2017 Conference USA Football Preview: West Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

The West division of Conference USA has toggled back and forth between Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss over the last three seasons. This year, the Bulldogs and Eagles are once again top contenders for the division crown, but in steps a new challenger: UTSA.

Contenders

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Louisiana Tech RB Jarred Craft. Credit: John Weast/Getty Images

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Skip Holtz has led the Bulldogs to three straight nine win seasons with three consecutive bowl wins. As he enters his fifth season with the program, he will be breaking in a new quarterback for the third straight season and his pair of NFL-caliber receivers also depart. However, the defense should be able to pick up the slack until the offense finds its groove.

Sophomore J’Mar Smith started one game last year, seeing action in seven total. He’s the leader in the QB competition heading into fall, but true freshman Elijah Walker and junior-college transfer Westin Elliott will put up a fight. Whoever wins the job will have the benefit of three starters back on the O-line along with two running backs but, receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson (218 receptions, 3,338 yards, 31 TD) are gone and that’s obviously a big blow to a unit that averaged 44.3 PPG.

On defense, multiple play-makers are back and should continue to be solid. 1st team C-USA DE Jaylon Ferguson (14.5 sacks 1.5 TFL) returns, along with senior LB Russell Farris (75 tackles 2.5 sacks 4.5 TFL) and honorable mention C-USA safety Secdrick Cooper (73 tackles 5 TFL 1.5 sacks). Those three lead a group that has six starters back and should improve upon the 33.6 PPG and 421 YPG they gave up last year.  Drawing WKU as the crossover game is tough, but they get both of their fellow West division contenders Southern Miss and UTSA at home. Over 8.5 wins

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Running back Jalen Rhodes #28 of the UTSA Roadrunners. Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

UTSA Roadrunners

After going 4-8 and 3-9 in 2014 and 15 respectively, the Roadrunners made the jump to 6-7 last year with a close loss (23-20) in the New Mexico bowl to end the year. Frank Wilson engineered quite the turnaround in Year 2 and, with 14 returning starters (7 offense 7 defense) this season, they could further improve that win total.

Senior QB Dalton Sturm (56.5% 2,170 yards 20 TD 6 INT) returns along with his top four receiving targets from last year and an offensive line that brings back three starters. Granted, the line loses both starting tackles, but, after allowing 43 sacks (3.31 per game 121st FBS), there’s nowhere to go but up. The offense does lose the program’s all-time leading rusher in Jarveon Williams but, junior Jalen Rhodes had 155 carries for 827 yards and 9 TDs last season and should be ready for a bigger role. The Roadrunners jumped from 22.6 PPG in Wilson’s first year to 29.2 last year, expect continued production here.

On defense, the Roadrunners use a 4-2-5 scheme and they’ll bring back both linebackers, senior La’Kel Bass and sophomore Josiah Tauaefa, along with 2nd team C-USA Marcus Davenport (68 tackles 6.5 sacks 3.5 TFL) and seven of their eight defensive backs. This unit improved from allowing 33.8 PPG in ’15 to 27.9 last year and with the amount of returning talent, that trend should continue. They draw Marshall in the crossover game and also get Southern Miss at home. The division may come down to November 25th and their trip to Ruston to take on the Bulldogs.  Over 6.5 wins

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Ito Smith #25 of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Southern Miss Golden Eagles

Jay Hopson did a solid job in taking over for Todd Monken last year, leading the Eagles to a 7-6 record with a win in the New Orleans Bowl despite an injury to all-time leading passer Nick Mullens that caused him to miss two games late in the year. This year, he’s got a bigger problem with Mullens departing.

Sophomore QB Keon Howard got some experience with a pair of starts towards the tail end of last year. As a true freshman, he struggled with turnovers (5 fumbles 4 INT in two games) but, that’s to be expected as he was originally planning to be redshirted. He enters this year as the leader in the QB race. Whoever ends up starting will have weapons to work with as all three top running backs return along with stud WR Allenzae Staggers (63 receptions 1,165 yards 7 TDs). The offensive line could be a trouble spot with just two starters back.

On defense, the line features senior 3rd team C-USA DE Xavier Thigpen (33 tackles 7.5 TFL 5 sacks) and junior DT LaDarius Harris (30 tackles 4.5 TFL) who should help take pressure off a linebackers group breaking in two new starters. In the secondary, both corners are back, but two new safeties will step in. Nickelback Picasso Nelson, the team’s 3rd leading tackler is back as well. The experience returning should help lower that 29.5 PPG they allowed last season. The downside for Hopson and company is that they have to hit the road for games against UTSA, La. Tech and Marshall. Push 7 wins

Bowl Teams

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Samuel Stewart #24 of the Rice Owls. Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Rice Owls

Since a 10-4 season in 2014, Rice has taken steps backwards in each successive season going 8-5, 5-7, and then 3-9 last year. David Bailiff’s done a nice job in a tough situation to win football games, and this year, he’s got a group that should be able to reverse the recent trend.

The biggest question offensively is at QB as Tyler Stehling departs but, the passing game wasn’t particularly explosive last year (58.5% 215 YPG), so there’s a chance that even with a new QB the numbers could improve. The QB battle will come down to three youngsters (two sophomores and a redshirt freshman) but, they’ll be protected by an experienced line (5 starters return) and the return of last year’s top rusher, Sam Stewart. The receiving corps loses five of the top six, but again, they weren’t overly effective last year. Overall, there’s enough here to think they will improve upon the 25.2 PPG they averaged last year.

The Owls got torched on defense last season, allowing 37.3 PPG and 504.8 YPG. This year, with eight starters back, those numbers should improve. They are switching to a 3-4 defense under new DC Brian Stewart. The biggest problem he faces is the loss of top LBs Alex Lyons and Tabari McGaskey. Outside of that, he does have nine of the top 10 defensive linemen along with multiple returnees in the secondary and they get CB Justin Bickham back from an ACL injury. The Owls toughest stretch of the schedule is from October 21st to November 18th. In that five week stretch they face UTSA (away), La. Tech (home), UAB (away), Southern Miss (home), and Old Dominion (away). That’s a rough stretch, but if they can go 2-3, they’ll have a good shot at bowl eligibility. Over 3.5 wins

Rebuilding

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Quarterback Mason Fine #6 of the North Texas Mean Green. Credit: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

North Texas Mean Green

It may seem odd to have a team that improved by four wins last season in the rebuilding category. Believe me, I understand if you’re looking at me cross-eyed at the moment. The main reason is the schedule is brutal with both La. Tech and ODU in the crossover along with road games at Rice and Southern Miss. Seth Littrell did a great job in Year 1 and seems to be tracking the right way, but the wins could drop this year.

Sophomore QB Mason Fine won the job from Alabama transfer Alec Morris last year and will continue to develop in his second year as the signal caller. He benefits from a line with three starters returning and top rusher Jeffery Wilson (169 carries 936 yards 14 TDs) back. The receiving corps loses three of the top four guys which means the passing game could take some time to get fully revved up. Still, under OC Graham Harrell’s spread-style, the Mean Green should improve on the 24.8 PPG average from last year.

The pass defense was really stout last year, allowing opponents to complete just 51.4% of their passes with a 20-14 TD-to-INT ratio. The problem was the run defense allowing 240 yards per game. Good news is, nose tackles Roderick Young and TJ Tauaalo are back, along with CB Nate Brooks and safety Keshawn McClain. Add OLB Joshua Wheeler (42 tackles 5.5 sacks 2 TFL) to those returners and there’s a good chance they cut in to that 32.6 PPG allowed last season. Under 4.5 wins

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Ryan Metz #12 of the UTEP Miners. Credit: Eric Espada/Getty Images

UTEP Miners

Sean Kugler looked like he had this program building towards a turnaround when he went 7-6 in his second season after a 2-10 debut. Following a 5-7 season in 2015, some expected a step forward for the Miners last year. Instead, it was another step back to 4-8. This year, they have fewer returning starters, and they lose their very talented running back.

Aaron Jones left early to enter the NFL Draft (5th round pick by Green Bay) and the next leading rusher behind him had just 47 carries. Combine that with the top two receivers from last year departing and the offense’s biggest questions come at the skill spots. However, it does seem the QB situation is finally settled with junior Ryan Metz stepping in capably for the final seven games (64.7% 1,375 yards 14 TD 4 INT). He’ll have a veteran offensive line protecting him as three starters return. The loss of Jones hurts, but a more stable QB spot and veteran offensive line should help them produce within a couple points of last year’s 26.3 PPG.

The defense should be the strength of this team with 2nd team C-USA LB Alvin Jones (93 tackles 3.5 TFL 2.5 sacks), MLB Dante Lovilotte (89 tackles 6 TFL), CB Nik Needham (54 tackles 11 PBU), safety Devin Cockrell (58 tackles 3 TFL), and six of their top nine defensive linemen from last year’s group. The returning experience should contribute to improved performance over the 34.9 PPG they allowed last year. The schedule is rough however for the Miners drawing both WKU and MTSU from the East and facing UTSA, MTSU, North Texas and La. Tech in a four week stretch. Over 2.5 wins

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Head Coach Bill Clark of the UAB Blazers. Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

UAB Blazers

Welcome back to the fold UAB. We missed you. In case you forgot, the Blazers program was shuttered following the 2014 season and they’ve spent the past two seasons fighting to get it back and preparing for re-entry into the FBS. Bill Clark has done his best to build this team up for this season, but it will still likely be a rough first year back.

Junior college transfer AJ Erdley looks to be in the driver’s seat for the starting QB job, but true freshman Tyler Johnston could push him for playing time. At running back, redshirt freshman Kalin Heath looks to get the start, and the receiver group has plenty of good talent like juco signee Sedarian Copeland and Arizona transfer Jonathan Haden. The offensive line had the benefit of everyone being on campus and practicing together last year which should lead to a pretty cohesive unit. That all said, what this group can do is largely unknown.

The same can be said for the defense, though there are some big name transfers on this side of the ball as well who should help in the first year. DT Teko Powell (Illinois), DE Noah Jones (Michigan State), LB Nick Holman (USF), safety Will Dawkins (Indiana), and CB Duke Culver (Louisville) all join the unit that actually does return some players from the 2014 season. Linebackers Shaq Jones (50 tackles 9.5 TFL in ’14) and Tevin Crews (33 tackles 2 sacks) are back along with a pair of corners in Jordan Petty and Darious Williams (10 PBU 2 INT combined). That returning experience and transfer talent should help the defense keep this team in some games, but it’s still hard to see more than the 2.5 wins Vegas has them listed at. Under 2.5 wins.

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