Austin Reed
Conference USA kicks off action on Aug. 26 with two league games. Western Kentucky QB Austin Reed (above) is expected to have a great season in the league (PHOTO CREDIT: WKU Athletics)

Conference USA Preview: Can Anyone Touch Western Kentucky?

The keyword for C-USA this year is "adapting". The conference lost five of its best teams to the American Athletic Conference, and add four teams to bring C-USA to nine teams. C-USA loses UTSA, North Texas, Florida Atlantic, Rice, and Charlotte. It adds Liberty and New Mexico State from the independent ranks, plus Sam Houston and Jacksonville State after a year of transition up from the FCS level. This year is a ramp-up of old rivalries and the beginnings of new ones. Keep up with all the football with FanBuzz's coverage this year. Also, next year C-USA adds Kennesaw St. to make an even number of 10 teams.


Nine teams. As mentioned above, four teams are joining C-USA this year, and five have departed. Even after Kennesaw State in the Atlanta area officially joins in 2024, the conference is still looking to expand in the future and may look towards FCS schools like Eastern Kentucky, Missouri State, and Tarleton State in Texas. In many ways, the conference is rebuilding much like a program does.


Four teams. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, MTSU Blue Raiders, Liberty Flames, and New Mexico State all went to bowl games in 2022. WKU defeated South Alabama 44-23 in the New Orleans Bowl, winning its second straight bowl in three straight bowl appearances. MTSU beat San Diego State 25-23 in the Hawaii Bowl for its second straight bowl win in two appearances. Liberty lost to Toledo 21-19 in the Boca Raton Bowl, but it was the Flames' second straight bowl appearance. New Mexico State defeated Bowling Green 24-19 in the Quick Lane Bowl — its first bowl appearance since 2017.

Praise Amaewhule

UTEP's Praise Amaewhule is one of the top defensive players in C-USA this year (PHOTO CREDIT: UTEP Athletics)


Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill is in his 18th season at the school.  It was his first head coaching job, and he's taken MTSU to a bowl game five of the last eight years. He has a career record and MTSU record of 108-103.


Jamey Chadwell is the first-year coach with the Liberty Flames, having been the head coach at Coastal Carolina. New Mexico State's Jerry Kill is a second-year head coach, but coaches for the first time in C-USA. Rich Rodriguez is also a second-year head coach for Jacksonville State, but coaches for the first year in C-USA and FBS this year, after notable success at West Virginia and Michigan in the past.


New Mexico State went to a bowl game this past year and ride that momentum into the new year.  With a new conference, and head coach Jerry Kill in his second year, a couple of key transfers on offense should get a second straight bowl this year.


Florida International was 4-8 last year, but three of those games were upset wins. C-USA loses some strong teams and replaces them with relatively weaker teams, so the Panthers are hoping for a better year.


Liberty at Western Kentucky on Oct. 24 (a Tuesday night gem). This is clearly the best game in the league on paper in 2023, and there's a good chance there could be a rematch on Dec. 1 in the C-USA championship game.


UTEP at Northwestern on Sept. 9.  The Northwestern football program is having internal difficulties right now.  With a new coach and probably fan apathy, the home-field advantage for Northwestern is diluted.  UTEP has experience at QB and a strong team and may notch a Power Five win here. The only difficulty with this "upset" prediction is that UTEP might actually be favored if Northwestern doesn't get it together this fall. The backup call: FIU upsetting North Texas on Sept. 9. FIU could be 2-0 and full of confidence, or 0-2 and in desperation mode.  North Texas will definitely be favored when they play on the road at FIU early in the season, right before they enter full conference mode in the AAC.

Tra Flueallen

Middle Tennessee safety Tra Fluellen is expected to be one of the top players in Conference USA this year (PHOTO CREDIT: Middle Tennessee Athletics)


Western Kentucky should be the class of the conference this year.  Other contenders lost more due to transfer and graduation.  They get at home Liberty, MTSU, New Mexico State, and Sam Houston. Hilltoppers' QB Austin Reed is 1st team C-USA on the Phil Steele team, along with teammates WR Malachi Corley, and DE JaQues Evans.  MTSU should edge UTEP for No. 2 in the conference, with a strong offensive line and second-team C-USA RB Deion Hankins Jr.

Liberty, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, and New Mexico State should cluster in the middle of the standings. Liberty travels to Jacksonville St., WKU, and UTEP, plus in the first year in a conference could suffer from an overabundance of "big" games. MTSU plays Missouri and Alabama on the road, plus four road conference games against competitive teams. They could go 1-5 on the road, and even a near-perfect performance at home by this experienced team might not gain a bowl bid — so the Blue Raiders will need to be gutsy and clutch. New Mexico State is led by QB Diego Pavano, who's on the preseason Maxwell Award watchlist. UTEP, Liberty, and New Mexico State will live or die by their quarterbacks.

FIU, Sam Houston, and Jacksonville State may be in the toughest positions.  Jacksonville State and Sam Houston have moved up from FCS, and FIU faces a tough schedule.   FIU's issues are that it has some spring practice injuries plus transfer portal losses.


The Conference USA championship game is on Dec. 1 (a Friday night), hosted by the No. 1 team, record-wise — and its opponent will be the No. 2 team.  Western Kentucky should win, with Liberty, UTEP, and Middle Tennessee looking like the most likely title-game opponents to complete an 8 or 9-win regular season. The most valuable player for the conference would likely be WKU quarterback Austin Reed, who led the nation in passing last year after transferring in from D-II powerhouse West Florida to replace NFL draft pick Bailey Zappe.  The defensive player of the year could very well be MTSU CB Teldrick Ross or FS Tra Fluellen, as the Blue Raiders likely will have the best defense in the league. At least one or maybe both of these players might make an All-American list, making C-USA proud.