For the third straight year the staff at Underdog Dynasty gets together to determine which programs in Conference USA are on the rise. You can look back at our previous evaluations of each program in C-USA East here and here.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Jared: Sell - It’s hard to imagine WKU reaching a higher peak than what they accomplished under Brohm, even if Mike Sanford Jr. turns out to be an amazing coach. The Hilltoppers should still boast a solid program but their value is higher than ever and I’m expecting an adjustment period for Sanford.
Cyrus: Push - I think they’ll be fine this year with Mike White and other talented play-makers on offense still in the fold but in the coming seasons I’m not so sure. I wasn’t a complete fan of Mike Sanford Jr. getting the job but the Tops have the infrastructure to remain at the, well, top. They’ve nailed their last three hires but this recent hire has the most volatility given how good the conference is getting.
AJ: Sell - I’m gonna have to agree with Jared on this one. WKU’s last two seasons have been so strong, it will be really hard for Sanford to live up to back-to-back C-USA championships. There is still a lot of talent on this team, but I think this will be a year of transition after Brohm’s departure.
Tanner: Push - With an entirely new coaching staff in place, I have a hard time thinking WKU will be able to stay as dominant as they have been the last two years. That said, everyone thought they’d step back without Doughty and they proved the haters wrong then, so I’m not ready to give up and sell just yet.
Old Dominion Monarchs
Jared: Buy - I’ve long maintained that Bobby Wilder is the most underrated coach in Conference USA and his incredible work with the Monarchs last season cemented that belief. ODU has a lot to replace heading into 2017 but I think a division championship is right around the corner for the Monarchs. The talent level on the roster should only increase as their first few recruiting classes begin to graduate and become replaced by three star athletes.
Cyrus: Buy - I was sold on ODU after their debut season in C-USA when they went 6-6 and last year’s breakthrough season solidified that the Monarchs aren’t going anywhere with Wilder running the program. Wilder’s decision to not pursue the Temple job was huge for C-USA and ODU. The Monarchs are still bringing in underrated talent and with a potential new Foreman Field ODU’s stock will continue to rise.
AJ: Push - ODU proved last season that they are ready to compete for a C-USA Championship. I see them being just as successful this year as they were last year, but I don’t know if they will take that next step into the championship game. I just don’t think they are bringing in good enough talent right now to achieve that just yet.
Tanner: Push - ODU won 10 games last year, but did so against a weak C-USA schedule. They didn’t play MTSU or La Tech, and got Southern Miss while Mullens was out. WKU exposed them. If WKU stays strong, Marshall gets their act together, and MTSU doesn’t fall apart, Old Dominion will have a tough time matching last year’s success in the coming years. They’ll still be a quality team, but they haven’t convinced me they belong on top just yet.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Jared: Push - Does MTSU have a ceiling? Through 11 seasons in Murfreesboro head coach Rick Stockstill has never finished a season with sole possession of a conference championship after finishing his first season with a tie of the Sun Belt title despite just a 7-6 record. While the Blue Raiders have a lot of offensive firepower it’s hard to imagine them finally breaking through to that top echelon after 11 years of moderate success.
Cyrus: Push - The window for Rick Stockstill to breakthrough and win a conference title is now. The MTSU program has been there and done that with bowl appearances under Stockstill. Now they need to aim for 10-win seasons and conference titles. Brent Stockstill is a proven quarterback and the Blue Raider staff has firepower with Tony Franklin as the offensive coordinator and Scott Schafer as the defensive coordinator. With the Florida and Texas schools appearing to be on the rise they must capitalize or fear falling down the hierarchy in the coming years.
AJ: Buy - If there is ever a year for MTSU to finally get its C-USA title, this has to be the year for the Blue Raiders and I think they know it. After a strong first year back at MTSU, look for Tony Franklin to take Brent Stockstill to the next level and continue to get Richie James the ball in many different forms. As for the defense, there has to be improvement after a very rough 2016 season. That being said, I think the only direction Scott Schafer can take take this defense is up.
Tanner: Buy - If Middle Tennessee is going to win a conference title, it’s either this year or next. Brohm is gone and Marshall may stay down. With a healthy Stockstill, MTSU could make waves in the east and find itself in the championship game. If it’s not 2017, 2018 will see Mike White gone from WKU and Stockstill will be a senior.
Jared: Buy - Butch is going to get it done. I can’t see FIU ever developing into a program that can rival USF or UCF due to lack of institutional/community support but I do think that Butch will find a way to vastly increase FIU’s win totals over the next few years, providing an urgently needed jump start to what’s been a stagnant program.
Cyrus: Buy - As an FAU fan I’m typically as indifferent about the state of FIU football as their students are but with Butch Davis in the fold I’m actually worried. This was a brilliant hire for FIU. Even if Davis can’t be what Howard Schnellenberger was to FAU, he will at the very least upgrade their talent level enough for the next guy to be successful. FIU should be a major player for conference titles soon.
AJ: Buy - Butch Davis + Solid Recuiting = trouble for everyone else in the conference. Yes, a 4-8 record isn’t good, but FIU showed potential last season and I expect to see more of it this season. Give it a few years and they will start making waves in the C-USA Championship race.
Tanner: Buy - FIU has already made waves on the recruiting trail, and seem to be attacking football with a new focus and resolve. It may take a couple of years, but they’ll be winning games pretty soon.
Jared: Buy - The 49ers finally have a good quarterback so that’s a step forward in and of itself.
Cyrus: Buy - They crept on teams last year and really, they should have went to a bowl game. I’m still buying 49ers stock as I see the same potential in ODU in Charlotte. With Hasaan Klugh at quarterback they now have a face for the program and should be bowl eligible before he graduates.
AJ: Push - Personally, I just don’t know if Charlotte can put together a consistent season. They have the talent but it just hasn’t panned out for them just yet
Tanner: Buy - After a rough first FBS season, Charlotte put together a few conference wins in 2016. All we can ask for from a young program is progress, and they’ve shown that so far.
Florida Atlantic Owls
Jared: Push - I’m going to be a little bit hesitant with FAU as we all know how volatile Lane Kiffin is. A few wrong steps (as he’s wont to do) and FAU could quickly devolve into a raging dumpster fire handcuffed by an unfulfilled contract to a lovable but dangerous head coach. Let me see Joey Freshwater make it through an entire off-season before I commit to the rebuild.
Cyrus: Buy - FAU hasn’t been relevant on the football field in years and yet their potential is too much to ignore as they were able to hire Lane Kiffin this off-season. Since President John Kelly took over he’s made it clear that he wants FAU to be a football school. The Owls have already begun the process to improve their facilities and they already boast one of the best stadiums in C-USA. As for things on the field, the talent is there for Kiffin to win fast and at the rate he’s recruiting the next head coach should be able to do the same.
AJ: Buy - I think hiring Lane Kiffin was a great move for both FAU and C-USA as a whole. I think it’s a great way for him to prove he can build a program up from the ground rather than try to rebuild a program with high expectations. I see the product on the field getting better and the FAU and C-USA brand benefiting from a high profile coach like Kiffin.
Tanner: Buy - I’m a little hesitant to buy the hype, but regardless of how Kiffin does or how long he stays, the fact they hired him shows that the Owls, like the Panthers, are renewing their focus on winning football games. That mindset is enough for me.
Marshall Thundering Herd
Jared: Sell - Just a hunch here but I think there’s something really bad simmering in Huntington. The Herd’s fall was too extreme and too quick to be easily explained. I just have a gut feeling that there’s some behind-the-scenes drama that could be haunting the program. Hopefully I’m wrong and last season was truly a random aberration.
Cyrus: Push - Doc Holliday has proven to be a great fit in Huntington but there’s no denying that last year was a disaster. The conference is rising and getting younger fast. 2017 Is a huge season for the Herd as it will determine whether 2016 was a blip or a trend. Given that their recruiting pipeline in Florida is only going to get tougher with FAU, FIU, USF, and UCF getting better, Marshall’s great tradition and passionate fan base might not be enough to keep them near the top of C-USA.
AJ: Sell - The Marshall program right now is the actual dumpster fire of the conference. To see how far they have fallen so quickly is honestly kind of sad. I honestly don’t know how to explain it, but all of the excitement and momentum they had after multiple 10-win seasons is gone. I agree with Jared, something might be going on that we can’t see.
Tanner: Sell - What the hell was 2016? I’d like to think that Marshall will bounce back, but something feels off, and the end of the season gave me no reason for optimism. I can see Marshall finishing last in the East for the second straight year.