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2020 Conference USA Football Preview

Check out the CSD preview for Conference USA’s 2020 season in this loaded preview, featuring in-depth coverage of everything you need to know about all 13 teams, projected records based on thousands of computer simulations, the projected all-conference team, awards, and more!

The league has announced that it plans to play the normal eight conference games and that its teams are allowed to play up to four non-conference opponents. However, league member Old Dominion independently decided to cancel their season. Thus, the eight teams that were scheduled to play ODU will have only seven conference games on their schedule.

EAST

Defending conference champions Florida Atlantic ran away with the East title last year (and in 2017). However, the coach that led the Owls to those two conference championships, Lane Kiffin, has moved up and out to a job in the SEC at Ole Miss. With Kiffin gone, this is shaping up to be one of the tightest division races in the country.

T1. Western Kentucky

Head Coach: Tyson Helton
2019 Record: 9-4 (6-2 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 6.9 wins, 4.1 losses (4.7 wins, 2.3 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 at Louisville
Sept. 19 Liberty
Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
Oct. 3 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 10 Marshall
Oct. 17 at UAB
Oct. 24 Chattanooga
Oct. 31 at BYU
Nov. 7 at Florida Atlantic
Nov. 14 Southern Miss
Nov. 21 FIU
Nov. 28 at Charlotte

Western Kentucky, a once-mighty G5 program, underwent a bit of a rebuild in the late 2010s, but last year, year one coach Tyson Helton seemed to figure out a way to turn it around. Things started off on the wrong track with a loss to Central Arkansas, but after that, the Hilltoppers just started winning. Thanks to a kickass defense that could contend with the best in the G5, WKU beat a UAB team that went on to win the West and also destroyed SEC foe Arkansas to close out the year. All in all, it was a nine-win year the season after a nine-loss year, and the Hilltoppers should be even better in 2020. 13 of the top 15 tacklers are back from that excellent defense, including monster edge rusher DeAngelo Malone (11.5 sacks) and the best safety duo in the conference: Antwon Kincade and Devon Key.

The offense was suspect in 2019, but WKU will bring in a Maryland transfer at QB in Tyrell Pigrome. Top rusher Gaej Walker (1,208 yards) is also back, and while Lucky Jackson is gone, the rest of the receiving corps returns. This is one of the most experienced teams in the country and they get Marshall at home, the Hilltoppers will be one of the favorites in the conference.

T1. Marshall

Head Coach: Doc Holliday
2019 Record: 8-5 (6-2 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 5.8 wins, 3.2 losses 4.7 wins, 2.3 losses)

Schedule

Sept. 5 Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 Appalachian State
Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
Oct. 3 Rice
Oct. 10 at WKU
Oct. 17 at Louisiana Tech
Oct. 24 Florida Atlantic
Oct. 31 at FIU
Nov. 7 OPEN DATE
Nov. 14 Middle Tennessee
Nov. 21 Charlotte
Nov. 28 OPEN DATE

Marshall won’t be the most creative or exciting team this year, but they will be solid. The Herd has stayed the course on a rebuild, and this is the year we will see if it pays off. This will be one of the most experienced teams in the country, boasting the best offensive line in the G5 and a talented RB in Brendan Knox (1,387 yards, 11 touchdowns, C-USA Offensive Player of the Year). QB Isaiah Green is gone, but almost the entire offense returns in his absence. Freshman Grant Wells will be the starter at QB, and Wells will have the benefit of throwing to a receiving corps that returns four of the top five. The front seven is the one area where Marshall loses a lot, but talented edge rusher Darius Hodge (7 sacks) returns, and they bring in Deleware State transfer Brian Cavicante (17 TFL). This team showed potential last year, being the only C-USA team to beat Florida Atlantic, and they should contend for a conference title this year.

3. Florida Atlantic

Head Coach: Willie Taggart
2019 Record: 11-3 (7-1 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 5.9 wins, 3.1 losses (4.5 wins, 2.5 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 at Georgia Southern
Sept. 26 USF
Oct. 3 Charlotte
Oct. 10 at Southern Miss
Oct. 17 OPEN DATE
Oct. 24 at Marshall
Oct. 31 UTSA
Nov. 7 WKU
Nov. 14 at FIU
Nov. 21 OPEN DATE
Nov. 28 at Middle Tennessee

Head Coach Lane Kiffin is gone from the defending conference champs, and much of the conference championship-winning team is as well. QB Chris Robinson, Mackey Award-winning TE Harrison Bryant, dangerous slot Deangelo Antoine, a pair of all-conference offensive linemen, almost the entire defense, including stud LB Akileis Leroy. All. Gone. A new coaching staff and major roster turnover is not a good recipe in a year when offseason practice was limited. There is one key piece left over for former Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, though: Malcolm Davidson. The Owls’ top back dealt with injuries all throughout last year, but when he was healthy he was excellent, averaging nearly seven yards per carry. I loved Taggart’s defensive coordinator hire, Jim Leavitt, formerly DC at Oregon, and while a lot of last year’s starters are gone, the Owls bring back a ton of depth and have recruited better than anyone in the conference, so the talent is still there, enough that a repeat conference title isn’t out of the question. I just think this is not the year for an inexperienced squad to make a run.

4. Charlotte

Head Coach: Will Healy
2019 Record: 7-6 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 5.2 wins, 5.8 losses (4.1 wins, 2.9 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 at Appalachian State
Sept. 19 at North Carolina
Sept. 26 Georgia State
Oct. 3 at Florida Atlantic
Oct. 10 at North Texas
Oct. 17 FIU
Oct. 24 UTEP
Oct. 31 at Duke
Nov. 7 at Middle Tennessee
Nov. 14 OPEN DATE
Nov. 21 at Marshall
Nov. 28 WKU

Charlotte head coach Will Healy is a rising star in the coaching ranks. In his very first year at the helm, Healy led the 49ers to their first bowl bid in school history and a winning record on the backs of one of the more creative offenses in the G5. OC Alex Atkins, a rising star in his own right, is now the OC at Florida State, but he left some pieces for Healy to work with. Back-to-back 1,000+ yard rusher Benny LeMay is gone as is a lot of the offensive line, but NIU transfer Tre Harbison (1,021 yards) comes in to fill that gap, and monster dual-threat QB Chris Reynolds (2,564 passing yards, 767 rushing yards) is back, along with his top pass-catcher, junior Victor Tucker (909 yards, seven touchdowns). A couple of pieces are gone on defense, although star S Ben DeLuca returns from a shoulder injury that cost him his 2019. I worry a lot about the front seven and offensive line, but this team has a ton of potential, and they could surprise with a winning record, even without an FCS game on their schedule.

5. Middle Tennessee

Head Coach: Rick Stockstill
2019 Record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 4.2 wins, 5.8 losses (2.7 wins, 4.3 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 at Army
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 Troy
Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
Oct. 3 WKU
Oct. 10 at FIU
Oct. 17 North Texas
Oct. 24 at Rice
Oct. 31 OPEN DATE
Nov. 7 Charlotte
Nov. 14 at Marshall
Nov. 21 at Troy
Nov. 28 Florida Atlantic

Middle Tennessee has been incredibly consistent under longtime coach Brent Stockstill. Prior to last year’s 4-8 mark, the Blue Raiders had made a bowl seven years in a row. As they look to improve on that four-win total, the star of last year’s campaign, QB Asher O’Hara, is back. O’Hara was arguably the best rushing quarterback in the nation last year, and the Blue Raiders add in a pair of P5 transfers at running back in Martell Pettaway (WVU) and Amir Rasul (FSU) to help him out. The receiving corps is great, and a line that got decimated with injuries last year means that they return a ton of guys that played a least a little last year.

Things look up for the Blue Raiders on offense. On defense, it’s a different story. MTSU will lose seven of their top 12 tacklers from a defense that was already one of the worst in the nation, and the Blue Raiders will struggle once again both in pass coverage and in getting to the quarterback. I’m still iffy on O’Hara’s passing abilities, and that combined with the woeful defense makes me feel that another bowl miss is likely in the works.

6. FIU

Head Coach: Butch Davis
2019 Record: 6-7 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 2.6 wins, 5.4 losses (2.1 wins, 4.9 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 OPEN DATE
Sept. 26 at Liberty
Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
Oct. 10 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 17 at Charlotte
Oct. 24 OPEN DATE
Oct. 31 Marshall
Nov. 7 at UTEP
Nov. 14 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 21 at WKU
Nov. 28 Louisiana Tech

Before Butch Davis took over, FIU had been to two bowls, ever. In Butch Davis’ three years at the helm, they added three more. That’s incredible, right? The former Miami coach will have a hard time extending that streak this year, but that is none the less incredibly impressive.

Star QB James Morgan is gone; dual-threat Kaylan Wiggins looks to be the replacement, but Morgan, now a New York Jet, will be hard to replace. The receiving corps is a mixed bag, with very little returning in 2019 production but some interesting recruits and a Georgia transfer added to the mix. The Panthers also boast one of the best offensive lines in the conference, and one of the best secondaries in the G5, led by the Dames twins, Rishard and Richard. The front seven loses their two best players, Teair Tart and Sage Lewis, although FIU does add in Boise State transfer Tyson Maeva. There is clear potential on this team, but with a question mark at quarterback and no pass rush to speak of, I think they’ll be fighting to get out of the cellar in what is a very deep East division of Conference USA.

WEST

The West division of Conference USA is not as balanced as the East, although it does boast a trio of consistent contenders in North Texas, Louisiana Tech, and UAB, the last of which seems poised for a threepeat as division champs this year.

Image result for uab logo

1. UAB

Head Coach: Bill Clark
2019 Record: 9-5 (6-2 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 8.3 wins, 2.7 losses (6.0 wins, 1.0 loss C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 Central Arkansas
Sept. 10 at Miami
Sept. 19 OPEN DATE
Sept. 26 at South Alabama
Oct. 3 UTSA
Oct. 10 at Rice
Oct. 17 WKU
Oct. 23 Louisiana
Oct. 31 at Louisiana Tech
Nov. 7 OPEN DATE
Nov. 14 North Texas
Nov. 21 at UTEP
Nov. 28 Southern Miss

After back-to-back West Division title teams that fell short in the C-USA Championship Game, Bill Clark’s 2020 UAB squad enters the year as a heavy favorite to win the conference outright. This may be the best defense in the G5, including AAC powers like Cincinnati. Dy’John Turner and Brontae Harris are a top ten corner duo in the nation bar-none, edge rusher Jordan Smith is excellent, and RB Spencer Brown has averaged over 1,000 yards a year over his three seasons with the program. Leading receiver Austin Watkins (1,092 yards, six touchdowns) is back, along with four of five on the offensive line. My only question is at the quarterback spot where junior Tyler Johnston has been incredibly inconsistent, but everything around Johnston is so good that the Blazers are clear favorites to win the conference, and have a real shot to upset Miami in week one.

2. Louisiana Tech

Head Coach: Skip Holtz
2019 Record: 10-3 (6-2 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 7.2 wins, 3.8 losses (5.3 wins, 2.7 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 at Baylor
Sept. 19 at Southern Miss
Sept. 26 Houston Baptist
Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
Oct. 10 UTEP
Oct. 17 Marshall
Oct. 24 at UTSA
Oct. 31 UAB
Nov. 7 at North Texas
Nov. 14 Rice
Nov. 21 ULM (in Shreveport)
Nov. 28 at FIU

Louisiana Tech, one of the most storied low-level programs of the past thirty years, comes into 2020 off of six straight bowl wins, and six straight winning records. Now, this will be a rebuilding year relative to last year’s ten-win squad, but if anyone can keep that streak alive, its Skip Holtz. A lot is gone from last year’s team, including a couple of coordinators, star QB J’Mar Smith, and the entire secondary, but some pieces do remain.

2019 backup QB Aaron Allen has shown very little in his limited appearances, although he’ll be helped out on offense by RB Justin Henderson (1,100 yards, 14 touchdowns) along with speedy slot man Cee Jay Powell. On defense, the Bulldogs return a strong group of edge rushers and not much else. With a retooled offensive line, four starters gone in the secondary, and no more J’Mar Smith, a step back is inevitable for 2020, although a pretty easy conference schedule may allow LTU to sneak into second place in the West.

3. Southern Miss

Head Coach: Jay Hopson
2019 Record: 7-6 (5-3 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 8.2 wins, 3.8 losses (5.1 wins, 2.9 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 3 South Alabama
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 Louisiana Tech
Sept. 26 Tulane
Oct. 3 at North Texas
Oct. 10 Florida Atlantic
Oct. 17 at UTEP
Oct. 24 at Liberty
Oct. 31 Rice
Nov. 7 North Alabama
Nov. 14 at WKU
Nov. 21 UTSA
Nov. 28 at UAB

I actually would rate Southern Miss as the #2 team in the West talent-wise (ahead of Louisiana Tech), but the Golden Eagles faced a tough draw in scheduling, getting UAB and Western Kentucky on the road, and drawing FAU as their other East crossover opponent. Yikes. Star receiver Quez Watkins is gone to the NFL, but QB Jack Abraham (3,469 yards) is back after taking a big step forward in 2019. Four starters are back from what was an awful offensive line in 2019, but the added experience should help. Also returning is a trio of backs that will take some of the offensive load off of Abraham. The defense is the superior unit on the team, and they return most of the key pieces, including the dynamic edge duo of Jacques Turner and Eriq Kitchen. This should be a very good team, and one has an outside shot at contending for a conference title.

4. Rice

Head Coach: Mike Bloomgren
2019 Record: 3-9 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 3.4 wins, 4.6 losses (3.4 wins, 4.6 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 OPEN DATE
Sept. 26 OPEN DATE
Oct. 3 at Marshall
Oct. 10 UAB
Oct. 17 OPEN DATE
Oct. 24 Middle Tennessee
Oct. 31 at Southern Miss
Nov. 7 UTSA
Nov. 14 at Louisiana Tech
Nov. 21 at North Texas
Nov. 28 UTEP

Rice will find themselves as the lone Conference-USA team not to be playing any non-conference games this year. On the one hand, they’ll be more well-rested, but they also lose the opportunity to work out any kinks before conference play begins.

This team ended 2019 on the right track, with three straight wins to close out the year, mostly on the backs of the defense, because the offense wasn’t much to speak of. To help matters on the weak offense… the top two rushers from last year’s team are gone. Oof. TCU transfer Michael Collins should improve the QB situation, which was dreadful last year, and I do like the receiving corps, but this will still be a very subpar offense. On defense, however, almost everyone is back from a pretty good group. The lone departures come from the pass rush group, which was the weakest unit on the defense in 2019. Between the improved QB situation and what should be a solid defense, this will be an improved team that might have a shot at .500 after being one of the worst squads in the FBS for years.

5. UTSA

Head Coach: Jeff Traylor
2019 Record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 4.1 wins, 7.9 losses (2.2 wins, 4.8 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 OPEN DATE
Sept. 12 at Texas State
Sept. 19 Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 26 Memphis
Oct. 3 at UAB
Oct. 10 at BYU
Oct. 17 Army
Oct. 24 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 31 at Florida Atlantic
Nov. 7 at Rice
Nov. 14 UTEP
Nov. 21 at Southern Miss
Nov. 28 North Texas

Since moving up to the FBS level, UTSA’s offense has struggled mightily. In comes new coach Jeff Traylor this year, and along with him, a new option at QB in New Mexico State transfer Josh Adkins (27 touchdowns, 24 interceptions over the last two years). Adkins is probably better than those numbers let on, but QB is still a massive hole for the Roadrunners in Traylor’s year one. On defense, a ton of experience returns. Senior Jaylon Haynes (12.5 TFL) is a difference-maker, and UTSA adds in Oklahoma State transfer JayVeon Cardwell to an already solid group. This will be a reset button year as Traylor, an excellent recruiter in the state of Texas, gets his guys in, but there is enough talent that the defense should be able to carry them to a year matching 2019’s 4-8 mark.

6. North Texas

Head Coach: Seth Littrell
2019 Record: 4-8 (3-5 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 3.2 wins, 7.8 losses (2.1 wins, 5.9 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 Houston Baptist
Sept. 12 OPEN DATE
Sept. 19 SMU
Sept. 26 at Houston
Oct. 3 Southern Miss
Oct. 10 Charlotte
Oct. 17 at Middle Tennessee
Oct. 24 OPEN DATE
Oct. 31 at UTEP
Nov. 7 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 14 at UAB
Nov. 21 Rice
Nov. 28 at UTSA

After back-to-back nine-win seasons, North Texas fell off of a cliff last year to 4-8, in a large part due to “best player in school history” QB Mason Fine (12,505 yards, 93 touchdowns in career) being riddled with injuries all year long. Well, now Fine is gone for good, along with 2018’s top receiver, another guy that battled injuries in 2019, WR Rico Bussey. Outside of the QB situation, the secondary and the offensive line are also losing a lot, although the front seven on defense is stacked with NT Dion Novil (13 TFL) holding down the middle and LB Tyreke Davis (14 TFL, 4.5 sacks) leading an excellent second level. RB Tre Siggers return, along with a much of the rest of the receiving corps sans-Bussey. A question mark at QB and an inexperienced offensive line is a huge red flag, but there is talent elsewhere on this team, and Littrell is the guy to make it work.

7. UTEP

Head Coach: Dana Dimel
2019 record: 1-11 (0-8 C-USA)
Average Projected 2020 Record: 2.1 wins, 9.9 losses (1.0 win, 7.0 losses C-USA)

Schedule

Sept. 5 Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 12 at Texas
Sept. 19 Abilene Christian
Sept. 26 at ULM
Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
Oct. 10 at Louisiana Tech
Oct. 17 Southern Miss
Oct. 24 at Charlotte
Oct. 31 North Texas
Nov. 7 FIU
Nov. 14 at UTSA
Nov. 21 UAB
Nov. 28 at Rice

In two years at UTEP, head coach Dana Dimel has won exactly two games, and the Miners come into 2020 as my lowest-rated team in the country. Now, if there’s any good news, its that this team is incredibly young, so they should take a big step forward in 2021, whether Dimel survives until then may be a different question. The top two receivers are back, and the backfield is deadly, with four or five guys likely to take significant snaps, that’s about where the positives end. At QB, 2019 redshirt Gavin Hardison is probably the man. Hardison was not good in limited snaps last year, and the lack of spring practices really hurt any chance he had at development. On defense, the top three tacklers are gone, as are starters at every level. The good news is that losing a bunch of pieces from a bad defense doesn’t hurt as much as losing pieces from a good defense. The bad news? The replacements might be worse, as Dimel frantically signing almost a dozen JUCOs on defense proves. This will be a bad team, and one that will probably lose to an FCS foe. However, this year is probably more about laying the groundwork for 2021 anyways.

Conference USA Title Game Pick: UAB over Western Kentucky

All-Conference-USA Team

QB – Asher O’Hara, Middle Tennessee
RB – Spencer Brown, UAB
RB – Brenden Knox, Marshall
WR – Victor Tucker, Charlotte
WR – Austin Watkins Jr., UAB
TE – Joshua Simon, WKU
C – Kody Russey, Louisiana Tech
OL – Arvin Fletcher, Southern Miss
OL – Jordan Meredith, WKU
OL – Desmond Noel, Florida Atlantic
OL – Marquice Robinson, Florida Atlantic

DL – Jaylon Haynes, UTSA
DL – Dion Novil, North Texas
DL – Deangelo Malone, WKU
DL – Jordan Smith, UAB
LB – Kristopher Moll, UAB
LB – Blaze Alldredge, Rice
LB – Kyle Bailey, WKU
DB – Brontae Harris, UAB
DB – Reed Blankenship, Middle Tennessee
DB – Rishard Dames, FIU
DB – Ben DeLuca, Charlotte

Most Appearances by Team:

UAB – 5
WKU – 4
Florida Atlantic – 2
Middle Tennessee – 2
Charlotte – 2
Marshall – 1
Louisiana Tech – 1
Southern Miss – 1
North Texas – 1
Rice – 1
FIU – 1
UTSA – 1

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Brenden Knox, Marshall
Defensive Player of the Year: CB Brontae Harris, UAB
Coach of the Year: Bill Clark, UAB
Coach on the Hot Seat: Dana Dimel, UTEP
Freshman of the Year: WR Jawaun Johnson, Louisiana Tech
Game of the Year: Western Kentucky @ UAB (October 17)

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