Conference USA Football Preview by Kyle Montgomery

Big Questions

  • Does Marshall make a third-straight Conference USA Championship game?
  • Can Western Kentucky or Middle Tennessee upend the Thundering Herd this year?
  • Will Louisiana Tech win a second straight West Division title?
  • Can UTEP repeat last year’s surprising success?
  • Can Rice make a third-consecutive bowl game?
  • How will Charlotte fair in its first FBS season?

Big Games

  • 9/10 – Louisiana Tech at Western Kentucky
  • 10/3 – Western Kentucky at Rice
  • 10/10 – Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky
  • 10/24 – Middle Tennessee at Louisiana Tech
  • 10/30 – Louisiana Tech at Rice
  • 10/31 – Florida International at Florida Atlantic
  • 11/6 – Rice at UTEP
  • 11/7 – Marshall at Middle Tennessee
  • 11/21 – Louisiana Tech at UTEP
  • 11/27 – Marshall at Western Kentucky

Big-Impact Newcomers

  • WR: Michael Birdsong – Marshall (Transfers from James Madison, presumed starter)
  • DT: Ricardo Williams – Marshall (Transfers from Miami, played in 13 games in 2013)
  • OLB: Shadow Williams – Old Dominion (Transfers from Arizona, played WR in 2013)
  • WR: Uriah Lemay – Charlotte (Transfers from Georgia)
  • QB: Jeff Driskel – Louisiana Tech (Transfers from Florida, started 15 games from 2012-2014)
  • DT: Alex Villarreal – UTEP (Transfers from Oklahoma State)
  • TE: MJ McFarland – UTEP (Transfers from Texas)
  • RB: Justice Hayes – Southern Miss (Transfers from Michigan, played in 23 games from 2012-2014)
  • QB: Russell Belomy – UTSA (Transfers from Michigan, played in six games)

Team-by-Team Previews

East Division

Charlotte – The 49ers will be making their FBS debut in 2015, in just their third season as a football program. Despite being a brand new program, this team went 5-6 in both their seasons at the FCS level, and they also return 17 starters from last season. The 49ers starting QB Matt Johnson had a good 2014 season where he threw for 1,941 yards and 13 TDs, along with 383 yards rushing and another score in just eight starts. The 49ers running attack is led by Kalif Phillips, who ran for 1,436 yards and 20 TDs last season as a Sophomore. Another great player for this 49ers team is Junior WR Austin Duke, who put up great numbers in 2014 hauling in 79 receptions for 1,373 yards and 9 TDs. This Charlotte team will be an interesting one to watch in 2015 to see how they transfer to FBS play.

Florida Atlantic – The Owls were a disappointing 3-9 in 2014 after having higher expectations than usual going into last season. Though the 3-9 record may seem a little skewed (lost four games by a combined eight points), the Owls return 12 starters in 2015 and will look to exceed expectations this year. At the helm of this FAU team will be QB Jaquez Johnson, who had a great Junior season where he threw for 2,215 yards and 17 TDs to go along with 513 yards and seven more scores on the ground. Johnson cannot do it all for the Owls however, and he will need either RB Jay Warren (571 yards in 2014) or RB Greg Howell (253 yards in 2014) to step up in the run game to take the slack off of him. Johnson will also need a receiver to step up in 2015, as the Owls return one of their four leading receivers from last season in Jenson Stoshak (508 yards and two scores last year). Look for Kalib Woods to step up big time in the receiving game this year for the Owls, and Tony Tomas to make an impact as well. The Owls defense will need to sharpen up in 2015 as they allowed 34.4 PPG to opposing teams, and with six starters returning, that number should drop this season. The Owls will need position players and the defense to step up in 2015 if they want to make their first bowl game since 2008, and that could very well happen in 2015.

Florida International – The Panthers posted a 4-8 record in 2014 (quadrupled their win total from 2013), and lost four games by a field goal or less. This season, they return 15 starters from that 2014 team, and will look for consistent QB play from Sophomore Alex McGough, who threw for 1,680 yards and 14 TDs (along with 10 INT’s) as a Freshman. McGough will benefit from having his best receiver back in Jonnu Smith, who had a great Sophomore season catching 61 passes for 710 yards along with 8 TDs, while earning first-team Conference USA honors. The Panthers will also feature a duo of running backs who had decent seasons in 2014 in Anthon Samuel (582 yards and five TDs) and Alex Gardner (582 yards and one TD), and both will look to improve upon those numbers this season. The Panthers had one of the surprisingly best defenses in Conference USA in 2014 where they allowed just 24.8 PPG (50th overall in the nation), and they return eight starters from that unit and could very easily put up better statistics in 2015. The Panthers kick off the season with two tough road games at UCF and Indiana, but this team is improved and should flirt with bowl eligibility.

Marshall – The Thundering Herd enjoyed an excellent campaign in 2014 by going 13-1, winning the Conference USA Championship, and beating Northern Illinois 52-23 in the Boca Raton Bowl. However, the one blemish on Marshall’s record last year was a 66-67 loss to Western Kentucky in OT, which unfortunately cost them a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl. This year, the Thundering Herd return eleven starters from that team but will have to replace the school’s all-time leading passer in Rakeem Cato. His successor will likely be James Madison transfer Michael Birdsong, who will look to take over a high-powered offense that features one of the best running backs in the nation in Devon Johnson. Johnson, a Senior, ran for 1,767 yards and 17 TDs last season and became one of, if not the best back in Conference USA. The Thundering Herd’s offense also features three great receivers in Angelo Jean-Louis, Davonte Allen and Deontay McManus who combined to put up 1,456 yards and 16 TD’s last season. The Herd also return five members from a defense that allowed 20.8 PPG last season (22nd in the nation), and with a handful of transfers starting for them this year, they may be even better in 2015. The Herd open the season with four winnable non-conference games, and getting double-digit wins for the third consecutive season is possible.

Middle Tennessee – The Blue Raiders went 6-6 in 2014, but did not receiver a bowl bid. This year, the Blue Raiders will play with a chip on their soldier as they return 16 starters (eight on both sides of the ball) from last years team, including QB Austin Grammer, who looks to improve upon his Sophomore season. Grammer threw for 2,557 yards and 17 TDs (along with 12 INT’s) last season, while also adding for 442 yards and six more scores on the ground. Grammer has proved at times he is a great dual-threat QB, and his running ability adds to an already stellar running attack that features two great backs in Shane Tucker (486 yards and 8 TDs in 2014) and Jordan Parker (546 yards and 2 TDs in 2014). This offense could put up better numbers than they did in 2014 (31.6 PPG) but they will have to improve on the defensive side where they allowed 31.5 PPG (95th in the nation), especially in pass defense where they allowed 269.7 YPG to opposing QB’s. Despite a brutal road game at Alabama in week two and another tough road contest in week four against Illinois, I expect this Blue Raider team to have a good 2015 season and head to a bowl game.

Old Dominion – The Monarchs had a decent second season in the FBS posting a 6-6 record while missing out on a bowl game. It’s been a nice adjustment for ODU who has gone 14-10 in two seasons since joining the FBS two years ago (albeit playing FCS schools in 2013). This season, the Monarchs lose their all-time leading passer in Taylor Heinicke, and will look for Redshirt Freshman Shuler Bentley to become Heinicke’s successor. Bentley has yet to throw a pass in college, but he will have a stacked receiving corp that features Zach Pascal (743 yards and 7 TDs in 2014), David Washington (599 yards and 4 TDs in 2014) and Melvin Vaughn (315 yards and 3 TDs in just four starts). Bentley will also be the beneficiary of having Sophomore RB Ray Lawry behind him, as he returns after an excellent Freshman season that saw him run for 947 yards and 16 scores. The Monarchs will have to fix their defensive issues that plagued them in 2014 that saw them allow 38.0 PPG (115th in the nation), and with only five starters returning, those numbers may not improve. Old Dominion could very well start the season 2-0 if they can hold off Eastern Michigan and Norfolk State, and they could contend for a bowl bid in 2015, but don’t be surprised if this team struggles and has their first losing season as an FBS team.

Western Kentucky – The Hilltoppers had a great first season under first year head coach Jeff Brohm posting an 8-5 record with a thrilling bowl victory over Central Michigan. This year, the Hilltoppers return 16 starters from last years team, and at the helm of those starters is their exceptional QB Brandon Doughty. Doughty, a Senior, led the nation in passing yards (4,830) and passing TDs (49) last season, and while those numbers will be tough to match, he still should put up huge numbers again in 2015. The Hilltoppers are stacked outside of Doughty as well as they have a star RB in Leon Allen, who also put up a fabulous year in 2015 where he rushed for 1,542 yards and 13 TDs (along with 476 receiving yards and three more scores). As if having two of the best players in the conference isn’t enough, the Hilltoppers also have two of the top receivers in the conference in Jared Dangerfield (825 yards and 11 TDs) and Taywan Taylor (767 yard and 7 TDs), both of whom return looking to put up better numbers in 2015. The only area the Hilltoppers struggle is on the defensive side of the ball, where they gave up 39.3 PPG (122nd in the nation) last season, but with nine starters back from that unit, that number could drop by about 10 PPG in 2015. The Hilltoppers get three tough non conference road games throughout the season (Vanderbilt, Indiana and LSU), but you should fully expect this team to top last seasons eight game win total and contend for the Conference USA Championship in December.

West Division

Louisiana Tech – The Bulldogs had an excellent season in 2014 posting a 9-5 record along with a West division championship and a 35-18 bowl game victory over Illinois. This season, the Bulldogs return 13 starters from that team, but do get Florida transfer QB Jeff Driskel, who could put up very big numbers in Skip Holtz’s offense. Driskel, a Senior, started 15 games as Florida between 2012 and 2014, but never really found a groove in the offense and realizing he might not be the starter in 2015, he decided to transfer to LA Tech. Driskel should have an excellent season in 2015, as he benefits from having one of the conferences best RBs behind him in Kenneth Dixon. Dixon had an incredible 2014 season when he ran for 1,299 yards and 22 TDs, to go along with 385 yards and six more scores receiving. Driskel also benefits from having the top three receivers from this Bulldogs team in Trent Taylor, Carlos Henderson and Paul Turner all back in 2015. The Bulldogs are poised to have an amazing year.  Games at Kansas State and Mississippi State will be challenging, but also provide the opportunity for a magical year.

North Texas – The Mean Green were a measly 4-8 in 2014 after making it to a bowl game for the first time in nine years in 2013. This wasn’t the season the Mean Green were thinking they would have going into the season, but this year they return 12 starts and go into 2015 looking to top last seasons win total. The Mean Green will have to find a starting QB in 2015, as they had both Andrew McNulty (1,295 yards and 6 TDs along with 7 INT’s) and Dajon Williams (607 yards, 7 TD’s and 128 rushing yards) both saw starts in 2014. McNulty seems to have nailed down the starting job, but that could change as the season progresses. The run game for North Texas will be lead by Antoine Jimmerson, who ran for 589 yards and 5 TDs in 2014 and Sophomore Jeffrey Wilson, who was impressive during spring camp, should also see carries throughout the year. The Mean Green do have a pretty good receiver on their team in 2015 in Senior Carlos Harris, who caught 70 passes for 863 yards and 3 TDs last season, and figures to be the go-to guy for whoever starts at QB. The Mean Green will have a tough, but not brutal schedule in 2015 and they should match last year’s win total of four games, but bowl game expectations should be halted.

Rice – The Owls put together another good season in 2014 posting an 8-5 record with a 30-6 bowl victory over Fresno State in the Hawaii Bowl. This season, the Owls unfortunately return just nine starters from last season, but one of those states is QB Driphus Jackson, who will lead the team in 2015. Jackson, a Senior, had a spectacular Junior season as he threw for 2,842 yards and 24 TDs , while he also added 401 yards on the ground. The Owls will also have a great tandem at RB in 2015 as both Jowan Davis (956 yards and 6 TDs last season) and Darik Dillard (652 yards and 11 TDs) both return and hope to help the Rice offense out as much as they both did last year. The Owls will need a receiver to step up in 2015 as both Jordan Taylor and Mario Hull both departed, and expectations should be high for Senior Dennis Parks, who caught 29 passes for 389 yards last season in limited action. The Owls defense will need to step up in 2015 as they allowed 30.3 PPG in 2014 and with only three staters back, those numbers could potentially be worse this season. The Owls face two tough road tasks early in the season against Texas and Baylor, but this is a team you can never count out of making a bowl game, and you should expect to see them back in one in 2015.

Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles had another disappointing season in 2014, posting a 3-9 record, despite tripling their win total from 2013. This season however, the Eagles return 15 starters from last years team and they look to post their first winning season since 2011. Southern Miss will be led by Junior QB Nick Mullens, who had an okay Sophomore year that saw him throw for 2,470 yards along with 12 TDs, but he also threw nine INT’s. He will need to perform better in 2015 if the Eagles want to post a winning season, and having Michigan transfer RB Justin Hayes (who played in 23 games at Michigan), should help that cause. Mullens also benefits from having four of his top five receivers from last season all return, and he should have plenty of options to throw too. The defense will need to improve majorly for the Golden Eagles in 2015 as they allowed 35.4 PPG (111th in the nation), and with five starters back, that total should go down this season. The Eagles open the season at home against a good Mississippi State team, and then have two tough road matches against Texas State and Nebraska.

UTEP – The Miners had a good season in 2014 compared to seasons past when they posted a 7-6 record with a 6-21 loss to BYU in the New Mexico bowl. The Miners were somewhat of a surprise team last season, as they were not picked by many to reach a bowl game, but they overcame the odds and did just that. This season, the Miners return 11 starters from last year’s team, and will have a new face at QB as Sophomore Mack Leftwich will take over the offense in 2015. Leftwich will benefit from having a great RB in Aaron Jones (1,321 yards and 11 TDs) behind him, which should take some of the pressure off of him. Leftwich will need to find a go-to receiver however as only one of UTEP’s leading receivers from last year (Autrey Golden), returns to the team this season. The Miners will begin the season with two very tough road contests at Arkansas and Texas Tech, but they also draw winnable games against New Mexico State and Incarnate Word in the next two games. Expect the Miners to put together another nice season, and they could find a second straight bowl game.

UTSA – The Roadrunners posted a 4-8 record in 2014, despite beating Houston and only losing to Arizona by three points. This season however, the Roadrunners return only six total starters from last season, and only see one position player return on the offensive side of the ball. The good news for this team however is they get Michigan transfer QB Russell Bellomy, who was ineffective in his minimal playing time at Michigan (four INT’s in just 23 pass attempts). Bellomy leads an offense that only sees TE David Morgan (255 yards last season) return, but does get an experienced RB back in Jarveon Williams, who ran for 325 yards and 3 TDs last season who should see plenty of carries in 2015. The Roadrunners defense was decent in 2014 where they allowed 25.9 PPG to opposing teams, but that number could go up in 2015 as only four starters return from that unit. The Roadrunners get a brutal early non conference schedule that sees them face off against Arizona, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Colorado State, and a 0-4 start could indicate how the season goes for this Roadrunners team.

Predicted Standings

East

  • Western Kentucky; 9-3 (7-1)
  • Marshall; 10-2 (6-2)
  • Middle Tennessee State; 7-5 (6-2)
  • Florida International; 5-7 (4-4)
  • Florida Atlantic; 5-7 (3-5)
  • Old Dominion; 4-8 (2-6)
  • Charlotte; 1-11 (0-8)

West

  • Louisiana Tech; 10-2 (8-0)
  • UTEP; 7-5 (5-3)
  • Rice; 7-5 (5-3)
  • Southern Miss; 5-7 (4-4)
  • North Texas; 4-8 (2-6)
  • UTSA; 2-10 (2-6)

Projected Conference USA Championship: Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech

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