Yes, the 2019 season isn’t even officially over yet and you’re about to read a power ranking article on the 2020 season.
Of course, there’s the last of signing day, spring workouts, the transfer portal will acquire another 1,000 players or so, and fall camp before we can take a serious look at how rosters will shape up.
However, who doesn’t love a good debate about where your team should be ranked?
So with that, as we enter the seemingly unending period without games to look forward to, here’s my way-too-early look at Conference USA in 2020.
While Florida Atlantic will certainly look different under Willie Taggart in his return to Conference USA after seven seasons, the core of last year’s conference championship team remains the same.
Quarterback Chris Robison will take the title as the league’s top signal-caller with the graduation of Mason Fine, coming off a year where he led C-USA in passing yards. The Owls’ backfield boasts multiple backs who are capable of carrying the load and Akileis Leroy will be a contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
2. UAB Blazers
Decisive losses in the final two games of the season may have put a damper on UAB’s 2019, expect Bill Clark and the Blazers to again be a factor in 2020. Yes, they’ll have to find a replacement for one of C-USA’s top defensive linemen in Garrett Marino.
However, they return multiple starters on defense and they’ll be boosted by the return of cornerback Brontae Harris.
If Spencer Brown is healthy and able to regain his 2018 form, the West division will again run through Birmingham.
At times in 2019, it looked as if Jay Hopson and Southern Miss had turned the proverbial corner. Entering the final two weeks of the season with a 7-3 record, the Golden Eagles had a chance to compete for the West division crown.
Then, the schedule hit them in the mouth - and they failed to punch back. Consecutive losses to two of the East’s top teams in FAU and WKU sent Southern Miss to a 7-5 mark, followed by 30 unanswered points in their Armed Forces Bowl loss to Tulane.
The positive heading into 2020 is quarterback Jack Abraham returns and is in year two under offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner. There’s enough returning talent to make another run - to avoid another 7-6 season - consistency is key.
Tyson Helton’s overnight success with Western Kentucky was one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season in C-USA. Now, they have to face with the task of being the hunted instead of the hunter.
A huge boost to those efforts will be reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Deangelo Malone. He, along with Devon Key and Kyle Bailey give WKU three of the top defensive players in-conference. If Steven Duncan or Davis Shanley can pick up where Ty Storey left off at the quarterback position, Western will have another shot at the East crown.
While it may be unfair to say Marshall’s 2020 hopes rest solely on the right arm of quarterback Isaiah Green, there are no two ways about it - he has to take the next step as a passer for the Herd to reach their full potential. Doc Holliday’s team returns the league MVP in 1,300-yard rusher Brenden Knox along with stud wideout Obi Obialo.
There are enough pieces defensively to get the job done under defensive coordinator Brad Lambert, which brings us back to Green. If he can raise his completion percentage and leave the ill-timed turnovers in the past, Marshall will be in great shape.
The 2019 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs were in control of their destiny en route to a West division championship until key suspensions hurt them down the stretch. Entering 2020, they’ll have to establish who will be under center and replace arguably the league’s top defensive player in star cornerback Amik Robertson.
Those tall tasks aside, Tech returns running back Justin Henderson who had a breakout 2019 campaign, receivers Adrian Hardy and Griffin Hebert, plus a standout pass-rusher in Willie Baker. Should they find players who can fill the shoes of various veteran losses on the defensive side of the ball, there’s no reason to think that the Bulldogs won’t be in the mix for a bowl game.
7. Charlotte 49ers
At C-USA Media Days last July, Will Healy said his goal was to make Charlotte “cool” as a destination for potential recruits. While the postgame locker room party termed “Club Lit” has helped in those efforts, what helped even more was securing the program’s first bowl appearance.
Heading into 2020, the Niners will lose stars Benny Lemay, Alex Highsmith and Cameron Clark. However, quarterback Chris Reynolds is one of the best signal-callers in the conference, receiver Victor Tucker is arguably top-5 at his position and safety Ben DeLuca should be back after missing most of last year.
Former 1,000-yard rusher Tre Harbison transferred from Northern Illinois and is more than capable of stepping in to fill the shoes of Lemay.
8. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
In 2019, it was the Asher O’Hara show for Rick Stockstill and the Blue Raiders. There’s no reason to believe it will be any different in 2020, but the key to MTSU returning to bowl contention will be the emergence of players around him. O’Hara threw for over 2,600 yards and rushed for 1,058 yards in his first season as the starter.
What sank Middle last season was a defense that couldn’t stop opposing offenses. With the return of all-conference safety Reed Blakenship from injury, Stockstill has two solid building blocks to help bring MTSU back to a bowl game.
Quite frankly, North Texas’ success or lack-thereof in 2020 will come down to how well they can replace Mason Fine at quarterback. The defense was most certainly an issue last year, to the point that defensive coordinator Troy Reffett was dismissed following the season.
While that side of the ball must be addressed, there’s enough returning talent on offense (Tre Siggers, potentially Rico Bussey Jr.) that should UNT be able to find steady quarterback play, they’ll be in the bowl discussion.
10. FIU Panthers
The Panthers were a massive disappointment in 2019. After returning the majority of their nine-win team from 2018, FIU took a step backward in the win column and now are facing an offseason that will see the departure of many key veterans.
Additionally, starting right tackle Devontay Taylor and kicker Jose Borregales have already entered the transfer portal. Now, Butch Davis is faced with replacing James Morgan at quarterback - and fixing an issue that’s been ongoing for two seasons - run defense.
The positive is that Davis and his staff have recruited well and transfers such as Jeremiah Holloman and Tyson Maeva will be eligible after sitting out last season. FIU isn’t lacking talent - but they are lacking experience at key positions.
11. Rice Owls
Everything is in place for Mike Bloomgren’s team to take the next step - except one thing - do they have enough talent?
There’s no doubt that he’s been able to change the culture and get the Owls to believe in his brand of football. Blaze Alldredge is the best player in Conference USA that most fans haven’t heard of (shame on you if you’re one of them) and the duo of Austin Trammell and Brad Rozner at receiver is the most underrated in-conference.
Major questions are who will play quarterback and do they have enough depth to compete for a bowl next season.
12. UTSA Roadrunners
It’s rebuilding mode in San Antonio for first-year head coach Jeff Traylor. The cupboard isn’t empty as former head coach Frank Wilson may have had his struggles on the field, but he was an effective recruiter.
C-USA Freshman of the Year Sincere McCormick is a huge building block while quarterbacks Frank Harris and Lowell Narcisse showed flashes last season. Replicating Western Kentucky’s turnaround in 2019 isn’t out of the question for the Roadrunners.
Former Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne takes over the Monarchs in 2020 and his biggest task will be solving the quarterback riddle that’s plagued ODU for the past three seasons. In 2017, then-17-year-old Steven Williams looked to be the heir apparent in Norfolk. Four games into the 2018 season, he was benched for Blake LaRussa.
Before last season, LaRussa left to enter seminary school and the Monarchs rotated two quarterbacks before giving true freshman Hayden Wolff the reins late in the year. Wolff had the most success as a passer and should enter next year as the starter.
Defensively, Old Dominion was one of the better units in C-USA. Former tight end Keion White has become one of the top defensive ends among the Group of Five ranks.
14. UTEP Miners
It’s been a rough two seasons for Dana Dimel at UTEP. Two wins in 24 games (one against an FBS opponent) have made the rebuilding task exponentially harder in El Paso. Like many other C-USA teams, the Miners have to establish consistency at the quarterback position. Former three-star recruit TJ Goodwin will compete with Gavin Hardison for the job.
At running back, they’ll get Quardraiz Wadley back after he missed 2019 with an injury and El Paso native Deion Hankins was their top-rated recruit in last year’s cycle. The expectation for UTEP will be to be competitive as often as possible and possibly exceed last year’s win total.