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C-USA Roundtable: Looking back at the 2016 season and ahead to 2017

The best roundtable in the world is back to share thoughts on a wild 2016 season and take a peek at the future.

Armed Forces Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Navy Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

2016 Was a successful year for Conference USA football. Agree or disagree?

Cyrus Smith: Agree. C-USA was able to beat two teams from the SEC (Missouri and Kentucky) during the season, bring in prestigious coaches during coaching carousel and walked away with their sixth straight winning record during bowl season.

Although the most recognizable brands (Southern Miss and Marshall) had down years the upstarts took a step in the right direction and if C-USA is going to become a great G5 conference it starts with them. UTSA reaching their first ever bowl game was good for the conference. Old Dominion winning 10 games and their first ever bowl game was even better. Add in Western Kentucky thumping a former C-USA member in the Boca Bowl and it’s hard not to look back on 2016 and say it wasn’t a good year for the league.

Jared Kalmus: Agree. We saw Old Dominion, UNT, and UTSA all take big steps forward which is a terrific sign for the conference’s competitiveness. Those schools, along with the Florida twins, have nearly boundless potential and are key to Conference USA’s ability to square up with the AAC and MWC. Off the field we saw every C-USA team fill their coaching vacancies with what appear to be very strong hires. I think we’ll continue to see the conference’s trajectory creep upwards for the foreseeable future.

NCAA Football: C-USA Championship-Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
The Tops won their second straight C-USA Championship this year and made it three years in a row that the C-USA champ won their bowl game.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Bermudez: Agree. More than half of the conference went bowling as seven teams played in a thirteenth game as opposed to only five last season. Top that off with a 4-3 bowl record including two wins over the AAC, one of which being LA Tech’s take down of #25 Navy and the league continues to only trend up. Not to mention the conference hosted what was by far the most entertaining conference championship game in the FBS.

Every one knows about the single-season turnarounds from the likes of UTSA and North Texas, but don’t forget about the Charlotte 49ers, either. One of the most exciting features is that superior teams are loaded with young talent, look at UTSA’s Josiah Tauaefa and MTSU’s Brent Stockstill. Add in the most impressive coaching hires in college football and there’s no arguing that 2016 was a success.

Tanner Spearman: Agree. I think it was a step in the right direction and a sign that better days are ahead. But Marshall was down and Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss were too inconsistent for me to say it was a true success. Still, we saw UTSA and Old Dominion emerge as potential powers going forward, with North Texas and Charlotte making improvements. FIU and FAU made splashy coaching hires that will hopefully translate to more wins going forward. So, I’d say this was a rebuilding year, but with a lot of hope for a breakout 2017.

Adam Woodyard: Agree. I’d like to be contrarian and go the other way, since the conference failed to make any waves on the national level and in fact was the only FBS conference to not have a ranked team this season. BUT, you’ve gotta crawl before you can walk, and as the conference clicks back into place after realignment a few years ago, the coaches, players, and television streaming contracts are all in place for the long-term growth and stability of the league.

Any frustration comes from the big year not happening RIGHT NOW, but compared to 2015 this was a better football season in every way. It lays the groundwork for an even better 2017 that the Power Five outlets will claim they never saw coming.

Alex Nicolas: Agree. For WKU and La Tech it was successful as hell on the field, but for the rest of the conference, success could be measured by steps certain programs took to improve. UTSA and North Texas come to mind, but also the moves FIU and FAU made which could result in similar turnarounds like the Texas schools. Also C-USA is going to pump a lot of individual talent into the NFL this draft class so it was a semi-successful year.

What was the biggest surprise of the year?

NCAA Football: Marshall at Southern Mississippi
After three straight 10 win seasons, Marshall suffered one of their worst seasons in school history.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Cyrus: Marshall. The constant theme of 2016 was mainstays in college football having downright awful seasons. Notre Dame, Texas, USC, Oregon, Michigan State all had surprisingly poor seasons. Add Marshall in there too. The way they absolved the loss of a loaded 2014 team to win 10 games in 2015 seemed to mean that Marshall was always going to remain in the hunt for a C-USA championship. Instead the Herd collapsed to a 3-9 season and looked disinterested throughout the season.

Jared: North Texas. UNT going to a bowl game was surprising. They needed some help from the NCAA to get there due to their five-win season, but it shouldn’t tarnish the incredible job Seth Littrell did in his first year in Denton. The Mean Green were hardly loaded with talent but Littrell found a way to get it done.

Adrian: Charlotte. Only the school’s second season in conference and they certainly raised some eyebrows. After a grueling first half of the season they completely flicked the switch and had tremendous wins against FAU, Southern Miss and Marshall. If they were on the other side of one-point losses to Rice and FIU, they would have been in a bowl game in only their fourth year of existence.

Tanner: Marshall. I thought they had a chance to win the conference, but they just collapsed. Feels like something’s going on over there that we aren’t seeing that’s hurting them on the field.

Adam: Southern Miss. I know I’m supposed to say North Texas here, but honestly with the quality of coaching hire and new AD, I wasn’t at all surprised, and accurately predicted their record in our season preview. But did anyone predict the Golden Eagles taking a step back to 7-6? This is a team that had trouble adjusting late in the season and lost some games they were absolutely supposed to win. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how Jay Hopson adjusts going into 2017.

Alex: UTEP. Really thought with a healthy Aaron Jones the Miners could have made some serious noise in the C-USA West but it was a complete flop in the first half of the season and UTEP never fully recovered.

What grade would you give the C-USA coaching carousel?

Cyrus: A. Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis were fantastic hires by FAU and FIU respectively. WKU made a solid hire in bringing in Mike Sanford from Notre Dame. Add in the fact Bobby Wilder turned down overtures from Temple to remain at Old Dominion and C-USA didn’t lose a single coach to a G5 conference. The conference has a nice collection of up and comers with established coaches. The personalities in this conference make for what will be a pretty entertaining C-USA Media Day in 2017.

Jared: A. Losing a coach to Purdue is pretty bad but WKU made a pretty strong hire to replace Brohm with Mike Sanford. Lane Kiffin is going to get all of the media attention (including tabloids) in Boca but FIU made just as strong of a hire in Butch Davis. Suddenly C-USA looks to have the strongest coaching line up in the Group of Five.

NCAA Football: FAU Press Conference
FAU’s hire of Lane Kiffin coupled with FIU’s Butch Davis and WKU’s Mike Sanford, has elevated C-USA’s profile nationally.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian: A. The young coaching talent in C-USA is arguably the best in college football. Frank Wilson and Seth Littrell are going to have very attractive offers in a couple of years, but they weren’t exactly big-name hires at the time. This season was completely opposite as seasoned veterans Kiffin and Davis propelled the conference into the national spotlight. Hell, those hires alone had people asking what FAU and FIU stood for, so they’re already paying dividends in terms of exposure. I believe Sanford will be able to keep Western Kentucky a conference powerhouse with Brohm’s recruits, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep that talent level when recruiting his own.

Tanner: A-. FIU and Florida Atlantic decided they had enough of being bottom dwellers and made splashy hires in Davis and Kiffin. The only reason I didn’t go with a full A is because I can’t figure out why Sean Kugler still has a job. I’ll assume Rice is giving Bailiff one more year, but if nothing improves he needs to go, as well.

Adam: A. There was just no better slate of coaching hires in the offseason than in C-USA, from the high-profile to the low-profile-but-extremely-talented. From hires in 2016 and now early 2017, the remarkable turnaround in quality of coaches is every reason to be excited next season.

Even if Lane Kiffin gets fired outside the team bus again (still funny), he’s a famous hire that brings attention to the conference, and makes the job a more high-profile one when he leaves. Butch Davis and Skip Holtz do the same, and coaching-talent wise they are at or near equal footing to Frank Wilson and Seth Littrell. That plus the return of UAB’s Bill Clark is cause for C-USA optimism for the next eight months.

Alex: A-. WKU made a nice hire, but the cake goes to the Florida schools for making home run hires. All schools with high recruiting profiles in the G5 landscape should be on notice.

Fill in the blank: Conference USA was the _____ best conference in the G5 in 2016.

Cyrus: Third. #FunBelt is close but I think C-USA has better teams at the top. MWC and AAC are a tier above C-USA as they have better depth from top to bottom.

Jared: Third. But it’s a close gap between them and the Sun Belt in fourth place. The MWC and AAC were both stronger in their 3 - 8 spots than C-USA was but I think the top of C-USA was quite a bit stronger than the Sun Belt to give them the edge.

Adrian: Third. It’s tough to make a case that C-USA was better than the AAC and MWC. I think from a talent standpoint they should’ve most certainly outperformed the MWC and am confident they will next season, but there was just entirely too many teams with less than five wins this year. Sure C-USA had a great bowl run, but when gauging the league from top to bottom there’s just too much mud bogging down the top of the pack.

Tanner: Third. I know a lot of people are saying the Sun Belt was better, but I’m not quite convinced. I don’t think the gap is very big, but I still think C-USA has a slight edge. UTEP finished last in the West but beat NMSU, while the match-up of 6-6 teams in the New Orleans Bowl was won by C-USA. Lastly, C-USA’s bowl season impressed me much more. Two wins over good AAC teams, including a ranked one. The Sun Belt’s best win was Idaho beating Colorado State (in Idaho).

Adam: Second. Maybe I’m just saying this to be contrary, or maybe I can back it up: The Mountain West and AAC had some high-profile teams make some waves this year, but don’t look at them. Look at the standings below those first or second teams. The middle and bottom half of the MW is not pulling their weight, and the AAC went 2-5 in bowl games (C-USA tied the MW at 4-3). Are we ranking the MAC ahead of the AAC because WMU went to the Cotton Bowl? No sir, we are not. C-USA’s best team is not as good as WMU, but our worst team is leaps and bounds better than Kent State or Tulane or Fresno. C-USA remains a sleeping giant, and it has parity that the AAC and MW continue to struggle with.

Alex: Tied for Third. American, and Mountain West lead the pack, but as much flack as I personally give the Sun Belt they did have some solid teams this year. Individual talent wise, C-USA is better, but overall I felt the Sun Belt made some strides at the top of their conference to close the gap.

The Sun Belt and C-USA are the last two conferences to send a team to the New Year’s 6. Over/Under 3.5 years before C-USA has a team in contention for the NY6?

Cyrus: Over. In 2014 Marshall was a game away from probably getting the first NY6 bid. Had WKU held on against Vanderbilt and beat La Tech they would have been a Western Michigan loss away from playing in this year’s Cotton Bowl. C-USA hasn’t been far away from getting that bid. But the league appears to be getting tougher and the non-conference schedule doesn’t appear too friendly as it’s littered with challenging P5 teams down the road.

Jared: I’ll take the over. Not many C-USA schools play schedules that could get them big enough P5 wins to make the NYE bowl with one or two losses on their schedule so I could see the MAC and Sun Belt sneaking less-talented but undefeated teams in over an 11-1 C-USA school. Likewise for an 10-2 AAC team that played a blue blood program closely.

Adrian: Over. And that’s simply because the only way C-USA gets to NY6 is via a zero in the loss column. C-USA is too tough to get itself into the NY6. Does that make sense? The talent in this conference is just too closely matched far any team to run the table. No one is head and shoulders above the rest of the league and typically C-USA schools have to take on strong P5 opponents on the road, making it virtually impossible for any of these teams to earn 12 wins in the foreseeable future.

Tanner: Hard choice, but I’ll go over. I think C-USA is capable of fielding a team that’s good enough for it, but the rest of the conference will drag that team down in the rankings. That said, if C-USA shows rapid improvement with their recent hires, it may not be out of the question for it to happen two years from now.

Adam: This is where parity actually hurts the conference, but I’ll go under. WKU, Louisiana Tech, and MTSU are all teams just one or two pieces away from running the table in-conference, that plus a signature OOC win is all you need in a given year.

Alex: Under. Give me LA Tech, WKU, Marshall, and maybe Middle Tennessee or even FAU as possible candidates. We on the come up fam, believe it.

What would you like to see C-USA improve the most in 2017?

Cyrus: With the acquisition of prestigious coaches C-USA will be under some sort of a microscope nationally and because of that they must improve the quality of In-house production last year was embarrassing for some games. Next year C-USA will have an opportunity to make an impression on new viewers. This is their chance to change the perception of their league.

Jared: Content distribution and broadcast quality. The conference’s in-house production is embarrassingly bad at many members’ facilities, outclassed by Division II and Division III institutions. If the conference’s members want to be taken seriously at a national level then they must all make a commitment to invest in infrastructure to appeal to consumers in our digital age.

Adrian: Attendance and exposure without a doubt. Too many people are missing fantastic football and it’s because of two things: the advertising and the distribution is not being done well enough. That’s partly the fault of the conference as a whole but also partly the fault of the schools themselves. TV channels don’t want to broadcast empty stadiums, and fans don’t want to pay for poor streaming. Until that changes it will continue to feel like C-USA is content with being mediocre in regards to garnering attention.

Tanner: Regular season non-conference games. C-USA has done really well in bowl games, but the regular season is painful. There are several games against P5 teams next year that feel winnable. C-USA needs to capitalize on those opportunities.

Adam: Non-conference wins and scheduling. It doesn’t do well for the perception of the conference when you’re adding FCS upstarts like ODU and Charlotte, but then ODU had a great run this year and Charlotte showed some signs of life. Beat a ranked team, get a team higher than just “others receiving votes,” this is how you stand out amongst a crowded field. Also, attendance. Being on TV doesn’t do much good if there’s 10,000 fans in your stadium.

Alex: LANE KIFFIN GIFS AND MEMES!!!!!!! But seriously, I would like to see less games start at noon and see what it could do for attendance across the league.

Who are your early favorites to win C-USA in 2017?

Cyrus: This is tough. C-USA is really wide open next year as you can make a case for just about every team except Rice and UTEP. In the West I’ll go with La Tech as they are a known commodity and have recruited really well under Skip Holtz. J’Mar Smith looked good in his only start against Arkansas in the opener and they will have seniors Jarred Craft and Boston Scott to join him in the backfield.

As for the East I think it’s Middle Tennessee by default. They have the best quarterback and receiver in the conference in Rick Stockstill and Richie James respectively and that may be enough to makeup for their awful defense.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at North Texas
Louisiana Tech has won three straight bowl games with three straight 9-win seasons for the first time in school history. Could next year be the year Skip Holtz brings Tech their first ever C-USA Championship?
Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Jared: It’s a lot harder to pick a clear favorite this year than in the past two off seasons. I’m going to take Louisiana Tech. Folks may scoff and remind us that the Bulldogs are losing Ryan Higgins, Trent Taylor, and Carlos Henderson. True. But Skip Holtz has recruited well in Ruston and is ready to plug in a very talented young quarterback in J’Mar Smith and an explosive wide receiver that originally signed with Utah in Alfred Smith.

Adrian: It’s got to be Middle Tennessee. I get that the defense is hardly subpar, but this league is about points, and with the Brent Stockstill show back in full effect this offense will not stop until Western Kentucky is dethroned in the East. In my opinion the West is completely up for grabs. With La Tech losing so many key skill players I’m not willing sign my check for them. Rick Stockstill does it in 2017 and the Blue Raiders hand it to one of these up-and-coming teams from the West in the title game.

Tanner: I may be a homer here, but I like Louisiana Tech. A lot. With Nick Mullens gone, I’m not sure how good Southern Miss will be. I think UTSA and North Texas are headed in the right direction, but they aren’t quite there yet. From the East, there’s a lot of unknowns for me. The biggest one is WKU. Incoming head coach Sanford essentially cleaned house from a coaching standpoint. Maybe it pays off, but maybe not. I like Old Dominion in the East, especially if WKU takes a step back.

Adam: I don’t like this question because we haven’t even seen the recruiting class yet. But based on current coaching staffs alone, it’s gotta be a WKU/Louisiana Tech rematch until proven otherwise.

Alex: Middle Tennessee in the East, and La Tech in the West.

Many thanks to Alex Nicolas from MinerRush for coming together for this roundtable. Alex is the site manager for which covers UTEP athletics. You can follow Alex @NicolasAlex915 and MinerRush @sbnminerrush.