2022 Conference USA College Football Odds, Picks, Win Totals: Western Kentucky Offense Still Capable
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Pictured: Tyson Helton (Western Kentucky)
The Conference USA is on life support after seeing its programs get snatched during the conference realignment period.
Marshall, Old Dominion and Southern Mississippi have already departed for the Sun Belt this season. Next season, UAB, UTSA, Florida Atlantic, North Texas and Rice are expected to head to the American Athletic Conference.
It’s anticipated that Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State will join the Conference USA in 2023.
For this season it will be an 11-team league — without divisions — that sees the top two programs play for the championship. UAB, UTSA and Western Kentucky are the frontrunners, but the middle six programs are all live to make a run at the Conference USA title this season.
Western Kentucky Over 8.5 Wins
Western Kentucky is heading to the AAC next year for a good reason. The Hilltoppers have made it to bowl season in seven of the last eight years. They have also played in three Conference USA Championships during that span.
The Western Kentucky offense ranked second in the nation last year, putting up 44 points per game.
Bailey Zappe was electric, tossing 62 touchdowns while accumulating nearly 6,000 passing yards.
Jerreth Sterns and Mitchell Tinsley combined for 237 receptions for 3,300 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Running backs Adam Cofield and Noah Whittington averaged a combined 5.4 yards per carry last season.
The only issue is all that production has moved on from the program.
Rest assured, this offense is still capable of putting up points. Head coach Tyson Helton brought a dominant FCS offensive scheme and implemented it into the FBS. Though the key pieces are gone, this offense will plug-and-replace to prove it is a well-oiled machine.
The engine to the offense will be quarterback Jarret Doege, who has been all over the country through his collegiate career. Western Kentucky will mark the final stop for Doege, who has amassed 10,000 passing yards over his first five seasons.
The big kicker that swayed me to go over on this win total is the program plays 13 regular season games this season. The Hilltoppers have only one certain loss against Auburn, and I have them slated as double-digit favorites in six matchups.
This win total will likely come down to splitting the final six matchups. I feel confident they will do just that, as I have the Hilltoppers ranging from a touchdown favorite down to just a three-point underdog in those games.
Many are considering the Conference USA to be a two-horse race between UAB and UTSA, but don’t sleep on Western Kentucky.
UTEP Over 5.5 Wins
Head coach Dana Dimel had a 5-27 record in his first three seasons with UTEP. He cooled off the burners on his hot seat last year after putting together the Miners’ best season since 2014, finishing 7-6.
UTEP returns a boatload of talent from the roster that made its first bowl appearance in seven years.
Quarterback Gavin Hardison returns for his senior season after throwing for 3,200 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Hardison isn’t afraid to go deep, as proven by his nine yards per pass attempt last season. That helped open the run game behind an offensive line that returns three honorable mention All-Conference USA blockers.
The defense returns eight starters and all six upfront in the 4-2-5 defensive scheme. The Miners were elite at stopping the run, allowing just 3.9 yards per carry.
They applied constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and had four players tally double-digit tackles for loss last season. The defensive front for UTEP will remain one of the top units in the conference this season.
Last year, UTEP took care of business in the games it was supposed to. This season, it has matchups with eight opponents who rank outside the top 100, according to SP+.
I have the Miners marked as double-digit favorites over New Mexico State, New Mexico and Florida International. They have only one sure loss against Oklahoma, with a remaining schedule that features six coin-toss matchups.
I anticipate that UTEP will earn back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004. In a year that much of the conference is departing, the Miners will look to establish themselves atop the Conference USA for the future.
Rice Under 3.5 Wins
Rice is another program that had its best season since 2015, posting a 4-8 record. That’s pretty good compared to the 7-23 record Mike Bloomgren put together in his first three seasons.
With 17 starters returning, you would imagine that the Owls may take a step forward this season.
Unfortunately, that won’t be the case.
The offense must see some improvement after averaging just 21 points per game and 5.3 yards per play. The Owls were outscored by 16 points per game and only exceeded 31 points in one matchup against FBS opponents.
Much of that comes on Bloomgren’s clock management offensive focus. The Owls play with a slow pace and focus on being the more physical team. But that proved ineffective, as the offense ranked 104th nationally and put up just 3.5 yards per carry.
Rice returns 10 starters on the defensive side of the ball, but will need to find some improvements from that group. The defense allowed 36 points per game while allowing 6.7 yards per play. 10 of the Owls’ 12 opponents exceeded 30 points last season.
This year, Rice was dealt a brutal non-conference schedule that includes USC, Louisiana and Houston.
The Owls will likely find a victory over McNeese State in Week 2, but I have them as underdogs in every other game for the rest of the season. Matchups against UTEP and Charlotte will likely be within a 3-point spread, but Rice will be catching over a touchdown in the remainder of its games.
I have the Owls’ ceiling at three wins this season, and repeating last season’s record of 4-8 will be an enormous task.
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