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Roundtable: What to make of C-USA with conference play on the horizon

With a few results now in the books, it’s time to evaluate Conference USA football in 2018.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

What has been the biggest disappointment?

Cyrus Smith: The non-conference schedule provided ample opportunities for the conference to improve its standing in the G5 and the conference failed to capitalize. I hate to say it, but C-USA has been a big disappointment. They have two wins over the P5, while the AAC, MWC and the MAC each have at least three. With disappointing losses to multiple Sun Belt teams and even a few FCS teams, it’s fair to say that C-USA is the worst FBS conference this season.

Jared Kalmus: Going to be general here but the conference’s performance in non-conference play has been a huge disappointment. Every time it seems like C-USA is primed to go on a real run to re-establishing their plate at the G5 table, they manage to step on a banana peel. C-USA had so many opportunities for quality wins against other G5 programs and for the most part they totally missed their target.

Adam Woodyard: Losing that mess of games to the Sun Belt early. Throughout the off-season, fans could at least point to that, like hey, at least we’re not the worst G5 conference. There are just a handful of C-USA teams still running things like the perception is true, that a Group of Five conference just will never be more than that. Luckily, we have FAU, Marshall, North Texas and suddenly Old Dominion proving that wrong. But that’s still 10 teams with an underwhelming first month.

Tanner Spearman: I’m actually going to say Florida Atlantic. 2-2 isn’t that surprising considering the schedule, but it’s the way they’ve looked in those games. The OU game was never remotely in doubt. They made it tough on UCF for a little while, but for most of the game it was clear who the superior team was. Even their wins over Air Force and Bethune-Cookman were somewhat disappointing. We saw FAU start slow and then take off last season, so maybe that’s all it is. But unlike last year, they don’t have the explanation of breaking in a new head coach.

What has been the biggest surprise?

Cyrus Smith: Rice. I know the bar was pretty low to begin with, but Mike Bloomgren has exceeded my expectations. Rice is a well-coached football team that understands what their identity is. The progress might not show too much in the win column in 2018, but Rice certainly appears to have a good one in Mike Bloomgren.

Jared Kalmus: Rice. I know the advanced stats don’t like Rice very much but I have been highly impressed with the Owls in Bloomgren’s first season. The breakout of Emmanuel Esukpa and Shawn Stankavage shows that #IntellectualBrutality can work in Rice Village. This team will upset someone in conference play and I think they’ll be back to bowl eligibility sooner rather than later.

Adam Woodyard: North Texas is supposed to be my homer pick, but it’s still a true answer, I’m the idiot who predicted an L against Arkansas in my preseason preview.

Tanner Spearman: North Texas. I expected the Mean Green to be a main contender for the C-USA West crown, but they’ve blown me away so far. Dominant wins against SMU and Arkansas are nothing to scoff at, even if those programs aren’t where they want to be right now. Through four weeks, UNT looks like the team to beat not just in the West, but the whole conference.

After Old Dominion’s surprise upset over Virginia Tech, what record do you see the Monarchs finishing the 2018 season with?

Cyrus Smith: 4-8. Huge win for ODU and a defining moment for Bobby Wilder, but I’m not sold on the Monarchs turning the corner. They caught lightning in a bottle against Virginia Tech. A win over East Carolina might have me changing my tune though.

Jared Kalmus: 3-9. Credit to the Monarchs on the huge win but I don’t think this team will be “fixed” so easily. Will Blake LaRussa be as effective when teams have an entire week to game plan for him? The Monarchs remain a perplexing team given how much talent is on the roster but that’s what makes this question so interesting.

Adam Woodyard: 7-5. I need to point out that I don’t know anything special, I just want to look cool if they pull this off. A one-game run is a great thing, but it’s impossible to tell how LaRussa will play in the long term, if the rest of the offense can keep up that same level of intensity, etc. over the rest of the season. If they can, FAU will be a walk, or maybe Virginia Tech was just overrated to begin with. But if North Texas can gain AP votes for beating a crap Arkansas squad, ODU needs more respect than they’re getting.

Tanner Spearman: 4-8. ODU’s next opponent is ECU. Like the Monarchs, the Pirates’ lone win is against an ACC team at home. Otherwise, ECU has lost a conference game and an FCS game. ECU is a seven point favorite at home, but perhaps ODU has the confidence and momentum after beating Virginia Tech to pull this one off. They should beat VMI at home in November. Other than that, the only other games that look winnable are WKU and Rice, and both are on the road. I’ll say they win one of the two. Beating the Hokies was huge, but this is still a team that lost to Charlotte.

Aside from ODU’s win over Virginia Tech, which non-conference result surprised you the most?

Cyrus Smith: UTEP losing to Northern Arizona by 20 points, a middle of the pack FCS team, in the season opener at the Sun Bowl was a total shock. I thought Dana Dimel inherited a much better situation than Mike Bloomgren at Rice from a talent standpoint and that isn’t the case. The loss to NAU showcased that the Miners probably won’t be competitive until maybe 2020.

Jared Kalmus: Western Kentucky’s loss to Maine. I now know that Maine is a pretty solid FCS team but I had no clue at the time. It’s crazy how far the Hilltoppers have slid since Brohm left the program.

Adam Woodyard: North Texas beats Arkansas. Chad Morris had beat this team three years in a row as the head coach at SMU, and UNT traditionally does not do well against the P5. This game was huge for not just the Mean Green, but for the entire conference. This plus other adjustments show UNT is still improving, even if I would still rank the ODU game ahead of it.

Tanner Spearman: Old Dominion’s loss to Liberty. I’m going to double dip on some Monarchs here and say they had both the most surprising win and loss. Before the season I expected this to be an easy win for ODU, but they got absolutely demolished. That result set the stage for their 0-3 start, which helped set up the win over Virginia Tech as that much more shocking.

What will be the most important game in C-USA East?

Cyrus Smith: I want to say the Shula Bowl, but I’ll choose the FAU at Marshall game that’s set to take place in two weeks. Both teams are projected to be undefeated in conference play going into the game, and will serve as a definitive changing of the guard in the conference should FAU get the win.

Jared Kalmus: I think the East will end up being a closer race than we expected. I’m going to pick Marshall at FIU on Thanksgiving weekend but FAU is still my front runner. If they slip up somewhere along the way then the Herd and Panthers will probably square off for the division championship in the last week of the season.

Adam Woodyard: Ask me any other week, I’d say FAU at Marshall. But after last week, man, how can it be anything else but Old Dominion at FAU? I want to watch that game, like, right now. If the Monarchs can prove that last week wasn’t a fluke, and shut down ECU this weekend, then the week after is, for me, the East title match. Sorry, Marshall.

Tanner Spearman: Four weeks in, I’m sticking with what I said before the season. FAU at Marshall. Even though I said earlier FAU had been disappointing, they’re still the team to beat in the East, and Marshall still seems like their toughest challenger.

What will be the most important game in C-USA West?

Cyrus Smith: North Texas at UTSA to close the season has a lot of narrative potential if the Roadrunners need a win to secure a bowl bid. Frank Wilson entered the conference with more pub than Seth Littrell, yet it’s the North Texas program that appears in better shape. If UNT is somehow still undefeated at this point, UTSA will host the biggest C-USA game since this iteration of the conference formed. I think at the least, this rivalry game will have division stakes on the line as North Texas might need a win here to secure their second straight division title.

Jared Kalmus: UNT at UAB on October 20th. Even if the Mean Green get upset by Louisiana Tech this week they should still have enough time to make up for it in the standings. If North Texas takes care of business on the road at the Old Gray Lady then it will be smooth sailing until the conference championship game.

Adam Woodyard: Louisiana Tech at UNT. Honestly for me the most important North Texas game left is FAU at UNT in November, but among West teams exclusively, this is the one. The Bulldogs put a scare into LSU last week, while UAB lost to a Sun Belt team. As far as I’m concerned, the winner of this game wins the West.

Tanner Spearman: Louisiana Tech at UNT. I agree with Adam. North Texas is the team to beat, and Louisiana Tech played well against a top 10 team a week ago. UAB is still very much in the mix, but the surprising loss to Coastal puts them at third for me right now.

Which sub .500 team finishes with the best record?

Cyrus Smith: Middle Tennessee has the most upside so I’m going with them, as I can easily see them finishing 6-6 at the end of the season.

Jared Kalmus: If they can weather a tough four game stretch (Georgia, FAU, Marshall, FIU) then I think Middle Tennessee can finish with five or six wins. It’s a big if, but if the team is healthy and confident coming out of the FIU game then they could rattle off four straight wins.

Adam Woodyard: No question that MTSU’s Brent Stockstill will put up a ton of yards, but let’s bring this conversation back around to Blake LaRussa. A year ago it was FAU that stumbled out of the gate, but they made adjustments and won their final 10 games. I’m not sure Old Dominion can accomplish anywhere near that, but I like them to win a few more games.

Tanner Spearman: Middle Tennessee. They’re 1-2, but both losses came on the road against SEC teams. They didn’t look good in either game, but they should still make a bowl game.

Now that we’re four weeks into the season, would you like to change your prediction for who will win Conference USA?

Cyrus Smith: Not really. North Texas has certainly looked amazing, but the competition they have played has been sub-par as Liberty, Arkansas, Incarnate Word and SMU, are a combined 4-10. As crazy as it sounds, UNT’s toughest games are ahead of them and I think some regression could take place. If that happens, UAB could capitalize as the Blazers still have the easiest conference schedule among C-USA West teams. As for C-USA East, the Owls aren’t the juggernaut many expected but no one else has really played well enough for me to believe that FAU won’t win the division again.

Jared Kalmus: Yeah, UNT has proven so much to me. Their defense has stepped up so much. There’s no plausible argument for any other team to win the conference. North Texas’ biggest remaining challenge is getting Seth Littrell signed to another contract extension with an even larger buyout.

Adam Woodyard: I didn’t contribute to the linked story, but even with North Texas’ improvements I still would have picked FAU to win this year. I like the Mean Green’s new look, I like that they had a running game last week, but Cyrus is right, Arkansas and Liberty are not good teams, and likely zero of UNT’s opponents so far this season will make a bowl. I still say FAU is the team to beat unless North Texas blows out La Tech by the same margin as those first four games. This seems unlikely, but would certainly make me change my answer.

Tanner Spearman: Yup. I said FAU before, but give me North Texas right now. I know that Arkansas isn’t very good, but they did more than just win that game. They crushed the Hogs. I know FAU has played a tougher schedule, but North Texas has looked better so far.