There is more intrigue than usual in Conference USA coming into the season. The conference boasts a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Mason Fine, and there have been plenty of changes this offseason as teams look to improve. Of the 14 teams in this conference, 12 changed at least one coordinator position, giving CUSA a new feel.
The conference has a new television deal too. There will be 10 games aired on the NFL Network, giving teams the chance to shine on national television. With ESPN moving many of their deals with smaller conferences to their streaming platforms, this will ensure that people flipping through games on their television can still catch these games live.
As usual, the conference race is seen as pretty wide open with half the teams having odds of 10-1 or less. Florida Atlantic is a slight favorite over North Texas, but Marshall, Florida International, Southern Miss, UAB, and Louisiana Tech aren’t far behind.
Conference USA Win Total Best Bet
Charlotte Over 4.5 (+110, 5D/BOL) – It’s not often that you see an FCS coach with a 13-21 record hired to take over an FBS job, but if you knew the situation that Will Healy inherited at Austin Peay, it would make sense. Healy made the most moribund program in the FCS respectable, and after Charlotte didn’t land Mike Houston, the 49ers turned their attention to him.
He is inheriting some talent on offense. Benny LeMay was one of the conference’s top running backs in 2018, and both Chris Reynolds and UConn transfer Evan Shirreffs have plenty of experience starting at quarterback. Wide receiver Victor Tucker will be a top option, but others will need to step up here.
Charlotte’s defense was surprisingly good in 2018. The 49ers ranked 22nd in the country in total defense, and they proved that wasn’t just due to the level of competition after holding Tennessee to 14 points last November. Eight starters return to this defense, so they should still be very good this year.
As someone that follows FCS football pretty heavily, I understand the magnitude of what Healy did at Austin Peay. With a solid defense in place, and key skill position players returning, I think they have a decent chance of making the first bowl in school history.
Florida International Over 7.5 (+110, Bet Online) – While Lane Kiffin got a lot of the headlines nationally when he made the move to south Florida two years ago, Butch Davis was somewhat overlooked. The former Miami coach seems to have established Florida International as the better F_U though, with a 17-9 record in two seasons.
This could be the best offense in CUSA East. James Morgan had a very nice season in 2018, completing 65 percent of his passes. He has three of his top weapons back, and the offensive line is experienced with a running back that averaged 6 YPC last season ready to take over.
As with their main rivals, the main concern is the front seven. FIU was 12th in the conference in run defense, and only three starters return in those two levels. The secondary has the chance to be elite though.
Since coming to Miami, Davis has been able to tap into his old south Florida roots and recruit well. FIU is no longer in FAU’s shadow, and the Golden Panthers could break through in a big way. Adam Burke’s ratings call for FIU to win 8.82 games this season, and I like the over here quite a bit too.
Old Dominion Under 4 (-135, 5 Dimes) – The Monarchs made a name for themselves last season with a stunning win over Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, it was one of just three wins for Old Dominion, and the school continued to backslide after winning the Bahamas Bowl in 2016.
There is not much in the way of talent or experience on either side of the ball. ODU returns only two starters on offense and four starters on defense, and the loss of Blake LaRussa really hurts. LaRussa aired it out, leading to the Monarchs having the 15th best passing offense, but Steven Williams does not have the same touch.
This defense is undergoing an overhaul as David Blackwell comes in from Jacksonville State. Blackwell will install a 4-2-5 and although it will take time to adapt, he has a track record of success.
This is not the year that Old Dominion wants to take on both Virginia and Virginia Tech. It’s going to be another long season for the Monarchs, and they are likely to finish last in the East.
Marshall Under 7.5 (+100, 5Dimes) – There has been a significant amount of action on the under for the Thundering Herd. A few weeks ago, you could have had Marshall under 7.5 wins at +160, but that number has fallen dramatically.
A tough out-of-conference schedule might have something to do with that. Marshall only has one almost certain victory (against VMI), as games against Boise State, Ohio, and Cincinnati are all going to be difficult tests. Facing Florida Atlantic in south Florida before the weather turns will be difficult too.
Marshall does have an offense that should be much improved with Isaiah Green entering his sophomore season. Green showed a lot of promise as a freshman, but he made mistakes typical for a young quarterback.
The defense is probably going to regress though. Marshall’s run defense was one of the top ten units in the country in 2019, but the Herd lost a lot of those key players. Former Charlotte HC Mike Lambert will keep the defense from falling back too much, yet they won’t be able to keep up with the best teams in the conference.
Western Kentucky Over 5 (-105, Bet Online) – Tyson Helton’s return to Western Kentucky has led to plenty of optimism among Hilltoppers fans. Helton was the offensive coordinator for two of Jeff Brohm’s very successful years in Bowling Green, and he is back to install the same offense that helped make this team a contender in CUSA.
Nine starters return on offense, and there are two good quarterback options in Steven Duncan and Ty Storey. Duncan helped lead Western Kentucky to two wins to end the season, and Storey comes in as a graduate transfer from Arkansas.
The defense brings back six starters, and while it won’t be great, it doesn’t look to be terrible either. There is talent here as Sanford was able to recruit well, and that could spur a turnaround.
Western Kentucky will go bowling in 2019. Even though the schedule is a bit tricky, Helton will get the program back to where it was under Willie Taggart and Jeff Brohm.
North Texas Over 7.5 (-110, 5 Dimes) – If you’re keen to simply lock in a profit, Bet Online has the under on this bet at +120. However, I’m going to go with the over on North Texas as I expect this team to win CUSA West with Mason Fine putting up ridiculous numbers.
Fine has shined in Seth Littrell’s system. The undersized quarterback is already the school’s all-time leading passer, and he is likely to finish his career with more than 13,000 yards through the air as long as he stays healthy. He was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country in 2018, and there are seven starters returning alongside him.
The defense is probably going to take a step back with only five starters coming back, but there is a good bit of experience in the front seven, so it won’t be too drastic.
As I said in my AAC preview, North Texas beating Houston on September 28 is one of my upset picks this season. Fine is a special player (as we saw in North Texas’ 44-17 beatdown of Arkansas in 2018), and he is going to put up big numbers against every school outside of Cal.
Middle Tennessee State Under 5.5 (-130, 5D/BOL) – Replacing a four-year starter is difficult, and it’s even harder when that player is the best passer in school history. Brent Stockstill had a ton of success under his father Rick in Murfreesboro, so his departure means that there is a gigantic question mark at the quarterback position for the Blue Raiders.
Asher O’Hara and Randall Johnson are both vying to be the quarterback, but neither distinguished themselves in spring practice. That’s a problem as MTSU typically uses four wide receivers in its sets. The offensive line situation isn’t great either with just two returning starters and a freshman projected to start along the line.
MTSU has never been known for its defensive chops, but the Blue Raiders overachieved under Scott Shafer in 2018. The former Syracuse head coach took a lot of chances with an aggressive defense and it led to the team leading the conference in turnovers forced. Outside linebackers Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas are sharp, but the defensive line figures to be mediocre and the cornerbacks are both inexperienced underclassmen.
With three Power Five opponents and a decent FCS team on the schedule, it’s tough to see the Blue Raiders getting back to a bowl. Having to face North Texas on the road is the nail in the coffin.
Louisiana Tech Over 7.5 (-125, 5 Dimes) – Consistency has been the pattern for Skip Holtz’s tenure at Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs have won between 7 and 9 games for each of the last five seasons, and he has a perfect 5-0 bowl record.
There is plenty of reason to think this will be another successful year in Rustin. J’Mar Smith is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the conference, and he has two of his top options from last year to throw to in Adrian Hardy and Alfred Smith. The offense underachieved dramatically last season, but they should be better in 2019.
La Tech’s defense was one of the better units in the conference last year, and Bob Diaco is trying to ensure that stays the same. He has a ton of talent in the secondary to work with, but the front six in this 4-2-5 scheme sees just one starter returning.
A favorable schedule should see the Bulldogs at eight wins once more. Texas is the only game that Louisiana Tech is projected to lose by more than four points, so this could be the year that Skip Holtz finally wins a conference title.
UAB Under 7.5 (+100, 5 Dimes) – Bill Clark has a deserved reputation as one of the top coaches in the Group of Five. He rebuilt a program from the ground up, but he has a tough task ahead of him this year. UAB lost a ton of starters to graduation and reloading on both sides of the ball could prove challenging.
Tyler Johnston III saw a decent amount of action at quarterback last season. He had a great bowl game, but he threw an interception on 6.4 percent of his passes, and that’s something that he needs to clean up. Other than Spencer Brown, nearly all of UAB’s skill position talent is gone and the offensive line brings back just one starter.
This defense is likely going to reload and be solid once more, but some regression is likely for the 9th best defense in football last year. The linebacking corps will be good, yet the other two position groups need to have players come through.
A very favorable schedule will have UAB bowling once more, but the Blazers aren’t set to contend for another conference title in 2019.
Florida Atlantic Under 7.5 (-110, 5 Dimes) – A lot of the shine wore off of Lane Kiffin after a disappointing second season in Boca Raton. The Owls went just 7-5, and that led to Kiffin remaining at FAU rather than heading to another high-profile job. That’s good news for the Owls, as they landed the conference’s top recruiting class with the coach in town for at least one more year.
There are some real questions on offense. Kendal Briles left to become the offensive coordinator at Florida State, and the top three skill position players at running back and wide receiver left for the NFL. That leaves quarterback Chris Robison without many options, and Robison didn’t get the chance to work with any of the new players after being suspended for spring ball.
On defense, the secondary has the chance to be one of the better units in the conference, but the situation in the front seven is rough. Florida Atlantic was gashed on defense last season, and only two starters return to that front. The Owls ranked 85th in total defense in 2018, so they could fall even further behind.
FAU decided to swing for the fences by scheduling Ohio State and UCF, but those look like certain losses after the problems last season. The Owls should return to a bowl for the third straight year. There are too many questions to call for anything more.
Southern Miss Over 7.5 (+150, 5 Dimes) – Many have soured on head coach Jay Hopson after he tried to hire Art Briles to be his new offensive coordinator in the offseason. The offense really held the Golden Eagles back in 2018, but that wasn’t as damaging to Hopson’s reputation as trying to hire Briles proved to be.
Southern Miss brings back seven starters on offense from last year’s team, including quarterback Jack Abraham. Abraham had some nice outings and made this one of the better passing attacks in the conference, but the complete lack of a run game led to major problems. Four starters along the offensive line come back in 2019, so that should help matters.
This defense was incredible last season. The Golden Eagles finished No. 3 in total defense, and they ranked in the top ten nationally in most defensive categories. Six starters return from that unit, so this stands to be a top defense again.
I think the backlash to Hopson has led to people slighting the Golden Eagles. Road games against Mississippi State and Alabama are losses, but there is enough talent here to challenge for the division title.
Rice Under 2.5 (-180, 5Dimes) – The situation at Rice is pretty bad. Athlon is projecting the Owls to be the worst team in the country, and their over/under is the lowest of any team. Rice started its 2018 season with a win and ended its season with a win, but in between were 11 losses. We might see something similar this year.
Quarterback is a mess. Wiley Green and Tom Stewart are both competing for the job, but Green threw more interceptions than touchdowns in four games last year, while Stewart is coming up from FCS. Austin Trammell is a decent wide receiver, but a running game that was the only saving grace last season is sure to get worse.
There is some optimism that the Rice defense will be much improved after looking good in the spring, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The Owls do return seven starters, but they ranked last in the conference in scoring defense and second-to-last in total defense in 2018.
This schedule is brutal for a team that is going to be bad. Three quality power conference opponents and a road trip to Army likely mean an 0-4 start, and the team could be disheartened from there. Their two best chances to get wins are road games against UTSA and UTEP, otherwise they could go winless.
UTEP Over 2.5 (-130, Bet Online) – It’s been a bleak period for UTEP. The Miners have won just one game in the last two seasons, but they might be set to start turning things around. They nearly beat both North Texas and Louisiana Tech last season, and they had some decent performances.
Dana Dimel has started to turn around the culture of the team, and he has been able to land some decent recruiting classes. However, the offseason troubles of Kai Locksley this summer may undermine the season. Locksley is currently suspended while the legal process plays out, and no one is sure whether or not he’ll be able to play in 2019. Last year’s leading rusher Quadraiz Wadley is set to miss the season too after suffering an injury this week, so others will have to pick it up.
Despite the losses and the bleak outlook, I think UTEP has what it takes to win three games thanks largely to a very easy home schedule. Houston Baptist, UTSA, Charlotte, and Rice are all winnable games and playing two of the top teams close is a good sign.
UTSA Over 2.5 (-185, 5Dimes) – The Roadrunners bottomed out after a decent start last year. UTSA scored just 51 points in its last six games, and unsurprisingly they lost all six. They finished the year last in total offense with an abysmal 247.1 YPG, but those numbers should improve.
Six starters return on offense, including four of five offensive linemen. That extra continuity will be important as two of these players were freshmen in 2018. It will give the ground game a punch that it totally lacked.
The defense was not as bad as last year’s numbers indicate. The ineffectiveness of the offense left them stranded for way too long, and they eventually cracked. With a more successful offense, those problems will dissipate.
There are two wins on the schedule in Incarnate Word and Rice, and I think UTSA will find another win elsewhere. Frank Wilson has been successful in recruiting talent to the school, and that will come through.