It seems as if Conference USA provides its fair share of surprises every season. This year has been no different, with both of the media’s preseason choices to win their respective divisions currently sitting in third place or lower.
Now that we’ve reached the midway point of the season, let’s take a look at how the season has fared to this point.
Biggest Surprise: Western Kentucky
Tyson Helton’s Hilltoppers were picked to finish fifth in Conference USA’s East division entering the season. After a disappointing loss to FCS Central Arkansas, WKU has won four out of their last five games to take the division lead at the midway point. They’ve been able to do it by playing somewhat of a throwback version of football - leaning on defense and their rushing attack.
Converted defensive back Gaej Walker is second in C-USA in rushing yards (558), while defensive end DeAngelo Malone is first in sacks with seven. With three out of their final five conference games at Houchens-Smith Stadium, WKU controls their destiny down the stretch.
Biggest Disappointment: North Texas & FIU (tie)
While WKU was picked to finish fifth, both North Texas and FIU received a combined 29 first-place votes heading into 2019. As of week 7, UNT is sitting in forth-place in the West, while FIU is in the fifth spot in the East division. For the Mean Green, defensive struggles have plagued the team as they’re ranked 12th in scoring defense (32.8 points per game) and 10th in total defense (409.1 yards per game).
The Panthers are starting to find their form, but a poor start to the season may have put FIU in too deep of a hole to recover as far as a division title is concerned. Divisional losses to WKU and Louisiana Tech have FIU with a 1-2 record in C-USA.
C-USA OPOY: Jack Abraham-QB, Southern Miss
As a redshirt sophomore in 2018, Abraham led FBS football in completion percentage (73.1), but the argument could be made that it was against average competition and in a conservative offense. Six games into 2019, he's erased any doubt that last season was smoke and mirrors. He leads C-USA in passing yards (1,936) and completion percentage (71.7) while leading the Golden Eagles to the top of the West division.
C-USA DPOY: DeAngelo Malone-DE, WKU
There were six defensive linemen chosen to Conference USA’s All-Conference first-team entering the 2019 season. Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone wasn’t one of them. The junior defensive end currently is fourth in the conference in tackles (53) and leads the conference in sacks and tackles for loss.
C-USA STPOY: Jaylond Adams-Southern Miss or Maurice Alexander-FIU
This is a bit of a reach on my part as the award is typically reserved for a specialist. However, Adams and Alexander aren’t the average returners. Both are legitimate threats to take a kick to the endzone - when teams are willing to give them chances. Adams returned the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown and has a combined three returns for touchdowns this season. FIU’s Alexander is looking to lead C-USA in punt return yards for the second consecutive season and already has a 90-yard score to his name this year.
C-USA Newcomer of the Year: Sincere McCormick
Especially given the state of the quarterback position for the Roadrunners, I expect true freshman Sincere McCormick to see his fair share of touches throughout the rest of the season. The San Antonio native is sixth in the conference in rushing yards (473) and is a capable receiver out of the backfield with 11 catches.
East Division Champion: Florida Atlantic
As it stands currently, the East has WKU atop the division and FAU in second place. The Hilltoppers have Southern Miss, FAU, and Marshall left on their schedule, while FAU has games against Old Dominion and UTSA. Western’s defense is more than legit, but Ty Storey is still coming along in place of Steven Duncan. For the Owls, Chris Robison looks to have turned the corner with his play of late and the aforementioned games give FAU the edge.
West Division Champion: Southern Miss
I say this knowing full well that should Southern Miss lose to Louisiana Tech on 10/19, the answer to this could flip to the Bulldogs. However, I’m expecting Jack Abraham to get the best of his former team in his return to Ruston. The Golden Eagles have the conference’s top QB-WR duo in Abraham and Quez Watkins, in addition to an offensive line that’s performed well and a more than capable defense.