Despite the 2020 season seeing 58 games canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a litany of playmakers emerged in Conference USA last year. In the league’s 25 seasons of play, quarterbacks have been named C-USA’s Offensive Player of the Year 18 times, making 2021’s candidacy all the more intriguing given last year’s quarterback struggles throughout the conference.
2020’s winner in UTSA running back Sincere McCormick has a chance to become the sixth player to repeat as OPOY and the first since former North Texas signal-caller Mason Fine did so in 2017 and 2018. While the Roadrunners’ star should be considered the frontrunner, there are plenty of talented players in their own right who will look to unseat McCormick.
Let’s take a look at 10 early candidates who could take home the award.
10. QB - Chris Reynolds, Charlotte
The 5-11, 195-pound Reynolds clawed his way from a fifth-string walk-on quarterback to writing his name in the 49ers’ record books. The Mocksville, North Carolina native holds the youthful program’s record for passing yards in a season and is second all-time in passing yards. With all of that said, Reynolds will face competition from former four-star recruit James Foster, who transferred from Texas A&M in December. Reynolds is no stranger to competition, winning quarterback competitions in 2018 and 2019. If he’s the full-time starter in 2021, Reynolds is still one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in C-USA.
9. WR - Jason Brownlee, Southern Miss
A former JUCO All-American, Brownlee burst onto the C-USA scene for Southern Miss during a tumultuous 2020 season. The Mississippi native established himself with three consecutive 100-yard performances and was second among league wideouts in yards per catch (17.9). First-year head coach Will Hall produced dynamic offenses during his tenure as Tulane’s offensive coordinator and Golden Eagle fans should expect the same in Hattiesburg. If Hall is able to establish a quarterback early, Brownlee is a more than capable target.
8. WR - Deonte Simpson, North Texas
It’s easy to get lost in the crowd when you’re playing second fiddle to Jaelon Darden’s starring role as the top wideout in C-USA last season. However, Simpson had a solid 2020 campaign in his own right. The 6-0, 190-pound junior finished second on the team in receptions (25) and receiving yards (517) while hauling in four scores. Since Seth Littrell took over at the helm of the Mean Green in 2016, North Texas has averaged at least 283 passing yards per game four times. No matter who’s behind center in Denton, expect the ball to be in the air and Simpson will be a prime target.
7. RB - Frank Gore Jr., Southern Miss
The son of veteran NFL running back Frank Gore, Gore Jr.’s production only increased as his true freshman season progressed. His 5.9 yards per carry ranked second among C-USA backs and he finished the season with a 111-yard performance against one of the league’s top defenses in Florida Atlantic. He’ll enter 2021 as the established number one back and is primed for a Sincere McCormick-like sophomore season.
6. QB - Grant Wells, Marshall
Wells will enter 2021 with a major chip on his shoulder given the way his 2020 season came to a close. After throwing only four interceptions through his first seven starts, Wells had an abysmal five-interception outing against Rice and a less than stellar conference title game versus UAB. With Marshall returning big-play wideout Corey Gammage along with two of the Herd’s top six receivers from last season, Wells has an opportunity to take his game to the next level.
5. RB - Deion Hankins, UTEP
After winning a combined two games over the previous three seasons, UTEP fans were desperate for a sign of hope in 2020. Their pleas were answered in the form of native son Deion Hankins. The all-time leading rusher in the history of El Paso high school football, Hankins bruised his way to 633 yards and nine scores in seven games last season. He topped 15 carries in six of those seven contests and will be the featured player on offense as Dana Dimel continues his rebuilding efforts at UTEP.
4. QB - Frank Harris, UTSA
After battling injuries throughout two of his first three seasons at UTSA, Harris finally turned the corner in establishing himself as a legitimate dual-threat option in C-USA — until he suffered a knee sprain against Middle Tennessee. However, the suburban San Antonio native regained his role as the QB1 for the Roadrunners and ended the season with over 2,100 all-purpose yards. With his top receivers and standout running back Sincere McCormick returning in 2021, Harris is due for a breakout year.
3. RB - D’Vonte Price, FIU
The selection of a player from a team that had a winless 2020 season may seem curious. However, Price was a bright spot — possibly the lone bright spot — in a season that Butch Davis and company would rather strike from memory. After waiting his turn behind productive veterans like Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell, Price proved he was more than capable of being the feature back in Miami last season.
He led C-USA in yards per carry (6.9) despite an FIU passing attack that averaged less than 125 yards per game. The Panthers only played five contests in 2020, yet Price rushed for 581 yards. If you average his production over a 12-game schedule, he would have rushed for 1,395 yards in 2020.
2. WR - Victor Tucker, Charlotte
Since making his Conference USA debut in 2018, Charlotte’s Victor Tucker has been one of the most productive receivers in the league. After recording 52 catches for 909 yards as a sophomore, the Miami native looked to be on the verge of his first career 1000-yard campaign, but Charlotte’s league-high nine cancelations thwarted any chance of that achievement. When the Niners have played a full season, Tucker has averaged 53 catches for 810 yards and six scores — in spite of catches passes from four starting signal-callers in his first two collegiate seasons. If Chris Reynolds can take the next step as a quarterback, expect Tucker to easily surpass the 1000-yard mark.
1. RB - Sincere McCormick, UTSA
As the legendary professional wrestler, Ric Flair once quipped, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
While Sincere McCormick won’t be able to reach the mountaintop quite as many times as the former 16-time heavyweight champion, he can become the sixth player in league history to repeat as offensive player of the year and the first running back since DeAngelo Williams notched back-to-back reigns as OPOY during C-USA’s previous incarnation 16 years ago. After an excellent true freshman season, McCormick topped the century mark on the ground seven times en route to a 1,467-yard season that landed him second among all FBS running backs. Should he equal those numbers in 2021, the OPOY will again reside at the Alamodome.