As college football nears its Sept. 3 kickoff, we're going around the country to preview the 2015 season, conference by conference. While some conferences may be more nationally relevant than others, every league has intriguing teams and players to watch. So far, we've covered the Sun Belt and Mountain West. Now, we continue with 10 things to know about Conference USA.
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1. Marshall was the story of the season in Conference USA in 2014, but Western Kentucky proved that it will provide stiff competition for the Thundering Herd upon joining the league. Marshall chased a major bowl bid despite playing one of the nation's worst schedules, and the bubble wasn't popped until the Hilltoppers ruined things for the Herd 67-66 on an overtime two-point conversion in the last game of the regular season, a game in which both teams posted more than 700 yards. Despite losing quarterback Rakeem Cato and some other key players, Marshall remains a top contender for the CUSA crown. But in just its seventh year of full-time FBS football, and first in Conference USA, Western Kentucky showed that it can compete, delivering one of the most quietly entertaining seasons of 2014.
2. Marshall and Western Kentucky should own the East Division, but Middle Tennessee has enough returning to contend, or at least make things difficult for the frontrunners. There have been some down years, but Rick Stockstill has taken the Blue Raiders to four bowls and posted five records of at least .500 in nine seasons. They were left out of a bowl with a 6-6 record last year, but with 16 starters returning, they have a chance to rectify that. There's depth here; it's just a matter of figuring out a few key positions, including quarterback. Junior Austin Grammer was solid in his first year as a starter and brings mobility to the table, but he struggled with turnovers and has to beat out redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill -- the coach's son -- to hold onto the job. Both, in fact, are expected to play, possibly all season. This probably isn't a conference championship team, but in two seasons of CUSA play, the Blue Raiders are 11-5 in the league, and they're set to continue that trend.
3. While Middle Tennessee has been impressively stable, Florida Atlantic and Florida International are still trying to find solid footing. Both teams are less than 15 years old, so it's not surprising, and they have both made two bowl games, so there have been positives. The transitions to Conference USA from the Sun Belt have been strange, though. FIU inexplicably dumped head coach Mario Cristobal and hired Ron Turner, who now has a career record of 47-80. Florida Atlantic went 6-6 in 2013 but parted ways with Carl Pelini over off-field issues, replacing him with first-time head coach Charlie Partridge. There is hope for both teams, given the recruiting territory they occupy, and both even have a chance at pushing for six wins this year. FIU returns 15 starters from a team that went 4-8 with a freshman QB, Alex McGough, and a mediocre running game. At the very least, the Golden Panthers have a tremendous weapon in tight end Jonnu Smith, who caught 61 passes for 710 yards. Florida Atlantic went 3-9, but it's now experienced on both lines, with a solid playmaker at quarterback in senior Jaquez Johnson. Both teams were on the wrong side of close losses last year, so progress is possible, even if they're in the tougher CUSA division.
4. Conference USA has been a springboard for rising teams in college football. Former members UCF and Cincinnati have both gone on to major bowl games, while TCU and Louisville have graduated to contenders in current Power Five conferences. But when nine of the members of the AAC are former CUSA teams, and when UAB has temporarily stopped playing football, there is going to be a lot of new blood, leaving the conference to reinvent itself. Only Southern Miss, Marshall, Rice and UTEP have been with the league since before 2013, and Southern Miss is the only original member remaining (dating back to 1995). So, Conference USA has turned to some of the newest of the new teams to replenish its lineup. Old Dominion is in its seventh year playing football and second in CUSA, UTSA is entering its fifth year as a team and third in CUSA, and 2015 newcomer Charlotte is in only its third year, taking an accelerated path to Conference USA. Of the three newest FBS teams, Old Dominion is best positioned to win in 2015. UTSA was the most senior-laden team in the country last year, and now it returns just five starters against a schedule that opens with six 2014 bowl teams in a row. It has some potential, but after making some noise early last year, it's not like UTSA was great: Its three CUSA wins were all by one score. Charlotte has gone 5-6 in each of its first two years as an FCS team, and while it has the offensive talent to compete, the defense still has a long way to go, especially with the leap in competition. Old Dominion, meanwhile, went 6-6 in its first CUSA season, winning its last three games (including against West Division champion Louisiana Tech). It returns eight starters to an offense that ranked third in the league in yards per play, and while losing talented QB Taylor Heinicke will be tough, this team can flirt with .500 again, which is an impressive feat for such a young program.
5. Both North Texas and Southern Miss are still trying to figure out how to recapture previous success. The Mean Green captured four straight Sun Belt titles from 2001-04, but since then they've finished above .500 only once. Dan McCarney took them to the Heart of Dallas Bowl in 2013 at 9-4 in their CUSA debut, only to fall back to 4-8 last year. North Texas averaged under five yards per play last year and returns only one starter on the offensive line. It faces a schedule that includes all the top teams from the East Division. Returning to bowl eligibility is a steep task. Southern Miss is still fighting through one of the most baffling collapses in college football. The Eagles won the CUSA crown in 2012, capping a run of 18 straight winning seasons. Since Larry Fedora left, they've won four games in three years under two coaches, going from 0-12 under Ellis Johnson to 1-11 and 3-9 under Todd Monken. There were finally signs of life again last year, and 10 starters are back on offense, although Monken's squad desperately needs to get improvement out of the ground game. It's weird to say about a program that was so consistently good for so long, but Monken inherited a mess. Tangible progress was made last year, and while returning to the postseason is unlikely, it at least feels like a foundation has been rebuilt for improvement to continue.
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Top 10 Players
1. Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky
2. Devon Johnson, RB, Marshall
3. Jonnu Smith, TE, Florida International
4. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
5. Richard Leonard, CB, FIU
6. Kevin Byard, S, Middle Tennessee
7. Xavier Woods, S, Louisiana Tech
8. Leon Allen, RB, Western Kentucky
9. Clint Van Horn, OT, Marshall
10. Aaron Jones, RB, UTEP
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6. Sean Kugler has quickly given UTEP an identity. There usually is a clear plan when you hire an NFL offensive line coach, but Kugler is attempting to make UTEP into the Conference USA version of Arkansas, Wisconsin or Stanford. The Miners are going to be physical up front, they're going to run the ball and they're going to try to play tough defense. The latter is still developing -- they gave up 6.3 yards per play last year, ranking 11th in CUSA -- but they didn't give up sacks, they didn't turn the ball over and they established the run behind Aaron Jones, who ran 242 times for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 30 passes. Jones, a junior, returns, as do four starters on the offensive line. By no means are the Miners going to take over the conference, especially with holes in the secondary and no proven option at QB with Jameill Showers gone, but the pieces are in place for UTEP to make back-to-back bowl trips for the first time since 2004-05. The Miners may not be particularly exciting, but you know what to expect from them.
7. One of the teams UTEP is trying to catch is Rice, which has gone to three straight bowl games. David Bailiff has done a fine job establishing Rice as a viable conference contender. The Owls won the conference in 2013, and beyond a couple of ugly performances against good teams last year (they gave up 76 points to Louisiana Tech), they were solid. Competing with Louisiana Tech this year, however, will require some development. The defense has been gutted, losing nine of its top 12 tacklers, plus sixth-round pick defensive tackle Christian Covington. The interior of the offensive line has to rebuild, the run game was mediocre last year and the top two receivers are gone. In other words, there's going to be a lot of pressure on the arm and legs of senior QB Driphus Jackson, who threw for 2,842 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 401 yards. There's too much turnover for Rice to avoid a step back, but there's still enough here for a fourth straight bowl bid, an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly.
8. Skip Holtz's head coaching career has been filled with ups and downs, with the downs coming in a three-year stretch from 2010-12 in which he went 12-24 at South Florida and in his first year at Louisiana Tech. Otherwise, he won two Conference USA titles at East Carolina, and he came close last year with Louisiana Tech by winning the West, then falling to Marshall 26-23, then blowing out Illinois in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. There's little reason to bet against Louisiana Tech in the West Division in 2015. The defense has some rebuilding to do, especially with coordinator Manny Diaz leaving, but even the new faces in the starting lineup have experience. Offensively, senior tailback Kenneth Dixon is a three-time all-conference pick with 61 career touchdowns. While the Bulldogs lose a productive passer in Cody Sokol, they brought in Florida graduate transfer Jeff Driskel, who has had a shaky career but should benefit from a change of scenery to an offense in which he won't take as many hits and has proven receivers. There shouldn't be much of a drop-off, if any, for Louisiana Tech this fall.
9. Marshall will have a hard time repeating last year's 13-1 season, especially given the loss of Rakeem Cato, who was the face of the program for four years as starting quarterback. Still, even without Cato and go-to receiver Tommy Shuler (92 catches), Marshall isn't going to fall far and is still one of the top two or three contenders in Conference USA. While Purdue is added to the schedule, technically giving the Herd a power conference opponent, this is still one of the easiest slates in the country, with the Boilermakers joined by Ohio, Norfolk State and Kent State in nonconference play. Converted tight end Devon Johnson returns at tailback after rushing for 1,767 yards and averaging 8.6 yards per carry, and enough options return at receiver to keep the offense moving behind quarterback Michael Birdsong, a 6-foot-5, 241-pound transfer from James Madison. Marshall has been up and down over the last decade, but coach Doc Holliday has gone 23-5 over the last two years, and that's no accident. The Herd are a step ahead of the rest of the conference in recruiting, meaning they can reload fairly well.
10. Western Kentucky will win Conference USA. It's not as if the Hilltoppers are suddenly going to become a shutdown defense, but they are deeper and more experienced on that side of the ball this year. They can get enough stops to win behind a loaded offense headlined by Brandon Doughty, a sixth-year senior who threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns, plus underrated tailback Leon Allen, who quietly ran for 1,542 yards and 13 touchdowns (including 345 yards vs. Army). A tricky nonconference schedule and the defensive shortcomings will likely prevent WKU from pushing for the Group of Five's major bowl bid, but with home games against both Marshall and Louisiana Tech, the Hilltoppers are well positioned to not only go to their third bowl game in four years, but also win their first conference championship at the FBS level. If nothing else, they've proven to be thrilling to watch, with seven starters returning to an offense that averaged 44 points per game, winning its final two 67-66 against Marshall and 49-48 in the absurdly entertaining Bahamas Bowl finish. After winning four games total from 2008-10 upon jumping to the FBS full-time, the Hilltoppers have posted four winning seasons in a row under three coaches, and they appear to be in great hands in the second year under Jeff Brohm. There's a lot of rebuilding to do in this new-look conference as a whole, but the competition at the top will be entertaining.
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1. Western Kentucky 9-3 (7-1)
2. Marshall 9-3 (6-2)
3. Middle Tennessee 6-6 (5-3)
4. Old Dominion 5-7 (4-4)
5. Florida Atlantic 5-7 (4-4)
6. Florida International 4-8 (3-5)
7. Charlotte 1-11 (0-8)
1. Louisiana Tech 8-4 (6-2)
2. UTEP 7-5 (5-3)
3. Rice 7-5 (5-3)
4. Southern Miss 4-8 (3-5)
5. North Texas 4-8 (3-5)
6. UTSA 1-11 (1-7)
Conference Championship: Western Kentucky over Louisiana Tech