Once again, here are the 2022 Conference USA standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, Conference USA teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
UTSA was the only Conference USA team that saw their APR differ significantly from their actual record. The Roadrunners also overachieved relative to their Yards Per Play numbers and we went over some reasons for that last week.
The Conference USA standings will look a bit different in 2023 and not just because of the usual year to year variance in team performance. Six teams are joining the AAC (Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA) and the league is adding a quartet of reinforcements (Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State, and Sam Houston State). This got me thinking about conference newcomers and how those teams have performed in their first year in the new league. Which teams have performed the best in their debut season? Read on to find out.
I limited my analysis to non-BCS/Group of Five conferences since 1998 (what I consider the modern era of college football). We'll start with teams that finished with unblemished records in their first year.
After finishing with a 5-6 record in their final season in Conference USA in 2004, TCU jumped to the Mountain West and finished 8-0 in league play. The Horned Frogs won tight games against BYU, San Diego State, and Utah, but dominated their other five league opponents en route to a final ranking of eleventh in the AP Poll. Georgia Southern finished in a three-way tie atop the Southern Conference in 2012, but were a disappointing 4-4 in Southern Conference action in 2013, their final season of play as an FCS team. Head coach Jeff Monken took the Army job and Willie Fritz was hired to lead the team in their maiden voyage as an FBS program in the Sun Belt. The Eagles lost tight games to NC State and Georgia Tech in non-conference play, but with their funky triple option offense, they sliced through the Sun Belt. In their first six conference games, the Eagles averaged over 42 points per game. The offense hit a rut in November managing 50 total points in their final two league games, but the Eagles won both to finish with an unbeaten league record.
While TCU and Georgia Southern were the only teams to finish with unbeaten league records, two other teams manged to finish with one loss and at least a share of a conference title in their new league.
Louisiana Tech finished 3-9 as an Independent in 2000. They joined the WAC in 2001 and nothing was expected of them. The Bulldogs won their WAC opener against SMU, but lost to national darling and top ten ranked Fresno State. After the loss to the Bulldogs from Fresno, the Bulldogs from Ruston won their final six league games, including one against fellow WAC newcomer Boise State. Fresno State lost back to back games to Boise and Hawaii in midseason and Louisiana Tech ended up as the outright WAC champ. A little more than a decade later, Fresno State moved from the dying WAC to the Mountain West. The Bulldogs were a disappointing 4-9 in 2011, but they returned to their previous level of play in 2012 and finished in a three-way tied atop the Mountain West with Boise State and San Diego State.
Finally, there are three other debuts I want to spotlight. One team finished 6-2, but won their conference. Another finished 7-1, but lost the division due to a head to head tiebreaker, and another won their division, but wasn't allowed to participate in their conference title game.
Tulsa struggled through a 4-8 season in 2004, their last in the WAC. In their first season in Conference USA, the Golden Hurricane finished 6-2 in league play. Tulsa enjoyed a nice bounceback season, and thanks to UTEP dropping their final two games of the regular season, they won the West Division in the first year of divisional play in Conference USA. In the title game, they beat UCF on the road. Navy joined a conference for the first time in 2015. They opened AAC play 7-0, winning each of their first seven games by at least ten points. In the regular season finale, they traveled to Houston with the AAC West title on the line. The Cougars rolled up 52 points on their way to clinching the division and keeping the Midshipmen out of the conference title game. James Madison won their first five games as an FBS program in 2022 and were able to climb into the lower reaches of the AP Poll. They subsequently lost three games in a row, but only two of them were in Sun Belt play. Then in their regular season finale, they pounded the eventual Sun Belt East representative, Coastal Carolina, by forty points. The victory technically made the Dukes the East Division champion, but they were barred from playing in the championship game.
Can Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State, or Sam Houston State run roughshod over Conference USA in 2023 and join the elite ranks of the teams mentioned in this space? Only time will tell.