BY MICHAEL LEESE
MARSHALL The sky is the limit for this years edition of Thundering Herd Football. Doc Holliday enters his 4th season, with 15 total starters back from last season’s 5-7 squad. In 2012, the offense put up 40.9 PPG, and it is not satisfied. Quarterback Rakeem Cato had an outstanding year completing 69% of his passes for 4,209 yards and 37 touchdowns! Leading receiver Tommy Shuler, who had 110 receptions, returns along with the top four running backs and four out of five offensive linemen. The Herd also welcome two transfers from Penn State, Devon smith and Shawney Kersey, who figure to fill out the starting wide receiver corp. This offense is loaded and should top last season’s numbers. Last year, the defense gave up 43.1 per game last year. I expect huge improvement — seven starters return, and two big-time transfers, DT Steve Dillon from USC and LB Kent Turene from Georgia, will play immediately, and could contend for All-Conference honors. The Herd should easily be one of the most improved teams in the country. The schedule is favorable, and with a little luck and a September upset at Virginia Tech, the Thundering Herd could actually run the table.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 29 HOSTING EAST CAROLINA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Steward Butler, LB Stephan Houston, DB Taj Letman
- MY PREDICTION 11-1 OVERALL, 8-0 CONFERENCE
EAST CAROLINA The Pirates hope to leave CUSA with a bang, as they are sailing to the American Athletic Conference next season. They could — this is head coach Ruffin McNeill‘s best team in his three-year tenure with nine starters returning on both sides of the ball. The only losses on offense are at receiver and one lineman. Shane Carder returns under center, coming off a solid season, throwing for 3,116 yards and 23 scores, and adding 295 yards on the ground. He’ll be joined by eight other returning starters including Vintavious Cooper who rushed for 1,064 yards last season. Leading receiver Justin Hardy is poised to improve on his 88 receptions and 11 scores. The offense should easily sail past last years 31.5 PPG last year! The Pirate defense should be one of the best in the conference. Nine starters return, including the top seven tacklers! The focus this spring was to improve against the rush after last years squad gave up 4.3 yards per carry. Ruffin has done a good job recruiting on the defensive side of the ball, and hopes those recruits will start to pay dividends. The non-conference schedule is tough as they play at North Carolina State and North Carolina, and they have a tough home game against Virginia Tech. In conference play, they avoid a tough Rice team and host Tulsa. I really like this team and think they could pull an upset or two. The season ending battle in Huntington should be a classic.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 29 AT MARSHALL
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Danny Webster, DE Terrell Stanley, DB Detric Allen
- MY PREDICTION 9-3 OVERALL, 7-1 CONFERENCE
ALABAMA–BIRMINGHAM Head coach Garrick McGee enters his second year at the helm and has a lot to be excited about — the Blazers may be one of the most improved teams in the country. Two quarterbacks with starting experience return, as Austin Brown and Johnathan Perry will compete for the starting role. The Blazers also welcome back four out of five starting linemen, and the top four running backs also return led by 1,000 yard rusher Darrin Reaves. The Blazers will need a couple of receivers to step up in order for the offense to really take off. Overall I predict solid improvement over last years 28.3 PPG. This year the defense losses Marvin Burdette, an All-Conference performer the last two years. But the entire defensive line returns intact, and McGee is hoping the experienced front wall will be the focal point of the defense. Two replacements will need to be found in the secondary, and I expect much bigger play out of the defense this year. The schedule is tough, both in and out of conference. A three-game stretch in November features games against East Carolina, Marshall and Rice that should determine if the Blazers can get bowl eligible for the first time since 2004. I think they get to 6-6.
- KEY GAME…..NOVEMBER 21ST HOSTING RICE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH….. WR Nolen Smith, LB Shaq Jones, DB Jay Davis
- MY PREDICTION 6-6 OVERALL, 5-3 CONFERENCE
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI Todd Monken takes over the first team in FBS history to go from winning 12 games one season to ZERO the next! Monken will bring his high-flying offensive style to Hattiesburg and a team that was 0-12 last year. The offense has only four returning starters, but that suits Monken just fine as he wants to start from scratch. Alan Bridgford figures to start at quarterback. He was bigtime recruit out of high school, signed with California, and transferred here last year. Kendrick Hardy returns at running back after an injury shelved his season last year. The offensive line must replace three starters and the receiving corp will need to be overhauled as well. It might take time, but with Monken’s offense and good QB play from Bridgford, this offense could put up better numbers than the 19.7 PPG last year. The defense features nine returning starters and should best last season’s 37.8 PPG. They do lose Jamie Collins who led the team in tackles and sacks with 10, but everyone else brings back experience gained from last year. The Golden Eagles play road games at Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise in non-conference, but miss Tulsa and Rice from the Western Division. I expect big things from the Eagles in the future, as Monken puts his stamp on this team.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 26 HOSTING NORTH TEXAS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..QB Alan Bridgford, WR D. J. Thompson, DE Dasmun McCullum
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 4-4 CONFERENCE
MIDDLE TENNESSEE The Blue Raiders enter Conference USA coming off an 8-4 season where they were one of the elite teams in the Sun Belt Conference. They are led by head coach Rick Stockstill, who has done a solid job building this program the last seven years. This year, the offense will be key for the Raiders as they welcome back nine starters, including QB Logan Kilgore. Kilgore was solid, throwing for 2,571 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Raiders will miss the two players they need to replace — center Micah James and receiver Anthony Amos, both of which were All-Conference selections last year! Despite the fact they are stepping up the level of competition I would still expect an uptick in the offense. I am concerned about the defensive side of the ball. The Raiders gave up 4.6 yards per carry last season and could only generate only 14 sacks. Seven starters do return, but I really think the defense is going to struggle this season. The schedule is tough, but they do get home games against East Carolina and Marshall. I predict a drop in the standings this year, despite a potent offense.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSTING EAST CAROLINA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..C Nick Nunez, DL Patrick McNeil, LB David Jones
- MY PREDICTION 5-7 OVERALL, 3-5 CONFERENCE
FLORIDA ATLANTIC The Owls also begin their inaugural season in CUSA. Head coach Carl Pellini welcomed the move to the better conference in his second year, hoping to get the chance to show off his program on more of a national level. He will first need to find a starting QB, as there was a three-way battle in the spring. Jaquez Johnson, could get the nod early, but both Melvin German and Stephen Curtis could see action. Curtis is the only QB on the roster to have thrown a pass. The top four running backs return from last year, led by Jonathan Wallace. The top two receivers are also back. The offensive line was hit hard by graduation, as three new starters must be found.
The owls are going to have to lean hard on the defense this year. Nine starters return from a team that allowed 30.8 PPG. The bad news is that both departing players led the team in tackles! The strength of the team will be at defensive line, where all four starters return. The Owls play a brutal schedule. Non-conference games include games at Miami Fla. and Auburn. The Owls could be a couple of years away from competing in the conference.
- KEY GAME…..11/2 HOME VERSUS TULANE
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Hakeeme Ishmar, LB Andrae Kirk, DB Winfred Strickland
- MY PREDICTION – 2-10 OVERALL, 1-7 CONFERENCE
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL How many remember Ron Turner? Turner returns to the NCAA after spending the last eight years as an NFL assistant. He previously was the head coach at Illinois from 1997-04. Turner will have his work cut out for him, as the Panthers also make the move to CUSA from the Sun Belt. He takes over a team that went only 3-9 a year ago. He inherits QB Jake Medlock who had a solid year throwing for 2,127 with an outstanding 13/2 touchdown to interception ratio. The Panthers also get back leading rusher Kedrick Rhodes, explosive receiver Willis Wright who had a 25.3 yards per catch average, and James Louis transfers in from Ohio State, but the entire offensive line must be replaced! The defense also was hit hard by graduation, with only four starters returning. The Panthers allowed 31.7 PPG and that number is likely to go north. This team will struggle having to replace virtually everyone on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I am predicting a 2-10 season, with a win over Bethune-Cookman and a home win in conference play.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 26, HOSTING LOUISIANA TECH
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR James Louis, DB Demarkus Perkins, DE Giovani Francois
- MY PREDICTION – 2-10 OVERALL, 1-7 CONFERENCE