By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today, we look to Conference USA. First up, the East Division, where it’s shaping up to be a three team battle for the top once again.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
2) Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
3) Marshall Thundering Herd
4) Florida Atlantic Owls
5) FIU Panthers
6) Old Dominion Monarchs
7) Charlotte 49ers
Marshall Thundering Herd
Doc Holliday has put together three consecutive 10+ win seasons to go along with three straight bowl wins making the Herd one of the most consistent programs in the country in recent years. This year, the Herd go into the season with a second year starting QB and a strong offensive line. They look to be on track for another winning season though the non-conference schedule could make 10 wins a long shot.
The aforementioned second year starting QB is sophomore Chase Litton who had big shoes to fill following four year starter Rakeem Cato. Litton was able to avoid mistakes and perform well in his freshman season despite not getting the starting job until Week 3. He threw for 2,605 yards 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions and completed 60% of his passes last season. With an offensive line that has four returning starters including right tackle Clint Van Horn, who was granted a rare 6th year of eligibility, Litton should improve on those numbers this season. The Herd will hope for a better running game despite the loss of their top back Devon Johnson, who was injured much of last season. Hyleck Foster will carry the workload there after getting 100 carries for 463 yards and three touchdowns last season. Litton will have to develop chemistry with some new receivers as his top two targets from last year are gone. Overall, this group should at least equal and likely surpass last year’s 31 points and 400 yards per game.
On defense, there’s a few more holes that coordinator Chuck Heater has to plug. He loses two starters on the defensive line, two linebackers and three starters in the secondary. There is plenty of talent to work with however starting with the defensive end combination of sophomore Ryan Bee and senior Gary Thompson who combined for 13 sacks last season. The linebacker group returns senior DeVontre’a Tyler who was eighth on the team in tackles with 51 last season and the secondary has safety Tiquan Lang back, who was 2nd on the team in tackles last year with 91. The Herd allowed opponents just 18 points per game last season and though there is talent here, it’s tough to see them sustaining that mark with a less experienced group.
The schedule features non-conference games against Louisville, Pittsburgh and Akron, while in conference they benefit from getting the other two big boys on this side of C-USA (Middle Tennessee and WKU) at home. They do draw Southern Miss out of the West and have to travel to the Golden Eagles, but Marshall should be in contention for the division title once again.
Toughest Games: vs. Akron (9/17), vs. Louisville (9/24), @ Pittsburgh (10/1), @ Southern Miss (10/29), vs. Middle Tennessee (11/12), vs. WKU (11/26)
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
On paper, the 7-6 record for the team last year doesn’t pop out at you, but when you realize that they went 6-2 in C-USA and played Alabama, Illinois and Vanderbilt in non-conference play, it’s a little more impressive. This season, like Marshall, they have a second year QB and a good offensive line, but questions on the defensive side of the ball.
Brent Stockstill had a phenomenal freshman season throwing for 4,005 yards 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 66.7 percent of his passes. He heads into his sophomore campaign the clear starter and has back his top receiver in Richie James (108 receptions 1,346 yards 8 TDs) and a veteran line that has four starters back from last season. The running back spot is a bit of a question with the top runner gone and the 2nd guy (Shane Tucker) making the switch to wide receiver. However, the Raiders bring in Ole Miss transfer I’tavius Mathers who could take the starting role and run with it (no pun intended). They have a new offensive coordinator in Tony Franklin who comes over after spending the last three seasons in the same position at Cal mentoring Jared Goff, so that should certainly help with Stockstill’s development. This offense is more than capable of matching the 34 points and 457 yards per game they put up last season.
Defensive coordinator Tyron Nix will have some more work to do however, beginning with the linebackers as all three starters from last year are gone. Finding answers in that unit will be paramount as the defensive line in front of them will be solid with three starters back. In the secondary, two starters are back including 2nd team All C-USA corner Jeremy Cutrer who had three interceptions and 13 pass breakups last season. The key will be the linebackers group and how quickly they are able to get up to speed.
Alabama drops off the schedule this year only to be replaced by another SEC team in Missouri. They do get WKU at home but have to travel to Marshall in November and those two games are likely to decide this side of the conference.
Toughest Games: @ Vanderbilt (9/10), @ Bowling Green (9/17), vs. Louisiana Tech (9/24), vs. Western Kentucky (10/15), @ Missouri (10/22), @ Marshall (11/12)
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
The Hilltoppers went undefeated in conference play last season behind a ridiculous season from QB Brandon Doughty who threw for 5,055 yards 48 touchdowns and just nine picks. This season, Doughty is gone and Jeff Brohm will have to find a suitable replacement quickly if this team is to contend once again.
Despite having to replace a dominant QB, the Hilltoppers do have plenty of pieces on offense that make them seem loaded for success this year. Their offensive line returns entirely intact after allowing just 16 sacks last season. The top four running backs all return as do the top two receivers in Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris. Where the pressure comes is of course at the QB spot, but there may be some good answers as head coach Jeff Brohm brought in USF transfer Mike White and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson to compete with Nelson Fishback for the job. That battle still rages on, which can either be a good or bad sign depending how you look at it. Whoever grabs the job has large shoes to fill and no matter how well they play the offense will likely take a step back from last season’s 44 points and 526 yards per game.
On defense, just like the other two big boys, the Hilltoppers have more questions than answers heading into the season. Theirs come along the defensive line with three starters from last year’s unit departing. They do have junior DE Derik Overstreet back, and the linebacker group returns top tackler TJ McCollum (106) and adds in Louisville grad transfer Keith Brown, so there’s some good talent in the front seven despite the losses. The secondary loses both corners which will hurt in defending the pass. Like Marshall and Middle Tennessee I’d expect a step back from this group this season.
While Alabama drops off of MTSU’s schedule it hops onto the Hilltoppers’. In conference they have to travel to both of the other top dogs stadiums and draw Louisiana Tech out of the West. They won’t be undefeated in conference this season, but if they can find an answer at QB, they can certainly still be in the division race.
Toughest Games: @ Alabama (9/10), vs. Vanderbilt (9/24), @ Louisiana Tech (10/6), @ Middle Tennessee (10/15), @ Marshall (11/26)
Florida Atlantic Owls
The Owls are coming off a pair of 3-9 seasons so it may seem strange to see this group labeled as a sleeper in this division. The reason why is that they have one of the more experienced teams in this side, particularly on defense. But, it will all come down to finding a quarterback for Charlie Partridge in his third season.
Last season, Jason Driskel saw time in 10 games in relief of Jaquez Johnson who now departs. Driskel threw for 965 yards, but completed just 51 percent of his passes. As he enters his sophomore year, he has a couple of freshman to battle with for the job in red-shirt Daniel Parr and freshman Steven Frank. In addition, there’s a new offensive coordinator in town in Travis Trickett, who brings a spread offense that features the QB more, with him from Samford. That means more will be expected of Driskel if he wins the job. Good news is, the starter will have plenty of help. The top two running backs and four starters along the offensive line are back from last season and six of the top seven receivers return as well, though they do lose top guy Jenson Stoshak. The passing numbers weren’t great last year (213 ypg) but, in a more open offense expect bigger numbers.
Defensively, the key returnee is defensive end Trey Hendrickson. He had 13 sacks last season on his way to 1st team All C-USA status and the Owls as a team generated 35 sacks last year which is the most in a single season in school history. Considering they lose just one starter from the line and Hendrickson is back, the Owls pass rush should be good once again. At linebacker, sophomore Azeez Al-Shaair led the team in tackles as a freshman with 94 and returns this season alongside junior Nate Ozdemir and the unit gets Robert Relf back after he missed all of last season. Combined with a secondary returning key starters in sophomores Herb Miller and Jalen Young, this should be one of the best defenses in the conference.
The three key games for the Owls if they want to make a run at the division come on October 15th, 29th, and November 26th when they face Marshall, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. Two of those games are on the road which makes it tough to consider them a true contender.
Toughest Games: @ Miami, FL (9/10), @ Kansas State (9/17), @ Marshall (10/15), vs. WKU (10/29), @ Middle Tennessee (11/26)
Ron Turner has improved the win total each year of his tenure so far going from one to four to five wins. This season, he’ll have a very experienced offense led by a junior quarterback that should be his best group yet. The defense has some big questions to answer, but the Panthers should be in bowl range once again.
Quarterback Alex McGough now has two years of starting experience under his belt and last season completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,722 yards 21 touchdowns and just eight picks. He has his top two running backs, top three receivers and an offensive line that returns four starters from last year’s group. Last season the Panthers averaged 25.5 points and 348 yards per game and those numbers should both increase fairly dramatically with all of the talent that is back. The big question is how much the run game improves as they averaged just 110 yards on the ground last season. With the veteran line and two experienced running backs those numbers should go up, but, it still needs to be shown on the field.
On defense, the line is going to be the biggest problem for this team with no starters back from last year’s group and the departures accounting for 16.5 of the team’s 22 total sacks last season. New coordinator Ron Cooper will need to find an effective group quickly for this unit to be able to round into form before conference season. Top tackler Anthony Wint is back in the linebackers group and that unit gets back two of its starters from last year who missed significant time with injuries in Davison Colimon and Treyvon Williams. The secondary should be just fine as well with two starters back and multiple other players getting playing time last year due to injuries. The defensive line’s development will determine how serious a run this team makes at its first bowl game since 2011.
Toughest Games: vs Indiana (9/1), vs. Maryland (9/9), vs. Florida Atlantic (10/1), vs. Louisiana Tech (10/22), vs. Middle Tennessee (10/29), @ WKU (11/5), vs. Marshall (11/19)
Old Dominion Monarchs
After an 8-4 season in their first year at the FBS level in 2013, the wins have declined the past two seasons for Bobby Wilder’s team to six and five respectively. This season he has a more experienced group to work with but also a tough schedule. The Monarchs will be fighting to make their first bowl game ever this year.
The quarterback position yo-yoed back and forth between freshman Shuler Bentley and senior David Washington last season. Washington tore his ACL late in the year causing him to miss spring practices, but the two will still battle for the job again this year. There is a deep group of running backs here led by junior Ray Lawry, who had 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and should play a major role in the offense once again this year with the QB position still unsettled. They’ll be working behind an offensive line that has three starters back from last year which should certainly help in keeping the rushing numbers (152 yards per game) stable. In addition, the top two receivers in senior Zach Pascal and junior Jonathan Duhart return after combining for 115 receptions 1,606 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. The makings of a potent offense are here if they can find some stability at the QB spot.
On defense, the unit should be much better than the one that gave up 36 points and 437 yards per game last season. Three starters are back on the defensive line, two at the linebacker spot and three starters, including both corners, are back in the secondary. One name to watch out for is sophomore defensive end Oshane Ximines who had five sacks last season in starting all 12 games as a true freshman and was named to the conference’s all freshman team.
The Monarchs have away games against Appalachian State and NC State in the non-conference and draw Southern Miss from the West in conference. They do avoid playing Middle Tennessee but have to play Marshall on the road and get WKU at home. This team should compete for a bowl spot once again (5-5 last year before losing final two games) as long as they can figure out the QB spot.
Toughest Games: @ Appalachian State (9/10), @ NC State (9/17), @ WKU (10/22), vs. Marshall (11/5), vs. Southern Miss (11/12), @ Florida Atlantic (11/19)
This is just the fourth season of the existence of this program and only its second year in the FBS so there are still some growing pains for Brad Lambert’s group. However, coming off a 2-10 season, they do have their most experienced team and another full year of an FBS recruiting class, so progress can be made even if there’s only a win or two more this season.
Last season the 49ers used three QB’s in rotation throughout the year and as you can probably guess, the results weren’t the greatest with the trio combining for 2,089 yards 12 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. This year, they get the benefit of adding in junior college transfer Kevin Olson, who originally was recruited to play at Miami, FL. If Olson wins the job he’ll have the top four receivers back along with four starters on the offensive line so those passing numbers should improve dramatically. Top running back Kalif Phillips also returns after falling just short of 1,000 yards last season (961) and I’d expect him to surpass that 1,000 yard mark this season. This group should be much better than the 18 points and 337 yards per game totaled last season.
On defense their star player nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who has started every game in the school’s history, is back along with top tackler linebacker Nick Cook (73). Combined with a secondary that has two starters back, this group, like the offense, looks capable of improving on their 2015 numbers.
That all said, the schedule isn’t any easier with games at Louisville and Temple in the non-conference and having to play on the road against Florida atlantic, Marshall and Southern Miss in the conference slate. They were 0-8 in conference last season and I don’t expect that to be the case this year, but I still don’t see them picking up more than four wins.
Toughest Games: @ Louisville (9/1), @ Temple (9/24), @ FAU (10/8), @ Marshall (10/22), @ Southern Miss (11/5), vs. Middle Tennessee (11/19)
Division Winner- Marshall Thundering Herd
I’m going to stray away from the media picks here and go with Marshall to win the conference. Let me just say that I don’t expect any team to go undefeated in conference this season and it will be a three way fight for this division title into late November. But, Marshall has the benefit of playing the Blue Raiders and Hilltoppers on their home turf and in the end I think those two games make the difference and the Thundering Herd come out on top of the East.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.