Conference USA preview: Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech are the teams to beat

Mike Sanford takes over the program at Western Kentucky, which is coming off its second Conference USA title in row and third straight bowl win. (Austin Anthony/Daily News via Associated Press)

The college football season kicks off Aug. 26 with a partial schedule featuring some wacky road trips — Hawaii at U-Mass.! Rice vs. Stanford in Sydney! To get you ready — and to make sure your team has its moment, however brief — we’ll count down the days by ranking every Football Bowl Subdivision team by conference.

The major subplots in Conference USA can best be illustrated by the four head coaches who didn’t lead their current teams in 2016.

Western Kentucky’s Mike Sanford, son of the former UNLV coach who impressed during a stint as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, earned the keys to one of the most loaded Group of Five programs. Butch Davis (Florida International) and Lane Kiffin (Florida Atlantic) are famous names trying to complete some career rehab in proximity to plenty of talent. Bill Clark took Alabama-Birmingham to a surprising 6-6 record in 2014 and saw his program shelved but remained for this year’s revival.

Western Kentucky is the favorite, UAB will be a sentimental favorite in every game it plays and Kiffin (hardly a favorite of a few high-end fan bases) will probably draw the most attention of the bunch with a team unlikely to contend for even a division title. So it goes.

1. Western Kentucky (No. 40 nationally, 11-3 in 2016): The Hilltoppers have won 23 games over the past two seasons, including bowl triumphs over South Florida and Memphis. They’ve topped 500 yards per game three years running, and their defense ranked second nationally against the run last season.

Sanford takes over a team that lost more than half of its starters but brings back quarterback Mike White (4,363 yards, 37 touchdowns). The Hilltoppers might not be as good as they were last year, but they’re still capable of lighting up scoreboards, winning a third C-USA title in a row and quite possibly upending the two Power Five opponents on their schedule (Illinois and Vanderbilt).

2. Middle Tennessee (No. 78, 8-5): The Blue Raiders have gone either 5-3 or 6-2 in the league for five consecutive years, and the presence of Conference USA’s most established pitch-and-catch combo — QB Brent Stockstill (3,233 yards, 31 TDs) and WR Richie James (105 receptions, 1,625 yards, 12 TDs) — should be enough to offset the loss of three starting linemen.

Middle Tennessee’s schedule is a fascinating mix. The Blue Raiders open with three Power Five foes of varying degrees of vulnerability (Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Minnesota), and they draw a favorable crossover pairing from the West Division (Texas-El Paso and UAB). It’s possible things break well enough for Middle Tennessee to win 10 games for the first time since 2009.

3. Old Dominion (No. 86, 10-3): The Monarchs’ career leading rusher Ray Lawry (1,255 yards last year, 3,338 total) is back to lead a balanced team that returns much of its offense. There’s a big gap to close with Western Kentucky, which has averaged 60 points a game against Old Dominion over the past three years, but it’s a group unlikely to fall far so long as it receives steady play from a first-time starter at QB.

A dig through the data in the indispensable Phil Steele yearbook unearths this little nugget: Since becoming a full-fledged FBS program in 2014, the Monarchs are 17-1 when favored. When Old Dominion is supposed to win, it wins. That bodes well for a team for a team coming off a 10-win season.

Marshall quarterback Chase Litton returns, but the offense will still be green. (Jared Wickerham/Associated Press)

4. Marshall (No. 90, 3-9): Last year’s Group of Five equivalent of Michigan State, the Thundering Herd cratered to 3-9 after three consecutive 10-win seasons. They weren’t unlucky (1-1 in one-possession games) and they didn’t have an absurd level of turnovers. The culprit was perfectly obvious: While the offense dipped (especially on the ground), the defense completely collapsed.

This will be a relatively inexperienced offense (QB Chase Litton does return), but an older defense (thanks to experience and junior college additions) should serve the Herd well. They may not give Western Kentucky a run in the division, but they should be back in bowl contention.

Butch Davis addresses the media after he was introduced as the new head coach of Florida International. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP, file)

5. Florida International (No. 99, 4-8): Ron Turner was 59 when he coached his first game with the Panthers. Butch Davis will be 65 in his FIU debut Sept. 2. The school is certainly playing to the “older people flock to Florida” stereotype.

Davis hasn’t coached since North Carolina fired him in the summer of 2011, but he’s clearly still motivated to script a better finish to his career. He also is known for putting the Miami juggernaut of the early 2000s in motion and, in an epic miscalculation, decided the Cleveland Browns (and their money) were more appealing. He takes over a program with five losing seasons in a row, so the bar is set fairly low.

6. Florida Atlantic (No. 115, 3-9): The Owls have not finished above .500 since 2008, a feat with a high degree of difficulty considering their geographic advantages. They’re a fairly veteran bunch, though a decent offense wasn’t enough to overcome a defense that ranked last in the league in points allowed, total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed.

Kiffin will draw attention for being Kiffin. And for hiring former Baylor assistant Kendal Briles. And for signing quarterback De’Andre Johnson, jettisoned by Florida State two years ago after video of him allegedly punching a woman went public (he eventually spent two years at a junior college). Kiffin’s hire means the circus has come to Boca Raton, and there’s no telling when it will leave town.

7. Charlotte (No. 127, 4-8): In their third FBS season and fifth overall, the 49ers are still trying to get some traction. The offense improved last year — Charlotte’s rushing attack was mid-pack in C-USA — but the defense (and the secondary, especially) was torn asunder.

Hasaan Klugh provided some stability at quarterback late last season, and he has a decent set of receivers to throw to (including T.L. Ford II and Trent Bostick). If Charlotte is going to make a run at its first bowl trip, it will need its offense to do much of the heavy lifting.

Skip Holtz has won nine games in three straight seasons at Louisiana Tech. (Jim Cowsert/Associated Press)

Louisiana Tech (No. 72, 9-5): The Bulldogs have won 18 games over the past two seasons. Only one other team in the West Division has totaled more than 12 (Southern Mississippi with 16). After a disastrous run at South Florida, Skip Holtz has resuscitated his career nicely in Ruston.

Louisiana Tech put up some silly offensive numbers last season to complement an average defense, which resulted in unusual winning scores such as 55-52 (Western Kentucky) and 48-45 (Navy). Ryan Higgins, the trigger man for that offense, graduated, so it will be on sophomore J’Mar Smith (as well as 1,000-yard rusher Jarred Craft) to keep things rolling.

2. Southern Mississippi (No. 92, 7-6): The Golden Eagles posted an atrocious minus-17 turnover margin last season . . . and only dipped from 9-5 to 7-6. Things don’t always even out — Southern Miss hasn’t posted a positive turnover margin since 2010 — but it’s tough to replicate a showing quite that bad.

Wide receiver Allenzae Staggers returns for Southern Miss. (Butch Dill/AP)

As a result, the Golden Eagles are a decent bet to allow fewer points even if they give up more yards than last year. It doesn’t hurt to have TB Ito Smith (1,459 yards, 17 TDs) and WR Allenzae Staggers (1,185 yards, seven TDs) back in the fold either. Southern Miss was one of the most reliable programs in the country not long ago, and it is probably headed back to the seven-to-nine win range this year.

3. Texas-San Antonio (No. 95, 6-7): The Roadrunners are coming off their first bowl appearance, and second-year Coach Frank Wilson has excited fans of the burgeoning program with a well-regarded recruiting class. But it’s never wise to bet on recruiting to pay off instantaneously.

What returns at Texas-San Antonio is encouraging enough. The Roadrunners fielded a slightly below-average offense and a slightly above-average defense last season, and there’s a lot back on both sides of the ball. It might not translate to a division title, but it seems like the recipe for some improvement. If the freshmen really are that good, things might go even better than just a winning record.

4. North Texas (No. 98, 5-8): The Mean Green were APR all-stars last season, parlaying a fine record in the classroom into only their second bowl trip in a dozen seasons. It also left them with an unusual 5-8 record when they lost to Army in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Still, it was a young bunch that made considerable progress on defense (at least against the pass), even if it dropped five of its last six. If QB Mason Fine takes a step as a sophomore, North Texas might not need its APR score to earn its way into the postseason.

5. Rice (No. 119, 3-9): A full list of the FBS programs that have seen their victory total dip in each of the past three seasons: Duke, East Carolina, Fresno State, Missouri, Northern Illinois, Rice.

The Owls have slipped considerably since winning 10 games and the Conference USA title in 2013. If there isn’t considerable improvement on a defense that allowed more than 500 yards per game, they could find themselves in the same 3-9 neighborhood they ended up in last season.

6. Texas-El Paso (No. 121, 4-8): The Miners have made no secret of their love for smash-mouth football during Sean Kugler’s tenure as head coach. In that span, only four Conference USA teams have rushed for more yards in a season than they threw for; UTEP has three of them.

The Miners must replace TB Aaron Jones, the school’s career rushing leader. He rumbled for 1,773 yards last season, and whoever succeeds him does get the benefit of running behind one of the best pro prospects in the conference (left guard Will Hernandez). But UTEP must deal with both Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky in crossover games, making the path to six victories that much more difficult.

Players practice July 31, the first day of the football program’s return to Alabama-Birmingham. (Butch Dill/Associated Press)

7. UAB (No. 129, no team in 2016): It’s a motley mix of high-major transfers, junior college additions and even some leftover contributors from 2014, the last time the Blazers fielded a team. Even with some practices and scrimmages last year, this might as well be a start-up program (albeit one with more experience than usual).

Clark did a splendid job three years ago, and it would be unwise to underestimate what he can coax out of this particular bunch. Expectations, though, should remain in check. The biggest victory for this team will likely be that it even is on the field.

More college football coverage from The Post:

Steinberg: You don’t have to be paranoid to win at college football. Just look at Navy.

Ole Miss football pinned its NCAA scandal to a rogue assistant. He’s fighting back.

Sun Belt Conference: Appalachian State should lead the way  

Mid-American Conference: Toledo and Ohio are the teams to beat

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