With UAB back in the Conference USA this season, the loop will now operate with 14 teams. Each school will play every team in its division once for six games, while playing two crossover opponents from the opposite division.
We Won't Back Down
Conference USA teams refuse to shy away from playing challenging non-conference competition, and this season is no exception. Among the teams on this year's schedule are Arizona, Baylor, Florida, Iowa, Kansas State, Mississippi State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Stanford, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, and Wisconsin.
A total of 28 games are scheduled against teams that played in a bowl game last season.
We'll Bowl You Over, Too
Last season, Conference USA sent a record seven teams to bowl games. In the process, Conference USA posted its sixth consecutive winning season in bowl play and two programs - Louisiana Tech and WKU - are among nine schools that have won a bowl game in each of the past three seasons, joined by Clemson, Georgia, Stanford, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin.
C-USA is 22-11 SU and 20-12-1 ATS over the last six years in bowl games. No other FBS conference owns a higher bowl SU and ATS win percentage than the C-USA the last six years.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2017 PLAYBOOK Football Preview Guide magazine the 25th Anniversary Issue, on sale at newsstands nationwide. The numbers following each team name represents the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
2017 CONFERENCE USA EAST PREVIEW
CHARLOTTE Off *6/3 Def 6/1 44 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE
The youthful 49ers were FBS' newest spring chickens in 2015 when they debuted and won two games. They doubled that output last season. Better yet, six of their eight CUSA titles were either wins (3) or one-possession losses (3). On the surface it appears Brad Lambert's veteran staff (over 150 years of experience) has this squad fast-tracked, but before they continue an expected uptick they will need to address a defense slipped from 94th to 108th last season. Gone are 22 members from a senior class that was part of the Niners' first team in 2013. Now a young core of sophomores and juniors are set to take over. A soft schedule figures to help.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since becoming an FBS school, Charlotte is 0-6 SU and 0-5-1 ATS in its final six games of the season.
PLAY ON: at Florida International (9/30)
FLORIDA ATLANTIC Off *9/4 Def 8/2 63 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TRAVELING A NEW LANE
Like their cross county rivals, FIU, FAU made a celebrity hire in controversial Lane Kiffin as its new mentor. The former Tennessee, USC, and Oakland Raiders head coach, Kiffin inherits a pair of strong recruiting classes from his predecessor, Charlie Partridge. In fact, this year's junior class led the nation with 16 true freshmen starters two seasons ago while last year's squad featured 68 underclassmen. And speaking of last year's team, through the first seven games last season the Owls started a different OL all seven games. Meanwhile, RB Devin "Motor" Singletary became the first freshman in Owl history to break the 1,000 yard plateau last year when he rushed for 721 yards, 8.1 Yards Per Rush, and 10 TDs over the final 4 games of the 2016 season. With no back-to-back road games and with the addition of FSU stud transfer WR De'Andre Johnson, the experienced Owls are perched for success.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls are 6-18 SU in one-possession games since Howard Schnellenberger resigned, including 2-8 the last two seasons
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Middle Tennessee (9/30)
FLORIDA INT'L Off *6/2 Def 9/3 57 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BEAMING BUTCH IS BACK
Celebrated head coach Butch Davis takes over the FIU football program, and he couldn't be happier. The 65-year old Davis has compiled a 79-43 overall record in 10 years as a college head coach, including three Big East Championships while coaching the University of Miami. What Davis knows is that the FIU campus is within 40 miles of 15 south Florida high schools that have produced numerous state champions. Meanwhile, SR QB Alex McGough leads a deeply experienced team that ranks No. 1 in the nation by SB Nation's Bill Connelly's metrics one that returns 85% production on both sides of the ball. It's no wonder Butch is beaming.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: FIU is 11-1 SU and 10-2 ATS versus sub .333 conference foes without Ron Turner since 2010.
PLAY ON: at Rice (9/23)
MARSHALL Off *7/4 Def 4/2 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: MORE BLUNDERING THAN THUNDERING
After being the only Group of 5 program to record a third straight 10-win season in 2015, the Herd went from a thundering 33 wins in three seasons to a blundering 3 victories last year. Safe to say, Doc Holliday is walking around campus these days looking over his shoulder. Strangely, Marshall committed only 16 turnovers in 2016, the fewest for the program since it entered FBS waters in 1997. They also led the conference in 4th-down conversions (66.7%) as well. JR QB Chase Litton ranks on MU's all-time Top 10 quarterback list. It remains to be seen, though, if the confidence can be restored to a team that may still be shell-shocked. We do know this, though: Marshall is 8-0 SU and 7-1 ATS as a home favorite with conference revenge.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Herd are 10-1-2 ATS as home dogs of more than 6 points.
PLAY AGAINST: at Florida Atlantic (11/3)
MIDDLE TENNESSEE Off *6/32 Def 6/0 40 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: STILL WELL-STOCKED
SBNation.com's Bill Connelly contends MTSU may field the two best offensive players in the conference in quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James. After a promising 6-2 start last season, Stockstill (head coach Rick's son) was lost to a broken collarbone and the Blue Raiders responded by losing three of their final five games. The super sharp southpaw (threw for a school record 3,233 yards and 33 TDs) and his go-to target, WR Richie James, are back but the biggest question mark surrounding this year's squad is the rush defense, one that surrendered more than 200 RYPG in 2016. If that same rebuilt unit comes around, the blue smurfs could be deadly.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: MTSU has been bowl eligible eight times in 11 years under Rick Stockstill and competed in six bowl games.
PLAY ON: vs. Vanderbilt (9/2) KEY as a dog
OLD DOMINION Off 8/4 Def 6/3 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BEYOND THEIR WILDEST DREAMS
Spurred by a six-game season-ending win skein, the Monarchs capitalized on force-feeding freshmen in 2015 (their first ever losing season under head coach Bobby Wilder) to win 10 games last year. Through it all, Old Dominion tied for 1st place in the East Division and made its first bowl appearance when it defeated Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl. ODU became the youngest program (eight years) to win 10 games in a season since the NCAA formed Division I in 1978. Not only did Wilder's crew set a single-season team rushing record with 2,595 yards last year, they also tied Miami Florida for the 2nd best team in the nation in fewest turnovers lost (10). Wow. This year, though, it will be a major surprise to find them sniffing 10 wins again as they must replace their starting QB and all three starting linebackers. And in a scheduling quirk, ODU has no back-to-back home or back-to-back road games this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Monarchs have sold out all 54 home games in school history and own a 41-13 SU record in those games.
UAB Off 0/0 Def 0/0 0 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: #FREE UAB
They're back. No thanks to bunked up claims from its president of losing money, the Blazers shut down the football program and missed the 2015 and 2016 seasons. But UAB and the city of Birmingham raised over $43 million for the reinstatement of its football program, and as a result they are back as full Division 1 FBS and Conference USA members in 2017. Bill Clark is back, too. In Clark's first season as head coach of the Blazers in 2014, he turned around a program that was 2-10 the year before into a team that finished 6-6 and earned bowl eligibility for the first time since 2004. Yes, they are the feel good story for 2017.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Per 247Sports, Clark has inked 18 three-star prospects in the last two classes.
WESTERN KENTUCKY Off *4/2 Def 6/2 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: HILL STREET WOOS
Considered one of college football's brightest offensive minds (and a former Hilltopper assistant), Mike Sanford was named the 20th head football coach at WKU. Sanford spent the previous two seasons as the OC/QB coach at Notre Dame and replaces Jeff Brohm who, after 30 wins in three seasons, took the money and bolted to Purdue. The good news for Sanford is that after leading the nation's top scoring offense and securing WKU's 2nd consecutive C-USA title, SR QB Mike White returns to The Hill as the nation's No. 2 returning passer behind Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. The Toppers also owned the nation's No. 2 ranked rush defense last season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hilltoppers have gone OVER their season win total each of the last five years.
PLAY ON: at Vanderbilt (11/4) - *KEY
2017 CONFERENCE USA WEST PREVIEW
LOUISIANA TECH Off 5/3 Def 5/3 27 Lettermen
In a year of foremost accomplishment last season, the Bulldogs won the CUSA West and the Armed Forces Bowl, recording their third straight bowl win (a first in school history). In the process, Louisiana Tech has won 19 of its last 24 conference games and is tied with WKU for the best winning percentage in games over that span. Unfortunately, there is a price to be paid for all of that success as the Bulldogs enter the 2017 season with only one start at the collegiate level from the entire group of quarterbacks (this from a team that had a senior starting signal-caller each of the last three seasons). Uh oh. Nonetheless, in the watered-down West, the Bulldogs are still the favorite to capture division honors. Don't be surprised if they are not nip-and-tuck with Southern Miss, though.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bulldogs will face 7 bowl foes this season, but only 2 that owned winning records overall.
NORTH TEXAS Off *7/4 Def 8/1 49 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: FEELING GOOD AND MEAN AGAIN
You know you're in trouble when you run a pass-first offense that can't pass. Sure, UNT won five times as many games, and improved its numbers on both sides of the ball last season under first year head coach Scott Littrell. All feel-good numbers, for sure. The question is did they show dramatic improvement, or were they simply that bad in 2015 (the roster featured 36 non-scholarship players)? We do know that the 37-year old Littrell was considered one of the brightest offensive minds in college football when he was hired from North Carolina (served as assistant head coach of the offense). The bottom line is the Green are now in good hands with Littrell.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lean Green have gone 2-17 SU and 4-15 ATS away the last three years, outyarded by 175 YPG.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Army (11/18) - *Key if favored
RICE Off 5/5 Def 8/3 54 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BAIL UP, OR BAIL OUT
After winning 30 games the previous four years, and being just 6 wins shy of matching a school record for 36 victories over a five-year span, the 16 returning starter Owls stalled on their perch in 2016 as they managed just three wins, the fewest since 2009. It should be noted that after a stretch of five different lineups over its first eight games of the season, Rice started the same offensive line for the last four games of the season in 2016. It's relevant considering all five of the OL represent the entire returning starter component of the 2017 offense. And don't look now but somehow David Bailiff owns the 2nd most wins in school history.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rice is just one of two FBS teams that will face 2016 bowl teams in each of its four non-conference games this season.
PLAY ON: at UTSA (10/21)
SOUTHERN MISS Off 6/2 Def 5/2 40 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: FORWARD THINKING
When 1st-year head coach Jay Hopson witnessed his team go on a 34-0 run to turn a 35-10 deficit into a 44-35 victory over Kentucky in his debut game with the Eagles last season, he knew this squad had finally turned the corner for good. Yes, the powerful forward moving offense, led by RB Ito Smith just the fourth Golden Eagle to gain more than 1,000 yards in multiple seasons and WR Allenzae Staggers, was almost unstoppable. But their real success came from an unsung defense that not only improved 50 YPG in 2016, the stop-unit ranked No. 2 in the land in 3rd down conversion percentage defense. And they did it all despite recording a -17 turnover margin. Pretty impressive, to say the least. Remember that moving forward this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Eagles have gone bowling 20 of the last 23 years.
PLAY ON: vs. Charlotte (11/18) - *KEY
UTEP Off *5/3 Def 7/1 44 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TURNING UP THE HEAT
Sean Kugler's fifth year with the Miners will likely decide his future in El Paso. While production was up on both sides of the ball last season, the win tally slipped, and with just one winning season (7-6) to show for his effort, Kugler is suddenly feeling the burn. The building blocks are there, but a strong core of freshmen last year will need to mature in 2017. All-American SR Will Hernandez, who has started all 37 games in his career at the left guard position, anchors the OL. Meanwhile, JR QB Ryan Metz completed 64.7 percent of his passes last year, the 2nd-best completion percentage during a single season in program history. Stay tuned.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Miners are 9-54-1 SU and 15-45-2 ATS in the last 64 games in which they have been outgained in the stats.
PLAY AGAINST: at UAB (11/25) - *KEY if favored
UTSA Off *6/3 Def 7/2 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: A JOB WELL DONE
Head coach Frank Wilson guided Texas-San Antonio to six wins and its first-ever bowl game in his initial year at the helm last season. In the process, the Roadrunners tied an NCAA modern startup program record by playing in a bowl game in just their sixth season. And to top it off, UTSA returns four All-Conference performers from a year ago, including LB Josiah Tauefa, the CUSA Freshman of the Year. Better yet, living up to his moniker as one of the nation's best recruiters, Wilson reeled in what was considered the top recruiting class in program history and the No. 1-ranked class in Conference USA, when he signed 23 highly decorated players (12 offense/11 defense) this offseason. Backers hope his squad can continue 2016's torrid 5-1 ATS season-ending skein.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Roadrunners are 2-14 ATS in SU conference losses.
PLAY ON: at UTEP (10/28)
Be sure to check back here next week for Marc's 2017 Independent Football Preview!