7 Reasons To Keep An Eye On Conference USA In 2017

7 Reasons To Keep An Eye On Conference USA In 2017
Photo: © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Don't sleep on Conference USA. For years, the league has taken a backseat to #MACtion and the #FunBelt, but C-USA is packed full of some of college football's best storylines in 2017.

At WKU, life after Jeff Brohm rests on the right arm of Mike White
A Western Kentucky offense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring (45.5 points per game) a season ago will have its fifth-year senior quarterback back behind center in 2017 -- but that's about it for continuity on offense.

Jeff Brohm is the head coach at Purdue now. Additional departures include the dynamic receiving duo of Tywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris, 1,600-yard running back Antony Wales, and monster left tackle Forrest Lamp. Still, the Hilltoppers will be favorites to win their third consecutive C-USA title.

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Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White passes against Louisiana Tech during the second half the C-USA championship game at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, KY, on December 3. Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

That sort of optimism is due, in large part, to the return of White -- an electrifying talent who rang up 4,363 yards through the air last season. And while he will wear the bulk of the expectations on his shoulders, White has help -- starting with new head coach Mike Sanford and four returners along a strong offensive line.

LA Tech could ruin WKU's run
One major roadblock in Western Kentucky's path to another Conference USA title resides in Ruston, LA, where Skip Holtz has quickly created an offensive force to be reckoned with in the 13-team league.

Winners of two of the past three C-USA West Division titles, the Bulldogs will be heavy favorites to make it three out of four in 2017. Quarterback J'Mar Smith takes over an offense that averaged more than 44 points per game last season and does so with surrounding hype and expectations turned all the way up. The redshirt sophomore is a different signal-caller than Holtz and quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay have excelled with in the past -- which is to say Smith is not a senior and he is a runner. The latter figures to add a new, more explosive dimension to the offense. The impact of the former remains to be seen.

Smith won't be alone by a long shot. Tech will feature a handful of playmakers on offense, including Tulane transfer Teddy Veal and one of the league's best backfields. On the other side of the ball, a dominant defensive line is anchored by Jaylon Ferguson -- who had 14.5 sacks in 2016.


FAU Football: Must-see TV?
Florida Atlantic is among the most intriguing teams in college football this season thanks to a handful of needle-moving additions, beginning with head coach Lane Kiffin.

The former Southern Cal, Tennessee, and Oakland Raiders head coach has had a rather tumultuous career to say the least. As Alabama's offensive coordinator for the past three seasons, his ability to conduct an offense has remained impressive, just as his personality has remained abrasive to some, which should -- at the very least -- make this a show worth watching.

Kiffin's offensive coordinator will be former Baylor play-caller Kendal Briles -- the son of Art Briles -- and his quarterback figures to be former Florida State and East Mississippi Community College standout De'Andre Johnson.

Johnson, a former four-star recruit, was dismissed by FSU in 2015 after punching a woman in a bar. Two years later, Johnson -- now a reclamation project -- endeared himself to viewers on Netflix's "Last Chance U" but fielded no FBS offers until FAU came calling in December.

UAB is back
One of the true feel-good stories in college football for 2017 is the return of the UAB football program after a two-year interruption. Following a six-win bowl season in 2014, the Blazers were shut down by the university due to financial concerns. Head coach Bill Clark and his staff will face a unique challenge in attempting to essentially restart from scratch.

The good news: the program has enjoyed facilities upgrades aplenty since it last fielded a team, and Clark has had no problem recruiting well and attracting FBS transfers. Specifically, former Middle Tennessee State quarterback A.J. Erdely gives the Blazers a trigger man who can get the job done within the league.

The not-so-good news: nothing is certain in UAB's first year back in the fold. Clark and his staff provide some much-needed continuity, but with a roster that consists almost entirely of freshmen and transfers, no one can be sure what to expect this fall. That being said, these aren't "The Replacements." On paper, UAB has enough talent to be a problem in conference play.


Butch Davis is also back (in Miami)
Let's start with a harsh reality for Butch Davis' new program: Florida International is located within 40 miles of arguably the highest concentration of prep football talent in the country, yet the Panthers have managed a grand total of 17 wins in the past five seasons. FIU's inability to cash in on premium leftovers is perplexing if not damning.

And while the firing of former head coach Mario Cristobal left some scratching their heads, it's hard to argue with the hiring of a former University of Miami coaching legend in Davis. NFL struggles and North Carolina irrelevance aside, Davis has FIU hoping it's found a head man with some recruiting wizardry left in the tank.

Of course, Davis will have his hands full with FAU's Lane Kiffin and USF's Charlie Strong vying for the same players -- to say nothing of the Gators, Seminoles, and 'Canes. But if anyone can turn things around in Miami, it may well be the architect of one of the most talented college football teams ever assembled.

Upset Alert: Six C-USA teams host Power Five opponents
In what amounts to a relatively significant reversal of circumstance, a half-dozen C-USA squads will play host to an opponent from a Power Five conference in 2017.

Middle Tennessee State and Southern Miss open the season with visits from Vanderbilt and Kentucky, respectively. UTSA will kick things off with Houston at the Alamodome. Mississippi State travels to Ruston, LA, to meet Louisiana Tech on September 9. Arizona will play UTEP at the Sun Bowl six days later, followed by North Carolina at Old Dominion on September 16.

Suffice to say that the league will have its fair share of opportunities to slay more traditional powers in some home environments never before seen on some of its campuses. Anything less than a simple majority of wins in those games would be a disappointment.

The C-USA is at the peak of its powers
Western Kentucky has ruled Conference USA of late, winning its second straight title on the strength of a high-powered offense led by quarterback Mike White in 2016. White is back -- along with seven preseason All-C-USA selections -- and, yet, the Hilltoppers are anything but runaway favorites this season.

That's in no way a knock against WKU -- the league is just deep. Louisiana Tech is arguably as talented as the defending champions, with many preseason polls penciling them in as West Division champs -- but UTSA, off its first-ever bowl trip, would like a word. The Hilltoppers, again, will enter 2017 as the most highly touted squad among the bunch, but Middle Tennessee State poses a very real threat out East -- and that's saying nothing of Old Dominion, a 10-win team from a season ago, that fancies itself ready to contend for the league title, as well.

No fewer than five teams can legitimately be taken seriously as a title contender within the conference. Seven went bowling a season ago, and that number figures to increase yet again. Western Kentucky could run the table -- or it could lose as many as four games.

The only thing that's certain is uncertainty. The league is as strong as its ever been, and the race to a conference crown will be fantastic theater.
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