Tuesday, July 29, 2014

College Football Preview 2014: Conference USA

CUSA had yet another season of severe loss, as Tulsa, Tulane, and East Carolina joined the departures of UCF, Houston, Memphis, and SMU from last season. Those are huge losses for any conference to endure, and basically has made the conference restructure its core power structure. CUSA has added some numbers this season in Western Kentucky and Old Dominion, but those numbers are not what was lost. With that being said, as many as six teams from this conference could be bowl bound in 2014, and Marshall could be a major player nationally, as they finally break through the fog of mediocrity.

Projected Order of Finish

1. Marshall
2. Middle Tennessee
3. Western Kentucky
4. Florida Atlantic
5. Old Dominion
6. UAB
7. Florida International

2. Rice
3. North Texas
4. Louisiana Tech
5. Southern Mississippi

Coaches on the Hot Seat
Ron Turner, FIU
David Bailiff, Rice
Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

Best Coach
Larry Coker, UTSA

Worst Coach
Ron Turner, FIU

The following teams are projected to finish with winning records and obtain bowl births:

Marshall Thundering Herd
Projected 2014 Record: 12-0
Head Coach: Doc Holliday (27-24, 5th season)

Six starters return on a unit that ranked 20th nationally, and the most important starter in the group is QB Rakeem Cato, who has passed for over 10,000 yards and 91 TDs in his career. The senior will have a top flight target in the passing game with the return of WR Tommy Shuler, but they must replace Gator Hoskins at TE. Hoskins leaves a huge hole to fill, and senior Eric Prohnpafel will get first shot at doing so. Craig Wilkins also returns at WR, but must step up so that DBs cannot team up on Shuler.
Essray Taliaferro is also gone at RB, but there is plenty of depth and talent ready to step up to replace him. Junior Kevin Grooms has the lead, but Steward Butler is pushing for carries.
Both guards must be replaced, but tackles Sebastion Johannson and Clint Van Horn are back, as is Center Chris Jasperse.
The main reason for my huge expectations could be massive improvement on a defense that already ranked a highly respectable 35th last season. Seven starters return, with four coming in the front seven. James Rouse (DT) and Ra'Shawde Myers (DE) return on the line, while Evan McKelvey and Jermaine Holmes are back at LB. The front seven, however, is where the improvement must come from, as the Herd finished just 57th against the run.
Both CBs are back in Corey Tindal and Darryl Roberts. Tindal started as a freshman, and should have a breakthrough season in 2014. Tiquan Lang also returns at SS, and also started as a freshman last season. Sophomore AJ Leggett will likely get the nod at FS this fall.
Special Teams
Justin Haig returns at PK, but is being pushed heading into the fall by Nick Smith. Tyler Williams also returns at Punter, and he finished strong by averaging 42.4 yards per punt.
Opening Game
8/30 at Miami (Ohio)
Final Overview
The Herd will benefit hugely by a very weak schedule, which includes Miami (Ohio) and Rhode Island in the first two weeks, and includes Akron and CUSA newcomer Old Dominion in weeks 3 and 4. The conference schedule is highly manageable, and with weapons on both sides of the football, Marshall should cruise to the CUSA title game.

UTSA Roadrunners
Projected 2014 Record: 9-3
Head Coach: Larry Coker (19-15, 4th season)

Nine starters return on offense, but QB Eric Soza is gone. Tucker Carter is the replacement, and has been the backup to Soza, so being the understudy here will serve him well.
David Glasco returns at RB, but will have to provide a good deal more on offense than 496 yards in ten games. Nate Shaw will be lead blocking at FB once again, and will need to be relied on more than ever this season as Carter will hand off more often than Soza did.
Kam Jones and Brandon Freeman both return at WR, and that will bring stability to the passing game with the new QB being broken in. Senior Cole Hubble will likely start at TE after getting valuable experience off of the bench last season.
The entire offensive line returns intact this fall, and that is the building block of any great offense, and this offense has the ability to be great this season.
Ten starters return on a defense that allowed just 10.5 points per game over their final four games of the season, which were all wins.
Coming in off of that streak will be a must, with a tough schedule starting out the slate. Five members of the front six return, led by DE Robert Singletary and Ashaad Mabry (DT) on the line, and Drew Douglas at LB, who finished with 69 tackles last fall. Douglas will have to step up to support new starter Jens Jeters, but then again, Jeters is a senior, so he should be ok surrounded by the talent that he has around him for support.
The entire secondary returns, and that is great news, but strides must be made, because the early schedule will bring ins some high power passing in the likes of Houston, Arizona, and Oklahoma State. Triston Wade will be the leader of this unit at Safety.
Special Teams
Sean Ianno returns at PK, but he had some issues last fall, hitting on just 11 of 19 FGs on the year. Kristian Stern was average last season, hitting for 40.4 yards per punt. Improvements must come from this area.
Opening Game
8/29 at Houston
Final Overview
Coker is the best coach in a constantly shifting landscape in CUSA, and has the deepest starting lineup, but that early schedule is brutal with trips to Houston and Oklahoma State, while Arizona comes to the Alamo Dome. The rest of the schedule has a couple of challenges, but UTSA should be able to overcome them, make the CUSA title game, and go bowling for the first time in school history.

Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Projected 2014 Record: 8-4
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill (51-49, 9th season)

There are major holes on offense, with only four starters returning overall. None of those starters return in the backfield, as Austin Grammer looks like the new QB, while Jordan Parker looks like the new starter at RB. Parker has started in the past, but has an injury history. Grammer is in a battle as camp approaches with AJ Erderly and Brent Stockstill, and luckily there is major depth at RB.
Both WRs do return, as Christian Collis and Marcus Henry are both back in the fold. Collis, however, broke his ankle in spring ball, and may not be ready to go.
The only returning starters on the line are at Tackle, with Darius Johnson and Isaiah Anderson coming back for more.
Four starters return in the front seven, where the Blue Raiders finished ranking just 96th against the run last fall. Patrick McNeil will be back at DT, while Alexander Antoine is back at DE. Christian Henry and TT Barber will both be back at LB, and are all conference candidates, and should be the heart and soul of this unit.
Three starters are back in the secondary, with SS Kevin Byard and FS Xavier Walker both returning deep. Junior Jared Singletary is back at CB, while a starter will have to be replaced across from him. Senior Khari Burke will likely be that new starter.
Special Teams
Cody Clark had an average season in 2013, hitting 12 of 16 FGs, and is back. He will need to improve, but has room to grow as a sophomore.
Zachary Lopez has not distanced himself from freshman AJ Wells heading into the fall in a battle for the Punter job.
Opening Game
8/30 Savannah State
Final Overview
While the offense will be rebuilding, it will be hipe upon hope that the front of the defense gets tougher and follows the example of that fine secondary that ranked 19th against the pass nationally. Four of the last five games on the schedule are all massively winnable, as none of those teams had winning records in 2013. Rick Stockstill, who is always on the Hot Seat, must really have a strong finish in 2014, as his career record here is only two games above .500. He should have enough to win 8 games this fall, and anything less would be a disappointment.

Rice Owls
Projected 2014 Record: 7-5
Head Coach: David Bailiff (40-48, 8th season)

There is rebuilding to do at both QB and RB, and that could be key heading into the season. Driphus Jackson should be the new QB, while Jowan Davis is likely going to get the starters carries at RB.
Dennis Parks and Jordan Taylor are back at WR, and that is really good news for a new QB. Taylor is a huge target, and should be an all-conference candidate. Connor Cella is also back at TE.
Three starters return on the line in LG Nico Carlson, RG Drew Carroll, and RT Caleb Williams.
Six starters return on defense, with half of those coming up front. NT Stuart Mouchentaf and DT Christian Covington return on the line, while James Radcliffe is the lone returning starter at LB. DE and the open LB spot are wide open races, and those positions are weaknesses heading into camp.
The secondary returns three of five starters in CBs Bryce Callahan and Malcolm Hill, and S Julius White. The secondary is a strength, having ranked 18th nationally last fall against the pass.
Special Teams
Chris Boswell is gone at PK, and it should be tough to replace him. Taylor Knopf should be in line to start as a freshman, but it's not a lock.
Opening Game
8/30 at Notre Dame
Final Overview
The Owls will not be repeating as CUSA champs in 2014, but there is enough in the tank to get back to a bowl game. The water mark should be seven wins this fall, and David Bailiff needs that win mark to get closer to a .500 career mark. If the Owls fall back once again, then it could be tough going for him.

North Texas Mean Green
Projected 2014 Record: 7-5
Head Coach: Dan McCarney (18-19, 4th season)

Only five starters return this fall, and four of them come on the offensive line in LT Antonio Johnson, LG Mason Y'Barbo, C Keydon Kirby, and RT Cyril Lemon. Three of them are seniors, and one is a sophomore, so experience is solid up front. The only other returning starter comes at WR in Carlos Harris, and he is stepping into a leader position that he hasn't really had to shoulder before. Look for JC transfer Josh Greer to get a long look for the open QB job heading into fall camp.
The story is the same on defense, where only four starters return. The bulk of the experience comes in the secondary, where CBs James Jones and Kenny Buyers join S Lairamie Lee as returning starters. This group, however, was the weak spot on D last fall, ranking just 61st against the pass, while no other defensive stat ranked less than 17th. The role of leadership comes to these guys in 2014, and they need to step up to meet it.
Derek Akunne, a senior, is the lone returning starter up front, and he finished second on the team in tackles last season.
Special Teams
Both kickers return in Zach Paul (PK) and Blake Macek (P). The real key in the ST department is on defense, where the Green blocked seven kicks in 2013.
Opening Game
8/30 at Texas
Final Overview
There are more questions than answers heading into the 2014 season in Denton, but there is some strong talent coming back, albeit not entirely experienced talent. epth may be an issue, but when you look at the way the schedule breaks down, UNT may be able to repeat their bowl trip from a year ago, but everything has to go right, especially on offense.

The following schools either finish with losing records and/or miss bowl games

Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Projected 2014 Record: 6-6
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm (1st season)
Jeff Brohm takes over for Bobby Petrino, but expect some road bumps in year one in CUSA for the Toppers.

FAU Owls
Projected 2014 Record: 4-8
Head Coach: Charlie Partridge (1st season)
With the Carl Pelini disaster behind them, the Owls will try to move forward, but failed to make a big splash bu hiring an O line from a losing team. There is talent around, but not enough.

Old Dominion Monarchs
Projected 2014 Record: 5-7
Head Coach: Bobby Wilder (46-14, 6th season)
ODU makes a move to a full FBS schedule and has one of the better coaches (Wilder) and QBs (Taylor Henicke) in the conference and in college football. The schedule is difficult, but the talent is strong, especially if the defense plays bigger for their explosive offense. Expect ODU to compete for conference titles in a couple of years.

UAB Blazers
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Bill Clark (1st season)
Good luck to Clark as he inherits one of the worst programs in the game. Facilities will get pgraded, but not the stadium, and getting a smaller, more on campus friendly facility is key to getting this thing going. The talent is just not there, and the Blazers stay toward the bottom.

FIU Panthers
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Ron Turner (1-11, 2nd season)
Some fans wanted Turner out after one season, and I get why. This program is a mess, and the Panthers football team has become a joke in South Florida. There is very little talent to build anything around, and rock bottom seems to be a magnet. The only two wins may come against FCS opponents in the two opening weeks (Bethune-Cookman, Wagner) and neither of those games are locks.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Projected 2014 Record: 4-8
Head Coach: Skip Holtz (4-8, 2nd season)
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Tech seems destined to repeat the four win from last season that pissed off so many fans. Improvement will be seen in small ways, but Holtz is a decent coach who should be able to get the Dogs bulling again in a couple of seasons.

Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Projected 2014 Record: 4-8
Head Coach: Todd Monken (1-11, 2nd season)
Speaking of finding victory in small ways, Monken should be doing that at USM this season. He will finally have a QB to give the ball to every week without fail, but it's still a question as to how that works out. A three game improvement to four wins should be reachable.

UTEP Miners
Projected 2014 Record: 2-10
Head Coach: Sean Kugler (2-10, 2nd season)
Instead of small victories, things could actually get worse for the Miners instead of getting better in 2014. Look for UTEP to actually regress while Kugler tries to find options and answers all over the football field. 2015 will be worth watching to see if Kugler is still the guy, but he deserves one more year after this to mold and improve this program.

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