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2020 Conference USA preview

Conference USA seems to be a forgotten conference in college football. While the conference isn't what it used to be and there are quite a few newer programs, there are still plenty of talented teams and good competition in this league. The Florida Atlantic Owls are the defending champs and face a tough road to repeat after losing head coach Lane Kiffin. The UAB Blazers have been a consistent winner since the revival of their program and have a stingy defense. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers can never be overlooked. Louisiana Tech and Marshall also always seem to have a chance. Take a look at how the conference appears in 2020.


Charlotte 49ers

The current era of Charlotte 49ers football began in 2013, after not fielding a team since 1948. The team joined Conference USA in 2015 and had its best season last year under 1st-year coach Will Healy. The 49ers went 7-6 and mad their first ever bowl game. They also won 5 straight games to end the season and had a school record 3 first team All-Conference players. They seem to be on the rise heading into 2020.

The offense will be led once again by QB Chris Reynolds. He set school records for passing yards, passing efficiency, and passing touchdowns after missing most of 2018 with an injury. He is also the team's lead returning rusher after the graduation of Benny LeMay. The team returns its top 3 receivers (Victor Tucker, Cameron Dollar, and Tyler Ringwood) as well as the 4th leading rusher in program history ( Aaron McCallister). They'll also have Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison, who is coming off back-to-back 1000 yard seasons. These skill players will have to make a lot happen, since the offensive line only returns 2 starters.

The defense loses pass-rusher Alex Highsmith and leading tackler Marquavis Gibbs, among others. They do, however, have 6 starters back this season. DEs Markees Watts and Tyriq Harris will try to emulate Highsmith's play. The secondary should be their strength with 3 seniors returning and only losing Gibbs. They just can't go through another season with a DB as the lead tackler. That just means the front 7 isn't playing well enough.

Charlotte fought hard, but lost the opening battle to a good Appalachian State team. It won't get any easier against North Carolina this weekend.

Players opting out: none reported

FAU Owls

The past 3 seasons have been very good overall for the Owls under Lane Kiffin. They've won 2 conference titles, had two 11 win seasons, and looked dominant doing it. Now that Kiffin has moved on to Ole Miss, Willie Taggart takes over the position. While Taggart has struggled at Oregon and Florida State, he did do a fantastic job leading the South Florida Bulls program. He may just be the kind of coach who excels in a smaller conference. He inherits plenty of talent that should have the Owls competing for another conference crown.

The offense was the best in the conference in 2019, but the unit loses some players and has some new coaches. The players lost include 2 year starting QB Chris Robison, All- Conference OLs Junior Diaz and Brandon Walton, tight ends Harrison Bryant and John Raine, and wide receiver Deangelo Antoine. The receiving corps is particularly decimated with the loss of its top 3 players, but the Owls bring in Clemson transfer TJ Chase. Chase was highly recruited but was buried on a team with a deep receiving corps. He has the potential to be the conference's best receiver. Nick Tronti, who has only thrown 22 career passes, will be the quarterback, while leading rusher Malcolm Davidson and breakout candidate BJ Emmons will pace the running game. Expect WRs Aaron Young and John Mitchell to contribute as well.

The defense only allowed 22.3 points per game in 2019, which is really good for college. This year, the team returns 7 seniors and should be led by a secondary that includes Zyon Gilbert. The front 7 will be relying heavily on transfers and former special teamers, which may be risky. I think the offense will be fine, while the defense will have to prove itself.

FAU opens its season against Georgia Southern on Saturday.

Players opting out: DB Quran Hafiz

FIU Panthers

The FIU program is still pretty new, just beginning play in 2002. They struggled for 8 seasons before winning the conference championship in 2010 as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. Mario Cristobal found a successful formula that has since taken him elsewhere. The team went back to struggling after he left but has rebounded to make 4 straight bowl appearances. Can Butch Davis & company make it 5 in a row?

The offense loses QB James Morgan, its top 2 rushers, and a starting receiver. WR Shemar Thomas and TE Sterling Palmer will become the top targets in the passing game, along with Georgia transfer JJ Holloman and kick returner Bryce Singleton. D'Vonte Price and Maleek Williams are the top backs to watch running behind an offensive line that returns 3 starters and 2 other experienced linemen.

The defensive group is made up of all seniors and juniors. They lose their lead tackler and best defensive back, but bring back 6 starters and 7 other players who have mad significant contributions. Three of four starters on the defensive line will return, led by Arkansas transfer Alexy Jean-Baptiste. Boise State transfer Tyson Maeva joins Jamal Gates to further solidify the linebacker group.

I expect improvement from this team but not quite enough to consider them a contender. They are currently scheduled to open the 2020 season against Liberty on September 26 after having their first 2 games postponed.

Players opting out: none reported

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Last season was a great one by Bulldog standards. Skip Holtz, in his 8th season at the helm, led his team to their first 10 win season since 1984. They also defeated Miami in their bowl game (via shutout) and won their 6th straight bowl game. Expectations will always be high after a season like that.

The offense suffers some big losses in QB J'Mar Smith, 3 All-CUSA offensive linemen, and star receiver Malik Stanley. Luckily they return 2 honorable mention All-Conference offensive linemen (Willie Allen an Kody Russey), an honorable mention receiver (Adrian Hardy), and an All-CUSA running back (Justin Henderson). Hardy is one of 4 of the team's top 5 receivers from 2019 returning for 2020. Joining the offensive line will be LSU transfer Donovaughn Campbell, who was a significant part of the Tigers' rotation en route to the national title.

The defense loses 6 All-Conference caliber players, including its top 4 tacklers. Two of those players were linebackers, which puts more pressure on Ezekiel Barnett. The defensive line has the only returning starters on the young team (DT Milton WIlliams, DE Willie Baker), and DB Khalil Ladler comes over from Virginia Tech. I'd expect some growing pains on this side of the ball.

The Bulldogs should be good once again, just not 10 wins good. They'll start the new campaign on September 26 against Houston Baptist after having their original game against Baylor postponed.

Players opting out: none reported

Marshall Thundering Herd

The Herd are entering their 11th season under Doc Holliday, who has the most bowl wins in the program's history. The team moved up to the FBS kevel in 1997 after dominating the competition at the FCS level. They've been successful, overall, since the move, winning at least 9 games 4 times. This year got off to a hot start with a 59-0 win over Eastern Kentucky.

Marshall brings back a veteran offense led by RB Branden Knox. He ran for 1387 yards and 11 TDs ast season and can also be a factor in the passing game. They tend to be a more run-focused offense, and I'd expect that to continue with a redshirt freshman taking over at quarterback. Grant Wells had a great game against EKU, but he will see better defenses this year. Knowledge McDaniel will also help the running game with a senior-led offensive line.

The defense is comprised of mostly juniors and brings back 3 All-Conference candidates (LB Tavante Beckett, DE Darius Hodge, and DB Nazeeh Johnson). The unit has 3 starters returning and 7 key reserves joining them. They also add transfer Brian Cavicante, who was the MEAC Defensive player of the year.

Doc Holliday has a good squad. They rolled in the opener but will get a much bigger test in their next game against Appalachian State.

Players opting out: none reported

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

MTSU is coming off a bad season. The team went 4-8, 2020 is off to a bad start, as they were shutout by Army. On the bright side, 3 of their wins came during conference play, so they should be looking forward to that,

The offense was a struggle last year, particularly when it came to scoring. That trend continued against Army. The Blue Raiders only managed 184 total yards for the entire game. Some of that may be because Army's playing style can bleed the clock, but it's a bad start. Quarterback Asher O'Hara is supposed to lead the team but was outplayed by backup Chase Cunningham. They have 3 of their top 4 running backs returning,but that definitely didn't show. That's a big problem for a team that led the confernce i yards per carry last year. In the passing game, look for Jarrin Pierce and Jimmy Marshall. It looks like this unit will struggle yet again with an inexperienced offensive line.

The secondary is the strength of the defense. Lead tackler and interceptor Jovante Moffatt is gone, DQ Thomas and NFL prospect Reed Blankenship return. That hasn't seemed to help yet. They gave up 42 points and only had 2 tackles for loss in the season debut. The secondary led the way with the top 3 tacklers. It's going to be an issue if the secondary has to make so many plays to save them.

The Blue Raiders get another shot this weekend against Troy.

Players opting out: WR Tyrese Johnson, RBs Martell Pettaway, Amir Rasul

North Texas Mean Green

2019 was a disappointing season out in Denton. The Mean Green returned several elements of their explosive offense, yet only manage 4 wins. This was on the heels of a 4 year stretch that included 3 bowl games and a conference championship appearance. Seth Littrell will try to make his team better this year, but the coach may have his work cut out for him.

The first issue is that All-CUSA quarterback Mason Fine has graduated along with OL Elex Woodworth. Fine was a dual-threat player whose hunger and tenacity drove the offense to be great. In the Mean Green's favor, they do bring back 4 of their top 5 receivers from 2019, including WRs Jaelon Darden and Jyaire Shorter and TE Jason Pirtle. They also return their top 2 rushers, Trey Siggers and DeAndre Torrey. QB Jason Bean will enjoy having those players back.

The defense was pretty bad in 2019, giving up 32.5 points per game. In the 2020 opener, they gave up 31 points and 480 yards to Houston Baptist, an FCS school. If a small school like that can do that kind of damage, what do they expect to see in conference play? LBs KD and Tyreke Davis and DB Cam Johnsonneed to get this unit up to speed quickly.

The Mean Green will have a tough task this weekend against high-powered SMU.

Players opting out: DL Joe Ozowgwu

Old Dominion Monarchs

There wasn't much to like about this team in 2019. The Monarchs went 1-11 and didn't win any conference games, tying UTEP for last place. On the bright side, they have nowhere to go but up. The university has cancelled fall sports, so you will not see the Monarchs on the field in 2020.

Rice Owls

The Rice football program is far from a powerhouse. Their last winning season was in 2014. In the first year under Mike Bloomgren, the Owls went 3-9 with all 3 wins coming in conference play. On the positive side, those 3 wins all came in the final 3 games. They also had a couple close games against Baylor, Army, and Louisiana Tech. Maybe they can start to turn things around.

The offense was the second worst in Conference USA in 2019 and will have the brutal task of replacing 3 starters on the offensive line. They also lose their top 4 rushers from a year ago. That means they may have to lean on a passing attack that was the conference's worst. They return Austin Trammel, Brad Rozner, and August Pitre, their top 3 receivers. It will be interesting to see who starts at quarterback; TCU transfer Mike Collins or rising sophomore Wiley Green. Whoever it is will need to put up much more than 17.9 points per game if they hope to win.

The Owls' defense was the 3rd worst in the conference last year. This year's team brings back 7 starters, including 2 defensive backs (Treshawn Chamberlain, Naeem Smith) and all 3 starting linebackers (led by Blaze Alldredge). The unit is made up of several upperclassmen, who will need to give up much less yardage than last year's 379.1 per game.

It is currently unknown when the Owls will play, since they have had some setbacks with COVID testing.

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

After a 7-6 season in 2019, 2020 is already off to a rough start for Southern Miss. They lost their season opener to South Alabama (a team that went 1-11 in 2019) and saw their head coach, Jay Hopson, resign. They are now being led by co-offensive coordinator Scotty Walden, who is just 30 years old. It'll be tough for them to bounce back after all that.

The Golden Eagles' offense was the best passing offense in Conference USA last season, averaging 289.5 yards per game behind QB Jack Abraham. Abraham had a solid start to 2020 compiling 314 yards and establishing a good connection with WR Tim Jones, but it's the running game that has to improve. They have 3 starting linemen back, but lose their top backs from a rushing attack that was 2nd worst in the conference. Kevin Perkins and Frank Gore Jr figure to be their best options, but the team only gained 95 rushing yards in the season opener.

While the offense should at least be okay, the defense is a completely different story. In the opener against South Alabama, they gave up a whopping 526 total yards (363 in the air, 163 on the ground). If a better team had that kind of night on offense, they surely would have scored more than 32 points. The Golden Eagles will be on the wrong side of some blowouts if something doesn't change.

Walden makes his head coaching debut Saturday against Louisiana Tech, needing to at least show his team can compete.

Players opting out: WR Jaylond Adams, RB Steven Anderson, LB Racheem Boothe, DLs Jacques Turner, Garrett Crawford

UAB Blazers

After returning from the dead in 2017, UAB has been perhaps the most consistent Conference USA football program, winning at least 8 games in each season. Last year, they went 9-5 with a 6-2 conference record. They've already played 2 games this year and hold a 1-1 record. They played well enough against Miami to stay in the game but couldn't come away with a win.

The offense brings back a cohesive unit made up of several seniors. Quarterbacks Tyler Johnston and Dylan Hopkins both saw playing time last year, but the job seems to be Johnston's. Hopkins will probably see some playing time, but Johnston has had the better career so far. Either quarterback will have plenty of receivers to rely on. WRs Myron Mitchell and Austin Watkins are the top two, and you will also see TE Hayden pittman get involved. The team's top 3 rushers (Spencer Brown, Jermaine Brown Jr, and Luscious Stanley) all return behind 4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen from 2019. This offense needs to improve with scoring, but the pieces are there to contend.

The defense carried the Blazers in 2019 and should carry it a long way again in 2020. They return 7 starters. The linebacker unit is a strong one. Kristopher Moll and Noah Wilder both return and will add in Brontae Harris, who had been a starter before missing 2019 with an injury. Lead sacker Jordan Smith leads a d-line group that has to replace 2 starters. Luckily, they have experienced replacements in Tony Fair and Tyree Turner. The secondary returns 3 starters in TD Marshall, Dy'Jonn Turner, and Will Boler. They should pick up where they left off.

As I stated earlier, the Blazers have already played 2 games and have looked pretty good. Their next game is September 24 against South Alabama.

Players opting out: WRs Xavier Coleman, Kevin Davis, Markus Grossman, RB DaQuon Godfrey, S Kobe Griffin, LS Barton Hicks, OL Patrick Nuss

UTEP Miners

The Miners were the other 1-1 (0-8) team in this conference in 2019. While that clearly isn't good, 3rd year coach Dana Dimel has done a better job than most of the program's recent coaches, producing the most All-conference players. The program has a low bar for success with no winning seasons since 2014. So far, they;ve played 2 games, beating Stephen F. Austin and getting shelled by Texas.

The offense was the 3rd worst in CUSA in 2019, averaging just 329.2 totla yards and 19.6 points per game. That production is not part of a winning formula. They went just barely over that average against SFA (24 points) and only managed a field goal against the Longhorns. QB Gavin Hardison replaces Kai Locksley and has played alright, and luckily won't be facing too many programs of the larger caliber like Texas. He'll be throwing mostly to Jacob Crowing and Justin Garrett. The running game may be a work in progress. Deion Hankins has shown good running ability, but the offensive line is still pretty new.

The second worst defense in the conference returns no All-CUSA players from 2019. They're looking to rebound from a season in which they allowed 430.8 yards and 35.9 points per game. Those are terrible numbers, and you cannot compete with a team like that. The back 7 (lbs and dbs) will lead the defense this year, including 5 seniors. The defensive line will rely on CUSA All-Freshmen DE Praise Amaewhule. They've got a long way to go before they can start thinking about contending.

UTEP takes on Abilene Christian this weekend. It should be a good chance for them to surpass last year's win total.

Players opting out: QB TJ Goodwin, RB Quardraiz Wadley

UTSA Roadrunners

UTSA is another fairly new Division I football program. The team started play in 2011 under Miami coaching legend Larry Coker. They made their first bowl game in 2016, then struggled after Coker left. New coach Jeff Traylor comes in from Arkansas with a reputation as a good recruiter. So far, he's 1-0 with an overtime win over Texas State. We'll see how long that success continues.

The Roadrunners had the worst passing offense and 4th worst total offense in CUSA in 2019, but you wouldn;t know it by their play Saturday. While the passing game was still very much a work in progress, the running game was outstanding, rushing for 330 yards and 4 touchdowns. Returning leading rusher Sincere McCormick led the way with 197 yards, and QB Frank Harris added 3 TDs of his own. Brande Brady also returned with a good game on the ground with fewer carries. UMass transfer WR Brennon Dingle led the team in receiving i his debut, while Josh Cephus and De'Corian Clark did well in expanded roles. Expect Sheldon Jones and Zakhari Franklin to be more involved as the season continues. They weren't playing a great defense, but putting up 51 points is a great sign against anybody.

The defense was one of the worst in the conference last year. However, they gave up much more in passing during the opener. Texas State put up 349 yards in the air with 4 TDs. The team only returns three starters (DT Jaylon Haynes. LB Dequarius Henry, and DB Rasha Wisdom), so I don't think this was an outlier. I'd expect the growing pains to continue, and they'll be in trouble against better teams.

The Roadrunners take on SFA this weekend before facing a daunting task against Memphis.

Players opting out: none reported

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

The Hilltoppers have been a consistent contender in Conference USA since joining the FBS ranks in 2009. Last year, they went 9-4, beating Army and Arkansas and winning their last 4 games. They hung tough against Louisville in the season opener, so expect them to contend again.

QB Tyrrell Pigrome transfers in from Maryland and assumes starting duties. He's always been a better runner than passer, and that was evident in the opener. While All-CUSA RB Gaej Walker returns, it was Pigrome who led the team in rushing. He was actually the only one over 19 yards (!). They'll need better, otherwise teams will key in on Pigrome. Only 3 receivers made catches in the game, and they were the three you should expect to hear from this year. All-CUSA WR Jahcour Pearson was, once again, the leading receiver. JUCO teammates Mitchell Tinsley and Craig Burt Jr. also made catches in their debuts. This may improve during the conference, but they need more balance and more players making an impact.

The best player on this defense is DE DeAngelo Malone. He's a NFL caliber pass rushing prospect and made his presence felt with 7 tackles, 1 sack, and a forced fumble in the opener; a very good showing against tougher competition. The 2nd best defense in CUSA in 2019 also returns 7 other starters. The unit, overall, features 10 seniors and 1 junior, so you know they've had enough experience to be great. The seondary should be a strenght, returning 3 of 4 honorable mention All-Conference players (Devon Key, Antwon Kincade, and Trae Meadows)

The Hilltoppers play Liberty this weekend and will play MTSU on October 3.

Players opting out: none reported

Best Games Remaining

Marshall @ Western Kentucky, 10/10

Western Kentucky @ UAB, 10/17

Marshall @ Louisiana Tech, 10/17

Louisiana @ UAB, 10/23

FAU @ Marshall, 10/24

Western Kentucky @ BYU, 10/31

UAB @ Louisian Tech, 10/31

Western Kentucky @ FAU, 11/7

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