It’s another year of change in Conference USA. New coaching faces and a program brought brought back from the dead headlines those very changes that will shape the league this year.
So what can we expect in 2017? Will those teams on the top from 2016 remain there? Which teams are considered sleepers, and what kind of impact will coaches that go by the names of Lane and Butch have for their respective teams?
Here is our look at what’s expected to be on the rise, and what (or who) may be looking at a bit of a slide in Conference USA.
Conference USA Fallers
FIU may have a shiny new coach with Butch Davis, but count this as a transition year at best in Miami. The roster is in need of a big-time upgrade in talent and that’s not going to be cured overnight. With games against some of the top dogs in the conference, it’s tough to find a whole lot of wins in there.
Davis knows the Miami area well, but even if he can revive his coaching career, there is a long climb to the top. And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
It might be a slow burn, and the chances are good of getting this thing over the hump in Southern Florida. But as they say, it might be best to just focus on getting better every day in 2017.
The Monarchs tied for first in the East last year, but lost out on a shot for the league championship because of the head-to-head loss to Western Kentucky. There’s enough returning talent to still be in the upper division of the league, but coach Bobby Wilder will have his work cut out for him to replicate the success of 2016.
Gone is starting quarterback David Washington. Losing a starting quarterback almost always means at least a slight drop-off in production on offense. Gone too is the entire starting linebacker unit. That’s not a good combination to have when looking to contend for a league championship.
The call here is for the Monarchs to still be good, but with a bit of a fall back because of the losses in the key personnel department.
Of any program in Conference USA, Marshall has the least patience when it comes to tolerating underachieving. Enter stage left, Doc Holliday’s crew which has regressed over the last two years. Granted, a 13-1 season in 2015 is flat-out getting it done, and a 10-3 season in 2015 is good enough.
However, nobody saw the train wreck of 3-9 coming that derailed things last year. That’s more than enough to pull the fire alarm in Huntington, and you could make the case that there aren’t too many coaches in more of a precarious position than good ‘ol Doc.
The trouble here is that it looks like only a modest improvement is in the cards unless something totally miraculous happens. There are three new starters on the offensive-line and not a whole lot of weapons to cover up for mistakes up front.
The optimist points to some returning talent on the defensive side of the ball, while the pessimist sees a lot of the pieces that gave up over 35 points per contest last year. It may be bowl game or bust for Doc’s chances to keep the title of town sheriff beyond this year. (Yeah, I tried that horrible pun.)
Conference USA Risers
J'Mar Smith had a nice spring game for the 'Dogs, looks poised for a big 2017 campaign. https://t.co/diGXM6eweL
— BleedTechBlue (@BleedTechBlue) April 11, 2017
Let me introduce you to your rising star of the conference. Louisiana Tech’s offense is ready to produce again, it just needs a distributor to make the engine hum. That’s where 6-foot-1, 222-pound sophomore J’Mar Smith comes in.
The Bulldogs lost some key weapons at receiver, but the two-sport star (he also plays baseball) is just the right quarterback to plug into the Tech offensive machine. He can dissect things quickly, is able to use his legs a little, and is athletic enough to make those around him better.
There’s no way the offensive production will be as good as 2016, but there’s little doubt Smith is one to watch develop as the season wears on. He has a legitimate shot to take the Bulldogs all the way to another West title and maybe more if the cards fall just right.
Instead of halftime music today, here's a random Lane Kiffin gif to hold you over for the next ten minutes. pic.twitter.com/sGkcGXE0t1
— FAU OwlAccess (@FAUOWLACCESS) April 22, 2017
Ahhh, not only is Butch Davis back in the college ranks as a head coach, but the one-man soap opera himself is in play in Boca Raton.
That’s right, the Owls landed themselves the coach they desperately wanted and now it’s time to light this thing up and let Lane Kiffin do whatever it is he’s going to do. All kidding aside, this is a pretty nice set up for the new man in town to succeed.
There have been some good recruiting classes building towards this year, the program sits smack dab in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in all of the country, and the league is more wide-open now than perhaps it has been for a couple of years.
Queue up the crazy, but you might want to queue up some bowl games soon at FAU as well.
This story would not be complete without proclaiming the return of football for the Blazers. And while the season isn’t expected to be much of a success on the field as things bake from scratch, you can bet there will be excitement and energy around this program in 2017.
Yeah there were issues that resulted in the disbanding of the program two years ago, but there has been a concerted effort to upgrade the facilities and culture for the long haul. Now the faithful are primed to get it all going again.
Coach Bill Clark has a Lord of the Rings type of expedition in front of him to resuscitate this program, but he’s shown he is more than capable. Go out and get ’em UAB.