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, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl bidders are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid, non-bowl teams aren’t. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.
The East division of C-USA has been dominated by Western Kentucky in the past two seasons with the Hilltoppers racking up a 15-1 conference record en route to two C-USA titles and a pair of bowl wins. Get ready for more of the same as WKU is loaded once more.
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
The Hilltoppers have been known for their prolific offense during the course of the Jeff Brohm era, averaging 44 PPG or more during each of his three seasons at the helm. Now, with Brohm moving on to take the Purdue job, in comes former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. There are enough returning pieces to believe that the high-powered offense will continue in Year 1 under Sanford.
QB Mike White returns for his senior season after putting up prolific numbers in his first year as a starter at WKU last year (67.3% 4,363 yards 37 TD 7 INT). In the backfield with him, the Hilltoppers hope for a return to full health from backs DeAndre Ferby (164 carries 650 yards 11 TD in 2015) and Leon Allen (272 carries 1,572 yards 13 TD in ’14). The biggest loss is at receiver, where the speedy Taywan Taylor has moved on to the NFL. Some good options exist however, like senior Nacarius Fant. The offensive line is a bit of a question mark as they’ll need to replace three starters, but there are some good juniors and seniors in the mix for those spots.
On defense, WKU was surprisingly stingy last year, allowing just 24.6 PPG and 376.6 yards per game down nearly thirty yards and a full point from 2015. There’s some big holes to fill as they lose their top three tacklers from last year’s team including two 1st team C-USA players. However, guys like DT Chris Johnston (43 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4 sacks), LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe (64 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) and corners De’Andre Simmons and Joe Brown (18 PBU 2 INT) should help this unit continue to be productive. They do have to face two of their biggest division challengers on the road in Old Dominion (10/20) and Marshall (11/11) but, I’d expect them to be right in the thick of things again and pushing 10 wins. Over 9.5 wins
Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
Coach Rick Stockstill has led the Blue Raiders to five straight seasons of six wins or more and heading into 2017 with 12 returning starts (6 offense, 6 defense), his team looks primed to once again be in postseason play and in the hunt for the East division crown.
The biggest loss on offense is do-everything rusher I’tavius Mathers, who led the team in rushing and was third in receiving last season. However, QB Brent Stockstill (Rick’s son) enters his junior year with over 7,000 yards passing and 60 passing TDs under his belt. He’ll have his top two receivers to work with as Richie James (105 receptions 1,625 yards 12 TD) and Ty Lee (63 receptions 699 yards 9 TD) return. The offensive line, like WKU, is less experienced with the departure of three starters, and how quickly they find a cohesive group there will determine the level of success.
Defensively, MTSU had a letdown last year allowing 35.8 PPG (nearly ten more than 2015’s 26.6) and 449.5 yards per game. The defensive line loses three starters and the secondary loses 1st C-USA corner Jeremy Cutrer, but overall they should be better this season thanks to the return of all three LBs, three members of the secondary and the addition of Missouri transfer DE Walter Brady. MTSU gets Marshall and ODU at home leaving what could be a division deciding game against WKU on the road on November 17th. The return of Stockstill and his top receivers paired with a better defense makes me lean towards the over. Over 7 wins
Marshall Thundering Herd
Marshall was the biggest disappointing team for me in 2016. Picked preseason to be among the best in the conference, they fell to 3-9 being outscored by an average of nine points (35-26) per game. This season, expect a big bounce back for Doc Holliday’s group with a veteran squad returning.
The offense brings back seven starters including junior QB Chase Litton (62.3% 2,612 yards 24 TD 9 INT), their top five running backs, and five guys that have started five or more games along the offensive line. The big question mark comes at receiver, where the top four guys from last year are gone, but they do add two transfers in Tyre Brady (Miami) and Darian Owens (UCLA) who should help the transition.
The defense will also get a boost from some major college transfers as LBs Juwon Young (Miami) and Jaquan Yulee (Alabama) join a unit that was just hammered by opponents last year (35.3 PPG 456 YPG). The secondary adds a pair of transfers (Shurod Thompson, Chad Clay) to a group that returns three starters from last year’s group. Getting East division foes ODU and WKU at home is huge and I’d expect them to be back in the mix for this division and, really, the conference. Over 5 wins
Old Dominion Monarchs
Bobby Wilder has done a fantastic job building this ODU program into a C-USA contender without skipping a beat in the jump from FCS in 2013. He’s run off seasons of 8-4, 6-6, 5-7 and 10-3 in the first four years and with 14 starters back (8 offense 6 defense), this group looks primed for another postseason run.
The Monarchs have one big question the previous three teams don’t have on offense: who will their starting QB be? Unlike the others, there’s not a veteran returning here and that’s the reason I don’t have them in the contender tier. That said, there are plenty of weapons to help whatever QB wins the job. The top two running backs, Ray Lawry and Jeremy Cox, return as do five of the top six receivers. Add to that an offensive line that has four starters back and you’ve got a welcoming environment for a young QB to learn and mature in. I wouldn’t expect the 35.1 PPG again this year, but they shouldn’t be too far off.
On defense, the big question marks are the linebackers (all three from last year are gone) and secondary (two starters lost). The line should help some with that inexperience as DE Oshane Ximines (7.5 sacks 4 TFL) leads a group that is laden with juniors and seniors. If they can find some new play-makers at linebacker, the Monarchs should be able to come close to the 27.2 PPG and 383.9 YPG they allowed last season. The Monarchs have to travel to Marshall followed by hosting WKU in back-to-back weeks in October and then end the season on the road against MTSU. They should reach bowl eligibility, but I’m not sure about contention in the East, purely based on the strength of the teams above them. Under 6.5 wins
Florida Atlantic Owls
Lane Kiffin takes over as head coach and he brings in Kendall Briles to run the offense. Kiffin’s hire ensures one thing, FAU won’t be boring. There’s some some fun pieces for him to work with and the Owls should take a step forward under the new regime.
Briles is known for that up-tempo Baylor offense and there’s some horses available to run it here. Sophomore RB Devin Singletary (151 carries 1,016 yards 12 TDs), senior WR Kalib Woods (68 catches 934 yards 1 TD) are joined by former Florida State QB De’Andre Johnson, who will battle Jason Driskel for the job. The offensive line has eight guys that started at least one game last year, if they can find a consistent unit, it could be very good. With Briles in town, I’d expect more than the 26.4 PPG the Owls averaged last year.
Defensively, linebackers Azeez Al-Shaair and Nate Ozdemir (165 tackles, 13 TFL, 2.5 sacks) return along with the top eight defensive backs from last year (all juniors). The line is young and star defensive end Trey Hendriksen is gone (12.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks), so there’s some questions about the pass rush. The schedule does the Owls no favors with La. Tech being their crossover game from the West and of course, WKU and MTSU on the slate. Vegas has them at 4.5 wins and, despite the tough crossover, I think there’s enough offensive talent here to barely hit the over. Over 4.5 wins.
Florida International Panthers
Another former big-time Power 5 coach joins the C-USA coaching ranks as Butch Davis enters his first year with FIU. Davis’ previous college stops have ended in NCAA sanctions, but there was a LOT of winning before those sanctions. And, here’s the thing, there’s a bunch of returning talent from a team that under-performed expectations last year.
Senior QB Alex McGough missed three games last year, but he wasn’t as good as expected in the games he played (58.4% 1,891 yards 13 TD 11 INT). The Panthers will hope for a year more like 2015 and there’s reasons to think he’ll revert to that form with seven of the eight top receivers back including Thomas Owens and Stantley Thomas (82 receptions 1,137 yards 8 TD). The top three rushers will get to run behind a veteran offensive line featuring four starters from last year. I’d expect a decent jump in production from this unit.
New defensive coordinator Brent Guy (Tulsa) has some good play-makers to work with at each level of the defense. On the line, DE Fermin Silva (5 sacks) could emerge as a pass-rushing threat. Senior linebackers Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint (13.5 TFL 3.5 sacks) are solid veterans and corners Emmanuel Lubin and Isaiah Brown (4 INT 12 PBU) add a couple play-makers in the back end.
Vegas has them pegged at 4.5 wins and I think there’s enough experience here to hit the over. Over 4.5 wins.
The second year of FBS existence for the 49ers showed improvement in the win column (4-8 vs. 2-10), but now Brad Lambert faces a tall order. This year’s team looks to be young on defense and inexperienced on the offensive line, which could be a problem.
The QB spot likely will feature Hassan Klugh who’s an effective runner (89 carries, 428 yards, 4.8 avg) but an ineffective passer (53.6% 1,356 yards 10 TD 3 INT). He’ll be helped by a trio of returning receivers, but he may not have much time behind an inexperienced offensive line. Klugh will have some help in the backfield with sophomore back Robert Washington (97 carries 489 yards 5 TDs) taking the lion share of the carries.
The defense is going to sorely miss nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi. He became the program’s first-ever draft pick when the Browns took him in the third round in April. There are three defensive linemen back, along with a trio of linebackers and defensive backs, but they’re mostly sophomores and juniors. The unit is likely a year away from making a big step forward. With games on the road against WKU, Southern Miss and a home date against MTSU, this year may be a step back in the wins department before a move towards bowl contention in 2018. Under 4 wins.