With new coaches and teams on the rise, 2017 feels like it could be a good year for C-USA football. To be a truly great year requires winning non-conference games, including some against the Power 5. Last year only saw two such wins, with Southern Miss coming back to defeat Kentucky and Middle Tennessee winning a shootout with Mizzou.
In 2017, C-USA will have 22 regular season opportunities. Five of these are C-USA home games, and if Rice-Stanford hadn’t been changed to a neutral site game in Australia, there would have been six. The SEC leads the way with three of the five C-USA home games and seven total games, most of any of the five. Let’s take a took at which games give C-USA the best chances at victory.
Vanderbilt Commodores at Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Week 1: Sat, Sept 2, 7:00 CDT, CBSSN
These two instate rivals will be facing off for the third straight year as part of a four game series. Vanderbilt won the last two, but the Blue Raiders will get another chance in Johnny Floyd Stadium to start 2017. Middle returns 12 starters from last year’s 8-5 squad, including Brent Stockstill, one of the best quarterbacks in C-USA. Had Stockstill not been injured, however, that 8-5 record likely would have been more like 9-4 or 10-3. Vanderbilt returns 16 starters from a 6-7 squad, although that team had to upset their last two opponents to even make a bowl. The Commodores also return their starting QB, Kyle Shurmur.
Looking at the stat sheet from last year’s game, two things stand out. Middle Tennessee had nine penalties for 92 yards; Vandy only had four for 40 yards. Secondly, Vandy recorded 231 rushing yards to only 96 from MTSU. However, beyond that, the Raiders dominated the stats, other than the score. This time around, if Middle can find a way to slow down running back Ralph Webb, clean up the penalties, and keep Vandy out of the end zone a little more often, there’s a chance for a great win to open 2017.
Mississippi State Bulldogs at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Week 2: Sat, Sept 9, 6:30 CDT, CBSSN
The two Bulldog teams will meet in Joe Aillet Stadium for a week two showdown after both open with FCS opponents. This will be the fourth of a six-game series between the two, which began with Tech defeating State 22-14 in Ruston to open the 2008 season. Mississippi State has won two games in Starkville since, although 2011 was in overtime, and in 2015 Tech was missing star running back Kenneth Dixon with injury. Louisiana Tech returns 10 starters in 2017, which includes running back Jarred Craft, three offensive lineman, and stud defensive end Jaylon Ferguson. Although he wasn’t a starter, the return of running back Boston Scott, as well, gives Tech even more reason for optimism. The Dawgs will be breaking in a new quarterback, but J’Mar Smith has proven he has plenty of potential, highlighted by almost beating Arkansas on the road last year in his first career game. Mississippi State returns 13 starters, to include QB Nick Fitzgerald, who threw for over 2,400 yards in 2016.
Louisiana Tech went 9-5 and captured a division title last year. The Dawgs also competed very closely and fell just short against Arkansas and Texas Tech last year. They ended their season by defeating #25 Navy in a thriller. Mississippi State went 6-7 last year, only making a bowl game thanks to a season ending upset of archrival Ole Miss, and even then needed high APR scores to sneak into a bowl at 5-7, where they only defeated 6-6 Miami (OH) thanks to a blocked field goal. They struggled in all of their non-conference games, losing to South Alabama and BYU while having trouble against UMass and Samford. This will not be an easy task, but with this game in Ruston, Louisiana Tech should have a solid chance against Mississippi State.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Illinois Fighting Illini
Week 2: Sat, Sept 9, 7:00 CDT, BTN
The Hilltoppers and Illini have met only once previously. Illinois won a shootout in 2014. WKU went 8-5 that year, while Illinois ended their season 6-7. Now, WKU is coming off their second straight conference championship and an 11-3 season that was six points away from being a 13-1 season. Illinois, on the other hand, is coming off a 3-9 season with little hope of much improvement. Although WKU only returns 10 starters, Illinois returns an abysmal eight, with only three returning starters on defense. The Illini must replace their quarterback and entire defensive line. WKU loses seven starters on offense, but they do return star quarterback Mike White. Six returning defensive starters include three in the secondary, which should cause a new Illini QB trouble.
The biggest issue for WKU this season, besides very few returning offensive starters, is that they will be breaking in a new coaching staff. However, there is little reason for optimism for 2017 in Champaign, so unless WKU tanks in Mike Sanford’s first year, there is a good chance of a win for the Toppers here.
UTSA Roadrunners at Baylor Bears
Week 2: Sat, Sept 9, 7:00 CDT
UTSA is a program on the rise under second year head coach Frank Wilson. Last year they got their first ever crack at an instate power 5 team when they traveled to College Station and gave Texas A&M a decent showing. In 2017, they’ll get a shot at the Bears of Baylor. Both teams return seven starters on offense and seven on defense. The difference? UTSA has their starting quarterback returning in Dalton Sturm. Baylor, on the other hand, will be breaking in a new signal caller. On top of that, the man they thought would be the successor to Seth Russell, Jarrett Stidham, left Waco a year ago and will be starting for Auburn in 2017. Finally, the Bears will be breaking in a new coaching staff.
UTSA only went 6-7 last year, but Frank Wilson’s team comes into 2017 with high aspirations and expectations. Baylor started off 2016 6-0 before dropping six straight, finishing 7-6 after defeating Boise State in the Cactus Bowl. UTSA gave Arizona State everything they wanted last year and almost won. This one might be a bit of a longer shot than others, but there is some hope. If UTSA finds a way to knock off Houston in week 1, the Bears might want to look out.
Arizona Wildcats at UTEP Miners
Week 3: Fri, Sept 15, 9:15 CDT, ESPN
Alright, hear me out. Yes, UTEP was bad last year. Yes, they will probably be bad this year. But, Arizona was also miserable last year. The Wildcats went 3-9, and probably should have been 1-11. They were trailing FCS Grambling State 21-3 at halftime, but GSU’s starting QB went down on GSU’s third touchdown drive late in the first half. The Tigers would not score again, and Arizona rallied to win. The lone bright spot to their season was a surprising upset of archrival Arizona State, which didn’t get Zona to a bowl game, but made sure ASU didn’t, either.
UTEP returns 11 starters to Arizona’s 14, and both return their quarterbacks. This may be an outside of the box pick here, but keep in mind this is a late Friday night kick in the Sun Bowl on national television. If Sean Kugler wants to save his job, a win over this former WAC rival would be a great start.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Vanderbilt Commodores
Week 10: Fri, Nov 3, TBA
Not to keep picking on Vandy, but how could I leave this one off? Like MTSU, this will be the third straight year the Tops will face the Commodores. Let’s keep this simple. WKU beat Vandy in Nashville two years ago and should have beaten them last year in Bowling Green. Vanderbilt definitely has the edge in 2017 in terms of returning starters, but WKU should be rolling by this late stage in the season and Sanford’s system should be solidly in place. This is akin to a rubber match in baseball: who will take the series? Getting game three against Derek Mason’s Commodores will not be easy, but look for WKU to win or die trying.
There are certainly a couple of other possibilities besides these. La Tech at South Carolina. Kentucky at Southern Miss. Middle Tennessee at Syracuse. Still, I believe the above six present the best chances for C-USA. How many P5 teams will C-USA beat in 2017? Will there be more chances in bowl season?
52 days until C-USA football returns, y’all.