BY MICHAEL LEESE
Conference USA has seen the most turnover of any league during recent re-alignment. This season the departures include East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa, while Western Kentucky and Old Dominion join bringing the league to 13 teams, and next season Charlotte will join. Losing three of its powers has made the conference weaker. The conference has a total of seven bowl tie-ins. I think it will be difficult for seven teams to get the six wins needed for a bowl birth, as the non-conference schedules for these teams are difficult.
ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM The Blazers have always had a roster full of talented players, but that has not translated to the gridiron. Bill Clark assumes the hot seat, coming Birmingham from Jacksonville State, where he had an 11-4 mark. Johnathan Perry, graduated leaving the door open at quarterback for Cody Clements, a transfer from Washington State. Last year, Clements played last season at the JUCO where he threw for 16 touchdowns. He will benefit from the top three wideouts returning. The defense returns eight starters but this is the same defense that was torched for 43.8 PPG a year ago. The last three seasons have seen the Blazers go 8-28.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC Last season was full of turmoil as both the head coach and defensive coordinator resigned mid-season. That seemed to inspire the team, as the Owls went on to win the last four games to actually get bowl eligible at 6-6. Charlie Partridge has been hired to help turn around a team that has struggled the last five years. He has NO head coaching experience but does bring with him a resume of a no-nonsense defensive-oriented coach. He inherits Jaquez Johnson at quarterback, who could be one of the most exciting players in the league. He is a dual threat who threw for 1,878 yards and rushed for another 910 and was voted the C-USA newcomer of the year! Six starters return on defense and they should be solid once again. The Owls play a brutal non-conference schedule as they travel to Wyoming, Nebraska and Alabama.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL Last year was a huge disappointment for new head coach Ron Turner, as several key players were lost prior to the start of the season. This year, the coach welcomes back 17 starters from a team that went 1-11. There are 10 starters back on offense, with E.J. Hilliard, who started three games last year, the likely starter. The defense returns seven starters and should be improved. Many publications are calling for another long season. I believe in Turner and am confident that if they get solid quarterback play they will move up in the standings.
MARSHALL Remember this name — Rakeem Cato, he is one of the premier passers in the country. Cato has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 32 straight games, and could break the record of 38 set by Russell Wilson. He needs only 2,967 yards to take over as Marshall’s all-time passing leader. Head Coach Doc Holliday has what should be his best team in his four-year tenure. Besides Cato who threw 39 touchdown tosses a year ago, the leading receiver, Tommy Schuler and his 106 catches, return and they add in Angelo Jean-Louis a super-recruit. Thousand-yard rusher Essray Taliaferro departs, but transfers Steward Butler (Arizona State) and Kevin Grooms (Miami, Fla.) should fill the void. The defense should be the top unit in the league as eight starters return, with the defensive line the only question mark, losing two starters. However, they have three transfers from Clemson, USC and Miami waiting ready to step in. This team could easily compete in many tougher conferences and could walk through what is an easy schedule. The question could well be what a 12-0 record will do in the eyes of the Bowl committee.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE Rick Stockstill is the senior coach in the league, as he returns for his ninth season. With 13 starters back and the loss of several key performers, he will have to rely heavily on his experience. Austin Grammar takes over at quarterback but he has very little game experience. The offensive line is also in disarray as three starters departed a unit was thin to begin with. The defense will need to be the calling card of this years team. The top three tacklers return and giving them a solid nucleus. Like so many teams in this conference the Blue Raiders face a tough non-conference slate that could make it tough to get the six wins.
OLD DOMINION This is the second season for the Monarchs in both the FBS and CUSA. Head Coach Bobby Wilder welcomes back 17 starters. The offense is in good hands with the return of Taylor Heinicke. The senior threw for over 4,000 yards a year ago and the top four receivers are also back. The only concern I have on offense is on the line, where three new starters must be found. The defense losses only a linebacker from a year ago. Everyone else returns to a stop unit that should be much improved over last season’s 34 PPG. The schedule does feature road games at North Carolina State and Vanderbilt, but I expect the Monarchs to be in every conference game. If they catch a few breaks, they could get to six wins!
WESTERN KENTUCKY The Hilltoppers are the mystery team of C-USA. Jeff Brohm moves into the head coaching role from offensive coordinator replacing Bobby Petrino who moved onto Louisville. This will be his maiden voyage as a head coach, a WKU’s first season playing in C-USA. The Hilltoppers return a total of 12 starters but lose their two best players in running back Antonio Andrews (Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year) and Xavious Boyd (Defensive Player of the year). Brandon Doughty returns under center, but he had an up and down campaign throwing both 14 touchdown passes and interceptions. The defense must replace the entire linebacking corp. I think it will be hard to match last seasons eight win season, but I think Brohm is an excellent choice to guide this program.
LOUISIANA TECH Skip Holtz enters his second season at the helm of the Bulldogs. Last season was a disappointment, as inconsistent quarterback play plagued the team all season long. Holtz welcomes in Cody Sokol a transfer from Iowa. Sokol has a big strong-arm and is expected to beat out incumbent Ryan Higgins. Another potential impact transfer is Paul Turner who arrives from LSU to play receiver. The Bulldogs also get back the top four rushers from a season ago. If Turner and Sokol live up to their hype, this offense could really take off. The defense has a chance to be special,if Holtz can find a way to refurbish a depleted defensive line. The Bulldogs play at both Oklahoma and Alabama, but have a chance to win every league game as they avoid Marshall. Holtz is proven commodity, and will have the Bulldogs bowling in 2014!
NORTH TEXAS Last year, Dan McCarney surprised nearly everyone as he guided North Texas to a 6-2 conference mark in their first season in C-USA . A season ending loss to UTSA cost the Mean Green a chance at a conference championship. The Mean Green won’t sneak up on anyone this season. Only nine starters return, the least in the conference. Josh Greer looks like the replacement for Dylan Thompson, who finished his career as the teams second leading passer. Also gone from last years squad are leading rusher Brandin Boyd (1,120 yards) and the top two receivers. The defense also takes a major hit with the departure of seven starters and the entire defensive line needs to be retooled. I look for a slow start to the season, but would not be surprised to see them come on late in the year.
RICE Every once in a while the Rice Owls have one of those magical seasons. Last year was one of them, as David Bailiff guided the Owls to a 10-4 season, their first double-digit win season since 2008. This year I think it’s back to the norm, as the offense takes a huge hit with the loss of Quarterback Taylor McHargue. McHargue was a fixture at the position the last three seasons and was the first quarterback in Rice history to guide the Owls to back-to-back bowls. Also gone is battering-ram Charles Ross who led the team in rushing last year with 1,320 yards. The defense also took a big hit as arguably the top three players departed. Like many C-USA teams, the Owls face a tough non-conference slate that includes Notre Dame and Texas A&M. They also draw Marshall and Old Dominion from the East.
SOUTHERN MISS Since the Golden Eagles finished the 2011 season 12-2 with a 24-17 victory over Nevada, the Eagles have gone 1-23! Todd Monken was hired away from Oklahoma State last season to retool an offense that had gone dormant. The results were much the same as Allan Bridgford, a transfer from Cal, never really worked out. Nick Mullens took over midway last season and he himself had mixed results. Mullens returns under center and will need to show improvement on his touchdown-to-interception ratio of a year ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ricky Lloyd make a splash at the position. The top two receivers return as does an experienced offensive line. The defense is where i expect to see dramatic improvement. Eight starters return, including the top four tacklers. Often teams in the second year of a new coach show big improvement, and I think things are looking up in Hattiesburg.
UTEP If you’re searching for a team to bounce back in a big way, let me guide you to the UTEP Miners. Sean Kugler, who played here from 85-88, is back for his second season at head coach and he is hoping to get the Miners to their first bowl since 2010. I expect a breakout season from quarterback Jameill Showers. The former Texas A-M transfer was solid last year in his debut, but he could really shine this year. His supporting cast is talented with Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffrey returning in the backfield. The defense allowed 39.3 PPG a year ago, but should be vastly improved. Alex Villareal, a transfer from Oklahoma State, will be counted on to fill a vacant hole on the front wall. The Miners won’t be over-matched this season and have chance to win every conference game. I believe they will get the six wins needed for a bowl birth and could end up winning more!
UTSA Larry Coker was hired in 2009 to be the architect of this new football program. Coker had coached at Miami of Florida from 2001 to 2006, leading the Hurricanes to the BCS National Championship in 2001. The Roadrunners began play in the fall of 2011 joining the WAC. Last season UTSA made the jump to C-USA, finishing with an impressive 7-5 record. This year, hope runs eternal, as the Roadrunners are now eligible for their first bowl appearance. Coker welcomes back 20 starters, the most of any team in the FBS, losing only Quarterback Eric Soza. Tucker Carter, a dual-threat takes over, and he will cause match up concerns for opposing defenses. The non-conference schedule is challenging with Houston, Arizona and Oklahoma State. I do expect a winning season and a West Division title is within reach.
How they’ll finish
- MARSHALL 12-0 8-0
- OLD DOMINION 5-7 3-5
- WESTERN KENTUCKY 5-7 4-4
- MIDDLE TENNESSEE 4-8 3-5
- FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL 5-7 3-5
- FLORIDA ATLANTIC 3-9 3-5
- ALABAMA BIRMINGHAM 1-11 0-8
- UTSA 7-5 6-2
- SOUTHERN MISS 7-5 5-3
- LOUISIANA TECH 7-5 5-3
- UTEP 6-6 5-3
- RICE 5-7 4-4
- NORTH TEXAS 4-8 3-5