There’s plenty of Big Ten football on the way, but how to know if the Wyoming Cowboys are a good Mountain West team or just an also-ran that beats Illinois? [Well, we got that answer, but I’m not changing the intro.] If Washington State beats Wisconsin, should we point and laugh or nod and say “Well, the Coogs are supposed to be better this year”?
That’s where Beyond the Empire comes in.
We reached out to writers from other conferences around the country, previewing all their games against the Big Ten, asking where they stand in realignment, and giving us all the talking points for your Tuesday night MACtion and Wednesday night FUNBELT viewing.
Today, we welcome Joe Londergan of Underdog Dynasty, SBNation’s G5 blog, to talk all things C-USA, realignment, and Big Ten. Be sure to give him a follow @joehio_ and Underdog Dynasty @underdogdynasty.
Part I: The State of the Conference
OTE: Well…uh…thank God for the Sun Belt West and MAC East, huh? Without them, C-USA was the worst conference in the FBS in 2021 with a bullet (at least by Sagarin’s metrics), and really it looks like it was a lot of “WKU, UAB, and UTSA, then everyone else”.
Realizing there are a lot of changes ahead (more on that in a second), with Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss leaving the conference, what are the big storylines surrounding C-USA if just for the 2022 season?
Joe Londergan: Well, frankly I think you can look at every league and find underachievers, but yes, there were some bad performances in 2021 for C-USA. As a result, improvement is a storyline to watch this season, particularly for teams like FIU, RIce, Louisiana Tech, and Charlotte.
Though based on what we’ve seen from Charlotte so far, we’ll see how far that storyline actually goes.
There’s definitely some more fun storylines in this league though. For example, last year’s league champions in UTSA look ready for another run at the title. What Jeff Traylor has managed to do with that program in such a small amount of time has been impressive. This will be just his third season with the program. Traylor has also managed to build a roster with several key players from San Antonio and the surrounding towns. It’s hard not to have a soft spot for local kids elevating their hometown team like this.
For UAB, they’ve reloaded once again after their hugely successful run the last four years. They’ll have to do it this year without the leadership of Bill Clark, who elected to retire in the summer due to a chronic back issue that required him to focus full-time on this health. His offensive coordinator from the last several years, Bryant Vincent, has taken the interim job and looks like he’s got the team in a good spot.
Frankly, I think you have a few different coaches in this league who are dealing with some added pressure this year due to previous records… Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Charlotte. So the general storyline there is can they get their teams playing to their potential on a consistent basis.
OTE: Realignment: Speaking of: HOOOOOBOY we got some changes, huh? For the Big Ten readers among us:
* Out in 2022: Marshall, Old Dominion, Southern Miss (to Sun Belt)
* Out in 2023: Charlotte, FAU, UNT, Rice, UAB, UTSA (to American)
* In in 2023: Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State
Joe–is this really what you’d like to see C-USA do, particularly as a Western Kentucky writer? What will the new C-USA look like, competitively, and what’s the feel around there for the conference’s future? (Please just give us WKU-to-MACtion, we need this.)
JL: I’m not going to lie: Western Kentucky to the MAC would be immensely entertaining - for a lot of reasons. It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen in the near future though as the MAC simply doesn’t need to expand right now.
As far as C-USA, the 2023 incarnation is…fine, I suppose. Obviously, the geography is silly but the league has had that problem for a while. Getting from El Paso to Norfolk, Virginia isn’t a particularly easy travel day. Especially with a G5 athletics budget.
I will say that the programs coming in have some promise. New Mexico State and UTEP are long-time rivals due to proximity. They’re less than an hour apart. Those kind of rivalries are always good, so it’s great we’re going to have those two in the same league now. Liberty’s program has a lot of fan support and when you can get a talent like Malik Willis to perform the way he did, you’re clearly doing something right on the development side. Sam Houston State has been making some noise in FCS as of late. Jacksonville State is improving quickly as well. They beat a top ten FCS team in Stephen F. Austin to open their season.
All the programs leaving, save for Southern Miss and Rice, have recently showed a lot of promise on the field. So that’s a bummer. However, it opens the door for Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky to compete for that top spot right away, alongside probably Liberty.
Part II: The Game Previews
Maryland Terrapins at Charlotte 49ers
September 10 | 2:30pm CT | Stadium | Maryland -27 | O/U 65.5
JL: The 49ers are not in a good spot right now. At all. They lost to an FCS team last week and looked rather listless in their opener against Florida Atlantic, save for a few explosive plays from Grant Dubose, who I’ll maintain is a fantastic all-around athlete.
Head coach Will Healy is a great leader - which makes the issues this team is running into all the more confusing. It doesn’t help that their starting quarterback in Chris Reynolds is injured. Charlotte allowed 204 rushing yards per game in 2021 and they’re on track to be even worse this year.
If Maryland has any semblance of a run game, they’ll be fine. 42-17 Terps is my prediction for this one.
This poll is closed
Terps win, don’t cover
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Indiana Hoosiers
September 17 | 11am CT | BTN | Line, O/U TBD
JL: The big storyline that folks are watching with Western Kentucky this year is how well they replace the production of Bailey Zappe, who set the FBS single-season records for passing touchdowns and passing yardage in 2021. They named Austin Reed the starter, who transferred in from DII West Florida in the offseason. He managed to beat out Jarret Doege, the active FBS leader in passing yardage and touchdowns, for the job. Doege promptly transferred to Troy after that.
Western Kentucky is off to a decent 2-0 start behind a fast-paced offense that likes to throw a lot and aren’t afraid of a trick play here and there. Defensively, WKU has a talented secondary on a defense that has forced ten turnovers already in two games. Upton Stout is quickly proving to be a guy to watch from that group.
The weak point is the run defense, which is interesting considering Indiana’s lack of a run game at the moment.
I think if Western Kentucky keeps up the pace of their offense and limits their own turnovers, they can win 35-24.
This poll is closed
Florida Atlantic Owls at Purdue Boilermakers
September 24 | 6:30pm CT | BTN | Line, O/U TBD
JL: FAU has been a mixed bag to start. They were dominant against Charlotte, but lost a close one to Ohio in week two, despite a big rally at the end.
Quarterback N’Kosi Perry is playing some of the best football of his career right now with six touchdowns and no interceptions.
Frankly a big issue at FAU right now is how quickly their defensive line is getting banged up. If that group’s not healthy, then Purdue might want to make that a major part of their game plan. If they do, they’ll be in a good spot. Defensively, they need to bring continuous pressure to try and get Perry off his game. He has been hard to rattle in this early part of the season, but that’s how you slow down this offensive attack. I think Purdue wins 31-21.
Let’s say Purdue -13.5:
This poll is closed
Boilers win, Owls cover
Part III: What C-USA Football Means to Me
OTE: Is there a quintessentially Western Kentucky–or, more broadly, C-USA–experience that you think even fans of a Big Ten team would get on board with? What’s one tradition, one rivalry (hello, 100 Miles of Hate!), one team, one event that we ought to know more about?
JL: Can I count Western Kentucky’s mascot? Because Big Red is love, Red is life. That’s probably the thing that immediately comes to mind when I think of WKU sports and frankly, how can you not like that? Just a big lovable blob.
For the Maryland fans, I’m going to say curb your late night munchies at a place called Cook Out when they come down for the Charlotte game. It’s not a thing that’s exclusive to Charlotte necessarily, but who doesn’t like a combo platter that includes a burger, fries, a quesadilla, and Cheerwine float?
WKU and Middle Tennessee is pretty good…though I’ll say WKU fans definitely like to see the football team beat Marshall more. It’s a shame we’re not going to get more of that game for a while. Those games are usually incredibly high scoring and not short on the intensity.
You also have a fun regional rivalry in the Shula Bowl, which is FAU and FIU. The greater Miami area is obviously a fertile recruiting ground, so it’s fun to watch the local kids who chose to play for the local colleges go up against each other and catch up.
OTE: If there’s anything you’ve written or done at Underdog Dynasty (an interview, podcast, article, etc.) that you think we should read, feel free to link it here! Help us keep up with all the C-USA goings-on.
JL: We do a C-USA podcast every week that I’m very proud of. You can find that, and the other G5 pods we do here:
We actually recently did an episode going through the league storylines for the year:
Finally, I did a profile on Western Kentucky defensive end Juwuan Jones, who is an exemplary young man:
Part IV: Season Predictions
OTE: We’re all about poaching your coaches and/or transfers here…so any teams or players we should expect to make noise on a national level? Who’s a C-USA coach the Big Ten should have its eyes on?
I think it’s only a matter of time before UTSA offensive coordinator Will Stein starts getting considered for P5 coordinator jobs. He’s done a fantastic job with that program’s quarterbacks and wide receivers, in particular. He also has some experience at bigger programs. He spent time as a position coach at Texas and at Louisville, his alma mater.
The way things are moving, it feels like interim head coach Bryant Vincent will stay at UAB, unless this season just goes completely off the rails. I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that someone else throws their hat in the ring for him at the end of the year, though.
As far as players getting national attention goes, you have Rashad Wisdom, UTSA’s safety, who’s expected to have a big year and pick up some draft steam. The same goes for UAB running back Dewayne McBride. There are probably a few others to keep an eye on…FAU defensive tackle Evan Anderson, Charlotte receiver Grant Dubose, WKU quarterback Austin Reed. Tough to say if any of those guys go after P5 opportunities, but you never know.
OTE: How does C-USA shake out in 2022? Who makes the conference championship game, and who wins? (If you didn’t above, as well, please tell us how you see the B1G/C-USA series shaking out in a W-L total.)
It makes the most sense that we get a UAB-UTSA title game. With the league no longer having divisions, it opens this up to possibility. Both these teams have been in the West division for the last several years. UTSA is my pick to repeat. And while both those teams are experienced, well coached, and talented, I think UTSA has just a little more offensive firepower.
I think C-USA goes 1-2 against the B1G, with WKU over Indiana being the only win.
Who wins C-USA?
This poll is closed
How does the Big Ten fare against the C-USA?
This poll is closed
2-1: Indiana loses
2-1: Purdue loses
2-1: Maryland loses
1-2: Indiana and Purdue lose
1-2: Indiana and Maryland lose
1-2: Purdue and Maryland lose