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Beyond the Empire: Conference USA, Home of Nebraska’s Future Coach and Trouble for Illinois?

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Previewing Roadrunners-Illini and looking at the future of a G5 conference hit hard by COVID and realignment.

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Western Kentucky Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Beyond the Empire, your look at the Big Ten’s non-conference opponents and the state of their conferences in an era of realignment.

Following Illinois’s victory over Nebraska, attention’s intensified on this weekend’s matchup with sneaky Conference USA contender UT-San Antonio. The Roadrunners have a stud running back and a coach who, in a couple years, could really make Purdue a contender—and we thought you ought to learn more about them!

So we enlisted Jared Kalmus—the “longest-tenured UTSA blogger”—of Underdog Dynasty to help us preview the three Big Ten games against C-USA. He’s an excellent follow on Twitter @JaredUTSA, and make sure you’re reading his work over at Underdog Dynasty and giving UD a look @underdogdynasty.

Part I: State of the Conference

OTE: So...uh...2020 happened! Navigating myriad postponements and cancellations, C-USA managed a season in which the 3-1 UAB Blazers jumped your UTSA Roadrunners, then dumped the Marshall Thundering Herd in the C-USA Championship Game (contributing to a lot of political shenanigans that cost Herd coach Doc Holliday his job). Bowl season, though, was...uh...well, not great [0-6, for the B1G folks in the room].

Heading into 2021 rated as the worst conference in college football by Sagarin (both divisions only above the Sun Belt West), what has contributed to the C-USA’s at least apparently diminished standing in college football?

Jared Kalmus: Oh man, loaded question that may have me ducking on Twitter. Blaming 2020 on Covid-19 is lazy analysis and a weak cop-out, but it is fair to say C-USA was more heavily impacted by the pandemic than other conferences. Old Dominion opted out of the season, Rice didn’t play any out of conference games, and FIU and Charlotte were hit particularly hard by Covid-related game cancellations and positive test results.

Coronavirus aside, the 2020 season was simply the result of several long-term trends coming to a head in a single season. Conference USA went hard after media markets in the last round of realignment, opting to add unproven programs like UTSA and Florida International over FCS programs with championship pedigrees such as Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. This approach made sense at the time, but once the bottom fell out of the conference’s TV contract, the conference was left with a chunk of programs that have struggled to build their foundations up to the G5 level. The Sunbelt went in the opposite direction and found that FCS programs with a strong institutional buy-in for football and a dedicated fan base had an easier time upgrading their programs.

With most of the conferences’ new additions struggling to get their footing, the legacy schools failed to capitalize on the power gap they were afforded. Legacy C-USA members such as Rice and UTEP have struggled to out-recruit UTSA and UNT, leading to much less talented rosters in Houston and El Paso. Even programs like Marshall and Southern Miss failed to step up and dominate against these recent call-ups, leading to a dangerous level of parity where few teams stack enough wins to receive any type of national notoriety.

I explored the topic in depth in this article:

[MNW note: One of the best I’ve read at Underdog Dynasty. Go back and give it a read!]

OTE: Any Heisman contenders (I assume Rice QB Luke McCaffrey, right?!?!?), players we should know about, or coaching commodities who could wind up in the Big Ten? We hear Nebraska’s going to have an opening: Seth Littrell used to be the hot commodity, but has his moment passed? Will UAB’s Bill Clark move anywhere eventually?

JK: I think Heisman contender would be a stretch, but the conference has several highly-entertaining players who have a shot at having their name called in the NFL Draft. UTSA running back Sincere McCormick finished second in the nation in rushing yards last year. Western Kentucky’s Deangelo Malone is an elite talent at DE/OLB who should be selected in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft. Fellow Hilltopper Bailey Zappe transferred into the program from Houston Baptist where he became a folk legend with his command of the air raid offense.

The conference is a little thin on coaching talent right now, at least as far as P5 candidates are concerned. UAB Head Coach Bill Clark is heads and shoulders above the rest of the coaches in the conference, but younger coaches appear to be getting the majority of the P5 opportunities these days. Jeff Traylor at UTSA really impressed in 2020, but his team will need to stack up some marquee wins before Traylor gets any serious looks. In a strange twist, Seth Littrell may go from hot head coaching commodity to hot offensive coordinator candidate (or a Nick Saban offensive analyst) as his seat has gotten fairly warm in Denton.

OTE: Oh yeah, and there’s this realignment thing happening in college football! As the star of the Sun Belt has risen the last couple years with Appalachian State, Louisiana, and Coastal Carolina, what’s next for C-USA? Any teams you’d jettison or appeal to? Is anyone in the conference at risk of being poached?

JK: We’re going to have to see how things play out between the Big XII and the AAC before we can predict any realistic movement for Conference USA. Right now any predictions of a C-USA team moving to the Big XII or AAC feels like an absolute moonshot, but crazier things have happened.

Generally speaking, there seems to be a consensus among Conference USA fans (and many athletic directors) that the conference needs to split in favor of a more condensed, regional model. Two thousand miles separate UTEP and Old Dominion. Outside of the Texas four, very few of the programs in this conference see much of a shared identity or kinship with each other. Rivalries haven’t really developed in a meaningful way, and the conference members are getting absolute pennies in TV money for practically zero national exposure, all while spending tremendously on travel costs to face teams that their fans, frankly, couldn’t care less about.

While such a regional realignment may be mutually beneficial for both Conference USA and the Sun Belt, the power brokers in the Sun Belt see such a move as a bail out, especially after the Sun Belt was on the receiving end of much hubris from Conference USA administrators during the last phase of realignment. Logistically, pulling off this type of conference-swap would require some pretty strong leadership, something that I don’t expect to see from the C-USA office—see this Twitter thread:

I don’t know what the future holds, but the current configuration of this conference is untenable long term, even if the pendulum swings back in C-USA’s favor in comparison to the other G5 conferences.

Pt. II: Previewing the Games

OTE:
* What’s the major storyline surrounding the program right now — how are they entering 2021?
* How well do they match up with their opponent? [Read: Can they stop the run?]
* Give us a player or two to watch.
* Tell us how you see the game finishing. Bonus points for specificity!

UTSA Roadrunners at Illinois Fighting Illini

Saturday, Sept. 4, 6:30pm CT | BTN | Illinois -5.5 | O/U 49

JK: The Roadrunners return almost the entirety of their roster and coaching staff from a shockingly successful 2020 season. UTSA made it through the unvaccinated section of the pandemic nearly unscathed, and used this good fortune to break through Jeff Traylor’s rebuild job a year ahead of schedule.

UTSA has since loaded up on additional talent, pulling in a good number of Power 5 transfers alongside the second best recruiting class in Conference USA. The Roadrunners need to replace a slot receiver and a reserve outside linebacker. That’s about it.

Illinois is an interesting match up for UTSA since the programs are extremely similar in their composition, storylines, and program identity. Both coaching staffs have gone above and beyond to preach a family-focused environment off the field, with a gritty, run-to-win methodology on the field.

Just like the Illini, UTSA brought back a very large number of super seniors, and are playing with 97 scholarship players this year. The Roadrunners are multiple on offense and use varying tempos, but their offense will flow through Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year Sincere McCormick at running back. A prep star from San Antonio, McCormick has re-wrote the (short) history books at UTSA.

When opponents inevitably load the box, the pressure will turn to dual-threat quarterback Frank Harris. The local talent has been stellar when healthy, establishing a strong connection with standout receivers Zakhari Franklin and Josh Cephus.

UTSA favors an odd-man front on defense, as they boast a deeply talented defensive line. The Roadrunners go three deep with Power 5 talent at all three positions on the line, however the interior linebackers behind them can be a liability. UTSA’s starters at inside linebacker are very solid, however the depth behind them is essentially non-existent. The Roadrunners will look to two transfers from Kansas to alleviate those concerns.

The Roadrunners’ secondary is in good shape, with a nice rotation of players at cornerback, and another San Antonio native star at weak side safety in Rashad Wisdom. The 5’9” safety has terrific ball skills and excels at creating turnovers.

Last year UTSA struggled with tackling form in a lot of their games, so we’ll see if things have improved throughout the offseason. Breaking through arm tackles to turn three yard gains into six yard gains could definitely be the Illini’s edge this week.

I’m expecting a really entertaining and hard-fought game, with UTSA actually putting up more of a fight than Scott Frost’s peculiarly untalented and poorly-coached Huskers.

Illinois barely covers the spread in a tight 27-20 win.

Poll

Is Jared right?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    Yep! Illinois barely covers.
    (19 votes)
  • 12%
    Nah, Illinois wins big.
    (8 votes)
  • 22%
    He’s onto something—Illinois wins but doesn’t cover.
    (15 votes)
  • 36%
    He doesn’t go far enough! MEEP MEEP, BITCHES
    (24 votes)
66 votes total Vote Now

#17 Indiana Hoosiers at Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Saturday, Sept. 25, 7pm | CBSSN

Western Kentucky at Michigan State Spartans

Saturday, Oct. 2, 6:30pm | TV TBD

[MNW note: We’re hoping to have some WKU thoughts from UD shortly—with the UTSA-Illinois game this weekend, though, we wanted to make sure we’d get Jared’s hard work and thoughts to you ASAP. We’ll repost and front-page this article when we get those thoughts!]

Pt. III: Previewing the Conference

OTE: Who wins C-USA East and West this year, and how does the C-USA Championship shake out? Any threats to be the G5 representative in the New Year’s Six?

It’s tough to pick anyone other than UAB to win the conference. Bill Clark has built a football factory in Birmingham, and no team in the West has shown the ability to contain the Blazers’ physicality.

The East is a bit more up in the air, with Marshall, WKU, and FAU all getting some love in the preseason.

I’m personally riding with FAU. The Owls are immensely talented and competed at a high level last season despite a putrid offense. With former Miami starting quarterback N’Kosi Perry stepping in, the offense should be at least average this fall, making FAU an extremely dangerous team.

Poll

Who wins C-USA?

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    UAB
    (14 votes)
  • 13%
    Marshall
    (5 votes)
  • 11%
    FAU
    (4 votes)
  • 36%
    Someone else
    (13 votes)
36 votes total Vote Now

Our thanks to Jared for taking the time to preview UTSA and the rest of Conference USA! Please make sure you’re giving him a follow on Twitter @JaredUTSA, reading his work over at Underdog Dynasty, and giving the whole Dawg Pound a follow @underdogdynasty.