In UAB’s first year back after going defunct after the 2014 season, the Blazers blew by expectations with eight wins under the leadership of Bill Clark, who coached the Blazers before the program went under. It was one of the best stories of the 2017 year, one that included a trip to their second ever bowl. As for this year, I would not be surprised if Clark gets UAB to another bowl in the program’s second year of it’s reboot. The offense wasn’t great last year, but they return practically everybody from it, and with loads of experience on the offensive side, including nine of the 11 starters being seniors, the group should take a big step forward from the 27.8 points per game that the Blazers put up in 2017.
The defense is a little bit of the opposite. Bill Clark only returns about half of his starters from what was the far superior unit last year, ranking 41st (!) in the country in yards per game. Remember, this school did not even have a team for two years. Much like the offense, the experience here is crazy with nine upperclassmen projected to start, including six seniors. It will be tough for UAB to rebound when they lose this talented group of fourth-years, but as far as this year goes, UAB looks set for another bowl and should contend for the Conference-USA West Championship and a spot in the conference title game as they get two of the other three teams projected to tie for first at home and should pick up one or two wins in the non-con.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (5-3 C-USA)
Seth Littrell has done an incredible job in his first two years with the Mean Green, taking a team that won one game the year before he got there to back-to-back bowls including a division championship and a nine-win season last year, with a 5-0 record in games decided by one possession. Mason Fine returns at quarterback after lighting up stat sheets with 4,052 yards and 31 touchdowns, earning himself Conference-USA Offensive Player of the Year honors. His receiving group brings back five of their top six including each of their top three in Notre Dame transfer Jalen Guyon (775 yards last year), former walk-on Michael Lawrence, who led the team with 819 yards, as well as Rico Bussey, who finished third with 677 yards. All three will contend for All-Conference USA honors, making this one of the best-receiving groups in the conference.
The defense, on the other hand, is not worth gushing over. Finishing 111th in the country in opponent ppg last year (35) leaves a lot of room for improvement. The group that has the best chance of getting it done on that end is the linebacking core. The top tackler from last year, OLB E.J. Ejiya (109 tackles, 7 sacks) is back, as well as a Conference USA All-Freshman recipient on the other side in Joe Ozogwu. Brandon Garner is back on the inside after 6.5 tackles for loss and 68 tackles last year. The schedule shapes up in such a way that they get two, maybe three winnable games in the nonconference, and two out of the other three teams tied for first at home. A bowl game should be the expectation.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 C-USA)
Southern Miss is one of the weirdest programs in the country, let me list their wins in each season over the past decade: 7, 7, 8, 12, 0, 1, 3, 9, 7, 8. Averaging almost exactly 6 wins per season, but managing hit both 12 and zero (in back to back year no less) is quite impressive. Jay Hopson has been brought on to right the ship and has done a pretty good job so far, although his defensive coordinator leaving for another team within the conference doesn’t help. He will be replaced by former Memphis D-Line coach Tim Billings and former Southern Miss D-Line coach Derek Nicholson, who will share the job. The offense looks, to put it nicely, like a question mark. Quarterback Kwadra Griggs is back after starting seven games in 2017 and passing for 1,879 yards and 16 touchdowns with just two interceptions (!), along with 268 yards on the ground. His receiving core looks… less stable as they lose all three starters. A trio of sophomores look to pick up the slack in Quez Watkins (337 yards, two touchdowns), Jaylon Adams (219 yards, one touchdown, 27.4 (!) per catch), and Tim Jones (121 yards, one touchdown). This offense will likely start mostly underclassmen, and I see them taking a step back after being ranked 43rd in the country in ypg last year.
The defense loses even more than the offense, but luckily for the new co-coordinators the Golden Eagles had some depth on this side of the ball and will likely only need to start three underclassmen, one of whom started last year in Racheem Boothe. Boothe (79 tackles, nine for loss, 3.5 sacks) will help lead a unit that also gets back 2016 starter Picasso Nelson Jr., who was out for the year in 2017, as well as senior Jeremy Sangster. That is by far the best part of this defense, as the return just one starter from the other two units combined, that being DE LaDarius Haris. The rest of the D-Line is a huge question mark, as many of the projected starters lack much playing experience and were backups or third stringers last year. The defensive back situation is an even bigger question as USM loses all of it’s interceptions and returns just one guy with any starting experience, CB Rachaun Mitchell who totaled 24 tackles in three starts last year. I see Southern Miss taking a step down from where they were last season, but with an easier schedule, I don’t see the record changing that much.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (5-3 C-USA)
Don’t tell anyone, but Louisiana Tech is actually my computer’s highest-rated team in this division, the schedule just shapes up brutally, which we’ll get to later. Skip Holtz is back for a sixth year with the Bulldogs after going 38-28 in his first five (including 4-0 in bowl games). La Tech was secretly one of the most fun teams in the country last season, with four of their games being decided by just one point. QB J’Mar Smith is back to lead the high powered offense that ranked third in the conference in ppg last year (30.5). Smith racked up over 3,300 yards when you factor in rushing last season, including 16 touchdowns through the air, and with another year of experience under his belt, and most of the offense around him returning, I see him improving.
The defense, which let up just 25.4 ppg last year, also should improve as they lose just one member of the two-deep on the defensive line, and bring back DE Jaylon Ferguson after Ferguson racked up seven sacks last year. Former walk-on Dae’Von Washington, who led the team in tackles last year (70) is also back, as is CB Amik Robertson who picked off five passes as a freshman. Louisiana Tech is in the opposite situation as Southern Miss, as I see this team improving, but their record staying the same because of a tougher schedule. The Bulldogs get two of the other three teams projected to tie for first on the road, draw @ Florida Atlantic from the west, and will have a tricky game to open the season @ an improved South Alabama team. This team has the talent to win the division, but the schedule may mean they have to settle for a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (5-3 C-USA)
After starting last year 5-2 with the losses being by a combined five points, UTSA struggled down the stretch and finished 6-5 and missed a bowl because there were too many people on twitter yelling “too many bowls” that a team with a record over .500 missed out. Frank Wilson brings in two new coordinators for this season. On the offensive side, he hired a guy with experience at big-time schools like Auburn and Michigan in Al Borges, and on the defensive side he promoted from within, landing on LB coach Jason Rollins. The Roadrunners return practically no one on offense. The quarterback room has a combined eight career pass attempts, I would expect they go with SMU transfer DJ Gillens to keep with the dual-threat style, but last year’s backup Bryce Rivers also returns after throwing zero touchdowns and two picks in eight pass attempts last year. Jalen Rhodes is back at running back after going for 659 yards and five touchdowns last year and add freshman BJ Daniels who impressed in spring ball. The receiving core loses their entire top three as well as their tight end. Greg Campbell (300 yards) is the top returning guy their. The line also loses three starters and is another question mark heading into this year.
The defense, which ranked 1st in the conference and 5th (!) nationally with 287.8 opponent ypg last year should be stout again, with the line especially drawing my attention. Six of the eight from the two-deep return including DT Kevin Strong (3 sacks). Eric Banks, who started about half of last year, will step into Marcus Davenport’s role, and they add Solomon Wise, who missed last year with an injury. The back seven looks a little shakier, with experience in the starters but over half of the backups being underclassmen including multiple freshmen. Josiah Tauaefa is a name to watch after racking up 115 sacks in 2016 before injuries held him back last year. Overall the defense might take a slight step back but will still be one of the best in the conference. Most of their winnable games in conference are at home, and they get Baylor at home this year after beating the Bears last year in what should be a big upset alert game. I’ve got them in a bowl.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (4-4 C-USA)
Rice decided to make a change at the after going from ten wins to eight to five to three to one over the past five years, and new head coach Mike Bloomgren has a very steep hill to climb in year one. Bloomgren, formerly offensive coordinator at Stanford, is a hire that I like as he is used to tough recruiting restraints. He brings in Jerry Mack (former North Carolina Central Head Coach) as the offensive coordinator, a hire that I like. On defense, he brings in former Michigan defensive backs coach Brian Smith. I like where this team is headed for the future, but 2018 may be rough. The best part of last year’s 1-11 team was the run game which ranked second in the conference with 187 ypg. They return their entire top three from that group, and they should rely on it again. The passing game is less certain as they return three QBs with playing experience last year, but the three combined for six touchdowns and 16 interceptions (ouch).
The defense was pretty bad last year too, letting up 35.8 ppg. I would expect an aggressive, attacking mentality and a lot of high risk-high reward style play from a group that relies on a heavy pass rush headlined by DT Roe Wilkins who totaled six and a half sacks last season. They lose each of their top five tacklers, but with a lot of the defensive line back, a new coordinator, and a new, more natural 4-3 style scheme, I expect some mild improvement on this side of the ball.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-10 (2-6 C-USA)
UTEP fired Sean Kugler after Kugler started his fifth season with an 0-5 record. They bring in former Bill Snyder assistant Dana Dimel, who was the offensive coordinator for the Wildcats for nine seasons. Dimel has a big hill to climb as the Miners are my lowest ranked team for the 2018 season, including new FBS program Liberty. The one thing Dimel does get is an interesting dual-threat quarterback in JuCo transfer Kai Locksley who racked up nearly 3,000 yards (combined rushing and passing) in 2017. This group can only go up after ranking last in both ppg (11.8) and ypg (230.5) last year, but they return just two starters from last year on the offensive line. With a trio of senior receivers, an uninjured running back in Quardaiz Wadley, and a brand new spread style system, this team should be scoring a lot more in 2018.
The defense returns a solid bit as well, and every starter will be an experienced upperclassman. The two-deep looks less peachy, as it is chock full of underclassmen, but with about half of their starters returning from last year, this side of the ball should improve as well, and I’d guarantee that Dana Dimel improves on the 0-12 mark that left Miners fans with a sour taste in their mouths last season, as they get New Mexico State at home instead of on the road and add an FCS opponent in Northern Arizona. Stealing a game in conference may be a tough ask, but statistically speaking they should get one.
Projected Regular Season Record: 3-9 (1-7 C-USA)