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Conference USA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2021 Season

The UDD gang are back for another season of predictions in C-USA.

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Marshall Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Following a season unlike any other and an offseason that’s seen multiple impact players transfer in and out of Conference USA, the 2021 season is scheduled to begin with UTEP opening against New Mexico State on August 28.

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?

Jared Kalmus: UTEP. The Miners looked the part of an improving team last season, and their schedule is Charmin-soft. 4-1 heading into the Southern Miss game is very much on the table. A few lucky breaks could put the Miners back into a bowl game for the first time since (checks Google)... 2014!

Joe Londergan: This Charlotte team is particularly intriguing to me because they have not one, but two winnable games against P5 opponents this year in Duke and Illinois. Will Healy really has this program going in the right direction.

Jake Auten: I’m giving MTSU the benefit of the doubt on paper. NC State transfer Bailey Hockman has potential as a pocket passer under a new OC in Brent Dearmon who wants to go high tempo. The first half of their schedule will show us a lot, but getting most of the defense back healthy was a huge plus.

Eric Henry: Call me a homer. Prior to the last two seasons, Butch Davis has been a consistent winner in his coaching career. Last year, by his career record — was a complete anomaly. Each of his recruiting classes at FIU has been rated among the top four in C-USA by 247 Sports. The talent is there at all of the skill positions and the offensive line is sneaky deep. It will all come down to quarterback. If they can get average play, I’m expecting the Panthers to contend for a bowl berth.

Steve Helwick: Let’s get bold. Remember Old Dominion? After taking a hiatus in 2020, I think the Monarchs can generate excitement in 2021. Head coach Ricky Rahne has waited nearly two years to make his debut in Norfolk, and he will be able to build off his success as a Penn State assistant. The coach who molded Trace McSorley into a collegiate superstar will now have his time with Darriel Mack, who showed flashes of greatness while leading UCF to the 2018 AAC Championship. Also, there is a solid cast of returning talent from 2019 including center Isaac Weaver and run-stopping linebacker Jordan Young.

Hunter Bailey: Charlotte is the underdog in 11 of 12 scheduled games this season. With several P5 transfers on both sides of the ball, this team has the chance to go bowling for the second time in three years if the pieces fit together. Two wins, four losses and nine cancelations didn’t sit right with Healy.

Who is your breakout player?

Jared Kalmus: Dewayne McBride, running back at UAB, will be in a three-way battle for best running back in Conference USA with Sincere McCormick and D’Vonte Price.

Joe Londergan: Bailey Zappe has a lot going in his favor at WKU. Tyson Helton named the Houston Baptist transfer as his starting quarterback during media days. Zappe was a big fish in a little pond for the Huskies, so he brought his coach (Zach Kittley) and three receivers (Jerreth and Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff) to Bowling Green. He’s extremely solid.

Jake Auten: I really like what I’ve seen from Corey Gammage at Marshall. He’s a physical guy with a big frame that’s shown he’s capable of making the tough catches at every level. It’ll be interesting to see how much Grant Wells relies on him to make plays in the passing game.

Eric Henry: The obvious choices are DeWayne McBride and Bailey Zappe. But since those are already off the board, I’m taking stock in Florida Atlantic’s Johnny Ford. He was excellent as a true freshman for South Florida, but battled injuries and a coaching change the last two years.

Steve Helwick: The Rice Owls have built solid defenses for two years running under defensive coordinator Brian Smith. Following the departure of Blaze Alldredge, defensive end Ikenna Enechukwu has potential to be the next star of this front seven. In 2019 as a reserve, he registered 4.5 tackles for loss and disrupted backfields with 27 tackles, and appears on track to be one of the conference’s premier pass rushers.

Who is your pick to win Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year?

Jared Kalmus: I’ll take Sincere McCormick to repeat as OPOTY while Tyler Grubbs (LB at La Tech) surprises as the DPOTY.

Joe Londergan: On defense, my pick is DeAngelo Malone. I think that he can get back to where he was in 2019 when he first won that award and further boost his draft stock. On offense, I’m also taking Sincere McCormick. He’s the real deal.

Jake Auten: Give me the pair of Judson Rockets who are prepared to launch down at the Alamodome. Sincere McCormick to repeat on offense with the ballhawk Rashad Wisdom taking defensive honors.

Eric Henry: For OPOY, I’ll take Sincere McCormick. But for fun, keep an eye on Bailey Zappe and UTSA QB Frank Harris. For DPOY, I’m rolling with DeAngelo Malone.

Steve Helwick: Offensively, it’s hard to pass on the nation’s second leading rusher from 2020, so I’ll go Sincere McCormick. There are a lot of great options defensively, but First Team All C-USA linebacker Kristopher Moll transitioned to safety this offseason, and I think his skills will translate extraordinarily well.

Team most likely to disappoint?

Jared Kalmus: Sorry Roadrunners fans but I’m voting against my alma mater here. I’m still confident in UTSA’s ability to beat any team in this conference, but they’ve never fared well when expectations are high. UTSA was just a few bounces away from losses to MTSU, Texas State, Southern Miss, and SFA last year. It just seems like it’s “Conference Title or Bust” for UTSA in 2021 and those types of expectations are currently unearned in my opinion.

Joe Londergan: Marshall fans are riding high thanks to the arrival of new head coach Charles Huff, and there’s good reason to. That being said, we did see Marshall buckle badly under pressure last season after a strong start and there’s definitely a possibility that happens again.

Jake Auten: I’m not so sure that disappoint is the right word, but I’m unsure how to feel about Marshall going into this season. The way the Herd faded down the stretch in 2020 was disconcerting to say the least, but this team did bring back some strength where it’s needed. Charles Huff would much rather his debut season be a transcending year, not a transition year.

Eric Henry: Charles Huff will appreciate the fact that I’m not providing any more “rat poison” for his team. It’s not that I think Marshall will have a down year. However, when you look at their wins from last year, the competition leaves plenty to be desired. If the expectation is division championship, I think they’re open to “disappointment.” If the expectation is 7-9 win season, that's rational.

Steve Helwick: Something happened to Marshall on that December afternoon when Rice pulled a 20-0 shutout, and the Thundering Herd haven’t looked right since. They averaged less than eight points per game in their final three outings. Pair that sharp offensive decline with a new head coach and the losses of Brenden Knox and Tavante Beckett, and 2021 feels like a rebuilding year.

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

Jared Kalmus: Is WKU a sleeper? The Hilltoppers only received one first-place vote in the East Division in the media poll which tells me very few people have watched the film on Bailey Zappe. If not I’ll take Charlotte and their haul of P5 transfers. In the West I’m skeptical Luke McCaffrey is the answer so I’ll take Will Hall’s Golden Eagles to shock the division. Hall is a savvy offensive mind and USM’s talent level is still relatively high despite losing some key pieces last year.

Joe Londergan: In the East, I think this FAU team is a bit better than people are anticipating them to be. Granted, they’re second in the media poll, but there’s once again tons of talent on this team if Willie Taggart can keep the Owls wrangled. In the West, I think Louisiana Tech can make it an interesting three-team race between themselves, UAB, and UTSA.

Jake Auten: It feels weird calling Florida Atlantic a sleeper pick but they were voted second in the media poll, and they play both UAB & WKU on the road, so there’s that. As for the West, I’m all in on the hype surrounding the Roadrunners. Harris & McCormick form an exciting backfield, and it seems like Jeff Traylor came to town at just the right time.

Eric Henry: As Jake said, it feels weird calling FAU a sleeper. But seemingly, they are. They were a year ahead of schedule of defense last year and the addition of N’Kosi Perry should give them stable quarterback play. In the West, I’m game to take a run with La Tech. Skip Holtz’ teams are always going to be in the mix.

Steve Helwick: Florida Atlantic already seemed established on defense and now it has a lot going for it offensively, adding grad transfer N’Kosi Perry while being equipped with wideout T.J. Chase and a solid stable of halfbacks. Is Louisiana Tech considered a sleeper out West? The transfer portal filled in its major holes at quarterback, running back, and offensive tackle, making the Bulldogs ready to compete with the best.

Most likely Power Five win for the Conference?

Jared Kalmus: UTSA could be a road pick-em against Illinois by the time that game kicks off in Week One.

Joe Londergan: If all of UTSA’s main pieces are healthy on September 4, the Roadrunners should have more than enough to take down Illinois in Champaign.

Jake Auten: Trying to surprise myself with this one and taking Rice over Arkansas in Week 1. I’m riding behind the Luke McCaffrey hype against one of the SEC’s least intimidating programs on paper.

Eric Henry: Give me the Roadrunners in Champaign against Illinois. But another one that I feel fairly confident in is Charlotte welcoming Duke to Jerry Richardson Stadium. Expect that to be a loud and rowdy stadium and it’s not as if the Blue Devils are known for traveling a ton of fans. That will be a sea of Green and Gold in one of the hidden gem venues in C-USA.

Steve Helwick: UTSA’s veteran group is in prime position to spoil Bret Bielema’s coaching debut at Illinois. Sincere McCormick is facing the 11th worst rushing defense from 2020. Also, to take a shot at another one, WKU hosts Indiana on Sept. 25. If Bailey Zappe’s game translates well to the FBS level, a Hilltopper victory over the Hoosiers wouldn’t shock me.

Hunter Bailey: I called Charlotte over Duke in Durham last season and well, we saw how that turned out. Here we are yet again, and I still feel the same. The Blue Devils ran up the score late and that didn’t sit well.

O/U 2 teams will experience a coaching change?

Jared Kalmus: Over! I can’t picture Butch Davis lasting much longer at FIU. Seth Littrell’s contract is school-friendly (expires in 2023, buyout is only 30% of remaining base salary), and someone is liable to get picked up by a Power 5 program.

Joe Londergan: I’ll take the under. I have a hard time thinking any head coach in C-USA right now is going to jump to P5 after this season. I do think that Mike Bloomgren and Dana Dimel have seats that are getting warm, but they look like things are starting to come together, albeit very slowly. On top of that, the new guys are too new for the expectations to be all that high out of the gate.

Jake Auten: Give me the over, solely because I don’t see the coaches with extensive tenure riding it out too much longer. Dana Dimel & Butch Davis are arguably the most eligible bachelors to receive walking papers, but then again Rick Stockstill has been in Murfreesboro for 16 years and has treaded water with a 30-31 record the past 5 seasons.

Eric Henry: Under. The obvious choice for the hot seat is Dana Dimel. AD Jim Senter came out this offseason and said that “I didn’t feel like we were there for football” when talking about a contract extension. After that, Mike Bloomgren has done an adequate job at Rice, but he needs a .500 season or better. FIU’s Butch Davis is entering the final year of his contract, but the argument can be made that both parties need each other.

Steve Helwick: Under. We surprisingly saw two coaching changes this offseason, but the pandemic-riddled 2020 may have extended the timeframe for rebuilding coaches to set their programs on the right footing. Bill Clark’s name will certainly be featured in rumors come December. And if there’s a team that demands results from a coach this season, I’d point my eye to Murfreesboro, TN.

Hunter Bailey: Over. I think Seth Littrell is in trouble. Dana Dimel isn’t far behind, but you never really know with C-USA. I’m thinking at least one will get picked up by P5.

Who will win Conference USA?

Jared Kalmus: Going to keep picking UAB until Bill Clark lets me down.

Joe Londergan: I have to go with UAB. The Blazers are a very well-oiled machine returning a lot of talent from last season’s championship team on top of a few decent transfers. While I think UTSA will give them a great run for the West, this league is Bill Clark’s to lose.

Jake Auten: UAB makes their move to the brand new Protective Stadium in Birmingham and might have the most talented team in the league. It’s too tough to pick against the Blazers.

Eric Henry: I took UTSA in my media ballot and I’m sticking with that pick here. All of the pieces are in place for them to make a run at unseating UAB. The combination of Tyler Johnston III and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent have been playing with fire over the past three seasons. A completion percentage under 60%, a TD-Int ratio of 2-1.5 (35 TDs — 25 ints) combined with a boom or bust passing game (YPA of 9.1) leaves a lot to be desired.

Steve Helwick: The first-ever C-USA title is coming to Alamo City. In year two at the helm, Jeff Traylor already has the tools to lead UTSA to a championship. This team went wire-to-wire with ranked programs in BYU and Louisiana last season and retains some of C-USA’s premier talent in all position groups.

Hunter Bailey: I’m all aboard the UTSA hype train, but I can’t see anyone unseating UAB this season. Bill Clark’s unit is the most talented team in C-USA.