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August 20, 2019

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

UAB CUSA

ASSOCIATED PRESS

UAB players celebrate after defeating Middle Tennessee 27-25 in the Conference USA championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Conference USA has been the toughest championship race to predict over the last two years in college football. That’s not changing this season.

After UAB prevailed from a 12-to-1 preseason price last year to follow Florida Atlantic’s 25-to-1 coup two years ago, bettors and oddsmakers alike are unsure what to expect during the 2019 campaign. The latest future odds at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook imply seven teams with at least a 9 percent chance, and not a single team with greater than a 20 percent share.

It’s going to make for a fun league to watch and, more important, handicap. Conference USA is up today in Talking Points’ ongoing series picking every college football win total.

Check here for the first two installments, and read below for the team-by-team breakdown with selections for each labeled in three confidence categories — plays, leans and guesses.

Charlotte

Total: 4.5 (over plus-110, under minus-130)

Last Season: 5-7 straight-up, 7-5 against the spread

Charlotte made big strides last year — including its first winning against the spread record in school history — but not big enough to prevent the first coaching change in school history. Will Healy, the Football Bowl Subdivision coach of the year two years ago at Austin Peay, looks like a smart hire but he might need a year or two.

Guess: Under 4.5 wins at minus-130

Florida Atlantic

Total: 8 (over plus-130, under minus-150)

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

There’s buzz on the Owls getting back to their form of two years ago, when they won the league, but most of it is centered on highly-touted recent recruiting classes and former Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois. Relying on a large amount of underclassmen is always volatile, and Francois has never reached the promise of his freshman season in addition to off-field concerns.

Guess: Under 8 wins at plus-130

Florida International

Total: 7.5 (over minus-115, under minus-135)

Last Season: 9-4 straight-up, 10-3 against the spread

If there was ever any doubt over Butch Davis’ coaching ability — there shouldn’t have been — he’s eviscerated it in his first two years in Miami. He’s drastically overachieved by getting to two straight bowls with a team that hadn’t posted a winning record in six previous seasons. FIU has gone a tough-to-replicate 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less in the span, however, and had similarly unsustainable turnover luck last year.

Play: Under 7.5 wins at minus-135

Marshall

Total: 7 (over minus-175, under plus-155)

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

The Thundering Herd are getting bet like they’ve already won the conference. Not only has their win total boosted by a half-game with excessive vig, but they’re also now co-favorites to win the conference with Florida Atlantic. The two teams’ Oct. 18 meeting in Miami looms large. Bookmakers may have made a mistake with this one, and still not quite caught up.

Guess: Over 7 wins at minus-175

Middle Tennessee

Total: 5.5 (over plus-105, under minus-125)

Last Season: 8-6 straight-up, 8-6 against the spread

All-time leading passer Brent Stockstill has graduated, and the Blue Raiders have little to show for it after they narrowly fell in last year’s Conference USA Championship Game. They were always close-but-not-quite-over-the-top behind coach Rick Stockstill’s son, but much of that was due to a string of bad injury luck that could flip at any point. Middle Tennessee also has strong priors as a consistent conference contender, which could overcome losses all over the roster.

Play: Over 5.5 wins at plus-105

Old Dominion

Total: 4.5 (over plus-170, under minus-200)

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

Luckily for the Monarchs, last year’s season will always be remembered for their 49-35 upset of Virginia Tech as 28-point underdogs. They were a mess otherwise, seeing their record decline for the third straight season. This should be the fourth considering coach Bobby Wilder is back and made stopgap moves such as pillaging the junior-college ranks and restructuring his staff out of desperation.

Lean: Under 4.5 wins at minus-200

Western Kentucky

Total: 5 (over Even, under minus-110)

Last Season: 3-9 straight-up, 6-6 against the spread

Western Kentucky brings back more starters, 16 total, than anyone in the conference and weren’t as helpless as its record indicated last year. The Hilltoppers were among the unluckiest teams in the country, going 0-4 in games decided by less than a touchdown.

Lean: Over 5 wins at Even money

Louisiana Tech

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

Last Season: 9-5 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread

The Bulldogs may have more firepower than anyone else in the conference between quarterback J’Mar Smith, wide receiver Adrian Hardy and running back Jaqwis Darcy. The defense has been uniformly solid under coach Skip Holtz, but now must endure several impact players departing and new coordinator Bob Diaco. As long as it doesn’t tail off too severely, this might be the year Louisiana Tech breaks through for its first conference title since 2011.

Play: Over 7.5 wins at minus-125

North Texas

Total: 7.5 (over minus-110, under minus-110)

Last Season: 9-4 straight-up, 4-9 against the spread

It’s tough to get a read on this team after they overachieved early last year — including covering in their first four games — and then underachieved at the end of the season — including failing to cover in their last six games. Their ceiling remains high if for no other reason than having the Football Bowl Subdivision’s leading active passer in Mason Fine, but the floor might be equally low with a rebuilding defensive unit.

Guess: Under 7.5 wins at minus-110

Rice

Total: 2.5 (over plus-140, under minus-160)

Last Season: 2-11 straight-up, 7-6 against the spread

The Owls were the second-worst team in the nation last year by the F/+ ratings, with only a historically feeble Connecticut team grading out worse. The route out of the basement looks treacherous considering Rice’s schedule, as it doesn’t have a winnable game until week 8 — and even that is on the road against UTSA.

Guess: Under 2.5 wins at minus-160

Southern Miss

Total: 7.5 (over plus-140, under minus-160)

Last Season: 6-5 straight-up, 6-5 against the spread

Southern Miss made an extraordinary defensive leap last year, ranking in the nation’s top 10 in giving up only 4.5 yards per play to FBS opponents. So extraordinary that it’s going to be tough to maintain, especially with the departure of several standout players. Number looks right, and under might have been the play when both sides opened at minus-110, but there’s no value in laying a high price that way.

Guess: Over 7.5 wins at plus-140

UAB

Total: 7 (over minus-170, under plus-150)

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

Bill Clark has arguably been the nation’s most impressive coach over the last two years by leading the Blazers to a conference championship four years after their program was shuttered. So impressive that maybe he should have bailed for another job, because now he looks to be back in another rebuilding period. UAB is bringing in junior-college transfers in bulk to replace their considerable losses, and about the only other thing working in its favor is a schedule Phil Steele rates as the easiest in the nation.

Play: Under 7 wins at plus-150

UTEP

Total: 2.5 (over minus-175, under plus-155)

Last Season: 1-11 straight-up, 5-7 against the spread

UTEP is going to try to wear teams down with its running game — watch out for incoming freshman and area high-school legend Deion Hankins long-term. It’s up for debate if the Miners currently have the personnel to pull it off, but they’re no longer clearly the worst team in the West Division with Rice and UTSA both receding to their level.

Lean: Over 2.5 wins at plus-175

UTSA

Total: 2.5 (over minus-185, under plus-160)

Last Season: 3-9 straight-up, 4-7-1 against the spread

Offense is more predictable on a year-to-year basis, which could be bad news for the Roadrunners as they rated last in the nation at 3.7 yards per play against FBS teams last year. But they were exceedingly young and full of once decently-regarded recruits that should have a chance to progress thanks to their experience and a schedule with plenty of winnable games.

Guess: Over 2.5 wins at minus-185

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

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