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Beyond the Empire: FAU should win Conference USA. Is anyone else any good?

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Both Indiana and wisconsin meet C-USA teams in Week 1. Do either Florida International or Western Kentucky have a chance of pulling the upset?

toot toot!

Welcome to the dying days of B1G 2018! As we count down to the start of Big Ten football, we’re previewing the Big Ten non-conference slate by conference affiliation. Stay tuned for all the G5 and P5 conference previews, along with our Closing Arguments prediction series for each Big Ten team.

Do you know how to tell teams in Conference USA from teams in the American Athletic Conference? I’m taking suggestions, if so. I think C-USA is slightly more “southern” and has the lower tier of Florida schools.

/checks notes

Yes, it appears Floridas International and Atlantic are in C-USA, while South and Central are in the AAC. We’ll proceed from there.

In case you were concerned, don’t worry about Conference USA for too long—this camel conference will only show up on the Big Ten’s schedule during Week 1, sandwiched between actual marquee games like the beginning of Big Ten play, Michigan-Notre Dame, and Texas State-Rutgers.

One of these games, when wisconsin hosts Western Kentucky, will take place on a Friday night. A special RIP to Madison West High School—the Regents, whose stadium is five miles from Camp Randall, will try to host a game against Middleton—and Madison East, who will host a game at Breese Stevens Stadium, right on East Washington, the main drag to feed people from the north into downtown Madison.

Someone deserves fault for this. It’s probably those high schools, for not seeing that wisconsin was playing a home game and adjusting their schedules or playing a road game, but I’d rather blame Jim Delany.


The Games

wisconsin badgers (13-1, 9-0) vs. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-7, 4-4)

Friday, August 31 | 8pm | ESPN

2018 S&P+ rating: 90
2017 Sagarin rating: 131 (48th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 92% (+24.9 margin)

The only thing worth watching about this game will be the B-roll footage of the sun setting over Lake Mendota or Monona or whichever one is north of the campus. That’ll be purdy.

Mike Sanford, former Boise State and Notre Dame OC—notably not the Appalachian Trail Argentina enthusiast, as my tired eyes first led me to believe—started adequately in 2017, though a 5-2 start turned into a 1-5 collapse, with only a 3OT win in the 100 Miles of Hate salvaging a stretch capped with a depressing loss to Georgia State in the Cure Bowl.

And so the rebuild begins.

The ‘Toppers only averaged 61 ypg on the ground in 2017. That’s 3.8 ypc. They lose three starters on the OL. I won’t even waste your time listing the RBs. They will be swallowed up by a badger defensive line that gets your into passing downs, then comes at you with a Top 10 sack rate.

At least they have a quarterba—oh wait, Mike White graduated. That means pro-style QB Steven Duncan will have to—oh, he’s out after a DUI suspension. So it’ll be longtime backup Drew Eckels. Sanford has a reputation as a horse QB whisperer, but he ain’t a miracle-worker. If Western breaks double-digits, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Moving on.

Defensively...well, let’s hope the ‘Toppers don’t get trucked. Leading tackler Devon Key will come down from the free safety spot and be crucial to preventing Jonathan Taylor from breaking the big runs.

He’ll...see a lot of work. WKU managed just 12 sacks in 2017 and loses three starters off the line. Expect lots of clean pockets and lots of running lanes.

I usually use this last paragraph to tell you how it’ll go. Hopefully you can figure this one out yourself.

Indiana Hoosiers (5-7, 2-7 B1G) at FIU Golden Panthers (8-5, 5-3)

September 1 | 6pm CT | CBSSN

2018 S&P+ rating: 120
2017 Sagarin rating: 116 (54th percentile)
B1G S&P+ Odds: 77% (+12.5 margin)

September 1, 2017, for those of you curious, was the last day Hurricane Harvey hit Florida. But hey, what could go wrong this year?!

Butch Davis has FIU ahead of schedule, with the best recruiting class in C-USA coming down to Miami, a couple 4* transfers joining the cause, and the momentum of an 8-5 season bolstering the Panthers. In 2018, though, the loss of 57% of their 2017 production puts FIU behind the 8-ball. Further complicating matters are a schedule where a 3-1 non-conference campaign (IU, UMass, @Miami, UA-Pine Bluff) might be necessary to get FIU back to a bowl—and Indiana is that third win, if you’re the Blue and Gold faithful.

First, the bad: With the switch of Maurice Alexander to WR, the Panthers’ only other returning passer has thrown for just 24 yards.

Worse? It’s Stone Wilson...the punter.

Now, that’s a little disingenuous. FIU added Bowling Green transfer QB James Morgan, though Morgan only completed 45% of his passes at BGSU. He’s competing against Christian Alexander, and both the 6’5” Morgan and 6’3” Alexander can stand tall in the pocket and huck it around a bit. Davis has said he won’t decide the starter until 10 days before the Indiana game, so stay tuned.

The Panthers do return experience, though, on the offensive line—100 starts, losing only their LG, and boastings four seniors and a junior—and that could be enough to cause the Hoosiers defense some problems. FIU was middle-of-the-road in most OL-related metrics last year, save for struggling in obvious passing situations, yielding the 100th-best sack rate on passing downs. Couple that with a bevy of backfield talent—Shawndarrius Price and Napoleon Maxwell are already efficient runners, and D’Vonte Price brings P5 talent to the table—and in 2018 FIU just might be able to replicate performances like their 63-point explosion against UMass.

Defensively, though, the Panthers offer the Hoosiers offense a chance to get their sea legs in 2018. FIU was...not good...in 2017, and they lost all four of their cornerbacks. Georgia Tech transfer DE Jordan Wood joins the defense, though, and a decent front seven that was at least competent against the run should cause some problems. But the pass defense (111th in S&P+ in 2017) is bad. Bad bad bad bad bad.

Counterpoint: Fermin Silva. Get to know the newly-converted LB’s name, because he’s got a shot to play on Sundays. He’s moved from a three-technique after racking up 7 sacks and 14 TFLs in 2017. If that front seven can get to—[/checks notes] Peyton Ramsey? Brandon Dawkins? Jesus, Indiana—the Hoosiers backfield, this could be interesting.

On top of that, if the game isn’t played in a monsoon, the FIU specialists include K Jose Borregales, who as a freshman, Bill Connelly notes, as perfect inside 40 yards and 40% from beyond it. If this game’s close, the Panthers’ special teams could win it.

They shouldn’t, though. Indiana brings Big Ten talent and a disruptive defense [it’s still weird to say, guys] that should force either Christian Alexander or James Morgan into bad decisions. On the offensive side of the ball...the Hoosiers should have their way. Period. The FIU defense is not good, and while (weather-permitting) the Hoosiers might have to turn this into a shootout, they have the guns for a firefight.

The Conference

The Standings

Look, it’s Florida Atlantic and everyone else. I don’t need to tell you that. Lane Kiffin has the goods—mostly just RB Devin Singletary, which is more than enough—to lead the Owls storming back into the G5 leaders conversation, and games at Oklahoma and at UCF give the Owls the shot they need at the upset win that, with an 8-0 C-USA campaign, would put them at 11-1 and staring down a second P5 opponent in the Peach Bowl. (I’m assuming they’d go to the Peach and not Glendale for the Fiesta Bowl.)

There will be a lot of teams just lining up behind the Owls in the C-USA East. The Marshall Thundering Herd—and the awesomely-named Doc Holliday—will have to survive a lot of shootouts behind transfer QB Alex Thomson to find themselves even in the conversation. After them it’s Middle Tennessee and Rick Stockstill, but...yeah. FIU and WKU will both compete with Old Dominion for the 7-5/6-6 marks in the East, and the Monarchs have the defense to drag down a few games. Charlotte rounds out the bottom.

In the West...well, roll a damn die. Last year the North Texas Mean Green had the privilege of getting their heads blown off by FAU a second time, and they’re the popular pick to do it again in 2018 behind QB Mason Fine.

The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs are their biggest competition, with a tough defense and QB J’Mar Smith, but the UTSA Roadrunners also bring a great defense to the table in the West, and even a little production from QB Bryce Rivers and an undersized OL could shake up who the Owls host in December 2018.

Behind them...the Southern Miss Golden Eagles return just 8 starters but are expected to compete for a bowl bid. Dana Dimel could restore UTEP to some prominence before he takes over at Kansas State, but the Miners lack depth. Rice is also here. I’m out.

Give me 11-2 FAU emerging from C-USA but missing the G5 slot in the New Year’s Six.

Culture

Florida International was called the Sunblazers until 1987. It was already a mistake to change it to the “Golden Panthers,” but then FIU doubled down and went for the even-worse option of dropping “Golden” from the nickname.

That’s all the culture you need. Florida ruins everything.

Everybody’s Going to Miami

I’d be hard-pressed to think of a G5 team that’s hosted as many P5 schools in the last 5 years:

  • 2014: Pittsburgh, Louisville
  • 2016: Maryland, Indiana
  • 2018: Indiana

The one thing the Panthers haven’t been good at doing is spacing those games out. C’mon, FIU! Think of the two season ticketholders who base their decisions on who you’re playing at home!

Coaching Connections

  • UNT’s Seth Littrell was Indiana’s OC for a couple years (2012-13) before moving to an associate HC job at North Carolina and eventually the head gig in Denton. If he brings the Mean Green back to the C-USA title game, you have to think he’d have his pick of low- to mid-tier P5 jobs. Could he hold out for the IU gig if Tom Allen can’t make it happen?
  • He’s not who we’re here to talk about, of course. Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis have both gotten their third chances, at FAU and FIU, respectively. Is this the off-season where they make the leap to a P5 school? I don’t think either winds up in the Big Ten—too much baggage.
  • This is Bobby Wilder, the coach of Old Dominion. I don’t even know what to say about this picture, but it does not surprise me that he spent almost his whole coaching career prior to ODU at Maine. You know this guy’s read every Stephen King novel and has written his own suspense thriller.
  • Skip Holtz is here, too.
  • After becoming the first white coach in the history of the SWAC, Southern Mississippi’s Jay Hopson has hit the ground running in Hattiesburg, with two winning seasons to open his tenure. His whole career’s been south, though. I don’t see him heading north, but he could emerge in some of the Texas schools’ next job searches. Same goes for UAB’s Bill Clark.

How They’ll Fare

That’s 1700 words already just on C-USA. I’m exhausted.

I’ve got the badgers rolling Western Kentucky, something like 42-3.

On the other hand...I’ve taken Indiana to start the year 3-0, but only half of my fellow OTE writers have done the same—with games @FIU and against Virginia, there were lots of 2-1 non-conference predictions and even a 1-2 sighting. But you’ll have to stay tuned to find out who that is!

I have talked myself into liking Indiana less and less in this game. FIU will have home turf, have potential weather shenanigans...and has a pretty decent offensive line, assuming they’ve settled on a quarterback! That didn’t stop IU or Maryland from waltzing through Miami with easy wins in 2016, but Ron Turner was also the coach of FIU at the time. That doesn’t count.

Ultimately, though, Indiana’s defense is more than enough to dispatch the Panthers, and their run game should set up an easy passing day. It’ll be closer than you’d like, though—without looking at the line, I’m taking the Panthers to cover anything under 10 and possibly even 7.5 Give me IU, 31-24.

Poll

How does the Big Ten fare against C-USA?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    2-0: Everyone rolls
    (38 votes)
  • 35%
    2-0: wisconsin rolls, IU struggles
    (44 votes)
  • 23%
    1-1: IU falls
    (29 votes)
  • 11%
    0-2: an option for WSR and other wisconsin-haters
    (14 votes)
  • 0%
    Other: to the comments!
    (0 votes)
125 votes total Vote Now