2016-08-02 08:57

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Next conference up.

Conference USA

I can't really explain it, but I just don't like this one.
Stuffing up the team list when former teams did bolt for better paying conferences is totally normal and makes sense, still it feels like this one is totally artificial.
Biggest news prior a few days was that the defunct UAB team was reinstated for 2016 and it will resume playing inside the CUSA for 2017.
So in 2017 the conference will have 14 members to play football. This season still 13 teams.
Biggest news from my point of view is the new TV contract which will REDUCE the amount per team from about 1.1 million dollars per season to 200.000 dollars per season.
This does shift the conference to second to last place in TV revenues (Sun Belt does give 100.000 dollars to their teams per season) and even the MAC is now way ahead (800.000 dollars per season per team).

The 13 teams are:

East Division:
Florida Atlantic University Owls
Florida International University Panthers
Marshall University Thundering Herd
Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders
University of North Carolina at Charlotte 49ers
Old Dominion University Monarchs
Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers

West Division:
Louisiana Tech University Bulldogs
University of North Texas Mean Green
Rice University Owls
University of Southern Mississippi (Southern Miss) Golden Eagles
University of Texas at El Paso Miners
University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners

The teams of the conference are a bit spread regarding quality and it will take years, if not decades, until the teams will have a bit closer level of strength. With a look on the new TV contract it will be interesting to see, whether this can be achieved.
A big question mark for the near future is, whether one team from CUSA (or even several teams) will be recruited from the conferences with stronger teams and higher the picking order to fill the open spots left, once the Big 12 did s e l e c t their 11th and 12th team (if they really stop at that point, rumors are the look also for a 13th and 14th team).
I did read an article which does suggest a merger with the Sun Belt to solve some geographical problems and to become a bit more relevant.

My way-too-early-TIP for the season standings is:

East Division:
Marshall Thundering Herd
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Florida Atlantic Owls
Old Dominion Monarchs
Florida International Panthers
Charlotte 49ers

West Division:
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Southern Miss Golden Eagles
UTEP Miners
Rice Owls
UTSA Roadrunners
North Texas Mean Green

In the battle of Louisiana Tech vs Thundering Herd in the Conference final I pick Marshall as the winner.

Now let's get a bit into the details:

East Division

The Charlotte 49ers were new to the FBS last season, won 2 games and lost all conference games.
Brad Lambert is in his 4th season now and the coach will off cause try to improve the team.
Not as easy as been said.
With Elon (FCS) and Eastern Michigan (MAC) they have the chance for 2 wins out of their 4 non-conference games, more likely is they will only win against Elon.
They do play 3 Western teams, Rice, UTSA and Southern Miss and might lose all of them.
Even while they avoid WKU in their own division, the remaining games are also quite hard for the worst CUSA team.
They play FIU at home and they could win this but I doubt it.
I think FIU will make bigger progress than the 49ers will and Charlotte will finish last losing all conference games, again.

That brings up directly the Florida International Panthers.
They had a 5-7 record for 2015 and will seek an improvement.
Ron Turner is in his 4th season and will have to make FIU bowl eligible, otherwise the axe might be coming.
With no FCS team on the non-conference schedule and almost only more or less struggling programs as opponents I still I don't see many win here.
UMass and UCF could be possible to beat.
From the West they have Louisiana Tech and UTEP, both teams with ambitions.
Don't count on wins here, the easier one (UTEP) is on the road.
Inside the division they face the candidates for the bottom on the road, Old Dominion and Charlotte, so they need to win one or better both games to secure a better spot than last place.
Honestly I don't see them winning 6 games, but maybe the team does surprise me, like it did in the past.
Overall I think they will win more games than Charlotte, securing a 6th place finish, but not enough to get bowling.

Another new team in the FBS are the Old Dominion Monarchs.
The HC Bobby Wilder is now in his 8th season and the team itself is in its 3rd season as FBS team.
So far the results were 6-6 and 5-7.
Not bad for a former FCS team.
They play an FCS team, a better SBC team and UMass as Indy as potential close games on the non-conference games.
It's valid to assume 2 wins out of this.
They have 3 Western teams on the inter-division list, UTSA, Southern Miss and UTEP, which will be tough.
Inside the division they face FAU on the road of the more winnable games, which is also not that nice.
Summed up this team seems to have a hard time this season, as long as they don't show big improvements in gameplays.
My pick is they will battle it out against FAU and likely fall to 5th place or worse this season.
Non-conference games will likely decide their bowl fate.

I think the Florida Atlantic Owls do have the chance to become a contender, or at least making the next step towards that status.
Charlie Partridge is in his 3rd season and so far is his team 3-9 and 3-9 in both played seasons.
That's probably not enough to secure his job if his team does not improve this season.
The team needs to get better.
With potential wins against a FCS teams and Ball State they would be already close the win record of last season.
Ball State could be too much, we will see.
They play Rice and UTEP from the West, which will also be a hard test.
Both are supposed to be mid-level teams and if FAU wants to become also a mid-level team, they need to win at least one of those games.
Inside the East the home-road distribution is a bit in favor of the opponents regarding mid-level teams.
Middle Tennessee is a road games, Old Dominion a home game, FIU and Marshall both on the road.
If this team wants to win at least 6 games, it needs to win the winnable games, on the road.
Tough and maybe too much to ask for, or to easy.
FAU can become the surprising team of the CUSA or it will just make another baby step forward.
My gut feeling is they will finish 4th behind the 3 teams contending for the division title and FAU being just too good to fall deeper.

Next I see the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers finishing 3rd at the end of the season.
Jeff Brohm got the team on a high note and kept it there for 2 seasons so far. Last season the team won the Conference.
Now in his 3rd season he faces some bigger changes.
For example must the star starting QB be replaced and it’s not easy to find new stars every day.
Of cause will the team try to repeat, but for sure Marshall and MTSU will have a say in that this season, not considering an eventual coming conference championship loss on top of that.
The team will play the first non-conference game on second gameday (not as many other CUSA teams on season opener) and will face Alabama (SEC) to start with a big headache.
After that it is possible that WKU win all other 3 non-conference games, even the Vanderbilt (SEC) game.
Overall they should at least get 2 wins here.
Inside the conference they face LT from the West and also Rice (season opener) and North Texas.
That's a quite good selection of West teams, only the LT game on the road could be too much this season.
Add to that MTSU on the road and Marshall also on the road and you might see why I don't see this team on the front seat of the division to win it.
At the end this is only a gut feeling tip preview, so everything is possible.
My gut feeling pick is still they will finish 3rd behind Marshall and MTSU.

The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders are a bit of a mystery this season.
Since Middle Tennessee has entered the CUSA the team did not really made it to the top and always stayed in the shadow of other teams.
But this season can Rick Stockstill, his 11th season with the team, hope for more.
As you know the non-conference games are not important for the conference seats, but they can provide nice extra wins and motivation, and of cause become a bowl game decider.
Unfortunate for them it won't happen that the team will win more than 1 game (against a FCS team) or 2 (maybe Bowling Green) here, but they might grow with the competition.
More interesting are the teams from the West inside the conference, which are this time 3 teams, North Texas, Louisiana Tech and UTSA.
Not too strong, but strong enough to become stumbling blocks.
They miss Old Dominion and will play WKU at home and Marshall on the road in their own division, which is the reason why I don't see them taking over the division.
Marshall on the road too much to ask for, at least this season.

Which leaves me with my division title pick, the Marshall Thundering Herd.
I picked them as division winner last season but they sucked in crucial games and lost to Middle Tennessee and WKU when it counted the most.
This season this is supposed to change.
John "Doc" Holliday is in his 7th season and for sure will face some tough opponents.
The non-conference games will very likely deliver only 2 wins (FCS and Akron eventually), but not more.
North Texas and Southern Miss are the 2 West teams they will face, where I can see a split on the wins, eventually even 2 wins.
The tough part is both games are on the road.
That's a good thing regarding controlling the East matchups and due the road games against the West can Marshall face the better teams all at home.
It looks like a championship schedule setup, but you never know.
My pick is that they will win the division.

West Division

It's not hard to pick the North Texas Mean Green as last place team in the West.
Last season I expected 3 to 5 wins by North Texas and they delivered 1.
The coach was fired and Seth Littrell was hired as new HC, last season assistant HC and TE coach of North Carolina.
It's his first gig as HC, so it's boom or bust.
Even if the non-conference games are not that challenging for better teams, I think North Texas will only get 1 win against a FCS team, eventually they can win against SMU (AAC) or Army (Indy) but I doubt it.
Inside the conference they play Middle Tennessee, WKU and Marshall from the East, which is as tough as such a schedule can get.
From the West they play all teams and the weaker ones all on the road.
So what can only be the destiny of this team be?
If Littrell does not perform a miracle, the team will likely not exceed their win total of last season in a big way.

I like the UTSA Roadrunners, even when they had a bad season in 2015.
They have a new HC, after Larry Croker did resign last season.
New HC is Frank Wilson, former assistant HC and RB coach of LSU.
Expectations are high to get that team on track quickly.
The non-conference games will not help to have more than last season 3 wins, playing 3 heavy weights and a FCS team.
That 1 win should happen against the FCS team, but not more.
Old Dominion, MTSU and Charlotte are the East games, which do look OK.
Direct contender for a mid-level finish is Rice and will be played on the road, all other button teams will be played at home.
Adding those factors together I think they will win some games, but not that many as last season.
They are my 5th team inside the division.

I liked the Rice Owls when they won surprisingly the conference a few season ago.
But Rice had a major setback last season and won only 5 games.
That's more Old-Rice style, than the new-Rice style winning 10 games in 2013 and 8 games in 2014.
David Bailiff therefore did not get a job offer worth a switch (if any) and is therefore in his 10th season as Owls HC.
I'm not sure what kind of Owls we will see, this season.
The 5 wins team, or the 10 wins team?
Their non-conference schedule is not helpful. More than 1 win (FCS-team) or eventually 2 wins (Army as Indy team) are not plausible.
They have only WKU and FAU from the East in mixed combinations regarding home and away games, so I expect them to win and lose some games here.
Inside the division they play the most crucial game against UTSA and UTEP, both at home.
While I see them winning against UTSA, I doubt a win against UTEP. Hence the season pick as 4th inside the division.

Why do I see the UTEP Miners that high?
Because this team can be the sleeper of the conference.
Last season was a 5-7 campaign and they will try to get better this season.
Sean Kugler is in his 4th season and will face a hard one, but with a good team.
If he wins big, he might get nice offers or a prolongation, if he loses he will get fired.
Talking about motivations.
The usual FCS game will be won as non-conference game, but also New Mexico State (SBC) and Army (Indy) can be won.
Would be a nice boost for the team spirit.
From the East-Division they face FIU, Old Dominion and FAU, making this a quite weak schedule on that topic. More possible wins.
The crucial games against Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech are all in October, so from that point on the season is either on track or they already know that they have only a dark horse chances left.
I see them ending in mid field, with Rice being the team they need to beat.
That game is one week before season final, on the road.
But with such a good team my gut says they can win this and will win this, finishing 3rd.

This season the Southern Miss Golden Eagles will not win the division.
Is it a good sign when the 3rd year HC Todd Monken, who won the division, who did turn around the Golden Eagles in those 3 seasons from a winless team to the division champ, runs away and become a position coach in the NFL (for Tampa Bay)?
I'm not sure.
Might be a good opportunity if he wants to become a HC in the NFL at some point and such a positional coach gig in the NFL might get him more money.
Whether that is enough. I'm not sure.
His replacement at Southern Miss is Jay Hopson, former HC of Alcorn State (FCS) with which he won 2 conference titles in the last 2 seasons.
He takes over a well-oiled machine, so it seems.
Could be that the team was meant to be rebuild again and Monken did bail because of this (on top of the other stuff), could be that Hopsen just needs to give his QB the ball and all goes well until next season.
Only the season will show us the real quality of the team.
Like many CUSA teams has Southern Miss a mixed non-conference schedule, having one sure-win FCS on schedule, on top of a likely win game against Troy (SBC), but also 2 sure losses.
Marshall, Charlotte and Old Dominion are not as weak as it can get, but not that tough overall as East teams.
With UTEP on the road and LT at home at season final the season will likely fall apart on those games.
If the new coach can reload the teams, they really could win the division with that schedule, but I think the team will take a step back and will fall short.

That leaves the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs as division favorite.
The Bulldogs HC Skip Holtz is now in his 4th season and had so far 2 9-win seasons after a 4-win season in his first year.
He won 2 bowls, but came short a conference title 2 seasons ago and was beaten by Southern Miss last season.
All success will very likely be depended on the transitions happening at Southern Miss under new management and the LT developments.
LT can win this division and eventually the conference, but only if Southern Miss plays not as strong as last season (or LT gets much better).
The non-conference schedule this season is as mixed as almost every CUSA team schedule, having the sure win against a FCS team and a potential win against UMAss (Indy) but as most CUSA-teams also 2 sure losses.
The Texas Tech (Big 12) game could become a shootout.
With MTSU, WKU and FIU they got 2 heavy weights and a likely low level team from the West, and that MTSU game is a road trip.
Toughest game will be the season final against Southern Miss, likely for the division.
It's on the road, which means they need a really good and healthy team at that point.
I still pick them to win the division, but only in a 2 or even 3 team tie which they win because of the win against Southern Miss.

And that's it for the CUSA.
Overall the teams will not be that prominent seen in the press as some might like them to be seen, unless a team starts winning the "sure loss" non-conference games.
Only that way would such a team like Marshall, Southern Miss or Louisiana Tech get a little bit of respect.
The road to a TOP25 spot is a rocky one and I'm sure no team will be in that list out of the CUSA at season final.

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