Early Conference USA East Preview
Joe Nelson
Posted: 2018-07-05

Conference USA made some noise last season with Florida Atlantic dominating the conference with a 9-0 campaign and a dominant bowl win under the guidance of firebrand Lane Kiffin. UAB's revival also provided a great storyline while Louisiana Tech, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State were also bowl winners as underdogs.

This season the East discussion will again start with Kiffin and Florida Atlantic as he surprised many by not making a leap after one season to a major conference program. Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA East and an early outlook for the 2018 season.

Florida Atlantic: The Owls outscored conference foes by an average of more than three touchdowns per game then winning the title game by 24 points and their bowl game by 47 points. The Owls will need to replace quarterback Jason Driskel but nearly the entire defense is back in action this season. The opening month offers three difficult non-conference games including games at Oklahoma and at UCF as the Owls will get a chance to shine in a bigger spotlight this season. The gap between FAU and the rest of the East was severe last season and that could be true again but the Owls will have to play three road games against the likely stronger teams in the division. The crossover draw of Louisiana Tech and North Texas is also a difficult pairing as FAU will earn a repeat title if they accomplish what they are heavily favored (-150) to do in this conference. Devin Singletary could emerge as a potential Heisman long shot if he can surpass his 1,900 yard 2017-18 season and should the Owls stun a re-tooling Sooners team in the opener (currently +21) this squad will be certainly be on top of the Group of 5 rankings.

Marshall: Doc Holliday is 61-42 in eight seasons at Marshall including 5-0 in bowl games. The Herd bounced back from an ugly 2016 campaign to finish 8-5 last season despite going just 4-4 in conference play. Marshall lost those Conference USA games by a combined total of 19 points including a five-point loss in Boca Raton with the Herd out-gaining Florida Atlantic but struggling with turnovers. Marshall has a lot of starting experience back for the 2018 season however excellent quarterback Chase Litton is not among the returnees which will make ascending to the top of this division a challenge with a much more pass oriented offensive scheme than Florida Atlantic relies on. Marshall was fantastic defensively against the run last season allowing just 121 yards per game on 3.4 yards per carry and the Herd get to host both Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic for a favorable division draw. Marshall also pulls UTSA and Southern Miss from the West for one of the better overall schedules in the conference as a return to the postseason looks likely for this team. A pair of games vs. the SEC and ACC in September also allows for marquee opportunities with the program picking up wins over Purdue and Cincinnati in the past three seasons.

Middle Tennessee State: The Blue Raiders played much of the 2017 season with a backup quarterback and having Brent Stockstill for the entire season could make Middle Tennessee State a serious threat in Conference USA. Middle Tennessee State won four of its final five games including a bowl win over Arkansas State with the lone miss coming in triple overtime. Middle Tennessee State beat Syracuse last September and three SEC schools are on the schedule this season which will make the postseason margin of error much smaller than most of its division counterparts. The conference draw isn't ideal as while the Blue Raiders will host Florida Atlantic, three of the four road games in C-USA play are challenging and they will also have to play one of the top west division threats in geographically misplaced UAB, though that game is the home finale. Facing seven road games and three power five games make the path to a great season difficult for the Blue Raiders but a lot of experience returns on both sides of the ball for a team that will be a threat to win in every conference game.

Old Dominion: After a 10-win 2016 season Old Dominion slipped to 5-7 last year but after a 2-6 start the Monarchs picked up wins in three of the final four games. The five wins last season were of extremely low quality however and against top competition the Monarchs were out-classed with three losses by at least 30 points against the top tier of Conference USA. The offense took a huge step back last season from the 2016 numbers scoring just over 20 points per game but the returns could be stronger in 2018 with nine starters back in action. Old Dominion will need to win seven games to make a bowl game as they will play two FCS foes but a rebuilding Rice squad is part of the West draw and East Carolina is also on the schedule as it won't be a shock if the Monarchs get back to a winning ledger. Old Dominion gets many of the key division race swing games at home and the returning roster should lead to better statistics on both sides of the ball after the team was soundly out-scored and out-gained last season.

Western Kentucky: Mike White wound up with strong numbers at quarterback last season but the Western Kentucky offense dropped dramatically in production with a coaching change. Mike Sanford still got this team to a bowl game but it took some good fortune with several narrow wins. The offense has very little returning experience and production and making a fifth straight bowl game will be a great challenge for the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky has road games at Wisconsin and at Louisville in non-conference play while also going on the road against three of Conference USA's projected top teams. Pulling UTEP from the west is a plus while the home slate in league play is manageable but ultimately this program looks likely to land several tiers below the great squads of 2015 and 2016.

Florida International: It was a season of redemption for Alex McGough and Florida International with an 8-5 2017 season led by Butch Davis in his first season 'back' in Miami. The long-time quarterback has departed however and the season ended with a lopsided bowl loss against Temple. The 2018 schedule offers many of the easiest conference games coming on the road while two power five non-conference tests will add to the loss column as a step backwards in record is likely. The offense lost top players at every position while the defense was gutted with the top four leading tacklers from last season departing. This was a fortunate team that went 4-4 in league play despite being outscored and out-gained by more than 50 yards per game on average. Florida International hasn't had a winning road record since 2011 and the best opportunities this season will be in some of those road games. Ultimately this looks like a team that won't be able to compete with the top division rivals.

Charlotte: in three seasons in Conference USA Charlotte has just four league wins. The 49ers finished 1-11 last season and the lone win was an overtime result at home. There were a few close calls along the way but the offense managed just over 14 points per game on average for the season. Charlotte has a chance to surpass last season's win count early this season as the opening month slate is favorable with four of the first six games at home without any overly demanding matchups. The 49ers don't get to play any of the bottom West teams in the draw however and a road heavy late season schedule will take a toll. The program has been patient with Brad Lambert in his sixth season and improvement in record is likely this season though competing for a bowl bid likely will need to wait. This could be a very respectable defensive team but the offense isn't going to be able to compete with the top teams in the conference.

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