Conference USA Football Preview 2015
Our CFB Chatter Podcast can now be found on iTunes!
*All logos are via CBSsports.com
Conference USA Football Predictions 2015
#1 Western Kentucky
Offense: The Hilltoppers bring back just about all their playmakers from last season. Brandon Doughty was one of the best quarterbacks in the nation last season putting up video game numbers nearly 5,000 passing yards and 49 passing touchdowns. When the Hilltoppers need to hit the ground attack Leon Allen is their guy. Allen was the 20th leading rusher in the nation. Doughty has his top target back in Jared Dangerfield who led the toppers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. The other two primary options for will be Taywan Taylor and Antwane Grant.
Defense: The Hilltoppers are bringing back seven players from last years team. They were beat up pretty bad last season but they also are on the field very often due to their offensive approach. This year the Hilltoppers could improve and bring their totals down. UAB transfer Jontavious Morris should help out, he totaled 54 tackles from his defensive line spot. The linebacker core at WKU should be the strength of the team. Linebackers Nick Holt and Dejon Brown combined for 189 tackles. If the secondary can improve on the 289.2 yards they gave up through the air, WKU has a chance to run the table in conference play.
Special Teams: Garrett Schwettman hit the six most PAT's in the country in 2014. Luckily the Hilltoppers don't punt too often since punter Joseph Occhipinti who averages 27.1 yards per punt.
Forecast: The Hilltoppers are the favorite to win Conference USA and rightfully so. With all the playmakers and Brandon Doughty back they will put up monster numbers again. The defense should be a little better which may or may not be saying a lot. Three power five teams are on the schedule this season Vanderbilt, Indiana and LSU. Look for the Toppers in the top 25 by the end of the year.
Offense: It will be hard to replace Rakeem Cato but the Herd are hoping James Madison transfer Micheal Birdsong can be the guy. In his final year at JMU he had 2,728 passing yards and 22 touchdowns. He has had issues with throwing interceptions. Luckily for birdsong, running back Devon Johnson, is back and luckily to put up even bigger numbers in 2015. Johnson put up 1,767 yards last season, don't be surprised if he goes for over 2,000 this year. Tommy Shuler will be tough to replace at wide receiver. The teams top options for Birdsong to pass to are Davonte Allen and tight end Eric Frohnadpfel.
Defense: The defensive line will be a big focus for the Thundering Herd. The team's top returning pass rusher on the line is Joe Massaquoi after the top three have graduated. UCF transfer Blake Keller who has been out of football since October 2013 is with the Herd. While at Central Florida he was showing potential to be a starter for the rest of his freshman season. The secondary returns three starters but lose Darryl Roberts. Returning safety's Taj Letman and A.J. Leggett, had four interceptions a piece last year. Linebackers D.J. hunter and Maryland transfer Shawn Petty should have big years. Petty will likely lead the team in tackles.
Special Teams: Marshall has one of the top punters in the nation in Tyler Williams. The kicker will be up for grabs in fall camp.
Forecast: The offensive numbers might not be as big this season as they were last season but the Herd will still have some explosive moments. The defense has been consistently good for the past few years, if Chuck Heater can do it again this season, it will be hard to see him staying in Huntington. The Herd start the season with Purdue and end the year at Western Kentucky.
Offense: FAU will have a familiar face at quarterback, Jaquez Johnson. Johnson was not too bad last season with 17 touchdowns, five interceptions. His completion percentage however needs to bump up from 57.8 percent. He losses his top go to target in Lucky Whitehead but returns Jenson Stoshak who should fill that role. The thing the Owls look forward to this season is the offensive line. If the line can take another step forward the offense should be better overall. The Owls need Jay Warren or Buddy Howell to emerge as the guy at running back.
Defense: The Owls lose some of their top talent from last years squad but they should have better overall depth. The line returns three starters and Brandon Bryant. They need to desperately improve defending the run this season. Last year they gave up over 222.1 yards on the ground. The teams top leading tackler is corner back Cre'von LeBlanc with 77. They should have the depth to fill empty holes in the secondary where they have recruited well.
Special Teams: Don't be surprised if Dalton Schomp gets some love for the Ray Guy award this season after having the fifth best punting average as a sophomore. Greg Joseph could be better in his junior season then he was in his sophomore season.
Forecast: The Owls will be in for a test losing some of their key players from a year ago but they do return Jaquez Johnson. Stopping the run at a higher rate then they did last season will be big for the defense. A bowl is certainly in reach for FAU this season.
#4 Middle Tennessee
Offense: Austin Grammer will get first shot at playing quarterback at MTSU but coaches son Brent Stockstill will compete for sometime as a freshman. Shane Tucker led the Blue Raiders in rushing touchdowns (8) and Jordan Parker led the team in touches (128). The pass game has been down for years and this season might not be much better then last. After Ed Batties wide receiver is largely unproven. Terry Pettis and Demetrius Frazier should be the next guys up and grab around 40 balls each this season.
Defense: This years defense should be much better then last years. The front seven has plenty of experience and should be even better this season. T.T. Barber has led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Kevin Byard is one of the best safety's to play in Murfreesboro and should be the teams all time leader in interceptions when he finishes his career this season. Establishing depth will be key this season with plenty of seniors leaving the team after this season.
Special Teams: Cody Clark made only nine field goals last season. Matt Bonadies will likely be the punter as a freshman.
Forecast: This years schedule is very difficult and will tough for the Blue Raiders to get through and be bowl eligible. In conference play they have to go to WKU and Louisiana Tech. The quarterback situation will be one to watch as the team approaches the 2016 season.
Offense: Ron turner hopes that something will finally get going whether it is the pass or running game. Turner will have Alex McGough under center after a rough freshman campaign. Jonnu Smith is one of the top tight ends in the conference. He totaled 61 catches and eight touchdowns last season. The running game brings back all its components. Alex Gardner, and Anthon Samuel both ran for 582 yards last season. Napoleon Maxwelll should play a bigger factor too after averaging 4.62 yards per carry last season.
Defense: This is the side of the ball that has people excited in Miami. The Panthers have eight starters back from a team that only gave up 363.8 yards per game last season. Losing their coordinator will hurt but they promoted Matt House to the position. House will be happy to have the top defensive line in the conference. Both Denzell Perine and Michael Wakefield are back after big seasons. Both safeties are gone but they return their starters at corner. Richard Leonard led the team with five interceptions last season. At linebacker Davison Colimon could earn first or second team honors at linebacker.
Special Teams: The Panthers have one of the best returners in the conference in Richard Leonard. Both Austin Taylor (K) and Jose Lapjotzondo (P) return to handle their special teams duties.
Forecast: The offense needs to improve and it should with Alex McGough having a year under his belt. The defense could turn out to be the best in the conference. This is my sleeper team in the conference, they could make a run to the top three. They have a rough finish to the season with games at Marshall and home vs. WKU.
#6 Old Dominion
Offense: Tyler Heinicke is gone after four great seasons at ODU. Who replaces Heinicke at quarterback is the main concern for Monarch fans. It seems like the freshman QB Shuler Bentley is the future. Another big loss for the ODU offense is Antonio Vaughn who had over 1000 receiving yards last season. Zach Pascal is the next big thing at WR. David Washington had a good year too with 47 catches. The offensive line should hold up pretty well and maybe the running game will be more prominent this season with Ray Lawry returning. Lawry averaged over seven yards per rush last season and 16 touchdowns.
Defense: Last season the Monarchs gave up 38 points per game. They must improve as a whole, top to bottom for this team to not head north in the standings. Only four starters return but they have some key players back in T.J. Ricks, Fellonte Misher and Martez Simpson. They expect transfers Devon Brown and Richard Thomas to make big impacts.
Special Teams: Both kicker and punter spots will be up for grabs with plenty of experience returning at both spots.
Forecast: The offense had some key departures but they have some guys that should be able to keep the offense respectable. The defense has to be better than the 38 points a game they gave up last season.
Offense: The offense revolves around the rushing attack that posted great numbers last season. Running back Kalif Phillips is the star on offense. He posted 1,436 yards rushing and will look to go over 1,000 yards again this season. He will be running behind a line that will likely struggle with the transition to FBS football though. The best overall unit for Charlotte is WR where they have two of their top guys back and Uriah LeMay who should be a star for the 49ers. The quarterback spot is up for grabs and you will likely see more then one quarterback this season.
Defense: Charlotte likely has the worst defensive line, linebacker and secondary units in the conference. They will give up over 32 points per game and this season will be largely key for next season and finding out who they think has promise to start next year.
Special Teams: Blake Brewer (kicker) and Arthur Hart (punter) will return at their spots.
Forecast: The program has only been around for three years. As long as they are competitive this season 49er fans will have something to cheer about. Huge game to start the season as the 49ers travel to Atlanta to face a very beatable Georgia State team.
#1 Louisiana Tech
Offense: The attack starts with running back Kenneth Dixon. Dixon had a huge year with 22 total touchdowns. Handing the ball off to Dixon will be Jeff Driskel the former Florida Gator quarterback. Driskel will have great options at wide receiver with Paul Turner and Trent Taylor. The line is maybe the one question mark but with a veteran presence they should be fine.
Defense: The Bulldogs were number five in turnover margin last season with a +16. The secondary has Xavier Woods and two other starters returning who should continue to put up big turnover numbers. The defensive line will be top three in the conference. Where they may struggle is at linebacker where they lost every starter but as long as the secondary and line continue to play at a high level they should be fine.
Special Teams: Placekicking is the Bulldogs biggest issue from top to bottom with a combine 10-20 last season. The return game however is in good shape with Henderson back.
Forecast: This team has the capabilities to win the conference. They do have to go at WKU and Rice though. The offense and defense should be top three overall in the conference.
Offense: The Owls have the second best quarterback in the conference in Driphus Jackson. Jowan Davis and Darik Dilliard paired with Jackson give the Owls a threatening rushing attack. The receiving core is thin, they need someone to emerge to keep the offense at a balance.
Defense: Rice took a big hit on defense with the loss of Christian Covington and Brian Nordstrom. Only two starters are back on this side of the ball. Linebacker Alex Lyons is the teams best player. The secondary features a lot of youth which is exciting for now and the future if they can get them to pan out.
Special Teams: Jack Fox a freshman kicker is the hope and prayer to fix the kicking game. James Farrimond returns at punter for Rice.
Forecast: Rice is becoming a force in Conference USA play. It is hard to see them getting past La Tech this year but they will get them at home. The running game should be the focal point for the Owls. Eight wins could happen again for the Owls.
Offense: Mark Leftwich has been named the starting QB in El Paso. Leftwich will not have too many top targets after graduation depleted the wide receiver core. The good news on offense is that the line returns four starters and is the best in the conference. Who is running behind the line is Aaron Jones who had a big season last year.
Defense: The defense made a lot of progression last year and look to be even better this season. Roy Robertson-Harris stands tall at 6'7 and causes a lot of problems from his defensive end spot. Forcing turnovers was key to the turnaround and it may be hard to repeat that this season.
Special Teams: Autrey Golden could go down as one of the best returners in college football history. Punting has been pretty bad in El Paso, that needs to change this season. Jay Mattox is one of the top kickers in the league.
Forecast: The running game will be impressive with Aaron Jones back. the defense should be middle of the pack, around 5-7th best in the conference. UTEP opens the season at Arkansas, at Texas Tech. They get both Louisiana Tech and Rice at home.
#4 North Texas
Offense: The Mean Green couldn't get much going in the passing attack. Without their great offensive line they had, this season could head south in a hurry. Quarterback is still a question mark, playmakers are also a concern. North Texas needs someone other then Carlos Harris (WR) to emerge as a first or second team talent at the skills spot to jump any higher then four.
Defense: The defensive line is the strength of the defense. They have the depth and talent to become one of the better lines in the conference. Chad Polk and Tillman Johnson return after a good season. Kishawn McClain will play at safety after making some noise as a freshman.
Special Teams: Sophomore kicker Trevor Moore was a freshman All-American after missing just two kicks. Eric Keena is one of the best punters in the league.
Forecast: The Mean Green only won two conference games last season. This year 3-4 seems reasonable. They didn't lookout with cross division opponents, Marshall, WKU and MTSU are on the schedule.
#5 Southern Miss
Offense: The Golden Eagles haven't settled in with a quarterback yet. If the Eagles want this season to go better the passing attack needs to stay where it is and the rushing game needs to improve. They hope the line is even better this year and they need Ito Smith, George Payne and Tez Parks to take a step forward. If they repeat with 26 turnovers this year, they won't be moving up any time soon.
Defense: Last years team was not great and they have key guys from that team departed. Improving vs the run will be a key factor for Southern Miss, but with no starters returning on the line that may be hard to do. Kansas transfer Andrew Bolton should help there. There's plenty of excitement about Auburn transfer Anthony Swain at linebacker.
Special Teams: UAB transfer Nick Vogel should be the kicker next season. Tyler Sarrazin had plenty of attempts last year, 66.
Forecast: Todd Monken is headed into year three after going 4-20 the last two years. Hard to see him making a big leap this season. Don't be stunned if he is gone after this year.
Offense: The offense was very disappointing last season. they did show some flashes but it never worked out for the Roadrunners. They don't have one starter returning from last years team. The one player that could make a big difference is running back Jarveon Williams. Williams can bust a big play on any carry. Quarterback Blake Bogenschutz will get the first shot under center.
Defense: UTSA was really impressive on defense last year, they held Arizona and Louisiana Tech to under 30 points. With only three returners back they hope to continue the positive trend. The star of the defense is linebacker Drew Douglas. Corner Bennett Okotcha should have a big season at corner.
Special Teams: UTSA takes a hit on special teams as well with both kicker and punter gone. Arron Grubb will handle the return duties.
Forecast: Larry Cooker was hoping for a break through season last year and didn't get it. The preview had UTSA winning the division as well. This year they have too many unknowns to put them any higher then five. The start to the year is going to be rough with games at Arizona and OK State, they get Kansas State at home though.
CUSA Offensive POY
Brandon Doughty, QB, WKU
CUSA Defensive POY
Micheal Wakefiled, DE, FIU
CUSA Coach of the Year
Chalie Partridge, FAU