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2018 C-USA power rankings: Can anyone besides Marshall scare FAU?

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Lane Kiffin’s Owls were the class of Conference USA in 2017 and should be again.

Conference USA Championship - North Texas v Florida Atlantic Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

At the end of each conference previews 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. This is just how I would rank the teams after writing thousands of words about each of them. We have already completed the Sun Belt.

Bill C’s Conference USA power rankings

Here’s a link to every team’s data, and each team’s name below is linked to its preview.

Tier 1

1. Florida Atlantic

In 2017, FAU sliced through the C-USA like a knife through a New York Strip at Shula’s Steakhouse. Lane Kiffin’s Owls return the best player in the conference (running back Devin Singletary), feature all the perimeter quickness that Kiffin’s horizontal offense requires, might end up with an upgrade at quarterback, and get back almost everybody from last year’s defense. To say they are a prohibitive favorite is an understatement.

Still, there are potential obstacles. Kiffin had to replace both coordinators and chose to replace the accomplished Kendal Briles with 24-year-old Charlie Weis Jr. (How young is Weis? Snow’s “Informer” was the No. 1 song in the country when he was born. We are all so very, very old.)

Beyond that, injuries could strike much harder — among other things, Singletary had the most carries in the country last year and could be at risk — and a road trip to Marshall, perhaps the second-best team in the conference, could have a major impact on the division. As big a favorite as the Owls are, this season still has the potential to end up sideways.

Still, after what they did last fall, they begin in a tier to themselves.

Tier 2

2. Marshall
3. North Texas
4. Louisiana Tech
5. UAB
6. Middle Tennessee
7. Southern Miss

I’m a hedger, so my natural instinct was to just make this a six-way tie for second. Or maybe a five-way tie for third. I like these teams an almost equal amount, and any is a dose of injuries luck away from winning eight games or more.

I do think Marshall is a half-step ahead of the pack, though, and Wagner transfer quarterback Alex Thomson and offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey might end up upgrades over their predecessors.

Tier 3

8. FIU
9. UTSA
10. Western Kentucky
11. Old Dominion

How even is this conference? I considered all four of these teams for Tier 2. Again, injuries will play a massive role in such a parity-heavy (outside of the top spot) conference, and if a few recent star recruits can hit the ground running at FIU, Butch Davis’ Golden Panthers could drastically overachieve both their S&P+ projections and my own perceptions. I’m sticking with the thought that they’re a year away, but a surge wouldn’t be a total surprise.

Tier 4

12. Rice
13. Charlotte
14. UTEP

Two of these programs are starting over in 2018, and the third (Charlotte) might be in 2019.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the C-USA laid out for 2018, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2018 S&P+ projections here.)

2018 C-USA projections

FIU remains the team with the most stark difference between perception and projection. Davis’ team overachieved a bit last year and must replace more production than almost anyone in the country. But the replacements are high-end. Of that, there is no doubt.

2018 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

West Division

  1. Louisiana Tech 5 (7)
  2. UAB 4.7 (7)
  3. North Texas 4.6 (7)
  4. Southern Miss 4.4 (6.3)
  5. UTSA 3.9 (5.3)
  6. Rice 2.7 (4.2)
  7. UTEP 1.7 (2.8)

East Division

  1. FAU 6.6 (8.7)
  2. Marshall 5.4 (7.7)
  3. MTSU 4.8 (6.4)
  4. WKU 4.3 (6)
  5. ODU 3.1 (5.1)
  6. FIU 2.9 (4.5)
  7. Charlotte 2.3 (3.9)

In the East, one team is within 1.8 projected conference wins of FAU. In the West, five teams are within 1.1 projected wins. The West is going to be a damn free-for-all. Can’t wait.

How these teams looked in 2017

2017 Conference USA S&P+ ratings

This was a pretty imbalanced conference, with really only one team producing decent numbers on both sides of the ball. Southern Miss, Marshall, and UTSA produced high-caliber defense and hit-or-miss offense. UNT and Louisiana Tech were at times dynamite on offense but at best average on defense. FAU was the only team that pulled a decent balance.

C-USA offenses heading into 2018

2017 Conference USA offenses

FAU had the most efficient and explosive offense in the conference, UNT was damn near second in both categories, and UTEP was at the bottom in both.

C-USA defenses heading into 2018

2017 C-USA defenses

UTSA’s all-or-nothing, pedal-to-the-metal defense was a sight to behold and could produce some upsets this fall if the offense is worth anything. (The offense might not be worth anything.)

Best 2018 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Charlotte: OG Nate Davis
  • FAU: RB Devin Singletary
  • FIU: OT Kai Absheer
  • Louisiana Tech: WR Rhashid Bonnette
  • Marshall: WR Tyre Brady
  • MTSU: QB Brent Stockstill
  • North Texas: QB Mason Fine
  • ODU: C Nick Clarke
  • Rice: RB Austin Walter
  • Southern Miss: OG Arvin Fletcher
  • UAB: WR Andre Wilson
  • UTEP: RB Joshua Fields
  • UTSA: RB Jalen Rhodes
  • Western Kentucky: WR Lucky Jackson
Conference USA Championship - North Texas v Florida Atlantic
Devin Singletary
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Best 2018 defensive players by team

  • Charlotte: LB Jeff Gemmell
  • FAU: LB Azeez Al-Shaair
  • FIU: DE Fermin Silva
  • Louisiana Tech: CB Amik Robertson
  • Marshall: LB Chase Hancock
  • MTSU: LB Khalil Brooks
  • North Texas: LB E.J. Ejiya
  • ODU: DE Oshane Ximines
  • Rice: DT Roe Wilkins
  • Southern Miss: LB Paxton Schrimsher
  • UAB: DT Garrett Marino
  • UTEP: CB Nik Needham
  • UTSA: DE Eric Banks
  • Western Kentucky: CB DeAndre Farris
DXL Frisco Bowl - Louisiana Tech v SMU
Amik Robertson
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images