2014 CFN Conference USA Preview
Marshall QB Rakeem Cato
Preview 2014 - Conference USA finally has a clearer vision of its future. What's next?
Conference USA Preview
By Pete Fiutak
- Suggestions or something we missed?
Let us know
- Follow us ...
Now that the realignment merry-go-round has come to a stop, Conference USA finally has a clearer vision of its future. The league, poached repeatedly by the American over the past few seasons, stands at 13 members, with Charlotte set to join in 2015.
Everyone, from fans to players and coaches, have been pining for some stability within the conference. Stability means a chance to build both rivalries and brand recognition. Many players don’t even know who’s in and who’s out these days in their own league. For their edification, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa have moved East, while Western Kentucky and Old Dominion are the two newest members.
All eyes this fall will be focused on Marshall, the league favorite on a quest for its first perfect season since winning the MAC and finishing No. 10 nationally in 1999. The Herd returns a slew of starters on both sides of the ball, led by prolific passer Rakeem Cato. The team is going to score a ton of points, but is it ready to eliminate the mistakes that resulted in four losses last season? For all of the legitimate offseason hype, Marshall did fall in 2013 to Ohio, Middle Tennessee and Rice in the league title game.
The line forming behind the Herd in the seven-team East Division begins with underrated Middle Tennessee, which has bowled in four of the last eight years, and Florida Atlantic . The Owls are now under the leadership of Charlie Partridge after enduring the chaos of Carl Pelini’s in-season ouster in 2013. Western Kentucky also has fresh leadership, Jeff Brohm, to go along with its new league. UAB is starting over—again—under former Alabama high school coach Bill Clark. Old Dominion can’t wait to unveil QB Taylor Heinicke to its new home. Florida International, not the Monarchs, will look like the program that emerged from dormancy just a few years ago.
The West Division may have one fewer team, but it figures to be a whole lot more congested at the top. Three teams, defending champ Rice, North Texas and UTSA, are going to scrap for the pole position right through the end of November. The Owls and the Mean Green are the more mature programs, but they’re also dealing with wholesale changes on both sides of the ball. Larry Coker’s Roadrunners, just three years removed from the athletic department womb, are evolving at warp speed. Louisiana Tech, UTEP and Southern Miss are aiming to bounce back from losing seasons, with an eye on the six wins needed to contend for the postseason.
All things considered, Conference USA has done well to remain upright, despite losing more than half of its teams from just two years ago. While many of the members have yet to plant roots, competition this fall will be stiff and intriguing, and it’s just a matter of time before new rivalries emerge. As the transient league begins maturing together, Marshall will carry the banner, with a handful of teams angling to prevent the Herd from running away with a title.
- In just its fourth year playing football, UTSA will wear the Conference USA crown. The West Division is wide-open, and the Roadrunners are surging in a big way under Larry Coker.
- Marshall’s Rakeem Cato and Old Dominion’s Taylor Heinicke will post gaudier numbers, but UTEP’s Jameill Showers will be the league’s only quarterback selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.
- No player—on either side of the ball—will be more dominant than Rice DT Christian Covington. He’s a Big 12 talent going up against Conference USA blockers, which is why most opponents will be forced to commit two players to him.
- NFL scouts will flock to Conference USA stadiums to see the league’s defensive backs perform. D’Joun Smith (Florida Atlantic), Cam Thomas (Western Kentucky), Bryce Callahan (Rice), Le’Vander Liggins (Louisiana Tech) and Bennett Okotcha (UTSA) will all be drafted next spring.
- The drop-off from Antonio Andrews to Leon Allen, Western Kentucky’s new feature back, won’t be as noticeable as most assume. Allen has impressed when given a chance, and Andrews wasn’t even selected in this past May’s draft.
- QB Driphus Jackson will make the Rice faithful forget longtime starter Taylor McHargue. McHargue was good. Jackson will be better now that he’s finally getting his opportunity.
- Known more for its high-powered offenses and passing attacks, Conference USA could produce ten 1,000-yard rushers this season. The league is littered with quality young runners.
- UAB will boast the best receivers in the league. Gamebreaker Jamarcus Nelson will spearhead a unit that can stretch defenses in all directions.
- Marshall DT James Rouse will terrorize opposing blockers every week of the fall. Now that he’s healthy, he’s an unstoppable force from the interior of the line.
- Rookie Western Kentucky head coach Jeff Brohm will help transform Brandon Doughty into one of the league’s steadier passers. Doughty had too many mistakes in 2013, but Brohm has made No. 12 his personal project this offseason.
- UAB will look like a different team for new head coach Bill Clark. Garrick McGee was a bad fit in Birmingham, but Clark will have the Blazers in a bowl game by 2015.
- Southern Miss will be vastly improved in Todd Monken’s second season. If the Golden Eagles can remain relatively healthy, the product on the field will be a lot more competitive in 2014.
- In terms of program doppelgangers, newcomer Old Dominion will be Washington State, provided the young receivers offset recent departures.
Team That'll Surprise
Southern Miss – The Golden Eagles will be much better in 2013, and not just because last season was a one-win nightmare. Everything was new a year ago, from head coach Todd Monken and his staff to half the roster. But Monken returns with a better handle on his personnel and how to best utilize it. QB Nick Mullens played as a true freshman, and a handful of key veterans have already made their way back from injury. Southern Miss has a long way to go before duplicating the height of the Jeff Bower era, but 2014 will mark a sudden step forward for this once-proud program.
Team That'll Disappoint
North Texas – Dan McCarney has a good thing going, as evidenced by last year’s solid nine-win campaign. But maintaining that level of play will require too many first-time starters to perform like seasoned vets this fall. The Mean Green lost the heart of its team, on both sides of the ball, to graduation, which could result in a few early stumbles. The quarterbacks are unproven, and LB Derek Akunne is the lone returning starter from last season’s bedrock front seven. McCarney will make sure North Texas doesn’t fade away in 2014. A spate of holes, though, will open the door for an upstart to win the West Division.
Game of the Year … Rice at Marshall, Nov. 15. There’s no bigger storyline in Conference USA this season than the Thundering Herd’s bid for a perfect season and a possible berth in a marquee January bowl game. Marshall will play a cotton-soft schedule, with a visit from the Owls standing out as an exception. For the Herd, this is the home game with Rice that it thought it deserved last December. Marshall traveled to Houston for the 2013 Conference USA Championship Game, and was promptly spanked by 17 points on the road. It’ll be seeking revenge at Edwards Stadium, while possibly maintaining an unbeaten season and a lead in the East Division.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. DT Christian Covington, Jr. Rice
2. QB Taylor Heinicke, Sr. Old Dominion
3. DT James Rouse, Sr. Marshall
4. CB D’Joun Smith, Sr. Florida Atlantic
5. WR Jamarcus Nelson, Sr. UAB
Coach on the Hot Seat
Ron Turner, Florida International – Is this Paul Pasqualoni to UConn all over again? Turner was a screwy choice to replace Mario Cristobal, and then the new coach went out and won just once in 2013. Not only does Turner have no connections to the region, but he’d spent the prior decade coaching NFL personnel. Could he possibly relate to the players of one of the worst teams in the FBS? This has all of the signs of a short marriage, even if Turner gets an opportunity to coach a third year in 2015. The likelihood of another Conference USA coach getting canned is slim, since most are either within their first two years or on solid footing.
5 Non-Conference Games Conference USA had better take very, very seriously
1. Marshall at Akron, Sept. 20
2. Rice at Army, Oct. 11
3. UTEP at New Mexico, Aug. 30
4. Appalachian State at Southern Miss, Sept. 20
5. Eastern Michigan at Old Dominion, Sept. 13
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DT Christian Covington, Jr. Rice
2. CB D’Joun Smith, Sr. Florida Atlantic
3. CB Cam Thomas, Sr. Western Kentucky
4. CB Bryce Callahan, Sr. Rice
5. WR Jamarcus Nelson, Sr. UAB
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. CB Malcolm Hill for Phillip Gaines, Rice
2. RB Leon Allen for Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
3. LB Fred Scott for Zach Orr, North Texas
4. TE Eric Frohnapfel for Gator Hoskins, Marshall
5. QB Tucker Carter for Eric Soza, UTSA