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Choosing C-USA: Week 4 predictions

One more opportunity for Conference USA to change the narrative and add a few more teams into the New Year’s Six conversation.

Bethune Cookman v Florida Atlantic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With five conference games starting next weekend, we have just about reached the end of non-conference play as Week 4 is the last time we’ll see half the slate feature non-con games. In Week 3 we saw the conference take home their first Power Five win of the season.

This weekend Conference USA will be in the spotlight quite a bit as there will be three games broadcasted on the World Wide Leader (ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU). The spotlight comes with an opportunity to showcase and market the conference. When it comes to the games on the field, C-USA has a decent shot at topping a Power Five team for the second straight week as Louisiana Tech, fresh off a bye, heads to Baton Rouge to play No. 6 LSU. Meanwhile Marshall will host North Carolina State.

The biggest game of the week however, will take place against a fellow Group of Five team, as FAU will head to Orlando take on the “2017 National Champs” in a primetime slot. With so many G5 teams looking good enough to earn the New Year’s Six bid, strength of schedule could be a factor this season rather than who simply has the most wins. North Texas has done its job during non-conference play to prove that they belong in the conversion for the NY6. Now it’s FAU’s turn, as the Owls could give the conference another team worthy of being in the NY6 conversation.

Game of the Week

FAU at No. 16 UCF (FAU +14, Friday 7:00 PM ET, ESPN)

The second ever matchup between the two G5 schools in the Sunshine State will have just a little bit more at stake than what was originally thought when the home-and-home series was scheduled in 2015. There’s a ton of storylines you can run with: South Florida vs Central Florida, the Athletic Directors are brothers, recruiting, P6/G5, etc.

It’s a big time matchup and provides a great opportunity for both universities and conferences to be in the spotlight on ESPN.

UCF enters with a 15-game winning streak, riding the momentum of last year’s New Year’s Six Peach Bowl win over Auburn. FAU entered the 2018 season with a 10-game winning streak that was snapped in the season opener by No. 5 Oklahoma, but at 2-1 the Owls still see themselves as a team capable of competing for the C-USA Championship and the New Year’s Six bid.

The Owls have yet to live up to the hype thus far. After being embarrassed by OU on the big stage, FAU outplayed Air Force but special teams miscues almost resulted in a loss. Against Bethune-Cookman, the Owls flexed their muscle and dominated thanks to a great offensive showing but the defense, particularly the secondary, still looks like it’s finding its footing under first-year defensive coordinator Tony Peccaro.

FAU ranks 88th in defense S&P+ and the havoc plays that we’re accustomed to seeing from a Peccaro defense (TFLs, INT, FF, tipped passes) hasn’t been there either, as the Owls are 112th in Overall Havoc Rate. The secondary, essentially the same guys who finished 2017 near the top in the country in interceptions, rank 111th in DB Havoc Rate.

NCAA Football: South Carolina State at Central Florida
McKenzie Milton is UCF’s catalyst. Milton has passed for 589 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions this season.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not a good sign with McKenzie Milton and Co. on deck. The Knights have only played two games and both were against inferior competition, but they looked like the same dynamic offense under Scott Frost. First-year head coach Josh Heupel has added a few tweaks as the Knights play with more tempo. They are first in the country in Adjusted Tempo. Given their speed, it makes sense for UCF to put as much pressure on a defense as you can and its worked thus far.

Defensively UCF is employing a bend-but-don’t-break defense, similar to what FAU used last season under Chris Kiffin. First-year defensive coordinator Randy Shannon has the Knights ranked 13th in Defensive IsoPPP. Quite simply, UCF hasn’t given up explosive plays this season. They will let you move up the field by taking four/five-yard gains though. The Knights rank an abysmal 113th in Third Down Success Rate (they are 1st in Third Down Success Rate on offense). As I mentioned before, the Knights have only played two games and both were against teams who were far less talented than FAU. The small sample size on defense has to be a bit worrisome for UCF fans though.

If Chris Robison takes what the defense gives him and Devin Singletary is his usual explosive-self, the Owls should have no problem moving the ball against Shannon’s defense. Finishing drives with points will be critical however. UCF ranks 2nd in the country in scoring points once they cross an opponent’s 40-yard line. FAU ranks 43rd.

The Owls have a chance to redeem themselves after face-planting against OU. Considering the stakes, I think Lane Kiffin will pull out all the stops so expect some trick plays and aggressive play-calling.

S&P+ gives UCF an 86 percent chance at winning this game. If this was in Boca Raton I’d take the upset as I see the Owls responding very well with a second shot on the big stage. Unfortunately, the game is at UCF where it’ll be a hostile crowd. I don’t trust FAU’s secondary to contain Gabriel Davis, Tre Nixon and UCF’s other explosive weapons. Not to mention, FAU’s special teams is still a work in progress.

It’ll be a great game, full of exciting plays in a great atmosphere as I expect more than a few shenanigans on the field and in the stands, but FAU is still too volatile for me to trust them to pull off a road win in this spot.

UCF 45 FAU 31

The rest of C-USA...

WKU at Ball State (WKU +2.5, 3:00 PM ET, ESPN3)

The Hilltoppers nearly pulled off the upset against Louisville last weekend and seeks to carry some positive momentum over to Indiana. Something just isn’t right in their locker room though. Either Jeff Brohm’s holdovers aren’t buying in, or there’s still a leadership void. Ball State hasn’t looked great this season, but since they’re at home I’m picking the Cardinals.

Ball State 28 WKU 20

No. 13 Virginia Tech at Old Dominion (Old Dominion +28.5, 3:30 PM ET, CBS Sports Network)

ODU has had the easiest schedule in the country and ranks 107th in S&P+, mainly because the Monarchs just can finish drives (120th in Finishing Drives). Good luck improving those numbers against a P5 team.

Virginia Tech 38 Old Dominion 7

FIU at No. 21 Miami (FIU +26.5, 3:30 PM ET, ESPN2)

Let me just say that I’m happy that they brought this game back. The last time these two schools played they had the infamous brawl in 2006. If you didn’t know, Butch Davis used to coach UM and interviewed for the job but was turned down as the ‘Canes hired Mark Richt instead. There’s gonna be a lot of emotion between the players, coaching staffs and of course, the fans.

Malik Rosier has really struggled this season as Miami is 98th in Passing Downs efficiency. FIU has really struggled against the pass. The Panthers are 94th in Passing Downs Explosiveness but 32nd in Passing Downs efficiency. If Rosier has a good game, the Canes will cover. If not, the Panthers could hang in this until halftime.

Miami 37 FIU 14

Charlotte at UMass (Charlotte +9, 3:30 PM ET)

Last week I mentioned in the FIU-UMass preview that the Minutemen can’t stop the run. The Panthers proceeded to rush for over 300 yards. If the 49ers feed Benny LeMay they should be in good position to not only cover the spread, but win outright. Put me down as a believer in the Lamberteers.

Charlotte 31 UMass 27

North Texas at Liberty (North Texas -13.5, 6:00 PM ET, ESPN3)

Liberty looked mighty good against Old Dominion and terrible against Army. They’ve had two weeks to prepare for UNT but it shouldn’t matter as the Mean Green have much better athletes across the board.

North Texas 49 Liberty 20

Louisiana Tech at No. 6 LSU (Louisiana Tech +21, 7:00 PM ET, ESPNU)

The Bulldogs have had two weeks to prepare for this one and catch LSU at the perfect time, as the Tigers are coming off of an emotional upset over Auburn. The Tigers haven’t looked that great on offense as they rank 76th in S&P+. If the Bulldogs get a great day from Jaylon Ferguson and Amik Robertson I could see them holding the Tigers below 28 points. The question is can J’Mar Smith be consistent for all four quarters. LSU’s defense is 6th in S&P+. Just like FIU-Miami, I’m happy this game is on the schedule. A night game in Baton Rouge will be tough, and will require Smith to have the best game of his career if the Bulldogs are to pull off the upset.

LSU 24 Louisiana Tech 13

Rice at Southern Miss (Southern Miss -14.5, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN+)

Both teams will begin conference play coming off a bye. The Golden Eagles could play two quarterbacks now that Kwadra Griggs is back. While the Owls have been pesky, USM is still the more talented team.

Southern Miss 38 Rice 21

Texas State at UTSA (UTSA -7.5, 7:00 PM ET, ESPN+)

The I-35 Showdown feels a bit subdued compared to last season but the stakes are still high as this is a huge swing-game for both programs. After facing three straight P5 teams, the Roadrunners should get a feel of what they can achieve in conference play against the Bobcats. TXST is coming off of a deflating loss to South Alabama in which they looked like they really started to figure things out on offense before QB Willie Jones III left the game with a leg injury. It’ll be close, but I see UTSA pulling out the win.

UTSA 28 Texas State 24

North Carolina State at Marshall (Marshall +5.5, 7:00 PM ET, CBS Sports Network)

Both team are coming in well rested after having each of their contests get cancelled last week due to Hurricane Florence. Last year North Carolina State defeated the Herd 37-20 in Raleigh. This year Marshall will host the Wolfpack. With both teams entering 2-0, winning games they were supposed to, I can’t quite get a gauge on the game. If Marshall gets a vintage home crowd, I could see the Herd winning this. Although not receiving the same amount of hype as North Texas or FAU, Marshall could very well throw their hat into the discussion as a G5 team earning the New Year’s Six bid if they defeat NC State.

Marshall 31 North Carolina State 27

New Mexico State at UTEP (+3.5, 7:30 PM ET, ESPN3)

The biggest game of the season for UTEP. NM State has struggled all season, just like UTEP, but has looked more cohesive against tougher competition. The Aggies will start a freshman at QB but I still trust them more than the Miners as they’re defense has looked pretty good this year.

New Mexico State 27 UTEP 14