Y-Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 10-3 ( 7-2)
X-Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 7-5 (6-2)
X-Old Dominion Monarchs 7-5 (5-3)
Marshall Thundering Herd 5-7 (3-5)
Florida International Panthers 4-8 (2-6)
Charlotte 49ers 3-9 (1-7)
Florida Atlantic Owls 3-9 (1-7)
X-Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 9-4 (7-2)
X-Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners 8-4 (6-2)
X-Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 6-6 (5-3)
UTEP Miners 2-10 (2-6)
Rice 2-10 (2-6)
North Texas Mean Green 2-10 (1-7)
UAB Blazaers 0-12 (0-8)
Conference USA Championship Game: Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech
Conference Champion: Western Kentucky
2016 was a solid year on the gridiron for Conference USA as six of their 13 members played in bowl game, while three programs were in the top ten in the nation in regards to total offense. One of those top offenses belonged to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers who under head football coach Jeff Brohm went 11-3 last season. Western Kentucky had 11 games in which they scored at least 40 points as their wide open offense kept opponents on their toes. However Brohm’s success at Western Kentucky would not go unnoticed as he is now the head football coach of the Purdue Boilermakers in the Big Ten Conference.
Replacing Brohm at Western Kentucky will be Mike Sanford Jr. who has spent the past few years as an offensive assistant coach with the Stanford Cardinal, Boise State Broncos, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish respectively. In 2010 Sanford was the quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky under current Oregon Ducks head football coach Willie Taggart.
Sanford will have the luxury of working with one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA in senior Mike White. White began his collegiate career with the South Florida Bulls in the American Athletic Conference, and after sitting out in 2015 as he transferred, he was able to make a name for himself last year in Conference USA. White passed for at least 300 yards in a game eight times last year as he has a big arm that can find receivers all over the field. And this year White will be one of the favorites to be the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year.
One player who will give White competition in regards to being Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year is Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders junior quarterback Brent Stockstill. Like White, Stockstill plays in one of the better offenses in the nation. In two years as Middle Tennessee State’s starting quarterback, Stockstill has thrown 61 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions. Stockstill is also an accurate quarterback, and although that he is slightly undersized for the position in regards to National Football League standards, Stockstill does have a future at the next level.
Stockstill’s main target in the passing game is returning in the form of junior wide receiver Richie James who reeled in 105 receptions last season. And if opponents of the Blue Raiders want to focus on stopping James, they could be burned by sophomore wide receiver Ty Lee who like James is a speedster.
For Middle Tennessee State head football coach Rick Stockstill, his defensive unit must improve as they were 96th in the nation in total defense last season which included them surrendering 40 points or more seven times. However one building block for the Blue Raiders defense will be junior outside linebacker Chris Melton who will tackle anything that moves. And as a unit, the Blue Raiders defense must find a way to build some momentum off of their high-powered offense.
The Old Dominion Monarchs are looking to build off of the momentum that they were able to create for themselves last season when they broke through to go 10-3. And only a loss to Western Kentucky prevented the Monarchs from advancing to the Conference USA Championship Game. Old Dominion head football coach Bobby Wilder has developed a winning culture around his program as this team has quickly become one of the better programs in Conference USA.
The Monarchs will no longer have the services of quarterback David Washington as sophomore Blake LaRussa will now have his chance to be Old Dominion’s signal caller. But whereas LaRussa is still green as far as being a starting quarterback, Old Dominion has one of the best rushing attacks in Conference USA. Senior running back Ray Lawry and junior running back Jeremy Cox give Old Dominion one of the better running games in the conference and I see Wilder leaning on his two running backs in order to offset the inexperience of his starting quarterback.
After the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs won the Western Division of Conference USA for the second time in three years, they have the potential to win it all this season. Under head football coach Skip Holtz, the Bulldogs had the ninth ranked offense in the nation last season and he must find a way to replace some of those key players from that unit. But the Bulldogs still have senior running back Jarred Craft who is one of the better ball carriers in Conference USA, and he is always a step away from breaking off a big run.
The Bulldogs also have junior defensive end Jaylon Ferguson who is the odds on favorite to be Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Last year Ferguson recorded 14.5 sacks as he was one of the top edge rushers in the country. This time it will be tougher for Ferguson to get to the quarterback due to the teams will be focused on stopping him; however his ability should open things up for his teammates such as junior defensive tackle Jordan Bradford to have better opportunities to get to the quarterback.
One team that could give Louisiana Tech a problem in Conference USA West could be the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. The Roadrunners are coming off of their first bowl appearance in program history as head football coach Frank Wilson is building off of what his predecessor Larry Coker started.
One player to watch out for at Texas San-Antonio is sophomore middle linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. Tauaefa exploded onto the scene last year as freshman by leading the Roadrunners in tackles with 115. Tauaefa combines his tackling ability with solid instincts which not only makes him one of the better linebackers in Conference USA, but he should also receive some recognition in regards to winning the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the nation.
Other stories to follow this season in Conference USA will be some of the new faces around the league.
Butch Davis is set to begin his tenure as the head football coach of the Florida International Panthers. Davis is best known for restoring the Miami Hurricanes in the late 1990’s, while he also had some success with the North Carolina Tar Heels. And while at Miami and North Carolina respectively, Davis heavily recruited South Florida which he is hopeful to do once again.
Lane Kiffin is beginning his first season as the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls which will definitely add to the rivalry with Florida International. Kiffin has previously been a head coach in the National Football League with the Oakland Raiders, while he has also been the man in charge for the Tennessee Volunteers and USC Trojans. Most recently Kiffin was the offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide whom he helped to win a national title during the 2015 college football season. However Kiffin has been known to burn bridges along each step of his college football journey, but he will be beat writers dream in South Florida.
And then there is the case of the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers who after pulling the plug on their program following the 2014 college football season have decided to give it another try. However UAB head football coach Bill Clark and his staff will have their work cut out for them as after not having a program for two years, they are literally starting over from scratch.
Some games to focus this season in Conference will be the meeting between Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky on November 17 as this could decide who wins the Conference USA East. And for the Blue Raiders it won’t get any easier when they travel to face Old Dominion on November 25. On November 18, Florida Atlantic will host Florida International, and although that neither team will be a title contender here in 2017, the anticipated rivalry between Davis and Kiffin will garner some media attention in South Florida.
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com