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2016 Conference USA football power rankings, where it's still WKU and everybody else

It's time to power rank the 2016 preview countdown's first completed conference.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of each conference run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference's balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. They're just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them.

From the perspective of S&P+ averages, Conference USA was the worst in FBS last season. That was a surprise to see at first -- WKU was legitimately awesome, and three others were in the top 75 -- but it spoke to how bad the bottom half of the conference was.

In theory, that could change in 2016. Most of the teams in the bottom had injuries ganging up on a specific unit or two (which is always worse than a more even distribution of attrition) and were loaded with freshmen in special teams. Injuries heal, freshmen turn into sophomores, etc. Still, it takes a leap of faith to assume too much improvement.

Tier 1

1. Western Kentucky

In S&P+, WKU was 47 spots ahead of the No. 2 team in the conference last year. I do not see the gap remaining that large now that the Hilltoppers are breaking in a new quarterback, replacing some assistants, etc. But they're the only team I completely trust to play at a Tier 1 level. Anyone in Tier 2 could end up here, but WKU's the only one I know will.

Tier 2

2. Southern Miss
3. Marshall
4. Louisiana Tech
5. Middle Tennessee
6. Florida Atlantic

Teams 2-5 are almost interchangeable. Southern Miss would have been Tier 1 had Todd Monken stayed. Louisiana Tech's dealing with a lot of turnover (on both depth chart and staff) but has a solid core. I think Marshall will be a little flaky before putting the pieces together in 2017. And while MTSU's offense could be absolutely awesome, the defense is scary for the wrong reasons.

I'm taking a risk by putting FAU in this tier. I thought the Owls were ready for a solid jump last year, but they got wrecked by injury in the wrong places and lost a lot of close games.

Tier 3

7. Florida International
8. Rice
9. Old Dominion
10. UTEP
11. UTSA

Rice and UTEP dragged the conference's averages down with disappointing seasons, but injury had a lot to do with that. Both are far more experienced this year, and I could see either (especially Rice) playing quite a bit above projection. Meanwhile, I'm curious about both FIU and ODU. They have solid collections of athletes, and each is a break or two away from a bowl run.

Tier 4

12. North Texas
13. Charlotte

UNT has lightning-in-a-bottle potential with a new coaching staff, new scheme, and a two-deep that played far below potential last year. Still, the Mean Green bear the burden of proof.

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

C-USA East

Team 2015 Record (Conf.) 2015 S&P+ Rk Proj. 2016 S&P+ Rk Proj. 2016 Wins (Conf.) 5-Yr Rec. Rk Ret. Experience (Off. / Def.)
WKU 12-2 (8-0) 11 45 8.6 (6.1) 89 47% (34% / 59%)
Marshall 10-3 (6-2) 64 75 7.6 (5.4) 72 62% (72% / 53%)
MTSU 7-6 (6-2) 82 90 6.4 (4.6) 102 68% (80% / 55%)
FAU 3-9 (3-5) 93 100 5.9 (4.1) 87 58% (54% / 62%)
FIU 5-7 (3-5) 108 113 4.4 (2.9) 98 64% (80% / 48%)
ODU 5-7 (3-5) 110 111 5.1 (3.3) 120 71% (65% / 76%)
Charlotte 2-10 (0-8) 124 123 4.4 (2.8) 112 87% (92% / 82%)

C-USA West

Team 2015 Record (Conf.) 2015 S&P+ Rk Proj. 2016 S&P+ Rk Proj. 2016 Wins (Conf.) 5-Yr Rec. Rk Ret. Experience (Off. / Def.)
So. Miss 9-5 (7-1) 58 72 8.3 (6.0) 82 67% (65% / 69%)
La. Tech 9-4 (6-2) 54 84 7.0 (5.0) 81 39% (42% / 37%)
Rice 5-7 (3-5) 119 119 4.7 (3.2) 91 66% (51% / 80%)
UTEP 5-7 (3-5) 126 126 4.9 (2.8) 125 73% (89% / 56%)
UTSA 3-9 (3-5) 113 116 5.0 (3.5) 94 60% (61% / 58%)
UNT 1-11 (1-7) 128 128 3.4 (2.0) 109 59% (42% / 76%)