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Conference USA Roundtable: 2019 Season Recap

The season is over. Championships are on the line. Coaches are being put out. Let’s discuss.

Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The biggest disappointment of the 2019 season in C-USA

Cyrus Smith: North Texas not reaching a bowl game. UNT was picked to win C-USA West and with Mason Fine, they had by far the best QB entering the season. A great QB usually goes a long way towards success in this conference. Not this year. First-year offensive coordinator didn’t mesh too well with UNT’s personnel and was fired as a result. I still think Seth Littrell is a great head coach, but this year left a lot to be desired.

Adam Woodyard: My personal loyalties aside, to me it’s that for yet another year, we had zero ranked teams in the conference. Even the Sun Belt managed to pull that off. Parity is cool and all, but prior to realignment we had ranked C-USA teams all the time. That’s what I most hope for in 2020.

Jake Auten: In 2019, C-USA teams went a combined 11-31 (35.5%) in games against non-conference FBS opponents, with a record of 2-19 versus teams in the Power Five. We know where we stand on the totem pole of college football, but non-conference results have to improve for national recognition.

Eric Henry: It’s a toss-up between FIU and North Texas for me. These were two teams that many expected to be at the top of their respective divisions. FIU’s defense started to show signs of life late, but the fact that the run defense has been an issue for two consecutive years is troubling. North Texas’ defense wasn’t good enough to pull out wins and that’s saying something when Mason Fine is your quarterback.

Tanner Spearman: I had North Texas as the favorite in the preseason, and the Mean Green failed to make a bowl game. They returned quite a bit from last year’s team and had one of the best quarterbacks in the conference with Mason Fine, but everything just went against them. With Fine now gone, UNT will be a big question mark for me going into next year.

Joe Londergan: I tried really hard to find an answer that nobody else here could think of, but it has to be North Texas. Six months ago we were entertaining the possibility of them playing in a NY6 game. Instead, they didn’t even make a bowl game and failed every big test they were faced with. What an anticlimactic way to end Mason Fine’s college career.

The biggest surprise of the 2019 season in C-USA

Cyrus Smith: WKU reaching a bowl game in Tyson Helton’s debut season was a complete shock. I thought the Tops would be 5-7 at best. To go 8-4 with a win over Arkansas and a solid showing against Louisville bodes well for WKU’s prospects as they will enter 2020 as one of the favorites to win C-USA.

Adam Woodyard: I’m looking for a non-homer answer, but it has to be North Texas finishing 4-8. Nothing in Seth Littrell’s tenure has indicated this was even possible, to finish tied with Rice in the conference standings is, yes, a little surprising.

Jake Auten: Florida International. Projected to finish 2nd in the East in preseason polls, a 3-5 conference record sneaking by for bowl eligibility wasn’t what was envisioned for the Panthers this season. Year one under a new defensive regime wasn’t kind to the Miami faithful.

Eric Henry: Western Kentucky. Tyson Helton had a quiet confidence about himself and his team at Media Days. Quite frankly, I thought he was putting on a show for audience. He clearly knew what he was talking about. In one season, he’s put the Mike Sanford era completely out of Tops’ fans minds and is one win away from equaling the amount of wins Sanford had over the previous two seasons.

Tanner Spearman: Despite the way the season ended, I think Louisiana Tech. For the first time in years, I didn’t expect the Bulldogs to even be in the hunt for the division title. After a questionable first few games, Tech really stepped up on both sides of the ball. J’Mar Smith played his best football of his career and the Dawgs beat Southern Miss for the first time since 2014. Even though suspensions cost them a chance at a title, I come away from this year believing Tech, who I picked to finish fourth, was the best team in the west.

Joe Londergan: For me, I think I have to go with Asher O’Hara. While MTSU’s season didn’t go as well as it could have, that team was more or less a one man show this year and I have to admit, it was pretty fun to watch. He threw for 2,616 yards and ran for more than 1,000, which hasn’t been done by a QB in this league in a decade. If the Blue Raiders can get healthy and get one or two good recruits, 2020 could be interesting for them.

Which C-USA program with a losing record is headed in the right direction?

Cyrus Smith: How can anyone not choose the Rice Owls? During their 0-9 start they were extremely feisty. Despite one of the toughest schedules in the country and missing one of their best players in Aaron Cephus, Mike Bloomgren had the team playing competitive ball week in, week out. Finishing the season on a three-game winning streak is huge and I’m curious to see how they parlay that success on the recruiting trail this year.

Adam Woodyard: Rice. Mocked all year, they finished the season on a three-game win streak. That to me is trending the right direction. To start 0-9 and finally find something that works? Hats off to the Owls.

Jake Auten: Gonna use the phrase right direction here a little loosely and go with UTSA. The results in the past four years under Frank Wilson consistently regressed, but this is a program optimistically under the right new leadership that could recruit well in the Texas football hotbeds and build a contender in San Antonio pretty fast.

Eric Henry: Rice will be my answer as far as on the field is concerned. The Owls never stopped playing hard for Mike Bloomgren and I think year three could be where everything comes together.

Tanner Spearman: Definitely Rice. Four of the Owls’ nine losses were by a single possession, including against Baylor. After starting the year 0-9, Rice actually finished on a three-game winning streak, with two of those wins coming on the road. Ending the year on a high note like that is a good sign for the future of this program.

Joe Londergan: Rice is definitely starting to figure it out, but I’m going to say MTSU. I just think that O’Hara is a great piece to build around for the next couple of years and had they not started the year with three games against Michigan, Iowa, and Duke, but G5 opponents, they’d be waiting for a bowl spot.

Who is the Coach of the Year in C-USA?

Cyrus Smith: Bill Clark solidified that he’s the best coach in C-USA after guiding the Blazers to back-to-back C-USA Championship Game appearances. With that said, the job Will Healy has done at Charlotte this year was incredible. The energy from Lambert to Healy is completely night and day. The best season in school history after just one season - albeit the program is really young - is nothing scoff at. Healy should win COY.

Adam Woodyard: Tyson Helton. All due respect to Will Healy over at Charlotte, the Hilltoppers did more than make a bowl game, they finished one game back from division winner FAU. They also beat UAB and Southern Miss this season, two of the top three teams in the west. The Hilltoppers are legit.

Jake Auten: Without a doubt, Charlotte’s Will Healy. Taking a team projected to finish last in the division to the university’s first ever bowl appearance, all in year one? The energy and zest he’s brought to the 49ers is setting the tone, and maybe for the 49ers this is only the beginning of something greater.

Eric Henry: I’ve been on the Will Healy train since day one. He’s changed the culture in the Queen City and recruits are taking notice. Just as impressive, he’s been able to take the same roster that couldn’t get over the hump under Brad Lambert and put the Niners in a bowl game in his first season.

Tanner Spearman: Will Healy took over a program that had finished every season it had ever played with a losing record and got the 49ers to a bowl game. It’s one thing to build a program over time, but it’s another to give a school its best season ever in your first year. Charlotte fans will remember 2019 for a long time.

Joe Londergan: Will Healy. You have to give him credit for finally getting that program to a competitive place at the FBS level and completely hitting the reset button on the culture there. I’m very happy with Tyson Helton’s progress as well, but you have to give Healy credit for finally giving 49er fans something to cheer about.

Who deserves to be recognized for a postseason award (MVP, Newcomer of the Year, all-conference team)?

Cyrus Smith: I say this none jokingly, Harrison Bryant needs to be in conversation for MVP as I’m not sure what FAU’s offense looks like without his presence. Bryant leads the team with 965 yards, 6 TD, and averages 80.4 receiving yards per game.

Adam Woodyard: Dylan Hopkins at UAB. This guy stepped up when the starting QB went down, and beat division leader La Tech. If the Blazers don’t have a solid backup, then suddenly it’s the Bulldogs in the C-USA title game. Gotta love a deep bench.

Jake Auten: Darkhorse candidate here for me is both a defensive player of the year/newcomer of the year candidate in Marshall linebacker Tavante Beckett. A guy that was suspended and transferred in from Virginia Tech, Beckett hadn’t played since 2016 and finished the year as C-USA’s leading tackler. Accumulating 36 tackles in the final 3 weeks of the season alone, he was instrumental in helping the Herd have a top 5 conference defense in points and yards allowed.

Eric Henry: Because he won’t win it, I’ll recognize him here. Asher O’Hara could easily be C-USA’s MVP or Offensive Player of the Year if the Blue Raiders had a better record. Throwing for over 2,500 yards and rushing for 1,000 is impressive in itself. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he’s been a one man show, with the running back combination of Chaton Mobley, Jayy McDonald and Terelle West being sporadic. He’s improved a ton as a passer from his limited action at FIU last season.

Tanner Spearman: I’ll go with FAU’s Chris Robison. After a 12-12 touchdown-interception ratio last year, Robison has thrown for 22 touchdowns and only 5 picks so far this season. Although Mason Fine had more touchdowns and Jack Abraham had more yards, I think it’s fair to say Robison had the best season of any quarterback all things considered. With a chance to lead his team to a conference title, he has a solid case for either MVP or offensive player of the year.

Joe Londergan: I’m very interested to see who wins defensive player of the year. DeAngelo Malone led the league’s #2 scoring defense in tackles for loss with 21 and sacks with ten. I don’t think a defensive player meant more to his team’s success this year than Malone. On the other hand, Alex Highsmith led the entire league in both of those categories, but Charlotte really wasn’t that good of a defense overall. Then you have UAB who was statistically the best defense in the league as a unit, but there’s not really an individual performer that sticks out to me. So it’ll be interesting.

UTSA fired Frank Wilson after 4 years with a record of 19-29 while reaching one bowl game. Was this the right move? Who do you think UTSA should target as their next head coach?

Cyrus Smith: I’d have to say yes as fan support was dwindling. We’ll never know if Frank Wilson’s tenure would have gone better had Frank Harris never suffered those season ending injuries over the last two years. I’ve been on the Graham Harrell to UTSA train for a while now. Go get a young OC with Texas roots.

Adam Woodyard: Of course it was the right move, four years is definitive. The previous coaching staff’s players are gone, and your record is your record. UTSA should obviously target someone with head coaching or OC/DC experience at the collegiate level, which Wilson did not have, having been a running backs coach at LSU before getting the job.

Jake Auten: As I stated before, this was definitely the right move for the Roadrunners moving forward as a program. Frank Wilson brought recruiting success over from his LSU days and not much else, as only four of his 19 wins at UTSA came against FBS/FCS programs with winning records. As for a candidate, swinging for the fences would be calling a guy like current USC OC Graham Harrell. A man with a budding reputation as a playcaller and former OC at North Texas, Harrell would be an interesting fit in his first head coaching gig in San Antonio.

Eric Henry: Was it the right move - maybe. Frank Harris gets injured in consecutive years and it’s hard to grade Frank Wilson when the starting quarterback isn’t available. However, I completely understand the decision and it’s not much of a surprise. I’ve been saying since Lisa Campos was hired, that barring a major increase in wins, she would be looking to bring in her own hire as head coach. Her statement at the end of last season basically said as much.

Tanner Spearman: I think so. He made a bowl game in his first year with players he didn’t recruit, but couldn’t build on it. Perhaps they could have given him one more year to figure it out, but UTSA clearly felt things weren’t getting better. The Roadrunners have a young program, but an FBS school in San Antonio should be able to do better than these last few years.

Joe Londergan: I’m going to tentatively say yes. Just from the reaction of people who worked with him, Wilson clearly had a decent culture going within the program... but man, has that offense been bad the last couple of years. Although, Lowell Narcisse and Sincere McCormack started to figure it out at points this year, so hopefully whoever the next guy is will work well with those two guys.

Old Dominion and Bobby Wilder have parted ways after 11 seasons. What is your view of the job, and who do you think ODU will target as their next head coach?

Cyrus Smith: I think ODU is in the same position as Charlotte was last year with just a tad bit more upside. The new facilities show that ODU is really committed to building a successful program and their fan support is among the best in the conference. I guess someone from the Va Tech family would make sense but I have no idea who ODU will end up with.

Adam Woodyard: The job is obviously a good one, as ODU has proved their commitment by scheduling in-state rivals and expanding the stadium (the latter of which Charlotte hasn’t done). Difficult to know who they’ll target, as the AD hasn’t really had to worry about this in the 10+ years Bobby Wilder was head coach. I would imagine a successful FCS head coach from their general neck of the woods.

Jake Auten: This is a job on paper at ODU that to me should be pretty enticing to any coordinator/FCS head coach in the eastern US looking to make a move up the ranks of the coaching carousel. Zohn Burden, the current running backs coach at Virginia Tech, to me should at least get an interview. A former assistant and passing game coordinator at ODU, Burden has been a college assistant for 10+ years, and has developed a track record as one of the best recruiters in the state of Virginia. This is a guy who’s coached in the FCS playoffs as well as multiple bowl games, put the ball in his court Monarchs.

Eric Henry: Virginia as a state has produced a litany of collegiate and professional football players. ODU just renovated their stadium last year and it's one of the best in G5 football. I think the key for the program should be an emphasis on recruiting locally and then expanding from there. Here are two names that I think would create a splash and infuse energy into the program: Oklahoma assistant head coach Shane Beamer or New Orleans Saints receivers coach Ronald Curry. The Beamer name obviously holds weight in that region and Curry is a local legend who brings NFL coaching experience.

Tanner Spearman: Old Dominion has potential going forward. ODU is in a nice-sized city and has a brand new stadium. We’ve already seen the Monarchs have a 10-win season at the FBS level. If they nail this hire, they can build a good team that could compete for titles. With Liberty set to make its first-ever bowl appearance this year, now is the time for ODU to make a change and try to keep from getting left behind.

Joe Londergan: The job itself is pretty good. High budget, good facilities, loyal fans. Plus, let’s face it: with the amount of parity in this league, there’s always an opportunity for a young coach to make a name for himself. Personally, I think an assistant from Virginia Tech (Zohn Burden, for example) makes sense. One of them would know the area and the recruiting pipeline well and it would only continue to build the budding rivalry between those two programs.

Who will win the C-USA Championship Game?

Adam Woodyard: I know who I want to win the game, but who will win is FAU. They have the stronger offense, and better performances against common opponents than the Blazers. Having said that, all the Blazers do is prove people wrong, and I hope they do it again on Saturday.

Jake Auten: Bill Clark deserves a raise for bringing the UAB Blazers to back-to-back title games, but despite the hiccup to Marshall, 2019 has been the Lane Kiffin show for FAU and the Conference USA. I don’t anticipate a blowout, but to see the Owls pull away by 2-3 touchdowns wouldn’t be a massive surprise. Florida Atlantic wins their second C-USA title.

Eric Henry: Florida Atlantic. Simply put, they’ve been the best team in the conference for the past month or so. Chris Robison has turned the corner as a player and Glenn Spencer’s defense is rounding into form. Lane Kiffin doesn’t get enough credit (I know you’re rolling your eyes) for the job he’s done at FAU. You could say 2017 was with Charlie Partridge’s players, but this year was spearheaded by Kiffin and his recruits.

Tanner Spearman: I’m leaning FAU. The game is in Boca, and the Owls have quite frankly been the better team this year. FAU averages nine more points and nearly 70 more yards per game. UAB was exposed by Southern Miss and nearly lost to a Tech team that didn’t have its starting quarterback. Without that suspension, Tech would likely be playing in this game rather than UAB. Finally, FAU ranks 50th in SP+, while UAB is 65th. Although a UAB upset wouldn’t shock me, I tend to think the Lane Train will prevail.

Joe Londergan: FAU is tough to bet against, in my opinion. The offense looked dominant last week against Southern Miss, the defense has been consistently improving against the run game. The Blazers will present an interesting challenge though. At the end of the day, however, Lane Kiffin will probably get one more trophy for the case.

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