When the clock struck 12:00 on July 1st, Conference USA was picked over as they lost a whopping six programs to the American Athletic Conference during the insane beginning of conference realignment. To compensate, the conference added four teams for 2023 in Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State, and Sam Houston State. Additionally, Kennesaw State will join the ranks in 2024.
Even if it is one of the smallest groups in the nation, CUSA has a few teams worth keeping an eye on at the top. Can the two FCS-to-FBS jumps experience the same level of success James Madison had in the Sun Belt? Who knows! But one thing is for sure, this conference will be fun to watch!
Disclaimer: “Easiest” or “Hardest” is not to mean “these teams will beat those on their schedule.” It could be a fact that the worst team in a conference could have the easiest non-conference schedule and also not be able to win any. These rankings will be based on the average preseason ranking between three major outlets: Phill Steele, Athlon, and College Football Nation. There will at least be a little factual standing behind these rather than ranking based on bias and vibes.
The 4 Easiest 2023 Conference USA Non-Conference Schedules
4. Louisiana Tech: at SMU, Northwestern State (FCS), North Texas, at Nebraska
Last year: 3-9 overall, 1-3 OOC
The Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech were not a good team in 2022. However, they add Boise State stalwart quarterback Hank Bachmeier to provide some veteran leadership. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play defense. Louisiana Tech was the second-worst unit in all of college football last year and remedied that by taking in nearly a dozen transfers. They should be better in 2023…but that bar is not a very high one.
After opening with a CUSA rival, the Bulldogs travel to SMU to take on the Mustangs. Over the past few years, SMU has had one of the top offenses in the AAC and will likely do the same again despite losing Tanner Mordecai. Enter Preston Stone, a highly-touted heir to the throne. Defensively, they only return four starters but restocked with a number of P5 transfers.
After playing host to Northwestern State (FCS), North Texas comes to town. The Mean Green were the CUSA runners-up last year and actually return a total of 17 starters! They make the move to the AAC and make a change at head coach and quarterback. The defense is making a change to a 3-3-5 in hopes that they can improve from their awful 31.7 points allowed per game from last year.
Finally, a trip to Nebraska in what used to carry weight but not as of late. The Cornhuskers made the decision to can alumnus Scott Frost for Matt Rhule and are hoping to compete right away. Rhule turned Baylor around and there is plenty of optimism that he can do the same with Nebraska. Whether or not he can deliver on his promise to win right away is to be seen.
3. New Mexico State: UMASS, Western Illinois (FCS), at New Mexico, at Hawai’i, at Auburn
Last year: 7-6 overall
The Aggies of New Mexico State were, at one time, one of the worst programs at the FBS level. Then, Jerry Kill came to town and they utilized the Transfer Portal. They hit seven wins for just the fifth time since 1966 and they look to build upon that momentum. They are returning eight starters on offense including every player who ran the ball.
One of those wins last year (and the year prior, even) came against UMASS. The Minutemen have been teetering on the verge of relegation (if that were a thing in college football) and don’t look like they will be any good again. They do have a solid passing defense, however.
Last year, the Aggies took down its rival, New Mexico, and will likely be favored again. The Lobos were awful in 2022 and anyone who contributed is gone. Defensively, even if it was the strength, they lost six of their top seven tacklers. Dylan Hopkins transfers in from UAB to lead what was one of the worst offenses in the FBS.
A trip to Hawai’i awaits the Aggies to face a team led by one of the most prolific passers in college football history. Tommy Chang returned to his alma mater as head coach before the 2022 season and it just getting started. He will have to build the run-and-shoot offense around Brayden Schager who passed for 2,348 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. The defense returns seven starters but it was not a strength as they allowed 40+ six times.
Finally, New Mexico State takes advantage of the Hawai’i rule and will travel to Auburn as their annual “SEC schedule a cupcake the week before a rivalry” tradition. The Tigers brought in Hugh Freeze to revive the program and it won’t be easy. Auburn returns three starters on offense but they get most of the defense back. Getting to bowl eligibility is the perceived ceiling for this Auburn team.
2. UTEP: Incarnate Word (FCS), at Northwestern, at Arizona, UNLV
Last year: 5-7 overall, 2-2 OOC
The Miners struggled last year, even losing to a really, really back New Mexico team. But head coach Dana Dimel is in his sixth year and Gavin Hardison is entering his third year as starting quarterback. Stability and veteran leadership go a long way and having four returning offensive linemen cannot be overstated.
Week 3 comes around and UTEP travels to Northwestern. Is there a single program in the nation dealing with as much as the Wildcats are right now? They’re predicted to finish dead last in the Big Ten and have been losing any decent athlete on the roster after the surprising and late firing of Pat Fitzgerald.
Arizona looks like they are getting better after posting a 5-7 mark last year. For most programs, that’s disappointing but not for the Wildcats. Jayden de Laura returns after slinging it for 3,685 yards and 25 touchdowns last year. Defensively, they struggled. Only three starters return and a rival Pac-12 coach called the unit “laughable.”
Lastly, UNLV comes to town after a 5-7 mark in 2022. Those five wins were the most in a single season since 2017 and it looked like they were getting better. Then, a coaching change and the Portal happened. Gunslinger quarterback Doug Brumfield is sticking around and has earned the respect of rival coaches. New head coach Barry Odom was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas. Maybe he can get that unit right.
1. Liberty: BGSU, at Buffalo, Old Dominion, UMASS
Last year: 8-5 overall
Out with High Freeze, in with Jamey Chadwell. Liberty is in good hands with Chadwell who turned Coastal Carolina into a premier Group of 5 program in just a few years. He has some work to do as two offensive and three defensive starters return. It’ll be the Flames’ first year at the FBS level in a conference but they’ll be one to keep an eye on. Especially with how weak the out-of-conference schedule is.
To open, much to my chagrin, Liberty takes on Bowling Green. Now, personal view on the Falcons aside, Bowling Green is a MAC program trending upward. Connor Bazelak transfers in and he has one of the top G5 receivers in the game, Odieu Hiliare. They’ll be sound on defense but this should not be a game Liberty drops.
Speaking of MAC teams, Buffalo touts a solid running back tandem in Ron Cook, Jr. and Mike Washington. Quarterback Cole Snyder returns after tossing it for 3,030 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2022. Defensively, keep an eye on safety Marcus Fuqua. The senior was a Third-Team All-American last year. Either way, this should be a good game that Liberty ends up taking.
The Old Dominion Monarchs made the jump to the FBS level shortly after Liberty did and have not found their footing just yet, aside from a 10-win 2016 season. Last year’s quarterback is gone and they return a total of seven starters on either side of the ball. Linebacker Jason Henderson is a bright spot, however. He led the nation with a ridiculous 186 tackles in 2022. They are not expected to be very good in 2023, unfortunately,
Finally, UMASS. Just see above (New Mexico State’s schedule).
Surfin’ Conference USA
CUSA may be considered a stepping stone for FCS teams to get to the FBS level. However, they’ve made a living off of it. There are not many teams in this conference this year but there are a few that could upset a Power 5 foe if they are caught lacking.
Seriously, though, keep an eye on Liberty this year.
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