2020 Conference USA season preview

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Conference USA’s most recognizable face is out of the picture entering 2020. Lane Kiffin won two conference titles in his three years at Florida Atlantic, and used that success to land the head-coaching job at Ole Miss. Willie Taggart, fired at Florida State, takes his place for the defending conference champions. 

C-USA, one of three Group of Five leagues proceeding with football this fall, is keeping its divisions intact even with one member, Old Dominion, opting not to play due to COVID-19 concerns. ODU’s absence creates divisional imbalance with seven teams in the West and six in the East. 

Here’s a look at the conference’s two divisions, listed in predicted order of finish

East Division

Western Kentucky

WKU pulled the plug after two rough seasons with Mike Sanford and hired Tyson Helton, the program’s offensive coordinator during the successful Jeff Brohm years. Things look good one year in. The Hilltoppers shook off a rough start and won eight of its final 10 games to finish 9-4 in 2019. Under Brohm, WKU was known for its high-flying offense. While the offense is improving under Helton, this team is stronger on defense with nine starters returning. That group includes the team’s top six tacklers from 2019. 

Florida Atlantic

Lane Kiffin is off to Ole Miss and Willie Taggart, exiled from Tallahassee, is in the head coach’s chair for FAU. The Owls return some explosive playmakers and have added a few notable transfers on offense, though oft-suspended quarterback Chris Robison is no longer in the picture. Nick Tronti, an Indiana transfer who backed up Robison in 2019, is the favorite to start. The defense lacks experience but Taggart hired Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator. Leavitt has a track record and young talent to mold, but there will be growing pains along the way. 

Marshall

It’s always good news when you return the reigning conference MVP. Brenden Knox rushed for 1,387 yards and 11 TDs in 2019, helping the Thundering Herd win six of their final seven C-USA games after a slow start. Marshall hasn’t won the C-USA East since 2014, and it will be a tough task for 2020 to be that year with the news that starting QB Isaiah Green has transferred. Grant Wells, a redshirt freshman, has the QB job now and has plenty of experience around him on offense. The defense will need to improve for Marshall to challenge for the division crown. 

Middle Tennessee

Rick Stockstill has built a winning program at MTSU, so last year’s 4-8 record was a surprise. The Blue Raiders had to break in a new QB after Brent Stockstill, Rick’s son, graduated. The new starter — Asher O’Hara — carried a heavy load, throwing for 2,616 yards and rushing for 1,044 more. He will lead what could be one of the better offensive units in the conference in 2020. The defense, though, is where the questions really arise. The lack of a pass rush was especially an issue last year. 

Charlotte

Will Healy’s profile continued to rise after his first year at Charlotte. Known for turning an Austin Peay program that had lost 29 straight into an FCS playoff team, Healy got Charlotte to its bowl game in 2019. He inherited a solid team from the previous staff, including two 2020 NFL draft picks (Alex Highsmith, Cameron Clark), and will bring back starting QB Chris Reynolds and most of his receiving corps. The 49ers will be a bit lacking on both lines in 2020, though, and the defense will be tested early with non-con games against App State and North Carolina. 

Florida International

After a 9-4 record in 2018, FIU’s 6-7 record in 2019 was a disappointment. Butch Davis has certainly raised expectations for the Panthers, but the lack of returning talent on offense makes it tough to expect much from FIU in 2020 — especially in such a competitive division. FIU’s starting QB (NFL draftee James Morgan), top two rushers and top five receivers won’t see the field in 2020. The defense, though, will keep the Panthers in most games they play. 

Rice Stadium and the conference USA name is seen in a general stadium view before an NCAA football game on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019 in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)

West Division

UAB

UAB has come a long way from 2014, when the program was shut down for financial reasons. The Blazers returned to the field in 2017 and won eight games. A conference title and bowl win followed in 2018 before a nine-win season in 2019. Entering 2020, the Blazers return 18 starters, including QB Tyler Johnston, the team’s top five rushers, four of the top five receivers and four offensive linemen. And that’s only the offense. The defense is the stronger side of the ball and is highlighted by LBs Kristopher Moll and Jordan Smith, who combined for 19 sacks last year. 

Louisiana Tech

Skip Holtz doesn’t get enough credit for the job he has done at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs won 10 games last fall but return just eight starters, including only two on defense. You’d think they will be in line for a step back, but Holtz’s teams routinely outperform expectations. It’d be foolish to think they won’t do it again. What we do know is that the Bulldogs return a 1,000-yard rusher, the bulk of their receiving corps and a strong offensive line. The defense, though, could struggle. 

Southern Miss

Southern Miss has four straight winning seasons under Jay Hopson, but has yet to win a division title. In 2020, USM returns a third-year starter at QB in Jack Abraham, but loses stud receiver Quez Watkins to the NFL. The defense lost two of its best players — DE Jacques Turner and LB Racheem Boothe — to opt outs in recent weeks. Still, USM has a chance to put up a lot of points with Abraham connecting with senior wideout Tim Jones often. USM should be a solid team, but it’s hard to envision a leap to the top of the division. 

North Texas

Seth Littrell was a hot coaching name after back-to-back nine-win seasons at North Texas, but the Mean Green went 4-8 last year and now Littrell will look to rebound without star quarterback Mason Fine in Denton. There’s an ongoing competition to replace Fine and an influx of underclassmen throughout the depth chart, many of whom saw the field as the 2019 season progressed. UNT won’t be able to replicate Fine’s production, but some steadiness at QB will go a long way toward helping the Mean Green compete in 2020. 

Rice

If you ever want to see what a feel-good 3-9 season looks like, look to Rice in 2019. The Owls, after a one win in 2018, lost their first nine games but rarely got blown out. Rice then won its final three games, establishing some good vibes entering the offseason. The Owls return 17 starters and are going to be a team nobody wants to play. The defense boasts one of C-USA’s best players in linebacker Blaze Alldredge, but questions on offense still linger. Rice fans should feel good about the direction of the program. 

UTSA

UTSA moved on from Frank Wilson and brought in Arkansas assistant Jeff Traylor as head coach. A long-time high school coach in Texas, Traylor inherits a few exciting players, including running back Sincere McCormick (1,045 yards as a freshman), but the lack of spring practice for a new coach could result in some significant growing pains. A proven quarterback would help ease the transition, too, but the three that saw the field in 2019 didn’t do much. 

UTEP

UTEP has combined for two wins over its last three seasons, including back-to-back 1-11 seasons under Dana Dimel. The long-time Kansas State assistant knew he was in for a rough rebuild when he took the job, and so far it has lived up to the billing. The Miners have had a few near-upsets in Conference USA play the last two seasons. It’d be surprising if they didn’t get at least one this time around. 

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