For the fourth 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 East program here, here and here.
Florida Atlantic Owls
Cyrus: Buy. With Lane Kiffin at the helm FAU will consistently be one of the best Group of Five teams in the country. When he leaves, FAU should at the least, continue to be a contender to win the conference. Location, improving facilities, and finally proof that you can win here, has made this one of the best G5 jobs in the country.
Jared: Buy. I’m buying as long as Kiffin is the head coach. I think FAU will spend several weeks ranked in the Top 25 this year. If Kiffin were to leave soon his replacement should be in a pretty good spot to keep the machine chugging along.
Joe: Buy. Kiffin’s too good of an offensive mind and he’s still pulling in some decent talent. We’ve talked about it on the pawdcast a bit before, but Kiffin’s in a spot where he can be happy and relatively out of the spotlight. So I don’t think he’ll leave, at least for a few more years. Because of that, I think they can keep winning.
Cyrus: Buy. FIU just signed the best class in Conference USA after surprisingly tying the record for most wins in a season with an 8-5 record in Butch Davis’ debut season. Davis is turning around this program much faster than anyone anticipated.
Jared: Buy. The Panthers were sneaky good last year and Butch Davis continues to recruit as well as he has throughout his entire career. FIU will need to replace a ton of seniors this season but the talent level is rapidly rising.
Joe: Buy. It’s hard to argue with the recruiting class that Butch Davis just brought in and I think he can do it again next year, honestly. Even if they don’t immediately contend for a conference title, I think that FIU is in a really good spot for sustained success.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Cyrus: Buy. The rise of the South Florida twins makes this job hard to evaluate. On one hand they aren’t getting the same kids out of South Florida to come to Huntington like they used to. On the other hand, Marshall’s ability to enroll non or partial qualifiers allows them to mitigate that loss somewhat. Marshall is on a different level when it comes to fan support, facilities, and tradition compared to its peers and when you add the caveat that they can recruit anyone, you are talking about a program that’s operating on a different playing ground. They should never be down for too long under Doc Holliday.
Jared: Push. I would be purchasing Thundering Herd stock if Chase Litton were coming back for his senior year but his unexpected departure gives me pause. New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey should do good things in Huntington but it might take another year before Marshall really hits their stride.
Joe: Buy. Marshall losing their o-line coach worries me just a bit. But there’s so much good talent on this team, it’s hard for me to imagine them dropping off. I’d love to see them beat either South Carolina or North Carolina State in 2018, and I think that they have a decent shot to do so.
Cyrus: Sell. The Hilltoppers were due for a bad hire after making three straight great ones and after an extremely disappointing debut season from Mike Sanford Jr., they may have finally made one.
Jared: Sell. Sanford Jr. is recruiting well at WKU but that’s about it. I’m not seeing much reason for excitement moving forward after the Hilltoppers failed to impress in 2017 despite a pretty strong collection of experienced talent.
Joe: Push. Yeah yeah, I’m biased. Sanford mismanaged the roster that he (mostly) inherited from the previous regime this year. That’s true. But that’s a very good recruiting class they just brought in and they filled a key need in getting an experienced, D1 offensive line coach in T.J. Woods. I’m holding judgment of whether this was a bad hire or not until I see what happens in the coming season.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Cyrus: Sell. It’s now or never next year for Rick Stockstill as he will have the necessary pieces to win the division. They also have one of the best coordinator duos in the conference in Tony Franklin and Scott Schafer. But I don’t like their long term prospects to compete for conference titles with the emergence of FAU and FIU. This was one of the tougher programs to evaluate.
Jared: Sell. Rick Stockstill’s job got a whole lot harder with the Florida Twins stepping up in 2017. The Blue Raiders have never been a true championship contender in C-USA and with wins harder to come by in the league’s modern iteration MTSU may finally start to see their record dip below .500.
Joe: Sell. I’m confident that MTSU will have a down year next year. MTSU has some big name guys departing this year, namely Brent Stockstill and Richie James. They’ll miss a bowl this coming season. I don’t think they will be down for all that long though.
Old Dominion Monarchs
Cyrus: Buy. The Monarchs didn’t follow up their 10-win season like I thought they would as injuries ruined their season. With that said I’m still a believer in Bobby Wilder. ODU is 23rd in Returning Production and if Steven Williams takes a leap at quarterback the Monarchs should go bowling in 2018.
Jared: Push. I’m in a wait-and-see approach with the Monarchs. This division is too competitive to be won without a strong quarterback or otherwise explosive offense, as we learned last year. If Steven Williams blossoms in his sophomore season then the Monarchs could really shock people.
Joe: Push. I guess I’m in the middle on this one. ODU may be better, but not by much, in my opinion. Ray Lawry is a big loss. Stevie Williams has a lot of potential (he wouldn’t have been a starting D1 quarterback at 17, otherwise), but I really think he needs more time to peak.
Cyrus: Buy. The facilities are good. The location is awesome. Charlotte just hasn’t had the right people in charge. With Judy gone, and Brad Lambert’s pending departure assuming he can’t turn things around this year, Charlotte will be a factor very soon.
Jared: Sell. I’ll buy once Lambert is gone but this program is at rock bottom right now. Let’s hope Charlotte hires a top-notch athletic director to rake them out of the muck.
Joe: Sell. I’m with Jared on this one. This Charlotte coaching staff, as it stands right now, is bad. They’ve had more chances than pretty much all FBS coaches ever get, and they’re still struggling. If Lambert does get fired after 2018, which I believe he will, I’d reconsider.