Bill Connelly’s mega offseason previews: Conference USA East


Our 2021 college football preview series begins in Conference USA. The East division struggled in 2020, fielding plenty of decent units but, aside from early-season Marshall, not really featuring any teams that had their acts together on both sides of the ball.

With the Thundering Herd changing head coaches, and with most teams returning large portions of last year’s depth charts, it’s possible that what the division lacks in upside it makes up for in experience and competitiveness. SP+ projects all seven teams to win between three and five conference games on average, though last year’s champion starts out atop the pack.

Every week through the summer, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 130 FBS teams. They will include 2020 breakdowns, 2021 previews and a brief history of each team in one handy chart.

Jump to a team: Old Dominion | Charlotte | Middle Tennessee | FIU | Western Kentucky | Florida Atlantic | Marshall

Ricky Rahne’s first season finally gets underway after the Monarchs became one of three schools to cancel their 2020 fall slate thanks to COVID-19 concerns.

2021 projections
Projected SP+ rank: 120

Projected record: 5-7 (3-5)

  • Likely wins* (1): Hampton (SP+ win probability: 95%)

  • Relative toss-ups (7): UTEP (64%), Louisiana Tech (55%), Charlotte (54%), at FIU (40%), at MTSU (40%), WKU (38%), FAU (38%)

  • Likely losses (4): Buffalo (25%), at Marshall (19%), at Wake Forest (11%), at Liberty (6%)

* Likely wins are games in which SP+ projects the scoring margin to be greater than seven points, or above about 65% win probability. Likely losses are the opposite, and relative toss-ups are all the games in between.

ODU will be awfully inexperienced in 2021, but with six opponents projected 114th or worse in SP+ (and only two higher than 77th), the Monarchs will still have a chance to win some games in Rahne’s second first year.

What we learned in 2020

Rahne can recruit. The former Penn State offensive coordinator landed 17 three-star recruits in his first ODU class, and then, after not getting a chance to coach a single game, inked 14 more in his 2021 class, plus some power-conference transfers. The athletic potential of this roster is increasing and should continue to do so.

What we didn’t learn

Pretty much anything else. Although losing some players was unavoidable, Rahne also did a pretty good job of re-recruiting the players on the roster and convincing a majority of them to stick around, including quarterbacks Stone Smartt and Hayden Wolff. (UCF quarterback transfer Darriel Mack Jr., perhaps last seen almost beating LSU in the 2019 Peach Bowl, also comes aboard.)

There’s some serious rebuilding to do in the receiving corps — of 2019’s top nine receivers, only two return (Aaron Moore and Nigel Fitzgerald, who combined for 40 catches), and both are sophomores — and on both lines. For that reason alone, it’s hard to expect too much of the Monarchs this coming fall. But the team will be absurdly young and will be pulling from these recent high-upside classes. That probably means excellent things in about 2023 or so.

A brief history of Old Dominion in one chart

1. After more than six decades defunct, the ODU program began its second life in 2009, going 9-2 as an FCS independent and selling out every home game.

2. After going a combined 46-14 at the FCS level, with two playoff appearances, ODU jumped to Conference USA and finished on a three-game winning streak to end up 6-6.

3. 2016: the peak of the Bobby Wilder era. The Monarchs won nine of their last 10 games to finish 10-3, sharing the C-USA East title and beating EMU in the Bahamas Bowl.

4. Defensive end Oshane Ximines (third round, Giants) and receiver Travis Fulgham (sixth round, Lions) became ODU’s first two drafted players in 2019. (Undrafted quarterback Taylor Heinicke, meanwhile, has bounced around since 2015, finally finding his forever home with Washington in 2020.)

5. Wilder was ousted after a 1-11 campaign in 2019, giving way to Rahne … who will finally coach his first game on Sept. 4.

Will Healy’s second season with the 49ers was choppy and frustrating. Both the offense and defense regressed a bit — from 55th to 78th in offensive SP+ and from 107th to 119th on defense — and after reaching their first-ever bowl in 2019, the 49ers went just 2-6.

Will their initial progress resume once normalcy does?

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 117th

Projected record: 5-7 (3-5)

  • Likely wins (1): Gardner-Webb (95% win probability)

  • Relative toss-ups (7): MTSU (53%), at ODU (46%), at Louisiana Tech (45%), Duke (42%), Rice (42%), at FIU (41%), FAU (39%)

  • Likely losses (4): at WKU (29%), Marshall (29%), at Illinois (19%), at Georgia State (18%)

Seven relative toss-ups is a lot. If the 49ers are just a little better than projected, it could make the difference between 4-8 and 8-4.

What we learned in 2020

The 49ers have one of the best receiving corps in C-USA. Victor Tucker, Cameron Dollar, slot man Micaleous Elder and tight end Taylor Thompson helped Charlotte rank a solid 56th in passing success rate. In under 200 snaps, Thompson caught 12 of 15 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. He’s a potential star, and whether incumbent quarterback Chris Reynolds or Texas A&M transfer James Foster is throwing the passes, this is a solid foundation.

The defense was absolutely dreadful. The 49ers plummeted to 119th in defensive SP+ with new co-coordinators Marcus West and Brandon Cooper. They were decent in big-play prevention but dreadfully inefficient. They were 114th in success rate allowed, and in four losses, they allowed 6.9 yards per play and 37 points per game. They allowed 53 points to Duke. Duke!

What we didn’t learn

Whether new blood can help the D. Healy inked a crop of transfers on defense: linemen Joshua Bailey (Iowa State) and Kofi Wardlow (Notre Dame), linebacker Justin Whisenhunt (Troy), DBs Tank Robinson (ECU) and Jon Alexander (Kansas State). Bailey immediately becomes the most proven havoc producer up front. Recruiting is going pretty well, but any improvement in 2021 will likely stem from these newbies.

A brief history of Charlotte in one chart

1. Charlotte’s football journey began with Brad Lambert leading back-to-back 5-6 seasons as an FCS independent. Its first win: 52-7 over Campbell.

2. The 49ers won their first-ever game as an FBS team, 23-20 over Georgia State, but it was downhill from there. In their first three FBS seasons, they went just 7-29.

3. Lambert was fired after going 22-48. His replacement: Healy, who had just resurrected the Austin Peay program. After going 0-11 in 2016, Healy’s Governors went 8-4 the next year, earning him the Eddie Robinson Award.

4. After a 2-5 start in Healy’s first season, the Niners won five in a row to qualify for their first bowl, a loss to Buffalo in the Bahamas Bowl.

5. Two words: Club Lit

Rick Stockstill’s Blue Raiders went 3-6 in 2020, and they were closer to being worse than better. All three wins were one-score triumphs, while four of the losses were by an average of 30 points. SP+ wasn’t impressed, ranking them 115th, their worst rating in nine years.

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 115th

Projected record: 5-7 (3-5)

  • Likely wins (1): Monmouth (70% win probability)

  • Relative toss-ups (5): at UConn (63%), ODU (60%), FIU (55%), at Charlotte (47%), Southern Miss (45%)

  • Likely losses (6): Marshall (31%), at WKU (31%), at FAU (31%), at UTSA (24%), at Liberty (7%), at Virginia Tech (6%)

What we learned in 2020

The floor is still pretty low in Murfreesboro. Stockstill has been granted patience others haven’t, and he’s rewarded it. After going 17-20 in his first three seasons, his Blue Raiders leapt to 10-3 in Year 4; after plummeting to 2-10 in 2011, they ripped off seven straight .500-or-better seasons.

They’re only 7-14 since the start of 2019, however; Stockstill has to hope that a massively experienced 2021 roster, plus a few offensive transfers, can rejuvenate his program yet again. He added four power-conference transfers on that side of the ball (NC State quarterback Bailey Hockman, Arizona receiver Ma’jon Wright, Georgia lineman Netori Johnson, Arizona lineman Jamari Williams) and brought in new offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon from Kansas as well. The Blue Raiders could return as many as 19 starters overall — that’s generally a formula for a bounce-back.

What we didn’t learn

Whether defensive experience is actually a good thing. After ranking in the defensive SP+ top 70 in both 2017 and 2018, MTSU has ranked 117th and 114th the past two years. The Blue Raiders return every starter but corner Kenneth Major and darn near every second-stringer, too, but how many legitimate play-makers are in this bunch?

Safety Gregory Grate Jr. is a keeper, and fellow safety Reed Blankenship is the patented “feels like this guy’s been there 16 years” veteran. But can linebacker Cody Smith (7 TFLs, 3 sacks) take his game further? Is there anyone up front who can provide some disruption for veteran defensive coordinator Scott Shaffer?

A brief history of Middle Tennessee in one chart

1. The Blue Raiders made a seemingly ill-timed jump to FBS in 1999 — after reaching the FCS playoff quarterfinals four times between 1989 and 1992, they had gone just 15-16 in their previous three seasons before jumping up and going 3-8 (0-7 vs. FBS teams) in their first topflight campaign.

2. Since making the jump, they’ve beaten eight power-conference teams. The first win: 37-28 over Vanderbilt in 2001. (Yes, Vanderbilt counts.)

3. The 2001 season was their high-water mark from an SP+ perspective. They went 8-3 and finished 64th overall.

4. Stockstill was hired in 2006; he’s one of the longest-serving head coaches at this point.

5. With Stockstill’s son Brent at QB, MTSU won its first division title in 2018, narrowly falling to UAB in the C-USA title game. (Brent was recently named MTSU’s WRs coach.)

Does a collapse during a coronavirus-wracked season count for anything? After two solid years, Butch Davis’ Golden Panthers collapsed to 0-5 in 2020, but it was a season beset with coronavirus issues, cancellations and lots and lots of shuffling depth charts.

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 114th

Projected record: 5-7 (3-5)

  • Likely wins (1): Long Island (99% win probability)

  • Relative toss-ups (6): ODU (60%), Charlotte (59%), Texas State (54%), North Texas (48%), at MTSU (45%), WKU (42%)

  • Likely losses (5): at Southern Miss (34%), at FAU (31%), at Marshall (22%), at CMU (21%), at Texas Tech (15%)

What we learned in 2020

The run game could be spectacular with help. FIU had one of the worst passing games in the country, with three different QBs struggling and an ultra-green receiving corps producing no standouts in the absence of injured leader Shemar Thornton. Despite this, running backs D’Vonte Price and Shaun Peterson Jr. combined for 749 yards in just 113 carries (6.6 per carry). They’re both scheduled to return, as are four offensive line starters, and if the passing game produces mere competence, the offense could rebound quickly.

The secondary wasn’t the defense’s problem. The Panthers were maybe C-USA’s best defense when it came to big-play prevention. Safeties Dorian Hall and Richard Dames were big reasons for that, and corners Rishard Dames and Josh Turner both allowed a QBR under 50 in primary pass coverage. If FIU gets anything from former blue-chip corner Henry Gray in 2021, this secondary will be dynamite. The run defense? TBD.

What we didn’t learn

Whether the QB of the Future is on the roster. Stone Norton, Max Bortenschlager and Kaylan Wiggins combined to complete just 45% of their passes; Wiggins did contribute to the run game, but one has to figure that, even with Norton transferring, the quarterback battle is wide open and could even involve freshmen Haden Carlson and Grayson James. Until Davis and company figure this position out, FIU’s a bystander in the division race.

A brief history of Florida International in one chart

1. After five seasons, three at the FBS level, Don Strock’s tenure with the new FIU program ended with an 0-12 campaign in 2006. If you remember one thing from that final season, it’s probably the utterly spectacular/terrible brawl with Miami.

2. In Mario Cristobal’s fourth year in charge, T.Y. Hilton and the Panthers enjoyed their first winning season, a 7-6 campaign punctuated by a huge comeback and 34-32 win over Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl.

3. After a setback season sullied by a string of close losses, Cristobal was shockingly fired and replaced by former Illinois coach (and friend of the athletic director) Ron Turner

4. The Turner hire predictably bombed (14 wins in four years), but his replacement was a big name: former Miami coach Butch Davis.

5. The Panthers went 15-11 in 2018-19, cracking double digits in the SP+ rankings for the first and second times since the Cristobal era.

Despite a second straight top-40 defense, the Hilltoppers stumbled from 9-4 to 5-7 in 2020 thanks to a disappointing offense that topped 24 points just twice all year. In response, head coach Tyson Helton looked toward Houston for inspiration.

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 98th

Projected record: 6-6 (4-4)

  • Likely wins (3): UT Martin (79% win probability), Charlotte (71%), MTSU (69%)

  • Relative toss-ups (5): at ODU (62%), at FIU (58%), FAU (56%), UTSA (47%), at Rice (47%)

  • Likely losses (4): at Marshall (34%), at Army (28%), at Michigan State (19%), Indiana (12%)

What we learned in 2020

The defense had staying power … with Clayton White, anyway. After leaping to 31st in defensive SP+ in 2019, the Hilltoppers held steady at 37th thanks to the combination of strong tackling (they were successful on 82% of their tackle attempts, 11th in FBS) and ultra-sticky pass coverage. The cornerback trio of Dionte Ruffin, Dominique Bradshaw and Roger Cray allowed a 45% completion rate as primary coverage men, prompting opponents to run unless they absolutely had to pass.

Ruffin and Cray are both gone, and defensive coordinator Clayton White left for the same position at South Carolina. The defensive line brings back a ton of production (primarily from end DeAngelo Malone), but can the Toppers keep up this level of defense with new leadership?

What we didn’t learn

How much time a Houston Baptist transfusion might require to turn around the offense. Helton was the offensive coordinator for a couple of excellent WKU offenses a few years ago, but the Hilltoppers were miserably disappointing on that side of the ball. The passing game was nonexistent, and WKU fell to 117th in offensive SP+.

In response, Helton signed the entire Houston Baptist offense.

OK, not the entire offense, but a lot of its main pieces: coordinator Zach Kittley, quarterback Bailey Zappe and three receivers. HBU hung 30+ points on all three of its FBS opponents this past fall; WKU couldn’t match that total in 12 tries. You can’t say the move doesn’t make sense.

A brief history of Western Kentucky in one chart

1. The 2002 FCS champions timed their FBS jump horribly, going just 3-36 against fellow FBS teams from 2007-10.

2. Beginning in 2011, former Hilltopper quarterback Willie Taggart began to turn things around. He took WKU to its first bowl in 2012, then left for USF. The school replaced him, briefly, with Bobby Petrino, who went 8-4 in his only season before jumping to Louisville.

3. Jeff Brohm succeeded Petrino in 2014; the Hilltoppers enjoyed their third straight winning season that fall and won their first bowl game to boot.

4. What a bowl win it was. Moment of appreciation, please, for one of the wildest endings, and worst beats, ever.

5. WKU in 2015-16: 23-5 with two conference titles and program-best SP+ rankings of 37th in 2015 and 19th in 2016. Ridiculously good. In the four seasons since Brohm’s departure, however, the Hilltoppers have won just 23 more games.

Willie Taggart’s first FAU team rode a surprisingly great defense to a 5-1 start before dropping its last three games. Now, like so many others, they return a ton of experience.

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 97th

Projected record: 7-5 (5-3)

  • Likely wins (4): Fordham (96%), UTEP (86%), FIU (69%), MTSU (69%)

  • Relative toss-ups (6): at ODU (62%), at Charlotte (61%), Georgia Southern (48%), Marshall (45%), at WKU (44%), at Fordham (40%)

  • Likely losses (2): at UAB (29%), at Florida (3%)

What we learned in 2020

There’s talent on defense. The FAU D finished 24th in yards per play allowed, 35th in success rate and 24th in marginal explosiveness (my measure of the magnitude of successful plays, adjusted for field position). Now the Owls return 12 of the 14 players who logged 200+ snaps and adds a couple of young, bluechip transfers in FSU tackle Malcolm Lamar and Nebraska linebacker Keyshawn Greene.

Now this unit just has to play as well for Mike Stoops as it did for Jim Leavitt, last year’s defensive coordinator who left for the same job at SMU. The veteran Stoops spent the last two years in the Nick Saban School for Coach Rehabilitation (he was an Alabama defensive analyst).

What we didn’t learn

The path forward on offense. While the Owls’ run game had its moments (RB James Charles was efficient, while Malcolm Davidson and quarterback Javion Posey had some pop), the passing game was absolutely dreadful. FAU ranked 108th in passing success rate, with Nick Tronti averaging 4.5 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (a passing average that factors in sacks, touchdowns and interceptions) and Posey averaging just 3.5. Taggart brought in veteran Michael Johnson, who served as coordinator for the 49ers and UCLA early in the 2010s. Johnson’s son, blue-chip redshirt freshman and Penn State transfer Michael Jr., has moved to Boca Raton as well.

Most of last year’s contributors return, along with 2019 receiver John Mitchell, USF running back Johnny Ford and Florida State lineman Andrew Boselli. But if you’re looking for proven entities, you might have to squint a bit.

A brief history of Florida Atlantic in one chart

1. Howard Schnellenberger wasn’t one to waste time. After taking over the FAU startup at its conception in 2001, he had the Owls in the FCS semifinals by 2003 in advance of their jump to FBS.

2. By 2007, FAU had won its first Sun Belt (co-)title and bowl game — a 44-27 defeat of Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.

3. After Schnellenberger’s retirement and two unsuccessful replacement hires, the school hired Lane Kiffin after the 2016 season and completely changed its football trajectory.

4. In three seasons, Kiffin ripped off two 11-3 campaigns with matching C-USA titles. The biggest star: current Buffalo Bills RB Devin Singletary, who gained 4,684 rushing and receiving yards with 67 TDs in the Kiffin era.

5. With Kiffin off to Ole Miss, FAU replaced him with another former P5 coach: Taggart. We’ll see if 2020 was an undoing of Kiffin’s gains or a temporary blip.

Charles Huff, Nick Saban’s associate head coach for the last two years at Alabama, takes over in Huntington for longtime head coach Doc Holliday, inheriting a job with high upside and higher expectations than most conference rivals.

2021 projections

Projected SP+ rank: 86th

Projected record: 8-4 (5-3)

  • Likely wins (6): NC Central (99%), ODU (81%), FIU (78%), at Charlotte (71%), at MTSU (69%), WKU (66%)

  • Relative toss-ups (5): ECU (61%), at North Texas (61%), at Navy (58%), at FAU (55%), UAB (50%)

  • Likely losses (1): at Appalachian State (16%)

What we learned about Marshall in 2020

The Herd still has a really high ceiling. Holliday’s final season ended with a disappointing three-game slide as injuries caught up to the offense, but they outscored their first seven opponents by an average score of 37-10, beating a solid Appalachian State along the way. For the season, they were second in the country in yards allowed per play, second in marginal explosiveness allowed and first in tackle success rate.

They did all that with a defense that now returns 10 of the 13 players who logged 200+ snaps. Corner Steven Gilmore is dynamite, linebacker Eli Neal thrives against both run and pass, and while ace pass rusher Darius Hodge is gone, every other lineman is scheduled to return. If the offense simply picks up where it left off before linemen started disappearing from the depth chart, that’s a great starting point for a first-year coach.

What we didn’t learn about Marshall in 2020

How Huff’s first head-coaching gig will go. The 37-year-old former Hampton fullback quickly put together a ferocious résumé, working for James Franklin’s Penn State for four years, Mississippi State for one and Nick Saban’s Alabama the last two. He’s a stellar recruiter, and he attempted a balance on his first staff between exciting young assistants, coaches with Marshall experience and veteran coordinators: offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey is a holdover from Holliday’s staff, while defensive coordinator Lance Guidry has both head coach (McNeese State) and defensive coordinator (McNeese, WKU, Southeastern Louisiana) experience.

There should be a high level of maturity on the field. The defense is loaded, and the offense returns virtually everyone but running back Brenden Knox and right tackle Josh Ball. Quarterback Grant Wells posted solid numbers as a redshirt freshman, and now he gets to play as a redshirt freshman all over again. Talent and depth allow the Herd to start out as East favorites despite the turnover on staff.

A brief history of Marshall in one chart

1. The devastating crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 just passed its 50th anniversary. It took a couple of decades, and a drop to what is now FCS, for the program to begin to recover.

2. From 1987-96, the Thundering Herd reached the FCS playoffs eight times, winning national titles in 1992 and 1996 and reaching the finals four other times. (They lost three of those title games by a combined 11 points.)

3. While so many programs have stumbled on the FCS-to-FBS jump, the Herd stuck the landing, winning the MAC in five of their six five seasons and peaking at 10th in the AP poll and 11th in SP+ in 1999. (Note to self: when jumping to FBS, it helps to have a Randy Moss handy.)

4. Momentum stalled. The Herd averaged 4.8 wins from 2004-09 and in 2010 hired Holliday to replace Mark Snyder.

5. After a slow start, Holliday went a combined 33-8 from 2013-15. The 2014 team was his masterpiece, going 13-1 and ranking 24th in SP+, but the Herd settled into a more mundane 7-wins-per-year average from 2016-20.

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