Conference USA Odds: College Football Betting Preview 2023
Conference-USA, meet Conference USA. While the name change didn’t ring in much newness, the year 2023 sure did. Six outbound members took with them the last six conference titles and CUSA scooped up everyone willing to join a league. The league adds four new programs: New Mexico State — a perpetual bottom-rung FBS program on an upswing — Liberty, who joined the FBS ranks in 2018, and two FCS teams transitioning to the FBS (Jacksonville State, Sam Houston State). The conference had some prowess in the form of Western Kentucky and UTSA, yet now it feels like the Island of Misfit Toys. Let’s dive deep into Conference USA odds.
With so much change, CUSA is a clear bottom conference in terms of power nationally. But that leaves the door open for some interesting teams to take steps forward. Below, we’ll dive into futures odds, win total projections, and a preview for all nine CUSA teams this year.
Conference USA Odds: To Win The Conference
Compare Conference USA odds from the best sports betting sites below.
As a reminder, only seven of the nine teams in Conference USA are eligible to win the league and make a bowl this year. Newly-minted FBS members Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State are ineligible as a part of their transition period (re: James Madison last year).
Western Kentucky () is a clear favorite to win the conference this year. They opened around +155 and have shortened since that mark. Liberty () also falls in the “favorites” category, but only boasts a 28.6% implied win rate — compared to WKU’s 43.5%. Middle Tennessee () and Louisiana Tech () make up the contenders tier while UTEP falls into that category at BetMGM and DraftKings as well. However, you can find longshot odds on the Miners at .
New Mexico State () is in a tier of its own before entering true longshot territory with FIU ().
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CONFERENCE USA Odds: Projected Wins, Win Totals
Projected wins below are derived from aggregate power ratings, including SP+, FPI, and more. Win totals are pulled from FanDuel Sportsbook as of July 20.
|Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
|Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
|New Mexico State Aggies
|Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
|Jacksonville State Gamecocks
|Sam Houston State Bearkats
CONFERENCE USA Power Ratings
Table Key (all ranks except power rankings are national):
- Rank (Power ranking, conference)
- Proj. Wins (Projected total wins)
- Return (Returning production, total)
- Ret. O (returning offensive production)
- Ret. D (returning defensive production)
- PPD (Points per drive scored)
- PPDA (Points per drive allowed)
- L5 (Last five years recruiting average, national)
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CONFERENCE USA KFord Ratings
CONFERENCE USA Odds: The Favorites
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Returning a 4,000-yard passer, the nation’s top receiving corps, and a proven head coach goes a long way in a conference like this. The Toppers are unquestionably the best-positioned team to win their first CUSA title since 2016. Austin Reed led the nation in passing last season. He flirted with leaving WKU in the transfer portal or for the NFL but returned to the team to light up a very good South Alabama defense in the New Orleans Bowl. His OC, Ben Arbuckle — a protégé of Zach Kittley — departed for Washington State. Tyson Helton went out and replaced him with Drew Hollingshead, who’s a direct product of the Mike Leach system.
Like his two predecessors before him, Hollingshead may be a one-year wonder at WKU before taking a bigger job. Other than Reed at his disposal, Hollingshead works with the top-ranked receiving room in the Group of Five and Phil Steele’s 16th-ranked group nationally. Malachi Cooley hauled in 100 receptions last season for over 1,200 yards, and the Toppers bolster their depth with two Power Five transfers.
However, they lost a lot more than they gained in the portal. Two starting offensive linemen, tight end Joshua Simon (20-273-7), and tailback Kye Robichaux all transferred up to larger schools.
Defensively is where WKU could afford to take a step forward. They allowed 30+ points in all five losses last season, including 40 to North Texas that kept them out of the conference title game. WKU capitalized by playing bad offenses, allowing just 12.4 points per game in FBS wins — none of which came against a top-50 scoring offense. The secondary should be solid, returning at least three starters. Kendrick Simpkins landed on the preseason all-conference list, but the front-six needs to generate more pressure after finishing No. 92 in sack rate last season.
WKU plays the third-toughest schedule in CUSA, traveling to Ohio State in the non-conference portion. However, even that slate ranks No. 109 nationally. In a league of this caliber, Reed alone is worth the price for WKU to win Conference USA.
Liberty could have done a lot worse replacing Hugh Freeze in the coaching ranks. The Flames handed Jamey Chadwell $4M per year. It’s number more in line with PJ Fleck ($5M) than anyone else in Conference USA. The dedication to spending big on athletics makes Liberty the best positioned to run the league in the future.
But the future isn’t yet here, and this Liberty roster has plenty of holes.
With Freeze went most of the bulk on defense — a unit that finished No. 30 in points per drive and was on track to rank better than that until they were gashed against UConn and New Mexico State. In total, just three defensive starters return, two of which come in the secondary, plus all-conference candidate Kenedy Charles.
Chadwell doesn’t have the luxury of a Grayson McCall-caliber QB on his offense — instead needing to sort out a room of Kadon Salter and Johnathan Bennett. Leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter also hit the portal and just one of the top four receivers from last year return.
However, Liberty may not need a loaded roster to win a hefty dose of games this year. The Flames play the single easiest schedule in the FBS, with a non-conference slate of Bowling Green, Buffalo, Old Dominion, and UMass (average power rank: 121!). In fact, Liberty plays just one top-100 team all season long, Western Kentucky (No. 81). Thanks to that slate of opponents, I project Liberty for 8.1 wins. It’ll make for an intriguing bowl game discussion.
CONFERENCE USA Odds: The Contenders
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Only three coaches in the nation have been at their school longer than 65-year-old Rick Stockstill. He’s been at Middle Tennessee longer than Nick Saban at Alabama, Troy Calhoun at Air Force, and Dabo Swinney at Clemson. In year No. 16, Stockstill led MTSU to the largest upset in the FBS in 2022 over Miami (+25.5), eight wins, and a bowl victory despite rushing for -66 total yards (yes, negative).
In 2023, the Blue Raiders don’t have much to work with offensively. Veteran QB Chase Cunningham, who was at MTSU almost as long as Stockstill, graduated. None of their top-three receivers return, either. Last year, the offense was already difficult to watch. They finished No. 87 in points per drive, a number helped along by that Miami upset and two 49-point outings against Tennessee State and FAU.
But defensively, MTSU might have the best unit in the league. Gamewrecker Jordan Ferguson departs, yet pass rusher Zaylin Wood is a rising star (6.5 sacks). Steele grades all three defensive units as the best in CUSA this season, and three Blue Raiders land on his preseason all-conference team. Corner Teldrick Ross co-led the nation with 20 pass breakups. He even added 77 tackles, the second-most on the roster. Safety Tra Fluellen returns off the back of a 104-tackle, eight PBU season.
MTSU opens the season against two SEC opponents (Alabama, Missouri) and handle Liberty and WKU on the road. The schedule ranks as the second-toughest in CUSA.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
If nothing else, Louisiana Tech was fun to watch last year. Sonny Cumbie brought along with him the Texas Tech air raid, yet the Bulldogs lacked the skill necessary to effectively execute that kind of offense. In 2023, they add Boise State QB Hank Bachmeier, a serviceable QB perfectly capable of succeeding in a lesser league than the Mountain West. Smoke Harris is not only one of the best utility players in the conference but also in the country, even landing on multiple preseason All-America lists as a returner.
Plus, four of their five starters on the offensive line return as do their top two rushers: Marquis Crosby and Charvis Thornton. This season, they’ll run among the fastest offenses in the conference, and the addition of Bachmeier should help improve their scoring. They also added Baylor running back Sqwirl Williams, who rushed for 192 yards last year against Oklahoma and another 112 against TCU. Harris is their leading returning receiver (66-640-5), but Cyrus Allen might be their best. The deep threat averaged 22.7 yards on 22 receptions last season, scoring four times.
Defensively, Louisiana Tech was atrocious. A combination of not having talent in their lineup and a quick offense that required the defense to play a lot of snaps resulted in the Bulldogs allowing the 10th-most points per drive nationally. The strength of this unit is their secondary, which Steele ranks second in the conference. Willie Roberts should be in contention for all-conference honors. However, Louisiana Tech was one of the worst teams against the rush last year (No. 124 in rush EPA allowed).
Their schedule could be tougher, as they visit SMU and Nebraska outside the conference, yet handle WKU at home.
A Conference USA Longshot To Consider: UTEP MINERS
Last season was a rollercoaster for UTEP. They beat up on Boise State — ultimately causing the Broncos to fire their OC — yet also lost to New Mexico, Middle Tennessee, and Rice. Offensively, QB Gavin Hardison couldn’t get anything going and finished with 1,000 fewer yards than in 2021. Dana Dimel made a change at OC, promoting receivers coach Scotty Ohara. On top of that, four of their starting offensive linemen return. It should be the best unit in Conference USA this season — despite losing Jeremiah Byers to Florida State. The size up front for UTEP is more in line with a Power Five unit than a Conference USA bunch.
UTEP returns bruising back Deion Hankins, who was limited early in the season after recovering from a shoulder surgery. Behind that massive OL that ranked No. 13 in run blocking (PFF), Hankins and newly-added Mike Franklin should piece together one of the best rushing attacks in the conference. But don’t think the Miners will be one-dimensional. Hardison returns 1,000-yard receiver Tyrin Smith, who played spring ball with Texas A&M before returning to UTEP.
Last year, UTEP’s biggest weakness was a pair of corners that graded out as the eighth-worst coverage unit. The Miners hit the portal, adding New Mexico’s AJ Odums and a slew of JuCo transfers. Steele ranks UTEP’s secondary the third-best in the conference while the front seven checks in top-three in both his rankings and in Athlon Sports.
The Miners handle both WKU and Liberty at home in two of their final three weeks. Overall, their schedule checks in as the third-easiest in Conference USA. I jumped on UTEP +1600 to win Conference USA because I felt the price was incongruent to the talent on UTEP’s roster and their strength of schedule.
A Conference USA Team To Fade: Jacksonville State
James Madison laid the groundwork for immediate success in the FBS ranks. Seemingly in response to that, Jacksonville State opened with a 5.5 win total — one that quickly dropped to 4.5. When looking at respected power ratings like Sagarin, the jump from FCS to Conference USA isn’t nearly as big as the title might suggest. However, the teams that excel at the next level are usually excellent in the FCS ranks.
Jacksonville State has delivered promising seasons lately but hasn’t necessarily been an excellent program. The Gamecocks won nine games last season behind an explosive offense that scored 36.2 points per game. QB Zion Webb won his eligibility battle with the NCAA and will play this season. He returns alongside nine starters on that offense, including four of five offensive linemen and seven of the top eight receivers.
That said, the defense just isn’t there. Although they held opponents to few points metrically-speaking, the unit caved against upper-tier competition. Against Tulsa (No. 59 in points per drive), Jacksonville State was blasted for 54 points. Although the competition in Conference USA isn’t terrific, it is a step up from the ASUN, which had to merge with the WAC to stay afloat in 2023.
Aggregate power ratings project Jacksonville State for just 3.5 wins despite a strength of schedule ranked No. 121 nationally. Perhaps Rich Rodriguez can use the FBS as a recruiting tool to his advantage. But given J’Ville State’s recent performance against the FBS (removing that ridiculous Florida State game), I can’t envision them making the JMU leap this year.
Florida International Panthers
For the last three seasons, FIU has been at the bottom of the FBS. The Panthers managed to win four games last year under Mike MacIntyre, but they finished near the bottom of power ratings. QB Grayson James returns and so do seven starters on defense, but the best players for the Panthers routinely transfer out. Ultimately, they don’t have the talent or the funding to compete on a more national scale. That said, their win total opened too low, at 2.5, and I bet the over. Not long after, their win total bumped up to 3.5 — one that I would still play over. This team is experienced and capable of winning four or five games in the worst conference in football. I project them for 4.8 wins.
New Mexico State Aggies
Diego Pavia has arrived. A gutty performance in the Quick Lane Bowl put him on the map, but Pavia made plays for most of the season with New Mexico State. Jerry Kill reinvigorated the program, helping the Aggies along to a 7-2 finish to last season (after an 0-4 start), including their fifth bowl game in history. In fact, NMSU is undefeated all-time in bowl games (4-0-1). There’s some inexperience up front — three starters on the offensive line project to be sophomores. Nevertheless, the experience at the skill positions and on defense should make up for that. It’s potentially the most talented New Mexico State team in quite some time. With a talented QB, good coaching, and grit, the Aggies could once again exceed expectations. Also note, New Mexico State plays 13 games this season!
Sam Houston State Bearkats
Like with Jacksonville State, the bar has potentially been set high for inbound FCS teams. Sam Houston State comes from a lesser FCS conference (WAC). However, this is a team not far removed from an FCS National Championship (2021), and last year’s performance should be excused. Since the Bearkats were ineligible for the postseason in 2022, coach KC Keeler redshirted a lot of his critical guys, pitching to them an extra year of eligibility in the FBS. Prior to its 5-4 finish last season, Sam Houston State went 21-1 and was a perennial playoff contender. The offense was dreadful last season, and QB Keegan Shoemaker was atrocious. Shoemaker returns and should take steps forward thanks to returning redshirted players.
While aggregate power ratings project just 2.7 wins for Sam Houston State, I think it has a strong chance at exceeding expectations among Conference USA odds.
Top Difference Makers To Know
Diego Pavia, QB, New Mexico State: While his popularity exploded in the Quick Lane Bowl, Pavia proved to be a game-changer all season long. His gutty, physical run style perfectly matches what the Aggies want to do offensively. Steele named Pavia a preseason all-conference QB, landing on the second team.
Austin Reed, QB, Western Kentucky: Reed decided to return to WKU after flirting with the idea of both the transfer portal and NFL in the early offseason. Instead, he threw for nearly 500 yards on South Alabama in the New Orleans Bowl and seeks WKU’s third-straight 4,000-yard passing season. Don’t forget, Reed led the nation in yards a season ago (4,744, 40 TDs).
Smoke Harris, WR, Louisiana Tech: The do-it-all receiver/return man for Louisiana Tech lands on multiple All-America preseason lists. Harris averaged over 27 yards on kick returns in 2022 while also hauling in 640 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. With a vast improvement at quarterback this year, expect Harris to improve upon his production.
Teldrick Ross, CB, Middle Tennessee: No one in the country had more passes defended than Ross (20). He returns as an All-CUSA selection to lead Middle Tennessee’s secondary that ranks No. 1 this preseason, per Steele. In fact, the entire Blue Raiders’ stop unit ranks No. 1 in the conference. Nationally, MTSU’s secondary ranks 42nd, fifth among Group of Five teams.
Coaching & Coordinator Changes In CONFERENCE USA
Most Impactful Hires
The vast majority of coaching changes exited alongside the six former Conference USA members. For the rising nine, the coaching carousel was among the most tranquil in the country.
Jamey Chadwell, HC, Liberty: Filling the shoes of Hugh Freeze, Chadwell becomes just the second FBS coach for Liberty. He led Coastal Carolina to newfound heights during their transition to the FBS, winning 11 games twice while going 9-3 last year. He helped develop one of the nation’s most prolific QBs in Conway. The Flames are immediately viable for the CUSA championship — with plenty of talent and continued coaching prowess.
Drew Hollingshead, OC, Western Kentucky: Ben Arbuckle left for Washington State, taking the final remnants of the Zach Kittley system from WKU. So, the Toppers went and hired straight from the late Mike Leach tree with Hollingshead. He worked under Leach at both Washington State and Mississippi State and should continue the new tradition of 4,000-yard passers at WKU.
- Newland Isaac & Willy Korn, OC, Liberty (co-OCs, Coastal Carolina)
- Scotty Ohara, OC, UTEP (WRs)
- Jack Curtis & Skylor Magee, DC, Liberty (co-DCs, Coastal Carolina)
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