Welcome to the first edition of what will once again be a weekly staple on Underdog Dynasty during this year’s football season.
In case you’re new around here, the Conference USA Power Rankings are never a prediction for how things will end up, but rather a snapshot of how teams look at the moment.
1. North Texas (9-4 last season)
It is conference title or bust in North Texas this year. After briefly flirting with the Kansas State job, Seth Littrell returns at head coach and will attempt to remove the only blemish on his rebuilding job in Denton: Postseason success. Even with a new offensive coordinator in Bodie Reeder, Mason Fine should put up dynamite numbers once again at QB with receivers Jaelon Darden, Michael Lawrence, and Rico Bussey Jr. back in the fold. The weight of the season rests on a defense who must replace a bevy of playmakers at linebacker and defensive back. UNT is capable of winning a lot of shootouts but given the parity in C-USA, they could just as easily lose a few too.
2. Marshall (9-4)
Doc Holliday’s 10th Marshall team has the potential to be his best one. RBs Tyler King and Branden Knox are capable of being the best rushing attack in C-USA. A more seasoned Isaiah Green could turn in an excellent year at QB. The questions rest on defense, where the Herd must replace key members of their front seven. The secondary should be fine with Chris Jackson and Kereon Merrell back. Marshall’s biggest challenger for the C-USA East crown is FIU and they get the Panthers at home.
3. FIU (9-4)
After years of toiling in anonymity, there’s a buzz in Miami about the Panthers. After back-to-back bowl trips, fans believe this is the year Butch Davis leads FIU to a conference title. James Morgan is one of the best QBs in C-USA and is generating NFL buzz. Napoleon Maxwell, D’Vonte Price, and Anthony Jones have shown they are each capable of having a big game on the ground. FIU’s top three receivers also return. With a bunch of pieces returning in the secondary, conference title hopes hinges on the play of a defensive line that’s underwhelmed against the run. With road trips to Louisiana Tech, FAU and Marshall, the Panthers must become road warriors to win C-USA.
4. Southern Miss (6-5)
This feels like a big year for Jay Hopson. The Golden Eagles’ identity under Hopson has been inconsistent play. One game they look great, the next game they look listless. Unlike the teams above them, USM has no real questions on defense with their starting 11. The defensive line could be the best in C-USA with Jacques Turner, Demarrio Smith, Penn State transfer Torrence Brown, and now Alcorn State transfer Terry Whittington (one of the best defenders in FCS). The season rests on new offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner and his ability to get the most out of Jack Abraham and co.
5. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
The most consistent program in C-USA should be in the hunt for a conference title yet again. Amik Robertson will likely be the highest rated NFL Draft pick from C-USA next season. J’Mar Smith is inconsistent, but is also a proven leader at QB and capable of being a dangerous player when he’s on. The defense might take a step back without Jaylon Ferguson and a new defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco, but the schedule flips in difficulty as Southern Miss and North Texas both visit Ruston. If the offense can be just a little bit more consistent, a conference title could be in the cards.
6. FAU (5-7)
Teams ranked 1-5 are a little bit interchangeable to me. Any of them winning C-USA wouldn’t shock me at all. The drop off in C-USA starts here, but not by much. FAU is a really talented team. They are just as capable of winning the conference but they have just a few more questions. Will Lane Kiffin and OC Charlie Weis Jr. build a more creative offense? Without Devin Singletary, can the rushing offense be a threat? Is Chris Robison still the QB or will Justin Agner and Nick Tronti get the call? First-year DC Glenn Spencer did a great job turning around Charlotte and will have the players to turn in a solid unit once again. But when the most surest thing on your team is a unit who will have a new DC, it’s fair to question just what Year 3 under Lane Kiffin will produce.
7. UAB (11-3)
The defending conference champs are flying under the radar entering 2019. Losing almost your entire two-deep due to graduation on both units will do that. There’s a lot of hype around QB Tyler Johnston III as this is definitely his team. Spencer Brown is the bell-cow of the offense but outside of Brown, a lot of players will be asked to take on bigger roles. The best defense in C-USA last season still has talent in shutdown corner Brontae Harris but the front seven is starting from scratch. Bill Clark is a wizard. Despite all of the turnover a third straight bowl game appearance should still be feasible.
8. Middle Tennessee (8-6)
I thought about dropping MTSU a bit lower but I have too much faith in their defense. Reed Blakenship and Jovonte Moffatt will be terrific on the back end. Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas are high-end attacking players in the front seven. Without Brent Stockstill, MTSU will need to win games with their defense and Rick Stockstill has the players to do just that until a QB emerges.
9. Charlotte (5-7)
I’m not as high on the 49ers as my colleagues are. First-year head coaches tend to turn in volatile seasons. With that said, the talent on hand for new head coach Will Healy is undeniable. Benny LeMay is the second best RB in C-USA. The defense still has all-conference talents in Alex Highsmith, Jeff Gemmell, and Ben DeLuca. Oh, and they have the best kicker in C-USA in Jonathan Cruz. Depth is thin, but as far as top end talent goes, Charlotte has it.
10. UTSA (3-9)
It is a do or die type of season for Frank Wilson as his fourth year as head coach needs to result in wins. Now on his third offensive coordinator, the hire of Jeff Kastl will make or break the Roadrunners this season. All signs point to Frank Harris being named the starting QB. The former three-star recruit will join a bevy of three-star talents looking to play to their potential for a team that has the schedule to make a bowl game.
11. WKU (5-7)
New head coach Tyson Helton wants to bring the point-a-minute-Tops back to Bowling Green. For that to happen WKU will need to find a QB and I’m not sure they have one. The defense is a lot better than people think and will keep WKU in games. A run at a bowl game is certainly on the table but with a roster filled with underclassmen, setting the foundation for next season might be the main goal.
12. Old Dominion (4-8)
Feels like this is a turning point for Bobby Wilder’s tenure at ODU. The Monarchs must replace a bunch of playmakers such as Oshane Ximines. The offense will also be breaking in a new QB, and a bunch of new receivers. According to Phil Steele, ODU has the 110th toughest schedule in the country. While I’m not too sold on Bobby Wilder turning things around, there are definitely wins to be had.
13. Rice (1-11)
It’s the second season for Mike Bloomgren but to be clear, this is another Year 0 situation for the Owls. Rice has the toughest schedule of C-USA. Eight teams who made a bowl game last season are on the schedule. Four of those teams won at least nine games last season. The roster is still young where improvement in the win column is probably too much to ask but I still expect the Owls to be a tough out during conference play.
14. UTEP (1-11)
Dana Dimel is in a similar position as Mike Bloomgren minus the ridiculous schedule. The defense was low-key decent last year and will return some key members off their two-deep. Of course, offense is still a huge question mark. Quarterback especially.