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Team Previews

Conference USA West

by Connor Allen
Updated On: July 4, 2019, 4:25 am ET

Welcome to the Rotoworld’s college football preview series! Leading up to the start of the season, we will be publishing previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of Rotoworld analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios.

Before we get started, a lot of the analytics used in this article stem from Football Outsiders and SB Nation's Bill Connelly. S&P+ is "a metric that's based around the core concepts of the Five Factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers." Definitions of other metrics ("line yards" & "sack rate") I mention can be found here.


Conference USA Fantasy Projections

QuarterbacksPaYDPaTDRuYDFPPG
Mason Fine (North Texas, SR)38232710923
James Morgan (Florida International, SR)2986282419
J'mar Smith (Louisiana Tech, SR)31751819018
Tyler Johnston III (UAB, SO)24811730518
Randall Johnson (Middle Tennessee, JR)24911622518
Isaiah Green (Marshall, SO)2806177516
Jack Abraham (Southern Mississippi, JR)2786178517
Frank Harris (UTSA, SO)20871035415
Messiah deWeaver (Old Dominion, JR)24011314217
Steven Duncan (Western Kentucky, JR)18991515116
Brandon Jones (UTEP, SR)1720105814
Nick Tronti (Florida Atlantic, SO)1326717216
Tom Stewart (Rice, SR)1383714411
Chris Reynolds (Charlotte, SO)117572512

 

Running BacksRuYDRuTDReYDFPPG
DeAndre Torrey (North Texas, JR)8391217819
Benny LeMay (Charlotte, SR)932827117
Spencer Brown (UAB, JR)914124916
Brenden Knox (Marshall, SO)89667713
Chaton Mobley (Middle Tennessee, SO)708516713
Jaqwis Dancy (Louisiana Tech, SR)596812413
B.J. Emmons (Florida Atlantic, JR)82574012
Quardraiz Wadley (UTEP, SR)59278511
Kesean Strong (Old Dominion, SR)362515410
Trivenskey Mosley (Southern Mississippi, SO)52521329
Loren Easly (North Texas, SR)52051019
Juma Otoviano (Rice, SO)6185339
Anthony Jones (Florida International, SR)4226539
James Charles (Florida Atlantic, JR)5905409
Brenden Brady (UTSA, SO)5095779
Tyler King (Marshall, JR)5774408
Napoleon Maxwell (Florida International, SR)4475578
D'Vonte Price (Florida International, JR)38631028

 

ReceiversRecReYDReTDFPPG
Rico Bussey Jr. (North Texas, SR)731042819
Adrian Hardy (Louisiana Tech, JR)62906415
Quez Watkins (Southern Mississippi, JR)67773515
Eric Kumah (Old Dominion, SR)62818514
Ty Lee (Middle Tennessee, SR)63790414
Obi Obialo (Marshall, SR)64775514
Isaiah Graham (Louisiana Tech, JR)56706412
Maurice Alexander (Florida Int., SR)45523512
Victor Tucker (Charlotte, SO)51671311
Lucky Jackson (Western Kentucky, SR)52579411
Willie Wright (Florida Atlantic, JR)57517311
Jaelon Darden (North Texas, JR)50614411
Austin Maloney (Florida International, SR)37563510
Austin Trammell (Rice, JR)49540210
CJ Windham (Middle Tennessee, SR)42558310
Aaron Cephus (Rice, JR)41556310
Brad Anderson (Middle Tennessee, JR)42473210
Jaylond Adams (Southern Mississippi, JR)4647539
Kenyan Foster (UTEP, SR)4641739
Kendall Parham (UAB, SR)3447939
Tavin Richardson (Marshall, SR)4339749
Jordan Mitchell (Southern Mississippi, SR)4340538
Austin Watkins (UAB, SR)3448638
Jacquez Sloan (Western Kentucky, JR)3544228
Quin Jernighan (Western Kentucky, SR)3840028
Cameron Dollar (Charlotte, SO)3543128

 

Tight EndsRecReYDReTDFPPG
Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic, SR)4149949
Kelvin Smith (North Texas, SR)3633737
Kyle Fourtenbary (Western Kentucky, JR)3731527
Sterling Palmer (Florida International, SO)2931437
Armani Levias (Marshall, SR)2735026
Chris Cunningham (Old Dominion, SR)2625025

 

Projected Standings

West

North Texas 9-3 (7-1 in conference)

Louisiana Tech 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

Southern Miss 8-4 (7-1 in conference)

UAB 8-4 (5-3 in conference)

Rice 2-10 (2-6 in conference)

UTEP 2-10 (1-7 in conference)

UTSA 1-11 (0-8 in conference)


North Texas Mean Green

2018 record: 9-4 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: QB Mason Fine. As tough as tough can be with a killer mind for the game, Fine knows how to extend plays under pressure and possesses a high football intelligence. The prolific quarterback could have legitimate upside toward Day 2 of the draft.

 

The case for: Senior QB Mason Fine returns after a strong 2018 season where he completed 64.6 percent of his passes while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. He struggled a bit down the stretch after suffering a wrist injury as well as a pulled hamstring, but both of those issues are in the rearview mirror. Fine should continue to receive plenty of help from his skill players with the majority of them returning.

Their top four running backs remain with the team led by DeAndre Torrey who ripped off 977 yards and 15 touchdowns on 175 carries (5.6 yards per carry) last season. They return some of their best wideouts including Rico Bussey Jr. who had 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns on 68 receptions. Slot wideouts Jaelon Darden and Michael Lawrence both remain on the team as well with another 1,000 yards of combined production.

The offensive line will look a bit different after losing both of their starting tackles but the Mean Green have a solid contingency plan. Virginia Tech transfer D'Andre Plantin figures to slide into a starting spot and they return sophomore Jacob Brammer who had four starts last season. The offensive line should be comparable to last season’s which ranked 39th in sack rate. Last year’s offense ranked 67th in S&P+ and could approach the top-50 after retaining most of their key players and a healthy Fine.

The defense was slightly worse than the offense last season ranking 78th in S&P+. The good news? Over half their defense returns including strong pass-rushing defensive ends and a great pair of safeties. Even though they will be replacing a few different positions, the Mean Green have recruited well enough that all it will take is a few players stepping up in order to avoid a big drop-off.

The Mean Green have the benefit of playing against seven teams who rank outside the top-100 in projected S&P+ and none inside the top-60. Literally every game is winnable for North Texas, something not very many teams in college football can say. They have two back-to-back road game situations but the second hardly counts. They have a week off in-between, and they are scheduled to face a Rice team that’s projected to be 126th in S&P+  on the back half of the road trip. If things come together for the defense, 10 wins are within their range of outcomes for 2019.

The case against: The offense returns a vast majority of players but loses a few key cogs in the system. WR Jalen Guyton takes 54-805-6 with him to the next level and the offensive line lost two starters. Neither should have too big of an impact, but it may prevent the offense from taking the next step as many anticipate.

The defense is where the Mean Green got hit the hardest. They lost arguably their four best players including two cornerbacks and two linebackers. A lot of their defense’s success will have to do with the number of unknown players who step up. If they don’t, this unit could easily sink outside the top-100 in defensive S&P+ this year.

I mentioned above that winning 10 games is within their range of outcomes but so is 6-7. Their schedule may look easy but almost all of their hard games are on the road. 4-of-5 games against opponents who rank inside the top-100 in projected S&P+ will played on the road.

They also have two back-to-back road scenarios with the first being far more legitimate. The first comes against SMU and Cal in the second and third games of the season. UNT projects to be road underdogs in both games, and traveling two consecutive weeks could leave the team in subpar shape for their matchup against Cal. If they aren’t able to string together some close wins early in the season against top-100 opponents, UNT could be in trouble with a 2-4 record heading into the meat of their conference schedule.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER


Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

2018 record: 8-5 (5-3 in conference)

NFL Draft prospect to watch: EDGE Willie Baker. Baker flashed this past season with 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. The 6-foot-3, 251-pounder has tremendous upside and will be taking over for Jaylon Ferguson this coming season. He has a chance to catapult himself into the draft consciousness.

 

The case for: Outside of Skip Holtz’ first year, Louisiana Tech hasn’t finished with fewer than seven wins. They’ve won nine games three times, eight games once, and seven once as well. That’s a really strong track-record for a head coach and a similar result should be expected in 2019. They return a good majority of starters and contributors on both sides of the ball and have a favorable schedule.

The offense returns QB J’Mar Smith who averaged 6.9 yards per attempt while completing 57.3 percent of his passes. That doesn’t sound great, but there are reasons to be optimistic heading into 2019. Six offensive linemen return with starting experience after ranking 71st in sack rate and 103rd in “line yards” last season. With another year together the unit projects to improve. Smith will also have his top weapon back in WR Adrian Hardy who ripped opposing secondaries for 1,145 yards and six touchdowns on 70 receptions. It doesn’t stop there as the Bulldogs return 6-of-7 top wideouts. The running game figures to continue their success (65th in rushing S&P+ last season) as both Jaquis Dancy (667 yards) and Isreal Tucker (377 yards) return.

The defense brings back nearly all of their starters after ranking 56th in S&P+. They should be especially strong in the secondary where they return defensive back Amik Robertson. He’s probably the defense’s best remaining player after snagging four interceptions and breaking up eleven passes.

 

Even if the defense takes a slight step back without Jaylen Ferguson and the offense remains the same, the Bulldogs’ schedule makes up for it. They play seven teams projected to rank outside the top-100 in S&P+ and only match up against one team in the top-60 all year (No. 35 Texas).

The case against: The major loss-and why some are predicting a step-back – is DE Jaylon Ferguson. He led the defense with an insane 17 sacks and 26 tackles for loss as a senior.  Losing a player of that caliber will have an impact on the defense, and it could be a major one.  They also lost defensive coordinator Blake Baker who went to Miami in the offseason and replaced him with Bob Diaco, the former UConn head coach and Notre Dame defensive coordinator. In addition to Ferguson, Louisiana Tech loses 7-of-9 defensive lineman. This could be a big hit to their 56th-ranked S&P+ defense from last season.

The offense returns most of their core players but lost a very productive wideout in Teddy Veal (70-716-1) as well as All-Conference offensive tackle O’Shea Dugas. In addition to lots of production on offense, Veal’s loss will be felt on special teams where he was their primary punt returner. Key losses on both sides of the ball aren’t easy to replace and are a part of a doomsday scenario for Louisiana Tech if no one else steps up. QB J’Mar Smith is expected to take a step forward but that’s no guarantee. He was extremely average last season and with the defense bound to regress the offense needs to improve. If that isn’t the case the Bulldogs will struggle to remain one of the top teams in Conference USA.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER


Southern Miss Golden Eagles

2018 record: 6-5 (5-3 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: T Drake Dorbeck. A 22-game starter over the past two campaigns, Dorbeck brings palatable size to the fore with a 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame, but will need to put in impressive tape this fall if he is to see the light of the draft.

 

The case for: Southern Miss was a bit of a surprise last season after having one of the youngest teams in the Conference. They went 6-5 with three of their five losses coming by three-or-fewer points. If they were a bit luckier, we would be looking at Southern Miss as the clear cut Conference USA favorite. QB Jack Abraham completed an NCAA-best 73 percent of his passes last season and returns as the presumed starter. 

He’ll have a majority of his weapons back with WR Quez Watkins hopefully leading the way. We aren’t 100 percent sure he’ll play for the Golden Eagles after withdrawing from school in the spring in order to get his grades up. He is attending summer school at a community college and if he can boost his grades, he’ll be eligible to play.

I’d normally be confident in someone’s ability to boost their grades by attending community college but most schools make it so hard to be academically ineligible at college there should definitely be some concern. Even if Watkins doesn’t end up being a go they return No. 2 wideout Tim Jones who racked up 508 yards on 42 receptions. They return their entire offensive line from last year and should improve based on continuity alone. If they don’t, three JUCO transfers are waiting for the chance to take over.

The defense was the strongest aspect of their team last season, ranking as one of the best G5 units in the country. Their run defense ranked 13th in rush defense S&P+ while they only allowed a 53 percent completion rate (14th). A lot of key players return from this dominant unit including their top two cornerbacks, safety, linebacker, and defensive ends.  The Golden Eagles have the benefit of playing against six teams ranked outside the top-100 in Bill Connelly’s projected S&P+.

The case against: Southern Miss may return a lot of players on offense, but they ranked just 122nd in S&P+.  Abraham completed a ton of passes but had a 15/10 TD/INT ratio and only averaged 7.2 adjusted yards per attempt. Watkins (72-889-9) not returning could be a big hit for this offense after he accounted for 32 percent of Southern Miss’ receiving yards and 49 percent of their receiving touchdowns last season. The running game was also abysmal last season -- ranking 120th in rushing S&P+ -- and didn’t add anyone of note. Their offensive line has everyone from last season but were one of the worst units in all of college football (102nd in sack rate, 124th in line yards). If they can’t figure out their line the offense may never get going.

The defense was incredible in 2018 and returns quite a few stars. Their downfall could lie in their depth. They lost two of their top linebackers as well as two tackles. Given the losses, it’s unlikely the run defense is as strong as last season.  The pass defense is tough to poke too many holes in but could be opened up by a weakened run defense. The Golden Eagles schedule is a complete disaster. I’m not sure who threw this together, but yikes.

After smashing Alcorn State at home, Southern Miss has three straight road games against Mississippi State, Troy, and Alabama. I’m not sure they win any of those. You would expect an easy path after that, but they have another back-to-back road game situation later in the season as well. Even in the unlikely event Southern Miss plays better in all facets of the game I’m skeptical they can throw together more than seven wins.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER


UAB Blazers

2018 record: 11-3 (7-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft Prospect: CB Brontae Harris. Active around the ball, Harris has registered three interceptions and 13 passes defensed for his UAB career. The 5-foot-10, 180-pounder was the highest graded returning cornerback on PFF.

 

The case for: 2018 was UAB’s peak as a program. They ascended to an11-3 finish only a few short years after a self-imposed death penalty. They won the Conference USA championship game over Middle Tennessee State and proceeded to thrash Northern Illinois 37-13 in the Boca Raton Bowl.

HC Bill Clark stuck it out through the bad times with the program, and his patience paid off. Their roster likely won’t look too similar, but there is room for optimism.

One thing that should remain the same is QB Tyler Johnston who averaged 9.5 yards per attempt while completing 57.1 percent of his passes. He didn’t begin the year as the starter but took over halfway through the year. Johnston also contributed as a runner, adding 359 rushing yards with his legs. In addition to Johnston, they return workhorse starting RB Spencer Brown who ripped off 1,227 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns last season. Despite being successful as a team, their offense ranked just 104th in S&P+. Even with the roster undergoing significant changes, that isn’t a very high bar to meet or even exceed.

The defense was stellar (For CUSA standards) and ranked 45th in overall defensive S&P+. They return three of their top players, one at linebacker, safety, and cornerback. Those players will need to be game-changers week-in, week-out in order for the defense to have a chance at resembling last season’s squad.

While they lost starters at most other positions, they added three JUCO transfers on the defensive side of the ball and two on offense in hopes that the talent level doesn’t drop off too much.

The Blazers schedule projects favorably for them as they play eight games against teams that rank outside the top-100 in S&P+. Even with a lot of different players this time around, their schedule should provide them with a big enough cushion to hover around 0.500,

The case against: UAB peaked harder than a high school jock who ended up dropping out of college the following year. The Blazers 2018 peak will be followed by some sort of drop-off. It’s not a matter of if, just how much. The offense lost their leading passer, top four wide receivers, top tight end, and four offensive linemen. They do have a viable replacement at quarterback in Johnston, but he only has 142 career pass attempts and an 11/9 TD/INT ratio. 

The Blazers’ best remaining receivers combined for less than 300 receiving yards and scored no touchdowns. Their offensive line was stellar last year ranking 35th in Football Outsiders’ “Line yards” and 48th in sack rate. All four departed starters from this unit were either first or second-team all-conference, meaning this unit projects to be much, much worse.

Things have to be better on defense, right? Nope. They lost all three starting defensive lineman, four of their top five linebackers, and four of their top seven defensive back. Their ranking of 45th in defense S&P+ should be in for a sharp decline as they refresh nearly all of their defense. Unless all of their JUCO transfers come in and make a big impact it’s tough to see this defense finish anywhere near the top-50 of S&P+ next season.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7

Prediction: OVER