A group of 22 media members who cover Conference USA have voted Western Kentucky as a rather large favorite to win the league championship, garnering 18 first-place votes. Liberty was picked to finish first by 4 members.
The vote was released on Friday, ahead of Tuesday's upcoming Conference USA Media Day which will take place at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Two members - Jacksonville State and 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).
The conference will compete with just 9 members this year after nearly getting picked clean by the American in response to that conference's loss of three high-profile members to the Big 12 - Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The American was able to lure away six schools, including three programs that won the last six CUSA titles - UTSA, UAB, FAU. They also picked up North Texas, which had played in two of the last six CUSA Championship games, in addition to Rice and Charlotte.
In addition to the two former FCS programs, Conference USA added former independents Liberty and New Mexico State. The five holdovers are FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and WKU.
Another FCS team, Kennesaw State, will join next year.
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 that the matchup in 2023 will feature Western Kentucky hosting Liberty. The Hilltoppers last played for the CUSA title two years, falling 49-41 at UTSA. WKU won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
Western Kentucky was 9-5 a year ago, getting a 13th regular season game because of its trip to Hawaii on Labor Day weekend. The Hilltoppers closed the season with a 44-23 upset of South Alabama (10-3) in the New Orleans Bowl.
WKU returns the nation’s leading passer in QB Austin Reed, as well as the nation’s leading returning receiver in WR Malachi Corley. Defensively, the Hilltoppers led the nation in takeaways (32) and defensive touchdowns (six) and are led by highly-regarded LB JaQues Evans.
Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze left for Auburn and the Flames found his replacement in Coastal Carolina head coach Jamey Chadwell. The program was very successful under Freeze and, just last season, notched a win at Arkansas and fell by just a point at Wake Forest. But 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). Likewise, Chadwell had tremendous success at Coastal Carolina but the question that remains to be answered is whether or not that success had more to do with the quarterback play of 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.
Predicted 3rd-place finisher Middle Tennessee 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.
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.
But 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.
By the way, the additions of Jacksonville State and Sam Houston means the conference picks up two head coaches with long track records.
Rich Rodriguez is the leader of the Gamecocks after taking the job in 2022 to lead the transition. JSU finished last season with a 9-2 record. Rich Rod has had a sometimes controversial career, but has managed to be a head coach for 25 years at 6 different schools while winning winning nearly 60% of his games (172-121-2). He's the last head coach to lead Arizona to a winning season (2017) after which he was fired amid a $7.5 million lawsuit alleging that he "ran a hostile workplace" and "sexually harassed a former employee" by groping her and insisting she stay mum about an affair he was having with a different individual. He later admitted to the affair, but the lawsuit went nowhere and was ultimately dismissed in October of 2021 with no financial judgements or summary findings. Rodriguez was hired by JSU the following month. He had spent the 2021 season as the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Monroe
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.
Jacksonville State will visit Sam Houston on September 28.
Liberty will visit WKU in the regular season on October 24
The Conference USA slate opens on Saturday, August 26, with five teams in action, including a pair of league games as FIU visits Louisiana Tech, and UTEP travels to Jacksonville State. New Mexico State opens at home against UMass
The league’s 19th Conference USA Football Championship Game will be held on Friday, December 1.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. WKU (18)
2. Liberty (4)
3. Middle Tennessee
4. Louisiana Tech
5. New Mexico State
7. Jacksonville State
8. Sam Houston
- First place votes in parentheses