Conference USA preview: Can Florida Atlantic, Charlotte take step up?

by Ricardo Gutierrez - With changes to Conference USA (and more on the way), we look at the teams that have work to do to challenge the top contenders.

Conference USA preview: Can Florida Atlantic, Charlotte take step up?

7:00 AM ET Bill ConnellyESPN Staff Writer Close Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com. Conference USA is the ultimate home for transients, a place for programs looking to either move up in life or avoid moving down. It has at least temporarily housed 25 current FBS teams, a number that grows to 48 if non-football and affiliate programs are included. That cumulative number will grow by four when independents Liberty and New Mexico State and FCS powers Sam Houston and Jacksonville State join the football roster in 2023. Of course, they're joining because of who is leaving: Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Miss just departed for the Sun Belt, and Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA will all leave for the AAC next year. From 14 members in 2021, C-USA will have just nine beginning in 2023. Things are a bit messy at the moment, but 11 teams will still battle for the 2022 C-USA crown. Let's talk about them! Today we will preview the six programs projected at the bottom; next Tuesday we will talk about the top five. Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team. Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East 2021 recap Among the six teams featured in this piece (Charlotte , Florida Atlantic , Florida International , Louisiana Tech , Middle Tennessee and Rice ), four have played in six combined Conference USA championship games, winning three. But in 2021 they went a combined 15-33 in conference play with a single bowl bid -- MTSU's upset of Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl -- among them. The 2021 season saw promising tenures for Charlotte's Will Healy and Rice's Mike Bloomgren stalling out, while time ran out altogether for Louisiana Tech's Skip Holtz and FIU's Butch Davis. Willie Taggart's FAU has been stagnant through two seasons, but Rick Stockstill pulled off what felt like his 100th rally at MTSU: His Blue Raiders went 7-14 in 2019-20 and began last season 2-4, but won five of seven down the stretch. 2022 projections TEAM SP+ RK OFF. DEF. AVG. W CONF. W BOWL ODDS Florida Atlantic 100 87 101 5.5 4.0 50% Charlotte 111 49 131 4.7 3.5 29% Middle Tennessee 104 104 91 5.2 3.5 42% Louisiana Tech 114 105 111 4.4 3.2 23% Florida Int'l 124 115 127 4.1 1.8 17% Rice 125 126 121 2.5 1.6 1% Sustaining momentum is really difficult, as 2021 proved, but 2022 could prove you're also never that far away from a rally. All it takes is some close wins: FAU, Charlotte, MTSU and Louisiana Tech all play in at least five relative tossups -- games SP+ projects within 7.5 points, one way or the other -- and FAU, Charlotte and MTSU each return experience and intriguing talent at the quarterback position. That certainly helps in close games. (FIU and Rice are, shall we say, a bit further from a rally.) Burning questions Will a more experienced FAU offense find any sort of rhythm? Back in 2015, Willie Taggart changed his trajectory as a head coach when his own concoction of a fast-paced spread offense, with West Coast principles, clicked into place at South Florida. Quarterback Quinton Flowers nearly combined 2,500 passing yards with 1,000 rushing yards, and after a 1-3 start -- which made Taggert 7-21 at USF and 23-42 overall as a head coach -- USF won seven of its last nine games, then went 11-2 in 2016. That earned him (brief) stints at Oregon and Florida State, and it was his main calling card in scoring the FAU job after Lane Kiffin left for Ole Miss. Two years in, he's dealing with a familiar issue: FAU's offense stinks. After ranking in the top 50 in offensive SP+ for three straight years under Kiffin, they've ranked just 116th and 99th under Taggart. N'Kosi Perry showed glimpses of greatness with Florida Atlantic last season, but will need to show more consistency. Aaron Gilbert/Icon Sportswire It would obviously behoove everyone involved for this to change, and if nothing else, experience should serve as a bit of a rising tide. Quarterback N'Kosi Perry was inconsistent in his first season after transferring from Miami -- four games with a passer rating over 150, four under 120 -- but now has a year under his belt. Running back Johnny Ford and receivers Je'Quan Burton and LaJohntay Wester , who were responsible for most of FAU's big plays in 2021, are back, as are four starting offensive linemen. They weren't enough to make the Owls good last year, but if solid recent recruiting can produce a few more weapons, Taggart has proven that third-year breakthroughs are possible. The defense is less of an issue. The Owls were efficient against the run despite their extreme youth -- of the 10 returning linemen and linebackers with 50-plus snaps last season, all were freshmen and sophomores -- and could have a legitimate stud in 356-pound sophomore nose tackle Evan Anderson . Pass defense was an issue and could be again, but if the Owls finish under .500 again, offense probably will be the reason. Will the Charlotte defense ever come around? Two years ago, Club Lit was a sign of Charlotte's impending dominance. Will Healy was winning games -- the 49ers attended their first bowl in his first season in charge -- and creating a culture of outright fun. When you can't stop the other team from scoring, however, the fun dissipates a bit. In the last two seasons, Charlotte has gone just 7-11 -- 6-3 when allowing fewer than 35 points and 1-8 when allowing 35 or more. (It's not great when you've got the same number of games in each of those buckets.) In Healy's three seasons, the Niners have averaged a 69.7 SP+ ranking on offense and 117.7 on defense. Quarterback Chris Reynolds is efficient with both his arm and legs, and each of last year's top six targets returns. Grant DuBose is a solid big-play target, and Victor Tucker and Elijah Spencer are among the most sure-handed receivers in the conference. Backs Shadrick Byrd and Calvin Camp are also back, as are six of the eight linemen who logged more than 300 snaps. The offense should be a threat once more. But that will only matter so much if the defense doesn't come around. Veteran Greg Brown replaces Marcus West at coordinator, and at least experience won't be an issue: Including Central Michigan defensive end Amir Siddiq , Charlotte will boast eight seniors who took at least 250 snaps last season. Siddiq and Markees Watts could make a lovely combination, and corner Trey Creamer is aggressive and often effective. If you squint, you can see the makings of a decent pass defense. But can the 49ers force teams to pass? They allowed more than 200 rushing yards six times in 2021 and more than 320 three times, and while most of the line returns, last year's top three linebackers do not. Rick Stockstill is just going to do this forever, huh? He won 10 games at Middle Tennessee State in 2009, then eight in 2010 and '11 combined. He oversaw the Blue Raiders' move to C-USA and ripped off a string of seven straight bowl-eligible seasons (plus a division title in 2018), then went 9-18 from 2019 to October 2021. With all the magic seemingly gone -- and his starting quarterback soon injured -- his team raced to bowl eligibility and upset Toledo in the Bahamas Bowl. Editor's Picks Building a College Football Super League: What could it look like? 14d Bill Connelly Updated college football Way-Too-Early Top 25 12d Mark Schlabach 2 Related Rick Stockstill's 16-year tenure at MTSU is the personification of the benefits of keeping an even keel. Give a smart guy room to work, and eventually he'll solve problems and get back on course. The offense has taken a few different shapes, the defense has come and gone, and the Blue Raiders continue life as a solid, average-to-above-average C-USA program. I'm not sure they are capable of more than that at the moment, though. There's a lot to like about quarterback Chase Cunningham , receivers Yusuf Ali and Jaylin Lane and Kansas State running back transfer Joe Ervin . (When Cunningham was lost for the season to injury, his backups did a solid job too.) Stockstill's hire of pass-happy offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart -- former Murray State head coach and, most recently, Samford's OC -- makes perfect sense with the personnel at hand. Defensively, the Blue Raiders enjoyed their third top-70 SP+ ranking in five seasons under coordinator Scott Shafer, the defensive line is experienced and end Jordan Ferguson and corner Teldrick Ross are major havoc producers. However, the run game was unreliable last year, and the offensive line must replace five of last year's top six options; that Stockstill signed four JUCO linemen is very telling. And while the defense has proven pieces, the linebacking corps and secondary both suffered attrition. Stockstill is 64, and it was fair to wonder if his career was just about over during MTSU's slow start last year. But then the Blue Raiders rallied, as they tend to do. Is the end still near or is he just going to keep doing this for years to come? Do Sonny Cumbie and Louisiana Tech have what they need for a fast start? Willie Roaf ... Troy Edwards ... Fred Dean ... Jaylon Ferguson ... Vernon Butler ... If there's one thing we know about Louisiana Tech, it's that it can produce some high quality players. For most of the Skip Holtz era, the Bulldogs were able to field fun pieces and win games. That's what made the end so jarring. The offense began to crumble in 2018, and the defense followed suit in 2020. Tech eked out a seventh straight bowl bid in 2020 thanks to some tight wins, but the bottom fell out with a 3-9 record and No. 108 SP+ ranking last fall. This was not a very fun team to watch. New Bulldogs coach Sonny Cumbie has certainly been around plenty of fun football through the years. The Mike Leach disciple spent most of the last decade bouncing between assistant jobs at Texas Tech and TCU. He likes to play with tempo and sling the ball around, and he's got both a solid pair of receivers in Smoke Harris and Tre Harris and a couple of all-conference caliber linemen in center Abraham Delfin and guard Joshua Mote . We don't know if he's got a quarterback, though: All three of Tech's 2021 signal-callers are gone, so Cumbie brought in TCU backup Matthew Downing and Troy backup Parker McNeil . Downing knows the system, at least. On defense, Cumbie brought in Stephen F. Austin coordinator Scott Power. SFA ranked 16th in FCS defensive SP+ last season thanks to massive disruption: 105 tackles for loss, 48.5 sacks, 15 interceptions. He should have a lot of fun with sophomores such as end Mykol Clark and linebacker Tyler Grubbs , but there are almost no seniors, and the Bulldogs have to replace eight regulars. This seems like a recipe for an all-or-nothing unit ... and an all-or-nothing team , for that matter. Which job is harder: FIU or Rice? At first, this seems like a preposterous question. Rice has some of the highest admission standards in FBS, and Florida International has lower standards and one of the most football-fertile backyards in the country. Of course FIU is the better job, right? You are your results, however, and the results of the last decade suggest that these jobs are equally difficult. Last 10 years Wins: Rice 45, FIU 41 Bowl bids: Rice 3, FIU 3 Seasons with at least nine losses: Rice 4, FIU 3 Average SP+ ranking: Rice 107.9, FIU 112.2 Any geographical advantages FIU has appear to be negated by administrative issues. On his way out the door last fall, Butch Davis told The Action Network's Brett McMurphy that he felt "the administration has been sabotaging the program." Ouch. Looking ahead to 2022 season It's never too early to get pumped up for college football season. Here are some things we're already looking forward to this fall. Bill Connelly SP+ projections » | Way-too-early top 25 » FIU is a fixer-upper, but it just hired quite a craftsman. Mike MacIntyre inherited a two-win San Jose State program in 2009 and had the Spartans up to 11-2 by 2012; he inherited a 1-11 Colorado team in 2013 and brought the Buffaloes to the Pac-12 championship game in 2016. He wasn't able to sustain the success in Boulder, but if a school gives him a couple of years to tear the house down to the studs and rebuild (and doesn't "sabotage" him), he can do so. He'll need a couple of years at FIU -- the Panthers boast a couple of big-play receivers in Tyrese Chambers and Randall St. Felix but little else. The offensive line returns only one starter, and the defense returns only two. MacIntyre brought in 10 players from the transfer portal, but only Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and Syracuse receiver Sharod Johnson are seniors. Meanwhile in Houston, it looked for a minute as if Mike Bloomgren was building something at Rice. His defense rose to 54th in defensive SP+ in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and while the offense was still dreadful, his Owls went 2-3, stomping Marshall and nearly upsetting C-USA champion UAB. But in Year 4 of his rebuild, the defense collapsed to 123rd, and the offense remained awful. Worse, some of the offense's only promising pieces transferred. It's possible, then, that in his fifth year in charge, Bloomgren will be starting a lineup of mostly underclassmen. The quarterback job will likely either go to Wiley Green or TJ McMahon -- the two combined for 605 passing yards as backups last year -- and despite attrition, the receiving corps might have big-play potential with Cedric Patterson III , Tulsa transfer Sam Crawford and converted quarterback Luke McCaffrey . But the run game is unreliable, and aside from perhaps cornerback and defensive tackle, known playmakers are hard to find. My 10 favorite players QB Chris Reynolds, Charlotte. If he avoids injury, the senior from tiny Mocksville, North Carolina, should finish his career with more than 10,000 career passing yards and 80 touchdowns. His receiving corps is a delight too. Charlotte's Chris Reynolds is on track to finish his career with more than 10,000 passing yards. Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire QB Chase Cunningham, MTSU. He missed the season's home stretch with injury, but as a starter Cunningham completed 63% of his passes with a 13-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. If he stays on the field, he'll have a big year. RB Johnny Ford, FAU. He's 5 foot 5, 175 pounds, he averaged 6.2 yards per carry between the tackles , and he's dangerous both on the ground and through the air. What's not to like about that? WR Tyrese Chambers, FIU. Just about the only thing FIU could do well last year was go deep. Chambers had 19 receptions of 20-plus yards and averaged an otherworldly 23.9 yards per catch for the season. C Shea Baker , Rice. One of two potential all-conference Rice linemen (along with tackle Clay Servin ), the 6-1, 311-pound Baker allowed just one sack last season with an excellent 1.1% blown-block rate, per Sports Info Solutions. NT Evan Anderson, FAU. FAU has maybe the best 5-5 player in the country (see Johnny Ford, above) ... and one of the best 350-pounders too. The 6-3, 356-pound Anderson made 15 run stops, took part in 11 TFLs and forced eight incompletions with quality pass rushing. DE Jordan Ferguson, MTSU. The well-rounded Ferguson finished 12th in the country with 17.5 TFLs last season, proving equally dangerous against the run (13 run stops) and pass (nine sacks). LB Tyler Grubbs, Louisiana Tech. The only particularly experienced Tech linebacker is a keeper: Grubbs is a high-level talent whether he's pursuing the run (16 run stops) or dropping into coverage (26.1 QBR allowed). LB Gaethan Bernadel , FIU. Consider this one a vote based on potential: In just 246 snaps, the speedy sophomore took part in five TFLs and five run stuffs. He should see all the playing time he can handle in 2022 and could post big numbers. CB Sean Fresch , Rice. The sophomore was one of Bloomgren's more well-touted recruits. He picked off a pass, broke up six more, allowed a 45.6 QBR in coverage and recorded two TFLs last season. Anniversaries In 1957, 65 years ago, Rice went to its last Cotton Bowl. Jess Neely's Owls were a postwar power in the Southwest Conference, posting four top-10 finishes, winning shares of four conference titles and attending three Cotton Bowls and an Orange Bowl between 1946 and 1957. But after their 20-7 loss to Navy on Jan. 1, 1958, things began to get a lot tougher. They did bowl in both 1960 and '61, but Neely managed just one winning season in his last five years in charge, and between 1957 and 2013, they managed a share of just one conference title. Again, this is an awfully hard job. In 1992, 30 years ago, Middle Tennessee won its 11th and final Ohio Valley title. It was the Blue Raiders' fourth title under Boots Donnelly, who would take them to their fourth straight FCS playoff quarterfinal that fall. This steady success prompted the school to consider moving up to FBS, where they've mostly held their own over 23 seasons. In 2007, 15 years ago, a feasibility committee recommended Charlotte add football. Considering the high school talent in and around the Charlotte area, that made quite a bit of sense. The Board of Trustees signed on in 2008, construction on Jerry Richardson Stadium began in 2011, head coach Brad Lambert led the 49ers onto the field for the first time in 2013, and the program joined FBS in 2015. That's a pretty fast timeline! In 2012, Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M played one of the most wonderfully silly games in college football history. A&M's Johnny Manziel threw for 395 yards (137 to Mike Evans) and rushed for 181 more, and the Aggies raced to a 34-7 lead midway through the second quarter. But thanks in part to 21 catches, 233 yards and four touchdowns from Quinton Patton, the Bulldogs stormed back. Tech got to within 46-44 early in the fourth quarter, and when A&M scored twice, Tech responded again, scoring twice in the last 1:46. In the end, 2-pointers told the tale: Tech missed two conversions in the fourth quarter, A&M got two points from a 98-yard blocked PAT in the second quarter, and Tech fell short by an amazing 59-57 score. Also in 2012, FIU fired Mario Cristobal. Cristobal had inherited an 0-12 team in 2007, but brought the Golden Panthers to bowls in both 2010 and 2011. But following an injury-plagued 3-9 campaign in 2012, FIU athletic director Pete Garcia decided Ron Turner was a better option than Cristobal for moving the program forward. He was incorrect. (Garcia was also in charge of the athletic department when Butch Davis accused it of sabotage. He resigned last November.) In 2017, five years ago, FAU enjoyed its best season ever. Since bowling twice under Howard Schnellenberger in 2007 and '08, FAU had fallen into a terrible rut, winning an average of just 3.2 games per year from 2012 to 2016. But Lane Kiffin took over in 2017, and with tempo and a heavy dose of star running back Devin Singletary, the Owls ignited. They started 1-3 but won their last 10 games by an average of 46-21, including a 41-17 win over North Texas in the Conference USA championship game and a 50-3 destruction of Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl. By the end of the season, FAU was one of the best college football teams at any level, and after a 5-7 reset in 2018, they would charge to another 11-win season in 2019.