- Our 2023 CUSA Preview Takes MTSU over Upstart Jax State

August 29, 2023 by Staff

The computer and the conference media preseason poll would have a difficult time being farther apart.

The Congrove Computer Rankings at put MTSU and Jacksonville State in a battle for first, while the media voted Western Kentucky and Liberty as the top two teams.

The computer put the Hilltoppers 4th, and the media placed MTSU 3rd and Jax State 7th.

Jax State is not eligible for the title so the computer would actually have a MTSU-UTEP conference title game. Interestingly, UTEP just lost to Jax State in "Week Zero", as the computer predicted.

The only team performance that was exactly agreed-upon by the computer and media was New Mexico State finishing 5th, but after an opening week home loss to UMass, those expectations have suddenly dropped.

Louisiana Tech and FIU also played in "Week Zero" with the Bulldogs surviving 22-17 in Ruston, which was also predicted by the computer.

Comparing Computer Projections to Media Poll

CCR = Congrove Computer Rankings

1 3 MTSU
2 7 *-Jax State
3 6 UTEP
4 1 WKU
5 5 New Mexico St.
6 2 Liberty
7 8 *-Sam Houston
8 4 Louisiana Tech
9 8 FIU
*-ineligible for conference title
Championship Game (Media):
WKU over Liberty
Championship Game (Computer): MTSU over UTEP

The 22 media members gave 18 first-place votes to WKU and 4 to Liberty.

There are certainly reasons to believe the media's selection of WKU - not so much for Liberty..

Western Kentucky was 9-5 a year ago and closed the season with a 44-23 upset of South Alabama (10-3) in the New Orleans Bowl. After all, WKU returns QB Austin Reed who led the nation in passing yards, and WR Malachi Corley who is the nation's top returning receiver. Defensively, the Hilltoppers led the nation in takeaways (32) and defensive touchdowns (six), spearheaded by highly-regarded LB JaQues Evans.

Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze left for Auburn as the program concluded the season with four straight losses after an 8-1 start, including its first-ever loss in a bowl game (3-1). Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell takes his place, but the question that remains to be answered is whether or not Coastal's success had more to do with Chadwell or the presence of  quarterback Grayson McCall.

Speaking of QB's, Liberty returns both halves of its two-headed attack from a year ago, senior Jonathan Bennett and sophomore Kaidon Salter. Leading receiver Demario "Pop" Douglas was drafted by New England in the 6th round, leaving Noah Frith as the top returnee. Frith was a distant second in receiving stats to Douglas as he grabbed 24 passes for 424 yards and 1 touchdown. Douglas had 79 catches for 993 yards and 6 scores.

Defensively, the Flames finished third nationally last season in sacks (3.46 per game) and return key fixtures DL Kendy Charles and S Quinton Reese.

Computer's CUSA Projections

1 46 MTSU 64.57 48.43 9 3 7 1 116
2 47 *-Jax State 63.53 47.65 9 3 7 1 126
3 56 UTEP 59.03 44.27 9 3 6 2 132
4 58 WKU 61.93 41.29 8 4 6 2 124
5 74 New Mexico St. 56.15 34.55 8 5 4 4 133
6 96 Liberty 51.83 21.6 5 7 3 5 131
7 110 *-Sam Houston 54.1 13.53 3 9 2 6 112
8 124 Louisiana Tech 46.44 7.74 2 10 1 7 122
9 128 FIU 46.35 3.86 1 11 0 8 123
*-ineligible for conference title

2 Teams tied at 7-1. MTSU beats Jax State
2 Teams tied at 6-2. UTEP beats WKU

One of the computer's top teams, MTSU finished 8-5 a year ago and enters the 2023 season on a 4-game winning streak, including a 25-23 win over San Diego State in the Hawaii Bowl. Leading rusher RB Frank Peasant returns, but top receiver Jaylin Lane transferred to Virginia Tech. The defensive backfield loses Decorian Patterson to UCF after he collected 7 interceptions a year ago to lead the nation with Buffalo's Marcus Fuqua.

Jacksonville State, along with fellow newcomer Sam Houston, will not be eligible for the conference title as they are in a transition season from the FCS. Neither were eligible for the FCS playoffs in 2022 for the same reason. However, they can attain bowl eligibility with 6 wins, ahead of five-win teams at the top of the list of schools in Academic Progress Rate (APR).

Jax State already opened the season with a win over UTEP.  Rich Rodriguez is the leader of the Gamecocks after taking the job in 2022 to lead the transition and finished 9-2. Rich Rod has a career record of 173-121-2. He has 16 returning starters and two-thirds of his letter winners from a year ago.

UTEP was 5-7 a year ago and returns a decent amount of talent on the offensive side of the ball, but the Miners lose 5 defensive starters who were among the top 7 tacklers.

The conference will compete with just 9 members comprised of 4 newcomers and 5 holdovers.

The conference had 6 defections to the American Conference - Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. Three of those programs -  UTSA, UAB and FAU -  won the last six CUSA titles. North Texas played in the championship game last season.

In addition to the two former FCS programs, Liberty and New Mexico State complete the list of newbies.

NMSU is coming off its best season since 2017, and just its second winning season since 2003. It was Jerry Kill's first season as head coach.

New Mexico State will be participating in a conference for the first time since 2017 when the Aggies, along Idaho, were expelled from the Sun Belt. Five years earlier, they had both lost homes in the WAC when that conference ceased to exist in the FBS and the Mountain West refused to absorb them. Idaho has since become a FCS program, and New Mexico State flirted with doing the same.

Sam Houston's K.C. Keeler enters his ninth season as the leader of the Bearkats. He has an overall record of 259-100-1, including marks at Sam Houston of 85-27 over-all, and 54-11 in conference play. He led the school to the national championship in the FCS Covid spring season of 2021, defeating current reigning FCS Champion South Dakota State. He led teams to national championship matches eight other times and also won the 2003 title with Delaware. A a player, he was a linebacker on the Delaware team that won the D2 national title in 1979.Another FCS team, Kennesaw State, will join next year.

Jacksonville State will visit Sam Houston on September 28.

Liberty will visit WKU in the regular season on October 24

The 2023 season format is without divisions and will have the team with the best conference record serve as host for the championship game against the second-place team. The media is effectively saying that the matchup in 2023 will feature Western Kentucky hosting Liberty. The Hilltoppers last played for the CUSA title two years ago, falling 49-41 at UTSA. WKU won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.

The league’s 19th Conference USA Football Championship Game will be held on Friday, December 1.