Conference USA is now without UAB after the school announced that the football program would be canceled. They have added the Charlotte 49ers for the 2015 season to fill the vacancy. This will still be a 13-team league with seven members in the East division and six in the West.
Marshall nearly made the College Football Playoff as it was 11-0 and crushing the competition. But it would lose its final game to Western Kentucky 66-67 after giving up a 2-point conversion in overtime by a ridiculous final of 66-67. The Thundering Herd would recover in time to beat Louisiana Tech 26-23 in the C-USA Title game.
Seven different teams have now won the Conference USA Title in the last 10 years. C-USA featured three teams who finished in the Top 15 in scoring offense in Marshall (#3), Western Kentucky (#6) and Louisiana Tech (#11) last year. Five teams from the conference made bowl games last year, and eight were bowl eligible.
There appears to be a few teams who have emerged as powers in this conference, and you’ll see that in my 2015 C-USA predictions below. I expect this season to play out much like last with Marshall and WKU battling it out for supremacy in the East, and Louisiana Tech running away with the West.
The Hilltoppers ended Marshall’s perfect season with a 67-66 (OT) road win last year. It won each of its final five games of the season, including a 49-48 win over Central Michigan in a bowl game that was a much bigger blowout than the final score would indicate. Now the Hilltoppers enter 2015 with a load of confidence because they return 16 starters. That includes QB Brandon Doughty (4,830 yards, 49 TD, 10 INT), RB Leon Allen (1,542 yards, 13 TD), and their top two receivers in Jared Dangerfield (69 receptions, 825 yards, 11 TD) and Taywan Taylor (45, 767, 7 TD). The offense will be the best in C-USA, while the defense will be one of the most improved with nine starters back from a unit that allowed 39.9 points and 510 yards per game last year. While they have to face two of the top teams from the West in Louisiana Tech and Rice, they get both LA Tech and Marshall at home this year. Wins in those two games will give them the tiebreaker over the Thundering Herd and a trip to the C-USA Championship Game.
The Thundering Herd capped off a 13-1 season last year with a 52-23 blowout of Northern Illinois in the bowl game. They fell one point short of a 14-0 record, and had they ran the table, they would have had a case to make at least a New Year’s 6 game. They outscored teams by an average of 46-21 last year and were rarely tested. Now they lose 4-year starting QB Rakeem Cato, three-time 1,100-yard receiver Tommy Shuler and have just five starters back on defense. But they were far and away the best team in C-USA last year as they outgained conference opponents by 189.4 yards per game, which was 76 yards better than second place. They still have 11 returning starters and the best recruiting class in the conference. Davon Johnson (1,767 yards, 17 TD) will lead a powerful rushing attack behind one of the best offensive lines in C-USA. The defense still brings back five of its top eight tacklers and will be among the conference’s best after allowing 21.0 points per game last year. I have the Thundering Herd getting to 10 wins, but losing their November 27 road trip to Western Kentucky to lose out on the tiebreaker in the East.
Old Dominion went 6-6 in its first season as a member of Conference USA last season. That was a solid showing because it took a big step up in competition. It won each of its final three games of the season. But this team was probably not as good as its record would indicate as it won four games by a field goal and was -18.6 yards per game in conference play. It now goes from 15 returning starters to 13 and loses QB Taylor Heinicke, who threw for 3,476 yards with a 30-to-16 TD/INT ratio. But head coach Bobby Wilder has been raving about redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley, saying that he’s the QB of the future. Bentley will be working with five of the top six receivers from last year along with leading rusher Ray Lawry (947 yards, 7.1/carry, 16 TD). This offense should be just as explosive with eight starters back, and the defense will actually be improved despite only five returning starters. The Monarchs should be favored in 7 or 8 games as it draws UTSA from the West. Given the ease of the schedule, I’ll peg the Monarchs at 6-6 overall and 4-4 in C-USA and a bowl bid in 2015.
The Owls were one of the better 3-9 teams in the country last year. They beat Western Kentucky, led Marshall 16-14 on the road, and lost four games in the final 19 seconds last year. They had just 11 starters last year and were thin on defense, which cost them late in games. It also cost them down the stretch as they lost each of their final five contests. Now they have 20 returning lettermen on defense alone and should have much better depth on that side of the ball. This will be their second year in head coach Charlie Partridge’s systems, and he has actually managed to nab one of the best recruiting classes in the conference. The Owls return 12 starters including QB Jaquez Johnson, who threw for 2,215 yards and 17 touchdowns against five interceptions, while also rushing for 513 yards and seven scores. He’ll lead an improved offense, while the defense cannot be as poor as it was last year after surrendering 34.4 points and 461 yards per game. This team was only outgained by 28.8 yards per game in conference play despite is 2-6 C-USA record last year. But they have to face Miami and Florida out of conference, and draw UTEP and Rice from the West. While I believe the Owls will push for a bowl game, I have them coming up just short at 5-7 overall and 4-4 in C-USA.
The Blue Raiders have won at least six games each of the past three seasons but have been to just one bowl game. They have gone 17-7 in conference play during that stretch, including 11-5 in Conference USA over the past two seasons. They finished second in the East last year despite having just 12 returning starters. Now, head coach Rick Stockstill will have one of his best teams yet with 16 returning starters in 2015. QB Austin Grammar returns, but they do lose their leading rusher and two of their top three receivers. They have a lot of ground to make up defensively after giving up 31.5 points and 452 yards per game last year, and they were outgianed by 33.0 yards per game in conference play despite their 5-3 record. Unfortunately, they draw Louisiana Tech out of the West and play the Bulldogs and the Hilltoppers on the road. They also play three power 5 teams in the non-conference. As a result, I have them falling just short of bowl eligibility with a 5-7 record overall and a 4-4 mark within the conference.
Ron Turner stepped into a poor situation at FIU. He inherited just six returning starters, and his team went just 1-11 while getting outgained by 169 yards per game in conference play and losing to an FCS team in 2013. The Panthers were one of the most improved teams in the conference last year as they returned 17 starters and went 3-5 in C-USA play while only getting outgained by 87.4 yards per game. They did benefit from a +13 turnover differential in their three conference wins last year, but they also had some poor luck. They had losses by 2, 3, 3, and 3 points last season as well and were 0-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. Essentially, they were four plays away from being 8-4. Now Turner has all his recruits in place entering his third season and 15 returning starters to boot. They did benefit from a generous offensive yards per point (12.7) but should be improved on that side of the ball. The defense only gave up 24.8 points per game last year and returns eight starters. Unfortunately, the Panthers have non-conference road games at UCF, Indiana and UMass. They also draw LA Tech and UTEP from the West. They will only be favored in three or four games all season. I have them going 4-8 and 3-5 in C-USA for a second straight season.
It’s clear to me who the worst team in Conference USA is. The Charlotte 49ers will be overmatched in 2015 in their first season as a member of the FBS. It is actually playing just its third year of football as well. Head coach Brad Lambert made a wise decision when he redshirted half of his 2013 freshman class and half of his 2014 class as well. That gives the 49ers 17 returning starters to work with and plenty of experience. But facing the likes of Marshall, LA Tech and WKU is a large step up from Chowan and Wesley. I can see the 49ers beating Presbyterian and UTSA at home, but it’s hard to find any other possible wins outside of those two. I’ll call them 2-10 overall and 1-7 in C-USA in their first season.
The Bulldogs were the best team in the West division by a wide margin last year. They outgained opponents by 113.3 yards per game, which was nearly 100 yards better than second place in the division. They also outscored conference foes by an average of 42-21. They led Marshall late in the title game but gave up a TD with under two minutes to go. Just like last year, they have 13 returning starters and a QB who transferred from a power 5 school. Cody Sokol is gone after a 30-to-13 TD/INT ratio, but new starter Jeff Driskel could be even better. The Florida transfer was the No. 1 ranked QB prospect coming out of high school, and now he’s a senior ready to finally live up to his potential against much weaker competition than the SEC. Kenneth Dixon (1,299 yards, 22 TD) and each of the top three receivers return, led by Trent Taylor (64 receptions, 834 yards 9 TD), so Driskel will have plenty of weapons. The defense will be among the conference’s best with six starters back from a unit that gave up 24.7 points per game last season. The Bulldogs do draw Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee from the East, but they are far and away the best team in the West once again in 2015.
Southern Miss is my biggest surprise pick in Conference USA this season. Yes, I am picking the Golden Eagles to finish second outright in the West after going just 4-32 over the last three years. But you have to remember that in 2011, they went 11-2 and were actually coming off 19 straight non-losing seasons. Things have not gone smoothly for head coach Todd Monken in his first two years, but this team is making progress. They were 1-11 and outgained by 135.8 yards per game in C-USA play in his first season in ’13, but they were only outgained by 47.8 yards per game in conference action last year despite an identical 1-7 record. Year 3 is when coaches make their biggest strides, and Monken clearly has his best team yet with 15 returning starters. The offense will be among C-USA’s best with 10 returning starters. The Golden Eagles had poor offensive (19.2) and defensive (12.7) yards per point last year and were -10 in turnovers, and I expect much better fortune in 2015. They do draw Marshall out of the East and play Nebraska and Mississippi State out of conference, but I actually have them getting to a bowl game. They’ll go 7-5 overall and 5-3 in C-USA play. They have a very easy conference home schedule with North Texas, UTSA, UTEP and Old Dominion, and they also draw lowly Charlotte from the East on the road. I have them winning all five of those contests.
The Rice Owls were the second-best team in the West last season. When they beat Fresno State 30-6 in the Hawaii Bowl last year, head coach David Bailiff all but guaranteed they’d win the West in 2015. That came before he knew that DT Christian Covington and DE Brian Nordstrom would leave early for the NFL. Now the Owls have just nine returning starters overall, including three on defense. This stop unit isn’t going to be very good because five of the top six tacklers have departed. The offense should be in good shape with QB Driphus Jackson leading the way. He threw for 2,842 yards with a 24-to-8 TD/INT ratio last year, while also adding 401 rushing yards. The Owls do get their toughest games against WKU, LA Tech and Southern Miss at home, so while it could be a special season because of the schedule, I just don’t think this team is good enough to win the West with their lack of experience. I’ll call for a 6-6 season overall and a 4-4 mark in C-USA for the Owls in 2015.
Sean Kugler came in two years ago and formed a “my way or the highway” approach. Players have clearly bought in as he took a 2-10 team in his first season in ’13 to 7-6 and a bowl bid in ’14. Most had the Miners picked last in the West in ’14, but they finished tied for second with a 5-3 conference record. They do have just 11 returning starters this year, but will be strong at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. They have one of the best offensive lines and backfields in C-USA, led by Aaron Jones (1,321 yards, 11 TD). Their QB play should be just as good even though they’re breaking in a new starter in Mack Leftwich. The schedule sets up well as the Miners avoid the top three teams from the East in Marshall, WKU and MTSU. They do get Rice and Louisiana Tech at home, and while it could be a special season as a result, I believe the Miners are going to take a step back this season after a surprising campaign last year. They’ll go 5-7 and miss a bowl game.
Dan McCarney has managed to get the most out of his teams dating back to his time at Iowa State. He took North Texas to a bowl game and a 9-4 record in 2013, which was its first bowl appearance since 2004. But 2014 was clearly a rebuilding year as the Mean Green returned only nine starters. That proved to be the case as they went just 4-8 overall and lost seven times by double-digits. They should be improved in 2015 with 12 returning starters, but this is still one of the weakest teams in Conference USA. The Mean Green also draw the toughest schedule in the conference as they face each of the top three teams from the East in Marshall, WKU and MTSU. They do get UTSA, UTEP and Rice at home, but those are their only three winnable conference games in my opinion. They draw Tennessee and Iowa out of conference as well. I’ll call for a 4-8 finish and for a second consecutive season.
Larry Coker took advantage of a team with 18 returning starters in 2013 and guided the Roadrunners to a 7-5 record in his first season as a member of Conference USA. Many expected them to win the West last year because they returned 20 starters, but nothing went right. The Roadrunners finished 4-8 overall with three of their wins coming by a touchdown or less, and all three at home against three of the worst teams in the conference in FIU, Southern Miss and North Texas. Now they return just six starters, and their 50.8% lettermen returning is No. 128 in the FBS. This is clearly a rebuilding year for Coker and company. The good news is that expectations are low and they could surprise now. They also avoid Marshall and WKU from the East, instead drawing Charlotte and Old Dominion. Unfortunately, they will likely only be favored in one or two games all season because they also draw Arizona, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Colorado State out of conference. I have them pegged at 1-11 overall in this obvious rebuilding year.