2021 Conference USA Preview

COIVD’s impacts were varied across Conference USA member teams. Two teams were able to complete twelve games and three others completed ten. The remainder of the conference completed between 5 and 9 games, with Old Dominion opting out for the entire season.

Marshall steamrolled through the first seven games of its season, climbing to #15 in the AP poll only to drop its final three games. UAB was once again the class of the CUSA West and defeated Marshall in the CUSA Conference Championship game.

CUSA placed six teams in bowl games and came away with six defeats. This came on top of a poor showing in non-conference play during the regular season. CUSA teams will likely come into this season with a chip on their shoulder trying to prove 2020 was an aberration. Marshall and UAB look to repeat their division wins in 2021, but should see challenges from Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, UTSA, and Louisiana Tech.

G5 Gurus picks for the 2021 CUSA season are presented below.

CUSA East

Marshall (1)

What to know:

Marshall started the year on a roll, winning their first 7 games, with only a 1707 win over App State even remotely close.  Inexplicitly, the wheels fell off in the final three games and the Herd stumbled to a 7-3 record.  They bring back a lot of talent for new head coach Charles Huff. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB.  Grant Wells had an amazing start to his freshman year throwing 16 TDs to only 4 interceptions through the first seven games.  However, in the last three games he threw only 2 TD’s and 6 interceptions.  Which Grant Wells shows up in 2021?
  2. New Coaches.  In addition to Huff, the Herd has new coordinators.  How well these new coaches can work with the returning talent will likely tell the story of the Herd’s 2021 season. 
  3. Running game.  Brenden Knox’s departure leaves a big void in the Herd running game.  Compounding this are losses along the offensive line.  The running game will be important to keep the pressure off Wells. 

Florida Atlantic (2)

What to know:

The Owls defense kept them in most games in 2020, not allowing more than 20 points in a game until the final two games of the season.  New talent on the offensive side, coupled with a strong returning defense makes FAU a real threat in the CUSA East. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB.  Former Miami starter N’Kosi Perry and former Penn State recruit Michael Johnson joined the Owls via the transfer portal.  Both look to provide a spark to an Owl’s offense that struggled in 2020. 
  2. New Defensive Coordinator.  College football veteran Mike Stoops joins the FAU staff.  The Owls return a lot of defensive talent.  If Stoops can work his magic, this could be a special group in 2021.    
  3. Ground Game.  While the Owls have a deep stable of backs returning, the team only had two games over 200 yards rushing in 2020.  Part of this was due to the lack of a passing threat.  Someone in the stable of running backs need to take a step forward in 2021. 

Western Kentucky (3)

What to know:

The Hilltoppers started 2020 1-4 before closing 4-3 (including a loss in the Lending Tree Bowl).  A major influx of talent arrived via the transfer portal, making WKU an intriguing storyline entering the 2021 campaign. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Transfers.  19 new players arrived at WKU via the transfer portal.  Among them is QB Bailey Zappe, from Houston Baptist.  Zappe (15 TDs, 1 interception in four games in 2020) followed his coordinator at Houston Baptist, Zach Kittley to WKU.  If the transfers can mesh quickly with the returning talent, the Hilltoppers could be a major contender for the CUSA crown.    
  2. Offensive Line.  Last year’s WKU offensive line yielded 28 sacks.  Giving the new QB time to throw will be job number one heading into 2021.    
  3. Turnovers.  WKU was bitten by the turnover bug at times last year.  In three of their losses, they had three turnovers or more.   In their five wins they had a total of 3 turnovers.

Charlotte (4)

What to know:

The 49ers struggled with COVID-19 during 2020, only playing six games, finishing 2-4.  They return a solid QB in Chris Reynolds and added talent through the transfer portal to position them for a run at a bowl bid in 2021.

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense.  The 49ers defense allowed nearly 33 points a game in 2020, including 53 to Duke.  The pass rush only recorded 5 sacks and opponents averaged over 200 yards rushing.   Transfers will need to provide immediate help. 
  2. Running game.  Charlotte lost their top two running backs from 2020 and will need to find someone to replace their productivity. 
  3. Offensive line.  In 2020 the 49ers’ offensive line yielded 16 sacks in only 6 games.  Shoring up pass protection to allow Reynolds time to operate will be an important item to address in 2021. 

Middle Tennessee (5)

What to know:

The Blue Raiders dug themselves an 0-4 hole that was too much to dig out of in 2020.  Middle Tennessee ended the year 3-6, their second consecutive losing season.  A lot of areas need to improve for the Blue Raiders to return to the post season. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB – A big question mark after Asher O’Hara’s transfer was who would play QB for the Blue Raiders.  This question was answered in the form of Bailey Hockman, a transfer from NC State.  Hockman started nine games for the Wolfpack in 2020, leading them to 4 straight wins to close the season. 
  2. Defense (35 per game) – The Blue raider defense struggled during 2020, allowing 35 points per game and only holding the opposition under 28 points twice.  A chief concern was the run defense which allowed 222 yards per game.  10 starters return but will need to show a lot of improvement for the Blue Raiders to make any noise. 
  3. Turnovers.  In 4 of 6 losses the Blue Raiders had 2 or more turnovers.  They had only 3 total TOs in their 3 wins. 

Florida International (6)

What to know:

Similar to Charlotte, COVID hit the Panthers hard in 2020.  They lost all five games they were able to play.  The Panthers played a strong Liberty team tough to open the season but faded to big losses in their last two games.    There is room for hope as key talent returns for 2021 and a new offensive coordinator is in place.

3 things to watch:

  1. QB.  There was no continuity in 2020 with multiple QBs appearing in every game.  Finding a dependable option at QB is the most pressing need for the Panthers. 
  2. Run Defense.  The Panthers yielded over 235 yards a game in rushing in 2020.  This allowed opposing teams to control the clock and reduce the number of plays for the FIU offense. 
  3. RB – D’vonte Price was a major bright spot for the Panthers in 2020, averaging over 100 yards per game rushing.  With depth behind Price, running back should be a source of strength for FIU in 2021.    

Old Dominion (7)

What to know:

The Monarchs were one of the few FBS teams that did not play in 2020.  The 2019 edition of ODU was 1-11.  Only 7 starters return from that squad.  This is a major rebuild for first year coach Ricky Rahne, the former offensive coordinator at Penn State. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Coach.  Rahne was hired prior to the 2020 season but 2021 will be his first season.  Rahne was highly regarded during his time at Penn State, giving ODU fans some reason for hope. 
  2. Offensive production.  The 2019 ODU team ranked 127 out of 130 FBS teams in scoring offense.  Rahne’s offensive prowess should help but putting points on the board is a major need for 2021. 
  3. Defense questions.  ODU returns only 3 starters from 2019 so there are plenty of unknowns on this unit as well.  The 2019 defense yielded 375 yards and nearly 30 points a game. 

CUSA West

Alabama-Birmingham (1)

What to know:

Following last year’s CUSA championship, the Blazers will be looking for their third title in the last four years.  The Blazers need to fill some of the skill positions on offense and will rely early on their talented offensive line.  A challenging early schedule with trips to Georgia and Tulane and a home match-up with Liberty could set the tone for the year. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Tyler Johnson III returns from a shoulder injury that ended his 2020 campaign.  Johnson is 13-5 as a starter.  If he returns to form, the Blazers will be tough to beat in the West. 
  2. Receivers.  The Blazers lost a lot of production at the receiver position and will need some new talent to step up to improve on their 28 points per game in 2020. 
  3. Turnovers.  Johnson’s return should help as Bryson Lucero threw 8 picks in a backup role.  The Blazers also lost 7 fumbles in 2020.  They need to clean this up early. 

Texas San-Antonio (2)

What to know:

After finishing 2020 as the #2 rusher in FBS, Sincere McCormick and the bulk of the Roadrunners starters are back to challenge for the west title.  A strong defense and a good ball control offense will make the Roadrunners a team to reckon with in 2021. 

3 things to watch:

  1. Early Road tests.  Away games at Illinois and Memphis will be challenges.  The Roadrunners need to avoid injuries to their key skill positions on offense. 
  2. Continued improvement against the run.  The Roadrunners allowed 165 yards a game in 2020, down from nearly 200 a game in 2019.  This trend needs to continue.    
  3. Consistency in the passing game.  Frank Harris was hot and cold in 2020.  If he is able to stay on his game, it should open things up more for McCormick. 

Louisiana Tech (3)

What to know:

The Bulldogs return a strong defense and are hoping improvements in the offense will fuel a run at the West title. 

3 things to watch:

  1. QB Competition.  Luke Anthony and Aaron Allen will both see time.  Anthony would seem to have the upper hand coming off a solid 2020.  14 interceptions thrown across all QB’s was among the most in the G5.    
  2. Running game.  The Bulldogs picked up a talented running back in Marcus Williams Jr. from Appalachian State.  They will need his help to build a running game that averaged fewer than 100 yards per game in 2020.
  3. Pass rush.  The Bulldogs need to find a pash rush and get off the field on third down. 

Southern Mississippi (4)

What to know:

The Golden Eagles struggled to a 3-7 finish in 2020.  Inconsistent play was the only consistent for the team last year.  To return to the bowl season, the Golden Eagles need to rely on a group of strong running backs and improvement in the defense.

3 things to watch:

  1. Find a starting QB.  Trey Lowe and transfer Tee Webb should battle for the starting slot.  Whoever wins, they need to improve on the 12 TDs and 9 interceptions generated by the 2020 group. 
  2. Defense improvement.  After surrendering over 32 points and 400 yards a game in 2020, the Golden Eagles need to find a way to slow down the opposition.   10 starters return and help is arriving in the transfer portal as well. 
  3. Favorable CUSA Schedule.  The Golden Eagles dodge Marshall and WKU and get UAB at home.  If they can take advantage of the schedule, they could make some noise in the west. 

North Texas (5)

What to know:

A fun team to watch in 2020 returns a lot of offensive firepower for 2021.  However, the scoring defense was ranked 126 out of 128 in 2020.  Help arrives in the transfer portal, but will it be enough?

3 things to watch:

  1. Defensive production.  The Mean Green allowed almost 43 points a game in 2020.  A new defensive coordinator and 9 transfers hope to improve this unit.  However, there is a long way to go for this unit to be just average. 
  2. QB consistency.  Austin Aune will battle with incoming transfer Jace Ruder for the starting slot.  Aune appeared in 8 games in 2020, completing 55% of his passes.  Ruder, a transfer from North Carolina is a former 4-star recruit.    
  3. Finding some wins.  The scheduling Gods didn’t do the Mean Green a lot of favors.  Tough road games at SMU, Missouri, and Louisiana Tech are in the first six games of the season.  Two of the three home games in the first six are against Marshall and UAB.  A 1-5 start isn’t an unreasonable expectation. 

Rice (6)

What to know:

After playing only 5 games in 2020 (2-3), the Owls are hoping a strong defense can fuel a bowl run in 2021.  Winning a couple of close games could spell the difference between staying at home and going bowling in 2021.  

3 things to watch:

  1. Defense as the anchor.  The Owls shut out undefeated Marshall in 2020.  The pieces are there on the defense.  They need to find a way to get more pressure on the QB to take the next step in 2021. 
  2. Running game.  Coach Mike Bloomberg wants a ball control offense.  He needs more than 120 yards a game to do this.  The Owls only mustered one rushing TD in their 5 games in 2020. 
  3. Opening gauntlet of games.  The Owls play Arkansas, Houston, and Texas to open the season.  Finding an early win will be a challenge. 

Texas El-Paso (7)

What to know:

After a promising 3-1 start, the Miners lost their final 4 games to close out 2020.  Two close losses to Louisiana Tech and North Texas were especially deflating.  The Miners have some pieces back on offense but need defensive improvements to take a step forward.

3 things to watch:

  1. Get your wins early.  The Miners should be more than competitive in four of their first five games.  A 4-1 start could allow them to build on success.  Anything less than 3 wins in the first five and they will struggle to get anywhere close to .500 for the year. 
  2. Defense.  The defense performed well against lesser competition in early 2020 but gave up 45 points a game in their final three CUSA games.  Which defense shows up in 2021?
  3. QB production.  7 TDs to 9 interceptions (in 2020) won’t win a lot of games.  The Miners need someone to step up at QB in 2021.  

2 Comments

  1. I’m personally very excited to see what the Hilltoppers do this season. Hoping Zappe along with his top receivers (also transferred from HBU) can light it up.

    • The Hilltoppers are one of the teams the Gurus will be watching. If Zappe is anything like he was at Houston Baptist, this could be the surprise team of the CUSA.

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