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Conference USA Roundtable: Predictions for the 2018 season

The staff gives their sleepers, breakout players and wonders which head coaches are on their way out.

NCAA Football: North Texas at Florida Atlantic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

With the start of the 2018 season upon us, your favorite yearly roundtable is back as the staff got together to offer predictions and analysis for the 2018 season in Conference USA. If you’re curious how we fared last year in predicting C-USA you can click here.

On to the roundtable...

Who is your surprise team in Conference USA this year?

Cyrus Smith: FIU. I know the Panthers are going to be one of the least experienced teams in the conference but I really like their upside. Butch Davis was able to get everything out of last year’s squad and will bring back a more talented team in 2018 as they’ll be relying on some highly touted graduate and JUCO transfers to fill some gaps. Continuity on the staff is a plus as well. A seven-win season is on the table in my eyes.

Jared Kalmus: Marshall. Never would have thought that Marshall would be “slept on” in Conference USA but I think this is the year. I gave Head Coach Doc Holliday a lot of flak over the past two years but I think he’s made the right moves recently to get the Herd back to 10 wins. The defense is locked and ready to roll. I think Tim Cramsey will emerge as the top offensive coordinator in the league after he guides transfer quarterback Alex Thomson and the rest of the offense to the top tier of the conference in yards and scoring.

Tanner Spearman: Marshall. I think Marshall could get back to 10 wins this season. If anyone is going to knock off FAU in the East, it’s the Herd. Yes, Litton and Yurachek are gone, but virtually every other starter is back this year. As long as the quarterback position is taken care of, this could be a big season for Marshall.

Eric Henry: FIU. It’s rational to see the Panthers lose the talent they did last year and expect a drop-off. But Butch Davis and his staff deserve a ton of credit for recruiting very well. Getting players like James Morgan and Edwin Freeman along with premier JUCO talent have provided a ton of depth. This is a seven-plus win team in my opinion.

Joe Londergan: I have a few... I agree with Tanner that Marshall is going to be quite good once again. I also don’t think North Texas is going to be as good as they were last year like many people seem to think they are. Old Dominion also has the potential to surprise a lot of people in a good way.

Who is your breakout player?

Cyrus Smith: A.J. Erdely. If the Blazers are going to reach the C-USA Championship Game they must generate more explosive passing plays. UAB ranked 113th in Passing IsoPPP (a stat that measures the magnitude of the successful play). That’s not going to cut it. Erdely surprised many by being a threat on the ground, rushing for a team-high 13 touchdowns to go with 509 yards. With a senior-laden receiving core, Erdely will have all the experience he needs to become one of the better quarterbacks in the conference.

Jared Kalmus: Kai Locksley. It’s absolutely insane to me that more people aren’t talking about the impact Locksley will have on a stalled-out UTEP offense. I’m not a huge fan of the Dana Dimel hire for UTEP but you have to admit that the man knows how to get the most out of dual-threat quarterbacks. After accounting for 40 total touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards of offense in 2017, the 2017 NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year may be the most talented quarterback Dimel has coached since Collin Klein. The Miners won’t have many weapons for Locksley to target but their offensive line is good enough to buy him enough time to improvise.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Texas El Paso
Jaqwis Dancy rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, a year after beating cancer. Dancy’s heroic journey will continue this fall,
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Tanner Spearman: Jaqwis Dancy. After beating cancer, he spent last season buried behind two senior running backs while working on getting his weight and strength back. He didn’t see a lot of use, but when he did get the ball he showed some flashes. When Jarred Craft missed a game late in the season, Dancy stepped in and rushed for over 130 yards, and he and Boston Scott combined for over 300 rushing yards that day. With Craft and Scott gone, Dancy has a huge opportunity to finally show what he can do.

Eric Henry: Fermin Silva. FIU will have the best front-seven in C-USA. The biggest beneficiary of this will be Silva. He already was a force to be reckoned with before the additions of Edwin Freeman, Teair Tart and Tayland Humphrey. Now that he’ll operate as a hybrid DE/OLB look for double-digit sacks and over 50 tackles from him.

Joe Londergan: Mik’Quan Deane. The WKU tight end had a great JUCO career before he came to Bowling Green last year and was behind Deon Yelder on the depth chart. I think the offensive line at WKU still has some issues to address and that situation opened the door for Yelder to have a big season last year as the rest of the offense sort of crumbled. I think Deane has the opportunity to repeat that pattern in his last audition for a pro career.

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

Cyrus Smith: Oshane Ximines on defense, Devin Singletary on offense.

Jared Kalmus: Jaylon Ferguson on defense, Devin Singletary on offense.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Troy v North Texas
Mason Fine won the Offensive Player of the Year last season and should be in contention for the award yet again.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Tanner Spearman: For defense, I’ll go with Jaylon Ferguson from La Tech. The senior defensive end has been a pass rush nightmare for three years and is receiving first round hype. On offense, I’m going with Mason Fine from North Texas. With Jeffrey Wilson gone, Fine will be depended on more by UNT, and could potentially lead the Mean Green to a second straight division title.

Eric Henry: Jalen Young is my pick defensively. In my opinion he’s the most underrated defensive back in the county. He’s a ball-hawk who’s very capable of recording 80 tackles and eight interceptions this season. On offense, I like Mason Fine. He’s the guy driving the lethal Mean Green offense and will take home the honors.

Joe Londergan: It’s a close race on offense between Devin Singletary and Mason Fine. I can see Mason Fine winning it though simply because FAU does have weapons other than Motor and if Fine were to get hurt, that’d pretty much be UNT’s season. Defensively, it will be a linebacker. Either Azeez Al-Shair or Chase Hancock. Let’s go with Al-Shair.

Over/Under 8.5 Teams from Conference USA will qualify for a bowl game

Cyrus Smith: Give me the under. The middle of the conference will still be competitive but it won’t be as sturdy as it was last year as I think we’ll see a few more teams finish 5-7.

Jared Kalmus: I’ll take the under at eight. I could see a situation where nine teams qualify but less receive bowl invitations.

Tanner Spearman: Good placement of the O/U here. I’ll cautiously say over because my prediction is nine, with a possibility for 10. I could also believe just seven or eight, however. Gonna need some non-conference wins.

Eric Henry: I’ll take the under. I see eight from this year’s class of C-USA teams. Two teams from last year’s group who won’t qualify are Southern Miss and WKU. Keon Howard’s late departure from Southern Miss combined with Kwadra Griggs’ supension is worrisome. Mike White’s graduation will cause WKU to drop-off.

Joe Londergan: I’m going to take the under. I think C-USA gets seven this year. As much as I hate to say it, WKU’s going to have a tough go this year. Southern Miss may not have enough either and MTSU is a huge question mark for me. I’d be happy to be proven wrong though.

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

Cyrus Smith: In the East I’ll take Middle Tennessee. Brent Stockstill and Tony Franklin will still make sweet music on offense and Scot Schafer in year two as the defensive coordinator should at the least hold the fort steady on that side of the ball. In the West I’ll go with La Tech as they have one of the most talented rosters in the conference.

Jared Kalmus: Assuming FAU and UNT as the heavy favorites, I’ll take La Tech in the West and Marshall in the East. I’m expecting a big step forward from J’Mar Smith this year thanks to Holtz’s quarterback development track record. Marshall has the talent to go blow-for-blow with FAU if the Herd’s offense improves as much as I’m expecting them to.

Tanner Spearman: As I said above, if someone other than FAU wins the East, it’s gonna be Marshall. As for the West, I think it’s a toss-up between three different teams. If we’re going with North Texas as the favorite, then either La Tech or UAB could be a “sleeper.” Both bring back a ton of production from last year’s teams, and I wouldn’t be surprised if either won the West.

Eric Henry: For the East, if FIU can get their quarterback situation right before conference play, I think they’ll challenge their rivals from Boca Raton. In the West, I think a surprise team could be UAB. The Blazers have enough talent to compete and what a story it would be for Bill Clark and company to go from dropping football to C-USA West champs.

Joe Londergan: I really think UAB is going to win the West. Considering several other people are making that prediction as well, not sure it is a sleeper pick, but I can see it happening. In the East, FAU is going to win it with some competition from Marshall, but keep an eye on FIU also.

Most likely to happen: FAU doesn’t win C-USA or FAU earns the New Year’s Six bid

Cyrus Smith: FAU not winning C-USA is my answer. It would be a huge upset if the Owls don’t repeat but their road schedule is really difficult. Marshall has the toughest venue in the conference, Middle Tennessee hosts FAU with two weeks to prepare following the Owls’ game against UCF and finally, FAU has lost three straight to FIU when the Panthers host the Shula Bowl. Looking at the G5 landscape, FAU can really only afford one loss this season for the NY6 and it’ll have to be against Oklahoma. I’m not confident they can run off 13 straight.

Jared Kalmus: This is an easy one for me. FAU has to beat both Oklahoma and UCF to guarantee the New Year’s Six bid. If there isn’t an undefeated team in the G5 then a one-win team in the AAC or MWC will get the nod. The Owls are loaded, sure, but I don’t think they’re quite at the “just show up and win” level of dominance quite yet. One sloppy Saturday or any sort of drama in the crowded quarterback room could end their dreams.

Tanner Spearman: This is a tough one. I could see FAU making that New Year’s Six run, but Oklahoma and UCF will be tough to beat, especially with both on the road. I could see them winning one or both of those games, but it’s slightly more likely someone will upset them and take the C-USA crown.

Eric Henry: The Owls aren’t a fluke team. They’re loaded defensively, Devin Singletary is a stud and in my opinion Lane Kiffin is an underrated in-game coach. So I lean towards them making a New Year’s Six run as opposed to anyone challenging them for the C-USA crown. With that being said making it out of Oklahoma with a win will be tough and UCF still has more than enough talent to be this year’s New Year’s Six representative.

Joe Londergan: I’m convinced that FAU wins the league this year. So I’ll say FAU getting the NY6 bowl. The talent is there. If they put on a good show at least against Oklahoma and then win all their other games, I think that’s what will get them that bid.

Most likely Power 5 win for the conference...

Cyrus Smith: North Texas over Arkansas is the call as UNT could be the favorite if they enter 2-0. Seth Littrell owes Chad Morris some payback after struggling against Morris’ SMU teams. Arkansas’ defense isn’t that special so UNT should be able to put up points.

Jared Kalmus: None of the possibilities are really jumping out at me and my colleagues beat me on the layup choices so I’m going to go off the wall and pick Louisiana Tech over LSU. I think the Tigers will be greatly underwhelming this season and the Bulldogs could sneak up on them as La Tech is sandwiched between Auburn and Ole Miss on LSU’s schedule.

Tanner Spearman: There’s a couple I could choose from here, but I think I’m going to go with a mild hot take and say Marshall over NC State. It’s in Joan C. Edwards Stadium, and remember how much Marshall has coming back? NC State... doesn’t. FPI gives the Herd a 39.8% chance to win, which is pretty good for FPI when it comes to G5 vs P5.

Eric Henry: The trendy pick seems to be FAU over Oklahoma. However, I’m going with North Texas over Arkansas, a program that’s rebuilding. UNT will have to head into hostile territory in Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. I think this is the proverbial trap game for Arkansas as they’ll be looking forward to starting conference play the following week against Auburn.

Joe Londergan: Marshall over NC State is the safest bet to me. It helps a lot that the Herd get them at home. Marshall’s offense is really good. NC State’s defense wasn’t terrible last season, but there’s enough here to make me think that the Herd can beat them.

Over/Under 2.5 Teams will experience a coaching change this year

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse
Could Rick Stockstill call it a career after spending 13 seasons as Middle Tennessee’s head coach?
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Cyrus Smith: Under. I’m not exactly convinced that Lane Kiffin or Seth Littrell are moving on after this season. Rick Stockstill retiring as his son Brent Stockstill graduates could happen I guess but he’s made zero hints of this being a possibility. Aside from Brad Lambert, every head coach in the conference faces little to no pressure entering 2018.

Jared Kalmus: Over. Brad Lambert is all but guaranteed and I think either Seth Littrell, Lane Kiffin, or Rick Stockstill could be on their way out. The coaching carousel is always way more hectic than we expect so I’m banking on a third coaching change to come out of left field. Perhaps Bobby Wilder gets ODU to eight or nine wins this year and accepts a high-paying offer at an AAC school or low-tier P5 on the east coast.

Tanner Spearman: Under. The only clear hot seat situation is Brad Lambert at Charlotte. There’s a couple of others who perhaps still have something to prove, but I’m not banking on too many changes this season.

Eric Henry: Under. The obvious is Brad Lambert at Charlotte. He deserves credit for starting the football program but they may have made the jump to FBS too quickly. They’ve been abysmal since joining C-USA in 2014.

Joe Londergan: Under. Sorry to any diehard Brad Lambert fans out there, but barring some miraculous season, he should not be Charlotte’s head coach next season. New head coaches at Rice and UTEP are going to have some slack from their administrations, I don’t think Kiffin will make the jump just yet, and unless Stockstill retires, I think everyone else has their same HC next year.

Who will win Conference USA?

Cyrus Smith: FAU over UAB. FAU might not run the table again but I see just about every other team in the East having at least two-losses during conference play. The West is tricky to peg, but I’m going to ride with the Blazers as they have the most experienced team in the conference and have the easiest conference draw among their division rivals.

Jared Kalmus: FAU over Louisiana Tech. The Owls are simply two steps ahead of the rest of the conference. I like the promise of Louisiana Tech’s defense led by Jaylon Ferguson and the Bulldogs have the weapons on offense to put points up on the board.

Tanner Spearman: I’ll take the favorite, FAU over North Texas. Like I said before, any of three teams could come out of the West, but I’ll go with North Texas losing their fourth game in two years against the Owls.

Eric Henry: I’ve got FAU over North Texas. If the Owls stay healthy they have too much talent to be challenged in the East. The West is a different story as multiple teams have a chance. I’m riding with Mason Fine to lead the Mean Green back to the C-USA title game.

Joe Londergan: I’m going with FAU over UAB also. The Owls still have the tools to win a lot of games and I have zero doubts that they’ll win the East and will probably win the conference as well. In the West, I love what UAB is bringing to the table offensively and I like their defense more than UNT’s. At the end of the day, I think FAU would win in a game between those two though.