The pre-spring version of the CFN 2021 rankings with a first look at all the Conference USA teams.
2021 Conference USA Rankings: Pre-Spring
Conference USA East
1. Marshall Thundering Herd
Why To Be Happy: The offense won’t be as bad as it was at the end of the year. It can’t be. New head coach Charles Huff brings in a background of offense after coaching up the running backs at Alabama over the last few years. All of the top skill guys are expected to be back, but …
What To Work On: The loss of Darius Hodge early to the NFL stings. The other losses to the next level hurt, but they were expected – Hodge was 50/50. Offensively, everything was fine throughout the season, and then everything crashed with fewer than 270 yards in each of the last three games – all losses.
Bottom Line: It was a strange move to lose Doc Holliday after all of his success and a 7-0 start, but the program is going in a new direction with a new energy in Huff. The talent is there to think Conference USA championship or bust.
2. Florida Atlantic Owls
Why To Be Happy: Willie Taggart is starting to get the offensive parts. The defense got the job done last season, but the O couldn’t get going. Bringing in RB Johnny Ford from USF is a good step, landing Penn State WR John Dunmore helps, and there’s a good group of young quarterbacks to work around.
What To Work On: The D is getting back CB Zyon Gilbert and LB Caliph Brice, but DE Leighton McCarthy is off to the NFL. The D should be okay, but the offense has to find a spark after having one of the nation’s least-efficient passing games and averaging just 325 yards of total offense.
Bottom Line: Taggart had to fight through rebuilding in the COVID year, and now it’s time to take off. The offense has to get more out of the line and more playmakers have to show up, but the D should be great again
3. WKU Hilltoppers
Why To Be Happy: Oh will this be fun. Does the name Bailey Zappe ring any sort of a bell? All the former Houston Baptist star did was put up ridiculous numbers against North Texas, Texas Tech, and Louisiana Tech, finishing the four-game season with 1,833 passing yards – well over 400 yards per game – with 15 touchdowns. Now he’s the WKU quarterback to an offense that needs the help. As if getting Zappe isn’t enough, two of his targets are coming along – along with three other new targets from the transfer portal.
What To Work On: More points. Welcome to the fundamental shift in how WKU does business after finishing 120th in the nation in total offense and 115th in passing efficiency. There’s going to be scoring this year, but it might take a bit.
Bottom Line: WKU has been fine, but it’s making a big push to take a step to the next level. Few teams have been more active in the transfer portal, but that’s not necessarily a plus with over 20 players leaving.
4. FIU Golden Panthers
Why To Be Happy: This was a relatively young team after the front-line starters and now the hope is for the new guys to be ready to roll right away to go along with a good nucleus. Start with the all-star defensive back brother tandem of Richard and Rishard Dames coming back along with LB Jamal Gates for one side. The O has its back in D’vonte Price, and former Maryland QB Max Bortenschlarger returns.
What To Work On: There’s a long way to go to get back to respectability after a disastrous shortened season throwing the ball. The offensive line is Job One, doing nothing in pass protection and struggling to get the ground game working.
Bottom Line: There should be a quick turnaround after a rotten 2020, but a whole slew of reserves who were supposed to be part of the turnaround are transferring out. Unless the O line can be better fast, it’s going to be another long year.
5. Charlotte 49ers
Why To Be Happy: The team is getting in a few nice transfers in QB James Foster from Texas A&M and RB Shadrick Byrd from Iowa, and landing DE Kofi Wardlow from Notre Dame should help a big-time need area.
What To Work On: Losing star S Ben DeLuca and DE Romeo McKnight takes away two key starters off the D that didn’t do enough last year. The pass rush her to emerge and far more big things have to happen behind the line.
Bottom Line: The offense should be ahead of the defense throughout the offseason, but if all the key guys can stay healthy – and if the D line can be a whole lot better, the 49ers can bounce back into a factor in the East.
6. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Why To Be Happy: Yeah, do-it-all QB Asher O’Hara entered the transfer portal, but the program made up for it by landing NC State’s Bailey Hockman to likely take over. It might have been an inconsistent season overall, but there were a whole lot of underclassmen playing key roles on O, and most of the starters are back on D, but …
What To Work On: The defense has to be night-and-day better. It struggles throughout the season allowing 446 yards per game, and it was. disaster on third downs.
Bottom Line: The program has been too solid for too long to be so lousy, but major changes are being made starting with a new offensive coordinator. Middle Tennessee played for the Conference USA title in 2018 and fell off a cliff. This is a make-or-break year.
7. Old Dominion Monarchs
Why To Be Happy: After a year off in the COVID season, the Monarchs return relatively loaded and whole lot stronger. Start with landing UCF QB Darriel Mack and Georgia WR Trey Blount from the transfer portal to boost up a veteran base that waited to get going.
What To Work On: There’s a big turnover factor after missing 2020. The program’s last win over an FBS team was in early November of 2018, and there’s going to be a whole lot of new parts to work with on both sides of the ball.
Bottom Line: A massive disappointment in 2019, now Old Dominion is starting over. Head coach Ricky Rahne didn’t get his chance to get things going last year, and now comes a renewed energy and an X factor team for 2021.