Conference USA is a league in transition going into the 2022 college football season. With Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss moving to the Sun Belt, C-USA is an 11-team league this fall and will no longer have the East/West Division alignment. The top two teams will play in the conference title game this December, and there's no debate about which teams are projected atop the league this fall. UAB and UTSA are the heavy favorites to finish in the top two spots in '22, with the Blazers getting a slight nod over the Roadrunners for No. 1. WKU headlines the next tier of contenders, followed by UTEP and then a group of teams – FAU, North Texas, Charlotte and Middle Tennessee – clustered together. Louisiana Tech, Rice and FIU are the projected teams at the bottom of C-USA for '22.
How does Athlon Sports project Conference USA for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks all 11 teams in Conference USA for this fall:
Conference USA Football 2022 Predictions
In a late-June surprise announcement, coach Bill Clark announced he would retire on Aug. 1 due to chronic back issues. Clark was instrumental in the program's rise in recent years, guiding UAB from not having a program in 2015-16 to winning conference titles in '18 and '20. Offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent is expected to work as the program's interim coach in '22. The Blazers had their streak of appearances in the Conference USA Championship Game end at three after a 34-31 defeat to UTSA in late November clinched the West for the Roadrunners. Falling short should provide plenty of motivation for this team in ’22. Defense has been a strength for UAB since Clark’s arrival, and there’s little reason to doubt this year’s group will be any different. Five starters – including linebackers Kelle Sanders and Noah Wilder and defensive backs Starling Thomas and Keondre Swoopes – anchor a unit that limited teams to 23.2 points a game and 5.02 yards per play in ’21. UAB has consistently churned out some of Conference USA’s top rushing attacks under Clark, and similar to the defense, don’t expect that to change with Vincent as head coach this year. Running backs DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. anchor the league’s top backfield after combining for 2,002 yards last season. Dylan Hopkins (18 TDs to 7 INTs) is the favorite to start over Bryson Lucero and Baylor transfer Jacob Zeno at quarterback, but the staff has holes to fill at receiver and tight end following the departure of a couple of key targets. Trea Shropshire (26 yards per catch) is back to serve as the No. 1 downfield weapon. Cutting down on sacks allowed (35) is a priority for a line set to return three starters.
Replicating a 12-2 record isn’t going to be easy for coach Jeff Traylor’s squad, but the Roadrunners have more than enough to push for the Conference USA crown once again. Running back Sincere McCormick leaves big shoes to fill on an offense that averaged 36.9 points a game last season. Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith, junior college recruit Tye Edwards, and Brenden Brady are likely to handle the bulk of the carries this fall. After leaning on McCormick last season, the focus of the offense should shift to quarterback Frank Harris (265.9 total yards a game in ’21). He’s joined by arguably the best receiving corps in Conference USA with Joshua Cephus, Zakhari Franklin and De’Corian Clark returning. The line was strong last year (just 21 sacks allowed in 14 games) and should be a strength once again with four returning starters. UTSA held opponents to 24.6 points a game last season but will be reloading early in ’22. This unit suffered key losses at every level, including linebacker Clarence Hicks, defensive lineman Jaylon Haynes and defensive backs Antonio Parks and Tariq Woolen. A tough non-conference schedule (Houston, at Army and at Texas) is on tap, and the Roadrunners’ toughest matchup in league play (UAB) is on the road.
Can the Hilltoppers recreate the magic of ’21? Thanks to the play-calling of Zach Kittley and the production of quarterback Bailey Zappe (62 TDs), WKU won Conference USA’s East Division title and finished 9-5 after dispatching Appalachian State 59-38 in the Boca Raton Bowl. However, repeating last year’s success isn’t going to be easy. Kittley now calls the plays at Texas Tech, with Ben Arbuckle set to move into the coordinator role in Bowling Green. West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege is the front-runner to replace Zappe. In addition to the turnover at those two spots, WKU lost its top two receivers in Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley, although there are plenty of solid playmakers returning. The offensive line brings back just two starters, so that unit will be in transition early in the ’22 campaign. WKU’s defense played well down the stretch but still allowed 29.4 points a game last fall. New coordinator Tyson Summers has the pieces in place to help this unit improve on the stat sheet. Juwuan Jones and Darius Shipp top the list of key returners up front, while cornerback Kahlef Hailassie and A.J. Brathwaite Jr. lead the way in the secondary. Jaden Hunter, Will Ignont and Niko Cooper form a solid trio at linebacker. How fast WKU reloads on offense and acclimates to a new play-caller will determine just how high this team climbs in the league.
The Miners were Conference USA’s biggest surprise last fall. After a 5-27 start to his tenure in El Paso, coach Dana Dimel guided UTEP to a 7-6 mark and the program’s first bowl trip since ’14. Quarterback Gavin Hardison (3,223 yards and 18 TDs) returns to anchor an offense that has room to improve after averaging 25.1 points a game but led C-USA in most plays of 40-plus yards (25). Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins form one of the league’s top backfields, but a new No. 1 receiver must emerge with Jacob Cowing (19.8 yards per catch) transferring to Arizona. The Miners also return a good foundation up front with three returning starters. The optimism meter also is running high on defense. UTEP should have one of the top defensive fronts in C-USA with Praise Amaewhule and Keenan Stewart in the trenches, along with Breon Hayward and Tyrice Knight at linebacker. A secondary that helped this unit rank third in the conference in pass efficiency defense is under construction with three starters departing. A better job in the turnover department (minus-11 last year) would help UTEP close the deal in close games in ’22.
The Owls have won five games in both of coach Willie Taggart’s seasons in Boca Raton, but with 12 returning starters, a step forward in the win column is within reach. Improving a sluggish offense (25.4 points a game) would help in the quest for six (or more victories), and Taggart has a new coordinator (Brent Dearmon) set to call plays this fall. Quarterback N’Kosi Perry (242.6 total yards a game) and ’21 top targets LaJohntay Wester and Je’Quan Burton are back. Assuming Johnny Ford (831 rushing yards) returns after missing spring ball, FAU should have a strong backfield with the arrival of Nebraska transfer Marvin Scott III and Larry McCammon III. Four starters return in the trenches, and there’s optimism around Rutgers transfer Brendan Bordner solidifying the left tackle spot. Just five starters are back on a defense that limited opponents to 24.8 points a game last fall. New coordinator Todd Orlando doesn’t lack for talent to work with, however. Up front, Jaylen Joyner and Evan Anderson are capable of creating plenty of havoc, and there’s experience in the secondary with Smoke Mungin at cornerback and Teja Young at safety.
6. North Texas
The Mean Green overcame a 1-6 start by winning their last five regular-season games (including a win over undefeated UTSA) to earn the program’s fifth bowl trip in six years under coach Seth Littrell. But after an 18-9 mark from 2017-18, North Texas is only 14-21 over the last three seasons and the pressure is building on Littrell. A step forward in ’22 will require more consistency out of the passing game (197.1 yards a contest last fall), which could come in the form of Memphis/Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell after he joined the mix to push Austin Aune after spring ball. The Mean Green are deep at running back – a unit bolstered by promising sophomore Oscar Adaway III returning from an ACL tear to join Ikaika Ragsdale and Ayo Adeyi. Players returning from ailments also boost the receiving corps with Tommy Bush and Jyaire Shorter joining Damon Ward and Roderic Burns to form a standout receiving corps. Four starters return along an offensive line that should rank among the best in the conference. The hire of veteran play-caller Phil Bennett had a massive impact on North Texas’ defense last fall. In 2020, this unit surrendered 6.94 yards per snap and 42.8 points a game but cut those totals to 27.5 a contest and 5.7 yards a play. Improving on those numbers will require replacing ends Grayson and Gabriel Murphy (transferred to UCLA) and tackle Dion Novil. Linebacker KD Davis is among Conference USA’s top returning defenders for '22. Key swing games against Louisiana Tech, FAU and Rice take place in Denton.
After making a bowl and finishing 7-6 in coach Will Healy’s first year (2019), the 49ers have posted back-to-back losing seasons and are just 7-11 in that span. A return to the postseason should be within reach in ’22, especially if new coordinator Greg Brown can improve a defense that allowed 34 points a game, ranked 13th in Conference USA against the run, 14th in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered 7.1 yards per play in ’21. A healthy Davondre Robinson in the secondary should make a difference on the back end, while three new starters must be found at linebacker. The list of concerns is shorter on the other side of the ball. Behind quarterback Chris Reynolds and one of the league’s top receiving corps, scoring points shouldn’t be a problem. The top two running backs (Shadrick Byrd and Calvin Camp) are back, and three starters return to anchor the offensive line.
8. Middle Tennessee
Picking the Blue Raiders to finish eighth in Conference USA and likely out of a bowl is a dangerous prediction considering coach Rick Stockstill’s team has earned postseason bids in six out of the last nine years. However, Stockstill and his staff have major question marks to address for ’22. New coordinator Mitch Stewart is shifting the offense to more of an Air Raid approach, and while there are proven quarterbacks in Chase Cunningham and Nicholas Vattiato, just one starter returns up front and a sluggish ground game (3.5 yards per carry in ’21) might not improve. The strength of this offense is on the outside where Jaylin Lane leads a solid receiving corps. End Jordan Ferguson (nine sacks) headlines a deep line, and there’s experience at linebacker thanks to the return of Johnathan Butler. However, Middle Tennessee was hit hard by departures in the secondary, as only one starter returns from a stingy unit (second in C-USA in pass efficiency defense). The Blue Raiders can expect some regression in the forced turnovers department (32 last year), but if the offense clicks, this is too low of a projection for Stockstill’s squad.
9. Louisiana Tech
Last season’s 3-9 record was the fewest wins for Louisiana Tech since ’06, and with an 8-14 mark over the last two years, it was no surprise the program opted for a fresh start and moved on from Skip Holtz. New coach Sonny Cumbie is expected to implement a style of play similar to the Air Raid offense in Ruston this fall, but there’s uncertainty at quarterback with two unproven transfers in Matthew Downing (TCU) and Parker McNeil (Texas Tech) the favorites to start. Whichever quarterback wins the job has a solid group of playmakers on the outside, including Tre Harris, Smoke Harris, LSU transfer Devonta Lee, and tight end Griffin Hebert. Also, three starters return up front. A porous defense (34 points a game and 6.1 yards per play) brings back eight starters and added help through the portal, so there’s optimism that this group will improve under new coordinator Scott Power. Linebacker Tyler Grubbs is among Conference USA’s top returning defenders.
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The Owls are coming off their best season (4-8) under coach Mike Bloomgren. However, another step forward to produce the program’s first winning mark since 2014 will require big-time improvement on offense. Rice averaged only 21.5 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall and scored 31-plus points just one time against FBS opponents in ’21. More production on the scoreboard starts with better play under center from either Wiley Green or TJ McMahon, and the winner of the job has capable weapons on the outside with Bradley Rozner back from injury, Cedric Patterson III (38 catches), Tulsa transfer Sam Crawford and former quarterback Dylan McCaffrey competing for catches. Bloomgren wants to build a physical style of play, and there’s optimism along a line returning four starters. Ari Broussard (569 yards) is back to lead the way at running back. In addition to more production out of the offense, Rice needs an experienced defense (10 returning starters) to improve after surrendering 36.2 points and 6.7 yards per play in ’21.
New coach Mike MacIntyre has experience turning around programs from stops at San Jose State and Colorado and is the right coach at the right time for FIU. The Panthers are 1-16 over the last two seasons and ’22 is all about resetting the foundation for the future with just four returning starters. Big-play receiver Tyrese Chambers (23.9) and tight end Rivaldo Fairweather are two pieces of a talented receiving corps, and running back Lexington Joseph gives FIU a solid replacement for D’vonte Price. Duke transfer Gunnar Holmberg is likely the favorite to start at quarterback. A line that allowed 41 sacks and returns just one starter (Lyndell Hudson Jr.) is a major concern. The Panthers ranked last in Conference USA in points allowed (39.7), rush defense (228.5 yards per game), and 13th in pass efficiency defense last season. This unit does have a few talented pieces returning, including sophomore linebacker Gaethan Bernadel, end Davon Strickland, as well as defensive backs Pierce Withers and Willie Reid (Central Michigan transfer).