Early Conference USA West 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.

The West offers a muddled collection of teams with a case for five different squads to be on top. It won't be a surprise if several teams wind up tied at 6-2 or 5-3 and tiebreakers are needed in the West in 2018 as there is no clear front runner as there is on the East side. Here is a look at the seven teams in Conference USA West and an early outlook ahead of the 2018 season.

Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs made a major statement in bowl action with a 51-10 win over SMU in the Frisco Bowl. That win clinched a fourth straight winning season for Skip Holtz in Ruston and after slipping to just seven wins last season this year's team has a chance to get back to the nine-win campaigns of the previous years. Facing two SEC teams on the road limits the overall ceiling for this group and the Bulldogs have to play at Florida Atlantic in the East draw as well to put several major hurdles on the slate. J'Mar Smith emerged as a quality playmaker at quarterback last season however and the running game has always been productive under Holtz. Last season's defense was among the better units in Conference USA and it should remain a quality group in 2017. It likely won't take perfection to win this division as the Bulldogs will be in the mix and they get to host one of the top threats in UAB.

North Texas: The Mean Green improved by four wins last season and Mason Fine returns as likely the top quarterback in the conference coming off throwing for 4,000 yards with 31 touchdowns last season for a nine-win team. North Texas was the division champion at 7-1 last season but there were numerous close calls as the Mean Green only outscored foes by 21 points if you count the conference championship loss. Both league losses came to the same Florida Atlantic squad last season however but the Mean Green again draws the East favorite this season along with a capable Old Dominion team in the crossover games. Despite the strong record last season this wasn't a quality defensive team but the Mean Green could flip a -11 turnover margin from last season as well. With five wins by seven or fewer points last season the 2017 squad was fortunate but having a great quarterback helps one win those types of games and the Mean Green are a threat for another solid season.

UAB: After ending the football program for two years UAB returned as one of the feel-good stories of the season as Bill Clark led the team to an 8-5 record last season. UAB had a lot go right last season as the scoring and production numbers were more indicative of a .500 squad and four wins came by seven or fewer points. The West is clearly the lighter side of Conference USA however as there will remain favorable opportunities for wins and three of the four non-conference tests are also of the winnable variety. This year's team has most of last season's offensive production back in action and while the defense must replace a few key players this can again be a competitive team that can return to the postseason and compete for the division title. A good offensive line and a veteran quarterback can go a long ways as the Blazers could rise to the top of the West.

Southern Miss: The Golden Eagles won eight games last season as Jay Hopson has kept the program in the postseason in both of his seasons in Hattiesburg. This will be one of the least experienced teams in the conference however even with the return of the two viable quarterback options for Southern Miss. This was a very respectable defensive team last season that was steady against the run and the pass but some of the numbers were built with a few dominant showings against the bottom of this division. Southern Miss will play one of the weaker schedules in the nation this season with only a September game at Auburn in the 'certain loss' camp as they avoid Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee State and will play games with Marshall and Louisiana Tech at home. This year's team likely isn't as strong as last season's squad with the Golden Eagles posting fairly dominant numbers in a 6-2 league campaign but matching last season's record isn't out of the question with this slate.

Texas-San Antonio: The Roadrunners finished with a winning record last season but they played just 11 games thanks to a hurricane-related cancelation. The schedule starts with a bang this season facing three power five teams in succession to open the season but it won't be a surprise if UTSA can reverse course with three wins in a row after that. UTSA draws two decent teams from the East and has a fairly tough set of home games in league play for a squad with little returning offensive experience other than running back Jalen Rhodes. The defensive numbers from 2017 are eye-popping with just 17.0 points per game and 288 yards per game allowed albeit through what wound up being an extremely weak schedule. Losing a great deal of leadership from last season plus facing a more challenging schedule likely leads to a decline in San Antonio this season however the gap between the top five teams in this division isn't likely to be substantial.

UTEP: Dana Dimel is the new leader at UTEP after a long run as a Kansas State offensive assistant. Inheriting a 0-12 program there are obvious issues at UTEP but expectations will be quite grounded. UTEP managed only 12 points per game on average last season as clearly the worst offensive team in the country and the defense faced great strain as well despite keeping the team in a handful of games. There is a lot of player turnover on the roster but the opportunity for quick improvement is possible. Quarterback injuries plagued the team last season as the Miners had to dig far down the depth chart and the 2018 schedule offers a handful of promising opportunities with only a few games where UTEP has little chance to compete. Dimel won't be able to deliver a miracle turnaround in year one but getting the team in the win column looks likely especially if a few transfers with potential live up to their billing.

Rice: The Owls mad a change with David Baliff let go after more than a decade in Houston. The 1-11 season and four straight seasons of decline in record made the move justifiable especially with last season's offense averaging only 16 points per game. The Owls had very little production in the passing game last season and making a quick improvement for the program will be challenge for new head coach Mike Bloomgren, a Stanford assistant since 2011 that doesn't really have ties to the program or area. It will likely be a long transition season for the Owls although in this division there are opportunities for wins. Rice plays at Hawai'i and will play 13 games this season though seven of those games are on the road. Topping last season's win count looks likely with numerous favorable chances including a FCS opener but there will likely be several lopsided losses as well as a marginal defense lost the top five tacklers from last season.



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