Conference USA’s west division seems to always have promising start to every season.
UTSA has been the dark horse pick, Louisiana Tech usually stays in the top three teams in the conference, and even Rice had a good run for a while.
However, on championship weekend, the west has been coming home more empty-handed than a cowboy who forgot to bring his gun to the high-noon draw.
Conference USA West hasn’t won the football title since Rice beat Marshall 41-24 back in 2013. The west was on a two-year winning streak that year because Tulsa defeated Central Florida in 2012.
The east has taken 8 of the last 10 titles, yes Southern Miss was one of those eight, but they were in the east when they beat Houston. The east is finally showing its Achilles heel, and it’s time for the West to strike.
We’ll start from the bottom. UTEP is bad. The Miners are off to their worst start (0-4) since 1998 when they went 3-8. The Miners also only have one winning season in the last 10 years.
The Miners have shown no sign of improving and have fired their offensive coordinator in the process. The Sun Bowl may continue to be a ghost town this season.
Next up, the Rice Owls. In the last 50 years Rice has had 10 winning seasons, six of those have come since 2001. Under David Bailiff, the Owls have gone 3-1 in bowl games and have a surprise season every now and then.
However, the Owls have shown that this season is not one of those years. The Owls looked completely lost when they played Stanford in Australia, but came home and defeated UTEP in a battle that most likely proved who will finish last in the division.
Since then, the Owls were destroyed by crosstown rival Houston and lost to a bad FIU team at home. The Owls could very likely finish the season 1-11, which would be the worst under Bailiff.
UAB has been the feel-good story of college football since returning from the two-year absence. The Blazers are off to a promising, but frustrating start. UAB is currently 2-2 with losses to Ball State and North Texas, both on the road.
The one recurring element in each game is UAB’s ability to keep shooting themselves in the foot. The Blazers special teams has cost them field position, turnovers, and very well cost them the game against North Texas (48-yard kick return set up the game winning field goal with less than 10 seconds left).
The defense kept them in games early this season, but UNT’s Mason Fine and Jeffery Wilson quickly changed that tune. The good news is that an all-conference caliber player has emerged in the wild west city of Birmingham.
Quarterback A.J. Erdely threw for 321 yards and four touchdowns against UNT and has 11 total touchdowns so far this season. UAB has a dynamic offense that likes to run first, but Erdely proving his passing ability shows promise that UAB can hang with anyone if it is a shootout.
North Texas could be the new dark horse in Conference USA. The Mean Green are currently at the top of the league in scoring offense, averaging 37.8 points per game. Mason Fine has been the west’s sharpshooter, leading the conference in passing yards per game (269.9), and is already over 1,000 yards through the air.
Running back Jeffery Wilson is halfway there with 518 rushing yards so far this season and currently leads the conference with 129.5 rushing yards per game. The Mean Green haven’t won a conference title since 2004 when they were in the Sun Belt.
The next two games at Southern Miss and UTSA in Denton could play a crucial role in the way the west shapes out. The offense alone should get them to a bowl game, which is another step forward, but making a conference championship game would be a huge leap.
Southern Miss comes into this week with a 2-1 record and a questionable road ahead. Southern Miss still has to play tough road games such as UTSA (Oct. 7), Louisiana Tech (Oct. 21), Tennessee (Nov. 4), and Marshall (Nov. 25). USM also has two potential upset losses to North Texas and UAB at home this year.
The Golden Eagles are currently tied for the best scoring defense in the conference, only allowing an average of 13.7 points per game. The last time Southern Miss won the conference USA title they stunned Case Keenum and the No. 6 Houston Cougars in Houston by a score of 49-28.
Running back Ito Smith (111 yards per game) has given the Golden Eagles a solid ground game. If the Golden Eagles can get through October, we may see them play for the title in December.
The rowdy Roadrunners from San Antonio are at it again with a talented team on both sides of the ball. UTSA made their first bowl game last season and are looking to add another game to their postseason play this year.
UTSA, like Southern Miss adds a dimension that the west isn’t used to. Defense. The Roadrunners, led by sophomores Eric Banks and Josiah Tauaefa with his flowing hair, only allow 13.7 points per game. While Southern Miss and UAB are sneaky home games, the Roadrunners will face their biggest tests on the road at North Texas and Louisiana Tech.
The Louisiana Tech game on the last week of the season (Nov. 25) could potentially be a championship of its own for the west title. You better believe if UTSA hosts the conference title game, the Alamodome will rocking like never before.
Finally, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, the definition of the “close, but no cigar”. The Bulldogs have made the Conference USA championship game in 2014 and 2016, and was a top three team in 2015. The Bulldogs have done their best to squander early season games against SEC opponents.
The Bulldogs hosted Mississippi State and were embarrassed on the scoreboard (57-21) and on TV by losing 87-yards on a fumble. Last week, the Bulldogs led 13-0 going into the fourth quarter at South Carolina. The Gamecocks came back to win 17-16. The bright spot is that the Bulldogs already have a leg-up on the east with a big win at WKU.
Louisiana Tech has the easiest road for the west division hosting Southern Miss, North Texas, and UTSA. The west division belt will have to go through the humid air in Ruston, Louisiana, and with luck, the conference championship game too.
Charlotte is the UTEP of the east. Winless and no sight of a winnable games after their current losses. FAU made a lot of offseason hype with the hire of Lane Kiffin, but with a recent loss to Buffalo, the Owls may have to wait a little while longer for a bowl eligible season.
Butch Davis’ FIU squad is quietly 2-1 with slim wins over Alcorn State and Rice. I currently have the Panthers at five wins this season, but no title shot.
Old Dominion has been flattened by ACC opponents the last two weeks, and before that looked pretty shaky versus Albany and UMass. I’m not sold on the Monarchs, even for a bowl chance.
We will get a good indication on how good Marshall is this week against a below-average Cincinnati team. Marshall does have a tough divisional game at MTSU, but the toughest stretch will come in the final three games versus WKU, at UTSA, and Southern Miss in Huntingdon.
The two teams with the best shot? Surprise, surprise, it’s WKU and MTSU. WKU may not be the high-powered offense we have seen, but it’s hard to go against the team who has won two of the last three conference titles.
MTSU has a promising offense, but the recent injury to quarterback Brent Stockstill has to be a cause for concern. WKU and MTSU both have favorable schedules to get them to the title, but WKU hosts the Blue Raiders late this season which could be for the east title. The bottom line, the east is down. If the west doesn’t pull it off this season, when will they?