Saturday, August 29, 2015

Five Questions: Conference USA

For our final group of questions we head to Conference USA. Rejoice friends, as this is the last Saturday we will be without football until next year.

1. Does Marshall rebuild or reload?
After a disjointed start to the Doc Holliday era (17-20 with one bowl appearance over his first three seasons), the Thundering Herd channeled their inner Bob Pruett by winning 23 games over the past two seasons, including their first conference title since 2002. While Marshall’s schedule was bereft of any heft last season, their scoring margin indicated they were a very good team. Their overtime loss to Western Kentucky prevented them from getting into one of the New Year’s Six bowls (even going undefeated, they may not have gotten in thanks to their soft schedule). I was quite disappointed by this development. While I don’t believe Marshall was good enough to hang with the true elites in college football last season, I really wanted to see how they matched up against a good, but not great Power 5 opponent like Arizona, Georgia Tech, Missouri, or Wisconsin. Alas, we had to settle for them pounding a fellow mid-major conference champion in Boca Raton. So where does Marshall go from here after losing their all-time leading passer, an NFL quality receiver, and six defensive starters. All told, the Herd return just eleven starters from last year’s squad. Will they suffer thanks to the loss of all that star power, or should we trust the recruiting rankings as most of the cognoscenti have and deem Marshall one of the teams to beat yet again in Conference USA?

2. Can Conference USA make any noise against Power 5 opponents?
Conference USA’s membership has been in flux over the past few seasons. Seven of their twelve members from the 2012 season now play in the American Athletic Conference. In replacing their ranks, Conference USA has called teams up from the Sun Belt, the FCS level, and like the Higgs boson particle, from nothing. As their better teams have flown the coop and been replaced by typically lesser squads, it is no surprise that Conference USA has struggled against Power 5 opponents over the past two seasons.
In the 2013 regular season, Conference USA teams went 3-21 against Power 5 opponents (not including the American even though that league maintained an automatic BCS spot in 2013) and lost by an average of 20.5 points per game. Two of those wins were courtesy of East Carolina, a team that is no longer part of Conference USA. The other came against Kansas, a team that barely qualifies as a Power 5 team. In 2014, Conference USA teams went 0-23 against Power 5 schools with the average margin of defeat coming by nearly 25 points. Now, Louisiana Tech did beat Illinois in the Texas Bowl, but well, I’ve already made the joke about a team barely qualifying as a Power 5 school, so I’ll just leave that one alone. In 2015, can the league be more competitive against Power 5 schools? Opening weekend presents a pair of opportunities with Western Kentucky traveling to Vanderbilt and Marshall hosting Purdue.

3. How will Charlotte fare in their FBS debut?
Yes, the Queen City has a college football team. The 49ers will begin their third season of play and first in the FBS in 2015. Charlotte added an FBS program at a very opportune time and has positioned themselves nicely as a future candidate for ACC expansion in 2022 (I’m only sort of kidding). What can we expect from an FBS neophyte?
Eight teams joined the FBS since 2007 and they compiled a rather respectable 43-54 record in their first season in the big leagues. However, a pair of teams (Western Kentucky and Texas-San Antonio) was able to pad their record with games against FCS or Division II schools thanks to their status as an independent and the WAC’s shrinking membership. It should be noted that Georgia State tried to do this as well, playing three non-FBS schools, but managed no wins whatsoever in their first FBS season. With that being the case, it is probably better to look at how these teams performed against FBS programs. Here, the picture is a little bleaker. These teams won a little more than a third of their games against FBS teams. Charlotte only plays one non-FBS team in 2015, the Presbyterian Blue Hose. If the 49ers win four games, they will be on about the same level as the most recent FBS newcomers.

4. Can Rice continue their outstanding home record?
After years of wandering in the proverbial desert, Rice has become somewhat of a reliable quantity in the college football world. The Owls have played in three consecutive bowl games, won a conference title (their first since 1957), and hung on to the head coach who has overseen this success. David Bailiff is not mentioned in the same breath as Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, but he has done a fantastic job at one of the smallest FBS programs, especially considering their less than stellar recent history. Part of that success can be attributed to absolutely owning their home field under Bailiff.
Bailiff became head coach prior to the 2007 season, and since then Rice is 29-16 in their home games and perhaps an even more impressive 27-15-2 against the Vegas line at home. Against conference foes, they have done even better on both counts, posting a 24-9 mark (including winning the 2013 Conference USA Championship Game on their home field) and a sizzling 23-8-2 record against the spread.

5. Can Southern Miss climb out of the pit?
Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Southern Miss has gone from mid-major playboy, billionaire, superhero to poor, imprisoned, and crippled. After winning the 2011 Conference USA title, the Eagles suffered a 23-game losing streak and have won just four games in three seasons. A fourth straight losing season would be the first in school history.
Look. Up in the sky.

1 comment:

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