UAB tops the list heading into the season
After months of uncertainty and anxious waiting, the 2020 college football season begins in earnest this week.
Conference USA is one of the few leagues that has maintained that it would try to play this season, and the first games featuring conference teams begin on Thursday.
While a majority of the conference opted to play as planned, Old Dominion decided to forgo any fall sports this year due to concerns over COVID-19. There are six games this week featuring C-USA teams.
1. UAB (2019: 9-5, 6-2)
After back-to-back losses to close last season, including a 43-point loss to FAU in the conference championship, UAB returns an experienced and talented roster in 2020.
The Blazers return 10 starters on offense and nine on the defensive side of the ball.
UAB had the top-ranked defense in C-USA last year, giving up 21.6 points per game, and returns nearly everyone, including All-Conference linebackers Kristopher Moll and Jordan Smith.
Up next: Thursday vs. Central Arkansas, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
2. Western Kentucky (2019: 9-4, 6-2)
Similar to UAB, the Hilltoppers’ defense will be its main strength this year.
Western Kentucky returns nine starters on that side of the ball, including preseason Defensive Player of the Year DeAngelo Malone.
Offensively, running back Gaej Walker will be the main threat as the Hilltoppers try to find a reliable threat at quarterback.
Up next: Sept. 12 at Louisville, TBD
3. FAU (2019: 11-3, 7-1)
The reigning C-USA champions lost plenty of pieces from last season — including former coach Lane Kiffin — but bring back a plethora of talent.
First-year coach Willie Taggart would be wise to lean on back Malcolm Davidson early and often as the Owls work quarterback Nick Tronti fully into the mix as a starter due to former quarterback Chris Robison being released from the team.
Up next: Sept. 19 at Georgia Southern, 5 p.m. (ESPN+)
4. Marshall (2019: 8-5, 6-2)
Similar to the Owls, uncertainty at quarterback will force the Thundering Herd to rely on their running game early. Thankfully, Marshall has a reliable option in preseason Offensive Player of the Year Brendan Knox.
Despite dealing with injuries last season, Knox still finished with 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns on 270 carries.
Up next: Saturday vs. Eastern Kentucky, noon (ESPN)
5. Southern Miss (2019: 7-6, 5-3)
Southern Miss had a promising start to the 2019 season, going 7-3 and 5-1 in conference play before dropping its final three games of the year by double figures.
The Golden Eagles bring back arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in Jack Abraham (3,496 yards, 19 touchdowns) to lead an experienced offense.
Up next: Thursday vs. South Alabama, 8 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
6. Louisiana Tech (2019: 10-3, 6-2)
Suspensions to key players late in the year nearly derailed a dream season for the Bulldogs, but they rebounded by ultimately beating Miami in the Independence Bowl.
However, this season figures to be more of a rebuilding year for Skip Holtz’s team, especially on defense. Last year Louisiana Tech statistically had the second-best defense in the conference, but will have to replace nine starters on that side of the ball.
Up next: Sept. 12 at Baylor, TBD
7. Charlotte (7-6, 5-3)
The 49ers bring back 13 total starters on both sides of the ball, including dual-threat quarterback Chris Reynolds. Last season Reynolds finished with 3,355 total yards and 28 touchdowns.
Replacing running back Benny LeMay will be a challenge, but the 49ers have two suitable replacements in senior Aaron McAllister and Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison.
Up next: Sept. 12 at Appalachian State, TBA
8. MTSU (2019: 4-8, 3-5)
While first-year quarterback Asher O’Hara proved to be a success by accounting for 3,674 total yards and 29 touchdowns, MTSU’s offense was marred by inconsistency last year. Finding some consistency in the rushing game will be huge as no Blue Raider running back finished with more than 300 yards in 2019.
MTSU’s defense will also be a work in progress: The Blue Raiders bring back just three starters on a unit that finished 10th in the conference last year and gave up 30.2 points per game.
Up next: Saturday vs. Army, 12:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
9. Rice (3-9, 3-5)
Despite finishing with a losing record, the Owls showed signs of promise as they closed the season with three consecutive wins, including road victories at MTSU and UTEP.
Rice brings back 10 starters on defense, and whoever wins the quarterback battle will have some good targets in Bradley Rozner (770 yards, five touchdowns) and Austin Trammell (726 yards, four touchdowns).
Up next: Oct. 3 at Marshall, 1 p.m. (ESPN3)
10. North Texas (4-8, 3-5)
The biggest challenge the Mean Green will face in 2020 is replacing all-time passing leader Mason Fine.
Whoever fills that role will have plenty of weapons to work with, including receiver Jaelon Darden (736 yards, 12 touchdowns) and running back Tre Siggers (853 yards, six touchdowns).
Up next: Saturday vs. Houston Baptist, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
11. FIU (6-7, 3-5)
Last season was a weird one for the Panthers as they picked up a marquee win against Miami late in the season while also suffering blowout losses to FAU, MTSU and Tulane.
Butch Davis has a major rebuild on his hands, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Panthers return just three starters and will have to replace James Morgan at quarterback.
Up next: Sept. 26 at Liberty, 5 p.m. (ESPN+)
12. UTSA (4-8, 3-5)
Consistency was a foreign concept for the Roadrunners last season as they failed to win back-to-back games at any point.
While the defense returns just five starters, UTSA’s offense brings back seven, including a wealth of experience on the left side of the offensive line.
Up next: Sept. 12 at Texas State, TBA (ESPN+)
13. UTEP (1-11, 0-8)
After a rough 2019, the forecast for the Miners looks similar in 2019.
UTEP opened last season with a two-point win over Houston Baptist before losing 11 straight by an average of 18 points. A young team, the Miners bring back three starters on both sides of the ball including a new quarterback.
Up next: Saturday vs. Stephen F. Austin, 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
Reach Joe Spears at email@example.com or 731-343-4923. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @joe_spears7.