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September 21, 2018

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Countdown to college football: Picking every team’s win total in Conference USA

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin looks up from the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017 in Madison, Wis.

For a few hours last November from late on a Friday night into Saturday morning, a Conference USA game was the talk of the sports betting world and a conversation topic for the overall college football scene.

Or, more specifically, the discussion was on a tweet following a Conference USA game. Florida Atlantic gave bettors a bad beat as a 6.5-point favorite against Marshall by taking a safety instead of punting with 14 seconds remaining to win 30-25.

“Didn’t want to cover because of too much rat poison,” Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin tweeted afterwards.

Kiffin had to clarify it was a joke after speculation spread over whether a coach could have been making decisions based on the point spread. It might have been the most attention on a Conference USA game all season, which was telling.

A conference that isn’t typically high on star power suddenly has a headliner. It’s just likely not the one the league would have handpicked.

Kiffin is the face of Conference USA. He was probably always going to end up that way, but he expedited the process by overcoming 10-to-1 odds to win the conference championship in his first season in Boca Raton, Fla.

Florida Atlantic won’t sneak up on anyone this year. It’s a minus-140 (risking $1.40 to win $1) favorite to win the Conference USA, and the onus in on the other 13 teams to catch the Owls.

Check below to see which teams Talking Points thinks can challenge Florida Atlantic, as the blog continues its series picking every college football teams’ over/under with the Conference USA. Picks are labeled with three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses.

Charlotte

over/under: 3.5 (minus-135, plus-105)

Last Year: 1-11 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread

Charlotte has eclipsed 3.5 wins only once in three years as a Football Bowl Subdivision program — and it took a great deal of good fortune to get to 4-8 in 2016. It’s gone 7-29 overall, so despite a load of experience this year, it’s difficult to call for a leap.

Lean: Under 3.5 wins at plus-105

Florida Atlantic

over/under: 8.5 (Even, minus-120)

Last Year: 11-3 straight-up, 10-4 against the spread

Some drop-off could be realistic considering the Owls lost most of their offense, both coordinators and shouldn’t benefit from as much turnover luck as last season. But they still have Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year Devin Singletary at running back, and will be favored in big in every conference game. The win total line looks a little short.

Guess: Over 8.5 wins at Even money

Florida International

over/under: 5 (minus-125, minus-105)

Last Year: 8-5 straight-up, 6-7 against the spread

Any statistical-based projection is going to have the Panthers falling below 5 wins after they overachieved last year in part by going 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. But that fails to account for FIU having arguably the best coach in the conference in Butch Jones, who has brought in lauded recruiting classes in back-to-back years.

Guess: Over 5 wins at minus-125

Marshall

over/under: 8 (minus-115, minus-115)

Last Year: 8-5 straight-up, 9-4 against the spread

With 18 starters returning, this is the year coach Doc Holliday has built toward over the last couple of seasons. The Thundering Herd should be a decent-sized favorite in eight games and only short underdogs in the other four, including prime upset possibilities at home against Florida Atlantic and North Carolina State.

Lean: Over 8 wins at minus-115

Middle Tennessee

over/under: 7 (minus-115, minus-105)

Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 6-7 against the spread

Middle Tennessee looks poised to build on last year’s success — especially with the school’s all-time leading passer Brent Stockstill back for his senior season — but so does every contender in the CUSA East Division. Some team is going to have to lose, and the Raiders’ rugged opening schedule — their first four Football Bowl Subdivision games are against Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida Atlantic and Marshall — might leave them bruised and reeling.

Lean: Under 7 wins at minus-105

Old Dominion

over/under: 5.5 (minus-170, plus-140)

Last Year: 5-7 straight-up, 4-8 against the spread

Middle Tennessee’s description could just as easily apply to Old Dominion. The Monarchs picked a bad year to field their most promising team, as they’ll have to contend with more established programs returning similarly experienced rosters.

Play: Under 5.5 wins at plus-140

Western Kentucky

over/under: 5 (minus-140, plus-110)

Last Year: 6-7 straight-up, 3-10 against the spread

This line feels like an overreaction to a rare down season in Bowling Green, Ky. Western Kentucky had won at least seven games for six straight years, before everything conspired against new coach Mike Sanford Jr. in the second half of last season. Many praised Sanford’s hiring at the time, and there’s no reason to give up on him after one year.

Play: Over 5 wins at minus-140

Louisiana Tech

over/under: 7 (Even, minus-130)

Last Year: 7-6 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread

Louisiana Tech won the CUSA West Division in 2014 and 2016, and seem to be on the path to keep up the pattern this year. The Bulldogs could have the conference’s best offensive line and pass rush, and figure to improve from last year’s unlucky 1-4 record in games decided by less than a touchdown.

Lean: Over 7 wins at Even money

North Texas

over/under: 8 (plus-110, minus-140)

Last Year: 9-5 straight-up, 8-6 against the spread

Yes, the schedule just might be the easiest in the nation but that doesn’t fix a defense that gave up 91 combined points in its last two games. Last year was the first time since 2003 that North Texas won more than eight games in a regular season.

Play: Under 8 wins at minus-140

Rice

over/under: 3.5 (Even, minus-130)

Last Year: 1-11 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread

Largely by virtue of being in the West Division, the Owls should be able to stay competitive in more than half of their conference games. They also have two manageable non-conference contests, against Prairie View A&M and Hawaii. Coach Mike Bloomgren is bringing in a ball-control offensive system that fits well with the program’s attributes.

Guess: Over 3.5 wins at Even money

Southern Miss

over/under: 6.5 (plus-105, minus-135)

Last Year: 8-5 straight-up, 8-5 against the spread

The Eagles were a different team when now-senior quarterback Kwadra Griggs was healthy last season, and he could lead them to overachieving this year. But he’ll have to do with unproven complementary pieces, as Southern Miss returns the fewest starters in the conference.

Guess: Under 6.5 wins at minus-135

UAB

over/under: 7.5 (plus-105, minus-125)

Last Year: 8-5 straight-up, 8-5 against the spread

The Blazers had a dream season in 2017, sneaking up on opponents to win eight games in the first year their program was reinstated. Dream seasons are typically followed by disappointment, with the paradigm flipped. While there were no expectations in Birmingham, Ala. last year, this year the Blazers are the second-favorite to win the West Division.

Lean: Under 7.5 wins at minus-125

UTEP

over/under: 2.5 (plus-115, minus-145)

Last Year: 0-12 straight-up, 2-9-1 against the spread

The Miners were power-rated as the worst team in college football last year, and the betting market doesn’t expect them to get much better in 2018 as the price on the under has soared. New coach Dana Dimel might get UTEP back to respectability, but it’s doubtful to happen in his first year.

Guess: Under 2.5 wins at minus-145

UTSA

over/under: 5 (minus-110, minus-120)

Last Year: 6-5 straight-up, 3-8 against the spread

The Roadrunners lost the majority of a team that was far better than its 6-5 record — they had four losses by a combined total of 17 points — but coach Frank Wilson has recruited well enough to avoid a rebuilding year. The only concern is a brutal opening schedule that features Arizona State, Baylor and Kansas State to start the season.

Lean: Over 5 wins at minus-110

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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