2022 C-USA Preview: UAB looks to contend

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There’s plenty of attention placed on the SEC and the bigger conferences across college football year in and year out, but there’s plenty of action and intriguing talent to be found in lesser talked-about teams as well, some of which fall under the umbrella of Conference USA.

In the midst of conference realignment, C-USA will look much different in the near future. Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, UTSA, UAB, Rice and North Texas will all officially move over to the American Athletic Conference on July 1, 2023. C-USA will add Liberty, New Mexico State, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State.

But with these changes not set to take place until next year, here’s a look into how things could shake out within the conference this season.

Teams who could impress

UTSA (odds to win conference: +215)

The bar is set high for the Roadrunners after they finished out last season with a 12-2 overall record. The team has some suffered some notable losses on both sides of the ball between standout running back Sincere McCormick, defensive lineman Jaylon Haynes, linebacker Clarence Hicks and defensive backs Antonio Parks and Tariq Woolen, but does feature some promising names to reload with. Plus, good offense starts with solid offensive line play, and the Roadrunners should have the best unit in the conference.

Among the Roadrunners coming back for another season is senior signal-caller Frank Harris, who completed 66.1% of his passes for 3,177 yards with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2021. And he’s got no shortage of targets to work with, either. Zachari Franklin led the room last season with 81 receptions for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns while Joshua Cephus wasn’t far behind him with 71 receptions for 819 yards and six touchdowns.

The Roadrunners’ defense hasn’t completely matched the impressiveness of their offense, but has its bright spots, especially against the run. The inside linebacker tandem the Roadrunners feature between

UAB (odds to win conference: +230)

Despite UTSA’s success last year, this is the team that stands the best chance at overtaking them and earning the title of best in the conference. The team is in a bit of a state of transition after coach Bill Clark retired because of health issues, with offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent taking up his position in the interim. Defense is UAB’s greatest strength and it returns an experienced unit that limited its opponents to an average of 23.2 yards per game and just over five yards per play. But there’s some intrigue on the offensive side of the ball as well.

While there are some questions surrounding the supporting cast where pass-catchers are concerned, there’s optimism to be had where quarterback and running back are concerned. UAB’s ground attack is expected to be strong between returning rushers DeWayne “Debo” McBride and depth behind him that includes JUCO transfer Zeus Perryman. Quarterback Dylan Hopkins, who completed 66% of his passes for 2,274 passing yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, is among the best UAB has seen at the position in recent years and can help propel the Blazers’ passing attack even more if he takes another step in 2022.

UAB looks good on paper and should be able to consistently contend for a conference title it if can consistently put it all together on the field.

WKU (odds to win conference: +350)

The Hilltoppers’ offense was a sight to be seen in 2021 between the play-calling of Zach Kittley, the quarterback talent of Bailey Zappe and the chemistry built up with receivers like Jerreth Sterns. All of those pieces are gone now as WKU looks to replicate some of the magic of last season. West Virginia transfer Jarret Doege is expected to take the reins at quarterback and brings a high level of experience to the team as he enters the sixth season of his career. He’s passed for roughly 10,500 yards and 79 touchdowns in that time and can continue to expand upon those numbers under co-offensive coordinators Josh Crawford and Ben Arbuckle.

The offensive line has had some losses as a unit, but between the acquisition of former South Carolina offensive guard Vinnie Murphy, having Rusty Staats at center and Quantavious Leslie, who is one of the most solid guards in the conference. WKU didn’t have a strong rushing attack least season because it didn’t need one — this was a pass-happy team that ran a rendition of the Air Raid offense with an added run-game piece that the traditional scheme doesn’t quite feature. It’s one that also required the quarterback to have deep understanding of protections. Looking at the run game, the Hilltoppers averaged a respectable four yards per carry and it will be interesting to see how and if that changes moving forward with Kye Robichaux and Jakairi Moses vying for carries with the departure of leading rusher Noah Whittingham. Defensively, the Hilltoppers’ run defense and secondary as a whole failed to rise to the occasion at certain points last year and they are left with some holes going into 2022 with a tough task of replacing pass rusher Deangelo Malone and top tackler Antwon Kincade.

Teams who could disappoint

Rice

The Owls have shown some flashes on offense, but this is still a team with a lot of work to do that has put up some good victories over bad teams but has work to do to become a legitimate contender. Rice’s passing game was solid in 2021, but its offensive line has some work to do on the edges to help the team reach its full potential. Defensively, the Owls need more aggression out of the secondary as safety Gabe Taylor led the team in interceptions with a total of three takeaways through the air. The Rice defenses surrendered an average of 36 points and 436 yards per game in 2021 — that’s something it will want to lessen in a significant way this season.

FIU

There were some expectations that FIU could emerge as a dark horse within the conference, but it instead finished the 2021 season with one win and 11 forgettable losses. Offensive coordinator David Yost should add some pop to the passing game after spending time at Texas Tech, but it’s going to take a while for FIU to build itself up and reach a point of relevance. The Panthers will equally look for improvement on defense with a new coordinator in town in Jovan Dewitt, who saw time as a linebackers coach at Nebraska and North Carolina. But FIU is nowhere close to where it needs to be on the defensive front or the secondary, returning some experience but with a need for increased talent after allowing roughly 40 points per game last year.

Louisiana Tech

Former Air Raid quarterback Sonny Cumbie‘s passing attack is going to be exciting to watch in The Boot, but it won’t take flight overnight. LA Tech’s offense was already in something of a rebuilding state in 2021 and struggled both through the air and on the ground, despite having a respectable offensive line. The Bulldogs have faced some questions at quarterback, arguably the second-most important position in football, with multiple names taking the snaps in 2021. Moving into 2022, the competition for the starting gig is likely to come down to former TCU quarterback Matthew Downing and former Texas Tech quarterback Parker McNeil — both of which still have much to prove.

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Players to watch

UTSA S Rashad Wisdom

Wisdom may be one of the best safeties in the nation, but the small school stigma is affecting the amount of hype he’s getting here. He led the team in tackles last season, finishing the year with 87 combined tackles (66 solo) and six passes defended. He’s poised to be one of the best overall defensive players in C-USA in 2022 and could become a draft prospect to watch.

UAB QB Dylan Hopkins

Hopkins’ performance makes up some of the best play UAB has seen at quarterback in years, and that’s a major positive to go with a rushing attack that’s anticipated to the staunch in 2022. There are some solid receivers for Hopkins to continue building chemistry with though the unit overall leaves a certain type of electricity in the passing game to be desired. Hopkins should be expected to grow and play a role into taking the offense to a new level this fall. Between the 2019 and the 2021 seasons, Hopkins posts a 62.2% completion rate, 2,837 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over 22 games.

LA Tech WR Smoke Harris

Harris is going to be a part of a team going through additional transition after a rough 2021 season, but he fits well with what Cumbie is trying to do in Louisiana and should continue to emerge even more in 2022. The 5’6, 189-pounder ended out the 2021 season with 71 receptions for 756 yards with three touchdowns and could break out even more this year.

Who could win the conference

Looking purely at the odds from PointsBet, UTSA is favored to win the conference, though UAB (+230) and Western Kentucky (+350) aren’t far behind. FAU (+800), North Texas (+1500) and Middle Tennessee (+1600) make up the middle of the pack.

Though the Hilltoppers could sneak in after their 2021 appearance and there’s always room for a surprise, the battle for the conference title should be a close one between UTSA and UAB, though there’s incentive to give UAB a slight edge between just how closely it came up short of being able to compete in the title game last season and what it brings to the table in 2022.

UTSA: +215

UAB: +230

Western Kentucky: +350

Florida Atlantic: +800

North Texas: +1500

Middle Tennessee: +1600

Charlotte: +2200

UTEP: +2200

Louisiana Tech: +2500

Rice: +8000

FIU: +10000

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