College football 2017: Conference USA preview


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USA TODAY Sports released its projections for all 130 FBS teams and here are some highlights.
USA TODAY Sports

Your level of interest in Conference USA football is proportional with your level of interest in college football, period. Love this sport? Then you likely enjoy Conference USA, and probably even know where to find beIN Sports on your cable package. And if you don’t … well, SEC games are on Saturday afternoons on CBS.

I’m not judging. The league has an obvious identity issue: Conference USA doesn’t have any single programs counted among the best of the Group of Five, lacks the sort of depth needed to match the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference, and has passed the entire College Football Playoff era with only the slightest impact on the New Year’s Six bowl chase.

This coming season will seem familiar. The conference has a clear upper crust — Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, followed closely by Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee State, Old Dominion and UTSA. Then comes mediocrity. Then comes a few of the worst teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

It’s a telling statement about Conference USA’s current standing that the league’s biggest preseason story lines center on teams far outside the championship picture.

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UAB makes it return to college football in the West Division, where the Blazers begin a laborious climb back into bowl contention — though the climb won’t take nearly as long as some have anticipated.

Butch Davis also makes his return to the sidelines, as the next head coach at Florida International. Davis’ track record suggests a turnaround, though it remains to be seen if the former Miami (Fla.) and North Carolina coach will see the rebuilding project to its completion.

And then there’s Lane Kiffin. The owner of coaching’s top Twitter account inherits one of college football’s most experienced teams, meaning the Owls might just back up the attention almost certainly headed their way in Kiffin’s first season. But win or lose — and there’ll be more losses than wins — FAU and Kiffin will receive more national focus than the league champion, for example. That’s Conference USA for you.

PRESEASON ALL-CONFERENCE

OFFENSE

QB: Mike White, Western Kentucky

RB: Ray Lawry, Old Dominion

RB: Ito Smith, Southern Miss

WR: Richie James, Middle Tennessee State

WR: Allenzae Staggers, Southern Miss

TE: Ryan Yurachek, Marshall

OL: Reggie Bain, Florida Atlantic

OL: Will Hernandez, UTEP

OL: Chandler Brewer, Middle Tennessee State

OL: O’Shea Dugas, Louisiana Tech

OL: Chris Brown, Charlotte

DEFENSE

DL: Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech

DL: Chris Johnson, Western Kentucky

DL: Walter Brady, Middle Tennessee State

DL: Oshane Ximines, Old Dominion

LB: Emmanuel Ellerbee, Rice

LB: Josiah Tauaefa, UTSA

LB: Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic

CB: Joe Brown, Western Kentucky

CB: Brandon Addison, Old Dominion

S: Kishawn McClain, North Texas

S: Jalen Young, Florida Atlantic

SPECIALISTS

K: Canon Rooker, Middle Tennessee State

P: Jake Collins, Western Kentucky

RET: Kylen Towner, Western Kentucky

BEST UNITS

Quarterback: Western Kentucky. Mike White gets the nod over Middle Tennessee State’s Brent Stockstill, but not by much.

Running back: Old Dominion. The Monarchs tout the league’s best back in Ray Lawry and the best depth.

Wide receivers and tight ends: Middle Tennessee State. Any group headlined by Richie James deserves recognition.

Offensive line: UTEP. It’s a shame the Miners have shown an inability to do anything right on either side of the ball, since this offensive line is easily Conference USA’s most impressive.

Defensive line: Louisiana Tech. Three of four starters and seven of last season’s top eight contributors are back in the fold.

Linebacker: UTSA. It’s likely that only Josiah Tauaefa will earn all-conference honors, but the Roadrunners’ second level is talented enough to set the tone for the entire defense.

Secondary: Western Kentucky. Marshall’s secondary is also worthy of recognition, but the Hilltoppers’ unit touts depth, experience and a heavy dose of proven production.

Special teams: Western Kentucky. WKU has the league’s top punter and an electric returner in Kylen Towner.

GALLERY: PRESEASON AMWAY COACHES POLL

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RANKING THE STARTING QBs

1. Mike White, Western Kentucky. Meet the latest WKU quarterback set to unleash yards in bunches inside and out of conference play.

2. Brent Stockstill, Middle Tennessee State. If White’s the league’s best — and it’s a very tight race — Stockstill is only a hair behind.

3. De’Andre Johnson, Florida Atlantic. The former Florida State transfer has the talent to flourish under Lane Kiffin’s direction.

4. J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech. He has big shoes to fill in replacing Ryan Higgins, but Smith’s skill set and athleticism make him the most intriguing new starter in the conference.

5. Chase Litton, Marshall. Litton’s numbers have been solid if unspectacular through his two seasons as the starter, but he might need to look over his shoulder at redshirt freshman Xavier Gaines.

6. Dalton Sturm, UTSA. The senior needs to put together a complete season — he tailed off dramatically down the stretch last fall — for the Roadrunners move to the top of the West Division.

7. Hasaan Klugh, Charlotte. Klugh’s solid, fairly error-free showing during the final seven games of last season is a very good omen for how he’ll fare as the permanent starter.

8. Ryan Metz, UTEP. The Miners’ offensive line and Metz’s ability to avoid turnovers — should he keep that up — provide this offense with a nice combination.

9. Mason Fine, North Texas. Last season’s experience and another year in Seth Littrell’s system will lead to a nice statistical uptick across the board.

10. Blake LaRussa, Old Dominion. The sophomore might have a slight edge, but Bobby Wilder has options at his disposal: Jordan Hoy, a junior-college transfer, redshirt freshman Drayton Arnold and true freshman Steven Williams.

11. Alex McGough, Florida International. You’ll know by the end of September whether McGough’s 2016 dip in production was an aberration or a sign of things to come in his senior year.

12. A.J. Erdely, UAB. Erdely has been the projected starter since first stepping on campus in 2016.

13. Kwadra Griggs, Southern Miss. I’m anointing Griggs, a former JUCO addition who wore a redshirt last fall, but the Golden Eagles also could turn to sophomore Keon Howard, last year’s backup.

14. Jackson Tyner, Rice. The 6-5 sophomore topped the Owls’ preseason two-deep, but as with the team’s other two options, a lack of experience is a major concern.

TOP NEWCOMERS

Marshall LB Juwon Young. He’ll miss the first four games due to infractions incurred during his previous stint at Miami (Fla.), but Young has already carved out a role as a key leader on the Herd’s defense.

Middle Tennessee State DE Walter Brady. Once destined for great things in the SEC at Missouri, Brady will instead cause havoc on the edge for the Blue Raiders.

Louisiana Tech C Drew Kirkpatrick. With two all-conference picks gone up front, Skip Holtz needs the JUCO transfer to solidify the entire unit from his spot in the middle.

North Texas WR Jalen Guyton. Once of Notre Dame, Guyton’s strong offseason has him poised to deliver in a starting role.

UAB DT Teko Powell. I could highlight any number of Blazers, but Powell’s size, strength and experience during three seasons at Illinois makes him an interesting piece of a new-look defense.

GAMES OF THE YEAR

Navy at Florida Atlantic, Sept. 1. The first game of the Lane Kiffin era will result in Navy chewing FAU apart for 60 minutes.

Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee State, Sept. 2. The first of three Power Five dates to kick off the Blue Raiders’ season, preceding Syracuse and Minnesota, and the only one to come at home.

Western Kentucky at Illinois, Sept. 9. This road trip to Big Ten country is a must-win should WKU hope to factor into the access-bowl hunt.

Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky, Sept. 16. A potential title-game preview in September.

North Carolina at Old Dominion, Sept. 16. The Monarchs have had this game circled ever since the final whistle of an 80-20 loss to UNC in 2013.

Western Kentucky at Old Dominion, Oct. 20. One of several games involving the Hilltoppers that will decide a competitive East Division.

Southern Miss at Louisiana Tech, Oct. 21. A key head-to-head tiebreaker in the West Division will be on the line.

Western Kentucky at Marshall, Nov. 11. It will be interesting to see if Marshall’s steady defense can slow down WKU’s attack.

Middle Tennessee State at Western Kentucky, Nov. 17. Even if the Hilltoppers are the division’s best, it’s almost certain that MTSU will be in the hunt when these two rivals meet in November.

UTSA at Louisiana Tech, Nov. 25. Don’t sleep on UTSA being within a game of the Bulldogs — or the top of the division, generally speaking — when the two teams meet to cap the regular season.

BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF

It’s not impossible to imagine the Conference USA champion being under consideration for an access-bowl bid come early December. It wouldn’t be totally unheard of: Western Kentucky has been a fixture in that conversation, for example, if on a second tier behind the top teams in the Mountain West and American.

Once again, WKU stands as the league’s best hope for national recognition. Part of the issue to the West Division is the thin slice separating Louisiana Tech, Southern Mississippi and UTSA; all three could beat up on each other during the regular season, meaning the divisional winner might end the regular season with four losses – and thereby be ignored in the Playoff race.

Middle Tennessee State is going to be good. Bobby Wilder has Old Dominion on a rocketing trajectory. Marshall’s defense might make my six-win projection look foolish. The top three in the West Division is, as noted, very solid.

But it’s the Hilltoppers’ league. First-year coach Mike Sanford inherits a very strong quarterback in senior Mike White, has weapons at the skill positions and will put forward solid units along the defensive line and secondary, with lingering issues along the offensive front and at linebacker.

WKU isn’t perfect, to be honest. But the Hilltoppers will have winnable Power Five matchups against Illinois and Vanderbilt, needing to do no worse than split, and have enough firepower to roll past more teams than not in conference play.

The year, and the team’s ensuing New Year’s Six hopes, come down to three league games: at Old Dominion on Oct. 20, at Marshall on Nov. 11 and home for MTSU on Nov. 17.



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