For the third straight year the staff at Underdog Dynasty gets together to determine which programs in Conference USA are on the rise. You can look back at our previous evaluations of each C-USA West program here and here.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Jared: Buy - I lost all skepticism in Skip Holtz after he molded Ryan Higgins into one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA after riding the pine for three seasons. Louisiana Tech has, arguably, the most talented roster in the conference from top to bottom if we’re looking at both sides of the ball. They’re working on some huge stadium renovations, have access to the coveted recruiting areas of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and Louisiana, and have a fervent fan base that strongly supports the program. Everything is in place for the Bulldogs to succeed.
Tanner: Buy - Yes, Taylor and Henderson are gone. But the losses of Dixon and Driskel didn’t cause the Dawgs to tank, and I think Tech will reload again. The defense needs work, but several quality defensive recruits should help that over the next few years. UTSA and UNT might need a year or two to get to full strength and Southern Miss should be down. With WKU under new management, this could be the time for La Tech to shine.
Adam: Buy - As Tanner says above, Southern Miss is a bit down and while UTSA/UNT are on the rise, they’re not quite at the Bulldogs level just yet. Until proven otherwise, La Tech is the best in the West division and even though coach Skip Holtz can’t seem to get past that nine-win barrier, is any G5 team really going to complain about nine wins?
Cyrus: Buy - La Tech is similar to Middle Tennessee in that they haven’t been able to get over the hump and capture a conference title over the past few years. However, their fan support, facilities and fertile recruiting ground suggests the Bulldogs aren’t going anywhere despite the fact that the Texas schools are on the rise. La Tech is one of the best jobs in the G5 - definitely the best G5 job in Louisiana, sorry Greenies - and if Skip Holtz decides to make Ruston his permanent home, it won’t be long before La Tech is in the same conversation as Boise State and Houston.
Jared: Buy - I can’t find a reason to sell. UTSA just keeps slowly building their program up from the ground level, making iterative steps along the way. While it’s hard to expect them to turn out a 10-win season until they have legitimate Division I football facilities in place, the trajectory is pointing straight towards the moon. Head coach Frank Wilson is a legend in the making and UTSA will win a division championship at the worst before the P5 powerhouses start hitting his agent with the “you up?” text messages.
Tanner: Buy - The future feels bright in San Antonio. Frank Wilson came in as a noted recruiter, and got UTSA to a bowl before even having a full year to recruit. After a couple of years of recruiting, UTSA will be challenging for conference titles.
Adam: Buy - The future isn’t just bright for Roadrunner recruiting, they ran circles around the local G5 competition (sans Houston). They went 1-3 in non-conference games last year and look good for 2-2 or better this year; if this were any other team, their buzz would be through the roof. Objects in La Tech’s rear view are closer than they appear.
Cyrus: Buy - I’m surprised how fast it took former recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson to produce a winning product. For comparison, FAU hired a recruiting coordinator to run their program and got nine wins in three years. Wilson got six wins in just one year. That tells me he’s adapted rather quickly and made some nice hires on his staff. The trajectory says it’s only a matter of time before UTSA wins the West division.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Jared: Sell - I don’t like what Southern Miss returns at quarterback with Nick Mullens out the door. I’m still lukewarm on head coach Jay Hopson but he’s bringing in strong enough talent to keep the Golden Eagles competitive— I just don’t see them competing for the West this year. Staggering but true: the Golden Eagles last win in a game that Nick Mullens did not start at quarterback in was the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve in 2011.
Tanner: Sell - We thought Southern Miss was back in 2015, but under Hopson they regressed in 2016 and couldn’t win a game without Mullens. Well, Mullens is gone for good and I’m not overly optimistic about the future in Hattiesburg as Keon Howard was really erratic at quarterback last season, although he was just a freshman .
Adam: Push - While this team regressed in 2016, I don’t see them dropping any further than that. Hopson isn’t bad, he’s merely “fine.” Five-seven wins and a possible forgettable season should be expected in 2017 but there’s no way they’ll finish last because they share a division with a struggling UTEP program.
Cyrus: Buy - While I was disappointed in Jay Hopson’s debut season lets not forget just how bizarre the circumstances were surrounding his hire. With some time I think he’ll be just fine. He brought in the second best recruiting class in C-USA last year and has already proven that he can take down P5 schools and keep up the USM tradition of beating La Tech.
North Texas Mean Green
Jared: Buy - UNT has a really strong staff who were able to guide the Mean Green to a bowl game despite one of the least talented bowl team rosters I’ve ever seen. UNT found some really solid JUCO contributors to keep their defense afloat. If they can hit on high school evaluations to the same tune then this program is in really good shape as we already know the offense is in safe hands with Seth Littrell and Graham Harrell.
Tanner: Buy - Like UTSA, North Texas brought in a new coach and made a bowl game after just one win the year before. I don’t think North Texas will rise as quickly as UTSA, but they should be on the way up.
Adam: Buy - The Mean Green quintupled their win-total last year, with a roster of guys who had played on the 1-11 team the year before. I’m not quite ready to call head coach Seth Littrell a sorcerer, but he’s at least established a baseline of quality at UNT not seen in over a decade. When you buy stock, do you want it guaranteed to go up, or simply guaranteed to not drop? Play it safe and buy up some Green.
Cyrus: Buy - North Texas seems to have found themselves a good one in Seth Littrell. We all know about how good their facilities and how large the fan base is but the fact Littrell was able to produce a four-win turnaround suggests the Mean Green are done wasting their potential and are bound to be competing for bowl game and conference championships soon.
Jared: Sell - Miner fans should be embarrassed that Kugler is getting another year. Having Aaron Jones and one of the best offensive lines in the conference should return much better results than 104th ranked offense in the nation. The Miners’ defense was also pitiful and it just hurts to watch the administration decide that a change wasn’t needed.
Tanner: Sell - UTEP has had one winning season in four years under Sean Kugler, and it was just a 7-6 season with a bowl loss. I’m somewhat surprised Kugler is still around, and I can’t see UTEP getting any better with him.
Adam: Sell - UTEP went 4-8 last year, is getting worse, and kept their coach anyway. Not only can their coach not win, the AD doesn’t seem to care. If you own stock here, don’t just sell it, you might wanna consider setting it on fire and running in the other direction. You know that scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” when Bane breaks into the stock exchange and trashes everything? I’m thinking Bane might be a Miner.
Cyrus: Sell - UTEP has one of the best fan bases in C-USA. It sucks to see them suffer like this with one of their own running the program but Sean Kugler is not the answer. An 18-31 record through four seasons at a Texas school should merit termination. Instead the Miners brought him back. Should the Miners struggle again, I hope they make a hard push for Sonny Dykes as UTEP desperately needs new energy in El Paso.
Jared: Push - The program needs to move on from David Bailiff but I think the next guy will have a pretty solid base to build around. I love Rice’s new end zone facility and the school is still based in Houston. If Rice’s next head coach could convince the administration to relax admission standards for athletes (probably not happening, admittedly) then Rice could really take off.
Tanner: Sell - Rice has had a few good years under David Bailiff, but the Owls have had more bad years than good. They have regressed every year since they won C-USA in 2013, and it feels like it’s about time for Rice to move on.
Adam: Sell - A one-off bad year isn’t so unusual (we see you, Marshall), so can Bailiff come roaring back and if so, can he do it in just one year? I’d say yes to the first part of that, no to the second. Depleted and running on empty, Bailiff might not survive another three-win season, but while any improvement might keep him his job, I’m still selling my Rice Owls jersey and buying an FAU Owls jersey. Such is the fickle nature of the market.
Cyrus: Push - David Bailiff can coach. We know that by the run he went on from 2012-2014. But he has been chewed out by how rigorous this job can be. One bad recruiting class at Rice and you’re toast. The facilities wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him which is probably why Rice gave him another year. Being in Houston gives Rice a great recruiting advantage over their C-USA peers but it seems like you can’t sustain success here for a long period of time.
Jared: Sell - I want UAB to succeed soooo badly but the pessimist in me just can’t forget the state the Blazers’ program was in before the shut down. Will Birmingham come around and appreciate what they have? Maybe, but diving right back in to C-USA play in 2017 will be tough and probably won’t generate enough wins to keep the fair-weather fans interested.
Tanner: Push - I have absolutely no idea what to expect in #TheReturn. UAB wasn’t particularly good before the two-year spring break trip to RayWattsville, so how good will they be now? I need to see a year of Blazer football before I make any decisions on whether the future of UAB football will be any better than their past.
Adam: Buy - How do you appraise a stock that got pulled off the market for two years, then goes public again in four months? Well, if you’re me (and I hope you’re not), buy the hell out of it and wait. If the team goes bowling, shout it from the mountains. If the team tanks in its first year back, hoard that stock for a year and wait. They’ll be back. Buzz on #TheReturn is such that this team gets a two-year grace period at least, and if this team can survive Ray Watts, you couldn’t kill it with Kryptonite. Roll Blaze.
Cyrus: Buy - I’m buying because of how good a coach I think Bill Clark is but this really hinges on whether Birmingham will support UAB. Despite all of the attention Alabama and Auburn gets in the state, Troy and South Alabama have shown that a G5 school can be successful here. However, those two schools have gotten better support. UAB will have a lot eyes on them in 2017 due to the hype of #TheReturn and their first showcase starts with their spring game. A bad turnout there might mean we’re going to get more of the same from the Birmingham community but I’m optimistic the Blazers are on the rise because of Bill Clark.