2021 Division I Conference Football Preview: Conference USA

Conference USA embarks on its 27th season in 2021. Following the unprecedented 2020 season, the league continues to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics, committed to building the next generation of great college programs innovative partnerships, dynamic leadership and diverse membership.

CSJ Preseason Predictions

East Division

1 – Marshall
2 – Western Kentucky
3 – Florida Atlantic
4 – Charlotte
5 – Middle Tennessee
6 – Florida International
7 – Old Dominion

West Division

1 – UTSA
2 – UAB
3 – Louisiana Tech
4 – North Texas
5 – Southern Miss
6 – Rice
7 – UTEP

CHARLOTTE 49ers

Location: Charlotte, NC
Stadium (cap): Jerry Richardson Stadium (15,314)
Head Coach: Will Healy (3rd year)
Record at Charlotte: 9-10 (.474)
2020 C-USA Record: 2-2/4th East Division
2020 Overall Record: 2-4
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Opener: Sept 3. vs. Duke 

WHO TO WATCH:  The 49ers are expected to be led on offense by highly touted quarterback Chris Reynolds (5-11, 192, RS-Sr.), who has landed on the Maxwell Award Watch List (most outstanding player) and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Watch List as the 2021 season prepares to get underway.

Reynolds, a two-team C-USA honorable mention selection (2019-20) completed 96 of 175 passes last during the abbreviated 2020 season for 1,305 yards and eight touchdowns. He was intercepted twice on the season.

Heading into his final collegiate season Reynolds, a former walk-on, ranks No. 2 on the school’s all-time career passing list (5,042 yards) and career passing touchdowns with 36, 22 of which came in his breakout season of 2019.

Tyler Murray (6-2, 215, RS-Sr., LB) returns as the top defensive player from a year ago when he tallied 49 (26 solo) tackles. He has two tackles for loss and two interceptions on the season.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS

Location: Boca Raton, FL
Stadium (cap): FAU Stadium (29,495)
Head Coach: Willie Taggart (2nd year)
Record at Florida Atlantic: 5-4
Prior to FAU: Florida State (2018-19), Oregon (2017), South Florida (2013-16), Western Kentucky (2010-12)
Career Record: 61-66 (.480)
2020 C-USA Record: 4-2/2nd East Division
2020 Overall Record: 5-4
2020 Bowl Result: Montgomery Bowl (lost to Memphis 25-10)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at Florida 

WHO TO WATCH: Practice sessions on the campus of Florida Atlantic figure to be heated throughout fall camp as the Owls prepare for their opener on Sept. 4 at The Swamp in Gainesville to face in-state foe Florida.

Nick Trent (6-2, 218, RS, Jr.) may have the inside track to begin the season under center for the Owls. He completed 89 of 167 passes for 905 yards and six touchdowns last season.

But he is expected to be challenged in a big way by redshirt freshman Javion Posey (6-1, 213) who proved to be a threat to pass or run the football last season. He completed 33 of his 63 passes for 395 yards and a pair of TDS and added 403 rushing yards on 58 carries (6.7 ypc) and three more scores. 

And if a 1-2 threat at quarterback is not enough, the same scenario will play out whenever Posey and teammate James Charles (5-10, 200, RS, Sr.) line up at running back for the Owls. Charles led the team last season with 429 yards on 92 carries (4.7 ypc) and four touchdowns.

Chase Lasater (6-2, 236, RS, Jr., LB) returns after leading the team in tackles last season with 72 (27 solo) stops.

The 2020 season marked a homecoming of sorts for FAU coach Willie Taggart. He began his head coaching career at Western Kentucky in 2010 and guided the Hilltoppers to a 16-20 record in three seasons at the school before becoming the head coach at South Florida (2013-16). He later coached at Oregon (2017) and Florida State (2018-19) before taking over the Owls program.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL PANTHERS

Location: Miami, FL
Stadium (cap): Riccardo Silva Stadium (20,000)
Head Coach: Butch Davis (5th year)
Record at Florida International: 23-21 (.523)
Prior to FIU: North Carolina (2007-10), Miami (1995-2000); Cleveland (NFL) 2001-04
Career Record: 86-64 (.573)/official record – 102-64 (.614) on-field collegiate record. North Carolina was forced to vacate 16 wins while Davis was at the school. Davis also logged a 24-35 (.407) record in his four seasons with the Cleveland Browns
2020 C-USA Record: 0-3/6th East Division
2020 Overall Record: 0-5
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 2 vs. Long Island

WHO TO WATCH: Wins were not easy to come by for Florida International in the abbreviated 2020 season. But that is not to say the effort was not there on a weekly basis. The Panthers lost each of their first three games of the season by a combined 12 points.

Now, if coach Butch Davis and his staff can find the missing pieces to the puzzle the outlook for FIU could hold a lot more optimism.

Shemar Thornton (5-11, 182, Sr., WR) and Sterling Palmer (6-6, 235, Jr., TE) both return at skill positions to give the Panthers plenty of optimism as the season prepares to get underway. That duo combined for 73 catches and nearly 900 yards a year ago.

Thornton led the way with 51 catches for 668 yards and five touchdowns on the season and Palmer chipped in with 22 catches to lead all Panther tight ends in that department. He finished the season with 205 yards.

Three standouts also return along the offensive line which should bode well in plugging holes in that area which in turn will allow FIU to improve its offensive production after averaging just over 22 points per game a year ago.

D’Ante Demery (6-5, 320, Sr.) returns at left tackle for FIU. He was an all-conference honorable mention selection in 2019. He is joined by Mershawn Miller (6-2, 313, RS-Sr.) and Shane McGough (6-2, 302, RS-Sr.) in the trenches. Miller, a guard, has played on both sides of the center during his time in a Panther uniform while McGough began the 2020 season at guard before being converted to a center.

The Panthers also return a trio of standouts on the defensive side of the ball who figure to become critical in their bid to improve on the 32.4 points allowed to opponents a year ago.

Richard Dames (5-11, 185, Sr., DB) and Rishard Dames (5-11, 175, RS-Jr., DB) are the top two tacklers returning after notching 35 (10 solo) and 26 (6 solo) tackles a year ago for the Panthers. Rishard Dames recorded 2.5 tackles for loss while Richard Dames logged a pair of TFLs on the season.

Jamal Gates (6-2, 225, Sr., LB) also had 26 total tackles on the season, including a team-high 15 solo stops and a team-best three TFLs. He also led the way with four interceptions for the Panthers. 

Punter Tommy Heatherly (5-11, 210, Sr.) is one of the top punters in C-USA. He averaged 43 yards per punt last season and booted 15 kicks of at least 50 yards last season including a long of 68 against Florida Atlantic.

LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS

Location: Ruston, LA
Stadium (cap): Joe Aillet Stadium (28,562)
Head Coach: Skip Holtz: (9th year)
Record at Louisiana Tech: 61-41 (.598)
Prior to Louisiana Tech: Connecticut (1994-98), East Carolina (2005-09), South Florida (2010-12)
Career Record: 149-112 (.571)
2020 C-USA Record: 4-2/3rd West Division
2020 Overall Record: 5-5
2020 Bowl Result: New Orleans Bowl (lost to Georgia Southern 38-3) 
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at Mississippi State

WHO TO WATCH: The Bulldogs appear to have talent at all the places necessary to remain a serious challenger for a high finish in the conference standings and another bowl berth at season’s end. 

Quarterback Luke Anthony (6-1, 208, grad.) is back under center for the Bulldogs and is expected to be one of the top signal callers in the nation in his final collegiate season. Anthony, who has been named to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Watch List, completed 138 of his 221 passes last season for 1,479 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Smoke Harris (5-6, 189, So., WR) returns at wide receiver and is one of the most electrifying players in the league despite his lack of height normally associated with other players at the position. Harris caught 39 passes for 304 yards last season and figures to be even more involved in the La Tech offense in the new season.

Tyler Grubbs (6-1, 224, Fr., LB) and Trey Baldwin (6-2, 235, Sr.), another linebacker, gives the Bulldogs a solid tandem to build the defense around in 2021. 

Grubbs tallied 99 (45 solo) tackles last season, including a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss. Baldwin, meanwhile, finished second on the team with 85 (53 solo) tacklers and seven TFLs.

MARSHALL THUNDERING HERD

Location: Huntington, WV
Stadium (cap): Joan C. Edwards Stadium (38,227)
Head Coach: Charles Huff (1st year)
Record at Marshall: 0-0
Prior to Marshall: longtime college assistant at Alabama (2019-20), Mississippi State (2018), Penn State (2014-17), Western Michigan (2013), Vanderbilt (2011), Hampton (2010), Maryland (2009) & Tennessee State (2006-08). Also spent the 2012 season as an assistant with the Buffalo Bills (NFL)
Career Record: 0-0
2020 C-USA Record: 4-1/1st East Division
2020 Overall Record: 7-3
2020 Bowl Result: Camelia Bowl (lost to Buffalo 17-10)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at Navy

WHO TO WATCH: There is a reason that the Thundering Herd was tabbed as the preseason favorite to capture the East Division title in Conference-USA this season.

A treasure trove of standouts at several key positions will often give one team an edge over all other foes. And that is the case in Huntington.

Grant Wells (6-2, 203, RS-Fr.) returns to quarterback Marshall for a second season. The freshman of the year in the league last season, Wells completed 165 of 270 passes for 2,091 yards and 18 touchdowns. He has been named to several watch lists for the upcoming season as one of the nation’s top players.

He is one of six all-conference selections returning for Marshall from a year ago.

Tight end Xavier Gaines (6-3, 216, RS-Sr.) caught 28 passes on the year for 404 yards and four touchdowns on his way to earning postseason conference honors. Corey Gammage (6-4, 220, RS-So., WR) led the Thundering Herd with 35 catches for a team-high 409 yards and four touchdowns of his own. He appears to be a serious candidate to gain postseason honors that escaped him last season.

Alex Salguero (6-4, 317, RS-Sr.) is expected to anchor the Marshall offensive line from his center position. Salguero was recently named to the national watch list for the Rimington Trophy which honors the most outstanding center in the FBS. Alex Mollette (6-4, 294, RS-Sr.) is expected to provide plenty of support along a unit that was ranked as the fourth-best offensive line in the nation last season.

The Marshall defense is also littered with several players who are preseason candidates for several national awards.

Jamare Edwards (6-3, 275, RS-Jr., DL), has been added to the Lombardi Award Watch List. Last season he had 30 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one pass breakup and a forced fumble while starting all 10 games for the Thundering Herd. Edwards was named second-team all-conference last season.

Steven Gilmore (6-2, 169, Jr., DB) and Nazeeh Johnson (6-2, 189, RS-Sr., S) both return in the secondary after impressive seasons in 2020. Gilmore, who has been named to the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List for 2021, tallied 39 (25 solo) tackles and picked one pass a year ago. Johnson, meanwhile, was credited with 59 (29 solo) tackles on the year and intercepted a pair of passes.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE BLUE RAIDERS

Location: Murfreesboro, TN
Stadium (cap): Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium (30,788)
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill (17th year)
Record at Middle Tennessee: 94-92 (.505)
Career Record: Same
2020 C-USA Record: 2-4/5th East Division 
2020 Overall Record: 3-6
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 vs. Monmouth

WHO TO WATCH: All eyes will be on Bailey Hockman (6-2, 206, RS-Jr.) who has won the starting quarterback in fall camp after transferring to MTSU from North Carolina State where he started nine games in 2020 for the Wolfpack.

He completed 171 of 266 passes for 2,088 yards last season, including a 313-yard passing performance against Syracuse and throwing for 309 yards against Georgia Tech. He began his collegiate career at Florida State in 2017 before transferring to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, where he did not see any action, prior to matriculating to N.C. State in 2019.

Jarrin Pierce (5-11, 195, RS-Sr., WR) is the top pass catcher returning after hauling in 59 passes for 584 yards and three touchdowns last season. He had at least seven receptions in a game four times last season. He earned honorable-mention all-conference accolades at the end of the season.

The Blue Raiders, if they have any hope of challenging for a division title, will have to establish some sort of running game that managed just over 1,200 yards last season. Chaton Mobley (6-1, 232, RS-Sr.), a halfback, is the top rusher returning after gaining 366 yards on 80 carries (4.6 ypc) last season for MTSU.

While the offense may take some time to develop with a new signal caller and new faces to handle the rushing duties, look for the Blue Raider defense to help keep the offense in a position to score points.

Richard Kinley (6-2, 232, RS-Fr., DE) and Wayne Parks (5-11, 195, RS-Fr., LB) give the Blue Raiders two of the league’s best young defensive players. Kinley tallied 21 (7 solo) tackles on the year, including two TFLs and a pair of sacks last season while Parks ended his first collegiate season with 13 (5 solo) tackles and, like Kinley, provided a glimpse of even greater production that will come with additional playing time.

Decorian Patterson (6-0, 191, RS-So., CB) was one of the team’s leading tacklers last season and is expected to help provide leadership to the defensive unit in 2021. He finished tied for fifth on the season with 43 (27 solo) tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss.

NORTH TEXAS MEAN GREEN

Location: Denton, TX
Stadium (cap): Apogee Stadium (30,850)
Head Coach: Seth Littrell (6th year)
Record at North Texas: 31-31 (.500)
Career Record: 31-31 (.500)
2020 C-USA Record: 3-4/4th West Division
2020 Overall Record: 4-6
2020 Bowl Result: Myrtle Beach Bowl (lost to Appalachian State 56-28)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 vs. Northwestern State 

WHO TO WATCH:  The outlook for North Texas’ offense this year clearly rests on the arm of quarterback Austin Aune (6-2, 216, Jr., QB) and the legs of speedy running back DeAndre Torrey (5-7, 195, Jr.). Oh, and don’t forget the presence of one of the most talented pass catchers in the nation.

In other words, North Texas appears to be in a favorable position to climb the ladder in the West Division standings.

Aune completed 101 of 185 passes for 1,650 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and was picked off just four times in his eight games. Torrey, meanwhile, returns after rushing for 656 yards on 113 carries (5.8 ypc) and six touchdowns. He was named to the Hornung Award Watch List recently as the nation’s top running back.

Aune’s favorite target when going to the air this season will be Jaelon Darden (5-9, 165, Jr., WR). And with good reason.

All Darden did last season was catch 74 passes for 1,190 yards and a whopping 19 touchdowns. He averaged 132.2 yard receiving per game in 2020.

Dion Novil (6-4, 308, Sr., DL) is expected to be one of the leaders on defense for the Mean Green and has already been named to the Nagurski Award Watch List for the upcoming season. He tallied 37 (22 solo) tackles last season, including eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He also forced a pair of fumbles on the year.

North Texas also returns the nucleus of one of the league’s top linebacking units in the form of KD Davis (5-11, 229, Sr. and Larry Nixon (6-0, 236, Jr.). Davis led that tandem with a team-leading 75 (37 solo) tackles last season, including 5.5 tackles for loss along with three sacks.

Nixon, meanwhile, chipped in with 53 (29 solo) tackles while leading the team with 6.5 TFLs and adding three sacks of his own.

Kevin Wood (6-0, 219, Jr.), another linebacker, also returns after garnering 48 (25 solo) tackles, including 4.5 stops for negative yardage.

Makyle Sanders (6-0, 199, Sr.) is expected to anchor the secondary for the Mean Green after finishing second on the team with 68 (44 solo) tackles last season. He also tallied 1.5 tackles for loss while intercepting two pass which tied for the team lead in that department. 

OLD DOMINION MONARCHS

Location: Norfolk, VA
Stadium (cap): S.B. Ballard Stadium (21,944)
Head Coach: Ricky Rahne (2nd year)
Record at Old Dominion: 0-0
Prior to Old Dominion: longtime assistant at Penn State (2014-19), Vanderbilt (2011-13), Kansas State (2007-10), Cornell (2005) and Holy Cross (2004)
Career Record: 0-0
2020 C-USA Record: did not play
2020 Overall Record: did not play
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 3 at Wake Forest

WHO TO WATCH: After being out of the eye of college football fans for nearly two years question marks abound when looking at the prospects for Old Dominion as the Monarchs prepare to return to the playing field after opting out of the 2020 season.

Stone Smartt (6-4, 232, Sr.) and Hayden Wolff (6-5, 219, RS-Fr.) appear to be the most experienced players returning with hopes of operating the offense from the quarterback position this season. Smartt completed 101 of 177 passes for 1,006 yards, but just one touchdown in 2019. He threw six interceptions that season. Wolff, meanwhile, appeared in just three games in 2019 and finished with 75 completions on 129 passing attempts for 737 yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Elijah Davis (5-10, 209, RS-So.) is the top rusher in camp as the Monarchs prepare to take on Wake Forest in the season opener. Davis rushed for 337 yards on 79 carries and four touchdowns during the 2019 season in which ODU finished 1-11 after opening the season with a narrow 24-21 win over Norfolk State before losing 11 straight games.

The ODU defense also has plenty of question marks as the game against the Demon Deacons looms on the horizon.

Jordan Young (6-3, 230, RS-Sr., LB) figures to be the likely leader on that unit in the new season. He tallied 86 (38 solo) tackles in 2019, including four tackles for loss.

RICE OWLS

Location: Houston, TX
Stadium (cap): Rice Stadium (47,000)
Head Coach: Mike Bloomgren (4th year)
Record at Rice: 7-23 (.233)
Career Record: 7-23 (.233)
2020 C-USA Record: 2-3/T-5th West Division
2020 Overall Record: 2-3
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at Arkansas

WHO TO WATCH: The foundation will continue to be set in place in 2021 as Rice continues its climb toward becoming a force in C-USA.

Wiley Green (6-3, 211, RS-So., QB) has apparently won the starting job at quarterback for the season opener on Sept. 4 Arkansas. He saw action in just one game last season but showed signs of consistency in operating the Rice offense in 2019 when he started seven games and completed 75 of 142 passes for 787 yards and four touchdowns. He surpassed the 1,000-yard plateau in his eight games and became the fastest Owl freshman to accomplish that feat since Randy Hertel threw for 1,620 yards in 1977.

Khalan Griffin (5-10, 215, Fr., RB) and Ari Broussard (6-0, 215, RS, So.), both halfbacks, return after rushing for 249 and 87 yards, respectively, in the abbreviated 2020 season. Griffin carried 72 times and averaged 3.5 yards per carry, while Broussard matched that average on his 25 carries on the season. Both figure to see dramatic improvement in their production with an added workload in the new season.

The Rice defense is expected to be led by the return of three of the team’s top four tacklers from last season and the continued improvement in that unit will play a big role as to any climb in the league standings the Owls enjoy in 2021.

Elijah Garcia (6-3, 302, RS-Sr., NT) tops that list of talented and active returners on defense. He finished second on the team with 28 (10 solo) tackles last season.

Kirk Lockhart (5-11, 187, So., FS) and Treshawn Chamberlain (5-10, 201, Jr., LB) also return after finishing among the leaders in stops.

Lockhart tied with Garcia for second place on the team with 28 (16 solo) tackles, while Chamberlain, despite being undersized by linebacker standards, finished the year with 27 (12 solo) tackles.

SOUTHERN MISS GOLDEN EAGLES

Location: Hattiesburg, MS
Stadium (cap): M.M. Roberts Stadium (36,000)
Head Coach: Will Hall (1st year)
Record at Southern Miss: 0-0
Prior to Southern Miss: West Georgia (2014-16), West Alabama (2011-13)
Career Record: 56-20 (.737)
2020 C-USA Record: 2-4/T-5th West Division
2020 Overall Record: 3-7
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at South Alabama

WHO TO WATCH: Plenty of question marks surround the start of the 2021 season for Southern Miss.

But, there is no question as to who opposing defenses will focus on, at least in the early going.

Frank Gore Jr. (5-8, 165, Fr. RB) returns to be the focal point of the Golden Eagle offense. He rushed for 708 yards on 121 carries (5.9 ypc) a year ago as Southern Miss managed just a 2-4 record in the C-USA West Division. The son of former NFL great Frank Gore, he scored two touchdowns on the season and is one of the most promising young players in all of college football.

He will likely get plenty of support in the form of Darius Maberry (5-9, 207, RS-Jr., RB), who rushed for 207 yards on 37 carries (5.6 ypc) last season while scoring two touchdowns for the Golden Eagles.

But, like in any look at the prospects for a new season, the focus in Hattiesburg certainly rests at the quarterback position.

There, it appears Trey Lowe (6-2, 218, RS-So.) has won the starting job for the season opener at South Alabama. He played sparingly last season and completed 36 of 59 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns while throwing three interceptions in his four appearances.

Expected to be on the receiving end of many of Lowe’s passes this season will be Jason Brownlee (6-3, 192, Jr., WR), who caught 34 passes for 610 yards last season. He scored five times for the Golden Eagles.

The Southern Miss defense is expected to be led by the return of Hayes Maple (6-2, 221, RS-So., LB) who tallied 91 (34 solo) tackles a year ago.

UAB BLAZERS

Location: Birmingham, AL
Stadium (cap): Protective Stadium (45,000)
Head Coach: Bill Clark (6th year)
Record at UAB: 40-22 (.645)
Prior to UAB: led Jacksonville State to an 11-4 (.733) record in 2013
Career Record: 51-26 (.662)
2020 C-USA Record: 3-1/1st West Division
2020 Overall Record: 6-3
2020 C-USA Championship: defeated Marshall 22-13
2020 Bowl Result: Gasparilla Bowl (vs. South Carolina – cancelled)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 1 vs. Jacksonville State (at Montgomery, Ala.)

UAB is getting plenty of consideration to repeat as C-USA West Division champions, but a lot of that depends on coach Bill Clark’s ability to find quality replacements at several key positions with the departure of leaders at all three skill positions from a year ago.

Bryan Lucero (6-1, 215, RS-So.) appears to have won the starting job at quarterback for the season opener against FCS power Jacksonville State. But, Lucero returns after completing just 79 of 146 passes for 969 yards and seven touchdowns – versus eight interception – a year ago.

The Blazers will also be without their leading rusher and pass catchers from the 2020 season.

On the defensive side of the ball it appears Kristopher Moll (6-2, 215, Sr. S) and Noah Wilder (6-0, 235, RS-Sr.), a linebacker will be the anchors the Blazers will structure the defense around. Moll tallied 59 (40 solo) tackles, including four tackles for loss, last season. Wilder, meanwhile, tallied 50 (31 solo) stops on the year. Included in that total were 4.5 TFLs.

UTEP MINERS

Location: El Paso, TX
Stadium (cap): Sun Bowl (8,594)
Head Coach: Dana Dimel (3rd year)
Record at UTEP: 2-22 (.083)
Prior to UTEP: Wyoming (1997-99), Houston (2000-02)
Career Record: 35-66 (.347)
2020 C-USA Record: 0-4/7th West Division
2020 Overall Record: 3-5
2020 Bowl Result: none
2021 Season Opener: Aug. 28 at New Mexico State

There is nothing better than starting a season off on a positive note and UTEP is hoping its 30-3 thrashing of New Mexico State on Aug. 28 is a harbinger of things to come in 2021.

The Miners went winless in conference play last season and whether they can end that skid will play out as the season progresses.

Gavin Hardison (6-3, 205, RS-So., QB) returns to lead the Miners this season from the quarterback position. He completed 108 of 199 passes for 1,419 yards and five touchdowns last season while also tossing five interceptions. Both of those numbers need to improve if UTEP is to climb the league standings in a new season.

And that’s a distinct probability as the Miners return a pair of outstanding receivers in the form of Justin Garrett (6-1, 200, RS-Sr.) and Jacob Cowing (5-11, 170, So.) at the wide receiver position. Garrett led than duo with 38 receptions for 510 yards and three touchdowns whole Cowling also scored three times after being on the receiving end of 41 passes for a team-high 691 yards on his way to earning second-team all-conference honors. Garrett was named to the C-USA honorable mention squad.

Trent Thompson (6-2, 250, Jr.) added two receptions for 56 yards last season from his tight end position and should see a substantial increase in his production in 2021 as he gives Hardison and the Miners an additional target to throw to.

Dy’vonne Inyang (6-1, 180, SR., DB) is the leading tackler returning from last season. He tallied 32 total tackles, including two tackles for loss, last season while also forcing a pair of fumbles for the Miners. He is joined by another standout of the defensive side of the ball in the form of Kelton Moss (6-2, 315, Jr., DT), who tallied 20 total stops in 2020, including three for loss.

UTSA ROADRUNNERS

Location: San Antonio, TX
Stadium (cap): Alamodome (36,582)
Head Coach: Jeff Traylor (2nd year)
Record at UTSA: 7-5 (.583)
Career Record: 7-5 (.583)
2020 C-USA Record: 5-2/2nd West Division
2020 Overall Record: 7-5
2020 Bowl Result: First Responder Bowl (lost to Louisiana 31-24)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 4 at Illinois
Returning Starters: 10 (offense), 11 (defense), 3 (special teams)

WHO TO WATCH: It’s about time a special talent like RB Sincere McCormick (5-9, 205, Jr. RB) becomes a familiar name and becomes more of a household name to college football fans across the nation.

After all, all McCormick has done in his first two seasons at UTSA is to rush for 2,450 yards and 19 touchdowns while adding 325 receiving yards to prove his versatility … and importance to the Roadrunner offense.

Last season he carried 249 times for 1,467 yards and 11 touchdowns. All three of those marks established a new standard at the school. His rushing output ranked No. 2 in all of FBS.

He was named at second-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and by Phil Steele. He was a finalist for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award and one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award.

McCormick capped the 2020 season by being selected as the C-USA offensive player of the year after posting a league-best seven 100-yard rushing games. He was tabbed as this year’s C-USA preseason offensive player of the year.

McCormick is not alone. At least two other Roadrunners are expected to also garner plenty of attention and consideration of conference and national honors.

Rashard Wisdom (5-9, 205, Jr. S) and Lucas Dean (6-2, 205, Jr, P) also return to help fuel expectations in the Lone Star State.

Wisdom was one of the top defensive backs in the nation last season. A first-team all-conference selection, Wisdom intercepted a school-record four passes last season which tied for the lead in C-USA. Included was a pick-six that covered 81 yards in a 51-48 double-overtime win over Texas State,

Wisdom, who was named to the C-USA all-freshman team in 2019, ended the 2020 season with a team-high 95 (60 solo) tackles. 

Dean, meanwhile, enters the season as the league’s preseason special teams player of the year. 

The native Australian ranked sixth in the nation last year with an average of 46 yards on 57 punts. Accurate at placing the ball, Dean had only 17 of his 57 punts returned a year ago. He had 27 punts that pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line and 15 of those inside the 10.

He was a second-team All-American selection by The Sporting News and a fourth-team pick by Phil Steele. He had 21 punts of at least 50 yards, including a 67-yard punt in the game against Florida Atlantic last season.

WESTERN KENTUCKY HILLTOPPERS

Location: Bowling Green, KY
Stadium (cap): Houchens-Smith Stadium (22,113)
Head Coach: Tyson Helton (3rd year)
Record at Western Kentucky: 14-11
Career Record: 14-11
2020 C-USA Record: 4-3/3rd East Division
2020 Overall Record: 5-7
2020 Bowl Result: Lending Tree Bowl (lost to Georgia State 39-21)
2021 Season Opener: Sept. 2 vs. UT Martin

WHO TO WATCH: The Hilltoppers enter the season with a pair of standouts who are certainly going to be the focal point of opposing coaches planning on trying to get the better of Western Kentucky.

Good luck with that.

Bailey Zappe (6-1, 220, Grad, Sr.) will step in to operate the Hilltopper offense from the quarterback position after transferring from Houston Baptist. Zappe, who was recently added to the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Watch List as the top Division 1 player from Texas, threw for 1,833 yards for the Huskies last season after completing 141 of his 215 passes in just four games. Fifteen of his completions went for touchdowns a year ago and had just one pass intercepted.

Zappe’s average of 458.3 passing yards per game last season led all college quarterbacks and was more than 100 better than the top passer in the FBS. The new Topper enters the 2021 season as the active leader in passing yards after throwing for 10,004 yards in his four seasons at Houston Baptist.

The arrival of Zappe should bode well for Mitchell Tinsley (6-1, 2-5, Jr. WR) who returns after catching 43 passes for 377 yards and four touchdowns last season. Tight end Joshua Simon (6-5, 240, So.) also returns after a productive 2020 season that saw him on the receiving end of 33 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns. He has been named to the John Mackey Award Watch List of the 2021 season.

If the Hilltoppers can find two or more reliable targets for Zappe, the offense could develop into one of the most potent offenses in the conference.

WKU returns three players at running back who combined for 502 yards last season. If one or more of those takes a more consistent role in the offense that will only provide even more balance and more headaches for opposing coaches.

Jakairi Moses (5-9, 195, RS-So.) is the leader of that returning trio. He rushed 60 times for 319 yards (5.3 ypc) last season. C.J. Jones (5-10, 195, RS-Jr.)  accounted for 144 yards on 21 carries (6.9 ypc) last season and collected a pair of touchdowns for the Hilltoppers while Noah Whittington (5-10, 190, Fr.) saw limited action and ran for 39 yards on 16 carries (2.4 ypc) on the year.

DeAngelo Malone (6-4, 240, Sr.), a defensive end, is the other high profile Hilltopper. The C-USA defensive player of the year for the second straight season, Malone has been named to watch lists for a number of postseason honors, including the Chuck Bednarik Award, Naguski Trophy and the Lombardi Award.

Last season Malone tallied 71 (42 solo) tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and six sacks.

He recorded 99 total tackles during the 2019 season, including 21 TFLs, which set a new school standard in WKU’s time as a FBS program, on his way to being voted the league’s defensive player of the year.

Malone has played in 48 games (39 starts) in his career as a Hilltopper and has amassed 255 (135 solo) tackles during time. Included in that staggering total are 42.5 TFLs and 25 sacks.

Malone is far from being the only standout returning on defense for WKU this season. Also returning are Aaron Key (6-1, 230, Fr., LB) and Antwon Kincade (5-11, 205, Sr., DB)

Key started all 12 games last season and led the team with 92 (55 solo) tackles while Kincade was not far behind with 85 (48 solo) tackles of his own.

2020 Final Standings

C-USA EAST

CUSA All

1 – Marshall 4-1 7-3
2 – Florida Atlantic 4-2 5-4
3 – Western Kentucky 4-3 5-7
4 – Charlotte 2-2 2-4
5 – Middle Tennessee 2-4 3-6
6 – Florida International 0-3 0-5
7 – Old Dominion DNP DNP

C-USA WEST

CUSA All

1 – UAB 3-1 6-3
2 – UTSA 5-2 7-5
3 – Louisiana Tech 4-2 5-5
4 – North Texas 3-4 4-6
5 – Rice 2-4 3-7
      Southern Miss 2-4 3-7
7 – UTEP 0-4 3-5

2021 C-USA Preseason Poll

(first-place votes in parentheses)

East Division

1 – Marshall (17)
2 – Florida Atlantic (6)
3 – Western Kentucky (1)
4 – Charlotte
5 – Middle Tennessee
6 – Florida International
7 – Old Dominion

West Division

1 – UAB (15)
2 – UTSA (9)
3 – Louisiana Tech
4 – Southern Miss
5 – Rice
6 – North Texas
7 – UTEP

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