For the fifth 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, here and here.
Cyrus Smith: Push. After exceeding expectations and winning their first C-USA East division title, the Blue Raiders somehow left their fan base wanting more after 2018. The window for a conference title under Rick Stockstill feels closed, now that his son, Brent Stockstill, is off to see if he can join Nick Mullens and Jeff Driskel as C-USA QBs in the NFL. The Blue Raiders don’t recruit well enough for me to buy in completely, but as long as Tony Franklin and Scott Schafer remain as the offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively, the Blue Raiders will be a fringe bowl team at the least.
Eric Henry: Push. Losing Brent Stockstill automatically means you’re going to take a step back. However, the Blue Raiders do return a lot of talent on defense and the run game picked up towards the end of the year. In the end, I see Rick Stockstill’s club taking a small hit in the win column next season.
Jared Kalmus: Push. Based off what I’ve seen from Blue Raider quarterbacks not named Brent Stockstill, I can’t imagine MTSU competing for a conference championship any time soon. The Blue Raiders have averaged seven wins per year since joining C-USA and I imagine MTSU will keep that up even after losing Stockstill.
Adam Woodyard: Sell. The Blue Raiders won their division last year, and then saw their star QB graduate. I respect “push” as an option, as this team has played outstanding football and their division title was well-deserved. But they’ve had a lot of mediocre seasons too.
Hunter Bailey: Push. Without the father-son duo at quarterback and head coach, I believe MTSU will take a step back. With uncertainty at the quarterback position and just a single game rushing for 100+ yards in 2018, the Blue Raiders defense must showcase their talent to continue bowling in 2019.
Joe Londergan: Push. The other folks here have already made a lot of good points about MTSU. Losing Brent Stockstill is going to hurt quite a bit. It’s still a wonder to me that this team won as many games as they did. Because of the fact that MTSU likes to do the opposite of what I expect from them every year, I’m going to say push because I’m bad at predicting them.
Cyrus Smith: Buy. Since I’ve participated in this yearly article, I’ve found no reason to sell on Marshall. I don’t think Doc Holliday is by any means amazing, but he does a solid job nonetheless and has turned Marshall into a really stable program. I do wonder how attractive this job really is in the coaching world but I guess we won’t find out for a while.
Eric Henry: Buy. Marshall has their quarterback in Isaiah Green and he’s legit. Tyler King will come back healthy and he’ll be joined by Brenden Knox, who filled in well during King’s absence. Pair that with Obi Obialo, who’s more than ready to be the number one receiver following Tyre Brady’s graduation and Malik Gant is one of the best defensive players in C-USA should he choose to return for his final season.
Jared Kalmus: Buy. Talent rich and well coached, it’s hard to lose faith in Marshall as they continue to pull top-tier recruits. Isaiah Green didn’t fully break out in his freshman season but he showed the poise and accuracy to convince me that he will be extremely successful in Huntington. The Herd’s defense didn’t get enough praise last season. Should they perform at a similar level next year and the offense slightly improves then Marshall could be unstoppable in C-USA.
Adam Woodyard: Buy. This will be the sixth season since realignment, and yet few C-USA teams have the national cache of Marshall. They put consistent quality on the field, the staff recruits great players, and the university hires great coaches. This team is a threat every season, and only one game (their loss to MTSU) kept them out of the title game. One hundred percent the Herd comes thundering back in 2019.
Hunter Bailey: Buy. With a solid incoming recruiting class and the return of a talented running back duo, along with a young quarterback, Marshall will continue to be in the hunt for a conference title. Isaiah Green is their guy, and going through a full off-season with the program should warrant an improved sophomore season.
Joe Londergan: Buy. The Herd have had a consistently competitive program the last few years. I see no reason to believe that will change in the near future. Pretty much all of their offensive skill position guys really impress me and they’re all relatively young too.
Cyrus Smith: Buy. In just two seasons, Butch Davis has already turned FIU into a formidable program. No one saw Butch winning this fast. Entering Year 3, the Panthers are likely to be next year’s C-USA East division favorite. Recruiting continues to be on the uptick, and their recent winning has made them become an attractive landing spot for transfers. I thought FIU would become an annual bowl team under Butch and they are on their way to becoming just that.
Eric Henry: Buy. The Panthers return 30 players from last season’s team who saw significant playing time, including 18 starters. Quarterback James Morgan only had 13 practices under his belt before the season started. With an entire off-season, the sky is the limit for one of C-USA’s most potent offenses. The defense will still need to make some strides, but they had their best performance of the season against the run in the bowl victory. Fermin Silva, who missed most of ‘18 due to injury, announced on Twitter that he’ll choose to return instead of pursuing a pro career, which will bolster the FIU defense.
Jared Kalmus: Buy. One of the youngest teams in the country last year, FIU should take a huge step forward as their roster gains another year of experience. Butch Davis has also done a phenomenal job of bringing in extremely talented transfers which should bring some leadership to the locker room.
Adam Woodyard: Buy. The team has risen from the ashes quickly, and I don’t think we’ve seen their ceiling yet. The battle for the east is gettin’ good, just like the west. Any of the top five teams have a shot at the division. Painful history aside, FIU showed growing pains this season and still finished 6-2 in conference. I’m buying an even better 2019.
Hunter Bailey: Buy. Returning a young core under the guidance of Butch Davis seems to be a recipe for success in 2019. The offense has an entire off-season to work on chemistry, and I believe it will be the best in C-USA next season. Improving the run-defense is crucial for the Panthers success, as it was an underlying problem for the majority of 2018.
Joe Londergan: Buy. Butch Davis is a good coach. He’s recruiting well, his whole staff seems to really be buying in, and several of the key guys from the past two years still have some eligibility left. It’s definitely a good time to be a Panther fan.
Cyrus Smith: Push. Now that the Brad Lambert era has come to an end, the college football world will really get a chance to see what Charlotte can become with an up-and-comer like Will Healy running the show. Healy has already made gains where it matters most right now: Recruiting the Charlotte area.
Eric Henry: Buy. The 49ers were a team who many saw winning a game at most last season. They instead won five and were competitive in three others. Benny Lemay is the real deal at running back. The passing game with Chris Reynolds had its moments and he should be considered the starter for Will Healy in his first season. There’s plenty of talent on the roster and if Healy can add a few pieces in recruiting, I think the Niners should be bowling in 2019.
Jared Kalmus: Push. Bright things are on the horizon for Charlotte, but I think they’re still a few years away. While there are certainly some solid players on the roster, as a whole Charlotte lags behind the rest of the league in quality depth. Will Healy didn’t make a huge splash with his coordinator hires so I’m curious to see how this team performs against more talented programs like Marshall and FIU. I’ll leave them as a push for now.
Adam Woodyard: Push. Will Healy did the impossible at FCS Austin Peay— he won— but remember he was still 0-11 in his first season there. Charlotte has a lot more talent to work with than the Governors did that first season, so a win total around 5 seems reasonable. Buying the heck out of this team for 2020, though.
Hunter Bailey: Buy. Charlotte’s returning a ton of talent, including one of the best backs in the conference, Benny LeMay. With a new DC taking the reins, I’m nervous that Glenn Spencer’s success can’t be replicated, but numerous talented players return, along with two highly touted transfers. Chris Reynolds showed he can be the future at QB, and he’ll have consistent targets with Rico Arnold and Victor Tucker ready to take the next step in 2019. Finishing 5-7 last season far exceeded expectations, but if the Healy hype is real, I expect the 49ers to go bowling for the first time in program history.
Joe Londergan: Push. I like Charlotte’s returning talent, particularly on offense. That being said, I’m always wary of the first year under new head coaches. Seeing them at least replicate what they accomplished last season wouldn’t completely surprise me, but I’m not betting the mortgage on it.
Cyrus Smith: Sell. Didn’t like the Mike Sanford hire at all at the time so seeing the Tops get rid of him wasn’t a surprise. Following it up with Tyson Helton isn’t going to make me wave that red towel though. Sanford recruited well, so there is talent here, but I’m not exactly convinced Helton is going to have the Tops humming like they were under Jeff Brohm.
Eric Henry: Push. The Tops can only go up from here right? I honestly don’t think there as bad as last year’s record shows. The quarterback situation isn’t bad with Davis Shanley and Kevaris Thomas. Four losses by three points or less. That could be something as simple as a coaching change to put Western back into bowl season. Tyson Helton has his work cut out for him, but the cabinets are far from bare.
Jared Kalmus: Buy. If I have to buy/sell stock based off the Hilltoppers’ last two seasons then I’m pushing my chips onto the table. Tyson Helton probably won’t have WKU soaring high like they did under Brohm but Helton is a huge upgrade over Sanford in my opinion. WKU should be a consistent bowl team under Helton.
Adam Woodyard: Push. Helton has to fix what Sanford broke. It’s true, these past years have seen some great recruiting, but Helton’s Hilltoppers still have to contend with the strongest East lineup since realignment. That, if you’ll pardon the expression, is an uphill battle.
Hunter Bailey: Push. Tyson Helton has some significant work to do if WKU is going to improve in 2019. I can see the improvement in the near future with some good recruiting pieces in place, but as far as next year goes, I see very similar results to last season. Losing close games cost the Hilltoppers in 2018, so capitalizing in crunch time should be emphasized heavily this off-season.
Joe Londergan: Buy. Look, the Tops are going to be better. Maybe not back up to par with the Brohm days, but better. WKU’s not in as bad of shape as some other G5 programs that just brought in a new coach and we know there’s some good young talent on this roster, particularly at quarterback and running back. The Tops’ value will rise in the next year or so.
Cyrus Smith: Buy. This was really tricky for me. The Lane Train disappointed last season but the reason I’m concerned about FAU’s future is because of the way Lane Kiffin has recruited. Relying on JUCO recruits is no way to build a program and doubling down by pursuing transfers/grad transfers means the Owls have had to rely on a lot of one/two-year stop gaps under Kiffin. As a result, FAU is a huge unknown in 2019. The roster is made up of Kiffin’s guys completely now. We know Kiffin can call plays with the best of them, but the jury is still out on if he can build a program and sustain success.
Eric Henry: Push. FAU was a maddening team to follow in 2018. In five of their seven losses, they held leads at some point in those games. Four of the five were one score contests. Lane Kiffin is a good coach and even better recruiter. He has to get the coordinator situation right this season and right behind that is figuring out the quarterback. The issue that may hold them back from a bowl game in ‘19 won’t be talent, it’s just how much of it they lost to graduation or the draft this season (Singletary, Whyte, Young, Al-Shaair, Durante).
Jared Kalmus: Push. Tough team to figure out right now. For the second straight year, Lane Kiffin has poached a defensive coordinator from a conference foe. While Tony Pecoraro flamed out at FAU, I’m a much bigger believer in Glenn Spencer who pieced together an amazing turnaround in Charlotte last season. There’s a lot of talent on this roster but they looked very disjointed last year. We’ll see if Lane can get his luster back by getting his guys on the same page in 2019.
Adam Woodyard: Push. The arguments for buying are “improvements on staff, close games last season,” and the arguments for selling are “Motor declared for the draft.” After a towering 2017, I have to believe this past year was the fluke, and the Owls will at least be more competitive next season, even if they don’t dominate the conference as a whole.
Hunter Baiey: Push. FAU’s 2018 season is a tough one to explain, but it certainly didn’t end well. The defense ranked in the bottom half of C-USA last season, but with Glenn Spencer taking over you can expect an immediate improvement. Losing both Devin Singletary and Kerrith Whyte leaves a question mark at the running back position. Spotty quarterback play by Chris Robison and the loss of their best receiver doesn’t bode well for the Lane train, but with a high level staff and solid recruiting, I believe FAU will return to a bowl game next season and compete at a high level in C-USA.
Joe Londergan: Push. The best part about watching FAU play in 2018 was Devin Singletary. Now that he is gone, this coming year is going to be a huge test for Kiffin and his assistants. They still have a lot of quality talent, but the execution simply has to be better.
Cyrus Smith: Sell. Hate to do it because I respect Bobby Wilder so much, but I’m really not sure about ODU’s future prospects. The Monarchs are now two years removed from their breakthrough 10-win season and they have regressed each year. On top of that, ODU still isn’t recruiting at a high level in C-USA. We’ve already seen one program builder in Lambert get pushed out for doing less with more. Wilder could be next.
Eric Henry: Sell. ODU is in somewhat of a similar position as FAU. Not that they were as competitive record wise. However, they’re going to face a major challenge due to major losses. The quarterback situation is priority number one. What does Steven Williams have and is he even a legit competitor with Bobby Wilder choosing to bring in a JUCO quarterback. The Monarchs were way too talented to lose as many games as they did last season. Now, the issue is going to be can the talent remaining that underachieved last season rise to the occasion in 2019.
Jared Kalmus: Sell. With a quarterback room full of nothing but question marks, ODU’s offense is likely going to struggle without Blake LaRussa, Jeremy Cox, Travis Fulgham, and Jonathan Duhart. The Monarchs simply have not recruited well enough for us to assume that ODU will be able to plug-and-play those guys’ replacements. Brace for a rebuilding year as ODU tries to figure out their future under center.
Adam Woodyard: Sell. Really looking for a reason to push here, but their breakout quarterback left the team, and Wilder has never really impressed me during his tenure. There was that breakout 10-win season, to be sure, but as I recall when they played WKU they got their butts handed to them. Plus they didn’t beat a single team with a winning record. The Monarchs have consistently been aggressively “okay,” and it’s not that they’ve regressed, it’s that the likes of FAU, FIU, Marshall and Middle Tennessee have gotten so much better, while the Monarchs continue to stand still.
Hunter Bailey: Sell. With the future at quarterback leaving the program, and a less than ideal recruiting situation, I can’t see the Monarchs improving in 2019. With the East continuing to improve, ODU must right the train, and fast, if they want to compete in the near future. The Monarchs bested both Virginia Tech and North Texas in Norfolk last season, so if you’re looking for a bright spot, those wins over solid teams are it.
Joe Londergan: Sell. 2018 ODU was not a fun football team to watch. I have no idea what to make of that QB room. They don’t have Jonathan Duhart or Oshane Ximenes - both of whom I think have solid NFL careers ahead of them. Things aren’t good in Norfolk right now and I don’t see them getting better in the immediate future.