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Conference USA even again while adding high-profile coaches

Conference USA is back to a 14-team league with equal seven-team divisions with UAB's return to the field this season

Conference USA Preview Football
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FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2016, file photo, Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White sets back to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. White had eight 300-yard passing games last season. He was fifth in FBS with his 4,383 yards, while throwing for 37 TDs with only seven interceptions.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Conference USA Preview Football
Conference USA Preview Football
Conference USA Preview Football
Conference USA Preview Football
Conference USA Preview Football
Conference USA Preview Football
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By STEPHEN HAWKINS AP Sports Writer

Saturday, August 12, 2017

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Butch Davis is back on the sideline, and Lane Kiffin is again leading his own program.

While those high-profile coaches get ready for their Conference USA debuts — Davis at FIU and Kiffin at Florida Atlantic — coach Bill Clark stayed in place for UAB’s football revival.

With the return of the Blazers , C-USA again has 14 teams split into seven-team divisions. Clark had just finished his first year at UAB, going 6-6 in 2014 for the school’s first non-losing record in 10 seasons, when the program was briefly shut down for financial reasons.

Skip Holtz has won nine games three straight years at Louisiana Tech, the defending West Division champion and one of seven C-USA teams that went to bowl games last season. Those bowl teams included UTSA and North Texas, both with first-year head coaches who left prominent roles on staffs at Power Five schools.

“A friend of mine uses the analogy that Conference USA is like NASCAR.” Holtz said. “Everybody has the same size engine. It’s just who does the best job of driving it that week, and I think that’s where we are right now. I think it’s an incredibly competitive league.”

After winning back-to-back C-USA titles, Western Kentucky has first-time head coach Mike Sanford Jr., who was Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator. Old Dominion takes a six-game winning streak into this season after winning 10 games in only the Monarchs’ fourth year in Division I, and eighth year since restarting the program.

“I look at some of the quality coaches that this league has attracted,” Holtz said. “Mike Sanford leaving Notre Dame to go to Western Kentucky, I look at Frank (Wilson) leaving LSU to take UTSA, I look at Seth Littrell leaving (North Carolina) to go to North Texas. ... Now this year with Butch Davis and Lane Kiffin both coming in with head coaching experience, I think speaks volumes for this league.”

THE FAVORITES

East Division: While WKU has a new coach and has to replace seven offensive starters, the Hilltoppers return senior quarterback Mike White, the C-USA preseason offensive player of the year, after scoring at least 44 points in each of their last 10 games. Middle Tennessee has the impressive QB-WR combo of Brent Stockstill and Richie James. The division title could be determined Nov. 17 when the Blue Raiders travel to Bowling Green to play the Hilltoppers.

West Division: For the third straight season, Louisiana Tech will have a new starting quarterback. The Bulldogs also lost two receivers who combined for 218 catches, 3,338 yards and 31 TDs. But they return 1,000-yard rusher Jarred Craft, three starters on the offensive line, and DE Jaylon Ferguson, the league’s top sacker among many top players on defense.

TOP PLAYERS

White, the Western Kentucky senior quarterback who had eight 300-yard passing games last season. He was fifth in FBS with his 4,383 yards, while throwing for 37 TDs with only seven interceptions.

Rice linebacker Emmanuel Ellerbee led the league and ranked sixth nationally with 10.7 tackles per game last year.

Ito Smith has rushed for more than 100 yards in 16 games already at Southern Miss. He is the league’s top returning rusher after averaging 112 yards per game as a junior.

The Blue Raiders’ QB-WR duo. Stockstill, now a third-year starter as a junior, threw for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. James caught 105 passes for 1,625 yards and 12 TDs.

NEW FACES

The 65-year-old Davis is back in coaching six years after being fired from North Carolina as part of the fallout of an NCAA investigation in which he was never implicated. And he is again in Florida, where he coached the Miami Hurricanes from 1995-2000.

Kiffin, previously a head coach at Tennessee and USC, spent the last three seasons as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama — the same span during which FAU had three consecutive 3-9 seasons. The Owls’ last bowl was in 2008.

Sanford, the 35-year-old former Notre Dame offensive coordinator, became WKU’s head coach after Jeff Brohm left for Purdue.

ON THE HOT SEAT

Sean Kugler took alma mater UTEP to a bowl in 2014, the former NFL offensive line coach’s second season as head coach. The Miners are only 9-15 in the two seasons since, and lost five straight games last season.

More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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