Complete preview and predictions for Conference USA in 2020
The 2020 season for Conference USA is headlined by uncertainty in the East Division and a clear front-runner in the West. UAB is Athlon’s projected champion in the 2020 Conference USA predictions, with coach Bill Clark’s squad anchored by a strong defense and an offense poised to improve with a healthy fall out of quarterback Tyler Johnston III and running back Spencer Brown. The East is one of the more difficult divisions to predict in college football. WKU is Athlon’s pick to win it, but Marshall, FAU and Charlotte should all be in the mix.
Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech headline the next tier in the West Division, followed by Rice and North Texas as potential bowl teams. UTSA and UTEP round out the bottom of the West. Middle Tennessee and FIU should push for postseason trips out of the East, but Old Dominion is likely a year away from contention.
Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2020, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for Conference USA in 2020:
Conference USA 2020 Predictions
Tyson Helton’s debut at WKU got off to a rocky start with a loss to FCS member Central Arkansas, but the program rebounded in a big way. The Hilltoppers finished last season with a 9-4 mark, with both of its losses in C-USA play coming to the two teams that finished ahead in the standings – Marshall and FAU. Also, WKU crushed Arkansas 45-19 in Fayetteville. There’s no clear front-runner in the East for 2020, but Athlon gives a slight edge to WKU. The Hilltoppers are powered by one of the top Group of 5 defenses, holding teams to just 20.1 points a game last fall. This unit is led by standout DeAngelo Malone (11.5 sacks), with the linebacker and secondary units ranking near the top of the conference. Helton’s background on offense suggests this unit should take a step forward after averaging only 25.4 points a game last fall. Maryland transfer Tyrrell Pigrome could be the answer under center, with Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas also in the mix. WKU has the top-rated offensive line in the conference by Athlon Sports, with 1,000-yard rusher Gaej Walker back at running back and Jahcour Pearson, Jacquez Sloan and tight end Joshua Simon rounding out a key group of weapons in the passing game. The Hilltoppers play at UAB in crossover play, but Marshall visits Bowling Green on Oct. 10.
The Thundering Herd was the only team to beat C-USA champ FAU in league play last season, but a late defeat to Charlotte prevented a trip to the conference title game. Coach Doc Holliday’s team needs more out of its offense (25.8 ppg in 2019) to win the East this fall. That task got a little tougher in July after quarterback Isaiah Green entered the transfer portal. With Green departing the program, redshirt freshman Grant Wells is the frontrunner to start under center. With an inexperienced quarterback taking over, the offense will have to lean even more on four starters back along the offensive line, and reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Brenden Knox (1,387 rushing yards) leading the way on the ground. Marshall’s defense returns only four starters from a group that held teams to 25 points a game last fall, but there’s plenty of talent present to ensure a quick rebuild. Linebacker Tavante Beckett is a first-team All-C-USA selection by Athlon Sports, and end Darius Hodge (seven sacks) will create plenty of havoc off the edge. Matchups against Pitt and Boise State dot the non-conference schedule, but FAU and Charlotte both come to Huntington this fall.
The Owls have won two out of the last three C-USA titles, and another conference championship is within reach under new coach Willie Taggart. However, the lack of offseason practice for a team returning just nine starters under a new staff creates some obstacles. The offense was expected to be dynamic with quarterback Chris Robison at the helm. Last year, he averaged 260.1 total yards a game and 30 overall scores and led the offense to an average of 36.4 points a contest. However, Robison was off the roster in the fall, leaving Nick Tronti as the projected starting quarterback. The backfield one of the deepest in Conference USA, but question marks remain up front, and the receiving corps needs a quick transition from a handful of transfers to help the offense maintain its 2019 form. New coordinator Jim Leavitt plans to make a timely shift on defense to more of a 3-4 approach. FAU doesn’t have much in the way of proven talent up front, but edge rusher Leighton McCarthy is a good place to start the rebuilding effort, and linebacker Keke Leroy can be an impact defender provided he returns to the team after missing from the roster in the spring. The secondary also has to identify two new starters at cornerback. A road trip to Marshall won't be easy, but the Owls host both WKU and Charlotte.
Charlotte is a program on the rise with Will Healy at the helm. The 49ers earned their first winning season and bowl appearance last fall and should be poised to match both of those marks in 2020. An offense that averaged 6.3 yards a snap and 29.8 points a game leads the way and is guided by one of the top quarterbacks in the conference (Chris Reynolds) and a talented group of receivers featuring Victor Tucker (52 receptions for 909 yards in 2019). Replacing back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Benny LeMay will be tough, but Aaron McAllister and Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison should be an effective one-two punch. Healy’s biggest concern on offense rests with a rebuilt line and how the group transitions to a new play-caller (Mark Carney). Charlotte’s defense finished 11th in Conference USA last fall, surrendering 32.4 points a contest. The departure of linebacker Jeff Gemmell and edge rusher Alex Highsmith adds to the challenge of improvement. The return of safety Ben DeLuca from a season-ending injury boosts the secondary and six other starters are back for 2020. The 49ers have manageable crossover matchups – UTEP and at North Texas – but have road trips on tap for key East battles against Marshall and FAU.
5. Middle Tennessee*
Last year’s 4-8 record marked the first time Middle Tennessee posted a losing season since 2011. However, the Blue Raiders have been a steady bowl team since joining C-USA in 2013, so the odds are high for a rebound in ’20. For Stockstill’s team to return to the postseason, the offense must lean heavily on quarterback Asher O’Hara. The junior led C-USA in total offense (306.2 ypg) and accounted for 29 overall scores. A couple of transfers in Martell Pettaway (West Virginia) and Amir Rasul (Florida State) provide some extra punch to the ground game, with experienced options like Jarrin Pierce, CJ Windham and Jimmy Marshall back at receiver. Middle Tennessee's defense regressed to 10th in the conference in points allowed and struggled to stop the pass (65.3 completion percentage allowed to opposing quarterbacks) last season. With only three starters returning, this unit will be in transition mode to start 2020. The return of safety Reed Blankenship after missing a chunk of ’19 due to injury is a boost to the secondary. The path to bowl eligibility is aided by a crossover schedule that misses the projected top three teams – UAB, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech – from the West Division.
Butch Davis has guided FIU to three consecutive bowl games and another trip to the postseason should be within reach for 2020. Replacing quarterback James Morgan tops the list of offseason priorities, with Kaylan Wiggins, Caleb Lynum, Stone Norton and Maryland graduate transfer Max Bortenschlager set to compete in the fall. D’Vonte Price, Arkansas transfer Maleek Williams, Lexington Joseph and Shaun Peterson should ensure the ground game is solid, and FIU’s receiving corps – featuring Georgia transfer JJ Holloman – ranks among the best in C-USA. Seniors D’Antne Demery (LT) and Shane McGough (center) form a good foundation in the trenches for the new quarterback. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Panthers can lean on a defense that returns six starters and should show improvement after allowing 27.2 points a game. Davis’ group has all-conference picks at each level, while recent transfers in linebacker Tyson Maeva (Boise State), cornerback Josh Turner (Iowa), and end Alexy Jean-Baptiste (Arkansas) should play a bigger role in 2020. FIU’s schedule provides enough toss-ups to get bowl eligible, especially if one quarterback emerges as the clear leader on offense.
7. Old Dominion
Since winning 10 games and earning the program’s only bowl appearance in 2016, the Monarchs have trended in the wrong direction and watched their win total decrease in each of the last three years. New coach Ricky Rahne is a good fit and a promising hire, and the former Penn State coordinator’s offensive background is a timely addition. Old Dominion averaged 16.3 points a game and just 4.1 yards a snap in 2019. Redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff would appear to have the inside track on the starting quarterback spot, but Stone Smartt, Steven Williams, and Messiah deWeaver will push for snaps. The Monarchs return their top three statistical receivers from last season, including Eric Kumah (18 catches in four games) and Aaron Moore (26). Lala Davis (337 yards) is expected to slide into the No. 1 running back role with Kesean Strong departing, while four returning starters hope to guide improvement along a line that allowed 52 sacks in 2019. The outlook is a little better on defense. End Keion White (19 TFL) leads a group that held teams to 29.8 points a game and 5.7 yards a snap. The linebacker unit should be one of the better groups in C-USA, while cornerback Kaleb Ford-Dement ranks as one of the league’s top defensive backs. After winning one game last fall, a good debut for Rahne would be a couple of victories in conference play.
The Blazers have won the West Division in back-to-back years, and coach Bill Clark’s team enters 2020 as a heavy favorite to win the conference. UAB’s defense has ranked near the top of the conference in each of the last three seasons and should be a shutdown group once again. The linebacker unit features a dynamic edge rusher in Jordan Smith (10 sacks) and first-team All-C-USA pick in Kristopher Moll (104 tackles). Garrett Marino’s presence in the trenches will be missed, but the cupboard is far from bare. A secondary that limited teams to a completion percentage of 51.7 brings back four starters from 2019, plus the return of lockdown cornerback Brontae Harris, who missed all of last fall due to injury. The Blazers have room to improve on offense after managing only 23.1 points a game last year. However, injuries to quarterback Tyler Johnston III and running back Spencer Brown played a role in the uni's production. With both back to 100 percent, look for this group to see a jump in production. All five starters are back up front, and the receiving corps features Austin Watkins (1,092 yards) and a couple of other experienced weapons. UAB’s schedule features a road trip to Miami in non-conference play and date at Louisiana Tech. However, both Southern Miss and WKU come to Birmingham. A 10-win regular season is within reach.
2. Southern Miss*
The Golden Eagles have yet to exceed more than eight victories under coach Jay Hopson. Could that change in 2020? With 15 starters back and the addition of a handful of junior college transfers, the door is open for a run at nine (or more) victories. Quarterback Jack Abraham threw for 3,496 yards last fall and connected on 67.9 percent of his throws but also tossed 15 picks. He won’t have go-to target Quez Watkins, but the Golden Eagles have plenty of weapons on the outside with Tim Jones (73 catches) and Jaylond Adams (48). New play-caller Matt Kubik has to get more production out of a ground game that managed only 3.5 yards a carry and ranked 13th in the conference in production. With four starters back up front, along with running backs Kevin Perkins (547 yards), Trivenskey Mosley (back from injury), and freshman Frank Gore Jr., there’s optimism for improvement. Tony Pecoaro returns to Hattiesburg after calling the defensive signals from 2016-17 and has plenty of pieces to work with, including end Jacques Turner (5.5 sacks), linebacker Racheem Boothe and Ky’el Hemby, as well as Rachaun Mitchell in the secondary. The Week 2 matchup versus Louisiana Tech could decide which team emerges as the biggest challenger to UAB. And if the Golden Eagles can win that one, a de facto West Division title game could take place in Birmingham on Nov. 28.
3. Louisiana Tech*
The Bulldogs have been a model of consistency under Skip Holtz. Coming into the 2020 season, this program has recorded six consecutive winning records and earned a bowl trip each year in that span. And even in a rebuilding year, extending the streak of winning seasons to seven should be a lock for 2020. New quarterback Aaron Allen gained valuable experience in a two-game stint as the starter last fall, but Abilene Christian transfer Luke Anthony and redshirt freshman Jakson Thomson are also in the mix. Until the quarterback situation stabilizes, Holtz can lean on running back Justin Henderson (1,062 yards). Last year’s No. 1 receiver Malik Stanley will be missed, but the Bulldogs bring back five others who caught at least 21 passes in 2019. The rebuilding effort is greater on defense. New coordinator David Blackwell inherits just two returning starters from a group that held teams to 21.8 points a game. The good news for Blackwell? There’s experience at all three levels, and a couple of transfers – safety Khalil Ladler and lineman Gerald Wilbon – add instant help. Replacing shutdown cornerback Amik Robertson won’t be easy. Catching UAB and Marshall is a nice break for a team in rebuild mode.
Even though Rice has just five victories over the last two years, Mike Bloomgren has this program trending in the right direction. A tough non-conference slate featuring LSU, Houston and Army won’t provide much room for error to get to a bowl game, but the Owls ended 2019 on a three-game winning streak and appear poised to build on that in ’20. TCU transfer Mike Collins could provide a spark to a passing game that averaged only 166 yards a contest last fall but features one of the conference’s top receiving duos in Brad Rozner (55 catches) and Austin Trammell (60). A healthy Juma Otoviano alleviates concern at running back after the team’s top two rushers from 2019 departed. Three starters off a line that surrendered 34 sacks must be replaced. After giving up 36 points a game in 2018, the Owls held teams to 25.9 last fall. With 10 starters back, there’s optimism that improvement should continue. Linebacker Blaze Alldredge is one of C-USA’s top returning defenders, with Elijah Garcia and De’Braylon Carroll back to anchor the trenches.
5. North Texas
After registering back-to-back nine-win seasons, the Mean Green slipped to 4-8 last fall. Getting back to a bowl will require coach Seth Littrell to find a replacement for record-setting quarterback Mason Fine and improve a defense that allowed 32.5 points a contest in 2019. Sophomores Austin Aune and Jason Bean are slated to battle for the job under center, with the winner inheriting plenty of skill talent, including running back Tre Siggers and receivers Jaelon Darden and Jyaire Shorter. The line was a question mark last season and is unsettled going into the fall with just two returning starters. New defensive coordinator Clint Bowen can aim to improve by leaning on a pair of talented linebackers (Tyreke Davis and KD Davis) and disruptive nose tackle Dion Novil (13 TFL). However, the secondary ranked seventh in pass efficiency defense in Conference USA and features three new starters for 2020. How fast the Mean Green reload up front and settle the quarterback battle will determine how high Littrell’s squad climbs in Conference USA’s West Division.
New coach Jeff Traylor has extensive ties to the state of Texas from his days as a high school head coach and is regarded as an excellent recruiter. However, Traylor is a first-time head coach at the FBS level and did not have coordinator experience during stints as an assistant at Arkansas, SMU and Texas. While there’s a learning curve for Traylor, UTSA is a program with a lot of potential for 2020 and beyond. The new staff has some intriguing options at quarterback, starting with New Mexico State transfer Josh Adkins, former LSU signal-caller Lowell Narcisse, and junior Frank Harris. Regardless of who wins the battle under center, the offense needs to do a better job of generating big plays and has to get the ball in the hands of running back Sincere McCormick (983 yards) this fall. New coordinator Tyrone Nix is shifting UTSA to a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, hoping to improve a group that surrendered 33.9 points a contest, gave up 74 plays of 20 yards or more, and ranked near the bottom of C-USA in rush defense. The strength of the 2020 group is up front thanks to the return of Jaylon Haynes, Lorenzo Dantzler along with edge rushers DeQuarius Henry and Solomon Wise. With some promising weapons on offense and depth at quarterback, improvement on both sides of the ball could lead UTSA to push for a bowl in Traylor’s debut.
Dana Dimel has won just two games in two years at UTEP, and with only seven starters back, 2020 appears to be another rebuilding season in El Paso. The Miners defeated FCS member Houston Baptist by two in last year’s opener but only one loss was decided by one score. In other words, this team has a long way to go in order to avoid the C-USA West cellar. A backfield featuring Quardraiz Wadley, Deion Hankins and Josh Fields represents the team’s biggest strength. However, the line has only two returning starters and a quarterback battle between Gavin Hardison and TJ Goodwin will be settled in fall practice. The Miners have finished last in C-USA in scoring defense in two out of the last three years. Nine of the team’s top 15 tacklers from 2019 are gone, with end Praise Amaewhule, cornerback Josh Caldwell and linebacker Jayson VanHook leading the effort in ’20.
Conference USA Championship
UAB over WKU
*Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
C-USA 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
C-USA 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Brenden Knox, RB, Marshall
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Brenden Knox, RB, Marshall
Pick by Mark Ross: Justin Henderson, RB, Louisiana Tech
Pick by Steven Lassan: DeAngelo Malone, DL, WKU
Pick by Ben Weinrib: DeAngelo Malone, DL, WKU
Pick by Mark Ross: Jordan Smith, LB, UAB
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Bill Clark, UAB
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Bill Clark, UAB
Pick by Mark Ross: Bill Clark, UAB
Coach on the Hot Seat
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dana Dimel, UTEP
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Dana Dimel, UTEP
Pick by Mark Ross: Dana Dimel, UTEP
Pick by Steven Lassan: Hayden Wolff, QB, Old Dominion
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jawaun Johnson, WR, Louisiana Tech
Pick by Mark Ross: Quincy Riley, CB, Middle Tennessee
Pick by Steven Lassan: JJ Holloman, WR, FIU
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jason Brownlee, WR, Southern Miss
Pick by Mark Ross: Tre Harbison, RB, Charlotte
Pick by Steven Lassan: Charlotte
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Charlotte
Pick by Mark Ross: Charlotte
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: WKU QB
Pick by Ben Weinrib: WKU QB
Pick by Mark Ross: WKU QB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jim Leavitt, DC, FAU
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Jim Leavitt, DC, FAU
Pick by Mark Ross: Jim Leavitt, DC, FAU
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: FAU
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Middle Tennessee
Pick by Mark Ross: Old Dominion
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Will Healy, HC, Charlotte
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Will Healy, HC, Charlotte
Pick by Mark Ross: Will Healy, HC, Charlotte
Pick by Steven Lassan: WKU at UAB
Pick by Ben Weinrib: WKU at UAB
Pick by Mark Ross: WKU at UAB
Pick by Steven Lassan: De'Braylon Carroll, DL, Rice
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Von'Darius Freeman, DL, Southern Miss
Pick by Mark Ross: D'Vonte Price, RB, FIU
Pick by Steven Lassan: Brontae Harris, CB, UAB
Pick by Ben Weinrib: Spencer Brown, RB, UAB
Pick by Mark Ross: Brontae Harris, CB, UAB