To put it bluntly, the new-look Conference USA is ugly. Of the Group of Five conferences, C-USA and the MAC feel a step behind the Mountain West, Sun Belt, and AAC.
Even with what I consider to be an unusual and mediocre grouping of teams, there are some redeeming qualities about the on-field potential of the conference. Liberty tops that list.
The Flames have an abundance of resources, from a large budget to top-of-the-line facilities. They brought in Jamey Chadwell from Coastal Carolina to lead the program after Hugh Freeze returned to the SEC.
Chadwell brings a high-powered offensive scheme to Liberty, where he’ll try to build the program into a dominant force in C-USA. Eventually, I think Chadwell will achieve that goal. In 2023, however, I’m giving the edge to Western Kentucky.
Austin Reed Returns
During Chadwell’s best years at Coastal Carolina, the program leaned heavily on the play of quarterback Grayson McCall. When McCall missed games with injury in 2022, the Chanticleers were legitimately bad at times. They had a dreadful end of the season when playing good competition.
Liberty enters 2023 with quarterback questions. Eventually, Chadwell will find his guy, but in 2023 there’s uncertainty at QB.
Western Kentucky has no such questions.
Austin Reed returns for the Hilltoppers after throwing for just over 4,700 yards and 40 touchdowns. Western Kentucky can score points, and with Reed returning, the Hilltoppers are going to stress every C-USA defense.
Conference USA isn’t among the toughest Group of Five leagues, and I’m of the belief that having a dynamic quarterback gives a team a significant edge over conference peers. Reed is the best quarterback in the conference entering the season, so I’m comfortable taking Western Kentucky to win the conference.
Can Western Kentucky Excel On Defense?
In conference games a season ago, Western Kentucky led the conference in fewest points allowed per game (19.1). The defense held its own at times a season ago, but it also loses a handful of key contributors entering the 2023 season.
Western Kentucky needs to match (or exceed) its defensive performances in 2023 to be one of the better Group of Five programs. Defensive back Rome Weber is among the solid players returning in 2023, and Weber and others need to be at their best for Western Kentucky to make a leap from last year’s nine-win season.
The Hilltoppers can contend for the C-USA crown without elite defense, but tremendous defensive showings will be needed to hang around teams like Ohio State and Troy in the non-conference.
Bennett Conlin is a college football contributor for HERO Sports, and he works full-time covering sports betting industry news and legislation for Sports Handle and US Bets.