Sitting at the CUSA Media Days, the stories were these: Lane Kiffin, Butch Davis, UAB, and could anyone beat La Tech/WKU? Now? Lane Kiffin, Butch Davis, UAB, and North Texas.
#TheReturn has been a great story and is only overshadowed by the Lane Train soaking up the Florida sunshine (and attention). Kiffin was always going to be the story and this time it is because of the quality of his team. The game of the week was played on Friday, when FAU hosted Marshall in a showdown. The Owls have now beaten the west’s number 1 (NT), the 2-time defending league champs (WKU), and now the old class of the conference (Marshall). That’s a quality month.
Let us rank these teams.
Clear Best Team
1. FAU (Last Week 1)
Yes, the Lane Train is officially a thing. The Owls had an always tough matchup on Friday with Marshall at home. The Herd’s defense has been good and they nearly did enough to stop the explosive FAU offense before succumbing to Devin Singletary and company late. For all the talk about the exotic looks of the Briles/Kiffin offense, it really is old-school in it’s philosophy of beating you down until you break in the 4th quarter. That is exactly what happened here. Despite being 5-0 in conference, FIU can steal still the division from them in two weeks. First up: La Tech in Ruston on Twitter.
Good But With Questions
2. North Texas (2)
The Mean Green had a statement win in Ruston and Littrell’s group became bowl eligible and grabbed a stranglehold on the division. While La Tech is down this season, they are good enough to win and Seth Littrell had whispers about his ability to win on the road. Now, with two division road wins under his belt (USM, LT) to add to his big win in West Point last year, that talk should subside (until it bubbles up again). North Texas has two of the worst teams in college football left on the division schedule, with Army in between.
3. FIU (3)
While everyone suspected Butch Davis and Lane Kiffin would be good for the F_Us, no one thought the timeline would be so rapid. FIU beat pre-season west contender UTSA at home, sealed bowl eligibility, and kept their division hopes alive. This is the same team that barely survived Alcorn State, Rice, and Charlotte, and that has throttled by MTSU. Yet this team handled Marshall easily and defended UTSA and Dalton Sturm impressively. A weak ODU comes to town next before the biggest Shula Bowl in history against FAU.
4. UAB (5)
Bill Clark got paid and UAB rolled over Rice 52-21 on the way to becoming bowl eligible in their first year of #theReturn. The Blazers have had the most exciting series of results all year — 7, -3, 1, 2, -1 are the margins of five of their contests — and enjoyed a doubt-free blow out against the Owls. AJ Erdely completed 20/21 for 197 and 3 scores and super freshman Spencer Brown had 140 and 3 on 17 carries. A trip to UTSA looks favorable if you ask anyone but Vegas. There is still a small sliver of hope that NT drops two to allow UAB a shot but honestly, the Blazers are content with this season already.
5. Marshall (4)
The Herd lost a huge game at home. There is still a slight chance at the division — FAU needs to lose to everyone, FIU needs to lose to everyone aside from FAU while Marshall wins out — but the loss to FAU sealed the fate of Doc Holiday and company. While Huntington can celebrate a return to form — no more 3-9! — the league was down and yet Marshall never looked like they were ready to take it. Beating the Hilltoppers next week should help heal the wounds a bit on the way to a bowl appearance next month.
Had High Hopes, Wondering Where It Went Wrong
6. Southern Miss (6)
Southern Miss has QB questions (again) and should have beaten Tennessee. The defense played well enough but Keon Howard struggled. Kwadra Griggs played much better but USM had too many missed opportunities. That has been the season in a nutshell. This group is good enough to win the division and would have if the QB play was consistent. When whoever has manned the spot has played decently they have won and looked good. The Golden Eagles are here because Rice (away), Charlotte (home) and Marshall (away) are left and only one win separates them from bowl eligibility. NT’s win over La Tech ended the division hopes, but a bowl is still there to play for. Rice should be the medicine that cures all.
7. WKU (9)
WKU also had a shot against a weak Vanderbilt and blew it. The division is lost, but bowl eligibility remains a possibility. Unfortunately for Mike Sanford’s team, the best chance looks to be in two weeks at home vs MTSU. Next up is a visit to Huntington and Marshall that played well vs FAU. WKU finishes things up against a resurgent FIU. A bowl game is not guaranteed for the back-to-back CUSA champs.
8. La Tech (8)
The Bulldogs had the win in their hands but allowed North Texas to steal things. Tech led 17-7 in the second, and 23-17 with 13:35 in the 4th. Tech fans see a frighteningly familiar sequence: a blown 4th quarter lead. The good news is that this team is good enough to get those leads. Hope? One way to end the woes would be to turn FGAs into TDs. This is obviously an overly simple recommendation. J’Mar Smith had a bad game but outplayed Mason Fine. Still 315 yards on a NT defense that has been roasted all year is bad. Tech needs two more to go bowling and already FAU is favored by 5.5. UTEP is a likely fifth and than UTSA is the home finale. That may be for a bowl berth.
9. UTSA (7)
Remember this? UTSA went from looking at 11-0 as a possibility to staring down a 5-win season. Yes, UTSA sits on five wins with three to play but those three are against a surging UAB, a good Marshall, and on the road in Ruston. The fan of sports drama is rooting for a UTSA – LT showdown for a bowl berth on the final day. UTSA had a similar game last year with Charlotte that was anti-climactic but this one would have the added “rivalry” thing. Josiah Tauaefa said Tech was a game he ‘circled’. Meanwhile, Dalton Sturm seems like the only thing moving the offense while the defense tries to hold on. FIU is better, but that was a bad loss. This is UTSA’s best team since 2013 and this has been an underachievement. Frank Wilson’s star was rising. Now it is stalled.
Want This Season To End
10. MTSU (11)
There is something to be said for handling things as expected. Brent Stockstill returned to helm the Blue Raiders and threw three TDs (but only 190 yards). The defense held UTEP’s terrible offense to only 137 yards and only 6 first downs. MTSU has Charlotte and WKU on the road the next two weeks, before closing at home against ODU. This has a been a forgettable season but bowl eligibility is a real possibility.
11. ODU (10)
Two field goals as the winning margin while holding the opponent scoreless is impressive on its face, but in context it is not. The 49ers are one of the worst teams in the league and the nation and ODU could not score. A win is a win, but this was the worst kind of win. Next week ODU travels to FIU, a team that will just held UTSA to only 7 and shut down Marshall the week before. Still, ODU got the conference win it so desperately wanted. Rice is up in two weeks and then a showdown with MTSU for bragging rights.
We All Float Down Here
12. Rice (12)
David Bailiff’s crew are being propped up by two very terrible teams. Rice is bad, but they gave La Tech a game two weeks ago, and managed 20+ again this week. That is better than Charlotte and UTEP’s inept offenses and so Rice can be twelfth. UAB completely dominated this one. The good news is that USM is struggling with their QB decision, ODU is still weak, and NT might be coasting on the final week on the road. Hope?
13. Charlotte (13)
The 49ers looked to be in coast mode against ODU. The remaining schedule is tough, and Charlotte may just be looking forward to next season after getting out of Winless Watch. They did not score against ODU and did not even threaten to do so in the second half.
14. UTEP (14)
The fight is out of the Miners. Bret Broomquist thinks Mike Price might try a few new things in his remaining time as interim coach, but there is not much left to do on a lost season. NT fans saw this kind of thing two seasons ago and UTEP will only try to win games that are there for the taking. We are on Winless Watch for the Miners as they have NT (division leaders), La Tech (better), and UAB (see above) remaining. This could be the first FBS winless season since UCF in 2015, and the first CUSA winless since USM in 2012.