Conference USA welcomes the return of six 2017 individual award winners for the 2018 season. They include MVP Devin Singletary, RB, Florida Atlantic, Offensive Player of the Year Mason Fine, QB, North Texas, Special Teams Player of the Year Isaiah Harper, KR, Old Dominion, Freshman of the Year Spencer Brown, RB, UAB, and Newcomers of the Year Teddy Veal, WR, Louisiana Tech and Jalen Guyton, WR, North Texas.
In addition, C-USA had six (6) individual leaders and three (3) team leaders in national statistical categories last season and each of those individual performers return for the 2018 season. Team leaders included FAU (No. 1 Interceptions-20), UTSA (No. 1 Fewest First Downs Allowed-166) and FIU (No. 1 Red Zone Offense-.976).
It's Us Again
For the first time since the 2011-2012 season, Conference USA Football will feature the same configuration of teams competing for the league championship in consecutive years, each playing eight conference games, along with four non-league contests.
In Your Face
Conference USA teams never shy away from playing challenging non-conference competition and this season is no exception. Conference USA will face at least one opponent from each of the nine other FBS conferences in 2018 and a total of 22 games are scheduled against teams that played in a bowl game last season.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2018 PLAYBOOK Football Preview Guide magazine, 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.
CHARLOTTE Off *8/4 Def 10/3 53 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO
A major benefit of going full-youth is that after taking your lumps, there is generally only one way to go, and that's up. Spring chickens turn into barnyard roosters and with it an air of hidden confidence is shaped. A young core of sophomores and juniors are now upper classmen. Head coach Brad Lambert, who learned as a 10-year assistant under Jim Grobe, rebuilt lines on both sides of the ball last season while breaking in the pimply faces. As a result, his job is on the line. Thus, two new coordinators will look to revive a potentially strong ground game while better stuffing the run. An imbalanced schedule that finds the 49ers meeting bowlers in 7 of their final 8 games could prove to be the turning point.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since becoming an FBS school, Charlotte is 1-11 SU and 4-7-1 ATS in its final six games of the season.
PLAY ON: vs. Florida Int'l (11/17)
FLORIDA ATLANTICOff 5/2 Def 10/3 47 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: LOOKING IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
Ask head coach Lane Kiffin about the trap of living off last season's success the best season in school history and the coach says, "That team is over with. We made sure to understand this is a different team. We're 0-0. That's in the history books, a very special season. Just like the preseason rankings mean nothing." A season-ending 10-game win skein was the catalyst. Having talented RB Devin "Motor" Singletary back is a good starting point. In addition, the defense returns 10 starters. Still, a salty schedule (all 6 road games against bowl squads) and a major bulls-eye on their back means another 11 wins are highly unlikely in 2018. Because, after all, last season is officially in the history books.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls are 7-19 SU in one-possession games since Howard Schnellenberger resigned, including 3-9 the L3 seasons
PLAY AGAINST: at Middle Tennessee (9/29)
FLORIDA INTL Off 7/4 Def 4/3 55 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BUTCH BALL
Butch Davis' return to south Florida last season was measurably impactful when FIU doubled its win total, and then enjoyed its best recruiting class in school history during the offseason. To put it in a better perspective, SB Nation's Bill Connelly reported, "UCF went 13-0 and claimed a share of the national title. FAU won 11 games and its first CUSA title. FIU lost by a combined 113-41 to those in-state rivals and then out-recruited both of them." Granted, the Golden Panthers weren't as good as their 8-5 record suggests since they allowed more YPG than they actually gained. They also benefited mightily by returning 85% of the production on both sides of the ball last season. Let's see if the recruiting effort offsets a natural letdown.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: FIU is 12-1 SU and 10-3 ATS versus sub .333 conference foes without Ron Turner since 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: at Old Dominion (9/8)
LOUISIANA TECH Off *8/4 Def 7/3 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: SKIP TO MY LOU
The hard-luck Bulldogs suffered three 1-point losses in 2017, and dipped to 7-6 after consecutive nine-win seasons, costing the Bulldogs a third division title in four years in the process. A 3-0 SUATS win skein left them playing their best ball of the season following a 41-point win over SMU in the Frisco Bowl. Meanwhile, Skip Holtz returns a good portion of last year's nucleus (#30 nationally in returning production), including QB J'Mar Smith (143.5 passer rating away from home), four if its top five WRs, two all-CUSA OL, and the best player in the loop on defense in DL Jaylon Ferguson. Best of all, Holtz inked a whopping 16 three-star recruits this offseason. With Holtz in his sixth year with the program, the pieces are in place for a return to 9-win territory.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Holtz is 44-23-1 ATS as a dog in his career, including 20-2-1 ATS when coming off an ATS win of more than 8 points.
PLAY ON: at Florida Atlantic (10/27)
MARSHALL Off 9/5 Def 9/4 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BACK TO THUNDERING
Roll back the clock. 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 in 2016. Strangely, Marshall committed only 16 turnovers in 2016, the fewest for the program since it entered FBS waters in 1997. Shell-shocked, the Herd stormed back with 8 wins last season, including three losses during the final month of the campaign by a combined total of just 8 points. The challenge this season will be replacing QB Chase Litton (declared for the NFL draft, with Alex Thomson the likely successor) and both coordinators. Fortunately 9 starters are back from a defense that improved 113 YPG in 2017. That should make the Herd relevant again.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Marshall is 8-0-1 ATS at home with revenge against greater than .800 opponents.
PLAY ON: at Florida International (11/24) - *KEY
MIDDLE TENNESSEE Off *8/3 Def 8/3 47 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BACK FROM THE ICU
Let's tell it like it is. Injuries wrecked any chance at improvement last season when both starting quarterback Brent Stockstill and star WR Richie James missed at least half of the season (the Raiders were 5-2 with Brent and 2-4 without him). QB Stockstill returns while James bypassed his final year of eligibility for the NFL Draft. Still, behind a deep squad, MTSU rates a solid chance to win the CUSA as the Blue Raiders return every running back and their top three wide receivers (other than James), along with two all-conference linemen on offense. Plus, six of the top seven defensive linemen, as well as three of four linebackers and five of eight defensive backs, are also back. Despite three road games at SEC schools that won 25 games last season, we're on the Stockstills like Ozzie on Harriet.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: MTSU has been bowl eligible nine times in 12 years under HC Rick Stockstill, competing in seven bowl games.
PLAY ON: at Vanderbilt (9/1) KEY as a dog
NORTH TEXAS Off *9/4 Def 8/2 44 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: FROM GREEN TO GO
After inheriting a 1-11 team, head coach Seth Littrell has won 14 games and a division title in his first two years in Denton. How much of an improvement did the Mean Green make in 2017? Consider: after having gone 2-17 SU and 4-15 ATS away the previous three years, outyarded by 175 YPG, they proceeded to go 3-3 SU and 4-2 ATS while being outgained by only 29 YPG in road games last season. It's what happens when you possess a Top 25 ranked offense. Those numbers are likely to ascend in 2018 behind JR QB Mason Fine (4,052 yards, 31 TDs last season), who has his top three WRs back, including walk-on Michael Lawrence a likely NFL slot receiver while being tutored by OC Graham Harrell, the ex-Texas Tech quarterback.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mean Green are 36-6 ATS in games in which they score 32 or more points.
OLD DOMINION Off *9/4 Def 7/3 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: A WILD RIDE
After their FCS debut in 2009, the Monarchs have suffered highs (10-win season in 2016) and lows. Through a series of injuries and inexperience, last year was taking on the appearance of the Titanic until a 3-1 finish literally salvaged the ship. Seventeen year-old true freshman QB Steven Williams stepped in and saved the day (71% completions in his last 3 starts with a 146.2 passer rating). He's back, along with five OL with at least 10 career starts. In addition, four of last year's five leading WRs, and leading RB Jeremy Cox (2,115 career yards) combine to form an offensive assault that promises to more than make up for last year's 102-yard slippage. We're putting the danger warning on Old Dominion. Beware.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Old Dominion has sold out all 60 home games in school history and has a 44-16 SU record in those games.
PLAY ON: at Western Kentucky (10/20)
RICE Off *6/2 Def 5/2 46 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: OWLS IN FLIGHT
Following four straight years of regression, the David Bailiff regime at Rice is finally over. Somehow through it all, Bailiff recorded the 2nd most wins in school history. Replacing him is Mike Bloomgren, a former OC at Stanford. He'll turn the keys over to SO QB Miklo Smalls, who stepped in late last season when the Owls offense improved from 13.1 PPG over their first eight games to 22.5 over the last four. New DC Brian Smith, a former Michigan DBs coach, must patch a defense that has allowed more then 36 PPG the last three seasons. It starts with a rush unit that has coughed up 200 rushing YPG at 5.2 yards per rush clip. A new voyage is about to begin.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rice is 30-9-3 ATS as a conference home dog, including 16-1-2 ATS when taking less than 7 points.
PLAY ON: vs. UAB (10/13) - *KEY as a dog
SOUTHERN MISS Off *5/3 Def 4/2 42 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BACKWARDS THINKING
Last year we called for an uptick in the Golden Eagles program and they delivered the goods, improving their production both straight up and against the spread. The problem now, though, is the "Smith Barney" syndrome. Simply put, they didn't 'earn it' as their overall stats declined on both sides of the ball. Compounding the issue, Jay Hopson was forced to go the JUCO route and will hope three-star transfer QB Jack Abraham beats out incumbent Kwadra Griggs. USM will lean heavily on a trio of returning WRs, including Korey Robertson, who had a breakout season in 2017 with 76 receptions, 1,106 yards and 12 TDS. Still, when reconstructed teams look to rely on JUCOs, the results seldom meet expectations.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Golden Eagles' seniors started 59.4% of their games last season, the 3rd most in the nation.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Marshall (11/3)
UABOff *10/4 Def 7/2 55 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: YEAH, WE'RE BACK
After closing the football program down for blasphemous reasons in 2015 and 2016, the Blazers re-emerged in a statement-making way last season. After going 6-0 at home, 6-2 in CUSA and fielding a 41st-ranked defense and going bowling for only the second time in school history it meant little losing 41-6 to Ohio U in the Bahamas Bowl. UAB was back and was indeed the feel-good story in college football last season (sorry, UCF, but you'll need to get in line). The better news is the offense returns literally everyone and the defense is stacked. The bad news is a huge contingent of seniors will be gone after this season. Rest assured, Bill Clark's troops will savor every moment, especially going up against the 2nd easiest schedule of all FBS schools in 2018 with foes going 57-91 (.385) last season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Blazers are 7-1 ATS under Clark when facing an opponent coming off a win, including 5-0 ATS when UAB is coming off a loss.
PLAY AGAINST: 11/3 vs. UTSA
UTEP Off *5/0 Def 6/2 50 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: LONG IN THE TOOTH
New Miners' head coach Dana Dimel has been tasked with reviving arguably the worst program in the FBS, one whose offense gained a mere 230.5 yards and 11.8 points per game in 2017 dead last. And if that isn't bad enough, the UTEP defense allowed 446.6 yards and 36.8 points per contest. Egad. A 30-year veteran Dimel, is a former Kansas State assistant under Bill Snyder, as well as a former head coach at Houston and Wyoming. That Dimel, just 4-17 ATS as a conference favorite, hired 33-year veteran Mike Canales as his OC speaks volumes as Canales' North Texas teams as OC under Dan McCarney finished No. 122 in offense in both 2014 and 2015. And this offense is worse. Meanwhile, 30-year veteran Mike Cox will run the defense.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Miners are 9-65-1 SU and 16-54-3 ATS in the last 75 games in which they have been outgained in the stats.
UTSA Off 4/2 Def 6/3 38 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: BEDROCK QUARREL
It's safe to say that UTSA will take the field with a massive chip on its shoulder. Not only did they measurably improve their numbers on both sides of the ball while leading all FBS teams in First Down Defense, they also finished No. 2 in fewest Passing Yards Allowed. In the process, they outgained 8 of their 11 opponents and finished with a winning record only to peculiarly be shut out of a bowl invite. Faced with numerous personnel and coaching changes, they will need to heavily rely on that massive chip we alluded to. Leaving no stone unturned, our guess is the rebuilding Roadrunners may likely be referred to as the Slate Rock and Gravel Company this season. Yabba dabba doo.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Roadrunners are 2-19 ATS in SU conference losses.
PLAY ON: at Southern Miss (10/20)
WESTERN KENTUCKY Off 4/2 Def 7/2 55 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: MORE OIL, PLEASE
Talk about a bummer. When WKU hired former assistant Mike Sanford as its new head coach last year, they were fully expecting to win the CUSA for a third straight season. After all Sanford, one of college football brightest offensive minds, returned SR QB Mike White from the nation's top scoring offense. What he didn't count on was the total disappearance of a rushing game that was MIA on both sides of the ball all season. The Hilltoppers' dead-last ranked rush offense declined 124 YPG while its rush defense deteriorated 73 YPG. That's a combined total of 197-degenerated rushing yards. As a result, they fell from 23-5 to 6-7 and recorded their first losing season since 2010. With White gone, Sanford is burning the midnight oil as you read this hoping his replacement FR QB Kevaris Thomas lives up to his billing.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: WKU has gone OVER its season win total five of the last six years.
PLAY ON: at Florida Atlantic (11/10) *KEY as a dog
Be sure to check back here next week for Marc's 2018 Independent College Football Preview!