There has been tremendous turnover for Conference USA since the conference’s formation in 1995. The University of Cincinnati, the University of Louisville, the University of South Florida, and Texas Christian University all left in 2005, leaving a massive void from which Conference USA never actually recovered. In addition, since 2005, the conference has seen seven more schools including leave for new conferences.
As of 2017, Conference USA seems to be turning a corner, as 13 teams now make up the conference, which encompasses an area from Florida to Texas to West Virginia. Of note is the return of the University of Alabama-Birmingham to the game of football after suspending team operations following the 2014 season.
Here we go with my Conference USA preview for 2017.
Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers (WKU) – If you want to see one of the most powerful offenses in the entire country, watch a football game involving Western Kentucky. Last year was one of the most successful in the history of WKU, as Quarterback Mike White threw for an astounding 4300+ yards and 37 touchdowns, Running Back Anthony Wales run for 1600+ yards, and Receivers Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris both earn an incredible 1400+ receiving yards. Of this group, only Mike White returns for 2017, but if he can even come close to replicating his performance from last season, then we will once again see unbelievable numbers put up by the Hilltopper offense. Coach Mike Sanford has the unenviable task of replacing Bobby Petrino when the latter recently left for Louisville. In his short tenure at WKU, Sanford has continued to build upon an already present and growing tradition of success found on the football field. With a dynamic offense leading the way, I see no reason to doubt that Western Kentucky can repeat as Conference USA East Division Champions as well as Conference Champions.
Louisiana Tech University Bulldogs (LaTech) – Western Kentucky had a nearly invincible offense in 2016, but Louisiana Tech was not far behind. In fact, Quarterback Ryan Higgins actually surpassed WKU Quarterback Mike White in nearly every statistical category. The downside is that the Bulldogs must find a new Quarterback to replace Higgins, and two new receivers to replace now NFL stars Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson. Louisiana Tech has shown a history over the last several seasons of being capable of reloading with new talent when the old stars graduate, so I am optimistic that Coach Skip Holtz will be able to fill those holes. Look for another successful season for the Bulldogs, even if it will be a fight to the end for the West Division Title.
University of Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (USM) – While 2016 might not have gone quite as planned for Southern Miss, there were certainly moments to give fans optimism for 2017. The Golden Eagles finished 2016 with a victory in the New Orleans Bowl, which is notable because Receiver Allenzae Staggers, who is returning for this season, set New Orleans Bowl records with 11 catches and 230 receiving yards for the game. Running Back Ito Smith comes back as well, combining with Staggers to create a formidable running and passing offensive combination. The Golden Eagles have an uphill climb to get to the top of the West Division, but if they can win on the road at Louisiana Tech, it will put Southern Miss in control. I see Southern Miss improving on 2016 with a solid season in 2017, making every stride possible for the chance to play for the Conference USA Championship.
Florida Atlantic University Owls (FAU) – To be blunt, Florida Atlantic was bad last season. With only three wins to their record in 2016, it was obvious that something had to change to bring successful football back to FAU. Enter new Coach Lane Kiffin, formerly of the University of Tennessee, the University of Southern California, and most recently the Offensive Coordinator at the University of Alabama. Kiffin has his work cut out for him, as he takes over a program that has been an inconsistent performer for quite some time. The biggest redeeming feature for Coach Kiffin in 2017 is that Florida Atlantic is returning a powerful backfield that includes Running Backs Devin Singletary and Gregory Howell, Junior. Singletary and Howell combined for over 1900 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns a season ago, stats that are sure to turn heads for all the right reasons. If Lane Kiffin can get his team motivated, then I see Florida Atlantic having tremendous success in Conference USA for years to come. Whether or not that happens in 2017 specifically is up for debate.
As a general rule, I try not to include a team from a non-power conference, such as Conference USA, in the disappointment category, unless a team is egregiously overrated or coming off a miracle season. I do not see a team falling into this category for Conference USA in 2017
Conference USA has seen the same team win the conference championship each of the past two seasons. Despite players coming and going, Western Kentucky remains the favorite to win a third consecutive Conference USA Championship. The road is far from smooth, however, as Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, the two schools WKU has beaten in the last two conference championship games, continue to hover at the top of the conference, in contention to spoil the party.
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