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Conference USA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2017 season

Conference USA's best brains come together to share their thoughts and predictions on the upcoming season.

CUSA Championship - Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky
Will WKU be the first ever Conference USA team to go back-to-back-to-back?
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Oh yes, ladies and gentleman. The Conference USA Roundtable is back! With the start of the 2017 season just a few days away, the staff members who cover Conference USA for Underdog Dynasty and Managing Editor Alex Nicholas from SB Nation’s UTEP blog Miner Rush, got together to discuss what’s in store for C-USA this season.

You can check out last year’s C-USA Roundtbale predictions for the 2016 season here.

Let’s get to it.

Who is your surprise (good or bad) team in Conference USA this year?

Cyrus Smith: Marshall. I can’t possibly see them being that bad again. The defense should be better once Juwon Young comes back from his suspension and the offense has the potential to be a lot more explosive than it was last year with Tyre Brady at receiver. If those Miami transfers live up their recruiting billing, Marshall will win at least seven games this season.

Jared Kalmus: FIU. I’m not picking the Panthers to win the division or anything but Butch Davis inheriting the most experienced roster in college football is nothing to scoff at. Davis will get FIU to a bowl game somehow and steal a bit of the spotlight from Lane Kiffin at FAU.

Alex Nicholas: FAU. I’m going to go with the Owls as a really athletic, and interesting team to watch. All those highly regarded transfers, and a wide open Kendal Briles led offense will be fun to watch, and could surprise folks. Could be a quick lightning in a bottle situation if the cards align.

Adam Woodyard: UAB. If Marshall were bad again, that would certainly surprise, but I’m going with UAB. Most of the staff thinks I’m crazy for predicting more than a handful of wins. I see them picking up where they left off.

Tanner Spearman: FAU. I’ll take the Owls. Not only do they have Lane Kiffin, but they’ve also been gathering some talent from transfers. Many of these transfers are in kind of a second (or in JF3’s case, fourth) chance mode after running into issues in the past, which could be a concern. On the other hand, maybe they take on the bad boy attitude Miami was once known for, cementing Kiffin’s movement to brand them as “The faU.”

Who is your breakout player?

Florida International v Charlotte
If Hasaan Klugh has a big 2017 season, he could enter 2018 as one of the best quarterbacks in C-USA.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Cyrus: Tyree Brady. He would be a starter at Miami right now if not for his off-the-field issues when he attended school there. He had an excellent spring game and that has transitioned to a solid fall camp. If Marshall’s offensive line can keep Chase Litton upright, Litton and Brady will have big seasons.

Jared: Hasaan Klugh. This kid has all the tools to be a terrific dual-threat quarterback for Charlotte. Sure he’ll need to show some development in refining his field vision and perfecting the small things of commanding an offense but Klugh was quite polished in his freshman season. Dare I say that the sky is the limit?

Alex: I’m going to be a complete homer on this one and say Walter Dawn Jr. from UTEP. The Swiss-Army offensive weapon will be running behind the league’s top offensive line, and could become UTEP’s top offensive weapon.

Adam: I don’t have an original choice here. A lot of great players and a lot of great quarterbacks in this league, but Brent Stockstill should pass for approximately 9000 yards this year. Give or take.

Tanner: Gonna go with Ray Lawry here. With Old Dominion breaking in a new quarterback, the experienced running back is in a position to lead his team to a lot of wins. I still think they’ll need a decent quarterback to win the title, but Lawry could dang near carry them to one himself.

Who is your pick to win C-USA Defensive Player of the Year & Offensive Player of the Year?

Cyrus: Richie James (WR - MTSU), Josiah Tauaefa (LB - UTSA)

Jared: Brent Stockstill (QB - MTSU), Jaylon Ferguson (DE - La Tech)

Alex: Ito Smith (RB - Southern Miss), Jaylon Ferguson (DE - La Tech)

Adam: Brent Stockstill (QB - MTSU), Jaylon Ferguson (DE - La Tech)

Tanner: Brent Stockstill (QB - MTSU), Jaylon Ferguson (DE - La Tech)

Over/Under 7.5 Teams from Conference USA will qualify for a bowl game

Cyrus: Half the league reaching a bowl game would be fantastic. I’ll take the over as C-USA’s middle teams are getting better so I’m thinking we’ll see a few 6-6 squads making the cut.

Jared: I’ll take the over. Programs like Charlotte, FIU, FAU, and UNT are all making strides. Before diving into the scheduling matchups for every team I think I’ll bet on the momentum and that a few of those teams that won 3-5 games in seasons past makes the jump up to bowl eligibility.

Alex: I’ll take the slight under, but that 5-7 APR rule might hit the over in the end.

Adam: This isn’t fair, because it’s dependent on Power Five schools screwing up their bids again. Which, thinking about it, is like 90 percent likely. Over.

Tanner: My prediction is seven, so I’ll take the under, but I could see one or two more teams breaking through, so if it goes over I won’t be shocked.

Your sleeper picks to win C-USA East and C-USA West are…

Cyrus: I wrote a few words on why Marshall is a sleeper to win C-USA East. As for C-USA West, I only see Southern Miss having a shot at contending with La Tech and UTSA. Ito Smith and Allenzae Staggers are really explosive players. The Golden Eagles are only a quarterback away from making this a three-team race but having to go to San Antonio and Ruston is going to be tough.

Jared: Considering that most seem to view the east division as WKU/MTSU or bust, I’ll take ODU as a sleeper. The Monarchs are in great shape everywhere besides quarterback and linebacker. If they find answers there then they’re going to be tough to beat. I think UNT can make a run for the division in the West. They get UTSA at home after a bye week and Littrell has had another year to implement his system.

Alex: Marshall out of the East, Doc recruits too well for this team not to compete at high level after a down year for the Herd. Out of the West, Southern Miss and Ito Smith are an interesting team if they can find a productive quarterback to keep their offense moving along.

Adam: East for Middle Tennessee and West for UTSA. Marshall had a down year last season and WKU is breaking in a new coach. LA Tech has been fantastic but can’t seem to break that nine-win barrier. This could be the year UTSA breaks through.

Tanner: First, I’m gonna call out Adam because I consider both of those teams as non-sleepers! But anyway, the West looks like a two-team race between Louisiana Tech and UTSA, but if Southern Miss finds a solid QB, they could make a run. Their main issue is that they have to play both UTSA and La Tech on the road. As for the East, give me Old Dominion. As far as I’m concerned, they could be a solid QB away from a possible title.

Most likely Power 5 win for the conference...

Cyrus: WKU over Illinois. The Tops should wax Illinois. If they lose that game then you can sound the alarms on WKU not being as good as years past.

Jared: WKU over Illinois. The Tops will likely be favored by a good bit here. Illinois was really dang bad in 2016.

Alex: Give me Middle Tennessee over Vandy as the Stockstills win a shootout.

Adam: I’m picking UTSA over Baylor, since the former had some great recruiting and the latter has players fleeing and lawsuits incoming. FIU over Indiana would be a nice statement for Butch Davis, though.

Tanner: WKU over Illinois. Any chance WKU will be favored over Illinois? The Hilltoppers should be able to handle an Illini team that brings back almost nobody from last year’s bad team.

Which coach do you see as most likely to not return after 2017 either due to a firing, retirement, or leaving for another job?

UTEP v Florida Atlantic
Sean Kugler has the hottest seat in Conference USA.
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Cyrus: Sean Kugler. No way Kugler makes it to a sixth year if they don’t win at least five games. Attendance is trending down and recruiting hasn’t gotten any better. Plus the Miners could use a fresh face leading the program (hi Sonny Dykes). If UTEP doesn’t beat Rice in Week 2 AND loses to New Mexico State, he probably won’t make it past October.

Jared: Sean Kugler. The Miners don’t seem to have much promise on offense with Aaron Jones off to the NFL. Kugler probably should have already been fired for only making it to one bowl game with Jones on his roster but that’s neither here nor there.

Alex: This a tough one, I can see a few guys being hot commodities (Skip Holtz, “Swag” Kiffin, Frank Wilson), but I’ll go Frank Wilson to the SEC if UTSA lives up to their lofty expectations in 2017.

Adam: Sean Kugler. I have yet to hear a good reason why Sean Kugler survived last season at UTEP, I can’t imagine him still being there come the holidays.

Tanner: Sean Kugler. If UTEP doesn’t make a bowl and Sean Kugler isn’t fired, that AD is gonna have a riot on his hands.

Who do you like to win C-USA (please pick who will beat who in Championship Game)?

Cyrus: Louisiana Tech over Old Dominion. The Monarchs will use a bruising rushing attack and a veteran defense to win C-USA East. In the West I think the Roadrunners fall just a bit short and get nipped somewhere unexpectedly in November before the La Tech game. I think it’s La Tech’s year. The Bulldogs finally get over the hump and win C-USA in front of a packed Joe Aillet Stadium.

Jared: Louisiana Tech over Old Dominion. If UTSA had La Tech at home I probably would have picked the Roadrunners. I’m expecting a down year from WKU and ODU should dominate their competition in the trenches.

Alex: UTEP because I’m a homer, but realistically I’d like to see Skip Holtz and La Tech run the table and give the West a Championship over MTSU.

Adam: La Tech over Middle Tennessee. UTSA is still a sleeper until they prove they’re done building, and the celebrity coaches at FIU and FAU need a couple years to clean up what they inherited. Bulldogs are the smart money.

Tanner: I have Louisiana Tech going on the road to beat Middle Tennessee for the title. UTSA is rising, but they’re not quite there yet. WKU will still be solid again, but the coaching change plus very few returning starters on offense could give Middle the chance to beat ‘em.