CFB: Predictions for Conference-USA in 2024

By Simon Carroll

The 2024 College Football season is on the horizon! As Saturday ‘ball gets ever closer, we bring you a series of conference previews. Today, Simon Carroll makes his predictions for the Conference-USA, who increase their membership to 10 programs this Fall:

Conference Winner - Liberty Flames

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Since stepping up to the FBS level in 2021, the rise of Liberty as a football program has been nothing short of meteoric. Much of that can be attributed to former head coach Hugh Freeze, who has the Flames to thank for the rehabilitation of his image after his tenure at Ole Miss ended in scandal. But despite losing Freeze to Auburn last year, Liberty didn’t miss a beat – replacing him with Jamey Chadwell. The former Coastal Carolina HC came to Lynchburg just as the team joined Conference-USA, and promptly went undefeated in the regular season, winning the conference, and taking the Flames to the Fiesta Bowl.

Being soundly beaten by Oregon in their bowl game takes nothing away from what Chadwell achieved in year one, and Liberty are primed to make another run at the C-USA title. Leading them to the promised land will be QB Kaidon Salter, who broke out as a sophomore – a dual threat in a similar mould to Liberty legend Malik Willis. If he can put up another 4,000 all-purpose yards and 44 touchdowns, this team will be hard to beat in conference play.

Conference-USA doesn’t have divisions, a 10-team league where each school plays eight of their nine competitors on the conference schedule. Liberty will play their likely biggest challengers Western Kentucky in late November, but they have home advantage. With little in the way of roster erosion from last year, it’s difficult to see past this program repeating their 2023 exploits this season.

Most Valuable Player - TJ FInley, QB, Western Kentucky

Okay. We’ve already mentioned Kaidon Salter, who will likely have another big season as he polishes his resume for NFL review. But I like to mix it up a bit in these previews. If you’re looking for an alternative who can challenge Salter for the MVP crown, perhaps cast your eyes over to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where a transfer portal addition looks set to maintain the impressive work the Hilltoppers have achieved under sixth-year coach Tyson Helton…

In an unforgiving conference, Helton has a 40-26 record at Western Kentucky. This year, they lost quarterback Austin Reed to the NFL, which usually would spur a period of rebuilding for most programs. Not so for WKU, who thanks to some poor roster handling at Texas State, were able to lure TJ Finley to town. Finley started his career at LSU but is mostly remembered for trying to make Auburn relevant during the Bryan Harsin era – a task that would have proved too difficult for most young quarterbacks. He headed to San Marcos to rebuild his career with the Bobcats under GJ Kinne, and promptly put up 3,500 yards with a TD:INT ratio of 24:8. He led Texas State to a surprise win over Baylor and the first bowl game in the school’s history.

Finley would likely have been suiting up for TXST this year had his head coach not gone and tried to lure in Jayden de Laura via the transfer portal. TJ went and found a new home, one where he was wanted – and the Hilltoppers hope he can continue the momentum they had built up under Reed the last few years. Helton is something of a QB whisperer – I expect Finley to do even better in 2024, and push WKU to challenge in the C-USA.

Offensive Player of the Year - Marquis Crosby, RB, Louisiana Tech

MVP’s are for quarterbacks, OPOY’s are for ball carriers. If you’re looking for a running back to take Conference-USA by storm in 2024, I’d suggest to head over to Ruston, where there’s a young man by the name of Marquis Crosby who is chomping at the bit to make his mark once again…

As a redshirt freshman in 2022, Crosby was a human highlight reel. Getting the starting job he proceeded to record 918 rushing yards and nine scores in his first taste of college football. Looking to EXPLODE the following year, Crosby cruelly suffered an offseason injury that, despite him trying to play through, was clear after just one 20-yard carry that it was so serious it would mean a whole season on the sidelines. Back healthy and sitting at the top of LA Tech’s depth chart, Crosby is keen to make up for lost time – and Conference-USA defenses may end up being on the receiving end of his pent up frustration.

If you want to get a feel for the ceiling of Crosby, go back to his time at Presbyterian High School in Mississippi, where he set the state single-season rushing record with 3,678 yards as a senior. That’s right – nearly 300 yards rushing a game. I can’t wait to watch the Bulldogs this year.

Defensive Player of the Year - Maurice Westmoreland, EDGE, UTEP

UTEP, for some time, have been an afterthought in Conference-USA football. Joining the league upon it’s inception in 2005, the Miners have struggled mightily – that was until head coach Dana Dimel arrived, and painstakingly built the program up to a competitive level, culminating in a bowl game in 2021. Sadly, a couple of down seasons means that Dimel’s tenure in El Paso came to an end, with new head coach Scotty Walden stepping up from Austin Peay to replace him ahead of the 2024 campaign.

So, things may be tough for UTEP in 2024. With coaching changes comes roster attrition, and The Miners have seen their fair share of talent depart – but one name has stayed in town and ready to double down on a very strong sophomore season. Edge rusher Maurice Westmoreland barely saw the field in 2022, but came out of nowhere to be a key leader on UTEP’s defense last year, registering 10.5 TFL’s and 7.5 sacks. A real playmaker, Westmoreland has a nose for the football, breaking up three passes at the line of scrimmage and forcing two fumbles too.

Undersized for a full-time role with his hand in the dirt, Westmoreland thrived as the ‘bandit’ (designated pass rusher) in DC Bradley Dale Peveto’s 4-2-5 scheme last season. A change of coordinator means it will be interesting to see how he lines up this campaign, but Westmoreland is a stats merchant – and production gets you accolades.

Freshman of the Year - Justus Savage, RB, Jacksonville State

A lot is made of the difficulties FCS schools are likely to encounter when making the leap to the FBS. And yet, programs such as Liberty and JMU have made a mockery of those concerns in recent years. So too Jacksonville State, who in their first season in C-USA won 6 conference games and finished with a 9-4 record. A postseason ban (common for transitioning football programs) was delightfully sidestepped thanks to a lack of eligible teams, and the Gamecocks ended up winning the New Orleans bowl in their debut campaign.

At the heart of this success is Rich Rodriguez, the long time successful head coach with stints at Power 5 schools such as Michigan, West Virginia and Arizona on his resume. Rodriguez knows how to get an offense supercharged, and JSU was impressive in this regard last year. That being said, the run game has space to improve. Feature back Anwar Lewis had a monster year in 2022, only to suffer an offseason injury that affected last season. He missed the first four game before looking a little rusty on his return – not uncommon nor unexpected. But help in the backfield has arrived from freshman recruit Justus Savage, who should help burden the load his first season on campus.

A three-star recruit, Savage turned down an offer from Indiana to head to East Alabama, just a 90 minute drive from his Atlanta hometown. A big play waiting to happen, Savage was a star at Langston Hughes High school, and I see him making an immediate impact for the Gamecocks.

Breakout Player of the Year - Keyone Jenkins, QB, Florida International

There’s a crop of talented quarterbacks in Conference-USA, and FIU think they have one of their own that is about to take the conference by storm…

As a freshman, Keyone Jenkins took just one game to make the QB1 role his own, promptly putting up 2,500 yards in his debut campaign. Choosing the Panthers over Auburn was a big win for head coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff, and they repaid his commitment with faith. Jenkins took his lumps as you would expect, throwing as many interceptions as he did touchdowns. Despite that, there’s widespread confidence that this QB is the real deal.

Touted as a dual-threat QB, Jenkins only scampered for 50 yards in 2023 – whether he has been mislabelled or the system confined him to the pocket is unknown. In David Yost he has an experienced offensive coordinator who has worked with some dynamic college QB’s in his 35 year career – perhaps there’s another facet to his game that hasn’t even been tapped into yet. Jenkins could be primed for big things in 2024.

Surprise Team of the Year - Kennesaw State Owls

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Okay. If I’m honest, there are other programs in this conference (Jacksonville State, MTSU) who are more likely to overachieve and potentially make a run for hardware this year. But as mentioned earlier in this article, we have consistently seen FCS teams acclimating quickly to the elite level of college football – and the C-USA have been one of the biggest contributors in that regard.

After adding Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State last season, today (July 1st) sees the conference welcome Kennesaw State to its fraternity. The Owls may only be a young program – they only enter their 10th season in 2024 – but they have been a force to be reckoned with at the FCS level. Head coach Brian Bohannon has been at the helm that entire duration; proudly sporting a 71-30 record, he has won three Big South titles and made the playoffs four times. This Georgia outfit may be young, and they might have a small stadium (Fifth Third Stadium holds just 8,318 people) – but when it comes to football, they are LEGIT.

Bohannon has been a busy man, adding 12 transfers to the roster, which should help mitigate the increased difficulty of the schedule. The Owls have some talented playmakers including running back Michael Benefield and wide receiver Gabriel Benyard who they will no doubt lean on for production. Nobody is saying the jump is going to be easy, but ‘being surprised’ has to be put in context – and if Kennesaw State registers as little as three wins, it should still raise eyebrows.

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