2014 C-USA Preview
July 1, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
2014 Conference USA Football Preview
Bowling For Dollars
C-USA matched its record by sending six teams to bowl games in 2013. The league finished 3-3 in bowls, giving the league an 11-5 mark the past three seasons in postseason play.
2013 also marked the first time in C-USA history that eight teams won six or more games in one season.
Speaking of non-conference play, stepping outside the conference, members will play 17 regular season games against foes from the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the SEC.
In head-to-head games against these three super conferences, the CUSA stands 46-219 SU and 116-142-5 ATS since the inception the conference, including a super-scary 2-123 SU and 41-87-2 ATS in games in which they fail to score 17 points.
Against all other non-conference foes the loop stands 365-350 SU overall.
West Is Best
The C-USA East versus West division results had crisscrossed results every year in conference play from 2005 thru 2009.
That has changed of late as the West Division has dominated the East each of the past three seasons, going 10-5 in 2013, 10-9 in 2012 and 11-8 in 2011.
Turnover Forcing Machines
C-USA produced three of the top five teams in the FBS in forcing turnovers in 2013 with Tulane, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State finishing tied for 2nd, 4th and tied for 5th respectively.
Only the Houston Cougars forced more turnovers than did the Green Wave.
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
FLORIDA ATLANTIC (Offense – *6/2 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY
Charlie Partridge, who spent the last six years as a defensive line assistant for Bret Bielema, takes over as head coach at FAU after following Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas for the 2013 season. After Carl Pelini’s career went up in smoke (pun intended) amid illegal drug accusations, OC Bryan Wright assumed the interim HC position and won the last four games of the season. Wright was wisely retained as the OC in hopes of maintaining team camaraderie. QB Jaquez Johnson returns after showing continued improvement throughout the tumultuous season, and with his double-threat athleticism, the Owls can only continue to get better.
Stat You Will Like: The Owls were the nation's 3rd ranked team in pass efficiency defense last season.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (Offense – *9/5 Defense – 7/2)
TEAM THEME: THOSE WERE THE DAYS
Roll the clock back to 2011. An 8-5 season by the Panthers was capped by a 2nd straight bowl appearance and Mario Cristobal was being hailed as the next Joe Paterno. Life was good. And then it all came apart. Cristobal was canned a year later, the Paterno-Sandusky sex scandal rocked the football world, and subsequently the Panthers were back where they began – in the toilet. The biggest flush occurred when they gained 30 total yards against Louisville. Second-year coach Ron Turner likely relishes a record eight home games in 2014. Hey, behind a 2-0 start (Bethune-Cookman and Wagner), it could be time for another ‘All in The Family’ re-run.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2014 roster features 30 players that made a combined 202 starts in 2013 and 229 in their careers.
MARSHALL (Offense – *6/3 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: HERD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE
QB Rakeem Cato returns for his senior season after having been named C-USA Offensive Player of the Year last season and C-USA MVP in 2012. His go-to target, WR Tommy Shuler is one of only eight players in major college football history with two 100-catch seasons (no player has had three). The best news for head coach Doc Holliday, though, was an improvement by 20.2 points in scoring defense, and 88.1 yards per game in total defense, from 2012 to 2013. Expect a dynamite secondary this year as five of the top six DB’s are back. You read it here: A 13-0 season is not out of the realm of possibility this year.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Cato has thrown at least one TD pass in 32 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the nation.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE (Offense – 5/2 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: NOT STANDING STILL
Rick Stockstill, a former QB for the FSU Seminoles, enters his 9th season after guiding the Blue Raiders back to a bowl game last season for the 3rd time in the last five years when, after a sluggish 3-4 start, they rallied to a 5-0 finish. With the departure of QB Logan Kilgore, though, Stockstill will choose a signal-caller from a group of three athletic underclassmen, including his son Brent, a freshman this year. He also lost his top two WR’s and four offensive linemen. Through it all, Stockstill recruited eight JUCO transfers to help fill the holes. Always well schooled, the Blue Man Group finished No. 3 in the nation in fumble recoveries in 2013.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2012-13 Blue Raiders team became the first MTSU squad in 21 years to win eight games in back-to-back seasons.
OLD DOMINION (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 9/3)
TEAM THEME: NEW DOMINION
Excitement abounds in Norfolk as the Monarchs make the official jump into FBS waters. Much like Larry Coker at UTSA, HC Bobby Wilder has been with the program since its inception, building the team from the ground up. Wilder has led ODU to a 46-14 record in five years while winning the CAA Championship in 2012. QB Taylor Heinicke and his two primary targets, WR's Larry Pinkard and Antonio Vaughan, are legitimate All-American Candidates. The 2014 ODU squad also features four WR's who caught 40 or more passes last season. The C-USA home opener against MTSU is the Monarchs’ first-ever Friday night game and will be nationally televised. Be there.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Heinicke returns as the FBS active career leader in passing yards, passing YPG, TD passes, completion percentage and total offense.
UAB (Offense – 7/3 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: BLAZING SADDLES
With only three wins the last two seasons versus FBS foes, the Blazers are changing saddles in 2014, bringing Bill Clark in for Garrick McGee. Clark’s Jacksonville State squad enjoyed a record-breaking season last year as they won two games in the FCS playoffs. Clark will rely heavily on SO RB Jordan Howard who rushed for 881 yards on 6.1 YPR last season, the 2nd best mark of all freshmen in the nation. In addition, PK Ty Long finds himself on the Groza Award watch list this season. The stop-unit will need to do a better job, though, as UAB allowed the most red zone TD’s (47) in the nation last season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Blazers are 2-27 SU and 8-21 ATS in the last 29 games in which they’ve been outgained.
WESTERN KENTUCKY (Offense – *9/4 Defense – 4/3)
TEAM THEME: CARDINAL CONNECTION
With Bobby Petrino going back to Louisville for a second go-round, the Hilltoppers turned their eyes to another ex-Cardinal to replace him. Jeff Brohm quarterbacked Louisville in the early 90’s, then spent time with five different teams in the NFL. He was elevated from the OC position he held last year with WKU, and will look to improve on a solid 8-4 season with the return of QB Brandon Doughty (65.8% completions) and all but two starters on his unit that set a school record for total offense (459.6 YPG). However, the defense is a different story as the entire linebacking corps, and three of the four members of the secondary, will need to be replaced.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Not one of Western Kentucky’s opponents this season is projected to be ranked among the nation’s top 50 teams.
LOUISIANA TECH (Offense – *6/1 Defense – 7/1)
TEAM THEME: SKIP BACKWARDS
Three seasons under HC Sonny Dykes and his prolific offense created plenty of excitement in Ruston, but after he abruptly left for Cal before last season, the program was in shambles. The result was a five-game digression to 4-8 in the first season under Skip Holtz, and things won’t be easily turned around anytime soon. Holtz also lost three defensive assistant coaches and replaced them with new DC Manny Diaz and two of Diaz’s former Texas cohorts. Diaz was fired last season after one bad game, and was essentially the scapegoat for Mack Brown, whose fanny was getting torched at the time. Skippy needs to stop the free fall, pronto.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Skip Holtz is 3-17 SU and 5-15 ATS in his last 20 games versus .500 or better teams.
NORTH TEXAS (Offense – 5/4 Defense – 4/0)
TEAM THEME: BACK TO REALITY
It all came together for Dan McCarney’s squad last season. The Mean Green’s 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl gave North Texas a final record of 9-4, its highest total since 2002 and tied for second-most in school history. In addition, they were the 2nd ranked team in the nation in red zone defense and No. 4 in turnovers gained (+34). And for the second year in a row, the offensive line ranked in the Top 10 in the nation for fewest sacks allowed. The good news is four of the starting offensive linemen return. The bad news is only five other starters overall are back. Yes, it was nice while it lasted.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After going 1-16 the three previous seasons, North Texas is 12-5 at Apogee Stadium under McCarney.
RICE (Offense – 6/3 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: WE WERE THE CHAMPIONS
The Owls enter off a C-USA Championship in 2013, the first outright league title for the program since 1957. Rice also made back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1960-61, and matched a school record with 10 victories while producing a league-high 10 all-conference players. What do they do for an encore? After winning 15 of their last 19 games – and upon the departure of QB Taylor McHargue – the Owls turn to QB Driphus Jackson who defeated Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl. It’s good news that the top two receivers return. Still, a treacherous September awaits the former champs.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls have not had three winning seasons in a row since 1948-50.
SOUTHERN MISS (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 8/3)
TEAM THEME: HUNKER DOWN, WE WILL PREVAIL
Sloppy play was their Achilles heel as the Eagles led the land in turnovers lost (38) last year. That’s to be expected when a 1st-year coach is forced to play 14 freshmen and sophomores among his 22 starters. Building for the future (read: this year), FR QB Nick Mullens threw a school record-tying five touchdown passes (and ran for another) while tossing for 370 yards in last year’s season finale, a 25-point win at UAB as 15-point underdogs. Along with their top two receivers, the Golden Eagles return two key players on defense who were lost for the season early on last year. Don’t look now but a sense of normalcy may finally be returning to Hattiesburg.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Eagles started eight true freshmen last season.
UTEP (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 7/1)
TEAM THEME: DATA MINING
Sean Kugler’s first year in El Paso was a mixed bag. The defense was awful early on and the offense was late arriving, never a good formula when designing a winning game plan. QB Jameill Showers (a Texas A&M transfer) tossed for 15 TD’s and only 4 INT’s in seven games last season before going down with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, RB Aaron Jones rushed for 811 yards on 155 caries in nine games as a freshman, and cohort RB Nathan Jeffrey chipped in with 532 rushing yards. After fighting through inexperience, health and depth issues last year, things figure to only get better for the Miners in 2014.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Miners are 4-38 SU and 9-32 ATS in the last 42 games in which they have been outgained in the stats.
UTSA (Offense – 9/5 Defense – 10/4)
TEAM THEME: LARRY THE ABLE GUY
Larry Coker has done a phenomenal job at UTSA since being hired in 2009 to build the Roadrunner program from scratch. His 15-9 record in the program’s two years of FBS play is impressive. What really has fans excited, though, are the 38 seniors who will dot the roster. That, along with 55 returning lettermen – including the entire offensive line plus all five backups – finds this squad firmly entrenched as the team to beat in the C-USA West division. Despite the loss of QB Eric Soza, this team is special, loaded with chemistry and experienced players that will provide leadership and familiarity. In the end, Coker should finally get the recognition he deserves.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Coker is 10-1-1 ATS in his career as a dog versus greater-than .750 opponents.
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