Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference were pretty similar in that they both had one team which basically did whatever it wanted. In C-USA that team was Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers rolled through the conference undefeated, averaging 50 points per game in conference play.
However, Western Kentucky has just 11 starters returning, and the starting quarterback is not one of them. In general, the conference sees many of its top teams from last year returning very few starters, while the teams that finished at the bottom bring back quite a few. It should make for an exciting year for Conference USA and could open the door for a dark-horse candidate to break through. These ten games will help decide if we see two new teams in the conference championship game in 2016.
10. Charlotte at Louisville (Thursday, September 1)
Last year was Charlotte’s first season in the FBS, and just its third season fielding a football team. They struggled, as expected, going 2-10 but actually beat a Georgia State team in the opener that would go on to make a bowl game. I don’t think Charlotte will be able to knock off Louisville, but with 17 starters back can they hang around for a while? The final score of this game will show if the 49ers can possibly make a bowl game this year, or if the team is still years away.
9. North Texas vs. Southern Methodist University (Saturday, September 3)
This is an intriguing non-conference game between Group of Five schools. Both schools will have coaches with little experience. Chad Morris is in his second year at SMU and North Texas will be in its first year under first-time coach Seth Littrell. Littrell and Morris will have some familiarity with each other, as both were offensive coordinators at ACC schools. With two offensive minds at the helm, it could provide an entertaining game to start the year.
8. Southern Mississippi at Kentucky (Saturday, September 3)
Southern Miss went 7-1 in conference last year but lost all three games it played against Power 5 teams. Though Kentucky isn’t a world-beater, defeating the Wildcats, an SEC team, in the season opener would certainly help with recruiting (ESPNU at 7:30 pm est).
7. Old Dominion at Charlotte (Saturday, October 1)
Old Dominion and Charlotte combined to go 3-13 in conference play last year. So why is their matchup on this list? For starters, both teams return 17 starters in a conference where most of the good teams return a lot fewer. Additionally, these teams have been part of the Football Bowl Sub-division for two years or less. This game will show which team is closer to becoming a respectably competitive program.
6. Rice at Western Kentucky (Thursday, September 1)
We will see right off the bat what this Western Kentucky team looks like after losing so many key players from last year’s dominant team. They’ll get Rice at home on the season’s opening night in a conference clash that will tell us if Rice is ready to step up and challenge for their own division.
5. Florida International vs. Indiana (Thursday, September 1)
FIU will get back-to-back chances to start the year for a nice non-conference win. Indiana did make a bowl game last year but I don’t think anyone would be shocked if they laid an egg against a Group of Five school.
4. Florida International vs. Maryland (Saturday, September 10)
There aren’t a lot of winnable games for Conference USA against Power 5 competition, but this would be one of them. Maryland was abysmal last year and the Florida International Panthers get the Terps at home in the September heat.
3. North Texas at Rice (Saturday, September 24)
Louisiana Tech was the only school besides Southern Miss to finish above .500 in the West division. With LA Tech returning just nine starters, the spot is wide open as main challenger to the Golden Eagles. North Texas and Rice are two of those teams vying for that spot and this early season match-up will determine who has the early leg up.
2. Florida Atlantic at Florida International (Saturday, October 1)
Both teams will look to get over the .500 hump after going 3-5 in conference play a year ago. Florida Atlantic won eight of the first nine games between these two rivals, but the series has been pretty even since. Both teams return 14 starters so we should see a pretty heated battle.
1. Rice at Southern Mississippi (Saturday, October 1)
Southern Mississippi was in the conference championship game last year and Rice will be looking to take over its spot, with 16 starters returning this year. They’ll be extra motivated to get Southern Miss back for the 65-10 drubbing it put on the Owls last year.