In spite of the syndicate drivel, you'll hear on Saturday; there are some non-power five leagues who's conference races are compelling, even dramatic. Beyond the talk of "which G5 school might go undefeated" and get an invite to the grownup table on New Years, Conference USA will devour itself this weekend, one way or the other, as decision Saturday takes shape.
For a league that two years ago was rightly considered the worst in the country, CUSA has rebounded by making savvy hires and keeping some veteran coaches around. It's become a minefield where gimme weeks are few and far between. Right now, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Marshall, North Texas, UTSA, UAB, Southern Miss, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech are all vying for a league crown and bowl eligibility. The Fighting Kiffin's at FAU clinched a bowl bid last night with a win over Marshall. Marshall had already punch it's ticket, rebounding from a forgettable 2016, to start 2017 6-1.
The league is deeper than it's ever been thanks to forward-thinking hires like Lane Kiffin at FAU, Frank Wilson at UTSA, Butch Davis at FIU and Seth Littrell at North Texas. Combine those hires with retention of consistent coaches at places like Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, and Marshall and the coaching roster in the league has never been better. That's to say nothing of what Bill Clark is doing at UAB under extreme and unusual circumstances. In his first year with a rebooted program, Clark has the Blazers already contending in the West.
Saturday two games will help define the league's 2017 divisional races. UTSA travels to FIU in a battle of senior-laden teams, and North Texas heads to Ruston to take on Louisiana Tech.
Let's start in Miami where FIU made as big a hire as anyone the last offseason, bringing Butch Davis in to helm the ship. Davis is no stranger to building a program in Miami. He rebuilt the U into a national power and put together perhaps the most talented collegiate roster in the history of the sport before the allure of the NFL took him to Cleveland of all places. His Panthers are 5-2 and trying to keep up with their neighbors to the North, FAU. Kiffin and Davis make the Shula Bowl appointment television, but before we get there, FIU must deal with UTSA.
Frank Wilson's Roadrunners suffered a brief stagger with back to back losses to Southern Miss and North Texas, but UTSA righted their season winning their last two. The question for UTSA will center around how the Roadrunners play against comparable talent. UTSA's five wins have come against Baylor, Southern, Texas State, Rice, and UTEP. They've filled up on cupcakes, now a win over a similarly situated FIU will keep UTSA in the running for the West, even if they need help to get there. As important, UTSA needs a win Saturday to lend legitimacy to their season and show that they can beat an upper echelon team, on the road no less.
Help that might come from Ruston, where Western Division-leading North Texas takes on Louisiana Tech. The Mean Green are one of the surprises of the league, winning at Southern Miss and pulling out a dramatic home victory over UTSA. Having already beaten UAB, if Seth Littrell's squad can win at Tech, the West is virtually assured. Louisiana Tech has become a model of consistency in the league under Sonny Dykes and now Skip Holtz. The Techsters probably can't win the West thanks to losses to UAB and USM in back to back weeks, but at 4-4, getting to a bowl game for a fourth straight year is a huge milestone.
Conference USA is set for a photo-finish down the stretch and an unprecedented number of bowl qualifying members. Any of seven or eight teams can look at their current circumstances and project a bright future. Saturday nights contests will be worth a watch, maybe more so than the games GameDay promotes tomorrow morning.