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Choosing C-USA: Two preseason division favorites meet to decide superiority

La Tech vs WKU highlights this week’s C-USA schedule

CUSA Championship - Louisiana Tech v Western Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Conference USA was able to have pretty good Week 2 thanks to UTSA and Middle Tennessee getting wins over Baylor and Syracuse respectively but it could have been much better had WKU and Louisiana Tech performed much better against their Power Five competition.

With WKU and La Tech looking downright lost last weekend against beatable P5 teams, I think it’s fair to wonder if these two programs will live up to expectations. Normally a game with championships on the line, this week bragging rights aren’t the only thing on the table as seasons may be on the line too when WKU hosts La Tech.

Elsewhere in C-USA you have a few teams hosting FCS teams while Middle Tennessee and Old Dominion have the chance to make it two weeks in a row where C-USA gets a win over the P5.

Choosing C-USA Record: 21-5

Game of the Week

Louisiana Tech vs WKU (WKU -7.5, 7:00 PM ET, Stadium/Twitter)

The most consistent programs in Conference USA over the last few years square off in a matchup that will put whoever losses at a crossroads. Some might say that’s a bit of an overreaction considering both WKU and La Tech lost against Power 5 schools last week but it’s not that they lost, but rather how they lost which has me concerned about whether they will live up to the expectations of being the favorites to win C-USA.

For WKU the issue is not just the coaching transition but players stepping into bigger roles on offense. WKU’s rushing attack is a glaring issue at the moment as they rank 90th or worse in Rushing Success Rate, Rushing IsoPPP, Opportunity Rate, Power Success Rate, and Stuff Rate. While we only have a small sample, Illinois isn’t a juggernaut and the Tops didn’t exactly run through Eastern Kentucky either. They simply can’t run the ball and as a result, Mike White looks like he’s back at USF as the passing attack has looked lost without Taywan Taylor stretching the field and Forrest Lamp protecting the backside. White is averaging 5.8 yards per pass attempt (last year it was 9.8) and has already been sacked six times (last year he was sacked 18 times for the entire season).

For La Tech the issue isn’t necessarily the coaching but rather new players stepping into larger roles on the field and in the leadership department. Without the dynamic senior presence of Ryan Higgins at quarterback and Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson out wide, Tech has also experienced growing pains developing a potent passing attack.

J’Mar Smith is completing just 48% of his passes as Tech ranks 124th in Passing Success Rate and 114th in Passing Downs Success Rate. If you force Tech into passing downs, you’re pretty much getting a stop. So far none of Tech’s receivers has been able to replicate the consistency of Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson.

We’ve seen Todd Fitch and Skip Holtz develop an excellent run-first offense when Jeff Driskel and Kenneth Dixon were in the backfield so I’m surprised we haven’t seen that offense return in Ruston. Smith’s running ability coupled with Boston Scott and Jarred Craft has produced a Rushing Success Rate that ranks 13th in the country, a Power Success Rate that ranks 37th, and a Stuff Rate that ranks 13th. When Tech calls running plays, they move the ball with ease.

With the identity crisis both offenses are in right now through the air, the defenses could rule the day in this one. Something to watch for is whether WKU can run the ball. Tech was gutted by Mississippi State for 327 yards on the ground. Something’s gotta give. WKU doesn’t have the size on the offensive line and the talent in the backfield to put up those numbers so Tech should look much better against the run this Saturday. Tech’s pass defense wasn’t the culprit last week and I don’t think they’ll be an issue in this matchup either. Jaylon Ferguson has yet to make a significant impact this season and this could be the game he breaks out as WKU ranks 125th in Standard Downs Sack Rate (they do rank 37th in Passing Downs Sack Rate though).

The past three contests have been pointsy barn-burners with WKU winning two of them. I don’t see the scoreboard getting lit up like that in this one.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech
J’Mar Smith has a lot riding on his shoulders as La Tech attempts to bounce back from a pummeling at the hands of Mississippi State.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

While the Tops haven’t had too many glaring issues on defense this year they have had the benefit of playing against sub-par offenses. The Tops did allow Ilinois’ true freshman running back Mike Epstein to rush for 111 yards and a touchdown so the rushing defense seems to be a bit sketchy. If Tech keeps it on the ground and feed Jarred Craft and Boston Scott they should have success on the ground.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the sense of urgency produced two totally different looking teams in this one. I trust Tech’s coaching staff more than Western Kentucky’s so give me the Bulldogs.

Louisiana Tech 34 WKU 24

The rest of C-USA…

Arizona at UTEP (UTEP +23, Friday 10:15 PM ET)

The Miners won’t have have Ryan Metz for this one. Expect the offense to struggle and the defense to give up a ton of points.

Arizona 55 UTEP 17

Coastal Carolina at UAB (UAB +1, 1:00 PM ET)

I liked what I saw from the Blazers last week against Ball State aside from the mental errors. But for the second straight week they’ll be tested on the ground as Coastal Carolina’s Osharmar Abercrombie had 17 carries for 149 yards and two touchdowns against UMass as CCU averaged over six yards per carry to capture their first win as a member of the Sun Belt. Coastal has had two weeks to prepare for this one and I think they’ll have a few tricks up their sleeve for the Blazers but I think Bill Clark corrects those issues as UAB wins a close one.

UAB 35 Coastal 31

North Texas at Iowa (North Texas +21.5, 3:30 PM ET ESPN 2)

I think North Texas will cover as Iowa tends to play to their competition during non-conference play. Iowa State did a great job of exploiting Iowa’s secondary. Mason Fine and the UNT receivers will have to do the same thing to keep this one close.

Iowa 38 North Texas 21

Middle Tennessee at Minnesota (Middle Tennessee +10, 3:30 PM ET BTN)

Minnesota looked great last week against Oregon State but the Beavers are looking like one of the worst teams in the country at the moment. The Gophers scored just 17 points against Buffalo in the opener. I think it’s safe to say MTSU’s defense has turned the corner under Scott Schafer and after limiting an explosive Syracuse offense on the road I’m convinced they will perform well against a much more limited Gophers offense. Minnesota hasn’t played an offense as explosive as MTSU’s just yet so I think they’ll get exposed in this one as Brent Stockstill has a huge day through the air.

Middle Tennessee 37 Minnesota 28

North Carolina at Old Dominion (ODU +10, 3:30 PM ET Stadium)

The biggest game in Old Dominion history will be this Saturday as they will host just their second ever P5 opponent. ODU must keep their composure early on. Typically in big games that’s the first thing to go. With Jonathan Duhart out, I expect a very limited offense from the Monarchs as they haven’t necessarily shown the ability to stretch the field when he was available.

Fortunately, they have the defense to win this one. The Monarchs lead the country in sacks with 15. Oshane Ximines, Bunmi Rotimi, and the rest of the defensive line must perform well to keep ODU in this game. Last week UNC started redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt for his first career start to replace LSU grad transfer Brandon Harris and he looked very good against Louisville. Surratt tossed two touchdowns for 168 yards with zero turnovers. Surratt left the Louisville game with an injury so we may see Harris start. In what will be a hungry ODU defense looking to put themselves on the map in front of a rabid crowd at Foreman Field, we’ll see if either can lead an offense capable of putting pressure on ODU to win with their offense.

If ODU has to score over 24 points to win I don’t think they will come away with a victory. Look for Bobby Wilder to lean on Jeremy Cox and Ray Lawry on offense and play the field position game. With UNC entering this game at 0-2 I think they’ll be more than ready for this one. The Tar Heels use explosive plays to escape Norfolk with a victory.

North Carolina 31 Old Dominion 17

North Carolina A&T at Charlotte (no line, 6:00 PM ET)

A major get-right game for Charlotte as I expect the 49ers to correct the mistakes that plagued them in the first two games.

Charlotte 38 North Carolina A&T 21

Bethune Cookman at FAU (no line, 6:30 PM ET)

FAU looked much better against Wisconsin than they did in the opener against Navy. Expect that progression to continue.

FAU 45 Bethune Cookman 17

Kent State at Marshall (Marshall -14, 6:30 PM ET)

A bit surprised Vegas is showing Marshall some love as they are favored by two touchdowns but to the Herd’s credit they have looked like a much different team compared to last year. Kent State needed a fourth quarter comeback to beat Howard last week. I think Marshall will easily take care of Kent State.

Marshall 42 Kent State 21

Southern at UTSA (no line, 7:00 PM ET)

No way the Roadrunners lose this one after the big win against Baylor.

UTSA 37 Southern 3

Southern Mississippi at ULM (Southern Miss -6.5, 7:00 PM ET ESPN3)

The Golden Eagles are on upset alert against a much improved ULM team this Saturday. If Kwadra Griggs is truly the answer at quarterback then USM should have no problem moving the ball against what is still a below-average ULM defense. ULM has had two weeks to prepare for the Golden Eagles since their game against Florida State was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma so I imagine we’ll see ULM pull out all the trick plays for this one.

I know much has been made about USM’s passing offense but they might not need to be effective there in order to get pass (get it!) ULM as the Warhawks really struggled to stop the run against Memphis. Ito Smith runs for 150 yards and three touchdowns in a USM win.

Southern Miss 35 ULM 21

Rice at Houston (Rice +22.5, 8:00 PM ET ESPN3)

The Battle for the Bayou Bucket is back this Saturday when Rice takes a short drive to play Houston. Ed Oliver against this Rice offensive line is scary as I don’t think we’ll see the Owls move the ball too often Saturday night. Houston didn’t look too great on offense against Arizona so perhaps the Owls can do something on defense to muck up the game but I’m not counting on it.

Houston 45 Rice 17