Conference USA has seen the most turnover of any conference during the realignments. They lost Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU to the American Athletic last year, while adding in FIU, FAU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Middle Tennessee and UTSA. Now, they lose East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to the AAC, but bring in Western Kentucky and Old Dominion.
This conference has struggled as a whole over the past two seasons with the losses of many of their top teams. In fact, Conference USA has gone a combined 32-72 in non-conference play during this span, which is the worst mark of any league. That includes a combined 6-47 mark against BCS teams the last two years. However, they have saved face in the bowls, going 4-1 in 2012 and 3-3 in 2013.
Rice was the surprise winner in Conference USA last year as it upset Marshall in the championship game. Will there be another team come from out of nowhere to win the conference in 2014? Check out my predictions on both the East and West divisions below, as well as my call in the championship game.
East Division Predictions
1. Marshall (12-0, 8-0 C-USA) – You would be hard-pressed to find another publication that doesn’t have Marshall winning the East Division in 2014. That’s because this team is far and away the best team in Conference USA on paper. The Thundering Herd outgianed conference opponents by +134.3 yards per game last year, which was the second-best mark behind ECU (+137.9 ypg), who has left for the AAC. They return 14 starters this year, including QB Rakeem Cato. They have the top offense and the top defense in all of Conference USA this year. Three of their four conference road games this year (excluding Old Dominion) went a combined 3-21 in conference play last season. They get all of their toughest opponents at home, so I’ll call for not only an 8-0 record within the conference, but a perfect 12-0 mark overall.
2. Middle Tennessee (7-5, 6-2 C-USA) – It would be easy to pick Middle Tennessee to take a step back in 2014 off last year’s solid 8-5 campaign. It won each of its final five games of the regular season, but four of those came against teams that went a combined 4-28 within the conference. It also benefited from being +12 in turnover differential on the season, and it had four conference wins by a touchdown or less. Now, the Blue Raiders go from having 16 returning starters to just 13 this year. However, they do returning each of their top three tacklers and eight starters in all defensively. The schedule is very manageable because they draw both Southern Miss and UTEP from the West. They should get to another bowl game this year with a 6-2 record as they are clearly one of the top teams in this watered-down conference.
3. Western Kentucky (5-7, 4-4 C-USA) – No team loses the quality of players that Western Kentucky does. It has to part with Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Antonio Andrews, Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Xavius Boyd, and each of its top five tacklers defensively, including an NFL safety. Head coach Bobby Petrino has also bolted for Louisville. I still like the returning talent on this team, especially offensively where eight starters return from an 8-4 squad. QB Brandon Doughty returns after completing 65.8 percent of his passes a year ago, and he has all of his top receivers back. This is a team that outgained opponents by +120.0 yards per game last year, which was the best mark in the Sun Belt. The Hilltoppers won’t make a bowl because of a tough non-conference schedule, but they will finish in the top-half of the East Division.
4. Old Dominion (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) – There are two ways you can look at Old Dominion. The pessimists will say that they went 1-4 against FBS teams last year and 7-0 versus FCS teams last year, and now they play 11 FBS teams and only once FCS team in 2014 as they take a step up in competition. The optimists will say that they went 8-4 last year behind a dominant offense, and now they have 17 returning starters in 2014. I tend to lean toward the side of the pessimists because they even struggled to win some of those FCS games last year, winning three of them by a combined eight points. I’ll call for a 5-7 season and a 3-5 mark in C-USA play.
4. Florida Atlantic (4-8, 3-5 C-USA) – The Owls went through a lot last year as their head coach and defensive coordinator resigned misdseason. They were an underdog in each of their first eight games, but managed to finish strong once those guys resigned. They actually won each of their final four games to become bowl eligible at 6-6. They actually outgained conference opponents by +134.3 yards per game last year, which was the second-best mark in all of C-USA right alongside Marshall. With only 11 starters back and a new head coach, this team will take a step back in 2014. They also draw two of the top teams from the West in UTSA and North Texas, while playing both Marshall and Middle Tennessee on the road. That schedule will prevent the Owls from competing for a West Title.
6. UAB (4-8, 2-6 C-USA) – Bill Clark steps into a pretty good situation at UAB as he’ll be working with 15 returning starters. The Blazers were blown out in three of their final four games, but league champ Rice needed overtime to get by them. They also had close losses against both Middle Tennessee and FAU last year. However, they ended the season getting outgained by -124.0 yards per game within the conference, which was the fourth-worst mark. They have not had a winning overall or conference record in the last nine years. They simply don’t have the talent to turn around that trend in 2014.
7. Florida International (3-9, 1-7 C-USA) – The Golden Panthers are coming off a disastrous 1-11 season in Ron Turner’s first year on the job in 2013. This appeared to be a veteran bunch with a lot of potential in spring ball, but they lost a lot of key players over the summer and actually wound up with just six returning starters. Now, they return 17 starters, and their 14 lettermen lost are the third-fewest within the conference. They finished a league-worst -168.6 yards per game in C-USA play last year, so they have a long way to go. While they should be much-improved statistically this year, it won’t show up a ton in the win/loss column. That’s because their four conference home games come against teams that went 24-8 in league play last year, meaning most of their winnable games are on the road.
West Division Predictions
1. UTSA (8-4, 7-1 C-USA) – Former Miami coach Larry Coker is doing a tremendous job at UTSA. Despite moving up from the WAC to Conference USA last year, the Roadrunners still finished 6-2 within the league and in nearly played in the conference championship game. Now, they return a league-most 20 starters, are the most experienced team in the entire FBS, and actually finished -7 in turnover differential last year. In Coker’s third season, he’ll welcome back a whopping 55 lettermen while losing only 10. This is clearly the best team in the West Division, and even though they have to play both Louisiana Tech and Rice on the road, I’ll call for the Roadrunners to get the job done and to finish atop the final standings.
2. Louisiana Tech (6-6, 5-3 C-USA) – The Bulldogs went just 4-8 last year in head coach Skip Holtz’s first year on the job. Of their four wins, one came against an FCS foe, while the other three came against teams that went a combined 4-32. They also lost to four teams that ended the season with losing record. Despite that, I actually like the talent coming back on this team. They have 13 returning starters and rank in the top half of the league in all nine positional categories. Holtz surprised many times at East Carolina, and I look for this team to be much sharper in the second year in his systems. Louisiana Tech also gets both UTSA and Rice at home, making it a factor in the West Division.
3. North Texas (6-6, 4-4 C-USA) – Dan McCarney is one of the most underrated head coaches in all of college football. He got the most out of his teams at Iowa State, and now he is doing the same at North Texas. He guided the Mean Green to a 9-4 record and a dominant 36-14 bowl victory over UNLV in 2013. They finished one game out of playing in the C-USA Title Game, and they outgained opponents by +122.6 yards per game in conference play last year. There are some key signs pointing downward for this team in 2014. They only returning nine starters, they finished +11 in turnover differential last year, and they have to play both Rice and UTSA on the road.
3. Rice (5-7, 4-4 C-USA) – The Owls were the surprise of Conference USA last year as they won the title and squared off against an SEC team in the Liberty Bowl. Head coach David Bailiff almost always gets the most out of his team. Last year, it was his best team yet at Rice with 17 returning starters and a ton of experience. Now, the Owls drop down to only 12 returning starters, while losing leading rusher Charles Ross (1,280 yards, 15 TD), QB Taylor McHargue (2,345 passing yards, 464 rushing yards, 22 total TD), and CB Phillip Gaines (3rd-round draft pick). They draw Marshall out of the East, but get to lay UTSA and North Texas at home. They will finish no better than the middle of the pack in the West Division in 2014.
5. Southern Miss (5-7, 3-5 C-USA) – It’s hard to believe that Southern Miss went 12-2 back in 2011 en route to a Conference USA Title. It has now gone a combined 1-23 in two years since as nothing has went right. Todd Monken inherited a pretty inexperienced team last year with just 12 starters back, and this team should be one of the most improved in the country in 2014 with 16 starters and 57 lettermen returning. They did beat UAB (62-27) handily in the season finale last year to show what they were capable of. I actually believe they are in the top-half of the league talent-wise this season. However, they do draw the top two teams from the East in Marshall and Middle Tennessee, so the schedule is what is preventing me from placing them any higher within the West Division.
6. UTEP (3-9, 2-6 C-USA) – The Miners went just 2-10 in head coach Sean Kugler’s first season in 2013. Their only two wins came against New Mexico State and FIU, and they lost eight times by double-digits. While they should be much-improved statistically with 15 returning starters this year, they have still have a long way to go. I actually like RB Aaron Jones (811 yards, 5.2/carry, 4 TD) and QB Jameill Showers, who was a former transfer from Texas A&M. The offense should be much better with these two back among eight returning starters on that side of the ball. The defense figures to be atrocious again after yielding 39.3 points and 468 yards per game last year. The Miners don’t get to play either UAB or FIU from the East, and four of their six home games this year come against teams that won eight or more games a year ago. That means most of their winnable games are on the road. As a result, this team will finish in the cellar of the West Division in 2014.
Conference USA Championship Game: Marshall defeats UTSA
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