2022 G5 Preview: C-USA Power Rankings
The C-USA may be on the brink of death, but it's still playing this year!
This is the second of five conference power rankings this offseason, corresponding with my G5 preview series. Full team previews can be found underneath each team subhead, and also on this home page. Every preview, including the archives, is available for only $5 a month or $50 a year via the button below. If you’re already a subscriber or can’t swing the purchase but would like to support the newsletter, you can also hit the share button below.
It’s no secret that the C-USA has its back against the wall. Three programs are fighting to escape the conference for the Sun Belt this season, six more are set to depart for the American shortly after.
The five who appear set on staying behind aren’t exactly the kind of groups you’d want to hang your hat on as a conference – and their decisions to stick around weren’t exactly rousing defenses of the league’s viability, given that MTSU and Western Kentucky tried to dip to the MAC and the trio of FIU, Louisiana Tech and UTEP haven’t seemed pleased terribly pleased with their new lot in life.
Yet, before this iteration of the C-USA dissolves (or at least kind of before), there is another season of football to talk about. There could be anywhere from 11 to 14 teams in the league this year battling for the conference crown, and though I’ve lumped the three departures – Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi – in with the Sun Belt for the sake of these previews, those remaining schools have teams worth previewing and in the case of this story, worth slotting into tiers and rankings.
For those interested, I have included some ghost rankings at the bottom if that trio does stick around for one more year.
Undergoing a serious rebuild or on the verge of a firing.
Florida International Panthers
I like the Mike MacIntyre hire. I do. But this roster was decimated by transfers and draft declarations and will be well under the 85-man scholarship limit, and is looking almost exclusively for signs of life moving forward this season. Wideout Tyrese Chambers is going to put up huge numbers and the defensive tackle group of Jeremy Moore, Travonte O’Neal and Jeramy Passmore is good, but that’s about it. Success this year comes from finding foundational pieces for the future on a young roster, not from winning games.
Some shot at a bowl game, some fun players, but not good enough to make real noise.
It’s probably now or never for Mike Bloomgren, who has tried to install the smart-school Phoenix model at Rice and just hasn’t found the core of talent to build around yet. If he doesn’t at least do that this year, he’s probably out the door.
That’s not impossible, it bears mentioning, just unlikely. There is talent here – leading rusher Ari Broussard returns behind four offensive linemen with starting experience, Jake Bailey is a star in the slot and the bones of a great 2020 defense return, though those bones took a serious thrashing last season and need to rekindle the magic by finding some new stars.
But a huge question mark remains at quarterback, a constant issue of this tenure, and no one on the roster is answering it without a huge jump in development this offseason. Maybe the rest of the team will be strong enough to overcome lackluster quarterback play, but it hasn’t been since Bloomgren’s arrival.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech will not be without its limitations this season. The Bulldogs have very little to boast from a disastrous defense outside of linebacker Tyler Grubbs and are entering year one of a rebuild there under former Stephen F. Austin DC Scott Power. They’re also shifting from traditional spread to air raid under new head coach Sonny Cumbie, and that can always take a few years to really click.
But if TCU transfer Matthew Downing – a Cumbie recruit – can click into place, the Bulldogs have Smoke Harris (71 receptions, 756 yards), Tre Harris (41, 600), Griffin Hebert (27, 289) and Bub Means (22, 376) (with former blue-chipper Devonta Lee joining the room) all back at wide receiver and could be electric through the air from the jump. Whether that’s enough for a bowl berth is going to depend a lot on what Louisiana Tech can do in hinge matchups against South Alabama, UTEP, Charlotte and Rice. Wins over SFA and (maybe, if they stay) Southern Miss seem likely, as do losses to Missouri, Clemson, UAB, UTSA, North Texas and (maybe, if they stay) ODU.
Intriguing, but not likely to compete for a title without a few players or coaches seriously exceeding expectations.
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
MTSU just knows how to get to bowl games under Rick Stockstill, and despite major losses at safety with Reed Blankenship departing and Greg Grate Jr. transferring, it seems that the ceiling and floor are both right around bowl eligibility again this season.
The Blue Raiders will need a full season of Chase Cunningham playing as he did in his five healthy weeks as a starter, and it will need an experienced and very strong defensive line to step into a leading role defensively, but there’s no real reason to count Stockstill out at this point.
Dana Dimel’s bet on JUCOs paid off with a bowl berth in 2021, and the Miners return a good chunk of that roster, but they’ve also seen the risks associated with that kind of building come to fruition. Star receiver Jacob Cowing transferred to Arizona, No. 2 receiver Justin Garrett is graduating and three members of the secondary depart.
There’s continuity here, especially at quarterback with Gavin Hardison and in the defensive front (led by end Praise Amaewhule), but new contributors are going to need to emerge in the passing game skill corps on both sides of the football, and UTEP is probably going to need to shift strengths a bit.
The front is good enough on defense that UTEP can make up for some growing pains in the secondary if it leans more on havoc plays, but that really wasn’t its style last year. On the other side of the ball, a more efficient version of Hardison should be helpful with those new receivers, but this was a big play or nothing offense last year. Improvement from Deion Hankins and the running game writ large wouldn’t hurt either.
If UTEP can make those shifts – and if the growing pains aren’t too severe – another bowl berth is absolutely possible here.
Charlotte’s fate is going to ride on quarterback Chris Reynolds. When the soon-to-be-fifth-year starter was good last year, Charlotte won. When he wasn’t, it lost. The defense is starting over with a new coordinator and will be a non-factor, the receiving corps – led by Grant DuBose, Elijah Spencer and Victor Tucker – is going to be excellent. Shadrick Byrd and Calvin Camp both look set to return at halfback after providing a breakthrough on that front last year. I have no worries about the line.
It all just comes back to Reynolds, and his ability to limit bad games. If he can put together something like a 2,800-yard, 30 TD, 8 INT season on a 65 percent completion rate as a baseline, without any bad games? Charlotte’s bowling, and might have the best offense in the league. He’s flashed that ability.
He’s gone above 2,500 yards twice and was on pace for it with a full 12 games in 2020. He threw 26 TDs to 9 INTs in 2021. He hit 64.9 percent of his throws as a freshman and 63.8 last year. It’s not like he can’t do this. But he needs to deliver a full season of competent, top-five QB in the C-USA caliber play and let the skill talent do the rest. If he can’t, Healy’s seat may heat up real quick with the AAC-bound 49ers looking better and better to prospective candidates as they pump more money into the program and as the city around it continues to grow.
Teams that can win a title if they find suitable answers for one or two major questions.
Florida Atlantic Owls
There’s a lot to like about this FAU team, and almost just as much to dislike. On the positive side, it brings back a proven, experienced quarterback in N’Kosi Perry, who was the least of the offense’s concerns a season ago. Halfback Johnny Ford is back too, and the defense returns a lot of very strong “athletic potential” pieces. Head coach Willie Taggart has engineered quick leaps in quality before and can absolutely do so ago.
On the negative end, he brought in a pair of failed P5 coordinators in Brent Dearmon on offense (formerly of Kansas, was fine at MTSU last year) and Todd Orlando on defense (formerly of USC and Texas) to tune up the units. The defense is losing a ton of production from the back-end, which was the best feature of a group that overachieved a season ago; the offense has yet to identify trustworthy receiver talent or pass blocking to help Perry out.
If you believe in Perry, in the rushing attack, in the recruiting production and in Taggart’s ability as a program builder, you believe a leap is incoming here. There’s no C-USA program with a higher natural ceiling than FAU save for maybe Marshall, and the talent isn’t bad by any means.
But that talent and the coach directing it has yet to prove its worth in Boca Raton, and while we’re not yet coming up on “now or never” time, we’d certainly be there with this program next year if Taggart again can’t deliver contention in the very weak East division.
North Texas Mean Green
North Texas saved head coach Seth Littrell from an almost guaranteed firing with its mid-season identity crisis last year. The Mean Green turned a 1-6 start into a 6-6 regular season with a bowl berth by eschewing the air raid and leaning instead on a nasty rushing attack, while a break-don’t-bend defense found its footing and established itself as a group that offenses simply could not beat with sustained drives.
It’s hard to imagine that Littrell doesn’t stick to that heading into 2022 given the success it just had, but the transition isn’t going to be seamless, which is what keeps North Texas here at No. 4 rather than in the upper echelon, as its play in the last half of 2021 would merit.
The Mean Green are going to need to find a new top running back and new havoc players on the defensive front. An efficient rushing attack and an aggressive defense are both a whole lot more sustainable long-term than a whole lot of other team builds but finding pieces to sustain that this season is going to be a major task for this staff.
If they can pull it off, North Texas is right up there with UAB and UTSA – at its best, it romped over the latter to end last season. If not, Littrell’s reprieve could prove short-lived.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky fell in love with the portal last season, signing an entire offense and riding it to the C-USA title game. Many of the players (and coach) responsible for that are gone, but Western Kentucky’s affection for transfers has remained, as it hopes to all but run it back with a new core of top-end talent plucked from the portal, surrounded by a much better core of in-house solutions than the Hilltoppers had entering last season.
Whether that blend pays off is going to depend heavily on a pair of things. Firstly, can West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege, Western Michigan wideout Jaylen Hall and Akron wideout Michael Mathison fill in for Bailey Zappe, Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley?
Secondly, were those late-seasoned defensive improvements legitimate, and can they continue into this season to pick up the slack for an offense that will, even under the best possible circumstances, take a step back? If the answer in both cases is “yes” or even resembles “yes,” WKU will romp to another East crown. If not? Well, somebody is going to have to win the damn thing.
The best of the best. Very few if any questions, should be favorites in every league game they play except for their head-to-head matchup.
The C-USA’s most stable program is, you guessed it, under complete control heading into 2022.
I have questions about the receiving corps with only one proven pass catcher returning as two tight ends and WR2 depart, and the defensive line has three starters to replace, but everything else here is rock solid – enough that UAB can comfortably pencil in nine or 10 wins. DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. are two of the best halfbacks in the league and play in a fantastically designed rushing attack, the secondary returns a ton of very strong players and the linebacker room is as good as it always is (read: very).
The question is more around beating UTSA for the West crown, and that’s where those two problem areas are going to come through. UAB is going to need targets for quarterback Dylan Hopkins to throw to so that it doesn’t fall victim to the dreaded “game-state” losses, and it’s going to need linemen who can pressure quarterbacks like Frank Harris to step forward.
Sincere McCormick, UTSA’s best offensive tackle (Spencer Buford), and one or two major pieces from every layer of the defense – none more valuable than cornerback Tariq Woolen – are gone, but everything else from last year’s champion is returning. Harris and wideout Zakhari Franklin look as ready as they’ll ever be to lead the show on offense, the middle of the defense is rock solid with starters back at nose guard, in both MLB spots and with first-teamer Rashad Wisdom back at safety.
The questions here are in the running game on offense, which will feature an all-new starting back – either Tye Edwards or DeAnthony Lewis – and the outside of the defense, which will need to replace Woolen and some solid edge rushers both on the defensive line and at linebacker. I love JUCO transfer Zah Frazier in the former spot, and there are plenty of viable pieces to take over on the edges, but those are questions all the same.
And on top of that, UTSA has to shift from the team on the hunt to the champion being hunted. That crown is heavy and proving you’re ready to wear it is a whole lot harder than claiming it.
Middle Tennessee State