Conference USA is making a name for itself for football junkies this fall.
Although the Mid-American Conference famously shifts to “Midweek MACtion” in late October and November, the CUSA is filling the blanks and meeting the high demand for football every night of the week in the late September and early October slate.
The conference eased into weeknight action two weeks ago with Sam Houston taking on Jacksonville State and Western Kentucky battling Middle Tennessee in Thursday night games. Then, they unleashed a 4-game slate spanning last Wednesday and Thursday, featuring eight of the new-look league’s nine teams. This week, the CUSA starts yet another day earlier, commencing the action on Tuesday.
WKU gets a brief respite while the eight other teams are in action, in four matchups all broadcast on television networks. CUSA weeknight football was a good time last week featuring fantastic finishes like Liberty’s goal line stand against Sam Houston and Malachi Corley’s first half explosion at Louisiana Tech. So let’s run it back, shall we?
Louisiana Tech @ Middle Tennessee
Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: Middle Tennessee (-2.5)
Louisiana Tech (3-4, 2-1 CUSA) will be the first FBS team participating in its eighth game of 2023. The Bulldogs haven’t taken a single week off since launching their season Week 0, and they’ll have a chance to rebound in Murfreesboro after nearly erasing a 28-point deficit last Thursday against WKU. One uncertainty revolving around this game involves if Louisiana Tech starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier will return from a shoulder injury. Backup Jack Turner started the last three outings, but regardless of the signal caller, Sonny Cumbie’s team is well-equipped with skill position talent. Screen threat Smoke Harris and deep threat Cyrus Allen are both star receivers with differing skillsets, while running back Tyre Shelton is fresh off his third-straight 100-yard outing on the ground. What’s plaguing Louisiana Tech is a bottom five run defense which yields over 212 rushing yards per game.
Middle Tennessee (1-5, 0-2 CUSA) already matched its loss total from the 2022 season after blowing a 16-point halftime lead against Jacksonville State last Wednesday. The Blue Raiders remain in search of their first FBS victory of the season after a series of close calls, including a 23-19 loss to Missouri in Week 2. Rick Stockstill’s team has an affinity for airing out the ball as one of 12 teams in the FBS with 39 passing attempts per game. Quarterback Nick Vattiato has tossed 40+ balls in each of his last three games, gunning for 408 yards last week. Moving the ball is not an issue for the Blue Raiders, but refraining from turnovers remains a problem. They committed four second half turnovers against the Gamecocks and feature one of the worst turnover margins in the country at a -6.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 42, Louisiana Tech 36
Liberty @ Jacksonville State
Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 7:30 pm ET on ESPNU
Spread: Liberty (-7)
Liberty (5-0, 2-0 CUSA) is one of 14 remaining undefeated teams in college football, but the Flames are no longer without a close call. Sam Houston established a first and goal from the 3-yard line in the waning seconds of last Thursday’s contest in Lynchburg, but the Liberty defense stepped up and forced three consecutive incompletions for the win. The ringleader was cornerback Kobe Singleton, who broke up two passes during that critical stretch. That sequence was a summary of the season for Liberty’s defense which surrenders just 18 points per game and is an efficient turnover-producing machine. The Flames forced 13 turnovers in their first six games and only Oklahoma has more interceptions than their 11. Offensively, Kaidon Salter is thriving in Jamey Chadwell’s pseudo-option offense as a dual-threat quarterback, throwing 12 touchdowns on 10.6 yards per attempt and rushing for 306 yards and six scores.
Jacksonville State (5-1, 3-0 CUSA) is one of the greatest surprises in the 2023 season. In their first year holding FBS status, they are finding different ways to take out FBS teams on a weekly basis. They shut out an Eastern Michigan team fresh off a 9-win season 21-0 and erased a 16-point halftime deficit to Middle Tennessee last week with 38 unanswered points in a shootout. Rich Rodriguez’s team is known for being run-heavy and they alternate two dual-threat quarterbacks — Zion Webb and Logan Smothers — on a weekly basis before eventually settling on the hot hand. Defensively, the Gamecocks are a force. They are one of six FBS teams to produce a shutout of another FBS opponent, and they forced four second half turnovers at Middle Tennessee a week ago. Defensive end Chris Hardie is the name to watch within that unit, posting 3.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss, and even a 58-yard interception return in a stellar season.
Prediction: Liberty 31, Jacksonville State 21
UTEP @ FIU
Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 7:30 pm ET on ESPN2
Spread: FIU (-2)
UTEP (1-5, 0-2 CUSA) seems like a far cry from the very program which enjoyed a 7-win campaign two years ago — although many remnants from that team are still on the staff and roster. The Miners are coming off a much-needed bye week which transpired after four consecutive double-digit losses. UTEP currently ranks 130th nationally in scoring offense at 16.2 points per game and its offense is in desperate need of a spark. The quarterback situation for Wednesday is unclear as longtime starter Gavin Hardison missed the previous contest with an arm injury. If Hardison is unable to go, the Miners will trot out anybody from Kevin Hurley to Jake McNamara to Cade McConnell — who all saw action two weeks ago against Louisiana Tech. But where UTEP has strength is within its front seven. Outside linebacker Tyrice Knight ranks first in the CUSA in tackles and tackles for loss, while defensive end Praise Amaewhule creates incredible havoc at the line of scrimmage.
FIU (3-3, 0-3 CUSA) saw plenty of success in non-conference play, most notably knocking off North Texas in a 46-39 shootout. But the Panthers haven’t been as fortunate in conference games, dropping their third CUSA matchup in three tries last Wednesday night at New Mexico State. The offense certainly took a step up under freshman quarterback Keyone Jenkins who is coming off a 258-yard showing on a 78 percent completion clip, but there are two major areas for improvement on that end. FIU is simply coughing the ball up too much with 11 turnovers on the season, and the offensive line yields 3.5 sacks per game. The Panthers’ defense has been solid, though, limiting opponents to 27 points per game. The unit is led by inside linebacker Donovan Manuel who has 63 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and an FBS-best four forced fumbles on the year.
Prediction: FIU 20, UTEP 13
Sam Houston @ New Mexico State
Wednesday, Oct. 11 at 9 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: New Mexico State (-3.5)
Sam Houston (0-5, 0-2 CUSA) is one of two winless FBS teams, but the first-year FBS program has been awfully close in the last two weeks against some of the conference’s best competition. The Bearkats squandered a 21-7 third quarter lead to fall to Jacksonville State in overtime and then came up three yards short of handing 5-0 Liberty its first loss — throwing three consecutive incomplete passes near the goal line. Sam Houston exhibits one of the stronger defenses in the conference, yielding just 24.2 points per game and limiting the likes of BYU and Air Force to 14 and 13 points, respectively. Trevor Williams is the star of the unit with 58 tackles through five games, and he’ll be tasked with stopping New Mexico State’s high-powered run game. The Bearkats are improving offensively with consecutive 250-yard passing games by Keegan Shoemaker, and they’ll look to generate enough production to secure win No. 1 in Las Cruces.
New Mexico State (3-3, 1-1 CUSA) is back to .500 after flying past FIU in the fourth quarter last Wednesday night. It’s been a roller coaster season for Jerry Kill and the Aggies, which alternated between losing and winning ever since launching the season Week 0. New Mexico State is headlined by gutsy dual threat quarterback Diego Pavia, who led the program to its second bowl victory since the 1960 last December. Pavia has seen two 90-yard rushing performances this year, and he put together a strong fourth quarter last week in the 31-17 win over FIU with 256 passing yards and a pair of aerial touchdown deliveries. But the Aggies must witness strong secondary play in order to emerge triumphant, as they rank 100th in the country in passing defense. They’ll expect a strong performance from cornerback Andre Seldon, a Michigan transfer who corralled his first interception of the season last week.
Prediction: Sam Houston 24, New Mexico State 21