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Beyond the Empire: Previewing Conference USA with Underdog Dynasty

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We chat with C-USA writers Cyrus Smith and Tanner Spearman to preview the Big Ten non-conference games, talk conference realignment, and hear about the 2019 season across the South and East.

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NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at North Texas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the conclusion of our team-by-team previews, B1G 2019, we’re just a week and a half away from Big Ten football kicking off!

As we prepare for the non-conference, though, it’s time to learn about the various teams and conferences the Big Ten will face. That means our conference preview series, Beyond the Empire! Each day (hopefully!) until kickoff between Minnesota and South Dakota State, we’ll be going conference-by-conference, looking at each Group of 5 and Power 5 conference.

What will we cover?

  • Players and Teams to Watch: Who should win each conference, which players to draft in your fantasy football leagues, and any other on-field news and notes.
  • Realignment: There’s been more realignment news in the off-season! The major conference TV deals aren’t up for a few more years, but as conferences like the AAC and Big XII position themselves for the next round of musical chairs, we want to get other conference perspectives on who will go where.
  • Game Previews! Want to know what to expect when Michigan State takes on Tulsa? We’ve got answers! Wondering how Northwestern will wind up losing to UNLV and UMass? We’ll talk to those conferences and independents! Need the “in” on a MAC-over-B1G upset? Hustle Belt will stop by to give you the low-down!

Today, we’ll be looking at Conference USA, the collection of teams across the south and east of the U.S. While C-USA is headquartered in Dallas, it boasts teams as far north as West Virginia, as far south as greater Miami, and as far west as El Paso, ranging in talent from Marshall and UAB to UTEP and Rice.

It’s been a rough couple years for C-USA—the conference rated out the lowest in Jeff Sagarin’s rankings in 2016 and 2018, barely escaping in 2015 and 2017 (God bless the Sun Belt). Part of that has owed to the addition of new programs like the Charlotte 49ers and Old Dominion Monarchs, but part has owed to the bottoming-out of the C-USA West, with the UTSA Roadrunners (3-9, #169), Rice Owls (2-10, #178), and UTEP Miners (1-11, #188) struggling with similar low-G5 programs and even FCS Northern Arizona (which defeated UTEP in Week 1).

Looking forward to 2019, the conference still has some potential contenders—from Marshall and North Texas to FIU and Southern Miss. So we enlisted Cyrus Smith and Tanner Spearman of Underdog Dynasty, C-USA writers extraordinaire, to give us an idea of what to expect from C-USA’s matchups with the Big Ten, fantasy football performers, and position if college football realignment kicks off again.

They were so helpful, actually, that we’ve broken our interview with them up into two parts. Check out their game previews and picks this afternoon!

Be sure, regardless, to follow Cyrus (@CoolCyWrites) and Tanner (@Tanner Spearman), along with @UnderdogDynasty, on Twitter!

C-USA Preview

C-USA on TV and in the College Football Playoff

OTE: C-USA still hasn’t managed a team in the New Year’s Six bowls, making it one of just two (along with the Sun Belt) G5 conferences with that distinction. Who do you think breaks that streak, and when? Where would you rank C-USA among the G5 conferences, and how might a TV deal with NFL Network help that?

Cyrus: In the first year of the NY6/Playoff format, Marshall came really close to being the first G5 rep to appear in the NY6 but was upset at home in the season finale by Jeff Brohm’s Western Kentucky team. Since then, C-USA hasn’t come close. Last year’s FAU team had the pieces and schedule to make a run but fell woefully short of expectations.

I think the best teams that have the chance to make a run this season is North Texas, Marshall, and FIU. I’d say maybe a few years from now FIU will present C-USA’s best opportunity at making a NY6 as Butch Davis is really building something special down there as the Panthers are finally taking advantage of being in Miami and are now recruiting to their standards.

As far as ranking the conference goes, I’d say C-USA will provide the most entertaining conference title race because of how many teams are so even, but they are probably the 4th best G5 conference ahead of the MAC. The TV deal with NFL Network was a smart one, because the conference struggles with exposure. I love that they have tired new things (streaming games on Facebook/Twitter) but the deal with NFL Network has the potential to be a huge payoff down the road if they just simply put the best conference game of the week on there.

Tanner: The problem for a C-USA team making the NY6 is that they have to go undefeated like Western Michigan did, and they probably need more than one P5 win to boot.

I don’t think that any team will be dominant enough to do that in 2019. Even if someone does dominate, they need big non-conference wins. Looking at the schedules, an undefeated Southern Miss would definitely get the spot. Southern Miss also plays Bama, so we can cross “undefeated” off the list of possibilities. FAU would also have a great chance if they could beat Ohio State and UCF, but, well, we saw how FAU-OU turned out. FAU might be better this year, but... no.

If it happens in 2019 (it won’t), it would have to be either North Texas or FIU. FIU gets Miami at home, so perhaps getting that win isn’t unreasonable. Their problem is that they play basically no one else out of conference. North Texas, favored in the west, plays at Cal and hosts Houston. They would probably be the most likely to make the bowl, but I just don’t know if they’re good enough to go undefeated. Good? Yes. NY6 good? No.

TL;DR It’s gonna take a lot coming together at the exact same time for a team from C-USA to make it. They have to be dominant in conference play and pick up big non-conference wins, which requires having a solid schedule.

As for how C-USA ranks against the rest of the G5, I’d say it’s a little better than the MAC and about equal to the Sun Belt. But all three are a ways behind the Mountain West and American. The NFL Network deal is nice for exposure, but I don’t know that it’s good enough to get C-USA back to being the clear #3 in the G5.

Realignment

OTE: With UConn leaving the AAC for the Big East and C-USA having picked up schools like Old Dominion and Charlotte, along with the return of UAB in 2017, what’s next for the direction of Conference USA? Some outlets have argued that a Big XII expansion plan could steal a couple AAC members, with schools like Western Kentucky making the jump to the AAC. Others are talking about C-USA TRADING teams with the Sun Belt. Any realignment plans on the horizon, or thoughts on the next move for C-USA? Who would you trade away/for?

Cyrus: Conference USA Commissioner Judy McLeod was on our podcast last year and said the conference doesn’t have any plans to expand. Nothing has changed. No one wants to be affiliated with Liberty given the state of politics tied with that school, and travel is already a huge issue so schools like UMass and UConn are not an ideal partner.

The obvious answer is for C-USA and the Sun Belt to trade schools to create a more geographic friendly conference. What stands in the way is schools like Louisiana Tech not wanting to be in the same conference as ULL and ULM. Money talks though. In 5 years, I think C-USA and the Sun Belt will be completely geographically friendly. I know AAC folks are anxiously waiting for the Big 12 to implode but I don’t think that day is coming. Given the TV/streaming landscape and just about everyone facing attendance hardships, another round of alignment for the sake of money that won’t be there doesn’t make sense.

Personally, I’d really like it if Georgia State/Georgia Southern/FAU/FIU are in a conference together with the Appalachian schools (ECU/App State/Charlotte/ODU/WKU/Marshall). Everyone would save so much more money on travel and attendance for games would be much better than what we have now.

Tanner: For the time being, I don’t see any changes coming for C-USA in the short term. That could change if the AAC ends up poaching a team, but right now I don’t think that conference is in any hurry to do so, unless they themselves get poached. Now, when conference grants of rights expire, then we might see some fireworks. We haven’t heard much about it this offseason, but in the past, we’ve seen limited amounts of chatter about the geographic size of the conference. A large conference is one thing when you have Big Ten TV money to pay for the volleyball team’s trip from, say, Iowa to New Jersey. When you have C-USA TV money, flying them from Norfolk to El Paso is much harder. Most of the chatter has been speculation or opinions of newspaper beat writers, but a school official or two have quietly echoed those opinions.

Now, personally, I think if you’re going to make the commitment to play FBS football, you need to be willing to spend FBS money. But, the reality may be that school officials become more unhappy with those travel costs, especially as TV money goes down. Again, the problem isn’t football. It’s having to send non-revenue sports long distances.

If that’s the case, we may see some realignment to make costs more manageable. What that looks like is the big question.

Some have proposed that the west divisions of C-USA and the Sun Belt should form a new conference, and the east divisions should do the same. That arrangement would work for some schools, but not others. In particular, some of the C-USA west schools may not be fans of losing quality programs like Marshall or Western Kentucky in exchange for teams that should probably be FCS like ULM or Texas State.

If I were C-USA, I would suggest dropping Charlotte and UTEP for App State and one other team, say Arkansas State or one of the Georgia teams. Charlotte was a founding member of C-USA (before leaving and coming back after they started football), but they just don’t bring anything to the table right now. The basketball team is far from former glory, and the football program they started in 2013 has literally never had a season at or above .500, whether in FCS or FBS. UTEP has bottomed out in both major sports, and is just so far away from everyone else that they don’t fit well.

If I had to blow everything up and start over, I would suggest the best teams of C-USA and the Sun Belt make a new conference. Go as far west as North Texas, maybe include UTSA or Rice, dropping Texas State and UTEP. On the other end, stop at Marshall and App State, leaving out Charlotte and Old Dominion. It doesn’t make the geography a ton better, but it is a little smaller than before. You also drop some dead weight programs out of the mix and create a much more intriguing conference. Hopefully, some of the other programs will get the memo that they need to step up and field better teams or will accept their fate and drop to FCS. I personally think the G5 has gotten too big, and the bottom feeders that make Rutgers look competent need to drop down.

Now, will any of that happen? Who knows? I like to look at realignment based on how good the teams are, but in reality, other factors come into play. Geography will probably play a larger role than I would like.

How the Conference Will Finish

OTE: Who wins the 2019 iteration of C-USA? Any dark horse Heisman or fantasy contenders we should look for from the C-USA, for those of us degenerates who like to watch and bet money on North Texas games?

Cyrus: I think FIU beats North Texas to win C-USA. Seth Littrell and Mason Fine are due for a breakthrough in big games, but I think FIU has the more complete roster. Their schedule is a bit tough though as they have to go at Marshall (the preseason pick to win C-USA East) and at FAU. I’m a betting man myself and have a few bucks on LaTech making a run for the conference.

Mason Fine is the guy you want if you’re into fantasy football. UNT will still use an Air Raid offense despite the departure of OC Graham Harrell to USC.

I do a series every year breaking down C-USA position by position and then doing a final tally to see who has the best roster on paper entering the season. Your readers might find some helpful stuff on the conference there.

Tanner: North Texas is the clear favorite in the west, which goes to show just how good Seth Littrell is as a coach. I still remember UNT going 1-11 in 2015, with Littrell’s predecessor being fired after getting embarrassed by an FCS team. Southern Miss brings back a ton of starters and gets UNT at home, so they’re #2. La Tech and UAB are dark horses considering how many starters they lose, but you never know in this conference. Out of the east, FIU and Marshall are the favorites. FAU brings back quite a bit, too, but they lose Devin Singletary, so I’m not super high on them winning the division.

To me, the actual conference champ should be either North Texas, Marshall or FIU. All three have good quarterbacks, but I think Mason Fine is the best of the group, so I’ll take the Mean Green.

Just in general, some other players to watch include FIU QB James Morgan, Marshall QB Isaiah Green, FAU QB Chris Robison, La Tech RB Jaqwis Dancy and CB Amik Robertson, MTSU WR Ty Lee, UNT WR Rico Bussey, Jr., USM QB Jack Abraham and WR Quez Watkins, UAB RB Spencer Brown, and WKU WR Lucky Jackson.

Poll

Who wins C-USA in 2019?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    North Texas
    (36 votes)
  • 24%
    Marshall
    (29 votes)
  • 18%
    Florida International
    (22 votes)
  • 7%
    Florida Atlantic
    (9 votes)
  • 20%
    Other (tell us in the comments!)
    (24 votes)
120 votes total Vote Now

Our thanks to Cyrus and Tanner for stopping by! Give them both a follow on Twitter @CoolCyWrites and @Tanner Spearman, check out Underdog Dynasty, and stick around for their picks of the Big Ten vs. C-USA games this afternoon!