Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Farewell to 2016: Conference USA

It was not a stellar season in CUSA football in 2016, as only 5 teams out of 13 finished with a record of .500 or better. Western Kentucky was , as usual, a central power with 11 wins on the season, while, in a shocking development, Old Dominion ran up right behind them with 10 wins on the year. Louisiana Tech won 9 total games and, once again, won the West. The biggest disappointments in the conference had to be Southern Miss and Marshall. The Golden Eagles were expected to be an odds on favorite in the west, and stumbled badly to a 7-6 record, with just a 4-4 mark in conference play. Marshall, on the other hand, fell like a stone, finishing just 3-9, and finished tied for last in the east. Both teams have soul searching to do moving forward. Here is an overall look at how everyone in CUSA finished in 2016...

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
11-3 (7-1)

2016 Schedule
Beat Rice 46-14
Lost to Alabama 38-10
Beat Miami (Ohio) 31-24
Lost to Vanderbilt 31-30
Beat Houston Baptist 50-3
Lost to Louisiana Tech 55-52
Beat Middle Tennessee 44-43
Beat Old Dominion 59-24
Beat FAU 52-3
Beat FIU 49-21
Beat North Texas 45-7
Beat Marshall 60-6
Beat Louisiana Tech 58-44 (CUSA Title Game)
Beat Memphis 51-31 (Boca Raton Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Eastern Kentucky, 9/9 at Illinois, 9/23 Ball State, 11/4 at Vanderbilt
MVP Offense: Mike White, QB; Anthony Wales, RB; Taywan Taylor, WR; Nicholas Norris, WR
MVP Defense: Keith Brown, LB
Best Win: Louisiana Tech 58-44
Worst Loss: Vanderbilt 31-30

The Breakdown: One thing that has become a constant is the WKU, formerly a doormat program, has become a major winner, and they managed another 11 wins this season that included a CUSA title and a bowl game win over Memphis. After losing to Louisiana Tech during the season, the Hilltoppers rolled off 8 straight wins, including a victory in the rematch with the Bulldogs in the conference championship game.
The offense was just loaded with talent in 2016. Mike White stepped in at QB and exploded on the scene with 4363 yards passing and 37 TDs as a junior. He had serious targets in the passing game, as both Taywan Taylor (98-1730-17) and Nicholas Norris (76-1318-14) went over 1000 yards receiving as seniors. What is just as impressive was the WKU run game, as Anthony Wales chipped in with 1621 yards rushing and 17 scores, as WKU averaged 186.36 rushing yards per game, not bad for a passing team.
The defense has gotten better each of the past 3 seasons, and this unit was the best in the last 4 years, allowing just 24.6 points per game. LB Keith Brown was a big contributor to the success on defense, as he recorded 131 tackles, 13 TFLs, 6 sacks, 9 PBUs, and 3 QB hurries.
Moving Forward: Jeff Brohm is gone as coach, as he has moved on to Purdue. Mike Sanford, Jr. is the new man in charge fresh off of a stint as OC at Notre Dame. His main challenge will to be to refrain from fixing what is not broken at WKU. His philosophy on offense is very similar to what Brohm did, so I would expect very minimal differences, at least in year one. White and Wales return in 2017, but Taylor and Norris are both gone at receiver, so that will be an area of concern in the off season. The good news is that in this system, receivers are able to develop quickly, so it may just be a matter of identifying the new starters, but we are talking about replacing 3000 yards of receiving. That is a huge hole.
Keith Brown is gone on defense, so the Hilltoppers need to find another leader, and second ranked tackler Brandon Leston is gone as well. There should still be enough talent leftover to Keep the defense in line, but again, the loss of Brown is too large to ignore.
I still believe that the Toppers have enough talent on this roster to make a run at yet another CUSA title in 2017, if the new staff does not tinker too much.

Old Dominion Monarchs
10-3 (7-1)

2016 Schedule
Beat Hampton 54-21
Lost to Appalachian State 31-7
Lost to NC State 49-22
Beat UTSA 33-19
Beat Charlotte 52-17
Beat U Mass 36-16
Lost to Western Kentucky 59-24
Beat UTEP 31-21
Beat Marshall 38-14
Beat Southern Miss 51-35
Beat FAU 42-24
Beat FIU 42-28
Beat Eastern Michigan 24-20 (Bahamas Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Albany, 9/9 at U Mass. 9/16 North Carolina, 9/23 at Virginia Tech
MVP Offense: David Washington, QB; Ray Lawry, RB
MVP Defense: Oshaen Ximines, DL
Best Win: Eastern Michigan 24-20
Worst Loss: Western Kentucky 59-24

The Breakdown: Few people saw the Monarchs blowing up to win 10 games in 2016, but then again, one needs to pay attention to who they beat in those 10 wins, because only 2 of those wins came against teams with winning records, and just barely. Still, this was a highly successful season for the Monarchs, it's just too bad they had to play in a bowl game in front of an empty stadium in the freaking Bahamas.
David Washington became a star at QB for the Monarchs, passing for 2836 yards and 31 TDs against just 5 INTs. He finished with a QBR of 156.62, and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt. The Monarch offense was highly balanced with a run game that averaged 196.85 yards per game behind the rushing of star back Ray Lawry. Lawry, a staple for ODU, was his usual beastly self in 2016, rushing for 1255 yards and 11 scores on the season, and even missed a game, stunting his output somewhat. In all, the Monarchs averaged 35.1 points per game, an improvement of over 10 points per game from a year ago.
Oshean Ximines was the MVP choice for me on defense. He finished with 11.5 TFLs, 42 tackles, and also led the team with 7.5 sacks. He forced 3 fumbles, and picked up 4 QB hurries while he was at it. The defense as a whole struggled at times, gave up 27 points per game, but it was still 8.6 points per game better than a year ago. The unit is still a work in progress.
Moving Forward: Ray Lawry will return, and could go back to being a focal point of the offense next season as David Washington is moving on at QB. Blake LaRussa could get first crack at winning the job, but Shuler Bentley could be in the mix as well. Jeremy Cox, who rushed for 13 scores, also returns. Leading receiver Zach Pascal is leaving, but a bulk of the rest of the receiving corps returns.
Defensively, Ximines returns, but TJ Ricks and Anthony Wilson, who combined for 201 tackles at the LB position, are both gone. That is a ton of production to replace in the middle of the field, and finding replacements will be paramount.
The back end of the non con schedule is grueling with North Carolina and Virginia Tech, but if replacements can be found at QB and at LB, ODU can still make a run for the top of the East, but winning it may be a stretch.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
8-5 (5-3)

2016 Schedule
Beat Alabama A&M 55-0
Lost to Vanderbilt 47-24
Beat Bowling Green 41-21
Beat Louisiana Tech 38-34
Beat North Texas 30-13
Lost to Western Kentucky 45-44
Beat Missouri 51-45
Beat FIU 42-35
Lost to UTSA 45-25
Lost to Marshall 42-17
Beat Charlotte 38-31
Beat FAU 77-56

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Vanderbilt, 9/9 at Syracuse, 9/16 at Minnesota, 9/23 Bowling Green
MVP Offense: Brent Stockstill, QB; I'Tavius Mathers, RB; Richie James, WR
MVP Defense: Chris Melton, LB
Best Win: Beat Louisiana Tech 38-34
Worst Loss: Marshall 42-17

The Breakdown: A 2 game bump in the road to start the final month of the season kept the Blue Raiders from tying for the East title, and the losses were tough to take (UTSA, Marshall). QB Brent Stockstill was injured during the UTSA loss, and missed the next 3 games, forcing to Blue Raiders offense to find answers. It was that injury that stalled their run for a CUSA East title.
Stockstill was still a strong player despite the missed games, passing for 3233 yards and 31 scores against 7 INTs. Richie James was the star of a loaded receiver corps, posting a line of 105-1625-12. He caught 8.1 passes per game for an average of 125 yards per contest. I'Tavius Mathers was a beast at RB as well, rushing for 1561 yards and 17 scores, while he also caught 66 passes for 633 yards and another 3 scores. He was the most versatile back in FBS football in 2016.
Defensively, Chris Melton gets my MVP nod at LB for the Blue Raiders after recording 102 tackles on the year. He recorded 6.5 TFLs and averaged 7.85 tackles per game. The defense as a whole, however, was one of the worst units in the nation, allowing over 35 points per game. Nobody can blame that on the Stockstill injury. They actually got worse by 8.2 points per game from 2015.
Moving Forward: I'Tavius Mathers is gone in 2017, and there is no clear answer at RB, so that is an area of concern heading into camp. His numbers will be tough to replace. Stockstill will return, as will James, and Ty Lee, who caught 63 passes on the season. Stockstill will need to be healthy for the entire season in 2017 if the Blue Raiders are to push WKU for the East title. Defensively, scoring has to come down, and with 9 of the top 11 tacklers returning, a year of experience could make the difference for what was a young unit. Melton will return to lead the group once again.

Florida International Panthers
4-8 (4-4)

2016 Schedule
Lost to Indiana 34-13
Lost to Maryland 41-14
Lost to U Mass 21-13
Lost to UCF 53-14
Beat FAU 33-31
Beat UTEP 35-21
Beat Charlotte 27-26
Lost to Louisiana Tech 44-24
Lost to Middle Tenessee 42-35
Lost to Western Kentucky 49-21
Beat Marshall 31-14
Lost to Old Dominion 42-28

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 UCF, 9/9 Alcorn State, 9/16 at Indiana, TBA Tulane
MVP Offense: Alex Gardner, RB
MVP Defense: Treyvon Williams, LB
Best Win: FAU 33-31
Worst Loss: U Mass 21-13

The Breakdown: The Panthers lost their first 4 games of the season to set the tone in what would largely be a lost year in the program's still relatively young history. Making matters worse, they lost 4 of the final 5 games, with each loss coming by double figures. In the end, Ron Turner was let go mid season, leading to a quick upswing of a 3 game winning streak, but the energy would not last for interim coach Ron Cooper.
In an offense that largely lacked star power, RB Alex Gardner was my MVP, rushing for 960 yards and 6 scores on the season. He averaged 5.14 yards per carry, giving the Panthers a little bit of punch.
Defensively, the Panthers were not great, giving up 34.8 points per game, which sabotaged their overall season on several levels. LB Treyvon Williams was a bright spot, leading the team with 109 tackles, and 6.5 TFLs. Anthony Wint was right behind Williams with 108 tackles on the season, but this LB group got little help from the guys up front.
Moving Forward: Turner is finally gone, as it felt like his regime carried on a bit long. The Panthers started a splash and flash war with rival FAU by hiring Butch Davis to replace him. Davis has been out of the game and in a broadcast studio for a bit, so he may be a little bit rusty coming back, but this was still a high profile hire that nobody thought would happen here.
Alex McGough is back at QB, but he needs a breakthrough, and he has not had one yet. He will be a senior. Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones are both back at RB, so there are opportunities there. Other than losing Jonnu Smith at TE, the entire receiving corps returns.
12 of the top 13 tacklers all return on defense, so expect improvements after a learning year. They can only get better after a season loaded with failures. With some improvements, FIU could push for a bowl, but it's best not to have high expectations.

Charlotte 49ers
4-8 (3-5)

2016 Schedule
Lost to Louisville 70-14
Beat Elon 47-14
Lost to Eastern Michigan 37-19
Lost to Temple 48-20
Lost to Old Dominion 52-17
Beat FAU 28-23
Lost to FIU 27-26
Beat Marshall 27-24
Beat Southern Miss 38-27
Lost to Rice 22-21
Lost to Middle Tennessee 38-31
Lost to UTSA 33-14

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 at Eastern Michigan, 9/9 at Kansas State, 9/16 North Carolina A&T, 9/23 Georgia State
MVP Offense: Kalif Phillips, RB
MVP Defense: Larry Ogunjobi, DL
Best Win: Southern Miss 38-27
Worst Loss: Rice 22-21

The Breakdown: Four wins in 2016 was a major surprise for the 49ers, who are still a program in their infantile stages. Brad Lambert did a seriously good job of moving the needle, including picking up 3 wins in CUSA play, one of which being against pre-season conference favorite Southern Miss.
Kalif Phillips was solid at RB for the 49ers in 2016, rushing for 907 yards and 4 TDs. Had he been a junior, he would be someone I would be looking at in 2017 as a potential breakout player, but he was a senior, and will not have that chance. Charlotte averaged 25.2 points per game on offense, a 7.7 point per game improvement over 2015, their first full season in FBS football.
DL Larry Ogunjobi was a star on defense, collecting 13.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 65 tackles, and 10 QB hurries. The defense as a while still has a ton of work to do, but having Ogunjobi coming in of the edge was a real boost for what could have otherwise been a very sloppy defensive unit up front. Charlotte allowed 34.6 points per game, a slight 1.7 point per game improvement. They intercepted 16 passes as a team, and LB Nick Cook added 108 tackles.
Moving Forward: Hasaan Klugh should be given the job full time at QB in 2017, after he passed for 10 TDs to just 3 picks in 11 games. If he falters, Kevin Olson should be there to push him after passing for 140.3 yards per game in 6 appearances. Phillips will need to be replaced at RB, and that could be a huge problem. Sophomore to be Robert Washington should be the first in line to become the featured back. Leading receiver Austin Duke is also gone after catching 59 passes in 2016.
Defensively, Nick Cook departs at LB, as does Ogunjobi, and that will leave a massive gap in production to fill in spring and fall camps. If the defense slides backwards, it could be a long year in 2017 for this young program.

Florida Atlantic Owls
3-9 (2-6)

2016 Schedule
Beat Southern Illinois 38-30
Lost to Miami 38-10
Lost to Kansas State 63-7
Lost to Ball State 31-27
Lost to FIU 33-31
Lost to Charlotte 28-23
Lost to Marshall 27-21
Lost to Western Kentucky 52-3
Beat Rice 42-35
Beat UTEP 35-31
Lost to Old Dominion 42-24
Lost to Middle Tennessee 77-56

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Navy, 9/9 at Wisconsin, 9/16 Bethune-Cookman, 9/23 at Buffalo
MVP Offense: Devin Singletary, RB; Gregory Howell, Jr., RB
MVP Defense: Trey Hendrickson, DL
Best Win: None
Worst Loss: Kansas State 63-7

The Breakdown: It was an abysmal season for the Owls in 2016, as FAU started just 1-7, leading to the eventual firing of Charlie Partridge, who was always in over his head with this job. The Owls did pick up a couple of wins against bad teams in Rice and UTEP in the final month, but closed out on yet another losing streak, this time 2 games. In short, with basically zero quality wins, this was a completely lost season in Boca Raton.
If not for the running combo of Devin Singletary and Gregory Howell, Jr., the offense would have been completely void of production and real talent. Singletary rushed for 1016 yards and 12 scores, while Howell rushed for 833 yards and another 13 scores. They combined for 25 of the 38 TDs that the Owls scored all season.
Jason Driskell passed for more picks (11) than scores (9) on the season as a sophomore, and while Kalib Woods caught 68 passes, nobody else caught more than 26.
Defensively, the Owls were one of the worst units in the nation, allowing 39.8 points per game. Trey Hendrickson and Azeez Al-Shaair were the bright spots, combining for 26 TFLs, and Hendrickson, my pick for MVP of Defense, finished with 9.5 sacks. Al-Shaair led the team in tackles with 112 from his LB spot, while Jalen Young finished with 100.
Moving Forward: With Partridge fired, FAU was only willing to pay around $600,000 per season for a new coach. When FIU moved on Butch Davis, that shot that plan straight to hell. FAU had to make a major splash, and went out and hired Alabama OC Lane Kiffin after every other job he sought out had turned him down. It will cost them $900,000 per season in the first year, and will get more expensive with time to have Kiffin around.
Kiffin is going to have to find a way to bleed some offense out of this group, but the good news is that Sngleatry and Howell are both coming back in 2017, so the run game will not be a problem, and the line is not horrible. Working Driskell, who also returns, into a serviceable passer will be more of a challenge, as will finding anyone outside of Woods to step up as a receiver.
Defensively, this is a massive rebuild job. Hendrickson is gone, but Al-Shaair will return in 2017. Jalen Young will also be back in the secondary as a junior. 19 underclassmen saw time on the field on defense in 2016, so Kiffin's staff will have to mold that youth into experience and depth.

Marshall Thundering Herd
3-9 (2-6)

2016 Schedule
Beat Morgan State 62-0
Lost to Akron 65-38
Lost to Louisville 59-28
Lost to Pittsburgh 43-27
Lost to North Texas 38-21
Beat FAU 27-21
Lost to Charlotte 27-24
Lost to Southern Miss 24-14
Lost to Old Dominion 38-14
Beat Middle Tennessee 42-17
Lost to FIU 31-14
Lost to Western Kentucky 60-6

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Miami (Ohio), 9/9 at NC State, 9/16 Kent State, 9/30 at Cincinnati
MVP Offense: Chase Litton, QB
MVP Defense: Rodney Allen, DB
Best Win: Middle Tennessee 42-17
Worst Loss: Western Kentucky 60-6

The Breakdown: If there is one program who completely imploded in 2016, it was Marshall. After beating Morgan State to open the season, the Herd rolled off 4 straight losses, 3 of which by 16 points or more. After beating FAU narrowly, the Herd then ran off 5 losses in their final 6 games, with a surprising 25 point win over injury riddled Middle Tennessee breaking up the mess. This was one of the worst seasons in recent Marshall history, and was shocking in that I had projected this team to win 8 games in 2016.
Chase Litton is still a strong candidate at QB for the Herd, as he passed for 2612 yards and 24 TDs to 9 picks. He was not always near perfect, but he got the job done more so than anyone else on offense, averaging 261 yards passing per game. The run game was anemic, averaging just over 108 yards per contest.
The defense allowed 35.3 points per game, which was an almost 18 point per game worsening from year to year. Rodney Allen was the best player on a bad unit, finishing with 76 tackles, 2 INTs, 12 PBUs, and 4 forced fumbles on the season. The Herd allowed 253 yards passing per game, and another 201 yards per game rushing on the season. In short, they couldn't stop anyone, including Western Kentucky, who beat them 60-6 in their worst loss of the year.
Moving Forward: Litton is back at QB, which is the good news. He has some talent, but needs some weapons around him to develop, specifically in the run game, where nobody showed up in 2016. The receiving corps will need some help as well, as there really is not a whole lot coming back of note.
Defensively, this season was a disaster. Doc Holliday has some work to do to get this program back on track, as right now, the defense is in need of serious rebuilding, and if that does not get fixed, this could be the beginning of a very bad run. 10 of the top 13 tacklers do return, but someone needs to start tackling.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
9-5 (6-2)

2016 Schedule
Lost to Arkansas 21-20
Beat South Carolina State 52-34
Lost to Texas Tech 59-45
Lost to Middle Tennessee 38-34
Beat UTEP 28-7
Beat Western Kentucky 55-52
Beat U Mass 56-28
Beat FIU 44-24
Beat Rice 61-6
Beat North Texas 45-24
Beat UTSA 63-35
Lost to Southern Miss 39-24
Lost to Western Kentucky 58-44 (CUSA Title Game)
Beat Navy 48-45 (Armed Forces Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Northwestern State, 9/9 Mississippi State, 9/23 South Carolina, 9/30 South Alabama
MVP Offense: Ryan Higgins, QB; Trent Taylor, WR; Carlos Henderson, WR
MVP Defense: Jaylon Ferguson, DL; Xavier Woods, DB
Best Win: Western Kentucky 55-52
Worst Loss: Southern Miss 39-24

The Breakdown: The Bulldogs were one of a handful of teams in the nation that survived a slow start to end up a major player in their conference race by the end of the season. They started the season just 1-3 before rebounding to win 7 straight, but the Bulldogs ended the year poorly, losing 2 of their final 3 games, with the lone win coming in the bowl game over Navy in a shootout. After beating Western Kentucky in the regular season Louisiana Tech met them once again in the conference title game, and fell short in a 58-44 loss.
The offense was loaded in the passing game, which is how this offense has always been. Ryan Higgins had a huge senior season, passing for 4617 yards and 41 TDs to just 8 picks on the year. He passed for 400 or more yards in 6 different games, and managed all of this despite missing the opener against Arkansas, a game that the Bulldogs nearly won. He averaged 355.2 yards per game on 38.2 pass attempts per game, and completed 66.3% of his passes. Trent Taylor caught 136 passes this season for 1803 yards and 12 scores, while Carlos Henderson, the higher touted of the two, caught 8 passes for 1535 yards and an incredible 19 scores.
The Buldogs were no joke in the run game either at times, as Jarred Craft rushed for 1074 yards and 9 TDs on the season. The Bulldogs passed for an average of 363.4 yards per game, while they added 151.36 yards rushing per game, finishing with over 500 yards per game of offense, while averaging 44.3 points per game. Tech finished 2nd nationally in scoring (to Western Kentucky), and 9th nationally in total offense. The Bulldogs finished 2nd nationally in passing offense, right behind Texas Tech.
The Bulldogs needed to score up, because the defense gave up plenty of points as well, allowing 33.6 points per game. Jaylon Ferguson blew up as a sophomore on the line, racking up 16 TFLs for the season, while adding 14.5 sacks, 49 tackles, and 4 forced fumbles. The defense also got a big performance out of DB Xavier Woods, as he finished with 89 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 5 INTs, and 6 PBUs. Despite those efforts, teams still passed for 274 yards per game against the Bulldogs.
Moving Forward: There will be questions in 2017 for the Bulldogs, as they lose a huge chunk of offense with the departures of Higgins, Taylor, and Henderson. It is possible, that the offense may need to become a bit more run oriented, as only Craft returns from the core of play makers in this offense. QBs and receivers always pop up at Tech, so I am sure that they will find talent in camp, but it may take some time to gel in game time situations for the new group in the passing game.
Defensively, Tech will certainly have to tighten up from where they were this season, but that may also be a tall order, as 5 of the top 9 tacklers are all gone, and that includes Woods. Ferguson does return, so coach Skip Holtz will have to find a way to build around him as a foundation. If there was a season where Tech could slip from atop the West, 2017 could be it.

UTSA Roadrunners
6-7 (5-3)

2016 Schedule
Beat Alabama State 26-13
Lost to Colorado State 23-14
Lost to Arizona State 32-28
Lost to Old Dominion 33-19
Beat Southern Miss 55-32
Beat Rice 14-13
Lost to UTEP 42-39
Beat North Texas 31-17
Beat Middle Tennessee 45-25
Lost to Louisiana Tech 63-35
Lost to Texas A&M 23-10
Beat Charlotte 33-14
Lost to New Mexico 23-20 (New Mexico Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Houston, 9/9 at Baylor, 9/16 Southern, 9/23 at Texas State
MVP Offense: Dalton Sturm, QB
MVP Defense: Josiah Tauaefa, DB
Best Win: Middle Tennessee 42-25
Worst Loss: UTEP 42-39

The Breakdown: Frank Wilson did a solid job in year one, but the Roadrunners still fell short of a winning record, and he has not recruited many of his own kids just yet. Of UTSA's 6 wins, only 2 came against teams that finished with "winning records". Those wins came against Southern Miss, and Middle Tennessee. Making it to a bowl was big this season, but there is still much work to be done.
The offense was solid, even if lacking star power. The Roadrunners averaged over 29 points per game on the year, and Dalton Sturm, to me, was the MVP of the offense. Sturm passed for 2170 yards and 20 scores, with just 6 picks, but did only manage to pass for 166 yards per game as a junior. He completed just 56.5% of his passes, and finished with a QBR of just 135.55.
Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes had a decent season in the run game. While neither back broke 1000 yards, they did combine to rush for 17 scores on the season, and also combined for over 1700 yards. In short, UTSA averaged 161 yards rushing per game.
No one receiver caught more than 36 passes for the entire season, making this a weaker area of concern.
Defensively, the Roadrunners improved by almost 6 points per game allowed, giving up 27.9 points per game. Again, there was not a ton of star power here, but a team approach worked reasonably well. LB Josiah Tauaefa was my MVP on defense, and did manage to become a star of sorts after compiling 115 tackles, 9 TFLs, 6 sacks, and 7 QB hurries.
UTSA sill allowed 162 yards rushing per game in 2016, which will be an area that I am sure the staff will work on.
Moving Forward: Sturm returns as a senior in 2017, and he will likely be more of a game manager than a game changer at QB. He will get 5 of his top 6 receivers or TEs back, so improvements seem realistic. Williams is gone at RB, but Rhdes will return in more of a feature back role, with a relatively unknown cast behind him, so finding depth at RB will be a primary concern. Improvements must also come from a line that allowed 43 sacks on the year, along with 100 total TFLs against.
11 of the top 15 tacklers return on defense, including Tauaefa, who was just a freshman in 2016. I would expect continued improvements from this unit if a decent crop of newcomers can be found. I am not certain that UTSA has the weapons to win the west in 2017, but anything is possible if Louisiana Tech slides.

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
7-6 (4-4)

2016 Schedule
Beat Kentucky 44-35
Beat Savannah State 56-0
Lost to Troy 37-31
Beat UTEP 34-7
Beat Rice 44-28
Lost to UTSA55-32
Lost to LSU 45-10
Beat Marshall 24-14
Lost to Charlotte 38-27
Lost to Old Dominion 51-35
Lost to North Texas 29-23
Beat Louisiana Tech 39-24
Beat UL-Lafayette 28-21 (New Orleans Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Kentucky, 9/9 Southern, 9/16 at UL-Monroe, 11/4 at Tennessee
MVP Offense: Ito Smith, RB; Allenzae Staggers, WR
MVP Defense: Dylan Bradley, DL
Best Win: Louisiana Tech 39-24
Worst Loss: Charlotte 38-27

The Breakdown: 2016 was a seriously disappointing season for USM, who was widely expected to win the West when the season started. The Eagles did manage to win 4 of 5 out of the gate, but then they lost 5 of 6 in the middle of the season, ruining their chances at making a CUSA title run. Losses to UTSA, Charlotte, Old Dominion, and North Texas were killers, because on paper, the Eagles should have had more talent.
Nick Mullins did manage to miss 2 games this season, but this all cannot be laid at his feet. He still managed to pass for 3272 yards and 24 scores to 11 picks. Ito Smith was his usual self, as he rushed for 1459 yards and 17 TDs, while averaging 112.23 yards per game. He also managed to gain 5.51 yards per carry, and added 43 receptions in the passing game for 459 yards.
Allenzae Staggers was my Co-MVP on offense for the Eagles, as he caught 62 passes for 1157 yards and 7 scores, while averaging 89 yards per game and 18.66 yards per reception.
The defense worsened by almost 4 points per game allowed, finishing by giving up 29.5 [points per game.The Eagles were tough against the pass, only allowing 174 yards per game, and were not terrible against the run either, but inconsistencies throughout the season just buried the campaign. Senior DL Dylan Bradley had a solid season, racking up 15.5 TFLs and 8.5 sacks. He finished second on the team with 64 tackles, forced 2 fumbles, and blocked a pair of kicks.
Moving Forward: Southern Miss has some face to save, but they have to do it without their big gun at QB in Mullins. Smith and Staggers are both returning, so there is some good news there. Keon Howard and Parker Adamson should get first crack at the QB job, but neither looked promising in 2016.
An issue that must be resolved is penalties, as USM was one of the more penalized teams in the nation, especially at home, where they were dinged 8.2 times per game. They averaged 8 penalties in each of their losses, 7 in wins.
Defensively, USM showed how they can dominate at times, and just look lost in others. They have to find an identity in 2017, and stick with it. Bradley is gone, but Xavier Thigpen and Sherrod Ruff are both back, and they combined for 23.5 TFLs in 2016. That being said, 4 of the top 7 tacklers are gone, so someone needs to step up and make plays next fall. With the division being weak overall, USM could have enough to make a run, but winning the CUSA title in 2017 may not be in the cards.

North Texas Mean Green
5-8 (3-5)

2016 Schedule
Lost to SMU 34-21
Beat Bethune-Cookman 41-20
Lost to Florida 32-0
Beat Rice 42-35
Lost to Middle Tennessee 30-13
Beat Marshall 38-21
Beat Army 35-18
Lost to UTSA 31-17
Lost to Louisiana Tech 45-24
Lost to Western Kentucky 45-7
Beat Southern Miss 27-26
Lost to UTEP 52-24
Lost to Army 38-31 (Heart of Dallas Bowl)

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Lamar, 9/9 at SMU, 9/16 at Iowa, 11/18 Army
MVP Offense: Jeffry Wilson, RB
MVP Defense: Kishawn McClain, DB
Best Win: Army 35-18
Worst Loss: UTEP 52-24

The Breakdown: For North Texas, you have to celebrate the fact that the Green returned to a bowl, but in reality, going to a bowl as a 5 win team pretty much means absolutely nothing. Despite losing 4 of their final 5 games of the regular season to finish 5-7, UNT received that silly bowl waiver to attend the Heart of Dallas Bowl, because frankly, there are not enough teams to fill the glut of bowls we have without extending offers to losing programs. That, like it or hate it (really hate it) is the world we now live in.
UNT got to the Heart of Dallas Bowl for the second time this decade, and this time, it ended not so well. The Mean Green went up against Army for the second time in 2016, and after handing Army a 17 point loss the first time, the Cadets returned the favor in the bowl with a 38-31 loss for UNT.
Jeffery Wilson is my MVP on offense after rushing for 14 TDs on the season on the back of 936 yards rushing. He played in 11 of 13 games as a junior, and was by far a driving force for an offense that largely struggled at times. Freshman Mason Fine played in 10 games, passing for 1572 yards, but just 6 TDs to 5 INTs. Senior Alec Morris missed the entire middle of the season, passing for 1126 yards and 9 TDs to 7 INTs.
The team stumbled to a 24.8 points per game average, and as bad as that was, it was still an increase of 9.6 points per game over last season.
Defensively, UNT had it tough all season. This unit allowed 32.6 points per game, but that was also an almost 9 point swing to the better from 2015. Kishawn McClain finished the season as the leader in tackles with 91, had 3 picks, and forced 2 fumbles on the season. There was a major weakness against the run, however, and UNT allowed 239.54 yards rushing on the season, as well as 200 yards passing per game.
Moving Forward: There were gains made in year one under Seth Litrell. Scoring is on the upswing, and scoring against is coming down. Wilson is slated to return, and could have a breakout season, but he will need the passing game to pick up steam to keep defenses honest against him. The line also has to do a better job, as they allowed 43 sacks in 13 games, and an average of 7.15 TFLs per game. If Wilson is to break through as a star, that all needs to change. Mason Fine is in the lead early to become the full time starting QB as a sophomore after 10 games in relief this season.
Defensively, the needle is moving in the right direction, but there is still plenty of work to do. The Mean Green needs to get more pressure up front, as they did not do a very good job of that in 2016. They lose 2 of their top 3 tacklers, so talent needs to be found in a big way, because UNT was not exactly deep with it anywhere on defense last fall. If some things come together during camps, and a few balls bounce the right way, we could see another set of improvements in 2017, and this division looks winnable.

Rice Owls
3-9 (2-6)

2016 Schedule
Lost to Western Kentucky 46-14
Lost to Army 31-14
Lost to Baylor 38-10
Lost to North Texas 42-35
Lost to Southern Miss 44-28
Lost to UTSA 14-13
Beat Prairie View 65-44
Lost to Louisiana Tech 61-16
Lost to FAU 42-25
Beat Charlotte 22-21
Beat UTEP 44-24
Lost to Stanford 41-17

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 Stanford, 9/16 at Houston, 9/30 at Pittsburgh, 10/7 Army
MVP Offense: Tyler Stehling, QB
MVP Defense: Emmanuel Ellerby, LB
Best Win: None
Worst Loss: Louisiana Tech 61-16

The Breakdown: The Owls lost 8 of their first 9 games in 2016, and their 2 wins in CUSA play were against teams that finished a combined 8-16. The third win was against FCS member Prairie View, and the Owls still allowed 44 points to them in the win. It was 6 weeks in before Rice was finally able to keep a game within single digits in a one point loss to UTSA. It was the only time that the Owls would be able to stay inside of single digits in any loss this year.
Tyler Stehling was, almost by default, my MVP on offense for Rice in 2016. He passed for just 12 TDs, but managed to only toss 7 picks, so that was something. He finshed the season with 2049 yards passing. The staff could not pick one or two backs, so they ran as many as 4 backs as much as 68 carries, but none of those backs ever made it to 100 carries.
Defensively, Rice was a mess all season long. Emmanuel Ellerby was a busy LB on the season, finishing with 118 tackles to lead the team, the only Rice defender to go to triple digits. He finished with 8 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and 3 QB hurries. In all, Rice allowed 287.7 yards passing per game, and 216.83 yards rushing per game. Teams rushed for 30 TDs against this defense.
Moving Forward: I am not sure as to how, but David Bailiff kept his job...again. No coach in the nation has been able to stay at any school with a losing record as long as he has, and it seemed certain in the final month that he was gone before something strange happened in that nothing happened at all after the administration had been sending up smoke signals that this job was opening up. This has to be it for Bailiff if Rice cannot rebound in 2017, and quite frankly, with this roster, I am not sure how they could. The stadium was under water this week, and so, it would seem, is the entire football program.

UTEP Miners
4-8 (2-6)

2016 Schedule
Beat New Mexico State 38-22
Lost to Texas 41-7
Lost to Army 66-14
Lost to Southern Miss 34-7
Lost to Louisiana Tech 28-7
Lost to FIU 35-21
Beat UTSA 52-49
Lost to Old Dominion 31-21
Beat Houston Baptist 42-10
Lost to FAU 35-31
Lost to Rice 44-24
Beat North Texas 52-24

2017 Non Conference Schedule: 9/2 at Oklahoma, 9/16 Arizona, 9/23 at New Mexico State, 9/30 at Army
MVP Offense: Will Martinez, LG; Aaron Jones, RB; Ryan Metz, QB
MVP Defense: Alvin Jones, LB
Best Win: UTSA 52-49
Worst Loss: Rice 44-24

The Breakdown: After a season opening win against rival New Mexico State, UTEP went on to lose their next 6 of 7 games on the season, including a terrible loss to reeling FIU at the time. The Miners did finish 2-2 in the final month, but one of those wins came against a bottom feeder FCS program in Houston Baptist. The Miners managed to lose to both FAU and Rice in that final month, and that sucked all of the respect out the window.
With Zach Greenlee's injury and poor play issues, that opened the door at QB for Ryan Metz, who was effective during his time on the field, as he passed for 1375 yards and 14 TDs to 4 picks. He completed 64.7% of his passes, and averaged 18.3 attempts per game.
The MVP of this offense was RB Aaron Jones. Jones rushed for 1773 yards as a junior, and scored 17 times. He averaged 7.74 yards per carry and 147.75 yards per game. He added 28 receptions and another 3 TDs in the passing game. He rushed for over 200 yards 3 times on the season.
LG Willie Martinez was rock solid at LG for UTEP as well, as he never allowed a sack or a QB hurry all season long.
On defense, the Miners had a rough go of it. They allowed 34.9 points per game, 210.33 yards rushing per game, and another 209 yards per game through the air. LB Alvin Jones led the team with 93 tackles, and finished with TFLs, and 2.5 sacks.
Moving Forward: Sean Kugler is on the hot seat heading into 2017. He had the program moving in the right direction in 2015, and then the bottom fell out, and the Miners are right back in the basement again. Jones will not be around to save their bacon again at RB, as he is heading off early to the NFL Draft, so Metz will have a ton of pressure on him, if he wins the job over Greenlee in camp. There was little depth behind Jones at RB, so that job is wide open, but Jones was a special player for the Miners, and it is doubtful any one player will be able to replicate his output.
Defensively, the Miners need play makers everywhere on the field. Alvin Jones is back at LB and as the defensive leader, but there are losses on the front line, and in the secondary, where Nick Needham is one of only two starters returning after picking up 11 PBUs. It could be another long season in El Paso, and that is not good news for Kugler.

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