Western Kentucky hosted the 2015 CUSA Championship game and knocked off Southern Miss 45-28 to claim the title. The Congrove Computer Rankings say it will be deja vu all over again in 2016 with those same schools claiming their respective division titles. The Hilltoppers would host the championship game again and be favored by 14.22 points to claim the 2016 CUSA crown.
Marshall is the strongest challenger in the East division, and Louisiana Tech is a slim choice for 2nd in the West to repeat each school's 2015 finish.
In fact, very little is projected to be different in CUSA from last year.
In the East, the computer sees ODU moving up from 5th a year ago to land in 3rd place, with Middle Tennessee, FIU, FAU and Charlotte rounding out the 7-team field.
In the West, the pecking order is a 100% repeat. Rice is forecasted to pick up 2 more wins to bowl qualify at 7-5, and UTEP would pick up 1 extra victory to also get to postseason eligibility at 6-6.
Eight teams would advance to postseason play if the computer forecast proves accurate with Middle Tennessee and FIU qualifying from the East.
On a national level, Western Kentucky looks to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the CUSA field, regardless of the loss of QB Brandon Doughty (12,855 career passing yards with 111 TD tosses). The computer sees an 11-win regular season for the Hilltoppers and has them ranked 14th heading into the conference championship weekend. The only projected loss is at Alabama (+19.90), and the computer has WKU whipping Vanderbilt (-13.53).
Marshall is the only other top-50 school.
The only major concern for the accuracy of the Southern Miss forecast is the loss of head coach Todd Monken who was named the offensive coordinator of the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucs on January 24. It wasn't until March 1 that the Golden Eagles named a successor when they poached Jay Hopson away from FCS member Alcorn State. Hopson has previous experience on the Hattiesburg campus, coaching DB's from 2001-2003 and serving as defensive coordinator from 2005-2007.
Nonetheless, Southern Miss's chances of claiming another West division title are buoyed by the computer's analysis that it's the weakest among all FBS conference and division groupings. However, Louisiana Tech and Rice are picked to finish just a game behind USM and IF the Eagles were facing those schools on the road, they would've been slight preseason underdogs in both contests.
As its stands, the computer sees the Western Kentucky-Marshall and Louisiana Tech-Southern Miss season finales as de facto division title playoff games with the Hilltoppers (-1.28) and Eagles (-4.70) projected to advance.
North Texas and UTSA join Southern Miss as the only CUSA's schools that will be breaking in a new head coach in 2016.
North Texas is giving former North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell his first head first head coaching gig. The Mean Green fired Dan McCarney on October 12, just hours after a 66-7 home loss to FCS member Portland State dropped UNT's record to 0-5. Interim head coaching duties were handled by offensive coordinator Mike Canales for the remainder of the season. Under Canales, the Mean Green went 1-6.
UTSA turns to former LSU assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson to replace Larry Coker as head coach. Coker stepped down on January 5 after building the program from scratch. The Roadrunners were 22-26 in 4 seasons as a Football Bowl Subdivision school after going 4-6 in 2011 as a Football Championship Subdivision independent. Coker was the head coach at Miami from 2001-2006 where he led the Hurricanes to a national title in his first season.
NOTES: UAB will return a program to the field in 2017.
The computer has UTEP "favored" at home over FIU by 0.005 (5 one-thousandths of a point). By comparison, FIU's projected 0.41-point home win over MTSU is a blowout.