College Football Conference Preview: Conference USA

College Football Conference Preview: Conference USA

With 131 FBS teams across the country, it’s inevitable that a few of them might slip past our focus. That is why we’re taking a Summer Sneak-Peek into the Conference USA with some storylines and new names and faces we should be aware of heading into the 2022 Season. 

3 Storylines

A New King of the Hill(toppers)

There’s no overstating the season that Western Kentucky’s offense had last season. Led by QB, Bailey Zappe, the Hilltoppers were 2nd in the Nation in Total Offense, behind only Ohio State with 532.6 yards/game. Of that average, they had the top Passing Offense with 433.7 yards/game. This offense was hands down electric and one of the most fun teams to watch when they had the ball in their hands. 

Entering 2022, the entire offense has questions to answer. Losing Bailey Zappe hurts but losing their Offensive Coordinator, Zach Kittley, to Texas Tech just adds a level of difficulty in replacing production. To put into perspective just how electric the combination of Zappe and Kittley was all we need to do is look at the chunk plays (plays of 20 yards+) through the air produced by this offense over the last two years. Last year, Zappe had 90 of those plays and 25 of those went for touchdowns. In the year prior (2020), this team had 15 over the course of the season and only three of them went for a touchdown. Needless to say, everything was clicking for this offense. 

There is certainly a case to be made, however, that this offense should continue to be one to put up decent numbers. The Hilltoppers stuck with an internal hire with new co-offensive coordinator, Ben Arbuckle (the former offensive quality control coach under Kittley). Arbuckle’s spent three years under Kittley and it should be assumed that a similar pass-heavy offense will be utilized moving forward. The QB battle will be one to watch moving into the Spring as it seems to have narrowed to a two-man race between two incoming transfers, Jarret Doege (West Virginia) and Austin Reed (West Florida). Their WR room remains very deep despite losing last year’s leading options (Jerreth Sterns & Mitchell Tinsley). Look for Malachi Corley and Daewood Davis to return with larger roles and transfers Jaylen Hall (Western Michigan) and Michael Mathison (Akron) to step into opportunities for immediate impact. 

C-USA Speed: They Just Play More

Three teams in the Conference USA had offenses that were top-10 for most plays ran last season. Western Kentucky, North Texas, and UTSA finished 7th, 8th, and 10th in the country in most plays ran, all wrapping things up with over 1,000 offensive plays. Pace of play is a key indicator in Fantasy Scoring opportunity and these offenses all possess schemes that we should be keeping our eye on for 2022. 

As mentioned above, Western Kentucky’s offense is undergoing a massive overhaul this season, but the expectation for Ben Arbuckle to run Kittley’s offense (or something very similar) should leave us trying to predict target share going into this season. With Jerreth Sterns headed to the NFL and Mitchell Tinsley transferring to Penn State, 23.6 targets/game from last season have opened up with no WR1 cemented for WKU. Malachi Corley and Daewood Davis put up great numbers as the 3rd and 4th options in the offense, last season, as Corley went for 691 yards and 7 touchdowns on 73 receptions and Davis went for 763 yards and 8 touchdowns on 43 receptions. Clearly, Davis worked as more of a deep threat and Corley more underneath, however projecting them as the WR1 and WR2 this year gets complicated with the transfer of former Western Michigan WR Jaylen Hall and Akron WR Michael Mathison. Just from a build, perspective, Hall and Davis at 6’3” and 6’2” seem to be more in the traditional X WR archetype that was filled by Tinsley last season, while Corley and Mathison are smaller WRs that slot in to fill the hole left by Sterns. Identifying the leading guys in this room projects to be a very profitable venture.

North Texas will also see a new face that should be competing for the starting QB job this season. Former Arizona and Memphis QB, Grant Gunnell, has enrolled at UNT and has a very strong case to be the starter over the incumbent, Austin Aune. Seth Littrell’s offense likes to go up-tempo (they were #1 in rate of play last season with 79.5 plays per game) but has been flexible to play to the strengths of his roster. In 2019, his neutral situation pass rate was 50.5. This was the last time UNT had a capable QB (Mason Fine) and since then that rate has plummeted (41.1% in 2020 and 32.7% in 2021). With all reports from Memphis’ Spring Ball saying Gunnell really pushed Seth Henigan for the starting job, I think we see the Mean Green air the ball out much more than last season and make a push for a top offense in the nation. 

The Roadrunners lose their star RB Sincere McCormick to the NFL but they return talent across the board. QB Frank Harris threw for 27 touchdowns (tied for 18th in the nation) last season inside of an offense that was focused on running the ball first. A big reason for that was the connection between he and his WRs Zakhari Franklin, Joshua Cephus, and De’Corian Clark. The reigning CUSA Champions return all three of their top WRs as well as Harris who is entering his 6th year (thanks to COVID eligibility). This offense should lean more heavily on the passing game but bring in two solid RBs in JuCo standout Tye Edwards and former Arkansas RB Trelon Smith. Assuming this offense keeps the same, brisk pace that they had last season, we should see them increase their efficiency with such strong returning talent.

The End of an Era

UAB Head Coach Bill Clark announced last week that he will be stepping down on August 1st due to chronic back problems. Clark is not a name that springs to minds of College Football fans when they think of all-time greats however what Clark was able to do at UAB is one of the more impressive tenures of any coach. 

As Blazers’ Head Coach since 2014, Clark brought stability to a program that cut their football team for 2015 and 2016 due to budgetary concerns. Clark coached for 6 seasons at UAB and brought them two Conference Championships along with a Division Title – most notably one of those conference titles coming just a year after the reinstatement of their football program. With an overall record of 49-26 in Birmingham, Clark leaves big shoes to fill. 

Interim Head Coach will be Bryant Vincent. His familiarity with the team is evident as he has been the Offensive Coordinator and QB Coach under Clark for the last five of UAB’s seasons (with a 2-year stint as the South Alabama OC during the seasons UAB was without football). Things should be business as usual for UAB this season, however it will be worth watching the next steps for this program as losing Clark’s continuity is a very big deal. 

New Blood

UAB: Tejhuan Palmer – UAB returns their WR1 from last year, Trae Shropshire, however Palmer fits that same mold of a big, strong WR with good hands. He will have a defined role in this offense and should fill Shropshire’s shoes next season. 

UTSA: Trelon Smith/Tye Edwards – Looming in the shadow of Sincere McCormick, Trelon Smith and Tye Edwards step into an assumed time share to help replace some of that rushing production. At the moment, it’s assumed Smith will be the 1A and Edwards the 1B.

UTEP: Tyrin Smith – UTEP is another team trying to replace big-time production that left the offense. As Justin Garrett has graduated and Jacob Cowing has moved on to Arizona, Tyrin Smith is expected to make the jump from WR3 to WR1. He brings solid production from last year and looks to build on his ‘21 season of 33 receptions for 570 yards and 4 touchdowns. 

Western Kentucky: Jaylen Hall – The Western Michigan Grad Transfer joins the most prolific offense from last year with a chance to become a mega-producer in the Mitchell Tinsley role for the Hilltoppers. 

North Texas: Grant Gunnell – The quarterback in Seth Littrell’s offense has a great opportunity to produce as they ran the most plays per game in 2021 (79.5). Gunnell’s addition slots into immediate impact territory because of the weapons around him. WRs like Jyaire Shorter, Roderic Burns, and Jay Maclin all have the ability to make this offense a ton of fun in 2022. 

Florida Atlantic: Jymetre Hester – This transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast is a bit of a depth addition (as La’Johntay Wester and Ja’Quan Burton slot in as WR1 and WR2 currently). However Hester was a productive player during his time in JuCo as he put up 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns in 17 game from 2019-2021. 

Middle Tennessee State: A’Varius Sparrow – The Blue Raiders have struggled with finding a productive RB over the past few years. Last season’s leading rusher, Martell Pettaway, only had 372 yards over the course of the season. He’s moved on from the team so the West Virigina Transfer, A’Varius Sparrow should see a great opportunity to compete with Frank Peasant for a chance to lead the backfield coming into the Fall. 

Charlotte: Elijah Spencer – Charlotte returns almost all of their offensive production from 2021, including their WR3, Elijah Spencer. Spencer was productive, as a freshman, last season and he garnered the C-USA Freshman of the Year award. It is expected he should see increased opportunity, even with Grant DuBose and Victor Tucker coming back. Sixth-Year Senior QB, Chris Reynolds, has proven he can support multiple WRs within this offense. 

Louisiana Tech: Matt Downing – Sonny Cumbie comes to Ruston and brings the Air Raid with him. A disciple of Mike Leach and Kliff Kingsbury, Cumbie knows how to get production out of his QBs. Enter: Matt Downing, former Georgia and TCU QB. With capable, experienced WRs like Smoke Harris and Griffin Herbert, Downing should be able to put up solid numbers. 

Rice: Sam Crawford – Rice really struggled, offensively, last season but they infuse some talent with transfer WR Sam Crawford, from Tulsa. Crawford should be able to make an immediate impact joining, jumping straight into the starting lineup. 

Florida International: Gunnar Holmberg – The former Duke QB joins the Panthers this season and brings an injection of talent to the position that desperately needed it. Holmberg is a dual threat that should be able to get the most out of weapons like Tyrese Chambers who looks to follow up his 1,074 yards season with even more production. 

Projected Depth Charts

UAB:

QB – Dylan Hopkins

RB – DeWayne McBride/Jermaine Brown

WR – Trea Shropshire

WR – Tejhuan Palmer

UTSA: 

QB – Frank Harris

RB – Trelon Smith / Tye Edwards

WR – Zakhari Franlkin

WR – Joshua Cephus/De’Corian Clark

UTEP:

QB – Gavin Hardison

RB – Ronald Awatt/Deion Hankins

WR – Tyrin Smith

WR – Reynaldo Flores

Western Kentucky: 

QB – Austin Reed/Jarret Doege

RB – Jakairi Moses/Kye Robichaux

WR – Jaylen Hall

WR – Malachi Corley/Daewood Davis

North Texas: 

QB – Grant Gunnell/Austin Aune

RB – Oscar Adaway/Isaiah Johnson/Ikaika Ragsdale

WR – Jyaire Shorter/Bryson Jackson

WR – Jay Maclin/Roderic Burns

Florida Atlantic:

QB – N’Kosi Perry

RB – Johnny Ford

WR – LaJohntay Wester

WR – Je’Quan Burton

Middle Tennessee State: 

QB – Chase Cunningham

RB – Frank Peasant

WR – Jaylin Lane

WR – Yusuf Ali

Charlotte: 

QB – Chris Reynolds

RB – Shadrick Byrd/Calvin Camp

WR – Grant DuBose

WR – Victor Tucker/Elijah Spencer

Louisiana Tech: 

QB – Matthew Downing

RB – Greg Garner/Charvis Thornton

WR – Smoke Harris

WR – Griffin Herbert

Rice: 

QB – T.J. McMahon

RB – Ari Broussard

WR – Cedric Patterson

WR – Sam Crawford

Florida International:

QB – Gunnar Holmberg

RB – E.J. Wilson/Lexington Joseph

WR – Tyrese Chambers

WR – Randall St. Felix/Sharod Johnson

In case you missed it, previous Conference Previews can be found here: Mid American Conference (MAC), Sun Belt Conference

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Published
Categorized as CFB

By Ethan Sauers

Ethan has been playing DFS since 2014. You can find his lineup review articles across NFL, USFL, and College Football on FantasyCruncher. If you have any questions you can reach out to him at @ethansauers on Twitter.