By Joe Gavazzi  JoeGavazziSports.com



Florida Atlantic Owls

With 94% of their defensive production returning, and 93% of their offensive production returning, including 102 OL starts, this team is loaded in the 2nd year under HC Taggart.  Taggart, you will recall, had much to prove after bombing in his dream job “at Florida State” where he went 9-12 SU in a pair of seasons.  That was motivation enough for Taggart’s troops to begin last season 5-1 SU before running out of gas down the stretch with losses of 17 at GA Southern, 14 at S. Miss., and 15 to Memphis in the Bowl game.  This in the 2021 season look for a potential return to the double digit winning seasons of 2017 and 2019 when the Owls had a combined record of 22-6 SU, 19-7 ATS.  In a crowded QB room, including Penn State transfer M. Johnson, son of OC Johnson, look for the higher profile N. Perry (Miami) to win the job  when he transfers “down the road” from Miami( FL).  As a Top 20 recruit, he toiled for 3 years with the Hurricanes including 9 career starts.  The 24/10 ratio is far more impressive than the 52% C.  The 5-4 SU season of last, the first under traditionally successful HC Taggart, was a masterful performance considering just 9 RS in a COVID year.  With a 17/343 defense adding experience for DC Mike Stoops, the transition should be easy for Perry with 10 RS including an OL with over 100 career starts.  Holding onto the football and not tripping over his shoelaces will be the only requirement for Perry this season, AS HE TRANSITIONS FROM THE BIG FISH WATERS OF THE ACC TO THIS SMALLER POND.

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Trey Lance.  You possibly did not hear of this signal caller before the 49ers drafted him in the 1st round after he had a 17-0 TRGS at N. Dakota State with a 30/0 ratio.  That is relevant to this analysis as you most likely have never heard of Bailey Zappe, the transfer from Houston Baptist (2020 Southland Player of the Year) who will be joining the Toppers’ this season with his former OC Zach Kitley and top 3 receivers.  Zappe averaged 458 YPG last season.  In 6 career starts vs. FBS foes, Zappe has 63% C and a 16/2 ratio.  Shouldn’t take much to improve the 19/291 Toppers offense of last season.  It will however be a transition year with just 34% of the offense and 49% of the defense returning.  After their games averaged just a total of 44 PPG in the first 2 years under HC Helton, look for a lot more fireworks this season.

Marshall Thundering Herd

Have not confirmed the reason for this fallout and firing, but at the end of last season, Marshall cut the cord with 11th year HC Doc Holliday who had ONLY recorded a record of 85-54 including Bowl games in 7 of the last 8 years.  Furthermore, last year his defense allowed just 13/280, best in the country in PPG.  But a 0-3 SU, ATS finish was enough to end Holliday’s career in Huntington.  Enter new HC Charles Huff who has served as Assistant on the staff of such notable schools as Alabama, Miss. State and Penn State in the last 7 years.  He inherits 8 returning starters from the defensive side of the ball which is a great building block.  Returning QB Grant Wells has much to prove after his offense scored a combined 23 points in their 0-3 SU, ATS collar to end last season.  Prediction is that the defense alone could be enough to have Marshall in CUSA contention this season as one of the Top 5 teams in the loop.

Florida International Panthers

Perhaps no team was more negatively impacted by the COVID Pandemic than these Panthers who, after 23 wins in the first 3 seasons, under now 5th year HC Davis, took the 0-5 SU collar with a 1-3 ATS mark.  Consider that no fewer than 45 players missed as many as 55 days prior to the eventual start of their season.  This year, 19 starters return with an offense led by senior QB Bortenschlager.  Despite the addition of a pair of new coordinators, I look for the Panthers offense, just 22/279 LY, to make huge strides in keying a return to the winning side of the ledger.  Put this team on our list of HIDDEN GEMS as a winless team who returns to the Bowl roster after missing it in 2020 for the first time in 4 campaigns.

Mid Tennessee State Blue Raiders

Since the departure of his signal calling son, 16th year HC Stockstill has seen the team’s offensive fortunes plummet proportionally to his record of 8 to 4 to 3 wins in the last 3 seasons.  Now they have lost QB O’Hara (Sac St). Time for our next BIG FISH IN SMALL POND candidate.  That would be FSU/NC State QB Hockman, originally a Top 20 recruit, who, in 9 starts, had 64% C LY.  He will need to hook up quickly with 1st year OC Dearman who was the OC at Kansas the previous 2 years, for what that’s worth.  Nonetheless, Hockman will enjoy throwing against the CUSA defenses as he looks to make a splash in rejuvenating the 23/366 Blue Raiders offense.  Aiding his cause is a stop unit that returns 89% of its tackles that will clearly improve on their “200 Club” defensive performance of last season.  If you are a Blue Raider fan, hope that September road games at VA Tech, UTSA and Charlotte does not destroy their confidence if they come away on the losing side of the scoreboard.

Charlotte 49ers

In a season where returning talent is plentiful, the 49ers return just 5 defensive starters. They will be looking to bounce back from a 2-4 SU season after posting a winning record and Bowl appearance in the 1st year under 3rd year HC Healy.  Major area of concern is the defensive front which, in two years, has allowed an average of 204/5.4 YPR.  With the addition of some potentially talented transfers, and a signal caller battle between incumbent Reynolds (3 years, 24 starts, 63% C, 28/13 ratio L2Y) and Texas A&M transfer QB Foster, yet another BIG FISH TO PLAY IN A SMALL POND.  The 27 PPG offense could be dynamically improved. 

Old Dominion Monarchs

When ODU pulled the plug on participating in last year’s COVID plagued season, then 1st year HC Rahne was entrusted with keeping the pieces together for the 2021 Season.  After going 1-11 SU in 2019 while averaging just 16 PPG, it will be a long way back. Rahne’s area of expertise is a 2 year stint as OC at Penn State.  Aiding him in the transition will be potential home run transfer QB Mack from UCF, where he was a dual threat in the 43 PPG offense of the Golden Knights. 

Stepping in to the smaller pond of CUSA, Mack could make a big splash for the ODU offense.  Even with the signing of the (17) three * recruits, there are plenty of question marks as to how the ODU season will unfold.


UAB Blazers

By now everyone is aware of the resurrection of the UAB program by HC Clark, after the team went dormant in 2015-16.  In a total of 5 years under HC Clark, the Blazers have a 34-22 ATS record.  All that profit comes at home where they are 18-6 ATS.  It will be no surprise if that record continues when, after 4 games away from home, they open their new stadium on October 2nd.  This perennial league champ again has a solid nucleus with 17 returning starters including veteran signal caller Johnston who will operate behind an OL that returns 87 career starts.  This unit includes all 5 starters from last year.  Through the tenure of Clark, defense has led the way for the Blazers.  In the last 3 years combined, they have allowed an average of just 20 points and 305 YPG.  November games at Marshall and UTSA will most likely decide their conference fate. 

UTSA Road Runners

The cat is out of the bag under 2nd year HC Traylor.  The Road Runners went 7-5 SU, 7-4 ATS ending a losing drought of 6 years in which they had a combined record of 26-46 SU.  This season, with improved recruiting and 21 returning starters, this unit will challenge UAB for superiority in CUSA WEST.  In fact, their home revenge date with the Blazers on November 20th may be the determining factor.  A microcosm of the improvement Traylor brought to the program is that the offense improved by 8 points and 69 yards, and the defense improved by 8 points and 48 yards.  Going 4-2 SU, ATS down the stretch, provides winning momentum.  Traylor, the legendary Texas High School Football Coach, and former Associate HC at Arkansas, SMU and Texas, has a team, in this year’s edition, that can no longer be considered a “Hidden Gem”.

S. Mississippi Golden Eagles

This traditionally successful Southern Miss. team went through plenty of turmoil in the 2020 Season.  Last year’s HC Hopson, then in his 5th year, pulled the plug after Game #1.  (8) players had already opted out prior to the season. When their interim HC also bailed in mid-season and veteran QB Abraham opted out, the season was doomed to a 3-7 SU conclusion. Enter new HC Will Hall, the former OC at Tulane for the previous 2 seasons, and highly successful HC at West Alabama where the Tigers copped a pair of Conference Titles.  I’m going to call it however, a “reset” rather than “rebuild”, AND LOOK FOR THEM TO BOUNCE BACK BIG.  They will switch to a run-based system this year and if RB Gore returns along with a plethora of Power 5 transfers, and 18 returning starters, this could well be one of the “Hidden Gems” on the CFB landscape this season.  The talent is there; much will depend on the attitude that Hall is able to install

LA Tech Bulldogs

Don’t be fooled by the fact that 9th year HC Holtz avoided his first losing season in 8 years with the 5-5 SU record of last season.  Burdened with only 8 returning starters, and coming off a 10-3 SU, 8-4 ATS season punctuated by a 14-0 Bowl win over Miami (FL), the Bulldogs had an expected dip.  The offense declined 5 points and 125 yards, and the defense disintegrated by 13 points in 46 yards.  Most disturbing is the fact that recruiting dropped to the lowest 10% of the 130 online teams.  Based on the history of the successful coaching career of Holtz, I’m going to opt for the bounce.  With 17 returning starters, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball, and 7 offensive returning starters led by Senior QB Anthony (62% C, 16/5 ratio LY), each side of the ball could well return to its former excellence.  Consider this to be a key season in the trajectory of Tech’s history under Holtz.  As always, we consider Holtz in his historically strong role of 36-20 ATS as road dog (just 4-5 ATS L2Y). 

Rice Owls

QB McCaffrey could be one of the most meaningful late additions on the college landscape.   He came here from Louisville after transferring from Nebraska and taking spring practices at Louisville.  Clearly this guy wanted to start after putting up a combined 830 pass/rush yards for the Huskers last season.  If he is a fit with new OC Tuiasosopo, there is little doubt that the Owls offense will improve from the 20 PPG combined in the previous 3 years under now 4th year HC Bloomgren.  10 returning starters return to a defense that allowed just 19/342.  Ergo, the contributions of McCaffrey could well bring this team to the winning side of the ledger in 2021.  FROM THE BIG FISH WATERS OF THE BIG 10, MCCAFFREY WILL ENJOY HIS DIP IN THE SMALLER POND OF CUSA.  With recruiting on the rise, and some transfer quality, it is no surprise that the 7-23 SU record of Blumberg is a distant memory at Rice.  As one of our “Hidden Gems”, look for the Owls to accelerate to the winning side of the ledger and 1st Bowl game since 2014.  Hardened by probable early season losses to Arkansas, Houston and Texas, there could be plenty of value with the Owls come October. 

North Texas Mean Green

The coaching trajectory of 6th year Mean Green HC Littrell continues its downward plummet.  Just 3 short seasons ago, Littrell had recorded consecutive 9 win seasons and Bowl appearances.  He was on the short list of several Power 5 programs.  The last two seasons however, with a defense in serious decline, the Mean Green has gone a combined 8-14 SU, 5-15 ATS.  The defensive declined is characterized by a scoring dip from 24 to 43 and yardage dip from 375 to 508.  The pieces are there for the bounceback with a 2019 class that was redshirted now resulting in 10 returning starters to each side of the ball.  But who wants those 10 defensive starters with those type of numbers.  I will need to see the beginning of defensive improvement before I will consider putting the Mean Green on my “PLAY ON” list. 

UTEP Miners

The 3-5 SU, 4-2 ATS season of UTEP last year was modest improvement for the previous 2 years under HC Dimel in which they went a combined 2-22 SU. Combined with the 0-12 season of 2017, last year’s record implied promise.  Dimel did not see it that way however, and fired both of his coordinators.  You will be fooling yourself if  you believe an offense that returns 92% of their production and has 100 career OL starts is going to improve on 23 PPG.  This may be the best team in 4 years under Dimel, but I will take a Missouri attitude and ask them to “show me” before heading to the ticket window.  History says you want no part of the Miners, under Dimel, at their home field of the Sun Bowl where they are 4-11 ATS L3Y.