A look at Conference USA …
1. Western Kentucky: QB Mike White returns to lead the nation’s highest-scoring offense as the Hilltoppers chase a third straight conference championship. They’ll do it with a new coach: former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.
2. Middle Tennessee: Coming off an 8-5 season, the Blue Raiders are another explosive offensive bunch, led by QB Brent Stockstill and WR Richie James. Middle made strides on defense last year and will need to build on that improvement to have a chance at its first division title.
3. Old Dominion: The Monarchs return 14 starters but will be breaking in a new quarterback and facing a tougher schedule, making another 10-win season unlikely. Still, another bowl trip seems within reach.
4. Marshall: After averaging 11 wins a year over the previous three seasons, the Herd tumbled to 3-9 last season. Can Doc Holliday turn things around?
5. Florida Atlantic: Lane Kiffin has livened things up in Boca Raton, hauling in a highly-rated recruiting class and taking a chance on several transfers who ran into trouble at other programs.
6. Florida International: The Panthers also made a splash hire at head coach, bringing in Butch Davis, who has coached at Miami and North Carolina as well as in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns. With 57 lettermen back, the cupboard isn’t bare.
7. Charlotte: The 49ers launched a football program in 2013 and are in their third year in C-USA. With key losses from last season on both sides of the ball, matching the four wins they posted last season could be difficult.
1. Louisiana Tech: Skip Holtz has turned things around in Ruston, leading the Bulldogs to three straight bowl wins and 27 wins overall in his three seasons. With an improved defense to go along with a potent offense, Tech should again be the class of the West, and perhaps the league.
2. Texas-San Antonio: In a league ruled by spread offenses, the Roadrunners are a throwback: a power running team. Coming off its first bowl appearance, UTSA could be the sleeper of the West.
3. Southern Miss: Coach Jay Hopson led the Golden Eagles to a 7-6 record and a bowl win in his first season. If he can find a capable replacement for QB Nick Mullens, a similar season seems within reach.
4. North Texas: The Mean Green went bowling in coach Seth Litrell’s first season, no small feat for a team that won just one game in 2015. Whether North Texas can maintain the momentum depends largely on the defense, which has question marks up front and at linebacker.
5. Rice: The second-longest tenured coach in C-USA, Rice’s David Baliff is feeling heat as he begins his 11th season. Rice fell to 3-9 last year and was 5-7 in 2015. If a defensive makeover can’t fix things, Baliff won’t be back for season 12.
6. Texas-El Paso: Speaking of Conference USA hot seats, UTEP’s Sean Kugler is just 18-31 in four years. The loss of RB Aaron Jones, the school’s all-time leading rusher, won’t ease the pressure, even with most of the offensive line back.
7. Alabama-Birmingham: After a two-year hiatus, football is back at UAB. With a roster heavy on freshmen and transfers, not much is expected of the Blazers this year, but coach Bill Clark believes his team will be more competitive than people think.