Western Kentucky has dominated Conference USA the past two seasons. Will 2017 see much of the same?
The college football season is right around the corner, and it’s almost time to start firing up those tailgate grills. But before fans go and do that, it’s time to take a look at what each conference has to offer before the season starts. Leading up to the start of the season, SQ will have in-depth previews for every FBS conference. We last took a look at the B1G Ten, and today we move on to the Conference USA.
What Happened In 2016
Conference Champion: Western Kentucky (11-3)
Coach of the Year: Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech
After leading his team to the Conference USA title game for the second time in three seasons, Skip Holtz earned Coach of the Year honors. Holtz led his team to a 6-2 mark in division play, finishing with an overall record of 9-5. This marked Holtz’s third straight season with nine wins after going 4-8 in his debut season. His offensive pedigree ranked the Bulldogs atop the Conference USA in passing yards (5,087) and passing touchdowns (43) in 2016. In addition, Holtz developed a talented roster of players, tying a league-high with 13 selections to both the First and Second-All Conference USA teams.
Offensive Player of the Year: Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisiana Tech
Carlos Henderson made history in 2016 by becoming the first player in Conference USA history to win both the Offensive Player of the Year and the Special Teams Player of the Year. Henderson finished first in the nation in all purpose yardage, gaining 2,473 total yards across rushing, receiving, and kick returns. The junior also finished fourth in the nation with 23 total touchdowns (19 receiving, two rushing, and two kick returns). As a receiver, Henderson totaled 1,535 yards over 82 catches, giving him an average of 18.72 yards per reception.
Defensive Player of the Year: Trey Hendrickson, DE, Florida Atlantic
Continuing the year of firsts for award winners, Trey Hendrickson became the first player from Florida Atlantic to win the award. It was also the first time a defensive lineman had won the award since 2011. Hendrickson finished his career as the school’s all-time leader in sacks with 29.5, racking up 9.5 in his award-winning season. The 15 tackles for loss he registered ranked him second in the conference. And while he didn’t lead the conference in any general defensive categories, he made an impact with special teams by leading the nation with four blocked kicks.
Looking Ahead To 2017
Conference Favorite: Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky has won the past two Conference USA titles, and despite former head coach Jeff Brohm departing for Purdue, the Hilltoppers are still considered the top team in the conference. Taking over for Brohm is first-year head coach Mike Sanford, who was the offensive coordinator for Notre Dame the past two seasons. Sanford inherits a team that still has plenty of firepower on offense, including the conference’s top QB in Mike White.
White is a large reason for this team’s offensive success, finishing fifth in the nation in passing yards (4,363), second in yards per attempt (10.5), and third in passer rating (181.39). The senior brings plenty of big play ability to Sanford’s offense after ranking in the top three in pass plays of 20+, 30+, and 40+ yards.
No returning QB in the Group of 5 threw the ball better on deep passes than Western Kentucky’s Mike White. pic.twitter.com/tRtFYnZvjO— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 16, 2017
His continued success will lie in the hands of a supporting cast that includes three returning starters on the offensive line as well as junior running back D’Andre Ferby, who missed all of 2016 with a collarbone injury. When healthy, Ferby has shown he can be a powerful back, rushing for 650 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. Look for receiver Lucky Jackson to be a breakout candidate after averaging 15.19 yards per reception as a freshman last season.
On defense, the Hilltoppers will face a bit of difficulty having to replace some key starters at every level. However, with a talented secondary to build around, defensive coordinator Clayton White should be fine in his first season. An early matchup with Louisiana Tech could be a preview of the conference title game, but it’s also a measuring stick to see just where Sanford’s team is in comparison to teams in years past. Other than that, the schedule presents little difficulty with the toughest division game coming at home against Middle Tennessee.
Conference Dark Horse: Middle Tennessee
Louisiana Tech is a close second behind Western Kentucky, so the Bulldogs don’t necessarily fit the dark horse title. With that being said, there’s another team that’s going to give the Hilltoppers a run for their money in 2017. Middle Tennessee may not have represented the East division in the conference title game last season, but the Blue Raiders did actually finish tied atop the division with Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers got the nod by virtue of the head-to-head result during the regular season.
With the amount of changes that Western Kentucky is facing this season, this could be Middle Tennessee’s most opportune time to seize the throne. The Blue Raiders have one of the most deadly quarterback-receiver combos in the conference in QB Brent Stockstill and WR Richie James. Both put up great numbers last season, even on a national scale. Stockstill finished fifth in the nation with an average of 323.3 passing yards per game, while James finished fourth in receiving with 1,625 yards. That duo only scratches the surface of what this team brings to the table on offense, with plenty of other athletes ready to contribute this season.
Former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer has been hired to handle the defense, but he faces some challenges during his first season with the team. Even with an offense that can put up as much points as the Blue Raiders can, the team isn’t going to win very many games when it gives up over 35 points per game. The defensive line has to be rebuilt after losing a few starters but should get a boost from Mizzou transfer Walter Brady. Brady finished with seven sacks in 2015, the most in the nation by a freshman that season.
Team That Will Disappoint: Florida Atlantic
The future may seem brighter down in Boca with Lane Kiffin taking over the program, but all the hype that surrounds the reinvigorated program might be too much. Kiffin has already done a great job by reeling in some key transfers in the likes of John Franklin III, Tim Bonner, and De’Andre Johnson. However, there may be too many holes left to fill in order for this team to reach the expectations placed upon it due to Kiffin’s arrival.
Kiffin brought with him former Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, so the offense should be fun to watch. Johnson has the ideal skill set that Kiffin and Briles covet in a quarterback. His ability to create plays with his leg certainly gives him a leg up over incumbent starter Jason Driskel, but both players have unable to separate from one another during fall camp. Not being able to name a starting quarterback up to this point in camp could become problematic if this battle continues into the season.
One day closer. 🏈 pic.twitter.com/lJvNXDlAib— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) August 23, 2017
And while the offense faces struggles of its own, the defense may be in a far worse position. FAU ranked last in the Conference USA in three of four major defensive categories, including scoring defense (39.8), rushing defense (245.42), and total defense (513.8). That’s a lot of ground to make up if FAU is going to compete for a bowl berth this season. Kiffin brought in his brother Chris from Ole Miss to lead the defense, along with father Monte to be a consultant. Even with better coaching in place, it’s hard to see this unit making up enough ground in its first season.
There’s no doubt that FAU is in far better hands now than it was under previous leadership. However, the expectations that came with the arrival of Kiffin are just too high in the first year of his regime. Florida Atlantic should improve, but the team is probably one more season away from competing for the top conference spot.
Three Players To Watch:
1. Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky - It’s hard to believe that White was a marginally successful quarterback at USF just a few years ago. White transferred to Western Kentucky after the 2014 season and hasn’t looked back since. White became the second passer in school history to reach the 4,000-yard mark last in 2016. The redshirt senior thrived under Brohm’s offense and should continue to keep the pedal to the metal with Sanford taking over. At the very least, White should be able to repeat as second-team All-Conference USA.
2. Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee - If White is the No. 1 QB in the conference, then Stockstill is QB 1A. Stockstill already owns Middle Tennessee records in touchdown passes (61) and 300-yard passing games (14). He earned honorable mention All-Conference USA last season but might’ve had the chance to do better had he not missed the final three regular season games with a broken collarbone. There’s a lot expected of Stockstill in 2017, having already been named to Davey O’Brien, Maxwell, and Manning Award preseason watchlists.
3. Jaylon Ferguson, DE, Louisiana Tech - Ferguson should’ve been named Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year last year. He led the conference in tackles for loss (16) and sacks (14.5 sacks), which broke the previous school record. The junior was named a first team All-Conference USA selection for his production last season and looks to build upon that. And while Hendrickson was unique in the fact that he blocked four kicks on special teams, Ferguson tied for the conference lead in forced fumbles with four. He’s a special defensive player who’s going to make himself known on a national scale this season.
LA Tech Football 🏈 (@LATechFB) July 13, 2017
Most Important Conference Matchup: Middle Tennessee vs. Western Kentucky, Nov 17
While Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech could be a preview of the conference championship game, the inter-division game between Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky holds much more importance. These two teams will be battling it out throughout the season for the top spot in the East division. When these two teams face off in November it could decided who represents the division in the C-USA title game.
Both of these teams are going to bring plenty of firepower on offense, meaning this game will likely be a shootout. The last time these two teams met, they combined for 87 points. However, the Hilltoppers prevailed with the help of a blocked PAT in the second overtime. Given that this game is much later in the season and the division race could be tight, this could be one of the most exciting games fans see all year.
Conference USA often doesn’t get the love that it deserves. Last season, the conference sent seven teams to a bowl game, the most the conference has had since 2012. This season could see the same number of teams reach bowl games again, showing just how much this conference has improved over the last few years. There’s a lot of talk about the top teams in this conference like Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, and Middle Tennessee. However, the next tier of teams have the potential to surprise a lot of people in 2017.
Teams like Old Dominion, Southern Miss, and UTSA are all on the brink of catching up to the teams above them, with FAU and FIU not far behind them. The conference definitely gained a lot of attention this offseason with the coaching hires it made — Butch Davis at FIU, Kiffin at FAU, and Sanford at Western Kentucky — upping the level of intrigue with respect to what these coaches can do with these programs.
At the end of the day, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech are the top two teams in the conference and will more than likely end up playing against one another in the conference championship. These two teams should run the field early on, but don’t be surprised if teams like Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss are in their respective division races until the end.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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