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Three things we learned from Conference USA in Week 5

Conference USA is wide open. I mean very wide open.

Conference USA Championship - North Texas v Florida Atlantic Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Conference USA West is wide open

Preseason C-USA West favorite North Texas looked exceptional during non-conference play, with many proclaiming that the Mean Green would be a lock to win the division. After Saturday night, UNT went from controlling their destiny for a New Year’s Six bid, to tied for last in C-USA West.

The Mean Green lost a nail biter to Louisiana Tech, opening the door for not just the Bulldogs, but every other team in the division (minus Rice and UTEP).

While I was a bit surprised that Tech pulled off the upset, I wasn’t shocked. Since 2014, the C-USA West division winner has only won the division by more than one game once. The division is typically decided on a one-game differential in the win column, with tight games throughout the season.

C-USA West division standings.

Last week’s conference results in the division saw UTSA defeat UTEP and UAB beat Charlotte. UTSA is still figuring things out on offense but with Rice up next, the Roadrunners should be a lot more settled on that side of the ball by the time they play the better teams in the division. Southern Miss defeated Rice two weeks ago and is still an enigma on offense, but after shutting down two talented offenses in ULM and Auburn, you can be sure that their defense is good enough to keep USM in contention for the division.

As I’ve been saying since the preseason, UAB may not be the most talented team, but they are the most experienced team in the conference and have the easiest conference draw. As we just saw on Saturday, La Tech is one of if not the most talented team in the conference, yet has the hardest conference draw. With road trips to UTSA, FAU and Southern Miss still on deck, next week’s home game for the Bulldogs against the Blazers is a game they can’t afford to lose.

Conference USA East is wide open too

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Middle Tennessee
Brent Stockstill celebrates with fans after a tough win over FAU.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Why yes ladies and gentlemen, not only is C-USA West up for grabs, but C-USA East is too. Preseason C-USA East favorite FAU blew an 18-point lead in their loss to Middle Tennessee, opening the door for every team in the division (minus Charlotte, WKU and Old Dominion).

However unlike North Texas, FAU has looked extremely vulnerable this season as their offense has really regressed. With FAU no longer the juggernaut we expected and even Marshall looking a bit vulnerable, you could make the case that C-USA East is even more wide open than C-USA West.

C-USA East division standings.

Elsewhere in the division, Marshall defeated WKU in the game’s final seconds, thanks to some late-game heroics from Tyre Brady and Isaiah Green. Green was erratic for the majority of the game, throwing three INTs, but his big throw won the game. Green’s status going forward is unknown, as he suffered what appeared to be a lower-leg injury.

FIU has quietly gone about their business and has the easiest conference draw going forward as they host Marshall, FAU and Middle Tennessee. As showcased against FAU, the Blue Raiders still have one of the best QBs in the conference in Brent Stockstill and can’t be counted out. While Charlotte is by far the weakest team in the division, ODU and WKU don’t appear to be the pushovers we expected a few weeks ago as both teams are playing better football. Speaking of the Hilltoppers...

WKU is improving but Mike Sanford Jr. may still be on the hot seat anyway

Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky
Mike Sanford suffers yet another close lose.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Hilltoppers looked like a much-improved team in the Moonshine Throwdown. WKU forced three turnovers against Marshall and was in the game until the very end. It seems like they have a clear idea of the type of team they want to be.

Unfortunately for Mike Sanford, his team’s gutsy performance was be marred by coaching blunders at the end of the game. 10 Yards away from a go-ahead TD with one timeout around 40 seconds left in the game, Sanford decided to call his final timeout after a first-down run. Never mind the fact that WKU had been terrible at running the ball against Marshall so why run in the first place, the decision to call a TO was odd in that it essentially forced WKU’s hand to pass the ball on their remaining downs.

Two plays later Steven Duncan was strip-sacked by Ryan Bee. Marshall recovered the ball and the game was over. This season was an obvious rebuilding year for the Tops with the bar being a bowl game. But Sanford’s first year was setup for him to contend for a conference title and it ended up with a losing season. By failing to capitalize on the first season, he’s earned little goodwill from the WKU fan base and last night was yet another example of why WKU fans have mixed feelings regarding his ability to keep WKU near the top of the conference.

I’m on the record in saying that WKU wasn’t going to make a bowl game this season. With that said, WKU is much better than the team that lost to Maine a few weeks ago. Mike Sanford does have the Tops playing better football, but like so many other WKU fans, I still have my doubts about whether he’ll turn into a solid head coach. He’s not going to get fired after this season nor should he, but he’s all but a lock to enter the 2019 season on the hot seat.