If I had previewed Conference USA (CUSA) for college fantasy football in 2022 instead of 2023, it would have looked very different. Last season, I would have covered Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, UAB, and Rice among others. Of the ten teams that were in the Conference USA last season, six of them have moved on to different conferences.
A conference couldn't operate with just four teams so they had to find replacements. The search extended far and wide to find those replacement teams. Sam Houston and Jacksonville State have been perennial contenders at the lower FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) level. Transitioning to a higher level of competition could be a challenge though. Liberty and New Mexico State have played the last five seasons as independent teams but are now affiliated with the Conference USA.
Predicting how all these teams will fit together is difficult. Based on the recent offensive histories of some of these teams, there should be fantasy goodness in Conference USA. It is just going to take to some analyzing to find that goodness.
With that in mind, let's get to the 2023 College Fantasy Football CUSA preview for 2023!
2023 College Fantasy Football Conference USA Preview
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Lexington Joseph, RB, Florida International Panthers
Lexington Joseph's career statistics over three seasons read like a season of statistics for some players. His first few years on campus he was behind running back D'Vonte Price on the depth chart. Price has since gone on to an NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts. But last season was supposed to be Joseph's as the primary ball carrier. While he was the most effective ball carrier, it didn't mean that he didn't deal with a carry split.
Joseph received 108 carries last season, but backup running back Eric Wilson Jr. received 79 carries himself. Add in that quarterback Grayson James also took 79 carries and you can see how Joseph's production was capped. Wilson Jr. has exhausted his eligibility, but there is lots of excitement for the transfer running back Shomari Lawrence too. I believe Lexington Joseph is the most talented back on the Florida International roster, but there is too much uncertainty to invest a draft pick on any of their players.
Te'Sean Smoot, QB, Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Since they were playing at the FCS level, I admit to having never seen Jacksonville State play football, let alone Te'Sean Smoot. Smoot was the backup quarterback last season and only completed one pass for a total of eight yards. Zerrick Cooper was the starting quarterback, but he has exhausted his collegiate eligibility so Smoot will be replacing him. Smoot is going into a proven system for quarterbacks.
What I do know about the Jacksonville State program is that its head coach is Rich Rodriguez. You may remember Rodriguez from his high-octane spread offense most notably with West Virginia and quarterback Pat White. His offenses would eventually lead to later head coaching positions with Michigan and Arizona. Wherever he has been, generating offense has never been the problem. Since we're unsure how the transition to the FBS level will go, I will not be drafting any Jacksonville State players. But I also know that Rodriguez's offenses are proven at this level so I will be watching closely early in the season.
Kaidon Salter, QB, Liberty Flames
Kaidon Salter has the exact skillset that we're looking for in fantasy football from a quarterback-a willingness to pass downfield and the ability to run. Salter was once a highly regarded quarterback prospect for the University of Tennessee but dealt with some off-the-field issues and was dismissed. He stepped down a level to Liberty to try to replace quarterback Malik Willis, the top pick in college fantasy football just two years ago.
Staying healthy has been a challenge so far for Salter since coming to Liberty. Officially, he played in eight games last season, but in some of those games, he was clearly hampered by a groin injury that would require surgery. In the healthy games, Salter showed the floor he has with his rushing ability. In his first three games last season he had at least carries nine carries for at least 65 rushing yards. He would only get to nine carries or more twice the rest of the season and never reach 65 yards rushing in a game again.
You likely won't need to use a draft pick on Salter, but be ready to pounce quickly if he starts well.
Marquis Crosby, RB, Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Louisiana Tech struggled to a 3-9 record last season. It wasn't due to the effort of running back Marquis Crosby. Crosby went over 100 total yards in five different games last season (including two of the three wins). Four of those five hundred-yard games came in the last five weeks of the season. That stretch of the season was also the only time all season when Crosby received over 20 carries. He received over 20 carries three times and every one of those games was a 100-yard rushing game.
Ideally, that end-of-season success will lead to more carries this season. If it does, Crosby is a running back whom you'll be able to use in the right matchups and who you can likely draft in the last round or pluck off the waiver wire when necessary.
Frank Peasant, RB, Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
The star of last year's Blue Raiders offense, Jaylin Lane, has transferred to Virginia Tech. That means it is time for a new focal point of the offense. Typically, when replacing a star I would look to the most similar skillset to fill that void. In the case of Middle Tennessee State though, I think they will lean on the run instead.
Frank Peasant only went over 100 yards rushing once all last season (and that game was against FCS-level Tennessee State). However, giving Peasant the ball seemed to lead to victories for the Blue Raiders. He touched the ball double-digit times in 10 different games and the Blue Raiders won eight of those games. When you're winning games by giving your best players the ball, it's probably a good idea to do that more often. Peasant is a sneaky pick in the last couple of rounds of a draft because of the rushing volume he could receive in Conference USA play.
Diego Pavia, QB, New Mexico State Aggies
New Mexico State is amongst the worst teams in all of college football over the last two decades. They've had just two winning seasons in the last 20 years, but one of them was last season! They won five of their last six games to finish over a .500 winning percentage including a bowl victory! Jerry Kill was the new head coach who found immediate success in his return to being a full-time head football coach.
One reason for that initial success was the play of quarterback Diego Pavia. Pavia has the rushing upside from quarterbacks which makes him interesting as a CFF option. In that ending stretch of the season where the team finished so strongly, it was often Pavia's legs that were a big reason. He rushed for over 50 yards in five of those last six games (and in the game he didn't, he threw for a career-high 323 yards and four touchdowns). Moving to a conference will likely be a challenge for the Aggies, but expect weeks when Pavia will have some blowup games that make him a possibility for fantasy consideration.
Zach Hrbacek, RB, Sam Houston State Bearkats
Sam Houston State is another team that is moving up to the FBS level after playing at the FCS level. They won the FCS national championship only a few seasons ago indicating that the team has recent accomplishments to think this could go well. But analyzing last year's offensive production and statistics doesn't paint a pretty picture for college fantasy football.
According to the Bearkats website, the team only averaged 18 points per game last season. That's not ideal for fantasy production. Then, you look through the individual statistics and it continues with the bleak picture. The team didn't even manage 3,000 total yards of offense! And unfortunately for CFF purposes, what they did manage was spread amongst multiple personnel. I'm going to recommend Zach Hrbacek as the most likely option based on the almost 6 yards per carry last season. Frankly, it's very unlikely that a Sam Houston State player will be on any CFF rosters this season.
Tyrin Smith, WR, UTEP Miners
It's been a wild off-season for Tyrin Smith. In January of 2023, Smith entered the transfer portal and chose Texas A&M as his new destination. It was a short-lived stay though as he re-entered the transfer portal at the end of April. At the time I'm typing this, Smith is still in the transfer portal, but there are lots of rumors he may return to UTEP.
As a CFF player, I would love to see him return to UTEP. He was excellent last season with over 71 receptions, 1,039 yards receiving, and 7 touchdowns. He did that with spotty quarterback play at best. If you take out the one 56 yard completion from Tyrin Smith, the team's quarterbacks were unable to complete even 2,600 passing yards total. If the quarterback play improves even marginally, (and Smith returns to UTEP) it should mean a top-30 wide receiver finish for Smith.
Malachi Corley, WR, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Western Kentucky is undoubtedly the top program for college fantasy football in Conference USA. You could make the case it's the top program in all of college football for fantasy goodness because of the scheme they run. During the 2021 season, Bailey Zappe set collegiate passing records as the quarterback. Then, last season, quarterback Austin Reed transferred into Western Kentucky and finished third in fantasy points amongst all quarterbacks. Reed is back again for another season and should be a top-5 quarterback option.
As great as Reed is, I'm going to focus on his top receiver, Malachi Corley. Corley is the top returning receiver in all of college football for fantasy points. He is the only returning receiver in all of college football who had 100 or more receptions last season (101 receptions). He is also the returning receiver with the most yardage after having 1,293 last season. I don't see why he can't repeat that production which would make Corley a safe first-round pick again.
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