Conference USA has largely devolved into Sun Belt 2.0, with five of its 12 members formerly hailing from that league and another two having participated as non-football members of the Sun Belt. It has watched as most of its best members have been poached away by the AAC, restocking through the Sun Belt and directly from the FCS ranks in a desperate bid to find new diamonds in the rough.
With that caveat in mind, however, there is still plenty to like about the prospects for C-USA at the top end of the realm. To be considered for the Access Bowl, a team need only win its conference. Unlike the Sun Belt, the two-division structure and championship game provides a much clearer path to crowning a definitive conference winner. And in each division there are two clear favorites that are a cut above the rest of the teams with which they are vying for a shot at the league title.
Whether the eventual champion can gain enough respect, however, depends as much on what happens around the rest of the mid-major leagues as on the performance of the C-USA champ itself. Each of the main hopefuls has set up at least one winnable game against Power Five competition, which would certainly bolster the eventual champ’s case for New Year’s Six consideration, but the conference’s overall strength likely precludes an elite bowl invitation without a perfect record — the likelihood of which varies by team.
So let’s dive in and assess the Conference USA pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
7. Charlotte — The newest team to make the transition to FBS member status, the 49ers enter their first year of full eligibility after a provisional year in 2015 where they went 0-8 in C-USA play and lost their last 10 games after beginning I-A life with a pair of victories over Georgia State and FCS Presbyterian. Though the seasoning process has allowed Charlotte to bring back one of the most experienced rosters in all of college football, that is probably still not going to translate into enough wins to reach bowl eligibility with a mediocre-at-best offense and a mid-level defense. The 49ers have to travel to Lousville in the season opener and also play at Temple before the end of September, meaning that 2-2 is probably the best possible record Charlotte will bring into October. There they meet a conference schedule that includes road games at Marshall and Southern Miss, but in which they managed to avoid Western Kentucky. Brad Lambert and his staff will need plenty of luck on their side to get anywhere near the school’s first winning season.
6. FIU — Ron Turner’s fourth season in charge in Miami is probably a hot-seat season. Given the short leash that led to Mario Cristobal’s firing after one sub-.500 season, it is amazing how long the Panthers have stuck with Turner at the helm. FIU returns a deep offense that wasn’t necessarily good last year but which could improve with another year of experience as a unit, and should benefit from the return of linemen Jordan Budwig, Aaron Nielsen, and Dieugot Joseph to a group that now features 92 starts throughout the depth chart. The defense is serviceable if unspectacular, though losing both starting defensive ends and both starting cornerbacks will put more pressure on young players to step up and contribute right away. With non-conference games at home against Indiana, Maryland, and UCF and a road trip to UMass in September, a little luck could have the Panthers entering the fall proper with a 4-0 or 3-1 record. If they lose two or more, FIU will have an uphill battle in toss-up games against fellow C-USA hopefuls.
5. Florida Atlantic — Long gone is the aura of hope that Howard Schnellenberger bestowed on the new program at FAU when he signed on to start things up in Boca Raton in 2001, and Charlie Partridge is increasingly beginning to look just as inept as Carl Pelini did in following up the legendary coach and architect of the program. After a pair of 3-9 seasons, 2016 is probably a now-or-never year for Partridge to show progress with the Owls. A solid batch of returning starters masks the deeper inexperience throughout the full roster, with the defense harder hit by departures and less likely to sustain its above-average performance in 2016. Games against the Miami Hurricanes and at Kansas State early in the season will tighten the stakes up that much more once conference play arrives, but if the Owls can improve on their 1-4 record in games decided by a touchdown or less they will have a chance at getting those last few wins to return to a bloated bowl season.
4. Old Dominion — A 33-31 loss to Florida Atlantic on Thanksgiving weekend prevented Old Dominion from reaching bowl eligibility in its first year as a full FBS member in 2015, but the Monarchs return the bulk of their experience this season as they try again for their first postseason in C-USA. Bobby Wilder has turned ODU into a solid program, first in FCS and then in the transition to FBS, after helping to reboot the program in 2007. While uncertainties at quarterback and the loss of starting left tackle Connor Mewbourne threaten offensive regression, Wilder probably has his best squad yet since moving to the top division. The schedule provides the biggest roadblock to a potential bowl invite, as the Monarchs face Appalachian State and NC State on the road immediately after opening with FCS Hampton. Just like last year, the postseason could come down to needing a win on the final weekend.
3. Middle Tennessee — It has now been a decade since Rick Stockstill led the Blue Raiders to their last conference title in his inaugural season as the head coach in Murfreesboro, and while the team’s first C-USA title is probably out of reach another bowl berth is there for the taking. Stockstill’s sophomore son, Brent, will start at quarterback again after throwing for 4000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a freshman in 2015, and most of his offensive teammates also return for another season. Where the Blue Raiders have their work cut out for them is on defense, where the team returns depth but lost several starters at every level. It is highly unlikely that MTSU will rank in the top five again in red zone defense this year, but steady improvement on offense can likely offset any regression on defense. Vanderbilt and Missouri serve up a pair of possible statement SEC wins — Bowling Green of the MAC is actually the Blue Raiders’ toughest out-of-conference opponent by PRS rankings, and both Marshall and Western Kentucky will be the biggest obstacles on the way to the postseason.
2. Marshall — The Thundering Herd still won 10 games in what was expected to be a rebuilding year in 2015, and while Western Kentucky kept Marshall from a third straight C-USA Championship Game they nevertheless showed promise that bodes well for 2016. While the Herd were nowhere near as explosive offensively as they had been with Rakeem Cato guiding the unit, Chuck Heater’s defense stepped up to the challenge and held eight of Marshall’s 13 opponents under 20 points. Chase Litton should improve in his second year starting at quarterback, though he loses his top two receiving weapons in his sophomore campaign. Nobody recruits better in conference than Doc Holliday and his staff, and as a result Marshall is consistently in the hunt for the league title. This year their Power Five challengers are Louisville at home and at Pittsburgh, both winnable games that would bolster the Herd’s Access Bowl chances. Another run at an undefeated campaign might be too much to ask, but Marshall should be right in the thick of the C-USA race in 2016.
1. Western Kentucky — The defending Conference USA champion lost the biggest piece of its highly potent offense after quarterback Brandon Doughty was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, and now head coach Jeff Brohm will see if he can sustain the momentum without the three-year starter helming the attack. Whoever wins the job will have two 1000-yard senior rushers in Leon Allen (granted a medical redshirt after breaking his leg early last year as a senior) and Anthony Wales, a pair of senior pass catchers who led the team in receiving yards from 2015, and an offensive line tied with USC for the second-most experience in all FBS football. The defense, which was above average en route to 12-2 last season, lost a fair bit of talent in its front seven and will need the usual buffer from the offense. A trip to Alabama is almost certainly one loss on their record, while a visit from Vanderbilt is likely to provide at least one Power Five statement win. This division could yet again come down to the season finale against Marshall, which is played this year in Huntington rather than Bowling Green.
6. North Texas — The Mean Green are now entering their third season since last going bowling, and the nine wins of 2013 seem even further away than that. Head coach Dan McCarney was fired five games into the 2015 season after a 66-7 blowout loss at home to FCS Portland State sent North Texas to 0-5 in a season where they finished 1-11. Into this mess steps Seth Littrell, an assistant head coach at North Carolina the past two seasons and former offensive coordinator at Arizona and Indiana. An acolyte of Mike Leach, Littrell joins a team that stagnated badly last year and which faces a tough schedule in 2016. The Mean Green must play Florida in the Swamp, and they also drew both Marshall and Western Kentucky in cross-division play. Only Louisiana Tech returns less experience to its team, and the cupboards are pretty bare in Denton. Given the run-heavy orientation of the roster it will be interesting to see how much Littrell and his staff manage to reengineer the offense in their first season.
5. UTEP — Two years ago the Miners were bowling in nearby Albuquerque, concluding with the school’s first winning season in a decade despite losing to Utah State. Then last year saw Sean Kugler’s team fall right back to ignominy in its third season under the head coach, and year four stands as a critical point for the school and for Kugler. An anemic offense and a below-average defense return some experience, which will either result in gains or more of the same, and the one thing really working in the Miners’ favor is an easy schedule Out of conference, UTEP is taking on Texas in Austin as its toughest test; beyond that, they take on Sun Belt rival New Mexico State in the Battle of I-10, an Army team that has had one winning season in the past two decades, and a November date against FCS Houston Baptist. Without either of the top two teams from the East on their schedule, UTEP could possibly get the three or four conference wins that would push them over the top to bowl eligibility. More likely is another year of sub-.500 football.
4. UT-San Antonio — Larry Coker drove the Roadrunners about as far as they were going to go under the former Miami coach, with a steady decrease in victories from eight to seven to four to three in the school’s four FBS seasons to date. In comes Frank Wilson, the recruiting coordinator for LSU the past six seasons, hoping to take advantage of a talent-fertile region to rebuild a roster that stagnated upon rising to the top division. The current squad features one of the least-experienced offensive lines in all of college football looking to protect returning quarterback Dalton Sturm (who was sacked on one out of six passing attempts in 2015), and need to figure out their defensive backfield after the loss of both starting cornerbacks. A home date with Arizona State at the beginning of the year and a late date at Texas A&M provide Power Five tests, but more important for UTSA is the lack of Marshall or Western Kentucky on the conference schedule. A road trip to Colorado State in the second week will provide a good litmus test for the Roadrunners’ hopes in 2016.
3. Rice — The Owls took a step back in 2015 after three straight bowl appearances, finishing 5-7 after losing four of their last five games to miss out on the postseason. Now, with quarterback Driphus Jackson graduated and Rice returning one of the least-experienced rosters in Conference USA, the question marks become even bigger for David Bailiff. The offense effectively carried Rice last year, as the Owls ranked dead last in the league and fifth-worst in the country in Defense PRS. That offense will lean even more heavily on its running game by committee now that Jackson is gone and the offensive line depth has thinned. Baylor and Stanford, along with road games against division rivals Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech and cross-division opponent Western Kentucky, make Rice’s road one of the hardest in C-USA to navigate on the quest for bowl eligibility. Bailiff’s crew will need more than a little luck just to become bowl-eligible, much less to contend for the West.
2. Louisiana Tech — If there is one thing that Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz knows how to do, it is win in Conference USA. In six years at East Carolina his teams finished 28-12 in conference play, and he has steered the Bulldogs to a 16-8 league record in his first three seasons in Ruston. Tech is faced with the lowest level of returning experience in the conference, though, and nowhere is that more evident that an offensive backfield where Florida transfer Jeff Driskel is no longer there to provide 4000 yards a season and 1000-yard rusher Kenneth Dixon has also moved on. The offensive line has decent experience to protect whoever takes over, at least. The offense is definitely in better shape than a defense that loses eight starters from 2015 and must contend with Arkansas and Texas Tech on the road in two of its first three tests. Remaining in the hunt all the way through to the regular-season finale against the Golden Eagles is hardly guaranteed for a team with many question marks throughout its two-deep.
1. Southern Miss — Entering 2015, Southern Miss was a squad with a tough schedule, a mediocre-at-best offense and defense, and seemed more likely to battle with UTEP to stay out of the West cellar than to end up winning the whole division. Todd Monken parlayed the surprise conference title game appearance into an offensive coordinator position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leaving the door open for Jay Hopson to take over in Hattiesburg. Hopson, who led FCS Alcorn State to two straight SWAC championships, inherits the most experienced roster in the division and the league’s best returning quarterback in Nick Mullens. Even better for Southern Miss is that the schedule lines up much more favorably for the Golden Eagles to do it all over again in 2016. Kentucky provides a winnable Power Five challenge, they get Marshall at home, and will not see Western Kentucky unless they meet in the championship game. Other than a visit to Baton Rouge to take on LSU, no game on the schedule looks out of reach for USM.