College football betting preview: Conference USA

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for Conference USA:

CHARLOTTE

It really felt like the Charlotte 49ers were ready to take off after a 7-6 season in Will Healy’s first season in 2019. Healy came over from Austin Peay, where he took a team that was 1-45 from 2013-16 and got them to an 8-4 record in 2017. By 2019, the Governors were in the FCS playoffs based on what Healy built, but the momentum at Charlotte has slowed to a crawl and expectations for this season are on the lower end.

Offense

The offense is in good hand with quarterback Chris Reynolds, who has already started 35 games with the 49ers. He posted a 26-9 TD-INT ratio last season and has a good grasp of Mark Carney’s offense. The 49ers couldn’t match the 6.4 yards per play they had in 2019 but also didn’t have Benny LeMay, the second-leading rusher in program history, last season. Reynolds has all of his wide receiver and tight end targets back and both running backs return as well. Calvin Camp averaged 5.6 yards per carry and led the team in rushing, even though Shadrick Byrd got more carries. The 49ers only had 13 rushing touchdowns and four were from Reynolds, so this group needs to be more potent. The offensive line is a hodgepodge of recruits and JUCO transfers with very limited experience at the FBS level and as a group. That will be the position of concern for Healy and Reynolds and has the chance to drag the entire offense down.

Defense

The defense needs an overhaul and we’ll see if Greg Brown can provide it. Charlotte’s new defensive coordinator has been coaching since 1982 but hasn’t been a DC since 2012 at Colorado. He has bounced around as a defensive backs coach, most recently with Purdue. The 64-year-old has a pretty big task at hand. We saw a lot of teams give up passing yards in Conference USA last season, but Charlotte was one of the few that was gashed by the run. The 49ers allowed 5.4 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per play overall. They have only 21 sacks in their last 18 games. Power 5 and JUCO transfers are all over this roster on defense, but it has a long way to go to be considered respectable. Opponents averaged 465 yards per game and every FBS team had at least 414 yards of offense.

Outlook

The offense seems to be pretty much capped around 28 points per game based on what we’ve seen during the Healy years. The defense has allowed at least 32 points per game since he took over. That isn’t a winning recipe. Charlotte gets a visit from Maryland in Week 2, which will test the pass defense, and also plays at Georgia State and South Carolina in nonconference. The silver lining is Charlotte avoids UTSA in conference play, but the win total of 4.5 is an indication of low expectations. My projection calls for 4.66 wins, but I don’t power-rate FCS schools, so the William & Mary game seems like the slight difference. Five looks attainable with this schedule, but it also looks like the max.

Pick: Under 4.5 (-105)

 

FLORIDA ATLANTIC

Willie Taggart is only 10-11 at FAU after Lane Kiffin won 11 games twice in a season during his tenure in Boca Raton. There’s a lot of talent with this Owls team, but disappointing offensive returns and too many noncompetitive games make you wonder what the ceiling is for 2022.

Offense

N’Kosi Perry transferred from Miami and led the Owls with a 20-7 TD-INT ratio and almost 2,800 passing yards, but FAU managed just 25.4 points per game last season. Perry didn’t get a lot of protection and wasn’t an efficient runner, but this offense just lacked explosiveness and creativity. Brent Dearmon, who was one of the co-offensive coordinators in 2020 when the Owls scored just 18.9 points per game, is back after a brief, one-year stint with Middle Tennessee. This is Perry’s last year of eligibility and you have to wonder if he’ll be able to maintain the job. A highly recruited sophomore transfer from Penn State, Michael Johnson, is waiting in the wings and Taggart’s son is a redshirt freshman QB. The ground game was a disappointment last season at just 4.0 yards per carry. Shoddy offensive line play was the biggest factor, as Johnny Ford ran for 6.3 yards per carry. LaJohntay Wester had 65 catches, more than twice the number of any other returning receiver, but it seems like this offense might fall short of expectations again.

Defense

The Owls managed 5.7 yards per play on offense but the defense gave up 5.8. The Owls had 13 interceptions and held opponents to a 58.8% completion rate but also gave up 252 yards per game through the air. However, just about every defense in Conference USA had skewed pass numbers because of Western Kentucky. The Owls allowed 508 passing yards and 52 points in that game. No other opponent scored more than 35 and Marshall was the only other team to throw for at least 350 yards. On the whole, this was a solid defense and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops was successful as the DC at Oklahoma, so this unit seems to be in good hands. Stoops does have to replace some talent, though. Six of the top seven tacklers from last season are gone and this was a defense that only had 16 sacks in 12 games after 25 in just nine games the previous season.

Outlook

FAU has a decent nonconference schedule with Ohio, SE Louisiana, UCF and Purdue, so there are some winnable games there. The Owls start league play in Week 0 against Charlotte, so they get two bye weeks during the season. They avoid UTSA but do get UTEP on the road and also face UAB and Western Kentucky. The win total is 5.5 with heavy Over juice and my projection calls for 6.56 wins, so I am a bit higher than the market, despite some reservations. The problem I have is FAU only won games in which they were favored by 6.5 or more last season, losing every game as a dog and against Old Dominion and MTSU as favorites. Maybe this season won’t be as disappointing, but I wouldn’t really bet on it.

Pick: Over 5.5 (-160)

 

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL

The dumpster fire of all dumpster fires was on the campus of Florida International last season. The Panthers went 1-11 and completely gave up on the season around the halfway point when it went public that Butch Davis wasn’t going to be retained. Word came out that FIU was forcing players to recycle equipment and apparel and there was no financial commitment from the university for the football program, including Davis’ assistant coaches, which was a big part of why he left. FIU completely quit. Davis quit. The team lost its final five games by 163 combined points. The stats weren’t going to be pretty, but they wouldn’t have been as bad if not for the giant chasm between the school, athletic department and football team. Former San Jose State and Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre has a complete rebuild on his hands and has to find a way to get the school to buy into the program again.

Offense

Oddly enough, FIU’s 5.9 yards per play were the most for the team since 2018. The offense wasn’t completely awful behind former Maryland QB Max Bortenschlager. He’s gone, replaced by former Duke QB Gunnar Holmberg, who had 10 interceptions against seven touchdown passes the last two seasons. There are five returning starters on offense, but this is a team that is extremely thin on depth. Tyrese Chambers is a super sophomore who had 1,074 receiving yards on just 45 catches last season. FIU’s passing attack had nine plays of 60 or more yards, which really skewed the yards per play number. This was an inefficient offense otherwise with 3.3 yards per carry and a 53.3% completion rate.

Defense

At least the offense periodically tried down the stretch. The defense completely mailed it in. The Panthers allowed at least 34 points in each of their last eight games and 39.7 points per game for the season. They had the worst pass defense in the nation with only three interceptions and opponents completed 68.6% of their passes. Jovan Dewitt is the first-time defensive coordinator tasked with helping this group. Depth is a problem here as well. The maximum number of scholarship players in FBS is 85 and FIU is nowhere close. It was also hard to convince transfers to join the program. It will be a long year.

Outlook

FIU opens with a Bryant team that went 7-4 last season but lost by 21 to Akron. Then the Panthers head to Texas State, a team they lost to in overtime last season as a 2-point home favorite. Even though Conference USA is not very good, and the Panthers avoid UAB, I have them 9.5 or higher in every league game. Their only favorite roles will be against Bryant and UConn. I even have New Mexico State a slight favorite on Oct. 1. The schedule is so bad that my projection for FIU is actually 3.38 wins with a win total line of 3. This is a total rebuilding job, though, so three wins, even against this schedule, would be a huge accomplishment.

Pick: Under 3 (-105)

 

LOUISIANA TECH

First-time head coach Sonny Cumbie knows how to run an offense, but all of the other responsibilities that come along with being the face of a program will be a test. Cumbie did get a crash course on an interim basis last year when Texas Tech abruptly fired Matt Wells, but he heads to Ruston with a Louisiana Tech Bulldogs bunch coming off of its first losing season since 2013.

Offense

It is hardly a coincidence that quarterbacks Matthew Downing and Parker McNeil are familiar to Cumbie. Cumbie had a hand in recruiting both, with Downing to TCU and McNeil to Texas Tech, although McNeil only saw the field at junior college. It won’t take much for improved QB play at Louisiana Tech, as the Austin Kendall experiment mostly flopped and the group collectively posted a 21-16 TD-INT ratio. There is talent at the skill positions. Smoke Harris and Tre Harris combined for 111 catches, over 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The play-calling distribution will be different this season, as La. Tech had 415 carries against 411 pass attempts last season. The sack numbers will be worth watching. Louisiana Tech allowed 28 sacks and only had 3.5 yards per carry last season, so the offensive line, which returns three starters, has to improve.

Defense

An inefficient Air Raid attack can put a ton of strain on a defense. This is a defense that has allowed 34 points per game and over six yards per play in each of the last two seasons. Cumbie brought in Stephen F. Austin defensive coordinator Scott Power, who was a strong recruiter for the Lumberjacks and fielded a top-20 defense. Cumbie had a first-hand look when Power’s defense held Texas Tech to 28 points and just 364 yards last season. There are a handful of returning starters, but this is a young defense, particularly in the back seven. Power is tearing it down and starting from scratch, though, so while this could be a transitional year, the bar is quite low and any improvement will be noticeable.

Outlook

La. Tech’s 3-9 record last year was a little misleading. The team blew a 20-point lead to Mississippi State in Week 1 and lost on a Hail Mary to SMU in Week 3. The Bulldogs also lost close games to NC State, Old Dominion and Rice. They didn’t pull out any close games except for the one against SE Louisiana, where they were outgained by 155 yards. Three of the four nonconference games are on the road, with trips to Missouri, Clemson and South Alabama. The Bulldogs draw the three best teams in the conference, but their pass defense is spared from facing Western Kentucky. What hurts La. Tech this season is that easier opponents such as North Texas, FIU and Charlotte are all on the road, though that also means they get some better conference foes in Ruston. The win total is 4.5, but my numbers say 5.3, though I don’t power-rate FCS schools and the Stephen F. Austin game is hardly a gimme. That would bring my projection under five wins. There’s a path for La. Tech to be better, but look for the Bulldogs to make a big push in 2023 or 2024 as Cumbie and Power are excellent recruiters, particularly in Texas.

Pick: Under 4.5 (+ 100)

 

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Middle Tennessee is one of the teams that really upgraded at the quarterback position. The Blue Raiders wound up using four different starters last season, including Nick Vattiato, who was supposed to redshirt. With better health at the most important position on the field, MTSU looks poised to improve, but this is a team that hasn’t won more than eight games since 2009. Could this be the year?

Offense

Chase Cunningham had a 16-3 TD-INT ratio and completed over 62% of his passes through five starts before getting hurt. That was after NC State transfer Bailey Hockman retired from football. Mike DiLiello took over and didn’t wow anybody, so coach Rick Stockstill decided to burn Vattiato’s redshirt. He threw five picks in his first start but finished with a 7-6 TD-INT ratio and was the Bahamas Bowl MVP in a win over Toledo. The QB position seems to be in good hands with Cunningham and Vattiato, so what about the rest of the squad? Well, MTSU only ran for 3.5 yards per carry, which made the quarterback injuries much worse. This was an offense that only managed 5.1 yards per play, has to replace its top two receivers and looks weak at the running back spot again. There are only four returning starters from last year’s group, plus a JUCO transfer at WR in Quaterrius Tolbert, who was a starter at Jones College and is a former three-star recruit. New offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart comes from the pass-happy Samford program, where he had a top-10 offense at the FCS ranks last season.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has been here a long time for someone who was once the head coach at Syracuse and a coordinator at a few Power 5 programs. Maybe he’s happy in Murfreesboro. This has been a respectable defense throughout most of his tenure, except for 2019 and 2020. Last year’s group allowed only 5.2 yards per play, almost a full yard better than 2020. Stuffing the run was a priority for MTSU. Only two opponents prior to Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl rushed for at least five yards per carry, as the Blue Raider front held the opposition to 3.9 yards per carry. The pass defense was one of the few to hold Western Kentucky at bay, even though the Hilltoppers won that game 48-21. The Blue Raiders were -7 in turnover margin in that game. For the season, amazingly enough, MTSU was 11 in turnover margin, even with that one huge outlier. The defense had 17 interceptions and recovered 15 fumbles to tie for the top spot in the country.

Outlook

MTSU opens with three of four on the road, including a visit to Colorado State in Week 2. The Blue Raiders also draw the conference’s four best teams and have to go to UAB and UTEP. The schedule does not do this team any favors, especially with UTSA on a short week after playing Miami. Cunningham is an undersized QB and Vattiato is the player of the future, so that battle may rage on all season long. The win total for MTSU is 5.5 and my numbers say 5.66, so there is a high probability for five or six wins. Given the schedule, I’ll lean closer to 5.

Pick: Under 5.5 (-115)

 

NORTH TEXAS

In seven seasons at North Texas, coach Seth Littrell has been to five bowl games. The 2020 season deserves an asterisk because the Mean Green were only 4-5 in the regular season, but the dudes from Denton have been pretty consistent on Littrell’s watch. Last season was every bit of a .500 campaign before the loss to Appalachian State in the Frisco Classic, as UNT scored and allowed 27.5 points per game and finished even in turnover margin. Which way will the pendulum swing in 2022?

Offense

The team seemed more comfortable with Austin Aune as the starting quarterback than with Jace Ruder, but now Arizona transfer Grant Gunnell also has his hat in the ring. Aune led the five-game winning streak late in the year that took the Mean Green from 1-6 to 6-6 after knocking off No. 15 UTSA in the finale. The Roadrunners rested a bunch of players in advance of the Conference USA title game. Even though Littrell cut his teeth at Texas Tech in the mid-2000s under Mike Leach, this is a run-first (and run-second and run-third) offense. North Texas ran the eighth-most plays last season with 1,033 and ran 639 times. Only the three triple-option teams, Northern Illinois and Kent State ran more often. Star running back DeAndre Torrey ran for 1,215 yards and 13 touchdowns before exhausting his eligibility. Sophomore Oscar Adaway was supposed to be the starting back but tore his ACL right before the season. He’ll be the feature back now. The Mean Green rushed for 4.7 yards per carry, even though opposing defenses knew what was coming. Four starters are back on the line and the QBs are always mobile.

Defense

This was a slightly below-average defense by yards per play, even though they allowed fewer than 400 yards per game. It was a massive upgrade under defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, as the Mean Green allowed 522 yards and 6.9 yards per play in 2020. North Texas gave up almost 43 points per game during that weird COVID season, which is a big outlier, but the statistical improvements under Bennett are notable. He only has five starters back on this year’s defense, which allowed 5.7 yards per play and 4.0 yards per carry. The back seven only managed six picks, but North Texas recovered 12 of 23 opponent fumbles. Only six teams forced more fumbles. The fumble recoveries offset 14 fumbles lost by the offense, which is another example of why this was almost a perfectly symmetrical .500 team.

Outlook

More of the same seems likely for the Mean Green. They do get two bye weeks by playing in Week 0 against UTEP before facing SMU, Texas Southern, UNLV and Memphis in nonconference play. UNT draws the four best teams in this conference (UTEP, UTSA, WKU, UAB), so that puts a damper on its chances of contending in C-USA. The win total of 6.5 makes sense, as this could be a perfectly mediocre team again. However, with that schedule, my projection is actually for 5.79 wins, so I’d look more toward the Under.

Pick: Under 6.5 (-120)

 

RICE

A 4-8 record doesn’t sound like a great season, but the Rice Owls hadn’t won four games since 2015. In fact, they had only won 11 games over the previous five seasons combined, including a 2-3 showing during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. While the record looked better, the team really didn’t. Rice was outscored by almost 15 points per game and outgained by 1.4 yards per play. With a much tougher schedule this season, it could be another long year.

Offense

Of the four quarterbacks who had at least 20 pass attempts, two of them are back. Sophomore Wiley Green and junior TJ McMahon will battle it out over the course of the year. Luke McCaffrey moved to wide receiver in hopes of injecting some life into that position group. Jake Constantine, who had more pass attempts than the three others combined, left the program. This is the second season under offensive coordinator Marques Tuiasosopo, so the offense has a chance to improve. The Owls have thrown for over 200 yards per game in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2015-16, so there have been modest gains, but the ground game is still ineffective. Rice has been less active in the transfer portal than other teams, prioritizing their recruiting classes and building from within. To this point, it hasn’t really worked.

Defense

With an offense this bad, the defense is really up against it. Rice allowed 6.7 yards per play last season and has not shown many signs of improvement under former Michigan assistant Brian Smith. Rice allowed over 36 points per game and it would have been even worse without 14 interceptions. Nothing will improve for Rice until things get better in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Owls allowed 4.8 yards per carry last season, as they once again went in reverse from 2019 (4.0) and 2020 (4.1). The three top tacklers from last season are gone, but none of those players had more than 67 tackles, so the defense worked in a lot of different players.

Outlook

This is not a good team by the numbers or by the talent. The Owls were just 3-9 ATS last season and all three covers were outright upset wins, including a victory over UAB as a 23.5-point dog. To top it off, the Owls were a bottom-five squad on special teams, despite hiring a new coordinator. Rice’s season win total is listed at 3.5 and I have this team down for just over two wins. The nonconference schedule features USC, McNeese, Louisiana and Houston, and Rice plays three different conference opponents off of bye weeks. I don’t see how this team wins four games. Under 3.5 is one of my favorite season win totals in Conference USA.

Pick: Under 3.5 (-130)

 

UAB

The UAB Blazers have been one of the best stories in college football over the last five seasons. After nearly losing football altogether — the Blazers did not play in 2015 or 2016 — they have accumulated 43 wins since 2017 along with their only two bowl wins in program history. Unfortunately, they’ll have to try and uphold that standard without coach Bill Clark, who retired in June due to medical issues.

Offense

Offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent has taken over as head coach, though Clark will still be around the program on a daily basis. This is an audition for Vincent to be named the permanent head man, as the school is waiting until after the season to decide on a new hire. This is another strong Blazers offense that has lofty expectations. Dylan Hopkins posted an 18-7 TD-INT ratio last season with a 66% completion rate, but he’s only asked to be a game manager in this offense. UAB pounded the rock 513 times last season and the two-headed monster of DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown is back. The Blazers rushed for 4.6 yards per carry, with 6.7 from McBride and 5.1 from Brown. Some lackluster pass protection lowered the yards per carry average because Hopkins was forced to scramble a lot. The Blazers only allowed four sacks in nine games in 2020 but allowed 35 in 13 games in 2021. Three starters return on the line for a group that needs to be better this season. Top lineman Colby Ragland is gone, but the schedule is very soft at the outset, so UAB might be able to figure it out.

Defense

The Blazers have had decent offenses during this five-year stretch, but the defense has been the star of the show. UAB allowed 23.2 points per game last season, its highest since 2017. It allowed five yards per play but only 3.2 yards per carry. The defense returns eight starters and looks poised for another solid season. Just about everybody returns in the back seven after the Blazers allowed their highest completion percentage and number of passing yards per game since 2014, so there is a lot of hope for improvement from those units. The defensive line is going to have to be completely replaced, so the rush numbers could tick up a little bit. David Reeves has been the DC since 2017 and his defenses are always stout.

Outlook

Your projection of UAB depends on what you think of teams such as UTSA and Western Kentucky. The Blazers do play at Liberty in September, but the Flames are down without Malik Willis. UAB will be comfortably favored in five of the first six games, so they’ll get a good head start on the win total. An early bye could be a challenge later in the year and four of the last six are on the road. My numbers have UAB at 8.67 wins and the line is 8.5 with some Under juice. The loss of Clark on the sidelines is hard to quantify but could end up being a big factor. The talent here is better than most C-USA programs, but the intangibles are a question.

Pick: Under 8.5 (-135)

 

UTEP

From 2017-20, UTEP won a combined five games. The Miners won seven in 2021. The job Dana Dimel has done to turn this program from doormat to Conference USA contender is impressive, and this could be his last season in El Paso — his fifth season after inheriting an 0-12 team. This has been a multi-year rebuild, and Dimel is only 12-33 with the program, but he ended a seven-year bowl drought last season and has his sights on making history.

Offense

UTEP hasn’t made a bowl game in consecutive seasons since 2004-05 under coach Mike Price. The Miners also haven’t won a bowl game since 1967. If it happens this season, it will be because the offense improved from 25.1 points per game. Going 7-6 with a -10 turnover margin is quite a feat and it will be up to Gavin Hardison and the other quarterbacks to take care of the football. Hardison threw for over 3,200 yards but had 13 interceptions against 18 touchdown passes. When the Miners didn’t turn the ball over they dominated time of possession, ranking 19th nationally at 31:32 per game. Their slow, methodical tempo led to 6.0 yards per play and a lot of rushing attempts from Ronald Awatt and Deion Hankins. Awatt led with 5.3 yards per carry, while Hankins was more of the short-yardage back. Finding wide receivers will be the goal for offensive coordinator Dave Warner. The offense jumped from 5.2 to 6.0 yards per play in his first year at the helm and now everybody should be more comfortable. UTEP does lose 119 of its 200 receptions as Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett both left. They accounted for 59.5% of the catches, 62.2% of the yards and 11 of 19 touchdowns.

Defense

Dimel’s hire of Warner paid off and the same happened on defense with Bradley Dale Peveto. UTEP’s defense went from 6.1 yards per play in 2020 to 5.2 in 2021. In the passing game, the Miners only allowed 3.9 yards per play and limited opponents to 54.9% completions. The problem was they only had eight interceptions and recovered just six fumbles. The defense needs to force more takeaways, but their numbers, particularly a scoring defense that ranked 53rd in the nation, are more impressive knowing they didn’t take the ball away. Eight starters are back for another run and none of the losses are substantial. Both starting cornerbacks moved on, but the front seven is mostly intact after a leap from 12 sacks to 25. JUCO transfers will replace the starting corners and the talent is better overall with a lot of upperclassmen from Dimel’s early classes.

Outlook

UTEP goes on the road to Oklahoma in Week 1 after playing a conference opener in Week 0 against North Texas. That gives the Miners two bye weeks and they avoid UAB, but they will play at UTSA. The two New Mexico schools in nonconference are a nice draw as well. This is a pretty friendly schedule and one that should leave the Miners eligible for a bowl game. My projection has 6.72 wins and the market line is 5.5 with a little bit of Over juice. Dimel is building a little faster than some of the other C-USA programs and I actually have UTEP favored in nine games, albeit a very small favorite in most. I still like this team more than the market.

Pick: Over 5.5 (-125)

 

UTSA

You can’t help but root for underdog programs that reach national prominence. The UTSA Roadrunners were ranked for the first time ever last season (peaked at No. 15) and went 12-2 with a Conference USA title. Coach Jeff Traylor was courted by bigger programs but opted to stick around as the Roadrunners look to rule the conference for a second straight season.

Offense

One of the hardest things about life in the Group of Five is that a couple of players can really turn the tide — and make things much tougher when they leave. Running back Sincere McCormick and left tackle Spencer Burford are prime examples. McCormick rushed for 1,470 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was the program’s leading rusher before his final season even began and ran for nearly 4,000 yards in three seasons. Burford was the blindside protection for quarterback Frank Harris, who is back and has four returning starters on the line. Programs such as UTSA may develop a rare draft pick, but not two in the same season as it did with McCormick and Burford. That being said, UTSA has recruited at a much higher level under Traylor and got Arkansas transfer Trelon Smith at running back. Harris is coming off of a stellar 27-6 TD-INT ratio for an offense that eclipsed six yards per play for the first time as a FBS member. All of his top receivers return as well.

Defense

After returning all 11 starters on defense last season, coordinator Jess Loepp only has five starters back this season, but five of the top six tackles return. This was a good scoring defense with 24.6 points per game allowed but still allowed 5.6 yards per play and struggled in the secondary. A 13 turnover margin covered up some shortcomings. The Roadrunners stuffed the run, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry and 115 rushing yards per game. Prior to last season, UTSA had only been under four yards per carry once. The depth is on the rise in Traylor’s third year, which should help the front seven get a higher rate of performance. UTSA racked up 33 sacks, the most in program FBS history, but top sack man Clarence Hicks (10.5) moves on. Traylor and his staff hammered the transfer portal, so we’ll see if they can maintain their elevated pressure levels.

Outlook

The Roadrunners won eight games as a member of the WAC in their first FBS season in 2012 but hadn’t won more than seven since before last season. Climbing to the top of the mountain is one thing, but staying at the peak is the hardest part in the Group of Five ranks. This is clearly a talented team and one with a lot of buzz. The schedule does feature a trip to UAB and a brutal nonconference slate with Houston at home and Army and Texas on the road. I really like this team, but the win total of 8.5 looks a tad high with the difficulty of the schedule. My projection is for 8.09 wins, but I think a future to win Conference USA is a good bet. I could envision an 0-3 start and a nine-game winning streak, but that leaves no margin for error.

Pick: Under 8.5 (-150)

 

Western Kentucky

The biggest wild card in the country might be the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Last season’s Conference USA runner-up enjoyed the spoils of a full season of quarterback Bailey Zappe and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, scoring more than 44 points per game with more than 430 passing yards per game. This might be the most interesting team in college football, but what will happen in the win-loss column?

Offense

Zappe is with the New England Patriots and Kittley is calling plays for Texas Tech, but there is a path in which this offense looks very similar. New OC Ben Arbuckle was by Kittley’s side the last three years for his rise as a play-caller. The new QB looks to be West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege, who has thrown for over 10,000 yards in Division I. West Florida transfer Austin Reed, who threw for over 7,500 yards and 78 touchdowns in two seasons, may be tough to hold off. He’s a gunslinger like Zappe, which is imperative in this offense. The bigger concern is Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley left, taking 227 catches and 3,304 receiving yards with them. Western Michigan transfer Jaylen Hall had 18 yards per reception over four seasons, and Malachi Corley (73 receptions, 691 yards, 7 TD) and Daewood Davis (43, 763, 8) were both in this four-wide offense last season. In other words, the dropoff may not be that bad. Reed may not have 62 touchdown passes or throw for 5,967 yards as Kittley did, but this will still be one of the most efficient passing attacks in the nation.

Defense

Teams are forced to adjust their offensive game plans when facing the Hilltoppers. In WKU’s five losses last season, they scored 35, 31, 31, 46 and 41 points. It will be hard to replace DeAngelo Malone, who went in the third round to the Atlanta Falcons after finishing as the program leader in sacks. Top tackler Antwon Kincade also left, along with defensive coordinator Maurice Crum, who joined the staff at Ole Miss. The defense should be in good hands with an experienced coordinator in Tyson Summers, who was a defensive analyst for Florida last season and served as Colorado’s DC in 2019-20. There is a bit of a learning curve to working with an offense such as this one, but he inherits a group that only allowed 4.2 yards per carry. Teams try to run the ball against WKU to slow down the offense, so stuffing the run remains paramount. The bigger concern is with the secondary, which had 21 interceptions last season and finished 11 in turnover margin. That seems unlikely to happen again this year.

Outlook

WKU plays 13 games, so keep that in mind when looking at the win total of 8.5. They start in Week 0 with Austin Peay and then go all the way out to Hawaii in Week 1. They only have one bye and it comes in Week 2, so they’ll play 11 straight weeks to finish out the season, including three road games in the last four with a nonconference tilt against Auburn. My numbers put WKU at 8.48 wins, so basically right on the number. That’s assuming Doege and Reed end up good fits in this offense. The schedule isn’t very good, but it is grueling. I lean Over, but playing 11 straight weeks is not easy.

Pick: Over 8.5 (+ 120)

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