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Conference USA Preseason Power Rankings: The Lane Train leads the pack

Here’s where everyone stands as the 2018 season draws closer.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of what will once again be a weekly staple on Underdog Dynasty during this year’s football season.

In case you’re new around here, the Conference USA Power Rankings are never a prediction for how things will end up, but rather a snapshot of how teams look at the moment.

1. FAU (11-3 last season)

For the first time in 10 years, the football that was played in paradise was a winning product as Lane Kiffin’s first year produced the most successful season in school history. Devin Singletary is the face of the program and his Heisman campaign has already begun. With a boatload of starters back and a non-conference schedule that features Oklahoma and UCF, this is the conference’s best shot to earn the New Year’s Six invite since Marshall in 2014. After flying under the radar entering 2017, the Lane Train must deal with a lot expectations. Anything short of another Conference USA Championship will be met with disappointment.

2. North Texas (9-5)

With Mason Fine, Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence and Rico Bussey Jr. set to return the Mean Green should have one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Defense is a concern though as UNT might have to win some close high-scoring affairs again. Last season UNT was 5-0 in one-possession games. There’s something to say about Seth Littrell and co. having a track record of winning close games but the margin of error to repeat as division champs is thin.

3. Marshall (8-5)

The Herd will bring back a ton of experience at just about every position except quarterback. Answering that question will determine whether or not this will be a special season in Huntington. New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey has a lot of talent at his disposal in Tyre Brady, Tyler King and Keion Davis. The defense should be good with Chase Hancock leading the unit.

4. UAB (8-5)

The Blazers are the most experienced team in C-USA entering 2018, have the most favorable conference draw (miss FAU and Marshall) and will have arguably the best head coach in the conference, Bill Clark, roaming the sidelines. After the best season in school history, UAB fans expect a division title run. That division title run could happen if Spencer Brown doesn’t have a sophomore slump and if A.J. Erdely is able to generate a few more big plays in the passing offense.

5. Louisiana Tech (7-6)

The problem in 2017 was consistency. This year the schedule might be the issue. Tech must visit UTSA, UNT, FAU and Southern Miss on top of having their bye week taking place early in the season. J’Mar Smith and Teddy Veal showcased how lethal they could be in their bowl game. This year it’s time for the duo to take the next step. Amik Robertson and Jaylon Ferguson headlining the defense gives the Bulldogs the luxury of not needing to win shootouts. From top to bottom Tech has the most talented roster in C-USA West.

6. Middle Tennessee (7-6)

Brent Stockstill and Ty Lee will be the next great duo under Rick Stockstill but this year’s tough schedule puts a lot of possibilities on the table. I could see MTSU being a dark horse candidate to win C-USA East or fall short of bowl eligibility. Walter Brady’s surprise transfer leaves a void on defense. Scott Schafer made a lot of progress on defense last year and it wouldn’t surprise me if they took another step forward despite Brady’s departure. The conference opener against FAU will set the tone for the season.

7. FIU (8-5)

Butch Davis tied the record for most wins a season in his first year in Miami and followed that up by signing the best class in the conference. Expectations are still relatively low for 2018 though. FIU lost a ton of production due to graduation at just about every position. Butch has decided to take a page from FAU’s playbook and build on the fly as the Panthers will rely on a lot of JUCO and grad transfers to step into starting roles, particularly on defense. The quarterback situation is still up in the air as Bowling Green transfer James Morgan is battling Christian Alexander for the starting role.

8. Old Dominion (5-7)

The Monarchs are flying under the radar and it reminds me a bit of the way they entered the 2016 season when they won 10 games. Oshane Ximines is the star of the team as ODU’s defensive line is one of the best units in the conference. Steven Williams’ progression at quarterback will determine whether or not ODU will be a bowl team in 2018 though.

9. Southern Miss (8-5)

The volatile Golden Eagles went from having two quarterbacks with experience to none this offseason, as the surprise departure and suspension of Keon Howard and Kwadra Griggs, respectively, leave USM in a precarious situation. Former La Tech QB Jack Abraham has reportedly played well in practice so the drop off may be minimum. Losing defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro is what may really hurt USM this season though. While the Golden Eagles will be young at various spots, they have consistently recruited near the upper-half of C-USA.

10. UTSA (6-5)

Frank Wilson’s third year in San Antonio will feature new faces just about everywhere. With the amount of talent he’s brought in it’s tough to determine whether this will be a reload or a rebuild. Jalen Rhodes on offense and Josiah Tauaefa on defense will be relied on to not only lead their respective units, but for veteran leadership as well.

11. WKU (6-7)

Teams 7-11 are interchangeable in my eyes. The Tops get the short end of the stick due to how underwhelming the coaching staff was in 2017. Mike Sanford Jr. isn’t feeling any pressure to succeed just yet and his results on the recruiting trail speaks to the foundation he’s laying for the future. Reaching a bowl game is attainable but for that to happen a lot of coaches and young players will need to step up.

12. Charlotte (1-11)

This is a make or break year for Brad Lambert. The offense has some returning talent but a transition to a “pro-style” offense under new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery makes them an unknown. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer is a plus as his experience in dealing with spread offenses in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State should transition well in forming a defense to defend the spread offenses in this conference.

13. UTEP (0-12)

The Miners were the worst team in the country last year. Enter Dana Dimel by-way of Kansas State, who knows a bit about doing more with less. The Miners have a long way to go from a talent standpoint so UTEP fans will need to practice patience.

14. Rice (1-11)

The beginning of the Mike Bloomgren era is going to need patience as the Owls will transition away from a run-first spread offense to a “pro-style” run-first offense. Skill and depth on the line of scrimmage and in the backfield is needed and the Owls just don’t have a lot of it right now.