Conference USA’s media poll was released today and to the surprise of few, both of last season’s defending division champions are projected to repeat in 2021. Despite losing their final three games to end the season and bringing in a first-time head coach in Charles Huff, Marshall comes in first with 17 votes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Grant Wells looks to rebound following his subpar finish to last year.
After winning C-USA East twice during the Lane Kiffin era at Florida Atlantic, Willie Taggart’s Owls come in second with six first-place votes. The Owls finished last season 5-4 in Taggart’s first season in Boca, also losing their final three games of the season. However, FAU returns the majority of a defense that allowed just 17.4 points per game last year and finished in the top third of the conference in most major defensive statistics. The Owls also added former Miami quarterback N’Kosi Perry via the transfer portal and welcome back linebacker Akileis Leroy, who missed all of 2020 due to academic issues.
Despite a revamped roster, Tyson Helton’s Western Kentucky club received the final media vote and comes in third in the poll. The Hilltoppers lost standouts Kyle Bailey and Ricky Barber in the transfer portal but added over 15 players via the portal during the offseason. The most notable of the additions was former Houston Baptist signal-caller Bailey Zappe, who has been one of the most prolific passers in college football over the past three seasons.
Charlotte takes the fourth-place spot following a disjointed 2020 campaign that saw the Niners play only six games, going 2-4. Third-year head coach Will Healy looks to welcome the return of a healthy Chris Reynolds, who spent the majority of last season playing through injuries. Middle Tennessee comes in fifth and are addressing their own quarterback situation, as two-year starter Asher O’Hara departed for FCS Sacramento State in the offseason. Head coach Rick Stockstill added former North Carolina State quarterback Bailey Hockman via the transfer portal in an effort to reshape the offense.
Florida International takes the sixth spot, who after making three consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history, suffered through an abysmal 2020 season that saw the Panthers go 0-5. FIU head coach Butch Davis made several changes during the offseason, bringing in new coaches at every position except offensive line and tight end. The Panthers will be led by running back D’Vonte Price, who finished second in yards per game in C-USA last year, averaging 116.2 in 2020. Old Dominion rounds out the division in their return to play following a one-year absence in 2020. Ricky Rahne will make his debut as Monarchs head coach after taking the job in December of ‘19 and looks to rebuild the team in his vision.
Bill Clark and his UAB Blazers are seeking their fourth consecutive division title as they top the West in the media poll with 15 first-place votes. The team returns 17 starters including offensive linemen Sidney Wells and Colby Ragland, who both made C-USA’s first team last year. UTSA earns the remaining nine first-place votes as they come in second, following a 7-5 record in 2020 — a three-win improvement from the season prior. The Roadrunners feature running back Sincere McCormick, who is the reigning league Offensive Player of the Year, and safety Rashad Wisdom, who was named to the Bednarik Award Preseason Watch List.
Lousiana Tech takes the third spot following a 5-5 campaign, but a strong 4-2 conference record. Skip Holtz’ club returns 10 starters on defense, led by linebacker Tyler Grubbs, who led the conference in tackles as a freshman with 99. In a slight surprise, Southern Miss lands fourth, despite coming off a three-win 2020. Running back Frank Gore Jr. leads the offense after rushing for 708 yards as a true freshman last season, and linebacker Hayes Maples racked up 91 tackles during his sophomore season in 2020. First-year head coach Will Hall seeks to quickly turn around the Golden Eagles, who lost three games last year by three points or less.
A trio of Lone Star State programs round out the West division as Rice, North Texas and UTEP come in fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Mike Bloomgren’s Owls return 19 starters but are seeking to replace last year’s starting quarterback in Mike Collins, who was among the leaders in passer rating last season (176.0).
Seth Littrell’s North Texas team has kept up a prolific offense over the past three seasons, but defensive woes led them to a 4-6 record last year. The team returns a pair of 500-yard rushers in DeAndre Torrey and Oscar Adaway III, along with defensive tackle Dion Novil, who is considered one of C-USA’s top NFL prospects. UTEP showed signs of improvement with 2020’s 3-5 record and are looking forward to a full season with standout receivers Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, along with running back Deion Hankins.