Last year, Western Kentucky was heavily favored to win the Conference USA championship. Meanwhile, seven teams had better odds than Lane Kiffin’s Florida Atlantic program. It’s not like the Owls weren’t on people’s radars, but nobody expected such a quick turnaround in Boca Raton. FAU went on to go 11-3 and win the conference in impressive fashion.
Now Kiffin’s team is the top dog in Conference USA, and Marshall, North Texas, Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee are the four teams with the next-best Vegas odds. Will any of them be able to come through with a conference title? It would seem unlikely, but so did FAU’s performance a year ago.
Odds to Win Conference USA:
Florida Atlantic -110
North Texas +700
Louisiana Tech +800
Middle Tennessee +800
Old Dominion +3300
Southern Miss +3300
Western Kentucky +6600
(In order of predicted finish)
1. Florida Atlantic
I hate to contribute to any rat poison in the FAU locker room, but Lane Kiffin’s team is far and away the best in Conference USA. The Owls lost both coordinators from last year’s conference championship team, but they return star RB Devin Singletary. He’s a rare non-Power 5 Heisman candidate, as he’s coming off a 1,920-yard and 32-touchdown season on the ground. With Singletary and a loaded defense that returns 10 starters, look for the Lane Train to keep rolling. And definitely don’t miss the Owls' season opener, when Oklahoma hosts #thefaU.
The biggest question mark for the Thundering Herd is at the quarterback position, where Alex Thomson comes over as a transfer from FCS Wagner. He'll be helped along by receiver Tyre Brady, an All-C-USA first-team selection last season. Plus, Marshall will have a group of solid running backs working behind an experienced O-line. Defensively, the Herd have a great front seven. But the unit, as a whole, will need to quickly find a way to jell under new defensive coordinator Adam Fuller.
3. Middle Tennessee
He might be 24 years old, but quarterback Brent Stockstill will once again be under center in his father Rick’s offense this season. He missed six games last year, but threw for at least 30 touchdowns and less than 10 picks in each of the previous two. Expect another big year, as he will be surrounded by weapons in the passing game. Defensively, Middle Tennessee’s front seven is rock solid. The problem is that there’s not much talent behind it. It won’t necessarily be a bad unit, but it’s not quite good enough to get the Blue Raiders over the hump.
4. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers couldn’t run the ball a year ago, and not much will change in that respect this season. Western Kentucky has a porous offensive line, and there isn’t anything special at the tailback position either. That means this offense is going to struggle to move the chains, even if there is some talent at wide receiver. As for the defense, the Hilltoppers’ secondary—led by cornerback DeAndre Farris—is one of the best in the conference. But the team will struggle to stop the run, making it too easy for opposing teams to dictate play. Western Kentucky’s easy schedule is the only reason this team has a chance of heading to a bowl game.
5. Florida International
FIU has a decent offensive line and some talent at running back, which should help it create short-yardage situations on third down. The problem is that this passing game can’t be trusted to pick up the rest of the slack. The Golden Panthers don’t have any difference-makers at receiver, and neither Christian Alexander nor James Morgan is an inspiring option at quarterback. Defensively, FIU is going to be pretty good up front. That’s the best that can be said about the unit. Head coach Butch Davis is too good of a coach for this team to stray too far away from the .500 mark.
6. Old Dominion
As a true freshman, quarterback Steven Williams showed that he has what it takes to competently run head coach Bobby Wilder’s spread attack. The Monarchs surround him with an experienced group of skill-position players that know how to get the job done. What will likely hold Old Dominion back is a secondary that could be one of the conference’s worst this season. That combined with the fact that the Monarchs are playing against tough competition in the East means that this team won’t be near the top of the standings. But they aren’t going to be easy to beat.
Last year, Charlotte’s 14.2 PPG was the third-worst mark in the nation. Now a new coaching staff is installing a pro-style offense in hopes of finding something that works. One thing the 49ers will look to rely on is the running game. Quarterback Hasaan Klugh has an impressive set of wheels, and Charlotte has a decent group of runners in the backfield. Klugh will, however, need to find a way to be more accurate as a passer. But the defense could actually be a strength. The 49ers return most of their talent on that side of the ball, and the linebacking corps and secondary are both above average. Still, this program isn’t ready to do damage just yet.
1. Louisiana Tech
Cornerback Amik Robertson leads a defense that should be the best in the division. He’s one of many talented players in this secondary, and the defensive line is stacked as well. On offense, Skip Holtz’s spread attack is a perfect fit for quarterback J’Mar Smith. In his first year seeing significant playing time, Smith threw for 2,974 yards with 16 touchdowns and only five picks—and added 378 yards and six scores on the ground. With stud wideouts Teddy Veal and Rhashid Bonnette back in the fold, Smith could put up huge numbers this year. The West definitely has more parity than the East, but Tech is the only team with a shot to win the conference.
2. North Texas
The Mean Green are weak along the defensive line, which is going to make things very difficult on the rest of an already subpar unit. But North Texas is still going to find a way to win plenty of games thanks to an offense that should be as explosive as any in the division. As long as quarterback Mason Fine is the signal-caller in head coach Seth Littrell’s uptempo spread, the Mean Green are going to be putting up points. They might have to win in shootouts, though—the defense is the only thing holding them back from making serious noise.
UAB’s eight-win season last year might have been unexpected, but it wasn’t a fluke. The Blazers have talent on both sides of the ball, and wideout Andre Wilson is one of the best skill-position players in the conference. Expect a big year from him in an offense that should be better than it was a year ago—quarterback A.J. Erdely knows how to spread it around. On defense, DT Garrett Marino will do his best to stuff the run, and the Blazers also have a talented secondary. I expect UAB to be playing in a bowl game this year, but I don’t see them contending for a conference title.
4. Texas-San Antonio
UTSA’s offense is its biggest question mark heading into this season. The Roadrunners aren’t very good on the line, and quarterback Bryce Rivers is unproven. That will make life on running back Jalen Rhodes really tough. But UTSA just might have the best defense in the conference, led by edge rusher Eric Banks. Defensive end Marcus Davenport might be gone, but this lethal Roadrunners pass rush isn’t going anywhere. If the offense can play significantly better than expected, then UTSA will compete for the division, but I don’t see that happening.
5. Southern Miss
Southern Miss’s biggest strength is that it's going to be good in the trenches. Both lines are among the best in the conference, and that alone should be enough to win them some games. But what’s going to hold them back is the fact that its secondary projects to be downright weak. Most of last year’s starters on the back end are gone, which is not good considering the unit will face so many spread-type offenses. The Golden Eagles also happen to be thin at both running back and receiver.
Coming from Stanford, new head coach Mike Bloomgren knows what it takes to win at the highest level. He’s going to do everything he can to make Rice a physical football team, but it will probably take some time before the Owls are playing his way. This year’s team has talent at running back, but that’s pretty much all it has going for them. The defense was miserable last season—it allowed 35.8 PPG—and things aren’t looking much better for 2018. The Owls are going to take their licks now, but the future is bright with Bloomgren in charge.
UTEP averaged an FBS-worst 11.8 PPG last season, and new head coach Dana Dimel—who worked with Kansas State’s offense since 2009—will now implement his own system in order help the firepower improve drastically. That change won’t happen right away, though. The Miners just don’t have enough talent on that side of the ball yet. Defensively, UTEP has a good secondary. But a weak defensive line will handicap its ability to slow down opposing offenses. Overall, this is probably the worst team in the division.
Pick to Win C-USA: Florida Atlantic
FAU went 11-3 last season, and they probably should have had a better record than that. But this year’s team is actually even better. The Owls are going to be loaded with playmakers on both sides of the ball, and I really don’t see them running into any trouble in-conference.
Best value bet: Louisiana Tech
With FAU having such a talented team, the best value play you can make is going for the top team in the West. With an explosive offense and an improving defense, I think that’s Louisiana Tech. And at +800, needing them to win a conference championship game against the Owls is a tough ask, but not at all out of the realm of possibility.