Week 7 brought us a trio of blowouts and a few excellent defensive performances. As we’re entering the halfway point of the season, the division races and bowl contenders are starting to take shape.
Let’s take a look back at the week that was in C-USA and my three things we learned from the weekend’s contests.
Jack Abraham is the real deal
Prior to the start of the season, I wrote a series for Underdog Dynasty profiling the top-50 returning players in Conference USA. The list was put together after surveying players and coaches at media days, talking to beat writers from around the league, and my own selections.
Looking back, the one player who was my biggest omission was also the same player whose candidacy was arguably the most heavily debated - Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham.
I won’t betray the confidence of those who I spoke to, so I’ll provide my own reasoning as to why I left him off. Despite leading the conference in completion percentage last season (73.1), I felt that the small sample size of only eight games, combined with his pedestrian outings against formidable competition was reason enough to keep him outside of the top-50. Here’s the fact of the matter - I was wrong and am more than happy to be so.
The 6-0, 205-pound Oxford, Miss native is leading C-USA in passing yards (1,936), passing efficiency (179.6), and again in completion percentage (71.7) while most importantly leading the Golden Eagles to a 2-0 start in C-USA’s West division. With all due respect to Louisiana Tech, who also boast a perfect record in conference play, Southern Miss is coming off the most impressive win of the group with their 45-27 victory over UNT on Saturday.
Abraham had his most impressive stat line of the season (29-of-36 for 421 yards and 3TD’s) in the win. There’s no reason to believe that his play will fall off. Should that be the case, the Golden Eagles will be right there at the end. This Saturday’s tilt with La Tech should provide some clarity atop the crowded division.
The Glenn Spencer effect
One of the biggest moves of the offseason was former Charlotte defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer staying in C-USA and heading to Florida Atlantic after Will Healy was hired as 49ers head coach. A 29-year coaching veteran, Spencer came to the Owls after turning around the Charlotte defense in just one season.
In 2018 under his tutelage, Charlotte ranked third in C-USA in total defense and was in the top half of the league in passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and first downs allowed per game.
After a rocky start to the season against heavyweights UCF and Ohio State, the Owls’ defense are settling in with their new DC.
I asked FAU head coach Lane Kiffin about Spencer’s impact during his weekly teleconference on Sunday.
“We took on some pretty good offenses to start the season, but now over the past few games the numbers are starting to come back to earth. He’s giving (teams) a lot of different looks and issues. Now we’re starting to force some turnovers and I’m excited to see where we go from here,” said Kiffin.
While the statistical numbers certainly are skewed somewhat, the Owls’ defense are making their mark in the turnover department. They lead the league in interceptions (8) and are in the top half in sacks.
During C-USA media days, Charlotte DE/LB Alex Highsmith credited Spencer with his success in 2018.
“He’s such a guru with his defensive schemes. He’s the biggest reason we were such a great defense last season. He’s had a huge impact on my life and I’ll always be grateful for him,” said Highsmith when I asked him about the loss of Spencer.
At FAU, the biggest beneficiary may be linebacker Rashad Smith. The senior is among the league-leaders in tackles, interceptions, and forced fumbles. The defense as a whole are coming off of back-to-back three turnover performances, which include Saturday’s 28-13 win over Middle Tennessee State that saw the FAU defense lead the way for the entire game.
The Panthers show signs of life
FIU entered 2019 as a trendy pick to contend for a division title in the East. Quite frankly, they probably should have won the division last year, coughing up the chance to clinch the crown on the final day of the season in their loss to Marshall.
With multiple starters returning, including preseason Defensive Player of the Year choice Sage Lewis and a top quarterback in James Morgan, expectations were arguably at their highest ever in Miami.
However, Butch Davis’ club started the season 1-3, with a demoralizing loss to open the year at Tulane, followed by frustrating defeats at the hands of Western Kentucky and La Tech. However, coming off the bye week, FIU has won their past two games in impressive fashion with back-to-back games of over 500 yards on offense.
FIU’s 48-23 win over Charlotte on Saturday was impressive for two reasons - they managed to show signs of life against the run and they excelled in all three phases of the game.
“Two weeks in a row we’ve a good football team in all three phases and when you play well on all sides of the ball, you’re giving yourself a really good chances to win,” said Davis postgame.
For me, the two biggest things that Saturday provided were the resurgence of the last year’s best offensive line in C-USA and the aforementioned defensive line play.
Since Shane McGough and Dallas Connell switched spots at guard and center along with the OL rotation expanding, the rushing attack has excelled. This, in addition to the breakout play of Arkansas transfer Alexy Jean-Baptiste on Saturday (Six tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble) were enormous for FIU.
If they can sustain success in those two areas, the schedule sets up well for them to make a late-season push in the East.