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Underdog Dynasty Mailbag: Conference USA Edition

MAIL TIME!!! We answer your questions entering the opening week of play.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We’re one more sleep away from the start of another college football season! As always, Conference USA should provide its fair share of highlights, idiosyncratic moments and things that make you go what the (you can fill in the blank — UDD is a family-friendly site).

With that comes plenty of questions and thoughts on the minds of you all — the C-USA faithful who make up one of the most opinionated fanbases in college football. You all asked, so let’s answer your questions. It’s mailbag time!

Question: Let’s assume each team in the conference was starting from scratch. No team history, new coaches, new roster, etc. Teams can only sell recruits on their location, school, and facilities. Which teams would be best positioned in this alternative reality? — @JaredUTSA

Answer: Hell of a question, Jared. I’ll give my top three in no particular order.

  • Florida Atlantic: The completion of FAU’s Schmidt Athletic Complex is a complete gamechanger for the Owls.

A state-of-the-art training facility, this was what Florida Atlantic needed to pair with an excellent on-campus home in FAU Stadium. While Boca Raton isn’t Miami, it’s South Florida. There’s more than enough within a 45-minute radius that can appeal to recruits and FAU has an enrollment of over 30,000 students.

  • UAB: While location isn’t a major selling point for the Blazers, the addition of soon-to-be-opened Protective Stadium in conjunction with UAB’s indoor practice facility that opened in 2017 gives the program a pair of the top facilities among the Group of Five ranks. Pair that with the program’s recent success and there’s a great building block to start from.
  • UTSA: Similarly to Florida Atlantic, the opening of UTSA’s Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence in June of this year gives the program a much-needed boost in terms of facilities.

While the Alamodome isn’t necessarily a new stadium, it’s more than sufficient as-is and has more years in its lifespan before the need for a new stadium will be paramount. Whether or not that stadium will need to be on-campus, given the 25-minute commute from UTSA’s campus to the Alamodome’s location is worth exploring. San Antonio as a city shouldn’t be slept on either and I’ll also throw in a bonus factor. UTSA Vice President of Intercollegiate Athletics Lisa Campos is a steal — it may be a matter of when and not if she gets an opportunity at a Power Five.

Question: What does UTSA need to do to win the conference? Also, what does the future of the conference look like with all this alliance talk? — @JoeBroback

Answer: UTSA will go as far as quarterback Frank Harris takes them. Yes, that’s a cliche answer that almost every head coach in America could say about their team. The difference is, it’s actually true in UTSA’s case. They have all of the pieces in place. A stud running back in Sincere McCormick. Multiple targets on the outside and an offensive line that returns several starters. The defense is just as stacked. If Harris can stay healthy for 12 games and play up to his potential, UTSA can unseat the Blazers.

The second question seems like a forgone conclusion as to where things are heading at this point. It makes the most sense for C-USA and the Sun Belt to find a way to strike some sort of agreement. C-USA has already gone through this once before, with the American taking several of its stalwart programs and having to rebuild. Unless a combination of UCF, Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston and South Florida all leave the AAC at once, they’re going to be in-tact and will have their own alliance issue to solve.

Question: If you had to play cornhole with C-USA mascots, who would you want as your partner, and who would you most/least want to play against? — @austinmpriest

Answer: Excellent question. Let’s get a few out of the way. I feel like Norm the Niner would be a beast. Definitely a tough out. Same with Paydirt Pete — provided he puts the pickaxe down. Nobody wants to be around a person with a pickaxe after a couple drinks. Lastly, I think Marco the Bison could have some skills. It’s a bison, so probably a bit temperamental (not the best quality for cornhole) but nevertheless.

Southern Miss v Florida Atlantic
What the hell are these “hands?”
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As far as most want to play against, well, sorry WKU fans, your blob seems like it would be all over the place. I’ll easily beat that thing. Same goes for Owlsey. Those weird wing things that it has for “hands” — absolutely no control over where the bag is going. I hope the tailgate three rows over is paying attention because you’re probably going to get hit. For my partner, give me Big Blue. You’ve had a full season off to do virtually nothing, so you should have been working on something.

Question: What does WKU’s record need to be after their first 5 games for them to be considered a legit conference title contender? — @RossShircliffe

Answer: Buried in the midst of the Bailey Zappe talk (which by the way, I’m a fan of the additions of Zappe/Zach Kittley) is the fact that Western has a tough open to their year. When they agreed to a three-game series in 2015, who the hell thought Indiana was going to be what they are now? Yes, Michigan State is coming off a 2-5 record but that’s still a tough trip to East Lansing. This may sound bizarre, but I think Western can come out of their first five 2-3 and still have a legit chance. Their next five are against ODU, FIU, Charlotte, MTSU and Rice. All of those are winnable games and they could control their own destiny, finishing up against Marshall and FAU, both of whom have challenging non-conference games of their own.

Question: Where will C-USA end up stacking up against the other G5 conferences this season? — @Jensen_Jennings

Answer: Deep sigh, Jensen. The American has legit contenders in Cincy and UCF. There’s legit reason to be excited about Coastal, Lousiana (don’t call us ULL) and App. In the Mountain West, Boise is always there and Nevada has high hopes. If you look at C-USA, the league’s best shot at being ranked is either UAB, UTSA, FAU or Marshall. It’s going to take one of those teams or a team like WKU, that has games against Power Fives to make some noise. I think C-USA will be behind three of the other four G5’s.

Question: How will we do this year? — @CUSARefs


Question: With the direction it appears that the future of college football is going, your thoughts on the underdogs. Basically all G5 teams minus maybe UCF, Cincinnati, and maybe Boise? — @HaynerMike

Answer: I think the future of 80-90% of the “Group of Five” teams will hinge on which life raft they’re able to cling to. Eventually, these aforementioned alliances are going to come to fruition. The sooner G5 leagues can form their own alliance, the better. The proposed 12-team playoff helps things in terms of giving the “underdogs” a shot at the big-time.

Question: What team from the bottom of the standings can surprise this year? Since there is always one that does better than the preseason rankings. — @Ramincol

D’Vonte Price is one of the best backs among the Group of Five ranks.

Answer: Two teams come to mind, Southern Miss and FIU. I’ll start with the Panthers. Butch Davis’ team were decimated by injuries and COVID last year. At one point, they had 18 players injured or unavailable. It’s easy to look from the outside and see the abysmal quarterback play and write them off. Their 2021 schedule features eight non-P5 teams that had losing records last year and a ninth (ODU) who didn’t play. There’s more than enough talent on that team for a quick turnaround and I believe FIU will win six games this year.

The Golden Eagles could make the same case as FIU in terms of a quick turnaround. They had several players opt-out before the beginning of the season and despite all of the turmoil, they lost three games by less than a touchdown. QB Trey Lowe spent all season with football, instead of splitting time between football and baseball. Jason Brownlee is a legit number one wideout. Arvin Fletcher is one of the most versatile OL in C-USA and there are pieces on defense.

Question: What value does CUSA leadership and conference organization bring to member institutions? Are they advocating for advancement, or just sitting and collecting paychecks? — @BlazerNation921

Answer: I’m not in the meeting rooms in Frisco. As to whether or not they’re advocating for advancement, I can’t say. Here’s my two cents. Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod inherited a bad situation when she took over in October of 2015. The dissolution of the prior C-USA two years earlier, combined with UAB’s hiatus were tough places to start from. Quite frankly, I’m not sure anyone could do much with what she was given. That being said, fans across C-USA cities have reason to be upset. There are times where it feels the conference is reacting to what other G5 leagues do.

Question: How will the Monarchs look after a season off? — @chipwitz

Former AAC title game MVP D.J. Mack returns home to Norfolk.
Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Answer: I think ODU will look vastly improved from their 2019 output. That year was tough to watch, especially since defensively, they had a more than solid group. However, the ODU passing attack was virtually non-existent till Haden Wolff saw the lineup. Norfolk native and former UCF Knight D.J. Mack and Wolff are competing for QB1, which is a good place for Ricky Rahne to be starting from. Issac Weaver is an ironman on the OL and I’m a fan of Elijah “Lala” Davis at running back. They won’t reach bowl eligibility this year, but they’ll show enough to give Monarch fans reason to believe.

Question: Do you think the strategy of taking 19 transfers and only 2 freshmen by WKU is viable, and do you think it will spread? — @TheJoshKnight

Answer: It’s a hell of a strategy by Tyson Helton — but I absolutely get it. He’s in win-now mode, especially given the move to Bailey Zappe at quarterback and the Zach Kittley offense, which is based in Texas Tech Air Raid principles. Here’s the deal, the transfer portal is college football’s free agency. People shudder at that term, but anyone who chooses to avoid it is living in denial. With that, means there will always be a surplus of players to choose from. Texas State took a similar approach, coming off two straight losing seasons. Personally, I still think you have to invest in HS recruiting, if for no other reason than to avoid having to replenish your roster each year. But there’s no reason to think that teams can’t take this approach regularly and that we won’t see it spread.

Question: Charlotte is getting Marshall and FAU at home, and managed to avoid UAB and UTSA in cross-division matchups. Over/under 20.5% chance for them to sneak up and win the East? — @AndrewJosupait

Answer: I think 20.5% is a little high. With that being said, I see your logic. It’s going to depend on if Chris Reynolds can regain his 2019 form and a young defense led by Tyler Murray can rise to the occasion. Reynolds was banged up last year, playing a factor in his subpar output. The running game is a question mark after years of stability. Calvin Camp, Elijah Turner and others will be an RB by committee, seemingly. The reason I say 20.5 is high, is because I believe they’ll face challenges from FIU (a program they’ve never beaten) and Western Kentucky.