2015 CFB Preview – Conference USA


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Can Marshall hold on to the Conference USA baton, or is it about to be handed off to Western Kentucky?

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

The Thundering Herd is the defending league champ, losing just one time in 2014. However, that loss came to Western Kentucky in an epic 67-66 overtime shootout in Huntington. And while Marshall’s two-deep is undergoing extensive renovations, the Toppers return plenty of regulars, headed by record-setting QB Brandon Doughty and an explosive offense.

Plus, this year’s matchup, which could decide the East Division, takes place on the Hill. An FCS program just six years ago, WKU has made an impressive transition under the watchful eyes of coaches Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and now Jeff Brohm.

Marshall will have a different look in 2015, which should not be confused with a rebuilding project. Doc Holliday and his staff have made sure that the Herd has as much speed and talent as anyone in the league. More, really. Plenty will hinge on the heir to Rakeem Cato at quarterback, Michael Birdsong, and a revamped front seven on D.

Middle Tennessee is the next best thing to the Hilltoppers and the Herd out of the East. But the Blue Raiders will have to escape the mediocrity that led to last season’s 6-6 mark and bowl-less postseason.

Florida Atlantic and Florida International are two to watch very closely this season. Both the Owls and the Panthers possess the backfield experience and the playmakers on D to reverse last year’s losing record. If either inconsistent program can get on a roll, it could be a special year in Miami or Boca Raton.

Old Dominion and FBS newcomer Charlotte will continue their search for stability at college football’s highest level of competition. The Monarchs played well in their Conference USA debut, but will be replacing pivotal QB Taylor Heinicke. And while the 49ers return a slew of starters, it remains to be seen how they’ll project to a much tougher schedule.

No one matches up better with Western Kentucky and Marshall than Louisiana Tech, the frontrunner to repeat as West Division champion. The Bulldogs boast plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but a quarterback needs to fill the void left by Cody Sokol. Enter Jeff Driskel, the former Gator attempting to revive his sagging career in Ruston.

La Tech’s toughest challenge in the West will come from Rice and UTEP. The Owls know how to win, appearing in three straight bowl games, and will led by talented senior QB Driphus Jackson. The Miners are coming off a building block year, and are beginning to erect an identity for third-year head coach Sean Kugler.

As far as West Division contention goes, Southern Miss, North Texas and UTSA are on the outside looking in. Each has too many holes compared to the contenders. The Golden Eagles, though, have an opportunity to break out of this pack and aim for a first bowl game in four years. If the team can improve at the line of scrimmage, there are enough skill players to make a much-needed push toward .500.

For a change, Conference USA hasn’t shrunk upon losing members to the American Athletic Conference. In fact, it has grown by one with the addition of Charlotte. The league will spend this fall staging tight races in each division, culminating in the East-West title game on Dec. 5. Western Kentucky wants to be this year’s Marshall, even threatening to land the Group of Five’s automatic bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game. But the Herd isn’t going away, and Louisiana Tech was just four points away from hoisting the hardware a year ago.

Team That’ll Surprise
UTEP – Now that the Miners were able to get over the hump in Sean Kugler’s second season, they might be ready to take the next step by competing for the West Division. Kugler has initiated an overhaul that specifically attacked this program’s physicality. Or lack of it. And it’s working. Behind RB Aaron Jones and an assertive line, UTEP will again run the ball with authority. Meanwhile, the D hopes to continue progressing after making a quantum leap last fall. If the Miners are even competent behind center, they’re capable of winning eight for the first time in a decade.

Team That’ll Disappoint
Rice – Since just five of Conference USA’s 13 teams finished above .500 in 2014, few even qualify as potential candidates to disappoint. Marshall, Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech have the right mix of talent to sustain their recent success, and UTEP is trending north. The Owls, though, could be more vulnerable than the other schools in the league’s upper class. The backfield is set with QB Driphus Jackson and backs Darik Dillard and Jowan Davis. But both lines were hit hard by graduation, particularly after all-star DE Brian Nordstrom left school for a private sector job. And Rice won’t be able to hang with the likes of Brandon Doughty, Michael Birdsong or Jeff Driskel if the secondary doesn’t improve dramatically.

Game of the Year … Marshall at Western Kentucky, Nov. 27. No Conference USA game will garner more attention than this shootout between two of the league’s premier programs. Sure, the opener with Purdue will be meaningful to the Herd since it got no shot at a Power Five opponent during last year’s 13-win stampede. But the season-ending trip to the Hill will be far more impactful. Remember, WKU is the only team that defeated Marshall in 2014, a 67-66 thriller that immediately went into the time capsule. And when the two meet this fall, not only will points come at a furious pace, but the East Division could hinge on the outcome as well.

5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight …
1. QB Brandon Doughty, Sr. Western Kentucky
2. CB Richard Leonard, Sr. Florida International
3. S Xavier Woods, Jr. Louisiana Tech
4. RB Aaron Jones, Jr. UTEP
5. WR Deon-Tay McManus, Soph. Marshall

Coach on the Hot Seat
Todd Monken, Southern Miss – This looked as if it might be the perennial domain of Ron Turner until his second Florida International team improved by three wins and darn near outscored opponents for the year. Monken’s Eagles progressed, too, but not quite as noticeably. Monken has won just four games in two years in Hattiesburg, and he carries a five-game losing streak into 2015. Sure, he inherited a mess form Ellis Johnson, but this program has a proud history, including 12 wins and a league championship just four years ago. Monken has plenty of returning players and a transfer quarterback from TCU, Tyler Matthews, capable of sparking the offense. If USM can’t move closer to .500 this year, the administration will be forced to take stock of its leadership, beginning with the head coach.

5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. Florida Atlantic at Tulsa, Sept. 5
2. Florida International at UMass, Oct. 3
3. Southern Miss at Texas State, Sept. 19
4. Appalachian State at Old Dominion, Sept. 26
5. North Texas at SMU, Sept. 12

Bold Statement s

– QB Michael Birdsong will make Marshall fans quickly forget Rakeem Cato. Birdsong has a better arm than Cato, experience from his days at James Madison and a great supporting cast at the skill positions.

– Western Kentucky will drop at least one game as a favorite. Yeah, Brandon Doughty and the offense will continue rewriting records, but this is the same D that yielded 40 points per game in 2014.

– Jeff Driskel will channel his inner Cody Sokol by salvaging his career as a Louisiana Tech senior. It still won’t have too much impact on his NFL prospects, though.

– Florida International will eke out its third-ever bowl berth, providing Ron Turner with much-needed job security. The Panthers are dangerous on defense and very deep at running back.

– QB Driphus Jackson will have a fantastic finale at Rice, offset only by the play of a defense that prevents the Owls from reaching their stated team goals.

– UTEP RB Aaron Jones will vie for Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. He not only has the big-play talent, but also a bare-knuckle line that will maul at the point of attack.

– The Florida Atlantic D-line will dominate in league play now that DT Brandin Bryant is on his way back from an ACL tear. A healthy Bryant plus Trevon Coley will give opponents fits from the inside.

– All-stars Kevin Byard and T.T. Barber will again spearhead the Middle Tennessee defense, but former Marine Steven Rhodes will generate the most headlines and loudest cheers in Murfreesboro.

– Growing weary of trying to survive in Denton, Dan McCarney will announce at some point during the year that his fifth season at North Texas will be his last one.

– Southern Miss will finally begin winning games through the air. Todd Monken has a quarterback to build around, TCU expat Tyler Matthews, and the Michael Thomas-led receivers have significant potential.

– Jarveon Williams will give UTSA coach Larry Coker the back he’s looking for, but it won’t be enough to get the Roadrunners back on track.

– While just a redshirt freshman, Old Dominion QB Shuler Bentley will flash frequent indications that he’s the future at the position in Norfolk.

– In terms of program doppelgangers, newcomer Charlotte will be Old Dominion. Skills guys, like RB Kalif Phillips and WR Austin Duke will keep things interesting, but the D isn’t ready to compete at this level.

5 Best Pro Prospects
1. RB Devon Johnson, Sr. Marshall
2. TE Jonnu Smith, Jr. Florida International
3. DT Vernon Butler, Sr. Louisiana Tech
4. RB Kenneth Dixon, Sr. Louisiana Tech
5. OT Clint Van Horn, Sr. Marshall

5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. QB Michael Birdsong for Rakeem Cato, Marshall
2. DE Graysen Schantz for Brian Nordstrom, Rice
3. C Michael Selby for Chris Jasperse, Marshall
4. CB Cre’von LeBlanc for D’Joun Smith, Florida Atlantic
5. DE Deldrick Canty for Houston Bates, Louisiana Tech

2015 Team Previews
Charlotte
Florida Atlantic
Florida International
Louisiana Tech
Marshall
Middle Tennessee
North Texas
Old Dominion
Rice
Southern Miss
UTEP
UTSA
WKU
Ten Best Conference USA Players
1. QB Brandon Doughty, Sr. WKU
2. RB Devon Johnson, Sr. Marshall
3. RB Leon Allen, Sr. WKU
4. CB Richard Leonard, Sr. FIU
5. RB Kenneth Dixon, Sr. LT
6. SS Kevin Byard, Sr. MT
7. RB Aaron Jones, Jr. UT
8. QB Driphus Jackson, Sr. Rice
9. TE Jonnu Smith, Jr. FIU
10. DE Michael Wakefield, Sr. FIU