In today’s second conference preview, we take a look at Conference USA. Last year, Marshall was oh so close to earning the league’s first ever major bowl bid, but the Thundering Herd dropped a heartbreaker in their final regular season game to Western Kentucky in a game that looked more like basketball on turf. WKU won that contest 67-66, as both teams topped 700 total yards.
This year, Western Kentucky figures to be the hunted, while Marshall is the hunter. The two rivals square off in Bowling Green, KY, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the winner should represent the East Division in the CUSA Championship Game.
Middle Tennessee has never won the conference title or even the East Division title, but the Blue Raiders have consistently stayed in the upper tier of teams every season. 2015 should be no different: look for MT to become bowl eligible but not compete for the division title.
Coach Ron Turner took over a Florida International program that had fallen on hard times, and he guided the Panthers to a 1-11 finish in his first season. Last year, FIU improved by three games and suffered four close losses. Look for the Panthers to win more of those close games this year, and FIU could be the surprise contender in the East. We expect Turner’s crew to compete for bowl eligibility.
Old Dominion eeked out a .500 record last year by winning its final three games by the narrowest of margins. Gone is the school’s all-time leading passer and all-time leading receiver, but the Monarchs have enough returning talent and a favorable enough schedule to repeat their 6-6 record.
Florida Atlantic will avoid the cellar this year because there is a new team in the FBS, but the Owls are clearly a bottom feeder this season. Coach Charlie Partridge did a fine job in year one with very little depth, but he guided the Owls to an upset over WKU and had the Owls at 3-4 before the team collapsed in the final month due to fatigue. It will be another long year in Boca Raton, but Partridge will eventually turn things around.
Welcome the Charlotte 49ers to the world of FBS football. Unlike a lot of schools that have a long history at lower classifications, Charlotte is only in its third year of football history. The 49ers finished 5-6 in both of the two prior seasons, but those five wins came against the likes of Johnson C. Smith, Wesley, Chowan, and Campbell. The 2015 schedule sees 11 FBS schools including a road trip to Kentucky. It will be a long season for Coach Brad Lambert’s club, as the 49ers will have to play above their talent level to win more than one game.
In the West Division, Louisiana Tech is the clear-cut favorite, but the Bulldogs are not infallible. Former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel will try to be an excellent game-manager for Coach Skip Holtz, but he has an excellent group of receivers and pass-catching backs, so look for his passing statistics to improve.
Rice has been to bowl games for three consecutive seasons, and the Owls should make it four in a row in 2015. Coach David Bailiff has to rebuild his defense with the loss of seven of his top nine tacklers, but his offense will control the ball and keep the young defense off the field.
Our surprise sleeper team in the West is Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles tanked when former coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina, winning just four games in the last three years. Third year coach Todd Monken’s offense should begin to look more like the Oklahoma State offense where he coached under Mike Gundy. USM should score more than 25 points per game for the first time since 2011, and the record should be above .500 in the league. A tough non-conference schedule which includes games against Mississippi State and Nebraska is the only thing that will prevent the Eagles from topping .500 overall. Still, we see this team breaking even and earning a bowl bid this year.
Sean Kugler’s UTEP Miners were the big surprise in the league last year, going 7-5 in the regular season and earning a trip to the New Mexico Bowl. This year, UTEP has too many holes to fill on both sides of the ball to repeat their success. Look for the Miners to see a record reversal.
North Texas has suffered through nine losing seasons in the last 10 years. Coach Dan McCarney is considered one of the more competent head coaches in the game, but even the most competent coaches cannot win without the horses. The Mean Green have ponies, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so it will be another long year in Denton.
UT-San Antonio was supposed to contend for the 2014 CUSA West Division Title and the overall league title, and the Roadrunners began the season by trouncing Houston by 20 points. Then, the season turned sour in San Antonio, as the Roadrunners walked home to a 4-8 record. The bulk of the experienced roster is now gone, and this team looks like a threat to wear the collar in league play.
Here is how the media voted at the CUSA media days earlier this summer.
|Conference USA Media Poll|
Here is the media’s preseason all-CUSA team.
|Conference USA Preseason All-Conference Team|
|Quarterback||Brandon Doughty||Western Kentucky|
|Running Back||Leon Allen||Western Kentucky|
|Running Back||Kenneth Dixon||Louisiana Tech|
|Running Back||Devon Johnson||Marshall|
|Running Back||Aaron Jones||UTEP|
|Wide Receiver||Jared Dangerfield||Western Kentucky|
|Wide Receiver||Carlos Harris||North Texas|
|Wide Receiver||Zach Pascal||Old Dominion|
|Wide Receiver||Trent Taylor||Louisiana Tech|
|Tight End||Jonnu Smith||Florida Int’l|
|Offensive Line||Jordan Budwig||Florida Int’l|
|Offensive Line||Darius Johnson||Middle Tennessee|
|Offensive Line||Kaydon Kirby||North Texas|
|Offensive Line||Andrew Reue||Rice|
|Offensive Line||Clint Van Horn||Marshall|
|Defensive Line||Vernon Butler||Louisiana Tech|
|Defensive Line||Jason Neill||UTSA|
|Defensive Line||Jarquez Samuel||Marshall|
|Defensive Line||Michael Smith||Southern Miss|
|Defensive Line||Michael Wakefield||Florida Int’l|
|Linebacker||T. T. Barber||Middle Tennessee|
|Linebacker||D. J. Hunter||Marshall|
|Defensive Back||Kevin Byard||Middle Tennessee|
|Defensive Back||Crevon LeBlanc||Florida Atlantic|
|Defensive Back||Richard Leonard||Florida Int’l|
|Defensive Back||Bennett Okotcha||UTSA|
|Defensive Back||Wonderful Terry||Western Kentucky|
|Defensive Back||Xavier Woods||Louisiana Tech|
|Kicker||Trevor Moore||North Texas|
|Kick Returner||Autrey Golden||UTEP|
|Punt Returner||Richard Leonard||Florida Int’l|
|Long Snapper||Matt Cincotta||Marshall|
Here are our three computer ratings and average for each of the teams.
And, here are the PiRate Ratings won-loss predictions and bowl projections.
|PiRate Ratings Predicted Records|
|1||Western Kentucky||7-1||10-3 *||Bahamas|
|3||Middle Tennessee||5-3||6-6||New Orleans|
|4||Florida Int’l||5-3||6-6||Arizona %|
|1||Louisiana Tech||7-1||9-4 ^||Boca Raton|
|3||Southern Miss||5-3||6-6||Heart of Dallas|
|*||Wins Title Game|
|^||Loses Title Game|
|%||The Arizona Bowl has no sponsor and may not be played in 2015|
Coming Next: The Mid-American Conference