Conference USA Football 2017 Predictions

Complete preview for the C-USA in 2017.

Change is nothing new to Conference USA, but a familiar trio of teams top the list of contenders for this league in 2017. 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. In the West, Louisiana Tech is the favorite once again. The Bulldogs have some key voids to fill, but coach Skip Holtz should keep this team at the top of the West. FAU, UTSA and North Texas headline the sleeper teams to watch this fall, while UAB returns to the gridiron after a two-year hiatus.

 

Here are five key storylines or discussions that shaped Athlon’s Conference USA predictions for 2017:

 

1. Louisiana Tech the Clear Favorite in the West Division

Louisiana Tech has claimed two out of the last three C-USA West Division titles, and coach Skip Holtz’s team is a heavy favorite to earn its third in four years this fall. The Bulldogs averaged 44.3 points per game last season, and despite losing quarterback Ryan Higgins and receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, this unit may not miss much of a beat. New quarterback J’Mar Smith is a rising star, and the receiving corps should quickly reload behind Tulane transfer Teddy Veal, sophomore Alfred Smith and junior Kam McKnight. The Bulldogs also have one of the league’s top running back tandems with Jarred Craft and Boston Scott handling the work on the ground. The defense suffered key losses in the back seven, but the line is arguably the best in Conference USA. Junior Jaylon Ferguson returns to anchor the line and pass rush after recording 14.5 sacks last fall. Louisiana Tech has to play WKU in the regular season at Bowling Green, but Holtz’s team catches Southern Miss and UTSA in Ruston. The Bulldogs are a heavy favorite and easy pick at the top of the West for 2017.

 

2. WKU vs. MTSU for No. 1 in the East Division

While Louisiana Tech is the clear favorite in the West Division, the outlook is a little clouded at the top of the East. WKU has claimed back-to-back East titles and is Athlon’s pick to win the division once again. But the Hilltoppers might be more vulnerable than they were last season, especially with coach Jeff Brohm off to Purdue and the departure of five first-team All-Conference USA selections. New coach Mike Sanford is one of the offseason’s top hires, and the cupboard is far from bare. Needless to say, WKU isn’t going anywhere in 2017. Quarterback Mike White returns to lead a dynamic offense, three starters provide a solid foundation up front, and sophomore Lucky Jackson looks like the next standout receiver in Bowling Green. WKU’s defense suffered key losses at each level, but new coordinator Clayton White can build around a secondary ranked as the best in Conference USA by Athlon Sports. MTSU is a close second behind the Hilltoppers in the East Division, with the dynamic connection of quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James providing enough firepower to push for the conference title. But Stockstill will be throwing behind an offensive line with three new starters, and running back I’Tavius Mathers departed after a standout 2016 campaign. The Blue Raiders made one of the conference’s top coordinator hires with former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer taking over the defensive calls. However, similar to the offense, MTSU has some work to do in rebuilding the defensive line. The difference between WKU and MTSU for the top spot could come down to the Nov. 17 game – in Bowling Green.

 

It’s also worth noting in the discussion for the top spot in Conference USA’s East Division, Old Dominion tied for the East title (but lost the tiebreaker in head-to-head play) with WKU. The Monarchs should be solid once again but are unlikely to finish 7-1 in league play, as coach Bobby Wilder’s team must find a new quarterback and three starters at linebacker.

 

3. Southern Miss or UTSA?

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Deciding on the No. 2 team in the West Division was one of the toughest picks of Athlon’s Conference USA meeting. UTSA took a step forward under coach Frank Wilson last season and finished 6-7 with a trip to the program’s first bowl game. The Roadrunners are recruiting well, so the future outlook for this team is bright under Wilson’s direction. For 2017, UTSA returns 13 starters, including one of the league’s top defenders in sophomore linebacker Josiah Tauaefa and quarterback Dalton Sturm. The offense needs to throw the ball with more consistency and develop better play from the line. But the pieces are in place on the skill positions and on defense to finish second in the West. Southern Miss also has a second-year coach (Jay Hopson) leading the way, and the Golden Eagles will be looking for more week-to-week consistency after recording a minus-17 turnover margin and three losses by 11 points or less. Replacing standout quarterback Nick Mullens is the top priority for Hopson this offseason. Will former junior college recruit Kwadra Griggs or sophomore Keon Howard claim the starting job? Regardless of which quarterback starts, the Golden Eagles return two of C-USA’s top skill players in running back Ito Smith and receiver Allenzae Staggers. But similar to Southern Miss, this team has concerns up front and is replacing a handful of starters in the front seven on defense. This year’s matchup between Southern Miss and UTSA takes place in San Antonio – and could be the tiebreaker in what is likely to be a tight battle for No. 2 in the West.

 

Related: Conference USA Football 2017 All-Conference Team

 

4. Intrigue at Marshall, FAU and FIU

The top three teams in the East – WKU, MTSU and Old Dominion – are a cut above the rest of the division. But after No. 3 is where the intrigue starts. Marshall – a team that finished 10-3 in 2015 – slumped to 3-9 last fall. Can the Thundering Herd get back on track in 2017? In order for coach Doc Holliday’s team to get back to a bowl, both sides of the ball have significant personnel concerns to address. Marshall’s offensive line features three new starters, there’s uncertainty at receiver, and the defense has to play better after giving up 35.3 points per game last fall. The Lane Kiffin era begins at FAU with a chance to surprise in the East Division. The Owls will lean heavily on running back Devin Singletary, and former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson should be a good fit for Kiffin’s offense. The defense gave up 39.8 points per game last fall and has to improve for FAU to challenge for a bowl. That task won’t be easy with defensive end Try Hendrickson expiring his eligibility after 2016. About 60 miles south of FAU, Butch Davis makes his return to the sidelines at FIU. Similar to FAU, the Panthers have potential to surprise in this division. Seniors Alex McGough (QB) and Alex Gardner (RB) lead the way on offense, while nine starters return from a defense that surrendered 34.8 points per game last fall. The linebacker unit – led by Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint – could be one of the best in the conference. One key scheduling note in predicting this trio: FIU plays at Marshall and FAU and gets UTSA in crossover play.

 

5. What to Expect from UAB?

After a two-year hiatus, UAB returns to the gridiron in 2017. Rebuilding the program from scratch isn’t going to be easy, but the Blazers are in better shape this time around with improved facilities and the potential of a long-term stadium solution. And of course, it doesn’t hurt UAB’s cause to have one of Conference USA’s top coaches leading the way. Bill Clark guided the Blazers to a 6-6 mark in 2014 and previously went 11-4 at Jacksonville State to 2013. Clark and his staff have pieced together a couple of solid recruiting classes to rebuild the talent level, but this team faces an uphill battle in its return to the gridiron. Senior linebacker Shaq Jones is a proven defensive leader for Clark, while the offense features former MTSU quarterback A.J. Erdely. FBS transfers Kalin Heath and Jonathan Haden should team with James Noble and Donnie Lee to form a capable group of running backs. With so many new faces on both sides of the ball starting for the first time at the FBS level, a transition year should be expected for UAB. However, don’t be surprised if the Blazers find a way to surprise and steal a couple of wins in league play.

 

Conference USA 2017 Unit Rankings

Best RB

Units

Best WR

Units

Best OL

Units

Best DL
Units

Best LB

Units

Best DB

Units

1.  1.  1.  1.  1.  1. 
2.  2.  2.  2.  2.  2. 
3.  3.  3.  3.  3.  3. 
4.  4.  4.  4.  4.  4. 
5.  5. 5.  5.  5.  5. 

 

 

Conference USA 2017 Football Predictions

         
East Division
Rank Team   Projected C-USA Record Projected Overall Record
1 WKU 6-2 9-4
2 MTSU 6-2 7-5
3 Old Dominion 5-3 7-5
4 FAU 4-4 6-6
5 Marshall 4-4 5-7
6 FIU 4-4 5-7
7 Charlotte 1-7 3-9
         
West Division
Rank Team   Projected C-USA Record Projected Overall Record
1 Louisiana Tech 6-2 9-4
2 Southern Miss 5-3 7-5
3 UTSA 5-3 7-5
4 North Texas 3-5 5-7
5 Rice 3-5 3-9
6 UTEP 3-5 3-9
7 UAB 1-7 3-9
         
Conference USA Championship Game
 Louisiana Tech over WKU 

 

 

Conference USA 2017 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven

Lassan

Mitch

Light

Mark

Ross

  @AthlonSteven @AthlonMitch @AthlonMarkR
Offensive POY

Brent Stockstill

QB, MTSU

Richie James

WR, MTSU

Brent Stockstill

QB, MTSU

Defensive POY

Jaylon Ferguson

DL, La. Tech

Jaylon Ferguson

DL, La. Tech

Jaylon Ferguson

DL, La. Tech

Coach of the Year

Skip Holtz

La. Tech

Mike Sanford

WKU

Mike Sanford

WKU

Coach on Hot Seat

Sean Kugler

UTEP

Sean Kugler

UTEP

Sean Kugler

UTEP

Top Freshman

Adrian Hardy

WR, La. Tech

Josh Fields

RB, UTEP

Thomas Johnston

LB, UAB

Top Newcomer

De'Andre Johnson

QB, FAU

De'Andre Johnson

QB, FAU

De'Andre Johnson

QB, FAU

Sleeper Team FAU FAU FIU

Key Position

to Watch

MTSU OL La. Tech WRs WKU WRs
Best Coordinator Hire

Scott Shafer

DC, MTSU

Scott Shafer 

DC, MTSU

David Reeves

DC, UAB

Hardest Team

to Evaluate

Marshall Marshall UAB
Coach on the Rise

Mike Sanford

HC, WKU

Frank Wilson

HC, UTSA

Bill Clark

HC, UAB

Must-See Game

MTSU at 

WKU

Louisiana Tech at

WKU

MTSU at

WKU

Breakout Player

J'Mar Smith

QB, La. Tech

J'Mar Smith

QB, La. Tech

Jarred Craft

RB, La. Tech

Comeback Player

Reggie Bain

OL, FAU

D'Andre Ferby

RB, WKU

D'Andre Ferby

RB, WKU

Event Date: 
Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 16:30

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