Perhaps more than any other conference, realignment has fundamentally altered the look of Conference USA. C-USA played an immediately role in discrediting the Bowl Championship Series when, in 1998, former member Tulane was denied an at-large bid despite finishing with an undefeated record.
The Shaun King-led Green Wave were the first in a line of impressive Conference USA members who since left for other conferences. In 2004, C-USA was home to an outstanding Louisville team that beat Miami when Miami was still The U. The next year, the Cardinals were in the Big East.
Houston knocked the door of BCS inclusion in 2011, only losing out on a berth after losing to Southern Miss in one of the most wild Conference USA championships ever played. The Cougars still finished ranked in the Top 25, where they accomplished the same feat last season as members of the American Athletic Conference. Several other former C-USA members, all with various levels of success in the BCS era — East Carolina, SMU, UCF, Tulsa, Tulane — navigated to the American, as well.
Conference USA hasn’t been without its adjustments as a result, but the league may have its most impressive collection of teams since realignment rumblings began earlier this decade.
The C-USA has a loaded division in the East, where high-powered Western Kentucky seeks to again reach the Top 25. The Hilltoppers will face stiff competition from Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion, teams that finished with a combined 18 wins a season ago. Both return plenty of talent and could make a push for the top spot in the division — which, of late, has also meant the top of Conference USA.
There’s more unpredictability in the West, at least on paper. Louisiana Tech’s a clear favorite, with Skip Holtz fielding yet another talented roster on both sides of the ball, led by a legitimate candidate for national awards and All-American recognition at defensive end (more on him in a bit).
However, promising young program UTSA offers a lot to like in up-and-coming head coach Frank Wilson’s second season. The Roadrunners are intriguing — as is the West in general, which could unfold as the most unpredictable division in all of college football this season.
Team to Beat: Western Kentucky
New head coach? No problem for two-time defending Conference USA champion Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have endured change before, losing alum Willie Taggart to South Florida after the program’s landmark first bowl season in 2012. Bobby Petrino made a one-year pit stop on his way back to Louisville in 2013. Jeff Brohm stepped in and oversaw Western Kentucky for the most prosperous period of its brief time as a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
Brohm’s departure for Purdue leaves well-traveled Mike Sanford in control. Sanford’s offensive savvy should translate rather seamlessly to a program that has routinely been the most highest-scoring in college football the last few years.
Sanford inherits a roster returning quarterback Mike White, who a season ago threw 4,363 yards and 37 touchdowns. His 10.5 yards per attempt average was second nationally behind only Heisman Trophy finalist, Baker Mayfield.
The big question for Western Kentucky’s potent aerial attack is how it replaces receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, as well as star running back Anthony Wales. The trio combined for an incredible 60 touchdowns both rushing and receiving in 2016.
Team Most Likely to Surprise: Rice
Rice endured a 45-year postseason drought before reaching the 2006 New Orleans Bowl in Todd Graham’s lone season as head coach. David Bailiff’s hung around much longer, and the Owls have enjoyed the best era in program history, save the 1950s when the Owls played in three Cotton Bowls.
With a couple of 10-win seasons to his credit, there’s plenty of reason to trust in Bailiff — even if Rice fell short of expectations the last two years. The Owls went 5-7 in 2015 and 3-9 last year, finishing fifth in C-USA’s West both years. Fifth is exactly where voting media members have the Owls pegged again in 2017.
🔮: BEST OF THE WEST?
— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) July 18, 2017
Rice returns the most experience of any team in the West this season, however, with eight starters on both sides of the ball back. The most intriguing returnee may be an Owl who only stepped into the lineup in the final weeks of the season: quarterback Jackson Tyner.
Tyner has not been named Rice’s starter, instead working to win the job during fall camp. In his appearances late last season, which included leading a 44-24 defeat of divisional foe UTEP, Tyner showed off some of the dual-threat ability that’s been a driving force for Bailiff’s best teams. His development could fuel the offense, while the arrival of new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart is just what a struggling defense needs for revitalization.
Stewart’s an NFL-experienced coach who spent the last couple seasons on Mike Riley’s staff at Nebraska.
Team Most Likely to Disappoint: FAU
FAU made arguably the biggest, and certainly the most surprising splash of the coaching carousel season with its hire of Lane Kiffin. Considering other recent Nick Saban assistants landed head coaching gigs at Georgia (Kirby Smart) and Colorado State (Jim McElwain), a program the size and stature of FAU hiring a former Saban assistant is surprising — doubly so, since FAU could have stuck it to rival FIU by hiring the most successful coach in its history, Mario Cristobal.
Moreover, Kiffin was a favorite name for those tossing out suggestions for Power Five coaching jobs, vacant or otherwise. Some of the more shocking suggestions included Oregon and Miami.
Kiffin did indeed end up in South Florida, though few could have imagined it’d be FAU. FAU’s a fledgling program with plenty of potential, residing in deep recruiting waters and playing in a new stadium. Kiffin’s recruiting prowess might unlock FAU’s full potential — though he does inherit a veteran and talented lineup right off the bat.
Cultivating talent was never Kiffin’s issue, though. Even with NCAA sanctions, his staff at USC landed big-name prospects year-after-year. At Alabama, he was coaching the very best collection of talent anywhere in college football. And, to his credit, his tenure as offensive coordinator produced a Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry and finalist in Amari Cooper.
His tendency to overuse certain players at the sake of a more balanced continued at Alabama after hamstringing USC, however. Potential difference-makers like O.J. Howard, Bo Scarbrough and Buck Allen either struggled to get touches, or went unused altogether. FAU’s not a program with the luxury of having transcendent stars like Henry and Cooper who can mask such personnel decisions.
Offensive Player to Watch: Old Dominion RB Ray Lawry
C-USA is loaded with noteworthy offensive players this season, including the aforementioned White; the Middle Tennessee pass-and-catch duo of Brent Stockstill and Richie James; and Southern Miss wide out Allenzae Staggers. However, veteran Old Dominion running back Ray Lawry heads into 2017 with the opportunity to make history.
Lawry’s already craved out a spot as the benchmark for Monarch football, approaching its ninth season of varsity competition. In three seasons, he’s produced outputs of 947 rushing yards; 1,136; and 1,255. He’s also scored at least 11 rushing touchdowns all three seasons and scored once via reception the past two campaigns.
The ODU record book will basically be a Ray Lawry yearbook once he leaves Norfolk. How long his records stand will be determined this season, as he leads a team very much capable of winning Conference USA, the next logical step in the evolution of this fledgling program.
Defensive Player to Watch: Louisiana Tech DE Jaylon Ferguson
Louisiana Tech’s been a factory for top-flight individual collegiate players, as well as NFL-caliber talent. Jaylon Ferguson joins recent Bulldog standouts Quinton Patton, Vernon Butler, Xavier Woods, Kenneth Dixon, Carlos Henderson and Jeff Driskel who satisfy one or both of these descriptors. In Ferguson’s case, it’s an emphatic both.
Ferguson racked up 16 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks a season ago, trailing only Boston College All-American Harold Landry and second-round NFL draft pick DeMarcus Walker in the latter category. The only sophomore in college football to crack the Top 10 was LSU’s Arden Key.
At 6-foot-5 and around 260 pounds, Ferguson has the frame to be a force at the next level. Don’t be surprised to see his name surface as a draft gem with each passing week of his junior campaign.