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2023 Week 6 CUSA Weeknight Previews: Breaking down the televised 4-game slate

CUSA dominates the Wednesday and Thursday college football slate with two conference games on each night.

Western Kentucky v Ohio State Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Conference USA play is in full swing.

Although the CUSA brand name has been around for decades, the league is the most unidentifiable in college football right now. Three members departed prior to the 2022 season, six members fled to the AAC this summer, and only five incumbent members returned for 2023. To recoup the losses, the conference added independents Liberty and New Mexico State as well as Jacksonville State and Sam Houston from the FCS to create a refurbished 9-team conference.

Currently, Liberty, Jacksonville State, and Louisiana Tech are tied atop the CUSA standings with 2-0 records. Meanwhile, UTEP and FIU share the basement with 0-2 marks. Four teams have only played one conference game. Among these, WKU is 1-0 while New Mexico State, Middle Tennessee, and Sam Houston are all 0-1.

All eight CUSA teams take part in weeknight action this week with UTEP idle on a bye week. The conferences dominates both Wednesday and Thursday by showcasing the only two college football games of each night:

Jacksonville State @ Middle Tennessee

Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 8 pm ET on ESPNU

Spread: Middle Tennessee (-3.5)

Jacksonville State (4-1, 2-0 CUSA) is making the transition from the FCS level look seamless by claiming a 2-0 CUSA record and knocking off three FBS opponents in its first four tries. The Gamecocks displayed their impressive resolve last Thursday night in Huntsville, TX when battling back from a 21-7 third quarter deficit to knock off Sam Houston in overtime. Under head coach Rich Rodriguez, Jacksonville State has established an identity as a run-heavy squad, producing the sixth most rushing yards in the FBS at 224 per game. While Malik Jackson should continue to produce impressive numbers on the ground, Jacksonville State attained a greater sense of offensive balance in the Sam Houston win. Quarterback Logan Smothers overcame a slow 3-of-12, 16-yard start to complete 13 of his last 16 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns. With one minute remaining, he guided Jacksonville State downfield to force overtime. Smothers didn’t arrive until summer, but he’s quickly establishing greater rapport with his main trio of receivers — Perry Carter, Quinton Lane, and Michael Pettway. While Jacksonville State’s offense had its highest-scoring outing of the season last Thursday, the defense has been stellar throughout the year. The Gamecocks shut out Eastern Michigan 21-0 in Week 4 and held UTEP to just 14 points in the opener. Led by versatile linebacker Quae Drake, Jacksonville State boasts top 40 rankings in both pass defense and run defense, all while allowing just 15 points per game.

Middle Tennessee v Missouri
Middle Tennessee QB Nick Vattiato was named 2021 Bahamas Bowl Offensive MVP, leading the Blue Raiders to a bowl victory as a freshman.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Middle Tennessee (1-4, 0-1 CUSA) is the home favorite in this one despite a record of opposite magnitude, but Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders have been tremendously battle-tested thus far. They opened with a grueling SEC road slate of Alabama and Missouri. However, they played the undefeated Tigers tough, falling 23-19 on a late turnover on downs in Mizzou territory. But Middle Tennessee remains in search of its first FBS victory after dropping games to Colorado State and WKU the last two weeks. Establishing a greater offensive footprint is required in order to turn this record around. The Blue Raiders are led by quarterback Nick Vattiato who shined as a freshman in 2021 and led the team to a Bahamas Bowl victory over Toledo. Vattiato is currently averaging 234 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns and four picks this season in an offense which prefers to inflict its damage through the passing game. As a rushing attack, the Blue Raiders rank 99th nationally in team rushing yards, but the team is making progress. Jaiden Credle produced 70 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches last week, and Middle Tennessee will look to expand the sophomore running back’s role within the offense. On defense, the Blue Raiders rank 110th in fewest points allowed but tend to hold up better against the run than the pass. Generating takeaways is one element the defense must hone in on, as the team has registered just two interceptions this season — one by free safety and leading tackler Tra Fluellen.

Prediction: Jacksonville State 21, Middle Tennessee 14

FIU @ New Mexico State

Wednesday, Oct. 4 at 9 pm ET on CBS Sports Network

FIU (3-2, 0-1 CUSA) remains above .500 territory after taking a bye in Week 5. After a narrow loss in Week 0 where just four passing yards were recorded in the box score, the Panthers made a change at quarterback and rattled off three-straight wins. Keyone Jenkins has accelerated FIU’s offense since becoming the starter, averaging 250 passing yards per game and ranking fourth in the conference in total passing production. Jenkins fired for over 280 yards and racked up more than nine yards per attempt in each of his first three starts, but the 38-6 loss to Liberty in Week 4 was a significantly greater challenge for the offense, and the entire unit struggled. Guided by explosive wideout Kris Mitchell — who leads the CUSA in receiving with nearly 100 yards of separation — FIU is rebalancing itself to a pass-happy offense, as the run game ranks 113th nationally. But if Shomari Lawrence excels from the get-go, Mike MacIntyre has no problem feeding him. The running back produced 139 yards on 15 carries against Louisiana Tech and 89 on 16 against North Texas — his only games with double-digit attempts this year. On the other side of the ball, FIU struggles to contain the run and lets up the eighth-most yards per game in the FBS. Still, the Panthers are equipped with an absolute force with inside linebacker Donovan Manuel, who has 7.0 tackles for loss and an FBS-best four forced fumbles on the year.

New Mexico State v New Mexico
New Mexico State QB Diego Pavia is a mobile threat with 268 rushing yards this season. His status for Wednesday is unclear at the moment.
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

New Mexico State (3-2, 0-1 CUSA) also enters Wednesday night action fresh off a bye week. It’s been a perplexing season for the Aggies which alternate between defeat and victory every week, opening the 2023 campaign with a stunning 41-30 loss to UMass in Week 0. Since, Jerry Kill’s team triumphed over Western Illinois of the FCS and Hawaii while falling to the likes of Liberty and in-state rival New Mexico. The former independent seeks its first-ever CUSA victory in what’s slated to be a revenge game, as FIU emerged in a 21-7 victory last October in Las Cruces. Until further notice, New Mexico State quarterback Diego Pavia is expected to earn the start, but the Quick Lane Bowl MVP is in the midst of controversy after video depicted him defacing the New Mexico logo in the Lobos’ practice facility. If Pavia is unable to start, the Aggies should turn to Eli Stowers, who has been recurrently inserted into games this year as a run-first threat. The ground is where New Mexico State does the most damage as one of 23 programs totaling more than 200 rushing yards per game. The running back trio of Star Thomas, Monte Watkins, and Jamoni Jones has worked like a charm this year, with Watkins especially impressing with 11.9 yards per carry. Defensively, the Aggies are hurting for turnovers. New Mexico State is one of five FBS programs without an interception, but the defense has looked sharper in the past two weeks with just 37 combined points allowed to New Mexico and Hawaii.

Spread: New Mexico State (-6.5)

Prediction: FIU 23, New Mexico State 20

Sam Houston @ Liberty

Thursday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm ET on CBS Sports Network

Spread: Liberty (-19.5)

Liberty (4-0, 2-0 CUSA) is the last remaining unblemished record in the CUSA and one of 22 FBS teams still chasing perfection. The Flames hired Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell this offseason, and now they look like a spitting image of what Coastal was offensively the last several years. Quarterback Kaidon Salter is the perfect fit for this pseudo-option offense, and his dual-threat capabilities have been on full display this year. Salter threw for 344 yards and five touchdowns against Buffalo to prove his skills as a passer, and he exhibits an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season. Also, he ranks first among CUSA quarterbacks in rushing with 67 yards per game this season. Liberty’s offense gets an extra kick in the run game from Quinton Cooley and his 6.1 yards per carry, and the junior tailback has surpassed the century mark in two games this season. No team in the FBS averages more takeaways per game than the Flames, which landed 12 in their first four contests. Liberty’s secondary consistently overwhelms opposing offenses with interceptions and the team is tied with Oklahoma for the national lead with 10 on the year. Four different Flames have multiple picks this year including cornerback Kobe Singleton who is on a clear All-CUSA track. Liberty also receives strong contributions from its linebacker corps as Tyren Dupree and Jerome Jolly Jr. combine for 5.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, four interceptions, three pass breakups, and a forced fumble.

Sam Houston v Brigham Young
Sam Houston ILB Trevor Williams leads the Bearkats with 48 tackles on the season, including 34 solo.
Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Sam Houston (0-4, 0-1 CUSA) is one of four FBS teams without any indication in the win column, and the Bearkats came excruciatingly close to changing that last Thursday. In their first-ever home game as a member of the FBS, the Bearkats held a 21-7 lead and were less than 20 seconds away from securing a victory before Jacksonville State forced overtime. But even after the brutal 35-28 overtime defeat, Sam Houston had plenty of positive things to take away from that game. For one, the offense finally ignited. After scoring a combined 10 points in its first three games against BYU, Air Force, and Houston, K.C. Keeler’s team posted 21 in the first half alone and finished the contest with four touchdowns. The passing attack didn’t register 150 yards in those early non-conference games, but Keegan Shoemaker returned to the starting role and delivered 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns last Thursday. Still, things need to be worked out in a run game which ranks last in the FBS at 2.0 yards per carry and third-to-last with 65.5 yards per game. Defense is the strong suit of Sam Houston, which impressively limited BYU to 14 points and Air Force to 13. The Bearkats possess star talent in inside linebacker Trevor Williams, who ranks second in the country in solo tackles with 34. Sam Houston’s pass defense allows just 177 yards per game, situated at 19th in the country, and the Bearkats hope to keep this low-scoring in order to generate their first FBS victory.

Prediction: Liberty 42, Sam Houston 13

WKU @ Louisiana Tech

Thursday, Oct. 5 at 8 pm ET on ESPNU

Spread: WKU (-6.5)

WKU (3-2, 1-0 CUSA) snapped its two-game skid with a dominant 31-10 victory over Middle Tennessee to kick off CUSA play last Thursday. Tyson Helton’s high-powered aerial offense finally got back to form after some September struggles. So far, turnovers have been the number one determinant of the offense’s success. WKU averaged 46.5 points per game across its first two games when refusing to cough up the ball once. But all seven of the team’s turnovers have transpired in the last three outings, and the offense is generating just 21.7 points per game in that span. WKU will rely heavily on quarterback Austin Reed, who led the nation in passing yards and tied for third in passing touchdowns in 2022. Reed isn’t exactly on pace to replicate those feats, but the second-year starter produced his second 290-yard game of the year last Thursday, and he’ll look to use his connection with Malachi Corley to fill up the stat sheet. Since returning from an early-season injury, Corley is on a three-game streak of obtaining at least eight receptions and 80 yards. This offense airs it out 44 times per game — second-most in FBS — so the run game is often substituted by quick screen passes. When Louisiana Tech possesses the ball, getting off the field will be a priority. Only four teams have encountered more opponent fourth down attempts than the Hilltoppers’ 14 thus far, but WKU has allowed conversions on 10 of these tries. WKU ranks 116th in pass defense and 125th in run defense, so it’s essentially pick your poison for the Bulldogs.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Auburn
WKU WR Malachi Corley ranked fourth in the FBS in receiving yards with 1,293 last season.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Louisiana Tech (3-3, 2-2 CUSA) will be the first FBS team to partake in its seventh game of the season. Sonny Cumbie’s Bulldogs already cleared through half of their regular season slate, matching their win total from year one of the Cumbie era before October even commenced. Louisiana Tech’s quarterback situation for this matchup is undefined, as starter Hank Bachmeier returned to practice after missing the previous two matchups. If the Boise State transfer is unable to return from his shoulder injury, the Bulldogs will trot out Jack Turner for a third-straight start. Passing was not a forte in last Friday night’s 24-10 win over UTEP, but Turner previously showed his capabilities with a 292-yard performance against Nebraska. Regardless of who operated under center, the Bulldogs are equipped with an incredibly lethal receiver combo of Smoke Harris and Cyrus Allen. Harris works well on screens in an open field, as evidenced by his punt return touchdown at UTEP, while Allen is the explosive downfield home run threat. But since Bachmeier went down, the Bulldogs’ run game has operated well under Miami (OH) transfer Tyre Shelton who enters Thursday fresh off back-to-back 100-yard games. The defense will be shorthanded after the suspension of outside linebacker Brevin Randle for stomping on a UTEP player’s helmet. Elsewhere in that unit, the secondary will face its greatest test of the season, but until the point, it’s been stellar with the sixth fewest passing yards per game allowed on a 49 percent completion rate.

Prediction: WKU 42, Louisiana Tech 27