The truest football junkies in the country thank Conference USA for their services.
The CUSA experimented with a conference schedule from Week 6 through Week 9, featuring a 4-game midweek slate throughout the month of October. But after this Tuesday and Wednesday, the league bids farewell to owning the center stage of the college football world on such nights. Next week, the CUSA officially hands the baton to “Midweek MACtion” — the conference which first made midweek football famous back in the early 2010s.
However, there are both sides of the coin when it comes to midweek matchups. while the nine programs in this revamped conference garner more national exposure, there’s a trade-off. Attendance is often compromised, as the feasibility of traveling to games becomes more difficult on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, as opposed to weekends. But after this Wednesday, the remainder of CUSA games will transpire on Saturdays this year, thus providing greater opportunities for attendance once again — although the national TV appearances will dwindle.
Anyway, let’s celebrate a fun October of weeknight CUSA football and preview the final slate before the conference claims Saturdays again:
New Mexico State @ Louisiana Tech
Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: Louisiana Tech (-2.5)
Louisiana Tech (3-5, 2-2 CUSA) is in desperate need of a get-right win. Sonny Cumbie’s team dropped its last two games by one score each before finally partaking in a bye week. The quarterback situation remains unclear for the moment. Jack Turner earned the last four starts after original starter Hank Bachmeier suffered a shoulder injury in Week 3, but Bachmeier is back to full strength. He replaced Turner in the second half of the Bulldogs’ most recent outing, providing a spark with an efficient 178 yards on 16-of-24 passing. Regardless of the quarterback, Louisiana Tech is equipped with one of the sharpest receiving corps in the conference, headlined by Smoke Harris. Getting the ball to Harris in space is a priority of the offense as the receiver ranks fourth in the FBS with 59 receptions on the year. Other notable playmakers include deep threat receiver Cyrus Allen and running back Tyre Shelton, who has three 100+ yard games in five appearances. But in order to snap the skid, Louisiana Tech must show defensive improvements. The run defense is ninth-to-last in the country and will have its hands full with a dual-threat quarterback and a potent running back room.
New Mexico State (5-3, 3-1 CUSA) is one of the hottest teams in the conference right now. The Aggies ride a 3-game win streak into Ruston, LA after handling FIU, Sam Houston, and UTEP all by multiple scores. The success all starts with dual-threat quarterback Diego Pavia. Pavia has accounted for multiple touchdown passes in five-straight outings with only one interception in that span. As a rusher, he’s attained at least 96 yards in four of those games, utilizing his mobility for four touchdowns. He ranks third in the CUSA in passing and fourth in rushing, and comes equipped with running back Monte Watkins, who averages an FBS-best 11.9 yards per carry among all players with at least 35 attempts. Defensively, the Aggies are pulling their weight, refusing to allow more than 20 points in five-consecutive contests. The run defense, led by Keyshaun Elliot, continues to dominate — holding three of its past four opponents below 100 yards on the ground. With a win, New Mexico State becomes bowl eligible for the second consecutive season, and the program has not participated in back-to-back bowls since 1959 and 1960.
Prediction: New Mexico State 34, Louisiana Tech 27
Liberty @ WKU
Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 7:30 pm ET on ESPNU
Spread: Liberty (-5)
Liberty (7-0, 4-0 CUSA) is one of nine FBS unbeatens remaining after Penn State and North Carolina were subject to defeat for the first time Saturday. Preseason CUSA favorite WKU is likely the Flames’ greatest obstacle to perfection for the remainder of the season. Liberty survived with another one-score win at home last Tuesday against Middle Tennessee, but the Flames have won all three road games by at least 18 points. The specialties of this team keeping them undefeated are (a) the run game, and (b) the turnover battle. Liberty posted a season-high 401 rushing yards last week on Middle Tennessee, cemented at No. 2 in the nation in the category. Mobile quarterback Kaidon Salter contributes strongly in this area (160 rushing yards last week) while running back Quinton Cooley is the focal point, averaging 126 yards in his last four outings. Then in the turnover battle, Liberty leads the FBS with 15 passes intercepted. Safety Brylan Green is the nation’s standalone leader with five picks, while Kobe Singleton is another force with three interceptions and four pass breakups on the year. Singleton will have his work cut out for him Tuesday in a highly-anticipated matchup vs. Malachi Corley.
Western Kentucky (4-3, 2-1 CUSA) is no longer unscathed in CUSA play. The Hilltoppers blew a 17-7 lead to FBS newcomer Jacksonville State last Tuesday, getting stunned by a game-winning field goal as time expired. As suggested in its last two outings, WKU is not a second half team. In 12 full second half possessions over that span, the Hilltoppers have punted 10 times and turned it over on downs twice. And on those 12 possessions, the furthest they traversed into opponent territory was the 45-yard line. The result is being outscored 31-0 in third and fourth quarters since Oct. 5. WKU is a first half team though, and that offensive effort must be sustained throughout an entire contest. The Hilltoppers offer a dynamic duo of quarterback Austin Reed and Malachi Corley, who ranked first in passing yards and fourth in receiving yards, respectively in 2022. The duo demonstrated that potential still exists when combining for 207 yards and three touchdowns earlier in the month at Louisiana Tech. Also of note, WKU will be wearing these sweet uniforms featuring seven different helmet decals of beloved mascot Big Red.
Prediction: Liberty 28, WKU 23
Jacksonville State @ FIU
Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network
Spread: Jacksonville State (-8)
Jacksonville State (6-2, 4-1 CUSA) and its sudden success might be the most underrated storyline in college football this year. If the Gamecocks weren’t barred from the CUSA Championship due to being in their first year of transition from the FCS, they might be competing in it. They attained hypothetical bowl eligibility last week when scoring 13 unanswered points to stun WKU, 20-17, at the buzzer, and this team is the model of resiliency. Jacksonville State erased a 21-7 third quarter deficit against Sam Houston and a 23-7 third quarter deficit against Middle Tennessee, so no game is out of reach when Rich Rodriguez is on the other sideline. Rodriguez has always been renowned for high-powered rushing attacks, and that remains the case at Jacksonville State. Although the quarterback rotates from game-to-game, Zion Webb is the likely starter after a 146-yard rushing performance last week. But running back injuries have thrust Anwar Lewis to be his lead back, and Lewis has succeeded in the role — attaining 166 yards across the past two weeks. In addition to dominance on the ground, one other facet which allows these frequent Gamecock comebacks is their propensity to generate takeaways — ranking fourth in the FBS with 17 on the year.
FIU (4-4, 1-4 CUSA) finally got off the schneid last week after a 3-game skid and an 0-4 start to league play. Things looked grim for the Panthers, which trailed Sam Houston 20-17 in the final minute facing a 4th and 18. But head coach Mike MacIntyre trusted quarterback Keyone Jenkins and the rest was history. Jenkins created FIU’s longest play of the game on a 23-yard fourth down scramble and then in double overtime, he delivered a 25-yard dime to Kris Mitchell in the end zone for the win. Mitchell is certainly a name Jacksonville State must be super wary of, considering the receiver leads the CUSA with 711 yards on the season. FIU’s explosive playmaking has been lacking lately, but Mitchell regularly produced 40+ yard gains early in the season and Jacksonville State’s pass defense isn’t as sharp as its run-stopping effort. Defense has been a struggle in general for the Panthers this year, but holding Sam Houston to two touchdowns in regulation last week was a promising sign. Look for do-it-all inside linebacker Donovan Manuel to serve as the counter to the Gamecocks’ run game, with 79 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, and an FBS-high four forced fumbles on the year.
Prediction: Jacksonville State 20, FIU 13
UTEP @ Sam Houston
Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 8 pm ET on ESPN2
Spread: Sam Houston (-3.5)
UTEP (2-6, 1-3 CUSA) is on the brink of missing bowl season for the second-straight year after a resurgent 7-win campaign in 2021. The Miners earned their only FBS win of 2023 two weeks ago at FIU, but they were outclassed in the Battle of I-10 rivalry against New Mexico State last Wednesday in a 28-7 result. UTEP is still operating without starting quarterback Gavin Hardison, who missed the last three games with a throwing arm injury. If Hardison remains out, Cade McConnell will get another start. McConnell was dynamite against FIU with 262 yards and two touchdowns on 11 completions. But against UTEP, a different performance was witnessed from the passing game, as the quarterback took four sacks and completed 15-of-32 attempts. Deion Hankins will try to take pressure off McConnell, keeping the run game afloat after 265 rushing yards in his last three games. UTEP’s offense only averages 16.4 points per game which is seventh-to-last in the FBS, and the Miners’ strength lies on the defensive side. That’s where they unleash the dominant defensive end pairing of Maurice Westmoreland and Praise Amaewhule, who combine for 6.5 sacks in the last three showings.
Sam Houston (0-7, 0-4 CUSA) is the only remaining winless team in the FBS after Nevada upset San Diego State 6-0 last Saturday night. There have been three times this year where the Bearkats tasted victory and watched it slip away in excruciating fashion. They came three yards short of knocking off undefeated Liberty on the road. And every home game they’ve ever played since joining the FBS has gone to overtime. Both Jacksonville State and FIU put together one-minute drive possessions to force overtime in Huntsville, TX, and both CUSA squads knocked off Sam Houston in the extra period. Still, Sam Houston is showing strides offensively. Keegan Shoemaker furthers his capabilities as a passer each week, totaling at least 285 yards in three of his last four contests. He’s fresh off a season-high 306 yards against FIU, but UTEP is one of the conference’s more challenging aerial defense. Sam Houston also presents a formidable unit in this regard, ranking 42nd in the FBS with a per game allotment of 206 yards. Trevor Williams is the omnipresent name to watch on the defense, featuring 85 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in a potential All-CUSA season.
Prediction: Sam Houston 26, UTEP 17