2014 Scout Conference USA Football Preview

Rakeem Cato

A snapshot preview of Conference USA, where the conference transitioned again...

In the constantly shifting landscape of college football, Conference USA seems to have weathered the storm of realignment and hopes to find stability in 2014, as they welcome Western Kentucky and Old Dominion and bid farewell to East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa. On the field, the 2013 season featured a new champion as the Rice Owls brought home their first outright conference championship since the 1950’s. Overall, the conference is gaining momentum, as for the first time in conference history eight teams recorded more than six wins; the league also finished 3-3 in bowl games.

Rice will attempt to defend its title with a new quarterback, but all Conference USA teams have set their sights on the Marshall Thundering Herd, the overwhelming favorite this season. Could Marshall be the surprise story in college football? It is very possible. Behind senior QB Rakeem Cato, an under-publicized Heisman candidate, Marshall will be favored in every game this year and is poised for a run at a historic season. They return 13 starters from a year ago and face their toughest opponents at home.

Challenging Marshall in the retooled Eastern Division should be MTSU, FAU and newcomer Western Kentucky. MTSU will seek to ride the wave of momentum after winning its last five games a year ago, but must replace QB Logan Kilgore. FAU, meanwhile, could be the conference dark horse, as the Owls welcome new coach Charlie Partridge, who knows defense. If FAU can get some consistency from returning QB Jaquez Johnson, they will be a team to watch in the East. At Western Kentucky, plenty of offensive fireworks remain for new head coach (and former Louisville QB) Jeff Brohm. The Hilltoppers return nine starters on offense from a record-setting season.

Those who are fans of storylines and exciting offense will love Old Dominion, which will be playing its first game as an FBS team when they open against MTSU. They’ll put up plenty of points behind QB Taylor Heinicke, but the defense is suspect. UAB and FIU round out the East; new UAB coach Bill Clark seeks to bring the Blazers back to respectability, while Ron Turner returns to try to rebuild the struggling FIU Panther program.

The new-look Western Division features four teams from the state of Texas, plus Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss. Someone will have to knock Rice off its perch, and UTSA could just be the team to do it. The Roadrunners have improved every year under head coach Larry Coker, and the ‘14-’15 version could be his best yet. Why all the optimism? Coker’s squad returns an astonishing 38 seniors. The Mean Green of North Texas must replace a veteran squad, but they do return four along the offensive line. Coach Dan McCarney is a master motivator who will have his team competing again for the West title.

For Rice to repeat, they’ll have to do it against the odds, as they haven’t had three winning seasons in a row since the 1950’s. Driphus Jackson has experience at QB from two seasons ago, and must pick up quickly where he left off as Rice has a brutal September stretch. Survive that, and they’ll be right in the thick of the race for the Western crown. The once-proud owners of Conference USA, the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, find themselves in unfamiliar territory: rebuilding mode. After breaking a long losing streak, hope abounds once again in Hattiesburg, as coach Todd Monken has returning QB Nick Mullens returning to lead the Eagle attack. For the UTEP Miners, Coach Sean Kugler just wants to see a healthy team take the field after a season decimated with injuries. If they can do that, there is reason to believe they can scratch out a few more wins in conference this year.

OFFENSIVE MVP
QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall

DEFENSIVE MVP
DT James Rouse, Marshall

BREAKOUT PLAYER
RB Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT
Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

SLEEPER TEAM
FAU

MUST-SEE CONFERENCE GAME
Rice at Marshall, Nov. 15

MUST-SEE NON-CONFERENCE GAME
Rice at Notre Dame, Aug. 30

IMPACT RECRUIT
Kendall Gant, S, Marshall

BEST TAILGATING
Southern Miss

BOLD PREDICTION
Marshall goes undefeated through the regular season.

HEISMAN CANDIDATES
1. Rakeem Cato, Marshall
2. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
3. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech
4. Tommy Shuler, Marshall
5. Jordan Taylor, Rice

TOP QUARTERBACKS
1. Rakeem Cato, Marshall
2. Taylor Heinicke, Old Dominion
3. Jaquez Johnson, FAU
4. Driphus Jackson, Rice
5. Nick Mullens, Southern Miss

TOP SKILL-POSITION PLAYERS
1. Kenneth Dixon, La. Tech
2. Jordan Howard, UAB
3. Tommy Shuler, Marshall
4. Jordan Taylor, Rice
5. Jordan Parker, Mid. Tenn.

TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYERS
1. James Rouse, Marshall
2. Christian Covington, Rice
3. Robert Singletary, UTSA
4. D’Joun Smith, FAU
5. T.T. Barber, Mid. Tenn.

BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL
1. QB Driphus Jackson, Rice
(for Taylor McHargue)
2. QB Tucker Carter, UTSA
(for Eric Soza)
3. DE Houston Bates, La. Tech
(for IK Enemkpali)
4. QB Austin Grammer, Mid. Tenn.
(for Logan Kilgore)
5. CB Bryce Callahan, Rice
(for Phillip Gaines)

BREAKOUT PLAYER
1. Driphus Jackson, Rice
2. Leon Allen, Western Kentucky
3. Aaron Jones, UTEP
4. Jamarcus Nelson, UAB
5. William Dukes, FAU

BEST HEAD COACH
1. Larry Coker, UTSA
2. Doc Holliday, Marshall
3. David Baliff, Rice
4. Rick Stockstill, MTSU
5. Dan McCarney, North Texas

TOP CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Rice at Marshall
2. North Texas at UTSA
3. Middle Tennessee at Marshall
4. UTSA at Rice
5. WKU at Middle Tennessee

TOP NON-CONFERENCE GAMES
1. Rice at Notre Dame
2. North Texas at Texas
3. Louisiana Tech at Oklahoma
4. MTSU at Minnesota
5. So. Miss at Mississippi St.

2014 RECRUITING CLASS RANKINGS
1. Marshall
2. Western Kentucky
3. MTSU
4. Louisiana Tech
5. FAU

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