A number of C-USA teams are replacing their stars, none more so than Marshall. That could leave opportunities for young players to shine and young teams to make some moves up the standings. However, I think that the names on top of the conference won’t be doing much changing from last season.
1. Western Kentucky
I wavered on putting the Hilltoppers here, as most everyone has Marshall as the favorites heading into the year. However, while Marshall loses their starting QB, WKU has their returning in Brandon Doughty. A 4,800 yard passer last season with a 49-10 ratio, Doughty is the best offensive weapon in the league. He also has three of his top four targets from a year ago returning, as well as a veteran line for protection. Plus, the defense returns 9 starters including 2 all-C-USA selection. The factor that puts them over the top for me is scheduling. Not only to they get Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech at home, but the Thundering Head have to travel to Bowling Green on Nov. 27 in what will likely be for a slot in the conference title game.
Despite not selecting them to repeat as conference champions, the Herd are still a very talented team. Yes, record-setting QB Rakeem Cato is gone. But James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong comes in along with last year’s back up Gunnar Holcombe. Either way, the offense should be in good hands with a ton of talent returning in the backfield. There were major losses on D, but there are still 7 guys back with starting experience and they welcome DT Ricardo Williams from The U. There’s still enough talent for this squad to be a top 2 defense. The biggest help to their repeat cause is that they have the easiest schedule in the conference. All four non-conference games are winnable (yes, even at Purdue) and they avoid the top three out of the West. Before you crown then division champs, they still have to travel to WKU and Middle Tennessee, which makes he hesitant to give them the top spot.
3. Middle Tennessee State
What’s been lost of recent years is how consistent the Blue Raiders have been. They’ve been bowl eligible the last three years, despite only being selected once. They should remedy that this season with 16 starters coming back, the top offensive line and the top overall defense in the conference. They return the two-headed QB attack of Austin Grammer and Shane Tucker and can expect senior receivers Ed’Marques Batties and Christian Collis to step up. While they are a stronger team than the 2014 version, their schedule could hold them back. On top of playing three Power 5 teams, they have to hit the road against WKU and Louisiana Tech. They should still be able to improve on last year’s 6 wins.
4. Old Dominion
Here’s another team saying goodbye to a record-setting quarterback. Taylor Heincke lead their transition to the FBS and now it’s up to Shuler Bentley to take the next step. He showed major growth in the spring, so QB production shouldn’t fall too far. Not to mention there will be an active competition behind him should Bentley not be ready for prime time. There is still a ton of depth at receiver as well, with eight of last year’s top ten pass catchers back. There are some questions on D. 2nd Team All C-USA linebacker DJ Simon is gone from a squad that allowed 42.1 points a game in conference play, good for second-to-last. It could be a season of shootouts if the Monarchs make it back to .500 this year.
5. Florida Atlantic
The Owls are another team that could be much better than 5th place, despite a 3-9 record last year. Jaquez Johnson is an all-conference quarterback, although he’ll have to find a new top receiver. There’s decent talent in the backfield and the experience on the offensive line. There’s potential on the defensive side of the ball too, with 20 lettermen returning. A number of close losses doomed the 2014 team, but the schedule might do it to the 2015 edition. They face 8 teams that went to a bowl last year and they draw Rice and UTEP from the West. The schedule is likely to hold the Owls back from bowl contention.
6. Florida International
With 15 starters and a stronger recruiting class, Ron Turner is making progress in Miami. The Panthers feature one of the best defenses in the conference, anchored by CB Richard Leonard, a 1st teamer last year. QB Alex McGough was thrown into the fire as a freshman last year, so should return more confident and improve on his 17-10 ratio. This team was just a few plays away from 8-4 last year. While that probably won’t happen this year, another 4-win season is a sollid projection.
The Knights are playing their first full year in the FBS, and their 3rd year as a program. There’s some decent talent here, but they make a huge jump from FCS independent to full Conference USA member. They could pull off a conference win or two, but head coach Brad Lambert can expect a long season
1. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs lose one quarterback who transfered in (Cody Sokol) and welcome in another with Jeff Driskel coming in from Florida. He joins with a ton of experience at the skill positions and an offensive line full of upperclassmen. Even with all the potential on offense, the strength is the defense. Last season, the D allowed a C-USA best 19.9 ppg and 6 starters return from that unit. The D is anchored by a pair of 1st team All C-USA performers in DT Vernon Butler and FS Xavier Woods. The schedule isn’t really in their favor, with road trips to Rice, UTEP and WKU. But they do miss Marshall out of the East and a ten-win season is not out of the question for Skip Holtz’ squad.
The Owls only have 9 starters back but should be good on the offensive side of the ball with QB Driphus Jackson, last season’s top two rushers and five of their top seven receivers. The offensive line will be solid but young. There are only 2 juniors and 2 seniors in the 2-deep. Despite only 3 starters back, the defense will have plenty of experience. The schedule works to their advantage with their winnable conference games on the road. They get WKU, Tech and USM at home and give Marshall a miss. Another eight win season isn’t out of the question, but with two Power 5 teams and LT on the schedule, eight wins is probably their ceiling.
3. Southern Miss
After just 4 wins in the last 3 seasons, this will be a rebound year for the Golden Eagles. they have 10 returning starts on an offense that scored just 21.2 ppg. There is no way they don’t improve on that league-worst number. All five starters on the offensive line are back as well, with the potential for a strong effort up front. There will be plenty of opportunities on defense for impact players to step up. Senior linebacker Brian Anderson anchors as the top returning tackler. A lack of proven performers on defense makes me a little wary to make this claim, but I think Todd Monken’s third team can overachieve. From 1-7 in conference play last year, USM will be bowl eligible this year.
It feels like a big risk to call for the Miners to fall off the cliff like this. They return RB Aaron Jones and with the top offensive line in the conference, he will break the 1,000 yard mark again. They will need him early as this year’s quarterbacks only have one pass attempt last season. There will be an open competition between Mack Leftwich, Garrett Simpson, Ryan Metz and Hunter McEachern, but QB production should be better this year. There is lots of experience (5 starters back) on a solid D that should also improve. The schedule is also manageable, with Louisiana Tech and Rice coming to El Paso and the Miners dodging the top three teams out of the East. I just don’t see them repeating their two upsets from a year ago and taking a step backwards.
5. North Texas
The Mean Green are another team that should improve upon last season. Three-year starting QB Andrew McNulty is back for his senior campaign and will again take the majority of snaps. He’ll have a ton of experience to work with in the backfield and out wide. North Texas also has a lot of experience at linebacker and on the defensive line. The issue will be on the offensive line, where only one starter returns. The faster they find a combination that works the better. It will be a task to match last year’s mark of only 25 sacks allowed. The schedule is brutal though. They face the top three out of the East with road trips to USM, LT, Marshall and MTSU. Four wins feels about right, but they could surprise a few people and fight for bowl eligibility.
2015 is going to be a long year in San Antonio. The Roadrunners lose a massive amount of talent and only have 6 starters back. Larry Coker will have to break in new players at QB and RB with only two of last year’s top 8 receivers back and only three of the top ten tacklers back. It will be a full on rebuild on both sides of the ball. The conference schedule is decent and they avoid Marshall and WKU out of the East. But the non-conference slate will hurt with trips to Arizona and Oklahoma State and home stands against Kansas State and Colorado State.
Conference USA Championship Game: Louisiana Tech over Western Kentucky
Middle Tennessee, Rice, Western Kentucky, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, Marshall
On The Bubble: Old Dominion