After six straight weeks of major conference teams, let's show some live to the Group of Five. Next up is Conference USA. Here are the 2017 Conference USA standings.
finishing drives. Rice attempted just five field goals all season (four in conference play) and converted just three (two in conference play). They also converted less than 40% of their fourth down attempts. These turnovers, missed kicks, and failed conversions all combined to make Rice look much worse than their bad, but hardly debilitating peripherals.
If you follow Conference USA closely, you probably noticed the 2017 standings looked markedly different from the ones of the prior year. The two participants in the 2017 conference championship game both finished with losing conference records the previous year. The 2016 co-champs from the east (Old Dominion and Western Kentucky) finished four and three games worse respectively in conference play. Marshall shared the east cellar with Florida Atlantic in 2016, but rebounded to win half their conference games in 2017. UAB didn’t even play football in 2016, yet they nearly won the west in 2017. In short 2017 was mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together, real wrath of god type stuff. What can we expect from those teams moving forward? Were their gains and losses a signal of where they will be in 2018 or were they just a lot of noise? Specifically, I want to examine the three teams that saw significant differences in their 2016 and 2017 conference records. I’ll define significant as a difference of at least four conference games. Since the conference season is only eight games long, finishing four or more games better or worse makes a profound difference in the standings. Three teams in Conference USA finished with a conference record at least four games different from 2016.
Conference USA Championship Game. We’ll look at Old Dominion next week. To get an idea of what to expect from the Owls and Mean Green going forward, I looked to the past. I examined every mid-major (non BCS or Group of Five) team that won at least four additional conference games than they had the previous season since 2005. This query yielded 33 teams, not including the four that accomplished the feat in 2017 (in addition to Florida Atlantic and North Texas, Fresno State and the national champions from UCF also improved their conference record by at least four games). How did those 33 teams perform the following season? The results are summarized below.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention one extreme outlier. UCF finished conference play 0-8 in 2015. They hired Scott Frost and improved significantly in 2016, finishing 4-4. Frost and his charges scoffed at regression’s magnetic pull and further improved to 8-0 in 2017. As the previous table shows, only three teams saw continued improvement after their one season of significant improvement. Those other two teams both improved by one game apiece (UCF from 2012 to 2013 and Air Force from 2013 to 2014 if you were curious). In the interest of full disclosure, this is what the averages would look like if Scott Frost’s UCF team did not exist.
Lane Train will keep barreling along. There may be trouble ahead or even trouble behind. Similarly, North Texas will also face challenges in defending their division title. And when you consider they were probably a little lucky to win the division in the first place, at least according to YPP, they would be my bet to not meet expectations in 2018.