Conference USA preview: UTSA, Western Kentucky and UAB at top of heap

Sports

It’s OK to admit it: It is sometimes difficult to remember which teams are in Conference USA. The roster has changed pretty frequently, and while recent seasons had seen relative stability, that’s all come crashing to a halt with the departure of three programs for the Sun Belt (Marshall, Southern Miss, Old Dominion) and the impending departure of six more to the AAC. There will be nine programs in C-USA in 2023, and only five of those will have also belonged to the 14-team iteration of 2021.

That said, what the conference may lack in stability, it makes up for in chaos and parity. No one tends to stand too far from the pack, and you get as many close games and tight finishes as you could possibly want.

It appears that could be the case again in 2022. The three programs projected to top the heap (UTSA, Western Kentucky and UAB) are separated by just four spots in the SP+ rankings, and they are all projected to win an average of either 5.8 or 5.9 conference games. Head-to-head matchups — WKU at UTSA on Oct. 8, UAB at WKU on Oct. 22, UTSA at UAB on Nov. 5 — could decide the conference hierarchy, and at least one Texas sleeper could be close enough to the pack to make noise as well.

We talked about C-USA’s bottom six projected teams last week. Today, let’s talk about the top five.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11)


2021 recap

Conference USA produced four teams that finished in the SP+ top 60 last season — two in each (now-defunct) division. But while Western Kentucky, UAB and Marshall went a combined 4-10 in games decided by one score, UTSA went 6-0. Guess who won the conference?

A 34-31 win over UAB gave UTSA the West division crown (and ended a three-year streak of conference title game appearances for the Blazers), and while WKU cruised to the East title, the Hilltoppers lost twice to Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners — first via a 52-46 decision in early October, then via a 49-41 final in the C-USA championship in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, if the UTEP of the first half of the season and the North Texas of the second half could have joined forces, the resulting Mean Green Miners could have contended as well. UTEP bowled for the first time in seven years thanks to a 6-1 start (which was followed by a 1-5 finish), while North Texas started 1-6 and finished 5-1.


2022 projections

Traylor became a hot name in coaching circles but remained at UTSA, and his squad returns about 14 starters, including quarterback Frank Harris. That’s obvious reason for excitement, but nailing every close game is really difficult to do twice, and at the very least UAB brings plenty of exciting pieces back. SP+ likes WKU too, but the Hilltoppers are facing life without quarterback Bailey Zappe, his offensive coordinator and two receivers who combined for more than 3,300 yards. Ranking them alongside UTSA and UAB requires a bit of faith.


Burning questions

What can UTSA do for an encore? For a moment, there was a groundswell for College GameDay to visit El Paso for the UTSA-UTEP game last Nov. 6. Alas, UTEP fell to Florida Atlantic the week before, and GameDay went to CincinnatiTulsa instead. But UTSA held up its end of the bargain, rolling past the Miners on its way to an 11-0 start before stumbling against North Texas. The Roadrunners rebounded to conquer WKU a second time and finished 12-2, easily the best season in the history of the program.

The thing about a best-ever season, though, is it’s hard to top. UTSA enjoyed a few blessings from the god of turnovers: Based on national averages for fumble recoveries and the ratio of interceptions to pass breakups, their turnover margin should have been about +2.4. It was +13 instead. That helps when so many of your games are going down to the wire.

The god of turnovers is notoriously fickle, so the Roadrunners probably can’t rely on as many bounces in 2022. But the combination of sturdy quarterbacking and special teams can also help in close games. Harris returns after combining 3,177 passing yards with 675 (non-sack) rushing yards, and he returns a dynamite trio in receivers Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus and De’Corian Clark. The line is both experienced and enormous — four seniors with 500-plus snaps return, and they average 6-foot-3, 328 pounds — but 1,400-yard running back Sincere McCormick is gone, as are his top two backups. Sophomore Jaylon Lott is the leading returning back; he had seven carries for 19 yards.

As for special teams, UTSA loses an excellent place-kicker in Hunter Duplessis but returns punter Lucas Dean and his 43-yard net average.

The defense had its moments in 2021 but faded down the stretch, allowing an average of 39 points over the last four games. The run defense was trustworthy, but the pass defense was not; that might flip around in 2022, as the front seven replaces four starters but the secondary returns three veterans and adds both West Virginia transfer Nicktroy Fortune and LSU transfer Pig Cage.

SP+ projects only one likely loss for the Roadrunners (at Texas) with four other games projected within one score either way. But they’ll probably need to improve quite a bit to offset regression in close-game fortune. That’s easier said than done.

Can UAB keep delivering the big plays? For the first four years of UAB’s return to action under Bill Clark, the Blazers delivered success primarily through defense. They improved from 105th to 45th to 28th to ninth in defensive SP+ over that period, but the offense averaged just a 107.8 ranking.

In 2021, the offense leaped to 48th. Efficiency numbers were decent — 42nd in success rate but 94th in three-and-out rate — but the Blazers were fantastic at the haymaker. They were fifth in marginal explosiveness (my measure of the magnitude of big plays, adjusted for field position), and they did it in a fun and physical way.

Running back DeWayne McBride averaged 4.1 yards after contact per carry, easily the most among FBS backs with 200-plus carries (Michigan State‘s Kenneth Walker III was second at 3.8). Tight end Gerrit Prince averaged 10.5 yards after catch, and receiver RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders averaged 15.8. Risk-free explosiveness — the ability to create huge gashes without having to go deep or throw aggressive passes — is a football cheat code, and UAB unlocked it, scoring at least 31 points in eight of 13 games.

Of course, the defense allowed 30-plus four times, including in all four losses. The Blazers slipped to 31st in defensive SP+, limiting big plays but suffering severe issues in the red zone (129th in red zone TD rate allowed). They will need to solve those problems because while McBride returns for what could be a thrilling junior season and the UAB offensive line returns three potential all-conference performers, Prince and Johnson-Sanders are both gone, and replacing their organic explosiveness could be tricky. They still have deep threat Trea Shropshire and his absurd 26 yards per catch, but he’s more classically all-or-nothing. Quarterback Dylan Hopkins won’t have the same security blankets.

The secondary returns six of its top seven, but the front seven has to solve red zone problems while replacing three of four linemen and two havoc-heavy linebackers. There are seniors everywhere (plus a blue-chip transfer in former Alabama linebacker Jackson Bratton), so all might be well. But new playmakers need to emerge.

What can WKU do without the HBU crew? It felt like we were witnessing a transfer portal tactic from the future: WKU head coach Tyson Helton, desperately trying to fix an offense that ranked just 117th in offensive SP+ in 2020, basically imported one from FCS.

Helton brought in Houston Baptist offensive coordinator Zach Kittley, who in turn brought quarterback Bailey Zappe and a handful of receivers, including soon-to-be star Jerreth Sterns, and, poof, brilliant offense! Zappe threw for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns — in one season!! — and WKU exploded to second in scoring offense and ninth in offensive SP+.

Kittley’s offense, an Air Raid for the 2020s, was thrilling. Now most of it is gone. Kittley will be calling plays at alma mater Texas Tech, while Zappe was drafted by the Patriots, Sterns signed with Tampa Bay and No. 2 wide receiver Mitchell Tinsley transferred to Penn State. Three starting linemen left too.

Helton promoted Ben Arbuckle (a Kittley protégé) and Josh Crawford to co-coordinator positions, but he’ll be again leaning on transfers — quarterbacks Jarret Doege (West Virginia) and Austin Reed (West Florida Argonauts), receivers Michael Mathison (Akron) and Jaylen Hall (Western Michigan) — to maintain the magic.

With such an explosive offense, the WKU defense was on the field a lot and suffered, slipping from 37th to 90th in defensive SP+. They blitzed well and limited big plays but were terribly inefficient on average. New coordinator Tyson Summers takes over a unit that returns six starters and adds starter-caliber transfers in tackle Lorenzo Hernandez (Monmouth), linebacker Desmyn Baker (Rice) and safety Rome Weber (Wyoming). The defense will need to improve, both because it simply wasn’t good enough and because the offense could regress.

Is North Texas’ late-2021 surge sustainable? It seemed for a while that Seth Littrell would become the poster child for missing your window. After leading North Texas to back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2017-18 — two years after he inherited a 1-11 team, no less — Littrell was on plenty of hot lists for power-conference jobs, but he remained in Denton and proceeded to lose 20 of his next 29 games. It was fair to wonder if his time at UNT was coming to an end. Instead, his Mean Green won five straight to salvage a bowl bid and, potentially, Littrell’s job.

The difference was stark.

Average score, first six games vs. FBS: opponent 38.5, UNT 19.5
Last six games: UNT 32.7, opponent 18.7

The season-long numbers still weren’t great — 100th in offensive SP+, 88th on defense — but the trajectory was good. The pass defense improved dramatically, and a run-heavy, up-tempo offense found a decent rhythm.

Running back Ikaika Ragsdale emerged as a solid complement for 1,200-yard rusher DeAndre Torrey late in the season; with Torrey gone, Ragsdale and 2020 contributor Oscar Adaway III (injured last fall) will take on heavier roles behind a line that returns four starters. It wouldn’t hurt to get more out of the passing game; Austin Aune completed just 51% of his passes, and while three returning receivers, led by Roderic Burns, averaged 14.2 yards per catch, it was with a ghastly 51% catch rate.

Veteran coordinator Phil Bennett’s defense was responsible for a majority of last year’s improvement, and while Bennett can usually unearth playmakers, he has a lot to replace. Linebacker (and tackling machine) KD Davis and safety DeShawn Gaddie should at least provide stability.

I’m skeptical about UNT’s ability to maintain last November’s level of play, but hey, I didn’t expect it in November either.

Is UTEP a rising program or a flash in the pan? There are few more uplifting stories in college football than when UTEP is winning football games. The fan base is proud and supportive when it’s given a reason to be, the Sun Bowl is a brilliant and beautiful venue, the Miners’ colors are just the right shade of orange … it all comes together nicely. And rarely. They have bowled just three times in 16 years and haven’t won more than eight games since 1988.

That made 2021’s early hot streak a thrill. Granted, they benefited significantly from schedule strength — they were 7-0 against teams that finished 99th or worse in SP+ and 0-6 against anyone better — but they were tough, physical, explosive and easy to root for.

The Miners return 15 starters. Quarterback Gavin Hardison avoids pressure and wings balls downfield, and while he loses excellent big-play targets in Jacob Cowing and Justin Garrett, he still has Tyrin Smith and Reynaldo Flores (combined: 46 catches, 774 yards). More importantly, he has running back Ronald Awatt and a mean line. This offense could desperately use some consistency — they were second in marginal efficiency but 111th in success rate — but it will be experienced, at least.

Defensively, there’s more to like. The Miners were sturdy up front and return four players who recorded double-digit tackles for loss: end Praise Amaewhule, tackle Keenan Stewart and senior linebackers Tyrice Knight and Breon Hayward. They couldn’t contain particularly explosive offenses (Boise State, UTSA, Fresno State), but there aren’t a ton of those on the schedule. In fact, UTEP again plays eight opponents projected 100th or worse in SP+. The Miners’ odds of bowling again are consequently solid.


My 10 favorite players

QB Frank Harris, UTSA. Despite the presence of Sincere McCormick, Harris saw a lot more put on his plate in 2021, and he thrived, finishing 22nd in Total QBR with a 27-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio. He’s a hell of a scrambler, too.

RB DeWayne McBride, UAB. Seriously, though: 4.1 yards per carry after contact! McBride is one of the nastiest backs in the country. Get to know him.

RB Oscar Adaway III, North Texas. Losing a 1,200-yard rusher in DeAndre Toney could hurt, but if Adaway is fully recovered from an August ACL tear, UNT could be just fine. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry with a 51% success rate in 2020, and he could team up well with another sophomore, Ikaika Ragsdale.

WR Trea Shropshire, UAB. The Blazers might benefit from Shropshire making a few more mundane plays, but topping 700 yards on only 27 catches shows he has elite explosiveness.

RG Quantavious Leslie, WKU. The Hilltoppers suffered all sorts of attrition on offense, but they still have Leslie, who, as a freshman, earned first-team PFF all-conference honors and missed just 1.3% of his blocks all season.

DT Darius Shipp, WKU. At 6-1, 305 pounds, the senior from Olive Branch, Mississippi, occupies blockers well, but he’s also a hell of a playmaker, recording 13 run stuffs, taking part in 11 tackles for loss and breaking up three passes.

DE Praise Amaewhule, UTEP. While Shipp is a big guy with quickness, Amaewhule is a smaller lineman (6-3, 245) with toughness. He and Jadrian Taylor make for a lovely pass rush combo at end (they combined for 12 sacks), but Amaewhule also recorded 13 run stuffs to go with three forced fumbles and eight pass breakups. And he was fourth on the team in tackles. Busy guy.

LB KD Davis, North Texas. Davis attempted a tackle every 6.3 plays and only missed eight of them all season. Oh yeah, and 16 of them were behind the line of scrimmage. It’s pretty hard to top that.

LB Breon Hayward, UTEP. Like Davis, another tackling machine/playmaker combo. He attempted a tackle every 7.1 plays, and he made 20 run stuffs, the most on a team full of run stoppers.

DB Ken Robinson, UTSA. The junior from Grand Prairie, Texas, can play corner or safety, and he can make plays both near (four TFLs) and far from the line of scrimmage (seven pass breakups). He and Corey Mayfield Jr. make a lovely tandem.


Anniversaries

In 1967, 55 years ago, UTEP won a bowl game. Bobby Dobbs’ Miners won their second Sun Bowl in three years, with future Green Bay Packer Billy Stevens named MVP in both wins. Down 7-0 against John Vaught’s Ole Miss Rebels, Stevens led UTEP on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to seal a 14-7 victory.

Why is this noteworthy? Wins over a Vaught team were always pretty impressive, but beyond that it was UTEP’s last bowl win to date. They’re 0-7 since.

In 1977, 45 years ago, Hayden Fry’s North Texas went 9-2. Fired from SMU, Fry resurrected his head coaching career (with help from an offensive coordinator named Bill Snyder) in Denton. Things clicked in his fifth season, as the Mean Green beat SMU and Memphis on the way to nine wins, then did it again the next year. Over two years, they lost only to Mississippi State (twice), Florida State and Texas. Then Fry took the Iowa job.

In 2002, 20 years ago, WKU won a national title. Jack Harbaugh’s last season as Hilltoppers head coach produced the school’s only championship, as they beat the top three seeds — Western Illinois, Georgia Southern and McNeese — to win the FCS title. After a pair of nip-and-tuck contests, they jumped on top of McNeese early, took a 24-6 lead early in the third quarter and cruised, 34-14, behind Jon Frazier’s 169 rushing yards. They jumped to FBS six years later.

In 2012, 10 years ago, UTSA went 8-4 in its first FBS season. In 2006 came the feasibility study. In 2009, the school hired Larry Coker as head coach. In 2011, the Roadrunners attempted their first and only FCS campaign, going 4-6. And in 2012, they moved up to FBS, beating FBS teams South Alabama, New Mexico State, Idaho and Texas State in the process. Nine years later, they won their first conference title.

In 2017, five years ago, UAB picked up right where it left off. It remains one of the most shockingly impressive seasons in recent history. UAB went 6-6 in Bill Clark’s debut as head coach in 2014, then proceeded to drop football for impossibly dumb and political reasons. Within a year, the school decided to bring the program back, confirming just how dumb the entire episode had been. And after two years off, Clark somehow crafted a roster good enough to go 8-5 in 2017, then do the same or better ever since. It’s mind-blowing that the episode happened at all, and it’s even wilder that it didn’t cost the Blazers even the slightest amount of quality. Bill Clark: good coach.

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