Conference USA is a top heavy division with Western Kentucky and Marshall both vying for coveted league championships. A host of other contenders such as Louisiana Tech and Rice are just a step behind in their bid for a conference championship. Which of these teams has the best shot at a bid for a big bowl game in the postseason? Read on as we break down each team in C-USA.
2015 Conference USA Season Preview
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4)
Predicted Record: 10-3 (7-1)
The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers missed out on the C-USA title last season, finishing third with an 8-5 (4-4 C-USA) record. But they did have a bang in their last two games. The Hilltoppers defeated conference champion Marshall in their regular season finale 67-66 in overtime. They then defeated Central Michigan in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl game in December.
[sc:NCAA240banner ]The Hilltoppers welcome seven starters on offense, making them a tough out for any team in the conference. Western Kentucky will be led by quarterback Brandon Doughty, who led the FBS with 4,830 passing yards last season. The team will also be in good hands on the ground with running back Leon Allen, who rushed for 1,542 last year. Expect the quarterback-running back duo to blaze a trail toward the top of the conference this season.
Marshall Thundering Herd
2014 Record: 12-1 (7-1)
Predicted Record: 8-5 (5-3)
Marshall had a near perfect season, losing only to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in overtime last year. The Thundering Herd said goodbye to quarterback Rakeem Cato and welcome Michael Birdsong, a transfer from James Madison. Not much will be asked of Birdsong this season. Rather, senior running back Devon Johnson may be the one who carries the team after he rushed for 1,767 yards (sixth-best in the nation) and 17 touchdowns last year.
The absence of top cornerback Darryl Roberts and C-USA Defensive Player of the Year linebacker Neville Hewitt are also big hits for Marshall’s title defense. With the two on the field, the Thundering Herd’s defense ranked 18th in the entire nation in 2014.
The Thundering Herd are the favorites to win C-USA at +125.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
2014 Record: 9-5 (7-1)
Projected Record: 8-5 (4-4)
The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs narrowly missed a conference championship last year, dropping the C-USA title game 26-23 against Marshall. The Bulldogs start a new quarterback under center in Florida transfer Jeff Driskel.
The former Gators signal caller hasn’t been impressive as an on-and-off starter at Florida, passing for 1,140 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first four years of college football. A fresh start at Louisiana Tech may just be what he needs to live up to his four-star rating entering college football.
2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3)
Projected Record: 7-6 (4-4)
Don’t count out Rice in C-USA. The Owls were the 2013 conference champions and were in contention last year before falling to West Division stablemate Louisiana Tech in their final game of the regular season. Quarterback Driphus Jackson returns to power the offense with his strong arm after throwing for 2,842 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, while running backs Jowan Davis (956 yards) and Darik Dillard (11 touchdowns) return to give the Owls a formidable running attack.
A depleted defensive line may impede their quest for a return to the top of the conference. Christian Covington entered the NFL Draft, while All-Conference USA first-teamer Brian Nordstrom quit football to take a job in the oil and gas industry. Nordstrom had 7.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss last season. Defensive tackle Ross Winship remains the only returning defensive starter.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
2014 Record: 6-6 (5-3)
Projected Record: 7-5 (6-2)
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders missed out on a bowl game last season, despite winning enough games to be eligible. A tough schedule makes playing a bowl game this time around much more difficult. The Blue Raiders face Alabama in their second week of the season along with dates against divisional powerhouses Western Kentucky and Marshall.
Middle Tennessee’s passing offense ranked 85th last season with 2,610 yards. Not much is expected of their aerial attack with a quarterback who’d rather run in Austin Grammer and a redshirt freshman in Brent Stockstill.
Old Dominion Monarchs
2014 Record: 6-6 (4-4)
Projected Record: 4-8 (2-6)
Say goodbye to stellar quarterback Taylor Heinicke, and possibly a winning record. As the starting quarterback for Old Dominion, Heinicke threw for nearly 15,000 yards and helped the Monarchs transition nicely in to the FBS level. He also won the Walter Payton Award (the FCS’ version of the Heisman) in his collegiate career.
The loss of Heinicke may not send the Monarchs into that big of a downward spiral considering they have seven other offensive starters returning. Running back Ray Lawry should have a much bigger role this season after rushing for 947 yards and being named the C-USA’s top freshman last season.
2014 Record: 7-6 (5-3)
Projected Record: 4-8 (3-5)
UTEP may not have the best of offenses heading into the upcoming season, but defense is the key for this Miners team. Five key players in UTEP’s 4-2-5 defense return in linemen Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick User and Gino Bresolin as well as linebackers Jimmy Musgrave and Alvin Jones. The Miners’ secondary is also pretty tight with safeties Da’Shone Smith and Devin Cockrell returning. This defensive unit forced 21 turnovers last season, ranking third in the C-USA in turnover margin (+0.69).
If defense does win championships, UTEP pay out nicely at +3,000 to win C-USA.
Florida Atlantic Owls
2014 Record: 3-9 (2-6)
Projected Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Florida Atlantic finally has an established starter in senior quarterback Jaquez Johnson, but the loss of his top receivers Luck Whitehead and William Dukes puts the Owls’ passing game on hold. The Owls also lost their three best defensive players in linebacker Andrae Kirk, cornerback D’Joun Smith and safety Damian Parms.
The loss of talent should have the Owls struggle this year, but a strong running game behind Jay Warren and Greg Howell, who combined for 1,084 yards on 241 carries last season, should keep Florida Atlantic competitive in their conference.
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Florida International Golden Panthers
2014 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Projected Record: 5-7 (4-4)
Florida International has one of the best defenses in C-USA. The Golden Panthers allowed just 148 big gains (10 or more yards) last season – third fewest in the conference – behind defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. He’ll have some key pieces to Florida International’s strong defense with Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks), Michael Wakefield (8.0 sacks) and cornerback Richard Leonard all returning.
The Panthers could also ensure that they keep possession of the ball for prolonged stretches in games. They have a strong run-first offense behind running backs Alex Gardner and Anthon Samuel. Gardner started the season out strong, rushing for 582 yards on 137 carries in the first eight games before ending the year injured. Samuel was a force in the final four games, rushing for six yards per carry.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
2014 Record: 3-9 (1-7)
Projected Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Seven starters on offense return after a disappointing 2014 season, in which Southern Mississippi went 3-9. Nick Mullens returns at quarterback after passing for 2,470 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing two games due to injury, while TCU transfer Tyler Matthews gives him some competition. The Golden Eagles also have depth in running back with Ito Smith, George Payne and Tez Parks all returning.
A lack of defense could hurt Southern Mississippi. The Golden Eagles ranked ninth in the conference in total defense, 10th in rushing defense and 11th in scoring defense last season. Another unimpressive showing from their defense could lead Mississippi to another losing season.
North Texas Mean Green
2014 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Projected Record: 2-10 (1-7)
North Texas is in trouble heading into the 2015-16 college football season. The Mean Green ranked 114th in the nation in total offense last season. They lost most of their veteran offensive line starters and will start a questionable quarterback behind center in Andrew McNulty. The Mean Green quarterback passed for 1,295 yards, six touchdowns and seven interceptions in six starts in 2014.
The defense will have to do plenty to cover up for the question marks on the other side of the ball. Defensive ends Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson should be the leaders in the defensive line, accounting for 10.5 of the team’s 33 sacks last season.
UTSA Road Runners
2014 Record: 4-8 (3-5)
Projected Record: 2-10 (2-6)
UTSA features no returning starters on offense. Their best bet for quarterback is Blake Bogenschutz, who filled in for injured starter Tucker Carter last year. Carter appeared in just three games before breaking his hand, and completed just 56 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and was picked off twice. Given the chance, Bogenschutz will play behind a completely revamped offensive line, which is expected to have its fair share of slumps.
The defense doesn’t get any better either. Only three starters return after the Road Runners ranked 54th in the nation in points allowed last season. Linebacker Drew Douglas should lead the Road Runners’ defense after finishing third in the team with 71 tackles last season.
2014 Record: 5-7 (FCS)
Projected Record: 1-11 (0-8)
The Charlotte 49ers are one of the newest members of the FBS, joining Conference USA. They weren’t too impressive in their last two seasons in the FCS, though, winning a combined 10 games. Despite being newcomers, the 49ers can’t be counted out. They have a stellar running back in Kalif Phillips, who’s coming off a 1,436 yard season. Meanwhile, receivers Austin Duke and Trent Bostick could explode to torch opposing secondaries.
Being newcomers in the conference, the 49ers are longshots to win C-USA at +40,000.
Western Kentucky (+200) wins C-USA and grabs itself another prized bowl spot.[sc:NCAA490banner ]
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