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 5 Hardest 2023 Conference USA Non-Conference Schedules
5. Florida International: Maine (FCS), North Texas, at UCONN, at Arkansas
Last year: 4-8 overall, 2-2 OOC
The Panthers were looking like they were about to take a step in 2023. Then both starting tackles transferred and star running back Lexington Joseph was lost for the year due to a torn ACL. Both guards and quarterback Grayson James return and based on the offensive line play, FIU could be better this year.
After hosting Maine (FCS), the Panthers host CUSA defector to the AAC, North Texas. The Mean Green look like they will be better in 2023 despite jumping to a tougher conference. Nine of their 11 offensive starters return with ULM transfer Chandler Rogers at the helm. They’ll be surprising in the AAC and will be one worth keeping an eye on.
Jim Mora kicks off his second season at what was one of the worst FBS programs. They made it to a bowl last year and will be getting back 14 starters including sophomore running back Victor Rosa who broke off 636 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. Defensively, their entire front line returns as does most of the secondary.
Lastly, FIU travels to Arkansas in mid-November because SEC. Snark aside, Arkansas looks to be a solid team this fall led by K.J. Jefferson and Raheim Sanders. The duo is one of the best in the nation and will be a massive headache for the FIU defense.
4. Jacksonville State: East Tennessee State (FCS), at Coastal Carolina, Eastern Michigan, at South Carolina
Last year: 9-2 overall, 4-2 OOC
Welcome to the FBS, Jacksonville State, and welcome back, Rich Rodriguez! After taking down a pair of ranked foes in 2022, the Gamecocks turn their attention to the CUSA. They’ll be led with plenty of experience but none more than seventh-year quarterback, Zion Webb. He’s been battling injuries but he threw for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns and ran for 647 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s a playmaker and does well in Rodriguez’s offense. They will need to improve on defense, however.
After hosting current FCS foe East Tennessee State, Jacksonville State travels to Coastal Carolina. There’s been a coaching change but the three-time Sun Belt Player of the Year returns. Grayson McCall jumped into the Transfer Portal but ended up coming back and it’s been the biggest win for the Chanticleers this offseason. His top receiver, Sam Pinckney, returns after posting a season with 996 yards and three touchdowns.
A lowkey interesting MAC program is Eastern Michigan. They bring back stud running back Samson Evans and his 1,166 yards and 15 touchdowns from last year. They’re described as dirty and mean in Athlon’s yearly program and having eight returning starters is going to help that. The Eagles are a popular pick to surprise in the MAC and will contend with Toledo for the West division.
South Carolina may not be the premier SEC program but they’re still going to be solid in the fall. Spencer Rattler leads the offense with his high-risk, high-reward play. His ceiling is a first-round NFL talent but his floor is leading SC to a disappointing season. They took down Clemson last year, 31-30, for the first time since 2013. This will be a true Gamecock fight.
3. Sam Houston State: at BYU, Air Force, at Houston, Kennesaw State (FCS)
Last year: 5-4 overall, 2-2 OOC
Sam Houston State faces three very solid FBS programs this year. The 2021 Spring Season National Champions have been solid at the FCS level. Their defense will be ready to roll but the offense will have to take a step if they want to go bowling.
There was a thought to put these newbies at the top of this list but BYU is a wild card. Over the last three years, they’ve won 29 games and were one of the premier non-Power 5 programs of late. Kedon Slovis is on his third life and could be a solid addition with four years of experience quarterbacking P5 teams. And, on the other side, the defense was awful last year.
A trip to Air Force could be a difficult one for the Bearkats. That triple-option attack is about as nasty as any and it only gets nastier when four starters on the offensive line return. Not to mention the seven returning starters on a defense that was third in the nation with only 13.4 points per game allowed.
Finally, another AAC-to-Big 12 defector, Houston is going to be replacing a few playmakers but they will still be able to tread water in their new conference. While I was incredibly wrong about them, Houston was still good. Donovan Smith, the Texas Tech transfer, is the favorite to take over and play behind four returning starting offensive linemen.
Also, a note: Kennesaw State (FCS) is going to get a taste of Conference USA here. They’ll be joining the conference next year.
2. Western Kentucky: South Florida, Houston Christian (FCS), at Ohio State, at Troy
Last year: 9-5 overall, 2-3 OOC
Who led the FBS in passing last year? Caleb Williams? C.J. Stroud? Nope, it was none other than Austin Reed, the Hilltoppers’ quarterback. In his first year at the FBS level, Reed threw for 4,746 yards and 40 touchdowns. His top receiver returns in Malachi Corley and this offense is ready to take it to the next level.
To start, the Hilltoppers shouldn’t have much to worry about with USF coming to town. Over the last 34 games against FBS-level foes, the Bulls have lost 33. Additionally, Houston Christian (FCS) should not be much trouble.
Then, for the first time in history, WKU faces off against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are currently favored as not only one of the best in the Big Ten but one of the best in the nation. Offensively, they’ll be led by a deep running back corps as well as the two best receivers in the nation. They worked to improve their weakness in the secondary but Reed and Corley may have an opportunity to work some magic.
Finally, the Sun Belt sends Troy for a battle of two of the best that the Group of 5 has to offer. The Trojans won the Sun Belt en route to a 12-win season. The concerning part for WKU? Most of that production returns. Last year, Troy won this matchup, 34-27. It’s going to be another classic this year.
1. Middle Tennessee State: at Alabama, at Missouri, Murray State (FCS), Colorado State
Last year: 8-5 overall, 3-1 OOC
If the Blue Raiders are going to have any success in 2023, it’ll be on the back of the defense. Middle Tennessee State returns eight starters on defense. They’re coming off of back-to-back bowl wins but they’ll have to replace a lot on offense. Running back Frank Peasant will lead the way with his 777 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Unfortunately, they have the hardest non-conference slate from Conference USA.
To kick it off, they travel to Alabama. Sure, the Tide hasn’t won it all since 2020 and the sky is falling, but Alabama is still Alabama. They are expected to contend yet again and make the CFP but the quarterback situation is an interesting one. Nick Saban has a real choice on his hands. Given the success at the position in his time, there’s reason to be concerned as a Blue Raider.
SEC after SEC, although Missouri isn’t one of the premier programs. However, they have a few offensive weapons worth keeping an eye on. Mookie Cooper looks to finally get his shot and Luther Burden is well worth the hype. Eight starters return on defense, to the Tigers will have strength via continuity.
After playing host to Murray State (FCS), Colorado State comes to town. Head Coach Jay Norvell is in his second season with the Rams and he leads a young team into the fray. Sophomore Clay Millen was beaten half to death getting sacked 59 times. Despite that, he led the nation with a 72.2 completion percentage. This team struggled last year but they’ll be better in the MWC in 2023.
This is Conference USA
The conference itself seems a bit top-heavy but it is full of playmakers. Despite being considered one of the worst in the nation, there are a few programs worth tuning into. CUSA is often where FCS teams get to transition to the FBS level before potentially moving to a larger conference.
We are just getting started here at LWOSports. Next, we will take a look at the Mountain West’s non-conference foes.
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