over the last two seasons. After playing in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015, the Blue Raiders are headed to Honolulu this year.

ABOUT MIDDLE TENNESSEE (8-4, 5-3 Conference USA)

The Blue Raiders capped a highly successful regular season in style. They’ve set school records in points, offensive yards and touchdowns in a 77-56 slugfest with the Owls. It was a fitting end to the season for a Middle Tennessee team that broke season-long marks with 6,188 total offensive yards, 481 total points and 61 offensive touchdowns. It’s the 10th bowl game in school history, and the Blue Raiders come in with a 3-6 bowl record all-time.

The Blue Raiders appeared to be in peril after star quarterback Brent Stockstill was lost for the season to a broken collarbone in early November. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Middle Tennessee offense plastered the scoreboard for 115 points in the final two games of the season. While the Blue Raiders did the majority of their damage through the air with Stockstill at the helm, they were ruthless on the ground against Florida Atlantic. They’ve rushed for 495 yards and nine scores. Running backs  I’Tavius Mathers, Richie James and Dennis Andrews scored three touchdown each. Mathers was the pulse of the running game during the season. He racked up 1,504 yards and 16 touchdowns on 220 carries.

ABOUT HAWAII (6-7, 4-4 Mountain West)

The Rainbow Warriors weren’t assured a bowl berth following their 46-40 victory over the Minutemen, but earned an exemption because not enough teams wound up bowl-eligible. Hawaii is 3-3 all-time in Hawaii Bowl contests. This will be its first appearance as a member of the Mountain West Conference, which placed seven teams in bowl games this season. This is the first six-win season since 2011 for the Rainbow Warriors, who went 11-39 the previous four seasons.

The Rainbow Warriors will need to lean heavily on sophomore quarterback Dru Brown. He threw for more than 2,200 yards and 15 touchdowns while adding 283 yards and three scores on the ground. Hawaii’s three-headed rushing tandem of Diocemy Saint Juste (836 yards, three TDs), Paul Harris (537 yards, two TDs) and Steven Lakalaka (415 yards, 12 TDs) will hope to help take the pressure off Brown, who bolstered his final numbers with a five-touchdown effort against UMass. The Rainbow Warriors do have a difference-maker on the defensive side in linebacker Jahlani Tavai. He was awarded All-Mountain West honors after posting a team-leading 118 tackles and seven sacks.

Posted in CFB