Last year, Western Kentucky opened the season 3-3 before running the table with eight straight wins. The losses were to Alabama and Vandy from the SEC and then at La Tech before righting the ship and winning their rematch with the Bulldogs in the CUSA title game and then crushing Memphis in the Boca Raton Bowl. It was the Hilltoppers second straight CUSA title but HC Jeff Brohm has departed for Purdue leaving the conference wide open.
CUSA is very top-heavy in the East where five of the best six teams in the conference reside. Western Kentucky has a new coach and just 10 returning starters but one of them is a senior QB that led an offense that last year blew out their final six conference opponents by better than 36-points-per-game. Marshall won just three games last year after winning 33 games the previous three years. Expect a big rebound from the Herd this year. MTSU will be loaded on offense but will need to find a way to stop the run. Old Dom came from nowhere to go 7-1 and claim a piece of the East last year but figures to take a step back this year after getting hit hard by graduation. The Lane Kiffin era starts at Florida Atlantic and the Owls are loaded in their own right and return a top five team in the country in terms of experience. Florida International is in a similar spot as Atlantic and Charlotte will likely be the division doormat once again with a brutal schedule.
La Tech has won the West two of the last three years and is a heavy favorite to go the CUSA title game once this year. Most thought that USTA was a year away last year but still managed six win including an upset blowout of MTSU. The Roadrunners are experienced and a good recruiting class has improved talent. Southern Miss is a team dependent of quarterback play. The Golden Eagles will have to replace QB Nick Mullins and play all their toughest games on the road. Rice took their licks with a young team last year but return 15 starters this year, mostly juniors and seniors. North Texas went to a bowl last year despite a 5-7 record and a first year coach. UTEP was riddled by injuries last year and saw a 1700+ yard back graduate. UAB is back after cancelling football for two years and will need to rebuild.
Mike Sanford Jr. takes over the Hilltoppers. He was the QB coach at Notre Dame the last two years and had the same position at his alma mater Boise State prior. His staff is primarily from Boise and Eastern Washington so the high-flying offense doesn’t figure to miss a beat. QB Mike White is back for his senior year but he loses both top wide outs. The Hilltopper offense won’t be quite as prolific and it will be up to the defense to step up.
The Blue Raiders have finished .500 or better for five straight seasons and last year was the first time in school history that MTSU went to back-to-back bowls. HC Rick Stockstill’s kid is a record setting QB that got hurt and sat out most of the last four games before throwing for 432 in the bowl. The Blue Raider road schedule is very manageable and the Eastern division title could come down to the November 17th showdown at Western Kentucky.
The Thundering Herd won 10-13-10 game between 2013-2015 so while 2016 was supposed to be somewhat of a rebuilding year, 3-9 was a surprise. Everything that could go wrong for Marshall did including revolving QBs, injuries and a schedule that had the team play 12 straight weeks. The Herd return 13 starters including 7 on what figures to be a very good defense that features the best back seven in the conference.
The Monarchs were the surprise team in the conference last year going 7-1 with the lone loss at Western Kentucky. The team won 10 games overall including a bowl game in just their fourth year since moving up to the FBS. Old Dominion does it the old fashioned way, they run the ball, play defense and don’t turn the ball over. In fact, the Monarchs led the nation with Miami, Fla in fewest turnover allowed at 10. The Monarchs return 14 including 7 linemen. They’ll be solid but B2B double-digit winning seasons is a bit much to ask with North Carolina and Virginia Tech also on the schedule.
Most people thought that Lane Kiffin was crazy to accept this “stepping stone” job but Kiffin actually couldn’t find a better situation. The Owls have been knocking on the door for the past couple of years and those B2B 3-9 seasons included eight losses by a touchdown or less. FAU is loaded with 17 returning starters, 96% of last years yards, 76% of last year’s tackles, 88% of their lettermen and an offensive line with 82 career starts. Tough roadies at Wisconsin, at Old Dom, at Western Kentucky, and at La Tech.
Last year, the Panthers opened 0-4 and immediately fired their coach. FIU went 4-4 the rest of the way under and interim but hired veteran Butch Jones (51-20 at Miami, Fla 1995-2000, 4 years Cleveland Browns) so there is lots of enthusiasm in the program. Davis has some players including 15 returning starters. It’s not inconceivable that the Panthers could win three of their four non-conference game or that the team could get six wins to become bowl eligible and avert a sixth straight losing season.
This is Charlotte’s fifth year with football, third in CUSA. Last year, the 49ers’ first recruiting class were seniors and the team somewhat experienced. Charlotte was spanked by Louisville in it’s opener but won three conference games straight up as a double-digit dog to salvage a 4-8 year. The 49ers are young and return just 12 starters but the schedule is somewhat soft with Kansas State the only Power Five non-conference opponent. A defense that returns just one lineman will determine whether or not Charlotte can escape the basement.
La Tech has dominated the West of late but if ever the Bulldogs were ripe for the picking, it’s 2017. Just 10 returning starters are back for Skip Holtz and that includes a group of quarterbacks that has just one career start among the bunch. Still, La Tech is 19-5 in its L24 conference games and if three straight winning bowl appearances for the first time in school history. The team does return 3/3 on the offensive and defensive lines respectively. The schedule contains seven team that went to bowls but just two with overall winning records.
Larry Coker built USTA right during his tenure (2010-2015) at the school so second year man Frank Wilson was in a good place last year with an experienced Roadrunner outfit. Off back-to-back 4-8 and 3-9 years, Wilson still did well to win six games and get to a bowl. USTA opens with Houston and Baylor but with arguably the conference’s best defense returning, will be in every game there after heading into the November 25th showdown at Louisiana Tech.
The Golden Eagles finished 2016 at 7-6 with a win in the New Orleans Bowl but probably would have been much better had QB Nick Mullens not been injured late in the year. Southern Miss went 0-3 while he was out. Southern Miss will once again rely on quarterback play as the team is among the most talented in the conference. Mullins is gone but 12 return their top rusher in Ito Smith (1506, 5.5, 17 TDs) and top wide out Allenzae Staggers (1165, 18.5, 7 TDs). The Eagles should get to a third straight bowl and with a couple of breaks, contend in the West.
The Owls played their kids last year and with a tough schedule top to bottom, not surprisingly finished 3-9. This year, Rice fields a team laden with juniors and seniors but with a non-conference ledger that includes Stanford, Houston, Pitt and Army, the Owls have little margin for error if they hope to get bowl eligible. David Bailiff can coach and has been the head guy going into his 11th year. Rice looks better on all counts but with this schedule, it’s still wait and see.
Last year, the Mean Green opened the year 4-3 before going just 1-5 the rest of the way. They managed to get into a bowl and were beat in a rare same season rematch with Army. North Texas is still a work in progress. Second year man Scott Littrell took over a train wreck with basically no players. The Mean Green will need a couple of years to implement Littrell’s schemes but the extra bowl practices will certainly help this year and with some luck, could get bowl eligible again.
Sean Kugler is back for his fifth season at UTEP and with just one winning season, is definitely on the hot seat. Last year, the Miners returned 13 starters including stud RB Aaron Jones (1827, 7.7, 17 TDs), and missed all three top teams out the East. Multiple injuries at quarterback handcuffed the UTEP offense and the Miners went 4-8 despite the monster year by Jones. Four return on the offensive line but Jones is gone. The Miners might only be favored in one game this year, their season finale at UAB. It could be a long year in El Paso.
The Blazers get football back after the administration decided to pull the plug on the 2015-2016 seasons. The city and the University raised over $43 million to get the sport reinstated and the Blazers return as full members of CUSA. There is not much to say. The team was allowed to have organized scrimmages last year and the team they will field this year will be Jucos, transfers and a few hold outs from the 2014 team that went 6-6.