We’re baaaaaack! The 2019 season is right around the corner which means your favorite yearly roundtable is back as the staff is ready to offer predictions and analysis for the 2019 season in Conference USA.
If you’re wondering how we fared last year in predicting C-USA you can click here.
On to the roundtable...
Who is your surprise team in Conference USA this year?
Cyrus Smith: UTSA. Frank Wilson’s fourth season in San Antonio sees him on the hot seat. He’ll need to go 5-7 for administration to consider to bring him back. I think a run at bowl eligibility is feasible with Frank Harris at quarterback. An injury last season prevented him from making a debut. With new offensive coordinator Jeff Kastl leaning on a more wide open offense, the Roadrunners have the chance to surprise some teams with their athleticism and speed. Defense has never been an issue during Wilson’s time at UTSA. If the offense even improves just a little bit, the Roadrunners could be dangerous.
Jared Kalmus: Rice. Don’t get it twisted, Rice isn’t going to be a title contender this year, but they’re zagging when the rest of the conference is zigging. The Owls have quietly been stocking up young talent, and they’re going to beat up on teams that come into game day unprepared for a dog fight. I’m expecting Rice to give several C-USA teams a proper scare in the first half.
Eric Henry: Charlotte. For the better part of a year now, I’ve been a believer in the Charlotte football program. I strongly believe they have the facilities and location to be a sleeping giant in C-USA. As for this year’s team, Benny LeMay is arguably the best running back in the conference, the offensive line is adequate, and the defense has studs like Alex Highsmith and Ben DeLuca. If the quarterback situation can just be stable, I think they can win 6-7 games.
Steve Helwick: Charlotte. The 49ers’ brief FBS tenure has been a struggle at best, but the team seemed to be trending in the right direction toward the end of 2018. Charlotte finished .500 in the conference, beat Southern Miss, and played several of the contenders respectably. With their leading passer, rusher, and receiver returning, along with seven defensive starters, Will Healy has to be thrilled about the cards he was handed in his first season.
Joe Londergan: Charlotte. I thought Eric would laugh at me for this but we’re on the same page. Look, I’m not saying Charlotte is a championship team or anything, but I don’t believe that they will finish last in the division as the preseason media poll suggested. Benny LeMay really started to blossom last year and I think there’s enough talent on their offensive line for him to continue to get better.
Who is your breakout player?
Cyrus Smith: Middle Tennessee is really going to need a spark on offense as they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback. That spark should come from Brad Anderson, a hybrid running back/wide receiver who can score from anywhere on the field thanks to his blazing speed. Before being lost for the season with a knee injury, Anderson averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 12.3 yards per catch. Anderson was mainly used on flare screens, draws, and misdirection plays last season. If healthy, he’ll finish near the top in C-USA in all-purpose yardage.
Jared Kalmus: While all eyes were focused on the outstanding Tyre Brady last year, Obi Obialo stood waiting in the wings for his chance to take over the spotlight. That’s not to say Obialo wasn’t great last year — the team captain collected 42 receptions for 505 yards and four touchdowns last year. The former Oklahoma State walk-on has the talent and opportunity to be an all-conference player this year.
Eric Henry: As a JUCO transfer, Blaze Alldredge came out of nowhere to become one of the most underrated defensive players in C-USA last season. Now, as a full-time starter in 2019, look for him to have north of 100 tackles and double digit tackles for loss for Rice.
Steve Helwick: UAB loses its four leading receivers from 2018, which is 2,285 yards of lost production. Quarterback Tyler Johnston demonstrated his tremendous arm during the Boca Raton Bowl win over Northern Illinois with 373 yards and four touchdowns, so with an established passer leading the offense, expect solid receiver play. A bulk of Johnston’s passes in 2019 should head in the direction of Austin Watkins. Watkins only caught seven passes for 82 yards last season, but the former JUCO prospect will rise to the top of the depth chart and hope to replace Xavier Ubosi’s role with increased playing time on the Blazers.
Joe Londergan: Going to go out on a limb here and say WKU running back Joshua Samuel. The offense that Tyson Helton is going to want to run will rely heavily on the pass. Here’s the problem: we really don’t know if WKU is going to have a QB consistent enough to be THE guy there. So, Samuel is going to have to pick up the slack running the ball as well as catching some passes out of the backfield like he did last season.
Who is your pick to win C-USA Defensive Player of the Year & Offensive Player of the Year?
Cyrus Smith: Sage Lewis for defense. Mason Fine for offense. I could see numerous players winning the award on defense but I’d be shocked if Mason Fine did not take the award for offense.
Jared Kalmus: My colleagues are in unison on Lewis and Fine, so I’ll throw out some different names. Give me Amik Robertson on defense, and James Morgan on offense.
Eric Henry: Sage Lewis and Mason Fine. Both are the preseason pick to win the respective awards by the media and there’s no reason to think that (if healthy) they won’t rack up the stats to back up those predictions.
Steve Helwick: Mason Fine seems like a lock to wrap up the Offensive POTY for the third time. Defensively, I’ll pick Amik Robertson from Louisiana Tech to have a monster year as a ballhawk in the secondary.
Joe Londergan: Sorry it sounds like a broken record at this point, but Mason Fine is just the safest pick on the offensive side of the ball. My initial thought for defensive player of the year was Amik Robertson. However, I’m starting to think that because of how much he has been hyped up as of late, I think most quarterbacks are going to be inclined to avoid him altogether. I’m more confident in FIU linebacker Sage Lewis right now.
Over/Under 7.5 Teams from Conference USA will qualify for a bowl game
Cyrus Smith: Taking the under. Last year six teams reached the postseason with Southern Miss being eligible but not receiving a selection. I think we’re looking at seven teams again. UTEP and Rice are still a couple years away, I don’t think ODU will be any good, and Charlotte and WKU are wild cards.
Jared Kalmus: I’ll happily take the under. Many of the teams that I would consider to be on the bubble this year will probably need to pull off P5 upsets to reach bowl eligibility.
Eric Henry: I’ll take the under. The league lost a fair amount of players to graduation. Specifically bowl teams like UAB and Middle Tennessee State. In my opinion there’s three locks from each division (FIU, Marshall, FAU/UNT, La Tech, Southern Miss). Then MTSU, Charlotte, and UAB are wildcards, but I see two of those teams falling just short.
Steve Helwick: I’ll take the under, but barely. There’s no clear-cut dominant team in the conference this season, so there should be a lot of teams finishing the regular season 7-5 or 8-4. North Texas, Marshall, UAB, Southern Miss, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Charlotte are my picks. But non-conference struggles will prevent an eighth team from bowling.
Joe Londergan: Give me the under. I think there are five teams I’m pretty confident will make bowl games. There are two I feel okay about, but wouldn’t put money on. I really don’t see more than seven making a bowl game.
Your sleeper picks to win C-USA East and C-USA West are…
Cyrus Smith: Doesn’t it feel like Louisiana Tech is due for a division crown? They’ve consistently been a solid program under Holtz but haven’t won the division since 2016. They have a two-year starter at QB in J’Mar Smith and still have one of the best players in the conference in shutdown corner Amik Robertson. They get North Texas and Southern Miss in Ruston. In the East I’m going with FAU and the Lane Train. 2018 was a huge disappointment but the Owls weren’t that far from a solid season as they were 1-4 in one-possession games. Special teams is still a question mark but if Chris Robison can improve at QB from his freshman season and Glen Spencer can continue his one-year turnaround magic on defense, the Owls have the talent to make a run. Middle Tennessee, Marshall and FIU all visit Boca Raton.
Jared Kalmus: Assuming Marshall and FIU are off the table on the East, I’ll take a chance on Charlotte. I have no idea how the 49ers’ offense will look this year given the dog fight at QB and Rico Arnold’s season-ending injury, but I like what Charlotte is building and Will Healy seems like the type of guy that can work miracles. On the western side of the conference, I think Southern Miss is extremely slept on this offseason. Jack Abraham will need to be more bold in taking shots down field, but Quez Watkins should give Abraham plenty of space to work with if he looks up for the big play. I also really like the core of Drake Dorbeck, Ty Pollard, and Arvin Fletcher upfront. The defense should be among the best in the league too.
Eric Henry: FAU is a major sleeper, as they’re probably a year away from truly being a contender to win the East. However, if the quarterback situation can improve from last season and they’re able to get consistent play from their new running backs, they could surprise some people. As for Southern Miss, they should have a heck of a defense, which is especially crucial since North Texas is in their division. Should Jack Abraham continue to progress, they have enough pieces to win the West.
Steve Helwick: From the West, my sleeper pick is Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles sported a top-five defense in yards allowed per game, and they have a bulk of that group back including All-C-USA defensive end Jacques Turner and strong safety Ky’el Hemby. The offense should be fine under one of college football’s most accurate passers in Jack Abraham. Considering three of Southern Miss’ five losses in 2018 came by a total of seven points, expect the Golden Eagles to improve their late-game execution and contend. Out East, I’ll stick with Charlotte as my sleeper. Although I think the 49ers are still a step behind Marshall and FIU, Benny LeMay can carry that offense to new heights. It will be intriguing to see what Will Healy can do with the keys to this program after his miracle work at Austin Peay in the FCS.
Joe Londergan: In the east, seems like it’s a two-horse race between Marshall and FIU. So the best choice for a sleeper pick in the East is probably Florida Atlantic. You can’t doubt the amount of talent on that roster, even if there isn’t a lot of experience. Plus, Lane Kiffin is still the same offensive mind he has (pretty much) always been. In the west, I actually have a really good feeling about Louisiana Tech. Adrian Hardy is a great playmaker. J’Mar Smith gets better and better every year. Amik Robertson might just be “leave school early” good on defense.
Most likely Power 5 win for the conference...
Cyrus Smith: Not a ton of options this year. I’ll go with North Texas over California. Cal’s offense is terrible but they do have a great defense. Strawberry Canyon isn’t exactly a hostile environment either.
Jared Kalmus: UNT over Cal is the only one that’s truly feasible to me, but I’ll go with WKU over Arkansas for the sake of chaos.
Eric Henry: I think it's pretty clear that North Texas over California is a safe bet. UNT pulled it off last year in decisive fashion on the road at Arkansas. This year, they're at Cal. While I think Justin Wilcox has the Golden Bears heading in the right direction, they're not equipped to deal with Mason Fine & company.
Steve Helwick: North Texas over California is low-hanging fruit for this question. Cal’s defense is elite, but Mason Fine and North Texas’ offense will outshine that of the Golden Bears. The only other games that tempted me were UAB-Tennessee and FIU-Miami (FL).
Joe Londergan: North Texas over California. Easy. BUT...I also really want to see FIU beat Miami for the kind of freak out that that would ensue from my Hurricane-invested colleagues.
Over/Under 2.5 Teams will experience a coaching change this year
Cyrus Smith: Under. I can only see Bobby Wilder and Frank Wilson being fired. Maybe Lane Kiffin turns in a big year and leaves but I don’t see that happening either. The Power 5 is pretty stable right now so I don’t foresee too many P5 schools looking for a new head coach.
Jared Kalmus: Under. Right now my gut says that UTSA has a minor rebound year and Frank Wilson returns in 2020. I could see MTSU cratering and Stockstill moving on. Littrell is always a threat to get a P5 gig. Other than that things seem fairly locked in.
Eric Henry: Under. While the key here is “coaching change” and not firing, I still think the only real candidates are Bobby Wilder and Frank Wilson. Much has been made of FAU being on borrowed time with Lane Kiffin as their coach. I can honestly say that he looks more than comfortable being out of the national limelight in Boca. The wildcard is Seth Littrell. While he signed an extension over the offseason, if a P5 team comes calling with the right amount money, I’d say it’s a possibility. Especially with the large senior class that will depart this year.
Steve Helwick: Under. This will be the offseason Seth Littrell gets poached by a “Power Six” program, especially considering North Texas loses a load of senior talent this offseason. The only other coaching change I envision is UTSA moving on from Frank Wilson if the Roadrunners win fewer than five games.
Joe Londergan: Over. Just to be the contrarian. I think we’ll have two get fired and one leave of their own volition. *twiddles fingers* DRAMA
Who will win Conference USA?
Cyrus Smith: FIU over North Texas. Butch Davis has slowly built FIU from decent to now one of the most talented teams in the conference. The Panthers are arguably the most complete team in C-USA and could really enter the Shula Bowl 9-0. As for the West, the combination of Seth Littrell and Mason Fine should give UNT a slight edge over their conference rivals as UNT is just more stable than anyone in the division right now. I’m always going to be of the opinion that a Florida school and a Texas school squaring off in the championship game is good for the conference. FIU beats North Texas at home to solidify Butch Davis’ career as one of the best program builders in college football history.
Jared Kalmus: North Texas over FIU. I’m curious to see how the Mean Green look at offensive tackle and linebacker this year, but overall I can put my faith in Mason Fine and Seth Littrell to deliver a conference championship to Denton before the two ride off into the sunset together. FIU is loaded in so many positions, and Butch Davis has the steady hand to lead FIU to the title game. Whether or not FIU takes the East likely depends on Isaiah Green’s development at QB for Marshall.
Eric Henry: FIU over North Texas. There’s no two ways about it, FIU has all of the pieces to win the conference. If they can fix the run defense (12th in C-USA last season) the rest of the team has no noticeable weaknesses. For UNT, having Mason Fine behind center almost guarantees them 7-9 wins. Couple that with the motivation of three straight bowl game losses and this could be the year that Seth Littrell’s club makes the conference title game and gets over the hump.
Steve Helwick: North Texas over Marshall. There was a moment in late September of 2018 where I thought North Texas could run the table and challenge for an access bowl. Then, the blocked field goal happened against Louisiana Tech and the Eagles finished 5-4. This year will be a revenge tour and result in a conference championship, a perfect way to cap off Mason Fine’s final collegiate season. Marshall also rises to power every few years and I like the Thundering Herd’s direction with dynamic playmakers Isaiah Green and Tyler King leading the offense in a wide-open East.
Joe Londergan: North Texas over FIU. Seth Littrell needs at least one conference title before he inevitably leaves for a higher profile, higher paying job. They’ve come so close the last two seasons. It almost seems poetic with this being Mason Fine’s senior season doesn’t it? But FIU is going to give a good run at it from the East, I reckon. The job Butch Davis has done with this program is really something.