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Team Previews

Conference USA Preview

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: July 10, 2020, 1:20 am ET

Welcome to Rotoworld's annual conference-by-conference preview of the upcoming college football season. We've never quite had an offseason like this one, as the coronavirus has not only prevented teams from going through normal spring practices and the like, it could well end up wreaking havoc on the season itself. But that remains to be seen.

In these team previews, we'll touch on the ramifications of the pandemic (relating specifically to depth charts) when needed, but by-and-large, we'll be approaching these capsules as though (fingers crossed) there will actually be a season in the fall. If there are any crucial COVID-19 updates pertaining to individual teams or conferences, we'll be sure to keep you in the loop as we go. 

 


Projected Conference USA Standings

West

East

UAB 10-2 (7-1 in conference)

Florida Atlantic 9-3 (7-1 in conference)

Louisiana Tech 8-4 (6-2 in conference)

WKU 7-5 (5-3 in conference)

Southern Miss 8-4 (5-3 in conference)

Marshall 7-5 (5-3 in conference)

North Texas 5-7 (4-4 in conference)

Middle Tennessee 7-5 (5-3 in conference)

Rice 4-8 (3-5 in conference)

Charlotte 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

UTSA 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Florida International 5-7 (2-6 in conference)

UTEP 1-11 (0-8 in conference) Old Dominion 3-9 (1-7 in conference)

Conference USA East

Florida Atlantic Owls 

2019 record: 11-3

NFL Draft prospect to watch: QB Chris Robison

 

The case for: It feels like eons ago that Willie Taggart was a hot commodity, but it was just four years ago that Taggart led South Florida to a 10-2 record, with one of the best offenses in the Group of Five (remember Quinton Flowers?). No matter how you slice it, 2016 was a different time. You know all the words to the "Ballad of Willie Taggart" by now, the one year at Oregon, the one-and-half tortured years at Florida State. But as Brian Fallon once sang, in every sad, sad country song there’s a little piece of still hanging on.

That bit of Fallon lyric is post-2016 Willie Taggart to the metaphorical letter. Florida Atlantic is the perfect rebound spot for the coach. We’ve seen Taggart go from two wins to two losses at USF, but he won’t need to do nearly as much at FAU. Taggart takes over a conference-winning roster from Lane Kiffin. It’s less a project, even, than Florida State, which dances with better recruits but was left hollowed out (especially on the offensive line) in Jimbo Fisher’s “money tongue emoji” one-foot-out-the-door final season.

With QB Chris Robison finally beginning to live up to his recruiting ranking -- 3,701 passing yards, 28/6 TD/INT ratio in 2019 -- and finally (knock on wood) ready to exist as a mature human being after a series of off-field missteps, an upside running back in B.J. Emmons (the former Bama back never really got going before a broken ankle cost him the final nine games of the season) and an experienced offensive line, Taggart should be able to hit the ground running in 2020. And the non-con schedule is headlined by a road game against Minnesota in Week 1, which isn’t an auto loss (compare that to FAU facing off with Ohio State last fall).

The case against: Taggart is taking over an experienced roster, no doubt. But it’s not a perfect roster. Most significantly, the Owls are out TE Harrison Bryant (off to the Browns) and ball-hawking CB Meiko Dotson. And while our sunny-side-up better half is crossing its fingers for a fully-formed Chris Robison this fall, we’re not full-speed ahead on the quarterback. No denying Robison’s ability. But. He’s an erratic player. In 2018, he threw 12 interceptions. And last season, even in his clear level-up year, he completed 61.8 percent of his passes. That was down over a point from the previous season. 

All of this isn’t to predict that FAU’s offense is suddenly going to regress under Taggart. But it is to say that if Taggart’s offensive system is still an in-progress thing into the season itself -- very possible given the coronavirus’ impact on the offseason -- Robison’s not automatically going to be able to paper over holes himself. And if we’re being frank, we really need to see it from Taggart, here, before we truly believe in his reclamation. Look no further than Charlie Strong, who followed in Taggart’s direct footsteps at USF. 

Like Taggart at FAU, Strong took over a loaded USF roster (courtesy of Taggart, ironically), which he took to a 10-2 record in 2017. And 11 wins over the next two seasons. Of course, on the Charlie Strong Timeline, this coming season would see double-digit wins for Taggart. We wouldn’t discount that possibility. But we’re not going all in on Taggart again until we know he’s washed clean of his Florida State stink.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: OVER


Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

2019 record: 9-4

NFL Draft prospect to watch: LB Deangelo Malone

 

The case for: Tyson Helton worked one of the great turnaround seasons in college football last season, taking a moribund 3-9 team and outright flipping that record. It was WKU’s 45-19 blowout of Arkansas in Fayetteville which cost Chad Morris his job in November. Helton deservedly earned conference Coach of the Year recognition for his efforts.

In order for the Hilltoppers to supplant FAU at the top of the West division -- the Owls beat them 35-24 on Nov. 2 to deny WKU the conference-title game (that was one week before that Arkansas blowout; a great bounceback job by Helton) -- they’ll need to ride their defense again, because the offense isn’t a guarantee. More on the offense below. But oh baby, that defense.

It’s in the running for best in the Group of Five and it’s bringing back essentially the whole gang, with eight starters returning to the fold, ranging from edge-rushing stalwarts Deangelo Malone (how does 21 tackles for loss sound?) and Juwan Jones to a secondary which could field seniors across the starting board. And an intriguing little “hey, I remember you” name to keep in mind for the linebacking corps would be Tennessee transfer Will Ignont, a borderline top-300 signing in the Vols’ 2017 class. He left the team in September.

We have no doubts on the defense. It’s a unit which could easily end up rocketing this team to the top of the conference if everything comes together. About that offense, though. 

 

The case against: Well, the offense does have one lynchpin which it should be able to count on this fall in RB Gaej Walker, a former cornerback who took to running back like a cheetah to cheese puffs last season, rushing for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns. And it has an awesome offensive line blocking ahead of him. And a dependable lead WR Jahcour Pearson, who will try to hold steady without departed WR Lucky Jackson helping divert attention. 

Simply because Walker only has one year at running back, and because the offseason has been crunched on him when he would have theoretically been further adapting to the position, a little step back (or a slow start) would not be beyond the pale. Thing of it is, though, if he rushed for say, 850 yards -- still respectable -- that’s putting pressure on the real question mark with this team: Quarterback.

Last season, Arkansas grad transfer Ty Storey helped to ignite this little engine that could, completing 69.9 percent of his passes while working as a flawed-but-acceptable game manager. Storey’s gone, now. So is Steven Duncan, who actually started the campaign before succumbing to an early foot injury which required season-ending injury. Duncan hit the transfer portal this spring. 

That leaves us with a position group which has one “name” in Tyrrell Pigrome (who transferred over from Maryland after an ineffectual career with the Terps) and take-your-chance options in Davis Shanley (who did receive a little run in 2018) and Kevaris Thomas. Western Kentucky’s defense can drag an average offense to greatness -- it did last season -- but that’s the key. The offense actually has to be average.

If only this team had assurance at quarterback. If only. Because if they can find that, they have the pieces elsewhere to make a run at FAU (whom they play in Boca on Nov. 7) within the division, and Louisiana Tech/UAB/Southern Miss within the conference beyond.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: UNDER


Marshall Thundering Herd

2019 record: 8-5

NFL Draft prospect to watch: RB Brenden Knox

 

The case for: At the top of this roster, the Thundering Herd thunders indeed, with an all-conference running back in Brenden Knox (1,387 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns), an electric punt-return man in Talik Keaton and a linebacking savant in Tavante Beckett (122 tackles). In its best-case universe Marshall has it in them to field Conference Player of the Year winners on both sides of the ball in Knox and Beckett. 

Knox should find plenty of open lanes as he looks for a 1,500-yard season this fall, picking his way behind an offensive line stacked on senior experience and four returning starters. Continuity on the line is something which matters all the more with the short offseason.

The Thundering Herd do face limitations elsewhere, but it’s not going to take many wobbles for the bigger teams above them -- Western Kentucky, FAU in the East -- for Doc Holliday to pull a conference title-game showing out of this strange, strange year.

 

The case against: Note that we did not mention quarterback or receiver above. That’s because we have our questions. The latter is less complicated and we’ll start there. Marshall is thin on receiving talent, or at least receiving talent with any real on-field experience. Their leading returning receiver is TE Xavier Gaines. Who caught 27 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns in 2019. Gaines is a little bit of an H-back do-it-all option, who chipped in with over 130 yards rushing last season and makes for a real offensive chess piece, but again, 27 catches to lead the team's returning talent.

Gaines and the above-mentioned Keaton give QB Isaiah Green two weapons to target. Whether Green hits that mark, well, that comes and goes, you know? Green completed just 56 percent of his passes to go with a 15/11 TD/INT ratio last season. Those traditional stats lineup with PFF’s offensive grade of 66.9. For as great as Knox is, Marshall needs more from this passing game if it’s to realistically contend for the top of the conference.

The Thundering Herd are blighted with a rickety schedule, too. The opening non-conference schedule is sneaky-difficult to navigate, like a flat stretch of the river with boulders just below wake range, with East Carolina (Week 0 on the road), Pitt (home), Ohio (road) and Boise State (home). October appears even more treacherous to cross. Following a little breather against Rice to open the month, consecutive road games against Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech are followed by a home contest against FAU, wrapping with a road date against Florida International on Halloween. WKU, Louisiana Tech and FAU might be the three best teams in the conference.

Marshall has enough talent to make things interesting this fall. Whether the season rises above “interesting” is going to depend largely on Green’s development.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: OVER


Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

2019 record: 4-8

NFL Draft prospect to watch: S Reed Blankenship

 

The case for: With the Stockstill Nepotism Era over at MTSU following Brent Stockstill’s exit after the 2018 season, head coach Rick Stockstill immediately hit on a dynamic replacement for his son in Asher O’Hara, who enters 2020 poised for potential Conference USA Player of the Year honors. O’Hara was decent as a passer in 2019, but what pushes his game into the fifth dimension is his ability to absolutely school fools as a runner (something that Stockstill never had in his arsenal), rushing for 1,058 yards and nine touchdowns last fall. 

O’Hara finished the year as the nation's third-leading rusher among quarterbacks. And that was just his debut. What makes MTSU a legitimately scary team in the conference (if not for the conference itself) is that Stockstill and O’Hara have now had time to scheme to his strengths. Remember, his game is wholly different than what came before. This is a learning dance between coach and quarterback.

And if things break right for the Blue Raiders, they’ve added a pair of transfer running backs from Power Five programs these past two years in Martell Pettaway (WVU) and Amir Rasul (Florida State) who could provide nice upside punch. Pettaway -- who had to sit in 2019 -- already has a 600-yard season under his belt from the 2018 campaign while Rasul was a four-star recruit out of high school. Add in Chaton Mobley, plus O’Hara, to the mix and you’re talking an intriguing running game.

Right now, Vegas has MTSU’s win total at 5.5 victories. We think there’s a real chance they smoke that mark. O’Hara is going to have a monster year.

 

The case against: If the Blue Raiders can’t get a push up front it might not matter. A woeful defensive line contributed just 11 sacks last season, this on a defense which ranked second-to-last in the FBS in total sacks. And there’s not much upside for that to improve. Maybe you get a little more sack action out of LB DQ Thomas, who showed moxie in getting to the quarterback in 2018 before trailing off for two sacks last fall. But even if Thomas plays at an all-conference level, it’s a defense which lost seven of its top 12 tacklers from last fall. 

And as we’ve harped on again and again, the teams which will be most hardly hit by the interrupted offseason will be those who are breaking in multiple new starting pieces, especially at the Group of Five level, where there’s not a bevy former four- or five-star prospect waiting in the wings.

We’ll add one note of caution on offense, too. For as much as O’Hara crushes the universe in his ability to make something out of nothing, he remains an unpolished passer. The decision-making isn’t always there -- O’Hara was picked off eight times in 2019 -- and neither is the accuracy. In just half of MTSU’s games last year did O’Hara complete more than 60 percent of his passes. If those aspects in O’Hara’s game do not shore up the team’s outlook drags considerably. And we’re not saying they don’t. But you can’t simply assume progression, especially progression without any real offseason. 

 

Vegas win total over/under: 5.5

Prediction: OVER


Charlotte 49ers 

2019 record: 7-6

NFL Draft prospect to watch: EDGE Markees Watts

 

The case for: Don’t let HC Will Healy’s baby face (seriously, Google Image that man) fool you, Charlotte is coming for the house this fall. Healy took them to their first-ever bowl game last season -- they fell to Buffalo in the Bahamas -- and returns an experienced team with all the right pieces intact.

That starts with uber-efficient QB Chris Reynolds, who makes as much hay on the ground as he does through the air. And Reynolds is just -- to quote the late great Bill Paxton -- the tip of the spear, edge of the knife. Charlotte also boasts a potential 1,000-yard pass-catcher in Victor Tucker and a proven 1,000-yard rusher in Tre Harbison, who posted back-to-back seasons over that mark before transferring to Healy’s outfit.

It’s not just a potent offense which makes this such an exciting squad, though. Charlotte’s defense is peppered with stars, too, Markees Watts and Tyrique Harris (coming back from an injury-plagued season) should rack up the TFL this fall, while S Ben DaLuca (also coming back from the injury plague) is a hunt-and-crush defender. 

In a conference filled with intriguing teams carrying variable upside cogs (Middle Tennessee, Marshall and Southern Miss fit this bill), Charlotte might have the most complete overall outfit to legitimately take the step up from respectable to good this season.

 

The case against: Charlotte’s not going to sink back to ineptitude. Healy’s too good and this roster is too stacked. But the schedule doesn’t do them any favors, nor does an offensive line which will see three new starters broken in. Healy’s outfit won’t be sneaking up on anybody and will be two road non-con games deep vs. Power Five outfits (against Tennessee and Duke) before they start into conference play. And the road continues to stretch ever onward into CUSA play, with their toughest games (FAU, UNT, MTSU, Marshall) all taking place away from the friendly confines, save for a home season-finale against perhaps the best team in one of the best teams in the conference in WKU.

None of this is to say that Charlotte won’t be rounding their way to another bowl. But all the hot preseason talk needs to be tempered. We saw a similar scenario, except under much brighter lights, last season, when Texas A&M faced a murderer’s row schedule which ultimately capped the Aggies at eight wins. Charlotte won’t be tasked with surviving an SEC gauntlet. The idea translates to the Group of Five all the same. If Healy and crew can survive their long road to the end of the campaign, they will have earned it.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5

Prediction: OVER


Florida InternationAl Golden Panthers

2019 record: 6-7

NFL Draft prospect to watch: Jeremiah Holloman

 

The case for: Please pass the Bortenschlager. The former Terps quarterback transferred over to FIU this offseason and could end up as a life raft for the Golden Panthers as they look to replace the outgoing James Morgan. Bortenschlager doesn’t have Morgan’s pure arm talent, but he’s a smart, mature veteran with experience in Power Five action -- Maryland does play in the Power Five, we swear.

You might not think much about Max Bortenschlager -- and granted, he completed just 51 percent of his passes in 2017, his lone season with extensive playing time -- but we’re talking about a serious drop down in competition, here. Think Brady White (an ASU transfer) at Memphis for a best-case scenario of a washed out Power Five quarterback finding late success via a Group of Five move. Or Brandon Peters from Michigan-to-Illinois (we get that that’s a Power Five on Power Five move, but same basic concept).

Wanna get a little more frisky, try Kaylan Wiggins on for size. Wiggins rushed for 187 yards and two scores against New Hampshire in place of an injured Morgan last season and plays a more creative, athletic game than Bortenschlager. Also a more chaotic, disjointed game. It’s a matter of how much you value the risk against the potential reward.

Looking beyond quarterback, we’re keen to see an old SEC face upcoming. JJ Holloman offers upside as a reclamation product at receiver after flaming out at Georgia. It’s a mostly forgettable receivers room on the whole, we’ll admit, but if Holloman’s ever going to make it work, it’s against CUSA competition. A strong offensive line, returning three starters, should be one of the best in the Group of Five this fall.

 

The case against: Did you watch Max Bortenschlager play football at Maryland? And another question, if you did -- why? The lone time we’ve seen any extended stretch of ball from Bortenschlager came in 2017, when he was forced into eight games’ worth of starting action due to Maryland's injury year from the underworld at quarterback. For that campaign, he hit on 51.9 percent of his passes, at a 5.6 YPA clip and a 10/5 TD/INT ratio. 

Bortenschlager certainly could look more sharp at FIU than he did going through a Big Ten schedule, but if that’s what you’re banking on, you might want to check your account. And it’s not like FIU has a running game to turn to if the passing game falters. You’re talking about replacement-level-caliber backs in probable starter D’Vonte Price and Arkansas transfer Maleek Williams

Even with Morgan slinging it last season, the Golden Panthers barely cracked bowl eligibility (they needed an upset of Miami to get there). Our worry is that his departure leaves this whole apparatus cracked and unusable.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6

Prediction: UNDER


Old Dominion Monarchs

2019 record: 1-11

NFL Draft prospect to watch: WR Eric Kumah

 

The case for: Well, life returned to Mount Saint Helens following the volcano’s 1980 eruption, right? As was the case with the flattened mountainside, so it is with the Monarchs, who have almost literally nowhere to go but up following their disastrous 2019 season. The team’s lone win came in a 24-21 defeat of Norfolk State to open the campaign. And here’s a sad, blighted cherry on top of this foul-tasting sundae -- those 24 points represented a season high. 

Former Penn State OC Ricky Rahne now takes the reins for the fired Bobby Wilder. And he’s going to have to MacGyver the heck out of this offense upcoming, because he wasn’t given much to work with. If there’s one slight positive with Rahne’s inherited roster, it’s a workable defense. The Monarchs, led by edge rusher Keion White, LB Lawrence Garner and DB Kaleb Ford-Dement, allowed a touch under 29 points per game last season, ranking 79th in the country in scoring defense -- tied with Stanford and one slot below USC. 

We’re not calling great shakes with this unit, but it’s a fair sight more attractive than what’s happening on the other side of the ball. And having a competent-enough defense gives Rahne a shorter length to run before ODU’s offense might actually keep it competitive. But it’s going to be tough. 

 

The case against: ODU’s offense, woof. It was mirror-shatteringly bad last season. And shocker shocker, there’s no help coming. Or let’s amend -- there’s no help coming, for now. ODU scored one of the more intriguing transfers of the offseason in former PSU RB Ricky Slade, who follows Rahne over to the Monarchs. He won’t be eligible until 2021, but it’s at least something to cling to in what’s probably going to be a dark year. 

The Monarchs managed just five total touchdown passes last season (oh goodness) and the only real hope in that position room is that three-star redshirt freshman Hayden Wolff takes a step forward after struggling in three-game starting action last season. Or maybe former name recruit Messiah deWeaver surprises. Or dual-threat Stone Smartt. We would expect ODU can manage more than five touchdown passes with Rahne, anyway. 

This is a team which is probably already looking toward 2021, when Slade will be able to play, when Rahne won’t be trying to build his brand via Zoom calls, when Old Dominion is able to work through a full, normal offseason. This is not a team constructed to be able to endure the fallout of global pestilence. 

 

Vegas over/under win total: 3

Prediction: UNDER

Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.