By Jeremy St. Louis (@jrstlouis)
Think about this for a second - where would your life be without rankings?
How would you know where to eat, what movies to see, what music to listen to, who to bet on? Life is about rankings - and coffee... lots and lots of coffee.
A life without rankings would be sweet though wouldn't it? Instead of writing these articles this week and subjecting myself to social media destruction, I could be continuing to dominate my PS3 copy of NCAA Football 14 (where Conference USA has won two national championships by the way - but I'm not telling what team I'm using). But that is not the world we live in. We rank things and so I will rank things in Conference USA, starting with the West Division.
The saying 'West is best' has not been heard for a couple of seasons now but that could change in 2016. Here's how I see it all shaking down come the end of November.
1. Southern Miss Golden Eagles
Last year's finalists will once again top the division, led by 2015 Offensive Player of the Year Nick Mullens. The senior QB set school records last season for yards (4,476) and TDs (38), and has been named to seven preseason watch lists. He's the real deal. Behind him is junior RB Ito Smith, who racked up 1,876 all-purpose yards and 13 TDs in 2015, and senior WR DJ Thompson, who leads a new-look receiving corps. The offensive line returns a number of starters meaning the Golden Eagles will be flying high on offense once again.
Defensively, David Duggan is out as Defensive Coordinator as new Head Coach Jay Hopson opts for Tony Pecoraro - and Pecoraro will switch the unit from a base 4-3 to a more multi-look scheme. This is a defense that led C-USA in fewest yards-per-game allowed last term and with six returning starters, they will be tough to beat once again.
Their two toughest games will be the non-Conference games against the SEC but other than that, they will be favorites in every game in C-USA and if the stars stay healthy, they should easily get to 10 wins.
2. Louisiana Tech
Head Coach Skip Holtz is entering his 4th season and has the Bulldogs coming off a bowl win in 2015 but this season is a transition year and it's anyone's guess how it will go. The team said goodbye to 4,000 yd passer Jeff Driskel and 1,000 yd rusher Kenneth Dixon - and those are two key players that can't easily be replaced. Ryan Higgins gets another shot as a starting QB and he'll need to make the right reads and the right throws if this team hopes to get to another bowl game. He has a very good WR group led by Trent Taylor & Carlos Henderson with newcomers Alfred Smith & Kam McKnight turning heads in the spring game. As for the ground attack, it looks like it'll be a running-back-by-committee (RBBC) approach early on. The good news for LA Tech is they have a good offensive line so Higgins and the RBs should get time and space to operate.
The defense is an area of concern and while the line will be disruptive with Jaylon Ferguson and Aaron Brown, the new starting linebackers will need to adapt quickly. Xavier Woods is one of the league's best safeties but he doesn't have a lot of experience around him and that could lead to some big plays being given up and possibly some big points.
The schedule certainly doesn't do them any favors with seven road games but while it is a transition year, there is enough talent here for Holtz to get this team to another bowl game.
3. University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA)
if there is one team that should make a jump this year, it is the Roadrunners. After the surprise exit of Head Coach Larry Coker in January, Frank Wilson comes into a great situation after a successful six-year stint at LSU. UTSA have their first-ever 1,000 yd rusher in Jarveon Williams and their first-ever 50+ pass catcher in WR Kerry Thomas, and both return in 2016 (along with Oklahoma transfer WR Dannon Cavil) but the question is, who will be getting the football to them? Dalton Sturm took over midway through 2015 after starting QB Blake Bogenschutz suffered a career-ending concussion but he averaged only 177 yds per game (YPG) over his last seven outings. Now he has competition with senior QB Jared Johnson transferring in from Sam Houston State where he threw for 5,352 yds and rushed for another 1,601 yds in three seasons. Whomever wins the job will have enough weaponry around him to cause opposing defenses headaches.
Speaking of defense, there's only one direction for this unit to go after being near the bottom of the pile in 2015. They gave up over 275 yds passing per game! The good news is they get three of their top-5 tacklers back and add LSU transfer Ronnie Feist to the LBs - but most importantly, after starting a lot of freshman last year, they are more experienced this year. They lost four games by one possession last year and I wouldn't be surprised if that went the other way in 2016.
4. University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)
Let me start here by saying I hope UTEP can make me look like a fool for putting them 4th. Seriously. I like this team, I like the pieces they have in place and even though Head Coach Sean Kugler scared the bejesus out of me when I interviewed him, I like him too. With a healthy Aaron Jones in the backfield, the Miners have one of the best running backs in C-USA and with a solid WR group and TE Hayden Plinke back, whomever gets the nod under center has a lot of decent tools to work with. Fresno State graduating transfer Zach Greenlee is expected to start at quarterback but so far neither he nor Ryan Metz nor Kavika Johnson has done enough to convince Kugler one deserves the gig over the other two. One thing is certain - with an offensive line that will AVERAGE over 320 lbs, there will be time to make the right throws.
UTEP's defense is another one that is switching schemes in 2016 with new Defensive Coordinator Tom Mason opting for a 3-4 that will hopefully have them giving up fewer big plays. The change means position switches from Defensive End to Linebacker for Nick Usher & Silas Firstley but both are excited about it. All-league Safety Devin Cockrell returns to anchor the secondary, as does LB Alvin Jones (Aaron's twin brother), and both will be key pieces in the new scheme.
The Miners were one game away from bowl eligibility in 2015 and with seven home games in 2016 and a schedule that avoids the top-3 in the East, this team should be bowl-bound come December.
There may have been no one more surprised at last year's 5-7 finish than Head Coach David Bailiff. Four losses in their last five games wasn't how it was supposed to go. In 2016, they are replacing a starting QB for the 2nd season running but when the QB play wasn't that good to begin with, it's not a big deal. The question is, will it be any better this year with longtime back-up Tyler Stehling (who threw 1 TD against two interceptions in five games)? Rice return senior RBs Darik Dillard & Jowan Davis, each of whom have more than 1,700 yds each, along with leading WR Zach Wright. Center Trey Martin anchors a good offensive line which means this offense can put up points - if they get consistent play from the QB.
LB Alex Lyons leads the defense and carries a 25 game starting streak into 2016, and while this unit did not scare opposing offenses much last term, they return a lot of experience and should be better than their 7.1 yds allowed per play last year. Bailiff said he liked his team's athleticism following spring camp and what better way to test that than to open up on the road against the defending league champions Western Kentucky.
Rice have 30 wins in their past four seasons, matching the most successful spell in school history over that time frame. The most wins over a 5-year period is 36 and while the margin for error is small in 2016, Bailiff should be able to match the mark, if not better it.
6. North Texas
When I was in New York this past spring, I had the good fortune of meeting actor Kyle Chandler during the intermission of 'Hamilton'. Now, anyone who knows me closely knows that 'Friday Night Lights' is one of my all-time favorite shows. In fact, I love it so much that I cannot bring myself to watch the final season so that in my mind, it is actually NOT over, but continuing on. It's there with new episodes for me when I need it. Suffice it to say, meeting Coach Eric Taylor in person made my year - and he was very gracious as I fan-boy'd out. What does this have to do with North Texas you ask? Look-up a photo of Head Coach Seth Littrell. Dude is a dead-ringer for Coach Taylor and his Mean Green are perhaps as unfancied as East Dillon HS.
This is his first head coaching gig and Littrell knows how to get the best out of an offense as a Mike Leach disciple. UNT have a high-profile QB in Alabama transfer Alec Morris and a pair of decent RBs in Jeffrey Wilson and Willy Ivery. Out wide, WR Tee Goree will be the top target in what is expected to be a pass-heavy scheme (it is C-USA after all). There are questions about the offensive line but if they can find some cohesion, UNT could surprise a couple teams.
On the other side of the ball, Safeties Kishawn McClain and Jason Gray each return after 100+ tackles in 2015 and the defense returns enough starters to keep the team in games early while the offense gets its feet. After a 1-11 season last term, three wins is an improvement, five wins would be a miracle. This is a coaching staff with a first-time head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator, which means more losses than wins in 2016 - but things are definitely looking up moving forward. In the words of Coach Taylor - Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
Thanks for reading. I'll preview the East Division tomorrow as our Conference USA build-up coverage continues.