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Conference USA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2022 Season

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

The 2022 Conference USA season will undoubtedly be one of a kind as six programs will play their final season in the league before departing for the American Athletic Conference.

Two of those, UTSA and UAB are projected to be favorites to contend for a league title, while several of the remaining member programs are facing pivotal seasons that will help shape their future with Sam Houston State, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Liberty set to join in 2023.

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?

Joe Londergan: Maybe it’s a surprise, maybe it isn’t...but I’m starting to believe UTEP is going to have a pretty strong record. I think there’s a decent chance they reach October with a 3-2 record and have some very winnable games in the back half of the season. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have at least six wins to end the year and I think an eight-win season is relatively attainable.

Eric Henry: I genuinely believe that people are sleeping on Florida Atlantic. There’s a narrative around Willie Taggart (unfairly, in my opinion) that he’s essentially a college football coaching vagabond. The fact is, he did well at two stops, one was incomplete and Florida State are showing that they’re more than a coach away. As far as this year’s Owls, I believe they’ll be led by a sum-of-all-parts defense that features two of the league’s top players in Teja Young and Evan Anderson. N’Kosi Perry will be better in year two and Brent Dearmon was a sneaky huge move in C-USA.

Steve Helwick: North Texas. On the surface, the Mean Green are fresh off their third consecutive losing season, but I can’t ignore the 5-game winning streak they strung together to attain bowl eligibility — including a 22-point win over an undefeated UTSA squad. North Texas has four viable running backs, including Oscar Adaway who missed the entire 2021 season, and the team should replicate the top five rushing offense it fielded last year. Defensively, the presence of K.D. Davis makes the Mean Green’s front seven one of the more intimidating in the C-USA. Seth Littrell has a good team on his hands in Denton.

Kevin Fielder: I’m going to go with UTEP. Anytime you return your leaders on offense and defense in quarterback Gavin Hardison and edge Praise Amaewhule, you have to feel good about where a team stands, and that much can be said for UTEP too. They’ll have to replace Jacob Cowing, and doing so will be tough, but this team can improve off of their strong season and potentially win their first bowl game since the 1960s.

Who is your breakout player?

Joe Londergan: I’m going to say UTSA receiver Zakhari Franklin. Franklin was UTSA’s leading receiver and sixth in the league in total receiving yards last season. Even so, I think his draft buzz is surprisingly low right. Furthermore, I think UTSA are going to throw the ball more than they did last year. Franklin will be a big beneficiary of that shift and could be a big topic of conversation as the year goes on.

Eric Henry: I’m all in on Western Kentucky wideout Daewood Davis. Yes, his success depends on how well Austin Reed fares at quarterback, which I believe Reed will shine. But Davis’ went a little under the radar behind Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley last year, but Davis was a big-play threat as the number three wideout. Keep an eye on FAU corner Romain Mungin, who is primed for an excellent season in Boca and FIU LB/DE Shaun Peterson Jr., who had Power Five interest out of HS on defense and made the switch from RB back to defense in the offseason.

Steve Helwick: Tyrin Smith, wide receiver, UTEP. I believe in the progression from year two to year three for a starting quarterback, so Gavin Hardison will only improve after his 3,200-yard, 18-touchdown campaign in 2021. With star wide receiver Jacob Cowing relocating to Arizona as a transfer and second option Justin Garrett vying for an NFL opportunity, that leaves a massive vacancy for a new No. 1 receiver to step up. Smith thrived as a tertiary threat in 2021, capturing 570 yards on 33 receptions. With an average exceeding 17 yards, he mirrors some of Cowing’s big play potential, and his production last season only improved as the weeks progressed. Now, it’s Smith’s turn to exceed the millennium mark and crack All-C-USA honors.

Kevin Fielder: Louisiana Tech wide receiver Smoke Harris was the team’s leading receiver last season and he returns this year with an air raid offense that should benefit him. The Bulldogs have a major question mark at quarterback, yes, but I think the scheme change will benefit their best playmakers, and that’s Harris. With his speed and ability after the catch, there’s no question that Harris could make an All-Conference team and surpass the 1,000-yard mark at wide receiver.

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

Joe Londergan: On defense, I think it’s likely it’s an edge rusher. Praise Amaewhule is a great candidate. On offense, Frank Harris is a pretty safe bet, but UAB’s DeWayne McBride also feels like a strong candidate based on his past performances and a talented offensive line.

Eric Henry: On offense, you have to take a look at Frank Harris. This has been a quarterback award for the majority of the league’s existence and Harris is primed to make a run at an award that he was in the running for last year. Defensively, I’m looking at North Texas’ K.D. Davis. He’s been a tackling machine during his time in Denton and while Praise Amaewhule will give him a run, I think the counting stats will favor Davis. Two sleeper picks are UAB’s Noah Wilder and Western Kentucky’s Austin Reed.

Steve Helwick: The Offensive Player of the Year is reserved for Frank Harris. The C-USA champion quarterback enters his final season in excellent shape, equipped with his three potent wideouts from 2021 — Joshua Cephus, Zakhari Franklin, and De’Corian Clark. Harris lit up the stat sheet last fall with two 320+ yard, 3+ touchdown performances, and those eyebrow-raising passing numbers may become more common without the presence of Sincere McCormick in the backfield.

The Defensive Player of the Year likely comes down to K.D. Davis or Praise Amaewhule, but I’ll take the North Texas inside linebacker. Davis returns after a brief entry in the transfer portal and his run-stopping ability is second to none in the conference. After garnering 120 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks in a standout 2021, I expect more of the same from the Mean Green star in 2022.

Kevin Fielder: On offense, UTSA quarterback Frank Harris is the easy pick and that’s who I’m going with. UTSA not only has three potent wide receivers — including Zakhari Franklin who’s bound to take the next step forward — but Harris has the ability with his feet allows him to dominate in both areas for the Roadrunners.

On defense, I’m going to go with a bit of a surprise one in FAU safety Teja Young. Young was a snub for the All-Conference team last season and I think he’ll be among the most impactful players for FAU this season. Look for new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to use him in different positions, where he can make a major impact on FAU’s defense.

Team most likely to disappoint?

Joe Londergan: Based on the media poll, I think it’s a toss-up between FAU and WKU. WKU and FAU were picked to finish third and fourth respectively. Both have little margin for error. I don’t think either team will have a catastrophe-type season, but I think both teams have a very realistic chance to finish lower that their predicted spots.

Eric Henry: Western Kentucky has so many pieces that they’re trying to replace — despite the fact that the focus has been on Bailey Zappe. When you lose two offensive linemen, a starting defensive back and a stud wideout to the Power Five — and that doesn’t even account for the graduation of DeAngelo Malone — it’s almost unfair to think that Tyson Helton can replicate last year’s success. With that being said, Helton may be the best coach in this league.

Steve Helwick: WKU. Replacing a quarterback who holds the single-season passing yards and touchdowns records is an impossible task. But WKU loses more offensively than just Bailey Zappe — the Hilltoppers will operate without an All-American receiver in Jerreth Sterns, a 1,400-yard receiver in Mitchell Tinsley, and DeAngelo Malone — the reigning C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. WKU may qualify for bowl eligibility still if Austin Reed and Co. master Tyson Helton’s aerial-based system, but the lack of remaining pieces from a historic offense could knock the Hilltoppers back a few wins.

Kevin Fielder: I don’t think WKU will have a bad season, don’t get me wrong, but I do think they’ll disappoint in relation to their expectations. Not only do they lose Bailey Zappe but they also have to replace their two starting wide receivers — which is no easy task for any team. On defense, they also lose edge rusher DeAngelo Malone, who was among the conference’s most impactful pass rushers. I still think the Hilltoppers make a bowl game, and may even win around 8 games, but I don’t think they’ll finish as high as the media poll projects.

Most likely Power Five win for the Conference?

Joe Londergan: I think it’s WKU over Indiana. The Hilltoppers were so close last season when the Hoosiers visited Bowling Green and won 33-31. Frankly, I think Indiana lost some of their better pieces and they were a two-win team last season. Western Kentucky lost some great pieces too, but I think they’ll be relatively close to last season’s team and have the benefit of being much more comfortable with the offensive system that helped Bailey Zappe break NCAA records last season.

By the way, keep an eye on that UTSA matchup against Texas on September 17.

Eric Henry: Folks, Texas is not back. Give me UTSA over the Longhorns in Austin on 9/17.

Steve Helwick: I said WKU over Indiana last season, and while the Hoosiers’ 2-point win didn’t seem shocking at the time, I am baffled the Hilltoppers lost that game. A post-Bailey Zappe WKU will be worse than last year’s iteration of the team, and Indiana should only get better after restocking with a litany of experienced transfers. Still, WKU over Indiana is the safest bet since the C-USA non-conference schedule is otherwise full of long shots. There’s also a sneaky dark horse upset that I don’t predict will happen, but has the makings of a close game — Louisiana Tech vs. Missouri. Sonny Cumbie’s air raid could make an immediate splash against an unsuspecting Tiger team which has struggled in openers across the last three seasons.

Kevin Fielder: I’m between two C-USA over Power 5 upsets — WKU over Auburn and UAB over LSU.

Auburn’s football team has a lot of questions and it starts at the top following head coach Bryan Harsin’s tumultuous off-season. The Tigers have talent on defense but that offense has uncertainty at both quarterback and wide receiver, which may lead to struggles. With a game against WKU in November, it’s entirely possible that Auburn has a new head coach and WKU can take advantage of that.

UAB beating LSU would be surprising because LSU has the potential to be solid in the SEC but I think this game has the lowkey makings of a potential upset. Not only is UAB likely going to be a good team but LSU might not have the consistency at quarterback with Jayden Daniels taking over.

O/U 2 teams will experience a coaching change?

Joe Londergan: The thing that’s tough to factor in here is whether or not UAB takes the interim tag off of Bryan Vincent. Based on what he had to say about media day on the subject, he clearly wants the permanent job. Unless UAB just completely miss the mark this year, I think he gets that opportunity. Outside of that, I think most of the other coaches in this league have a decent amount of leeway. The only situation where I have some doubts is Mike Bloomgren’s at Rice, who will have to overcome a pretty brutal first half of the season in terms of schedule in order to realistically improve on their win total from last year.

Eric Henry: The Bryant Vincent situation is one that’s really intriguing to me. UAB is one of the top Group of Five jobs in the nation — with excellent facilities to match. When you throw in the fact that they’re making the jump to the AAC and with that will come more funds, the Blazers will have a opportunity similar to UCF a few years ago when they landed a rebounding Gus Malzahn from Auburn. That’s not to say that Bryant Vincent doesn’t deserve a shot, especially if he keeps the train on the tracks, but that’s one to keep an eye on. The second one is the situation at Rice. If the Owls’ quarterback situation continues to be a question mark, that’s a reflection on Mike Bloomgren at this point, especially given his pedigree as an offensive coach and the luxuries of the transfer portal.

Steve Helwick: Under. I’ll go with one. There aren’t many tenured coaches in the conference, as six of the league’s 11 coaches launched their stints in the 2020s. The teams that require winning the most are Rice and North Texas. The Owls haven’t been bowling since 2021, and although last year was the winningest season of the Mike Bloomgren era, I believe progress in the form of bowl eligibility will be the expectation for his fifth year at the helm. North Texas strung together its third consecutive losing season, but the inspiring turnaround to conclude the 2021 regular season should keep the program’s faith in Littrell high. UAB is the real wild card with Bryant Vincent’s unpredictable future, as he is still operating with an interim label.

Kevin Fielder: Under. Overall, most of the coaches in this conference probably have some leeway if they have a tough season and that makes it tough to predict which teams will make a move. The most likely teams to look for a new head coach are likely FAU, Rice, and North Texas but I still think two of those teams will likely be good enough to justify maintaining their head coach. The other story to watch is at UAB with Bryant Vincent still holding the interim tag but if they have a good season, he likely keeps his job.

Who will win Conference USA?

Joe Londergan: I think UTSA is my pick. UAB is strong as well. And if the Blazers do win, it would be a tremendous achievement for Bryant Vincent and co that would, by no means, surprise me. However, I very much like the pieces that UTSA have returning. I think they have a touch more firepower on the offensive side of the ball. I think that will be the difference as the Roadrunners win another league title.

Eric Henry: I’ve been firm on the fact that I believe this is a two-horse race until shown otherwise. Bryant Vincent has a chance to earn one of the best up-and-coming jobs in America — playing for a league title would go a long way for those efforts. Jeff Traylor has done a masterful job making the most of Frank Wilson’s talent — and the adding onto that foundation with his own recruiting. In the end, I think the Roadrunners are too much.

Steve Helwick: UTSA. Remember the Alamodome. Specifically, remember what transpired in that venue on the night of Dec. 3 when Frank Harris and the UTSA offense rose to the occasion to post 49 points on WKU, while the defense stifled a record-breaking offense by recording three timely turnovers. The Roadrunners have a litany of pieces back from that team, ranging from Harris and the receivers to the talented inside linebacker duo of Trevor Harmanson and Jamal Ligon to star strong safety Rashad Wisdom. Jeff Traylor’s team should be adept on both sides of the ball once more, and come the first week of December, I expect the city of San Antonio to party like it’s 1999.

Kevin Fielder: As much as I’d like to be different and pick someone like UAB, it’s hard to pick against UTSA. Jeff Traylor returns so much talent — including Frank Harris and safety Rashad Wisdom — and Traylor is one of the best coaches at the Group of 5 level. With so much going their way, it feels hard to pick against them, especially with how dominant they were last season.