We are so back.
It’s another week where Tuesday and Wednesday nights in October are something to look forward to, as we have multi-game football slates gracing our television screens (and if you’re a true football junkie, your second television/laptop/iPad screen).
Week 8 features a pair of Tuesday night and a pair of Wednesday night CUSA games, with a Sun Belt matchup between Southern Miss and South Alabama joining in on the Tuesday fun. And in accordance with the last few weeks, the entire CUSA slate will be played on weeknights. In the 9-team league, this week’s bye belongs to Louisiana Tech — one of three FBS programs to have eight games under its belt this season.
October is in full swing, so here’s what to watch to (pumpkin) spice up your weeknights:
Middle Tennessee @ Liberty
Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: Liberty (-14.5)
Middle Tennessee (2-5, 1-2 CUSA) finally secured its first FBS win of the season last week. The Blue Raiders feature one of the more explosive aerial offenses in the conference. Nick Vattiato is the chief facilitator of this group, and the CUSA’s leading passer exceeded 40 passing attempts in three of his last four contests. His talented of receiving corps of Holden Willis, Elijah Metcalf, and Justin Olson combine for four 100-yard receiving performances in the last two weeks, so it’s just a matter of which one is going to dominate on a given night. But where the Blue Raiders struggle offensively is the turnover department. They exhibit a -5 turnover margin on the season, and coughing the ball up excessively contributed to several losses — most notably the Jacksonville State game. But last week, playmaking free safety Tra Fluellen recoded an interception in the red zone while the offense refrained from giving the ball up, and that made all the difference.
Liberty (6-0, 4-0 CUSA) is one of 11 unscathed teams remaining in the FBS. The Flames were only challenged within one-score once this year, and shockingly, that close-call involved a goal line stand to stave off winless Sam Houston. But Jamey Chadwell has this team in an excellent place with five double-digit victories and the nation’s 14th best average scoring differential. Chadwell’s pseudo-option offense runs the ball super efficiently, only trailing Air Force with 253.5 rushing yards per game. Running back Quinton Cooley is fresh off a career-high 163 yards for his third-straight performance eclipsing the century mark, while dual-threat quarterback Kaidon Salter continues to remain efficient with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season. And when Salter throws, it’s usually deep, as suggested by leading receiver CJ Daniels’ 24.3 average. One other department the Flames excel in is the ability to generate turnovers, and they rank first in the country with 13 passes intercepted this season. Cornerback Kobe Singleton is the name to watch in this department and he has three on the year.
Prediction: Liberty 38, Middle Tennessee 28
WKU @ Jacksonville State
Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 pm ET on ESPNU
Spread: WKU (-7.5)
Western Kentucky (4-2, 2-0 CUSA) returns to action after a hiatus from the Week 7 midweek slate. The Hilltoppers join Liberty as the only other CUSA team with an unblemished conference record. Except their offensive MO differs greatly, as WKU shines with a top 25 passing attack while the run game records just 102 yards per game, good for 121st in the nation. That dynamic aerial attack is guided by the duo of Austin Reed and Malachi Corley, which led the Hilltoppers to nine wins a year ago. After leading the FBS in passing in 2022, it may come as a surprise Reed only has one 300-yard showing this year, but he remains lethal as demonstrated at Louisiana Tech. In that game, he connected eight times for 207 yards and three touchdowns with Corley en route to a 35-point first half. But the second half of that game was essentially all three-and-outs, as WKU turned more to the run game. Bolstering that facet will be key, but seeking defensive improvement is more pertinent. The Hilltoppers currently sit at 115th in passing defense and 121st in containing the run.
Jacksonville State (5-2, 3-1 CUSA) finally saw its unbeaten CUSA run come to an end last week, running out of gas in the second half against Liberty. Rich Rodriguez’s squad remains a formidable opponent though, and while they’re ineligible from participating in the CUSA Championship Game, they can help deny teams like the Hilltoppers from that goal. Jacksonville State exhibits a top 30 scoring defense with a per game allotment of 19.4 points, and dominating the turnover battle certainly helps that metric. The Gamecocks tie for the nation’s lead with 16 takeaways generated this year. Offensively, this team succeeds with a power run game (15th in rushing yards per game) led by running back Malik Jackson and whatever mobile threat lines up at quarterback. Both components of the rotating duo of Zion Webb and Logan Smothers dealt with injuries last week, so it may be up to Ashton Frye to shoulder the load at quarterback.
Prediction: WKU 31, Jacksonville State 16
FIU @ Sam Houston
Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: Sam Houston (-5)
FIU (3-4, 0-4 CUSA) pieced together an impressive September non-conference with a spotless 3-0 record and a 46-39 win over North Texas. However, the Panthers’ CUSA slate has been nightmarish and it keeps getting worse. FIU looked spectacular last Wednesday night in its Miami Vice alternate uniforms, but due to allowing 21 first quarter points to a previously dormant UTEP offense, it was the Miners celebrating in style with a Miami Vice-themed Lamborghini on the sidelines. What is plaguing the Panthers lately? They allowed six sacks to UTEP and seven to New Mexico State and constantly get demolished in the trenches. This only increases the turnover output, which is already sitting at 13 on the year through seven games. But not all is bad in the 305. FIU exhibits the conference’s leading receiver in Kris Mitchell, a consistent threat who has racked up more than 70 yards in each of his last five games. And although the run game ranks bottom 10 in the nation, inside linebacker Donovan Manuel is a star with 72 tackles (sixth in FBS) and four forced fumbles (fourth in FBS) on the year.
Sam Houston (0-6, 0-3 CUSA) is in a race with Nevada to not hold the distinction of being the last winless team in America. The Bearkats came excruciatingly close on multiple occasions, squandering a 21-7 third quarter lead to Jacksonville State last time at Bowers Stadium before falling in overtime fashion. Also, they were three passing attempts three yards away from knocking off unbeaten Liberty, so no opponent in the CUSA is too daunting for the FBS newcomer. Despite the disparity in records, Sam Houston enters this matchup as the favorite, and that’s a testament to the Bearkats’ recent improvement. The offense has gained significant competency lately as Keegan Shoemaker is making things happen for the aerial offense with three-straight 250+, 2-touchdown showings. On the other side, Sam Houston’s defense has been sharp, limiting the likes of BYU and Air Force to 14 and 13 points, respectively. Inside linebacker Trevor Williams is the star making things happen on that end with a team-high 71 tackles — more than double that of any other Bearkat.
Prediction: Sam Houston 20, FIU 13
New Mexico State @ UTEP
Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 9 pm ET on ESPN2
Spread: New Mexico State (-3)
New Mexico State (4-3, 2-1 CUSA) is above .500 again, just like last year. You’ll have to go back to 1966 and 1967 to find the last time the Aggies strung together consecutive winning seasons, which is a testament to the job Jerry Kill has done with this program. New Mexico State eyes its third consecutive Wednesday night victory in a heated rivalry matchup against UTEP. The Aggies are on a roll thanks to brilliant play by dual-threat quarterback Diego Pavia. The reigning Quick Lane Bowl MVP ranks third in the conference in passing and sixth in rushing, leading all quarterbacks in the latter category. Pavia is fresh off season-highs in both departments with 286 passing yards and 115 on the ground against Sam Houston. He’s supported by a defense which hasn’t yielded more than 20 points in four outings. Outside linebacker Keyshaun Elliot is holding down the fort on that end with 49 tackles and 6.0 tackles for loss in 2023.
UTEP (2-5, 1-2 CUSA) finally registered its first FBS win of the season last Wednesday when skating past FIU in 27-14 fashion. The Miners received an early boost from backup quarterback Cade McConnell, who started 5-of-5 for 175 yards and two touchdowns in a perfect start. McConnell may or may not retain his starting duties for the New Mexico State game, as longtime starter Gavin Hardison could return from an army injury. Regardless of the quarterback, UTEP’s offense needs another spark. The Miners rank seventh-to-last in scoring offense at 17.7 points per game, and they’ll need another outing from running backs Torrance Burgess and Deion Hankins like their combined 148-yard performance against FIU. On defense, UTEP is well-equipped to cause havoc with outside linebacker Tyrice Knight and defensive end Praise Amaewhule. Knight is third in the FBS with 82 tackles and first in the CUSA with 9.5 tackles for loss, while Amaewhule just became UTEP’s all-time sack leader last Wednesday.
Note: the “Battle of I-10” is a heated rivalry matchup, and for the first time ever, these teams square off as CUSA opponents. The last time UTEP and New Mexico State met as conference opponents was 1961. UTEP and New Mexico State are separated by roughly 40 miles and Wednesday marks the 100th meeting between the longstanding rivals, which first settled things on the gridiron in 1914. UTEP holds the all-time edge, 59-38-2 and rides a two-game win streak in the series after New Mexico State claimed superiority from 2017 through 2019. Wednesday night’s winner will claim the Silver Spade Trophy.
Prediction: New Mexico State 27, UTEP 14