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Conference USA Football 2021 Predictions

Sincere McCormick, UTSA Roadrunners Football

Sincere McCormick, UTSA Roadrunners Football

Conference USA’s 2021 college football season features many unknowns, but it's no secret the balance of power for predictions resides in the West Division. UAB is Athlon’s pick to win the West and claim the conference title for the second year in a row, but UTSA is inching closer under second-year coach Jeff Traylor. The East features a wide-open battle between Marshall, FAU and WKU. New coach Charles Huff should keep the Thundering Herd on track this fall. However, the Owls and Hilltoppers have the pieces to make a run at the top.

Louisiana Tech headlines the next tier of teams after UAB and UTSA in the West Division. The Bulldogs are followed by a tight battle between Rice, Southern Miss and North Texas for the next three spots. UTEP is improving but still projects seventh in the West. Charlotte should push for a bowl spot and could threaten the top three in the East with improvement on defense. Middle Tennessee, FIU and Old Dominion round out the pecking order in the East.

Athlon Sports has released its preseason magazine for 2021, and now it's time to preview and predict the conferences. Below are Athlon's picks and projections for Conference USA in '21:

Conference USA Football 2021 Predictions

East Division

1. Marshall

New coach Charles Huff steps into a good situation for 2021. Marshall finished 7-3 and earned a trip to the C-USA title game last fall and returns the best collection of talent in the East this season.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The quarterback position is unsettled across Conference USA this year, but there’s a good chance Marshall has the best one in Grant Wells. The West Virginia native had a strong debut last season but needs to rebound after an uneven close to 2020. Wells returns three out of his top five receivers, while three starters are back along the offensive line.

Concern: Can Wells rebound after a disappointing close to the 2020 season? Standout guard Cain Madden transferred to Notre Dame this summer, leaving a significant void on the right side of the offensive line. Leading rusher Brenden Knox (887 yards in 2020) also must be replaced.

Incoming Transfers: OL Steven Faucheux; OL TyQaze Leggs; WR Jayden Harrison; OL Billy Ross

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Marshall paced Conference USA by limiting teams to 13 points a game and just 4.4 yards per snap. New coordinator Lance Guidry won’t have linebacker Tavante Beckett or end Darius Hodge, but eight returning starters provide a strong foundation.

Concern: Beckett and Hodge were two of Conference USA’s top defenders last season. Their production and presence aren’t going to be easy to replace. Is there any drop-off due to the shift in coaching staff or scheme tweaks?

Incoming Transfers: DL Shane Simmons; CB LeAnthony Williams; DL Charles Moore; DB Cory McCoy

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Florida Atlantic

The Owls finished 5-4 in coach Willie Taggart’s debut in Boca Raton last year. With the bulk of the two-deep on both sides of the ball returning for 2021, FAU should push Marshall for the C-USA East crown.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: This unit wasn’t overly productive last season, but Taggart addressed the biggest need on offense by dipping into the transfer portal for quarterbacks N’Kosi Perry and Michael Johnson Jr. Better quarterback play should help this unit overall, especially with a deep stable of backs and a solid offensive line already in place. The Owls also don’t lack for talent at receiver.

Concern: FAU averaged only 18.9 points a game and 4.9 yards per play last season. Finding an answer at quarterback is a must for Taggart to help this offense take a big step forward on the stat sheet this fall.

Incoming Transfers: QB N’Kosi Perry; RB Johnny Ford; WR BJ Alexander; OL Andrew Boselli; OL Kamaar Bell; QB Michael Johnson Jr.

Previewing the Defense

Strength: FAU finished second in Conference USA in scoring defense (17.4 ppg) and fourth in yards per play allowed (5.1). New coordinator Mike Stoops won’t lack for experience or depth at all three levels, so improving on those totals (or maintaining) is within reach. The linebacker unit could get even deeper and better if Akileis Leroy returns after missing 2020.

Concern: FAU doesn’t have a ton of concerns on this side of the ball. A new coordinator always creates some transition or uncertainty, so Stoops has big shoes to fill in replacing Jim Leavitt. The only departure from the starting lineup was a big one in Leighton McCarthy (eight sacks).

Incoming Transfers: DB D’Marcus Adams; DL Malcolm Lamar

3. WKU

The Hilltoppers were one of college football’s most active programs in the transfer portal this offseason. If all of the talent falls into place right away, WKU can challenge Marshall and FAU for the C-USA East title.  

Previewing the Offense

Strength: An infusion of transfers and the arrival of new play-caller Zach Kittley provides a spark for an offense that averaged only 19 points a game and 4.6 yards per snap in 2020. Houston Baptist transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe posted huge numbers at the FCS level under Kittley and a couple of receivers followed him to Bowling Green. Also, the arrival of Boe Wilson and Cameron Stage should stabilize a line that lost three starters.

Concern: Blending the new system and transfers won’t be an easy task for Kittley. Can he get this offense up and running before conference play begins? The line allowed 28 sacks last year, so there’s room to improve in the trenches.

Incoming Transfers: WR Ben Ratzlaff; OL Cameron Stage; WR Daewood Davis; TE Dane Saltarelli; TE Zac Lefebvre; OL Boe Wilson; WR Josh Sterns; WR Jerreth Sterns; RB Adam Cofield; WR Kyle McNamara; QB Bailey Zappe; WR Kendall Abdur-Rahman

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New coordinator Maurice Crum inherits one of the top defensive lines in C-USA. End DeAngelo Malone is capable of wreaking havoc off the edge, while Juwuan Jones and Jeremy Darvin join the senior as returning starters on a defense that limited teams to 25.3 points a game in 2020. Antwon Kincade is one of the top returning defensive backs in Conference USA and anchors a secondary that finished third in pass efficiency defense last fall.

Concern: The transition from Clayton White to Crum as coordinator should be seamless, but any change among the coaching staff adds some uncertainty. The linebacker unit and secondary units need to be revamped. The defense has to get better versus the run after finishing seventh in the conference last year.

Incoming Transfers: LB Niko Cooper; DL Michael Allen; CB Davion Williams; DE Michael Pitts; CB Tre Shaw; LB Matthew Flint; DL Brodric Martin

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4. Charlotte

Similar to other C-USA programs, Charlotte never seemed to find its rhythm in the abbreviated season. After making a bowl in coach Will Healy’s debut (2019), the 49ers slipped to 2-4 last fall. With a handful of transfers joining an experienced roster, Charlotte should rebound back into postseason contention.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Chris Reynolds should push for all-conference honors, with Texas A&M transfer James Foster adding competition. Led by senior Victor Tucker, the 49ers should have one of the top receiving corps in the conference. Also, four starters are back in the trenches.

Concern: Top running backs Tre Harbison III and Aaron McAllister departed after 2020. Who steps up to handle the workload on the ground? Although the 49ers have four starters back in the trenches, improvement in pass protection is a must after giving up 16 sacks in six games.

Incoming Transfers: QB James Foster; RB Shadrick Byrd; TE Ricky Kofoed; WR Keith Pearson; OL T.J. Moore; OL Chibueze Nwanna

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Healy dipped into the transfer portal to provide instant help on a defense that allowed 32.5 points a game and surrendered 6.6 yards a snap last fall. A healthy season from end Markees Watts is a big deal to a pass rush that registered only five sacks in 2020.

Concern: The defensive line and secondary lost key pieces from last year’s unit. How fast can the defense blend the transfers with the returning pieces to generate improvement? Charlotte has to get tougher versus the run after allowing 214 yards a game last fall.

Incoming Transfers: LB Justin Whisenhunt; DL Kofi Wardlow; S Davondre Robinson; DL Joshua Bailey; S Jon Alexander; DL Mikel Horton; LB Derek Boykins; DB Geovonte Howard

5. Middle Tennessee

After four consecutive years with bowl appearances and winning records (2015-18), coach Rick Stockstill’s team is only 7-14 over the last two seasons. The Blue Raiders need to show progress in ’21 for Stockstill to avoid hot seat talk.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: NC State transfer Bailey Hockman should provide stability and a solid option under center. Most of the skill talent at running back and receiver is set to return for new coordinator Brent Dearmon this fall.

Concern: Big improvement is needed on this side of the ball. The Blue Raiders averaged only 5.2 yards per play and 22.9 points a game last season. Additionally, the ground game was sluggish (3.8 per play), and the line gave up 23 sacks in nine contests.

Incoming Transfers: QB Bailey Hockman; OL Jamari Williams; OL Netori Johnson; WR Ja’Shawn Sheffield; WR Izaiah Gathings

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The news isn’t all bad for Middle Tennessee after giving up 6.1 yards per play and 35.4 points a game in 2020. Coordinator Scott Shafer brings back 10 starters and plenty of experience here, so improvement with a normal offseason seems within reach. The safety pairing of Gregory Grate and Reed Blankenship is one of the best at the Group of 5 level.

Concern: As mentioned above, last year’s numbers and overall performance – even with a ton of experience back – are a major concern going into 2021. Additionally, the Blue Raiders struggled mightily on third downs, gave up too many big plays, and had issues stopping the run (221.9 ypg allowed).

Incoming Transfers: DB Tra Fluellen