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Conference USA Championship - North Texas v Florida Atlantic Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

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Conference USA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2020 Season

The staff offers their sleepers, breakout players and division winners for what’s certain to be season unlike any other before.

Following what’s been an offseason unlike any other, the 2020 season is scheduled to begin with UAB and Southern Miss opening the Conference USA season on week one.

With the season right around the corner, this means your favorite yearly roundtable is back as well. Our staff is ready to offer predictions and analysis for the season in C-USA.

If you’re wondering how we fared last year, you can click here.

Who is your surprise team in Conference USA this year?

Eric Henry: FIU. There’s no denying that the Panthers underachieved last season and they have the task of replacing an NFL quarterback (James Morgan) and two NFL cornerbacks (Isaiah Brown & Stantley Thomas-Oliver III). However, the additions of JJ Holloman and Tyson Maeva, both of whom were impact players for big-time programs gives FIU two of the top talents in the league. If Butch Davis can get the quarterback situation settled, they could surprise C-USA, similarly to their nine-win 2018 campaign.

Jared Kalmus: MTSU. The Blue Raiders had terrible injury luck last season, which compounded with a brutal out of conference schedule. This made the 2019 season a wash for the Blue Raiders, but the progression of quarterback Asher O’Hara gave hope for the future. Outside of the senior leadership of Reed Blankenship, there aren’t many known quantities on the defensive side of the ball. I can’t pencil MTSU in as a championship contender until their defense shows more promise, but O’Hara should be productive enough to make the Blue Raiders greatly improved over last season.

Steve Helwick: Rice. The Owls were miles better than their 3-9 record suggested last season. Rice only lost by eight points to Sugar Bowl participant Baylor, and played respectably against the conference’s top teams — Louisiana Tech (23-20), Southern Miss (20-6), Marshall (20-7). Rice only allowed 30 points twice in C-USA play last year, and the team returns nine starters. The linebacking corps should have no problem stifling any rushing offense, and with nine returning defensive starters, the Owls should have the best defense in the conference. Finding a quarterback is the Owls’ next step in development and TCU grad transfer Mike Collins might be the cure to Rice’s 123rd ranked scoring offense (17.9 PPG) going forward.

Hunter Bailey: Charlotte. While the 49ers surprised in 2019 by posting a 7-6 record and achieving bowl eligibility for the first time, this year’s squad has a tougher schedule with only four games in the queen city. Will Healy’s unit is returning 13 starters from the program’s lone winning season, and has the tools in place to replace the production of 2019 stars Alex Highsmith, Benny LeMay, Jeff Gemmell, and Cameron Clark. The 49ers’ return junior QB and Manning award candidate Chris Reynolds, their top five receivers, and have two capable backs in Aaron McAllister and NIU transfer Tre Harbison. Charlotte landed C-USA’s highest rated recruit, 4-star guard Ty’kiest Crawford to sure up the offensive line. The defense was the achilies heel last year, but the return of Tyriq Harris, Markees Watts, and Ben DeLuca is promising sign for the 49er faithful.

Jake Auten: Southern Miss. The pendulum of success in Hattiesburg certainly feels like it must sway on the production of quarterback Jack Abraham. Racking up close to 3,500 yards and 19 touchdowns in a breakout 2019 campaign, the redshirt senior pairs himself with a defense that returns six of its eight top tacklers from a season ago. Recent opt-outs on offense and from defensive stalwart Jacques Turner could stir things up, but the Golden Eagles nonetheless have a blueprint for a possible underdog run under Jay Hopson.

Joe Londergan: MTSU. After seeing what Asher O’Hara did last season, I have high hopes for the Blue Raiders. It will definitely take a team effort. As Jared mentioned, hopefully they have better luck with injuries. With so much weirdness in the East between Old Dominion opting out and FAU losing some key talent, the door is open for them to make a name for themselves.

Who is your breakout player?

Eric Henry: I’ve been on the record as saying that the moment JJ Holloman steps on the field as a member of Conference USA, he’ll be the most dynamic player in the league. He was making one-handed catches against Florida for the Georgia Bulldogs in 2018, and would have been a starter for them last season, had he not been dismissed from the program. Holloman has all of the makings of an NFL receiver and will prove as much at FIU.

Jared Kalmus: Fresh off a strong 2019 campaign (53 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 10 sacks) at UAB, Jordan Smith should become recognized as one of the top players in the league this season. A Chuck Bednarik and Nagurski Award Watch List member, Smith should exit the 2020 season as an NFL Draft prospect.

Steve Helwick: Marshall lost several key weapons this offseason. Tight end Armani Levias graduated after hauling in 19 more receptions than anyone else on the team last year. Also, starting wide receiver Obi Obialo transferred back to Big 12 country to play for Oklahoma. With limited returning weapons in the passing game, I can see major production on the rise for Thundering Herd wideout Talik Keaton. Keaton is entering his sophomore year after a 9-reception freshman campaign in which he held punt return duties. His speed presents a problem to corners in 1-on-1 coverage and averaged nearly 16 yards a reception in 2019. He complements fellow wide receiver Willie Johnson’s game well, and if Grant Wells succeeds with the deep ball, Keaton may be his go-to target. No Marshall wide receiver notched more than 19 receptions a year ago, but that’s destined to change in Keaton’s sophomore season.

Jake Auten: Almost a complete sleeper candidate coming to Rice as a JUCO transfer a year ago, Brad Rozner put his massive 6’5” frame to work and accrued 770 yards receiving and five scores on an Owls team that found its mojo late in the year. Performances like the one against Middle Tennessee in 2019 could be more commonplace this season as Rozner also found himself on the Biletnikoff Award watchlist.

FAU’s Nick Tronti is set to assume the quarterback job with Chris Robison no longer in Boca.
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hunter Bailey: The surprising departure of Chris Robison from FAU made waves in C-USA, but ultimately left the door open for Nick Tronti to take charge. Tronti was utilized in a plethora of run packages in 2019 but will be asked to do much more through the air moving forward. The 6-2 junior verbally committed to Charlotte out of high school, flipped to Indiana, and the transferred to FAU where he’s carved out a role under Lane Kiffin and now Willie Taggart.

Joe Londergan: Whoever ends up playing QB for WKU. With that position still something of a question mark for the Tops, it’s naive to think that whoever wins that job will not have a massive impact on WKU’s record this year. Their options include Kevaris Thomas, Davis Shanley, and grad transfer Tyrell Pigrome.

Who is your pick to win C-USA Defensive Player of the Year & Offensive Player of the Year?

Eric Henry: In a pick sure to make Florida Atlantic fans thrilled, I’ll take Marshall’s Brenden Knox for OPOY. Despite facing seven and eight-man fronts down the stretch of last season, Knox led the league in rushing and I expect him to repeat that feat in 2020. Keep an eye on MTSU’s Asher O’Hara as well. He’s capable of putting up monster numbers. On the defensive side of the ball, Western Kentucky’s Deangelo Malone was one of the top pass rushers in the league last year and I expect him to duplicate his efforts this year.

Jared Kalmus: Six of the last seven C-USA OPOTY winners have been quarterbacks. In expectation of that trend to continue, I’m going to pick Asher O’Hara. Jack Abraham should give him some pretty stiff competition, but O’Hara’s dual threat ability should give him a leg up in a year where most teams will be missing contributors on a weekly basis. Defensively I think any three of UAB’s linebackers are in a really good position to claim the award, but I’ll pick Kris Moll to walk away with the hardware at the end of the season.

Steve Helwick: This may be a sleeper pick for the award, but I think Florida Atlantic running back Malcolm Davidson could realistically break the 1,000-yard mark in 10 games. Davidson exceeded all expectations as FAU tried to adjust to life without Devin Singletary last year, averaging 7.0 yards a carry and putting on a clinic in the C-USA title game with 11 rushes and 128 yards. The dismissal of Chris Robison shifts FAU further toward its reliable running game, and Davidson steps up and takes the conference’s rushing crown. As for defense, Rice outside linebacker Blaze Alldredge finished second in the FBS in tackles for loss with 21.5 as a junior and was one of the most underrated players in college football. He’s the Owls best pass rusher as well and added four sacks on top of 102 tackles. I expect Alldredge to get more involved in pass coverage this season, and he’ll fit the mold of a fully-polished linebacker.

Middle Tennessee v Florida Atlantic
Asher O’Hara is one of the top talents among Group of Five teams.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Hunter Bailey: In a year where having a solidified starting QB is of even higher importance, I think Blue Raiders are set as Asher O’Hara is poised to have a monstrous sophomore season. O’Hara was top 5 in C-USA in both passing and rushing in the 2019 season in which he threw for 20 touchdowns and posted a 138.2 efficiency rating. As the season progressed, teams spied more and more in attempt to contain his dual threat ability but to no avail as he placed fourth in C-USA with 1,140 yards on the ground, the highest of any QB. As for defense, I think DeAngelo Malone will continue to be a wrecking ball on the Hilltoppers defensive line and improve on his 11.5 sack total in 2019, the second highest in C-USA. Malone finished second in Defensive Player of the Year awards for C-USA last season behind current Pittsburgh Steeler Alex Highsmith.

Jake Auten: Little can be said to dispute that Brenden Knox has the best chance at repeating as Offensive POY just by mere default, and stats show it. The conference’s leading rusher from a year ago, his services will be relied on even more so this season as Marshall replaces transferring signal-caller Isaiah Green, so his numbers could be just as good even in a COVID-shortened campaign. The only reason people haven’t heard the name Blaze Alldredge for his performance last season was because of the program of which he represented. 102 tackles with 21.5 tackles for loss are massive numbers, and if it’s possible to get anymore involved than he already has, Alldredge just might find a way to do it.

Joe Londergan: For all the reasons that everyone else has already mentioned, DeAngelo Malone makes a strong case to repeat as defensive player of the year. Seriously, have you see this guy rush a passer? Dude eats offensive lines like I crush burritos after a 1 AM trip to Taco Bell. On offense, the fact is that Asher O’Hara is the most prolific returning player in C-USA in several categories. Keep an eye out.

Team most likely to disappoint...

Eric Henry: UAB. I’m a huge believer in Bill Clark’s team and the success they’ve had since returning to college football. They’re loaded on defense and have the potential to be a high-scoring offensive team. However, it can’t be ignored that of their nine wins last year, four came over Akron, UTEP, ODU and South Alabama — who combined for a record of 4-44 last season — and a fifth over FCS Alabama State. They face a tougher slate this year, which could result in a slight step backwards.

Jared Kalmus: USM. It was pretty concerning to see Racheem Boothe, Steven Anderson, Jacques Turner, and Jaylond Adams all announce their pending transfers out of Hattiesburg. Attrition happens to every program, but losing so many veterans like that is troublesome and may indicate a poor locker room culture.

Steve Helwick: UAB won nine games last year but its only win over a team better than 4-8 occurred against Louisiana Tech, so the Blazers struggled with quality competition. They were steamrolled by Southern Miss (37-2), Tennessee (30-7), and FAU (49-6). The shortened 2020 schedule features Miami (FL), WKU, Louisiana Tech, and Southern Miss, so I wouldn’t be surprised if UAB reverted back to the .500 mark. However, don’t let any UAB disappointment in 2020 take away from the fact that the Blazesr won 28 games and a conference title in the three years following the program shutdown.

Jake Auten: As much as I also want to say Louisiana Tech could be a sleeper candidate, I also just as easily believe the Bulldogs could show some rust solely due to circumstantial loss. Three starters gone on the offensive line, everyone gone including veteran Amik Robertson in the secondary, compounded by the loss of quarterback J’Mar Smith just feels like too deep of a cut to sew back up all at once. Skip Holtz always seems to make due in Ruston with a manageable schedule, but the Bulldogs almost have to hit the ground running to reach the same level of success.

Hunter Bailey: UAB. As mentioned by Eric and Steve, the Blazers face a much tougher schedule for the 2020 campaign, but I’m not sure the slip will be down to .500. I can’t see them making a third straight appearance in the C-USA championship game this season, but they do face a lot of the top teams in C-USA in Birmingham.

Joe Londergan: I think LA Tech is going to drop off a bit. I still think they have a decent shot to make a bowl game (if those still exist this year), but I don’t think they will light up the scoreboard in the same fashion that some of Skip Holtz’s other recent teams have.

Your sleeper picks to win C-USA East and C-USA West are…

Eric Henry: Rice in the West and Charlotte in the East. Every game on the Owls’ schedule (as currently constituted) is winnable. The key for Mike Bloomgren will be if he can finally find stability at the quarterback position. Outside of that, there are enough pieces in place to make a run. The top QB-WR tandem in C-USA resides in the Queen City, with Chris Reynolds and Victor Tucker back for another season together. Tre Harbison is more than capable of picking up where Benny Lemay left off at running back. While they have to replace Alex Highsmith, Charlotte isn’t lacking talent of the defensive side of the ball.

Jared Kalmus: It feels strange to pick a team that won 11 games last season as a sleeper, but people are definitely sleeping on FAU this fall. Yes the Owls have to replace Lane Kiffin and Chris Robison, but Willie Taggart and Nick Tronti aren’t a terrible drop off. FAU still has a loaded pantry of high level recruits and get WKU and Charlotte at home. On the west side of the conference I’ll take Rice. The Owls finished 2019 on a modest three game winning streak (their only wins of the season) and Mike Bloomgren has had more time to build his roster in his image. The west is very top-heavy this year, but the Owls will be a tough out.

Steve Helwick: For the West, Rice is the perfect sleeper team. As I stated earlier, the 3-9 record wasn’t indicative about how tough of an an opponent the Owls were in conference play last season. The Blaze Alldredge-led defense suffocated some of C-USA’s best offenses, routinely holding teams below three touchdowns. Offensively, the Owls run a rather-unique pro-style offense which could trip up teams in terms of preparation. For the East, I’m picking Charlotte for the second-straight season. Without Benny LeMay and Alex Highsmith, Charlotte loses a lot of star power, but rising star head coach Will Healy still has valuable pieces in place. The starting QB and best receiver on the roster — Chris Reynolds and Victor Tucker — are back for business, and LeMay’s replacement will be former Northern Illinois tailback Tre Harbison. Harbison eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark twice in the MAC and his presence creates a dangerous triumvirate on Healy’s offense.

Jake Auten: How the West is won in 2020 is anyone’s guess, but it’d be a travesty to not have Rice as my sleeper pick. The heavy emphasis does seem to be on whether the offense can carry enough traction to keep them in games long enough to win, but if you base projections solely off how the Owls ended their 2019 campaign Mike Bloomgren has to feel pretty loose with where he can take his team. The Charlotte 49ers were rolled over in their first ever bowl appearance last year against Buffalo, but reaching that pinnacle alone has to feel like a substantial building block for a Will Healy-led team that plays with tons of energy. Quarterback Chris Reynolds is an incredible leader, watch out.

Hunter Bailey: In the East, I’ve got to go with Charlotte. The 49ers will play 7 of their 11 games on the road, including four of their first five. This is concerning as Charlotte didn’t win a game on the road until week 10 at 1-win UTEP last season. Will Healy & co. will have to find a way to win in hostile environments (the lack of crowds may help), but if they can bring the same energy on the road, they have all the tools to compete for the East division crown. It’s hard to deny Rice being the best sleeper option for the West. From winning their final and only three games of the season to playing some of the best competition in the conference close, I think this group will undoubtedly take a step forward and cause problems for some of the favorites in 2020.

Most likely Power 5 win for the conference

Eric Henry: I’ll go out on a limb — UAB will go to Hard Rock Stadium and beat Miami. The Hurricanes are without defensive end Gregory Rousseau, while G5 transfers D’Eriq King and Qunicy Roche are now under a massive microscope. If the Blazers can get the best version of Tyler Johnston along with the talent they have on defense, there’s no reason to think that they can’t compete for four quarters.

Jared Kalmus: Pretty hard to pick since there are so few out of conference games this year. I guess La Tech over Baylor.

Hunter Bailey: Charlotte heads to Durham to take on the Blue Devils on Halloween, and while there is no ruling on fan attendance for that time yet, you can bet there wouldn’t be much of a home field advantage regardless. Chris Reynolds must play a clean game and keep the offense on the field to win in a shootout.

Steve Helwick: The options for this question are very limited, and I don’t think a single Power 5 win happens for the C-USA this year. But the conference’s favorite ACC team pops up once again on the schedule — the Miami Hurricanes face UAB on Thursday, Sept. 10. The C-USA repeatedly dunked on Miami toward the tail end of 2019, when FIU upset the Canes at Hard Rock Stadium and Louisiana Tech embarrassed them with a 14-0 shutout in the Independence Bowl. So, UAB may have a chance if Miami’s offense experiences similar lapses. But if WKU over independent BYU is an acceptable answer, I’ll go with that instead.

Jake Auten: This is easily the most difficult question to answer on the list due to our situation with COVID-19 and so many non-conference games being dropped out of contention, but I am really fond of the Halloween matchup seeing Charlotte head to Durham against David Cutcliffe’s squad. To put it plainly, the Blue Devils looked abysmal late last season, and if Clemson transfer Chase Brice isn’t what he’s panned out to be, I could easily see Charlotte pulling of a close upset.

Joe Londergan: There’s only a handful of games against P5 teams, but I also think that Charlotte has the potential to beat Duke. Will Healy will be able to celebrate with a delicious chicken sandwich.

Over/Under 2 Teams will experience a coaching change this year

Eric Henry: Under. In my opinion, it’s hard for any program to justify making a coaching change, given the tumultuous offseason and circumstances surrounding the season. If there is going to be a change, the only one I could forsee is Dana Dimel at UTEP. To be honest, I’d be in favor of Dimel returning next season even if there was a “normal” offseason.

Jared Kalmus: Under. Schools are broke and don’t have the cash flow to pay for contract buyouts. Dana Dimel is of course on the hot seat, but his contract runs through January 31st, 2023 for some godforsaken reason.

Steve Helwick: Teams missed out on spring football. Due to the constant alteration of schedules and opponents, adequate preparation for this season has almost been impossible. Also, this has been a trying time financially for many college athletic programs, such as Old Dominion, which are forced to cut non-revenue sports. Parting with a coach under contract can’t be justified in a broken season like this, especially given the bleaker financial situations of some programs, so I’ll not only go with under — I’ll go with zero.

Hunter Bailey: Under. This season has already and is going to continue to present challenges across the entire college football world, and with that said, it’s hard to imagine moving on from a leader in your program at a time like this.

Jake Auten: Under. Pinning unemployment on top of a college football head coach who’s arguably already had about the worst offseason experience he’ll ever have due to a worldwide pandemic seems almost like a figment of the imagination, so here’s hoping it’s zero.

Joe Londergan: Under. I think one will go, such is the nature of college football. But going into a coaching search in this climate is a task that I do not envy. I imagine pretty much every AD feels the same way.

Who will win Conference USA?

Eric Henry: With the COVID-19 pandemic hovering over college athletics (and colleges as a whole) this will be a season unlike any other. Multiple coaches are on the record saying that they’ll be attempting to prep second and third-string players to play at any time. That being said, if the 13 C-USA teams are able to make it through the entire season unscathed, I’m taking WKU and UAB to play in the conference championship game and UAB as the winner.

Jared Kalmus: Teams with depth and strong defenses will reign supreme this season. I’m picking WKU over UAB for that reason. This all hedges on Tyrell Pigrome under center for the Hilltoppers, but WKU’s defense should be salty enough to cover any hiccups on the offensive side. Meanwhile UAB enjoys a stacked roster with a ton of returning experience. Tyler Johnston III will need to be more selective with the ball if the Blazers are to enjoy a championship this season.

Bill Clark has been one of the top coaches in college football for several years now.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Steve Helwick: If we get far enough to the C-USA title game, WKU will defeat Southern Miss in a rematch of the 2016 edition of the event. There’s so much talent on both sides of the ball for the Hilltoppers. Hauling in former Maryland quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome was a significant landing in the transfer portal this offseason. The ‘Tops running game will present some danger with Gaej Walker in the backfield and the receiving corps is still strong with Jahcour Pearson in the mix. Defensively, DeAngelo Malone will replicate his monstrous pass rushing season from 2019 and Devon Key is one of the strongest hitting safeties in the country. WKU’s opponent for the conference championship will be Southern Miss, which will ride the successes of quarterback Jack Abraham through the West division.

Jake Auten: Needless to say, none of us expected this. A tumultuous season with so many inevitable twists and turns is on the horizon, but if we look solely at what we have to go with on paper there’s only a handful of teams in the conference who can truly consider themselves deep. It’s anyone’s ballgame, but I’ll take a flyer on WKU beating Southern Miss in the title game. The Hilltoppers return a lot of production, and I truly believe Southern Miss can kick the wheels on a championship run if the offense can be consistent and do its job.

Hunter Bailey: I am hoping that things go as smooth as possible and we get a full season, or as close as we can. WKU surprised me in a major way last year and I think they have everything they need to solidify themselves as one of the best in the conference. With that said, I think Jack Abraham and Southern Miss will hit their stride and down the Hilltoppers in a tight contest for the C-USA title.

Joe Londergan: WKU’s amount of returning talent is very encouraging. I’ll tab them to win the East. In the West, it’s tough to imagine anybody other than UAB winning that division, especially with Mason Fine now gone from North Texas. That will be a tough defensive battle, but I pick UAB there because they’re more experienced.

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