The arrival of conference media days means football is right around the corner. The conference has seen its profile rise over the past few years and this year could be their biggest season yet as FAU will be considered by many to be a contender for the coveted New Year’s Six bid that goes to the best Group of Five team.
Here’s some storylines for each team during 2018 Conference USA Media Days.
Charlotte: The end of the road for Brad Lambert
Brad Lambert enters his sixth season in the Queen City squarely on the hot seat. In five years, Lambert is 17-41. Three of those years are with Charlotte as a member of Conference USA where Lambert is 4-20 during conference play. After an encouraging 4-8 season in 2016, the 49ers were one of the worst teams in college football in 2017 at 1-11. There’s enough here to see why Charlotte should have hit the reset button and move on from Lambert. Except they didn’t.
This is Lambert’s last chance to prove he’s the right man for the job. The schedule features eight teams projected to rank 83rd or worse in S&P+ and five will visit Jerry Richardson Stadium. There’s some talent to work with but Lambert will no longer get the benefit of the doubt. It’s now or never.
FAU: Can the Lane Train steamroll through the conference again
After a discouraging start during non-conference play, the Owls dominated the conference en-route to their first conference title since 2007. FAU’s margin of victory against conference opponents was a whopping 22.3 points. The Owls have the best player in the conference in Devin Singletary, the deepest secondary and one of the brightest offensive minds in football running the show in Lane Kiffin. In order to repeat, the Lane Train must find a new starting quarterback and endure one of the toughest schedules in the conference as FAU must play Middle Tennessee, Marshall, FIU and North Texas all on the road this season.
FIU: Finding a quarterback
The Panthers must search for a new quarterback to replace four-year starter Alex McGough during the fall. Christian Alexander will enter fall camp as QB1 but former Bowling Green starting quarterback James Morgan will have a lot say about who the starter will be.
Morgan was a former four-star recruit out of high school and has a lot of potential. There’s enough talent for FIU to surprise some teams and reach the postseason for the second straight season, but a lot of that will depend on whether or they can find a successful QB.
Louisiana Tech: Will the good times continue to roll in Ruston
After three straight nine-win seasons, La Tech had a “disappointing” 2017 season. The Bulldogs finished 7-6 with a resounding win over SMU, giving them four straight bowl wins. More than a few fan bases in the conference would deem Tech’s 2017 season a successful year. The fact that a seven win season is no longer good enough, shows how far the program has come under Skip Holtz.
In Year 6 of the Skip Holtz era the goal is the same as it was over the past few years, bring home Tech’s first conference title since 2011. This season Holtz will have one of the more talented rosters in the conference: all-conference talents J’Mar Smith and Teddy Veal on offense, Amik Robertson and Jaylon Ferguson on defense. But the schedule is daunting as the Bulldogs must play UNT, UTSA, Southern Miss and FAU all away from Ruston.
Marshall: How will the offense look under new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey
Doc Holliday had known only one offensive coordinator during his time in Huntington in Bill Legg. Legg came under fire towards the end of the 2017 season and decided to resign. In steps Tim Cramsey from Sam Houston State. Cramsey lasted just one season at Sam Houston State and his debut was stellar, as Sam Houston State led the FCS in total offense (538.1 yards per game), scoring offense (43.3 points per game) and passing offense (362.7 yards per game).
Last season Marshall routinely started games slow (119th in Q1 S&P+) and played with a slow tempo (94th in Adjusted Pace). Cramsey inherits a bevy of talented players in Tyre Brady, a nice stable of running backs in Tyler King and Keion Davis, and an experienced offensive line. The only thing missing is a quarterback. Former Wagner QB Alex Thomson will battle Garret Morrell to be the starter in fall camp. If Cramsey can figure out the offense, the Herd will pose as the biggest challenger to the Owls’ quest for a repeat.
Middle Tennessee: The Stockstills have one more chance for a breakthrough
The father-son duo of Rick and Brent Stockstill will reach its end in 2018 as Brent Stockstill will don the blue and white for the last time as a senior QB. Brent Stockstill owns just about every passing record in school history and has been a big part of arguably the most successful stretch of MTSU football history.
But it’s hard not to wonder what else the duo could have accomplished over the past few years had Brent been able to stay healthy. If you’re a glass-half empty MTSU fan, this has also been the most disappointing stretch in MTSU history. In the last three years MTSU has gone 0-3 against bitter rival WKU, won zero division titles and have failed to live up to preseason hype multiple times. Despite no longer being the C-USA favorite, MTSU still has one of the best QBs in the conference, making them a dark horse candidate to win C-USA East.
North Texas: The hunter becomes the hunted
The Mean Green came out of nowhere in 2017 to capture the C-USA West division crown. There’s no doubt everyone was sleeping on North Texas last season and UNT used it to their advantage. This year there will be no such benefit. With Mason Fine back to sling the ball to star-studded receivers Jalen Guyton and Michael Lawrence, the Mean Green will be picked to win the division again and have the opportunity to settle last year’s unfinished business. The schedule is littered with tossups so a 10-win season isn’t too far fetched.
Old Dominion: Will the Monarchs rebound
After earning their first 10-win season as an FBS member, the Monarchs came crashing down in 2018 as the injury bug hit them hard. The setback season has ODU flying under the radar. ODU has their QB in Steven Williams and Jeremy Cox joins him in the backfield. The defensive line should be fantastic yet again with Oshane Ximines leading the way. The roster is experienced and the schedule is favorable with five opponents projected to rank 115th or worse. The last time Bobby Wilder was in this situation he capitalized.
Rice: Welcome to the Mike Bloomgren era
Mike Bloomgren will try to bring Stanford’s infamous “intellectual brutality” with him over to Houston. The model is simple: use Rice’s prestigious academics to recruit the offensive linemen needed to use a run-heavy “pro-style” offense and punish C-USA defenses more equipped to defend spread offenses. On paper, the marriage should be fruitful for the Owls. However patience will be needed. Bloomgren has nowhere near the personnel to match his vision. The defense lacks bodies too. Year 1 will be about laying down the blueprint and making inroads on the recruiting trail for Bloomgren.
Southern Miss: New faces step into bigger roles
In Year 3 of the Jay Hopson era, the Golden Eagles appear to be in store for yet another volatile season. Southern Miss will rely on on a bunch of second and third-year players who have yet to serve as full-time starters. Talented speedsters Tez Parks and Quez Watkins figures to step in for Ito Smith and Allenzae Staggers, respectively. The defense must replace a boatload of starters, but the guys stepping in are former three-star recruits. The schedule isn’t that daunting but with an inexperienced roster, just about everything from four wins to a division title is on the table.
UAB: What do the Blazers have for an encore
Just seeing the Blazers back on the field was good enough after their brief hiatus. But UAB went ahead and had a magnificent season anyway, reaching a bowl game for just the second time in school history. So what’s next? Bill Clark will have the 10th most experienced team in the country; 96 percent of the production on offense returns giving UAB the most experienced offense in the nation. Don’t be surprised if you see the Blazers pick up a few first place votes when the preseason media poll is released. This season Clark has a chance to prove that UAB has staying power.
UTEP: Welcome to the Dana Dimel era
Longtime Kansas State assistant/offensive coordinator Dana Dimel takes over in El Paso. The hire had mixed reviews as Dimel is 30-39 as a head coach with stops at Wyoming (22-13) and Houston (8-26). Dimel doesn’t exactly inherit a talented team but at least they’re experienced. With five teams on the schedule projected to rank 100th or worse, there’s some wins on the table.
UTSA: Is this a reload or a rebuild for Frank Wilson
Injuries and an inconsistent offense turned a promising 2017 season into a disappointment as the senior-laden squad finished 6-5 and missed a bowl. In 2018 there’s new faces all over as the Roadrunners will have a new QB, new featured receivers, a mostly new secondary and new coordinators. According to 247 Sports Composite, Frank Wilson has signed 41 three-stars over the past three years. The talent is there for the Roadrunners to reach a bowl game but a lot depends on how the new coordinators gel with the current roster.
WKU: Does Mike Sanford have enough for a rebound season
Despite inheriting a team talented enough to win the conference, Mike Sanford had a disappointing 6-7 debut season. The Tops were picked to finish first in C-USA East. They finished third. With the departures of some key seniors, this team will undergo a complete makeover. The Tops do have some playmakers at receiver and defensive back returning, but with the talent in the conference rising I’m unsure where the Tops fit in. Does Sanford have his program trending up or trending down? WKU signed the fifth best class in C-USA with 21 three-stars and currently has the third best class for 2019. Seeing as how Sanford used his mulligan in Year 1, this is a big season.