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Toughest three-game stretch: Charlotte

What will be Charlotte’s toughest three week stretch in 2017?

NCAA Football: Charlotte at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Schedules in college football are huge. In most cases besides the roster or coaching situation, the schedule is what sets expectations. With that in mind we begin our look at the toughest three-game stretches in Conference USA with the Charlotte 49ers who aim to continue to progress after finishing 4-8 in 2016.

In 2015, Charlotte went 2-10 (0-8 in conference) with wins over Georgia State and Presbyterian in the first two games. In 2016, Charlotte had a rough start going 1-5, with the lone win being over Elon. The positives started to come for the 49ers in conference play. Charlotte got their first Conference USA wins over Florida Atlantic, Marshall, and Southern Miss, all of which were on the road. This season the 49ers look to continue their rise in C-USA and become bowl eligible in their third season of FBS play.

If the 49ers want to become bowl eligible, they must take advantage of the first half of their season. Charlotte heads to Eastern Michigan in their first game on September 1, trying to avenge an 18-point loss to EMU last season. Charlotte then goes on the road to Kansas State. This is only the third Power 5 team that Charlotte has faced in their history (lost to Kentucky in 2015 by 48, and Louisville by 56 last season).

Charlotte will then come home to play North Carolina A&T and Georgia State, both of which are potential wins. The 49ers start conference play with two winnable games at FIU (lost to the Panthers 27-26 last season) and at home against Marshall (beat Marshall 27-24 last season). Charlotte will then head to defending conference champion Western Kentucky and come home to face UAB.

Where it gets tough: at Old Dominion, vs MTSU, at Southern Miss

The toughest three game stretch for the 49ers will take place in November against ODU on the road, MTSU at home, and at Southern Miss for the second year in a row. Fortunately for Charlotte they have a bye week before beginning this stretch.

ODU came back to narrowly defeat Charlotte in 2015, but had no problems with the 49ers in 2016, winning 52-17. ODU went on to finish the season with a 10-3 record with a win in the Bahamas Bowl over EMU. ODU returns eight offensive starters and six defensive starters.

Middle Tennessee State is also 2-0 all-time against Charlotte. MTSU throttled Charlotte 73-14 in 2015, but barely got by the 49ers in 2016 by a final score of 38-31. MTSU returns one of the most electric offenses in C-USA, led by quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James. MTSU also returns several starting linebackers and a decent amount of players from the secondary.

Southern Miss defeated Charlotte 44-10 in 2015, but the 49ers got their revenge on the road last season in Hattiesburg beating the Golden Eagles 38-27. Southern Miss will have the 49ers at home again this season and will look to get back to a winning record in this series. Southern Miss had a roller coaster 2016 season but finished on a high note with a bowl win over UL Lafayette.

Final thoughts

Charlotte will end the season with FAU, a team that could be a dark horse pick to win C-USA with new head coach Lane Kiffin. Nothing will come easy for Charlotte this season after catching C-USA by surprise last year. The 49ers found the right fit at quarterback with Hasaan Klugh who started the final seven games and finished with 1,356 passing yards.

The greatest improvement will need to be made in passing defense. The 49ers were last in C-USA in pass defense, allowing an average 309.8 passing yards per game in a conference that loves to pass the football.

If Charlotte can steal a few games in the first half of the season and pull another upset in their toughest three game stretch, the 49ers may improve their win total and receive the bowl bid that slipped through their grasps last season.