2021 College Football Preview: Over/unders for every Conference USA team

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Here is the 2021 CFB betting guide preview for the Conference USA.

EAST

Marshall

Uh-uh, that’s not how it is done. We’re talking about the removal of the highly successful Doc Holliday as coach after last season. The year admittedly ended on a bit of a downer with three straight losses after the Thundering Herd had opened the season with seven straight wins and surged to a No. 15 ranking. Without getting too far into the weeds, some forces above former athletic director Mike Hambrick wanted Holliday out despite his 85-54 record. Nick Saban disciple Charles Huff has taken the baton and has an almost brand-new staff, with offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey the only holdover. But Huff has never been a head coach, and we have seen this scenario blow up in schools’ faces before. 

Plenty of experience returns with 17 starters back, but QB Grant Wells ran aground in the stretch of his freshman season as the offense scored less than 8 points per game in the season-ending slump, and chop-busting RB Brenden Knox might be hard to replace. But we are intrigued by the high-pressure style Huff wants to employ with a unit that ranked tops nationally in scoring defense against a limited slate. 

Meanwhile, Navy, East Carolina and Appalachian State form a tricky trio of nonleague foes. Mostly, however, did the Herd really need to move on from Holliday, whose formula was working?

Pick: Under 7.5

Florida Atlantic

Among the many oddities of the 2020 COVID-19 season was FAU reaching a bowl game despite fielding one of the nation’s worst offenses -- 18.9 PPG, ranking 115th in scoring and having no discernible passing attack. With five wins in eight games, the Owls were awarded a Montgomery Bowl berth almost by default and were promptly noncompetitive in a loss to Memphis. FAU’s five victims won a combined 14 games, so the Owls’ “success” was a bit misleading. 

Well-traveled coach Willie Taggart, now into his second year in Boca Raton, read the tea leaves and knew the strike force needed an immediate upgrade. So he landed Penn State transfer QB Michael Johnson Jr., whose dad comes along as the new offensive coordinator. Taggart had hinted in the spring that Johnson could be a nice upgrade from limited holdover Nick Tronti, who tossed all of six TD passes last fall. The stingy defense ranked 10th in the nation, allowing only 17.4 PPG. But again, the weak schedule had something to do with that, and we’ll find out more in the fall about this platoon with 10 returning starters. 

Trips to Florida and Air Force and a home date against a Georgia Southern team that swamped the Owls last year present a rocky nonconference landscape. Taggart might be able to squeeze out another bowl bid with six wins, but not sure FAU’s ceiling is any higher.

Pick: Under 7

Western Kentucky

It wasn’t a complete shock when QB Tyrrell Pigrome announced in June that he wasn’t returning. But that might not be a mortal blow for the Hilltoppers, as Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe had already transferred in. The 2020 Southland Conference Player of the Year passed for 1,833 yards and 15 TDs in just four games last fall for Houston Baptist, three against FBS competition. Moreover, he’ll have familiar targets, as receivers Jerreth Sterns, Josh Sterns and Ben Ratzlaff followed from HBU, as did offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, whose prolific offense gained 548 ypg in 2020. So after his offense often misfired last fall, coach Tyson Helton thinks he might have the answers in 2021. 

Some key playmakers return on defense after the Hilltoppers ranked eighth nationally in pass defense, though coordinator Clayton White has moved to South Carolina to join Shane Beamer’s new staff. Watch senior DE DeAngelo Malone, the conference defensive player of the year in 2019. 

The nonleague schedule is challenging, with a pair of Big Ten opponents — Indiana at home and Michigan State on the road — plus Army. But as usual, there should be plenty of wins to be found in C-USA, especially if the Houston Baptist connection clicks on offense.

Pick: Over 5.5

Middle Tennessee

The MTSU fan base is wondering how long coach Rick Stockstill might stick around. Now into his 16th season, the chances that Stockstill, a former QB for some of Bobby Bowden’s best early teams at Florida State, can squeeze much more out of the Blue Raiders is an issue for fans who are a bit exasperated after back-to-back losing seasons. Ten bowl visits in 13 seasons preceded the current slump, but Stockstill knows the pressure is on and has hit the transfer portal hard in hopes of providing a quick pickup that he might need to stick into 2022. 

Stockstill shook up the offense in the offseason after it coughed and wheezed last fall, ranking 104th in scoring at a mere 22.9 PPG. He landed NC State transfer QB Bailey Hockman and enlisted a new offensive coordinator, Brent Dearmon, who most recently worked for Les Miles at Kansas. Two additions from the portal, RBs Martell Pettaway from West Virginia and Amir Rasul from Florida State, will try to ignite the running game, though neither has played much since 2018. The defense mostly failed a year ago, but 10 starters return for veteran coordinator Scott Shafer. 

With Monmouth and UConn providing likely nonleague wins and Hockman a likely upgrade at QB, we trust Stockstill to find four more wins on the schedule and perhaps get the Blue Raiders bowling once more.

Pick: Over 5

Charlotte

Like many programs, Charlotte is probably due a mulligan for 2020. It endured a couple of COVID-19 pauses in a disjointed season that included a five-week break before the season finale against Western Kentucky and a staggering nine games that were called off or rescheduled. Expectations were rather high after the school’s first bowl in 2019 under infectious young coach Will Healy. Moreover, senior QB Chris Reynolds hurt his shoulder on the first series of the season and never shook the injury. 

A healthy Reynolds and Texas A&M transfer James Foster promise viable and potentially exciting leadership on offense, and plenty of established receiving targets return, led by senior Victor Tucker. Among the high-profile transfers who might help immediately are RB Shadrick Byrd from Iowa, DE Kofi Wardlow from Notre Dame, DT Joshua Bailey from Iowa State and S Jon Alexander from Kansas State.

If the 49ers can pick up where they left off in 2019 and the transfers make a positive impact, a bowl bid is possible.

Pick: Over 4.5

Florida International

We’re almost willing to give the Golden Panthers a complete pass for 2020, as multiple COVID-19 disruptions and other distractions meant FIU didn’t play games in back-to-back weeks until late November. The Golden Panthers went winless in the five games they managed to play, not all that surprising as FIU couldn’t practice for weeks at a time. But in propping up the program after his return to the sideline, we wonder if veteran coach Butch Davis might be overstaying his welcome, much as Bob Davie did in a similar scenario at New Mexico. Davis has been through a pair of offensive coordinators since last season, with Andrew Breiner moving in from Mississippi State’s staff in the spring, but the passing game was one of the nation’s worst last year. 

Neither Kaylan Wiggins nor former Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager completed better than 50% of his passes last season. Davis also has a new defensive coordinator, former Texas State head coach Everett Withers, whose first task is to improve a rushing defense that opponents attacked at will — FIU was trampled for 236 ypg on the ground, ranking 117th nationally. 

Aside from an opening game against Long Island U and perhaps Week 2 against Texas State, we are not sure FIU projects to be favored in any game. Come December, the 69-year-old Davis might decide the golf course or fishing boat are more attractive endeavors.

Pick: Under 4.5

Old Dominion

The last time we saw ODU on the gridiron, the Washington Nationals had just won the World Series and COVID-19 was still months in the future. That was November 2019, before the Monarchs opted out of 2020. Now Old Dominion is back, and the last memory is of the 1-11 disaster two years ago that forced program architect and coach Bobby Wilder to resign. Former Penn State aide Ricky Rahne, cooling his jets since being hired 19 months ago, will likely try to employ the same no-huddle spread that worked so well for him as James Franklin’s offensive coordinator in Happy Valley, but this time he’s not working with the Nittany Lions’ roster. 

Neither QB who has seen action for ODU, Stone Smartt or Hayden Wolff, has performed with much flair, though Rahne hopes UCF transfer D.J. Mack Jr. can infuse some spark under center. But this was one of the nation’s worst offenses in 2019, so Rahne has his hands full. The defense wasn’t quite as helpless two autumns ago and returns some of its top playmakers, but all ODU has done for a year and a half is practice and scrimmage against itself. 

After one win in 2019 and no football in 2020, getting to four wins should gain Rahne some coach-of-the-year consideration.

Pick: Under 3.5

WEST

UTSA

Perhaps ready to live up to its promise as C-USA’s flagship program, UTSA seemed to turn the corner last season under coach Jeff Traylor, formerly a decorated Texas high school coach before stints on staffs at Texas, SMU and Arkansas. The upgrade was immediate, as the Roadrunners ran the ball with authority behind slashing, all-name RB Sincere McCormick (1,467 yards rushing) and kept southpaw QB Frank Harris healthy enough to account for 21 TDs. 

Almost everyone returns on offense, including the entire line and Harris’ top two receiving targets in Joshua Cephus and Zakhari Franklin, who combined for 107 catches last year. Believe it or not, even more experience returns on a defense that brings back all 11 starters after lowering its points allowed by more than eight per game last year when it found stars in S Rashad Wisdom (team-best 95 tackles) and Ole Miss transfer OLB Charles Wiley. If that’s not enough, punter Lucas Dean and kicker Hunter Duplessis return. 

Expect the Roadrunners to continue making progress, though we’re pumping the brakes just a bit because nine wins would put UTSA into some uncharted waters. With a couple of tricky nonleague road games at Illinois and Memphis, landing on eight wins seems about right.

Pick: Push 8

UAB

The best bargain in college football has to be Bill Clark, who kept the lights on at UAB through the two-season hiatus in the middle of the last decade and has authored one of college football’s most unlikely success stories the last few seasons. While various schools have filled coaching openings with lesser candidates, Clark seems fully content in Birmingham and will be rewarded with a new downtown stadium this fall after the Blazers had toiled at historic but decrepit Legion Field. 

After winning C-USA again last fall, Clark gives it another shot with the help of 12 “super seniors” who have taken advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19. One of those sixth-year seniors, QB Tyler Johnston III, returns after an injury-marred 2020 to fight it out with sophomore Bryson Lucero, who provided some spark last fall and gives Clark some uncommon experience and depth at the position. Moreover, sophomore RB DeWayne McBride adds some lightning to the attack after gaining an eye-opening 9.3 YPC in 2020, and seven linemen who started at least three games last season are back. Meanwhile, the nation’s ninth-ranked defense returns nine starters and has been augmented by reinforcements from the transfer portal led by LBs Justin Thomas from LSU and Charlie Benton from West Virginia. 

Three early road games, including a trip to Georgia, pose a challenge, but that shouldn’t bother Clark. After all, he didn’t blink when the program shut down in 2015.

Pick: Over 7.5

Rice

For the first time in years, genuine excitement abounds at Rice, where what once seemed a stubborn resolve to install a Stanford-type power offense by David Shaw disciple Mike Bloomgren is starting to pay dividends. The Owls impressed in their compressed 2020 slate, in position to win all five games, and return eight starters from the stingiest Rice defense since the Jess Neely era in the middle of the last century, ranking 12th nationally in scoring defense. With depth on the OL and a big WR target in 6-5 Bradley Rozner (55 catches in 2019 before opting out in 2020) all Bloomgren needed was a QB. And the transfer market provided options with former Nebraska prospect Luke McCaffrey (Christian’s brother) and ex-Weber State starter Jake Constantine, who already has 33 career TD passes. 

True, the schedule opens like an old Southwest Conference slate with Arkansas, Houston and Texas. But even if the Owls swallow the big doughnut against that trio, plenty of wins await in watered-down C-USA, and they also face crosstown rival Texas Southern of the FCS. Bloomgren can get Rice to a bowl and start to get mentioned as the heir apparent at Stanford whenever Shaw decides it’s time to move to the NFL.

Pick: Over 5.5

Southern Miss

As the lone remaining school from C-USA’s inaugural football campaign in 1996, Southern Mississippi has at least offered some continuity in a league that has often resembled a bus depot for programs that happen to be passing through. But of all the oddities associated with college football in 2020, USM was among the most bizarre, with coach Jay Hopson bailing out after a humbling opening-week loss to South Alabama and the season looking like it might have to be canceled in mid-September. When the dust settled, the 3-7 mark was just the fourth losing record in 25 seasons since C-USA was founded and preceded the hiring of coach Will Hall from Willie Fritz’s staff at Tulane. 

Hall got to work immediately and landed QB Ty Keyes, a touted regional recruit thought to be ticketed for the Green Wave, who will battle little-used holdover Trey Lowe and Louisville transfer Tee Webb for snaps. But with the QB situation still a bit of an unknown, we’re not sure the Golden Eagles will fly back into contention, even with some established skill-position weaponry, including RB Frank Gore Jr., who lived up to his name by rushing for more than 700 yards as a freshman. Meanwhile, the defense had some excuses for its subpar efforts, as it featured 10 different starting lineups in as many games due to COVID-19 and injuries and will look to transfers for help. 

Hall is also no head coaching newbie, having won 56 games in six Division II seasons at West Alabama and West Georgia, but unless he finds some answers right away at QB, his Hattiesburg debut might land below .500.

Pick: Under 5.5

Louisiana Tech

Though coach Skip Holtz was reportedly looking at vacancies in the offseason, he has found a comfortable landing spot in Ruston, winning 61 games in eight seasons and experiencing plenty of bowl success until getting drubbed by Georgia Southern in the New Orleans Bowl last December. Last season might have been Holtz’s worst at Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs still got to a bowl despite offensive problems. 

The QB platoon system involving Luke Anthony and Aaron Allen didn’t operate all that smoothly, but both return and at least provide experience at the position. A key for the offense will be RB Marcus Williams Jr., an Appalachian State transfer who has run for better than 2,200 yards in his career and could provide a needed diversion. Regional onlookers are also expecting improvement from a defense that was in rebuild mode last season but returns 10 starters, and coordinator David Blackwell didn’t suddenly forget how to coach after his 2019 unit ranked in the top 30 nationally. Even a slight defensive upgrade should help Holtz re-establish his considerable previous success in an underdog role. 

While the nonleague slate looks challenging with road games at Mississippi State and NC State and a home date with SMU, the best Holtz teams have pulled the occasional upset. We would rather bet on Holtz getting to .500 and into another bowl than falling short of 4.5 wins.

Pick: Over 4.5

North Texas

For a short while a few years ago, Seth Littrell looked like a coach du jour. He was apparently ticketed for a Power 5 job — Texas Tech was a rumored destination — after the Mean Green won big at Arkansas amid a fast start in 2018. With a progressive Air Raid offense, UNT was briefly the rage of college football. But the Mean Green has regressed since, with last year’s 4-6 mark encapsulating the direction of the program under Littrell. He boasted C-USA’s best offense in 2020 but its worst defense, and the wheels continue to spin in Denton. The defense hit its nadir in the Myrtle Beach Bowl loss to Appalachian State, when the Mountaineers rushed for 500 yards. 

Enter veteran defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, whose resume is long and distinguished, dating to Bill Snyder’s glory days at Kansas State and including a stint as head coach at SMU. Bennett immediately went to work in the spring, installing a four-man front after last year’s 3-3-5 alignment obviously didn’t work. We’re not sure getting nine starters back on defense is a good thing, but we trust Bennett can boost it from its recent road-kill status. Littrell might have a harder time keeping the offense productive with several key wideouts having departed, though sophomore QB Austin Aune showed promise with 13 TD passes and four picks. He will be pushed by North Carolina transfer Jace Ruder. 

Any improvement on the defensive side gives UNT a chance to compete in the West Division, but a difficult slate suggests a run at .500 might be asking a bit much.

Pick: Push 4

UTEP

The Miners weren’t as bad as usual last year, actually sitting 3-1 before COVID-19 disruptions sidetracked the season. Some regional observers expect another step up the ladder this fall from veteran coach Dana Dimel, who was regarded as an up-and-comer a generation ago at Wyoming and Houston and has patiently patched together a more competitive product at the Sun Bowl. The seeds have been planted for an upgraded offense if junior QB Gavin Hardison can smooth out some of the rough edges after flashing some upside last fall, and punishing north-south RB Deion Hankins scored nine TDs in seven games. Meanwhile, wideouts Justin Garrett and Jacob Cowing have proved they can stretch the field. 

Mostly, however, UTEP progressed enough on defense last fall to stay competitive, with Dimel finally hitting the jackpot on a handful of juco recruits, including DTs Kelton Moss and Keenan Stewart. New defensive coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto has been around the block after spending most of the last 15 years in the SEC, and he’ll be aligning UTEP in 4-2-5 looks he hopes can unleash the line and minimize some depth concerns at linebacker.

In the big picture, if Dimel could win three in the truncated COVID-19 season, he can take the next step to four wins and maybe five with a schedule that could easily begin 2-0 with nearby New Mexico State and Bethune-Cookman out of the chute and a very winnable game at the Sun Bowl against New Mexico later in September before tackling the C-USA slate.

Pick: Over 3

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