The Conference USA has been dominated by UAB from a consistent perspective with making it to the last three championship games while winning two of those. However, the depth of the league appears to be much stronger with Florida Atlantic, UTSA, and Western Kentucky all improving. Additionally, Marshall brings back a lot of returning starters from a year ago. Will it be enough to unseat the Blazers? Now, let’s unveil our 2021 Conference USA standings predictions.
7. Old Dominion
The Monarchs have much to look forward to in 2021. They were one of the few teams to not play at all in 2020 and finished 1-11 in 2019. Old Dominion hasn’t tasted victory since the opening game of the 2019 season. Help could be on the way at quarterback as UCF transfer Darriel Mack will be under center. With sitting out last year, the rebuild is in full effect and should not expect more than a win this year.
6. Florida International
The Panthers were winless in five tries a year ago as Butch Davis’ club took a step back. They should be improved with 18 starters returning for the 2021 season. However, improved quarterback play will be a must. Florida International did not have a signal-caller that even completed 50% of their passes. Improvement might tough to see with such a tough schedule though.
5. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders actually finished 2020 strong winning three of their last five games of the season. North Carolina State transfer Bailey Hockman should be an improvement at the quarterback position. 10 starters return on defense so an improvement on that side of the ball should be there. But, can they improve enough to get into the top half of the division?
The 49ers are one of our most improved teams in the league for 2021. If things bounce their way, we could see a 3-1 start to the season. Head coach Will Healy is in his third year at the helm and this is clearly his most talented team. Charlotte does only return five starters on defense however they have added seven power five transfers which should help bridge the gap.
3. Western Kentucky
The Hilltoppers come in as the most inexperienced team in the league with only 10 starters returning. They did end the season with three straight wins which should bring momentum into the season. They could go from average to great at the quarterback position with Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe under center. Zappe threw for over 10,000 yards and 78 touchdowns in his career.
2. Florida Atlantic
Speaking of transfers, N’Kosi Perry formerly of the Miami Hurricanes lands here as the starter for the Owls. Additionally, Johnny Ford is here from USF which should give FAU a much stronger offensive unit. The defense returns 10 starters from a team that averaged giving up only 17 points per contest in 2020.
If you still believe that defense wins championships then having Marshall at the top will prove to be a solid pick. The Thundering Herd were tops in the league in only giving up 13 points per game and return eight guys from that unit. True Freshman Grant Wells was excellent in his first year, particularly if you take out the game against Rice. This is a perfect combination for Marshall to get back to the championship game.
We start with Texas El-Paso bringing up the final spot in the west division of Conference USA. The Miners do return 11 starters for an offense that was very inconsistent. A case could be made for UTEP to start the season 4-1 with home games against Bethune Cookman, New Mexico, and Old Dominion in between road games at New Mexico State and Boise State. However, that potential start will not bring them out of the last spot in the league.
The Owls completed what was one of the biggest upsets in conference play last year as they beat Marshall 20-0. Incredibly, Rice had one of the stronger defenses in the league while relinquishing only 19 points per game. However, the offense didn’t always follow suit. Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey will attempt to bring some improvement to an offensive unit that struggled to consistently score points a year ago.
5. Southern Mississippi
The fourth and fifth spots are razor-thin between Southern Mississippi and North Texas. The Golden Eagles might be the more talented team overall. However, the difference is at the quarterback position. The top two quarterbacks from a year ago are gone in terms of productivity. Trey Lowe, who started three games, will be pivotal to the Golden Eagles’ success.
4. North Texas
The Mean Green come into 2021 with the best offense in the league. They should only improve on their 34 points per game average with Austin Tune fully entrenched as the starter. Why on earth would they be picked fourth? They have one of the worst defenses in the league as our model has them ranked 10th among 14 teams in the conference.
3. Louisiana Tech
In what you would expect under head coach Skip Holtz, the offense has not been a problem for the Bulldogs. Even though they lose four starters from that unit, quarterback Luke Anthony returns as a 62% thrower with 16 touchdowns and only five picks. If Louisiana Tech can improve on their 35 points surrendered per game, they could challenge for a title.
It’s a mere percentage points difference between number one and number two in the west division. The Roadrunners return 21 starters from a seven-win team from a year ago. Sincere McCormick returns as the best running back in the conference with nearly 1,500 yards a year ago. If Frank Harris can remain healthy, UTSA could be within striking distance when they host UAB on November 20th.
There are some losses at the running back and wide receiver position that are of concern. However, UAB still is the most talented team in this conference. Tyler Johnston will look to lead this team on offense along with Bryson Lucero. The defense is the top in the conference and figures to stay that way and will make it to their fourth straight Conference USA Championship Game.
Conference USA Championship Game
Marshall vs UAB
This will be a rematch of last year’s championship game in which UAB defeated Marshall 22-13. We expect more of the same in what will still be a defensive struggle. Even though this is a new year, we expect a similar result with UAB winning the conference once again.