2015 College Football Preview: Big 12

TCU and Baylor both finished 2014 with 8-1 records in Big 12 play. Will it come down to these two again in 2015? (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)
TCU and Baylor both finished 2014 with 8-1 records in Big 12 play. Will it come down to these two again in 2015? (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 12

Part ten of the 2015 College Football Preview will look at the Big 12. Last year was a rough year for the Big 12 after having both Baylor and TCU left out of the College Football Playoff. Below is the schedule of previews left, as well as the previews already published.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at each of the ten teams that make up the Big 12.

1. TCU Horned Frogs

Gary Patterson has led TCU since 2000 when he was the head coach for the bowl game that year. Since then, he has led TCU through Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big East (for a moment) and finally here to the Big 12. During that time, he has had only two losing seasons and was close to leading TCU into the inaugural College Football Playoff last year.

TCU went from 25.1 points and 345 yards per game in 2013 to 46.5 points and 533 yards per game in 2014. The scariest part is that TEN starters return making this one of the best offenses in the nation. Trevone Boykin threw for 3,901 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while also rushing for 707 yards and 8 touchdowns. Top running back from 2014, Aaron Green, ran for 922 yards and 9 touchdowns while also returning. Wide receivers Josh Doctson (65 catches for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns), Kolby Listenbee (41 catches for 753 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Deante’ Gray (36 catches for 582 yards and 8 touchdowns) all return as well. The defenses in the Big 12 better watch out for this incredible TCU machine.

TCU’s defense has only five starters back from a unit that allowed 19 points and 342 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has three starters back including defensive end James McFarland, who had 41 tackles, 7 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Nebraska transfer Aaron Curry also joins the fray. The linebacking unit has been hit hard by losses with the top three gone leaving this the most inexperienced part of the defense. The secondary has both Ranthony Texada and Derrick Kindred back from a group that allowed only 48.5% completions. The TCU defense is the top priority for Patterson and it would be surprising to see them struggle for long during the season.

TCU opens with a road game against Minnesota before back-to-back home games against Stephen F Austin and SMU. The Big 12 plays a round robin schedule, which means TCU will face each team in the conference. TCU faces Texas (home), Kansas State (road), Oklahoma (road), and the biggest game against Baylor is also at home. TCU very well could run the table and make up for last year’s snub from the College Football Playoff committee.

2. Baylor Bears

Baylor used to constantly finish in the Big 12’s cellar prior to the hiring of Art Briles. Since then, Briles has led the Bears to a bowl game every year since 2010 and double digit win totals in three of the last four years. Last year, Baylor nearly made the College Football Playoff, but were left out by the committee.

Briles will have his most experienced offense since his first season at Baylor in 2008. There are nine starters back from a group that put up 48.2 points and 581 yards of offense. Gone is quarterback Bryce Petty (3,855 yards, 29 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 63.1% completion), but Briles is renowned for producing stellar quarterbacks. Seth Russell is ready to take his turn after throwing for 804 yards with 8 touchdowns and 1 interception while getting some playing time with Petty’s injury last season. Shock Linwood is back to run the ball after rushing for 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns. The top two wide receivers return as well with Corey Coleman (64 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns) and the speedy KD Cannon (58 catches for 1,030 yards and 8 touchdowns). The entire offensive line returns and Baylor should continue to put out points at will in 2015.

The defense for Briles will be his most experienced since he has taken over at Baylor. He has nine starters back from a group that allowed 25.5 points and 382 yards of offense per game. That was done with only four starters back for 2014 as well. The defensive line returns intact including the imposing Shawn Oakman. Oakman had 51 tackles, 11 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss last year, but is probably best known for his imposing stance in last year’s Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. Linebacker lost one starter, but does return Taylor Young, the team’s second leading tackler at 92. The secondary also returns all four starters from a group that allowed only 54.6% completions.

Baylor has an easy non-conference schedule with games against SMU (road), Lamar (home), and Rice (home). In conference, Baylor has a brutal schedule to close out the year. The final five games are against Kansas State (road), Oklahoma (home), Oklahoma State (road), TCU (road), and Texas (home). That finish to the season could ultimately cost Baylor the Big 12 title, but they still have an excellent shot at getting to the TCU game undefeated to set up an unofficial Big 12 title game.

3. Texas Longhorns

Charlie Strong took over at Texas prior to last season after 16 years of Mack Brown at the helm. Strong instituted much more discipline, which resulted in some losses, but still guided the team to a 6-6 regular season before losing the Texas Bowl to Arkansas by a score of 31-7.

The offense averaged 21.4 points and 337 yards per game in Strong’s first season. This year, seven starters are back including quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. Swoopes threw for 2,409 yards with 13 touchdown and 11 interceptions while also rushing for 264 yards and 4 touchdowns. Jonathan Gray may finally get his chance to get all the carries at running back after rushing for 637 yards and 7 touchdowns as the team’s second leading rusher. John Harris and Jaxon Shipley were the top two receivers last year, but have departed leaving Marcus Johnson as the top returning receiver. He caught 27 passes for 313 yards and a touchdown. The entire offensive line returns and the offense should perform better in 2015 with a year of Strong’s schemes under their belts.

The defense returns only five starters, but the strength of Strong’s coaching tends to be on this side of the ball. Two linemen return including tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who had 43 tackles, 6 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss. The line gave up 164 yards rushing per game in 2014 and will probably improve on that in 2015. The linebackers are all gone leaving this unit very inexperienced, but Malik Jefferson is expected to start immediately as a true freshman. The secondary has three starters back led by safety Dylan Haines. Haines had 86 tackles to finish third on the team while also tallying 7 pass breakups and 4 interceptions. The defense gave up 23.8 points and 349 yards per game in 2014 and should have a similar year this time around as well.

Texas has an interesting non-conference schedule with games against Notre Dame (road), Rice (home), and California (home). They face Oklahoma State (home), TCU (road), Oklahoma (Dallas), Kansas State (home), and Baylor (road). They also have a tricky road game at West Virginia. Strong has recruited well and should be able to get Texas back to a winning season this year.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

Oklahoma has been good under Bob Stoops, but only won a single National Championship (2000) during that time while playing in three others (2003, 2004, and 2008). Stoops has produced many double digit win seasons, but the lack of National Championship appearances in the last 7 years has left some weary.

The Oklahoma offense has seven starters returning including quarterback Trevor Knight (2,300 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions), but he may not be the starter. That could be Baker Mayfield. Mayfield started at Texas Tech in 2013 (2,315 yards with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions) where he had an excellent start, but decided to move on to Oklahoma. Whichever player is behind center, they will have running back Samaje Perine to handoff to. He ran for 1,713 yards and 21 touchdowns as a true freshman. Also returning are the top four receivers led by Sterling Shepard with 51 catches for 970 yards and 5 touchdowns. The offensive line has only two starters returning, but the unit as a whole should be able to match 2014’s output of 36.4 points and 465 yards per game.

The defense under Stoops has been consistent with most years giving up points per game in the low to mid 20s and less than 400 yards per game. 2014 was no different at 25.9 points and 383 yards per game. There are six starters back and only one of those is on the line in Charles Tapper. Tapper had 37 tackles, 3 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss while the group allowed only 106 yards rushing per game. Three of the four linebackers return including Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans. Alexander had 107 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss while Evans finished 2014 with 93 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. The secondary has two starters back in Zack Sanchez and Ahmad Thomas while giving up 276 passing yards per game and 56.3% completions. Expect another typical finish for the Sooners on defense.

Oklahoma opens the year with Akron at home, Tennessee on the road, and Tulsa at home before a bye week leads into conference play. In conference, they will face West Virginia (home), Texas (Dallas), and Kansas State (road) early. The last three games consist of Baylor (road), TCU (home), and Oklahoma State (road). The Sooners could surprise this year if the defense improves, but Stoops’ teams have a tendency to underachieve a bit.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State has three double digit win seasons since 2010 and have been to a bowl game each year since 2006. 2015 has a chance to produce another one of those double digit win totals.

There are eight starters back on offense for the Cowboys from a group that put up 27.6 points and 379 yards per game. Daxx Garman threw for 2,041 yards with 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, but has opted to transfer. Mason Rudolph started the last three games and finished 2014 with 853 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Rudolph is expected to beat out JW Walsh and John Kolar for the starting spot. The top two running backs are gone with Ronnie Childs the top rusher returning from 2014 with only 294 yards and 3 touchdowns. Chris Carson arrives from junior college in the fall while coming back from injury is Sione Palelei. Wide receiver is not an area of concern with the trio of Brandon Sheperd, David Glidden, and James Washington returning after posting at least 450 yards and two touchdowns each. The offense should get back to putting up a lot of points in Stillwater.

The defense struggled last year giving up 31.2 points and 432 yards per game with only four starters returning. The number of starters returning doubles to eight this year. The defensive line is hit the hardest with two starters lost, but still have two starters coming back in Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Ogbah was excellent last year with 49 tackles, 11 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 5 pass breakups. Linebacker is strong with the duo of Ryan Simmons (96 tackles, 2 sacks, 10 tackles for loss) and Seth Jacobs (92 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions) back. Three starters are back in the secondary led by Jordan Sterns. Sterns was best on the team in tackles last year with 103 while also recording 4.5 tackles for loss and 4 pass breakups. The defense should be better in 2015 with the amount of experience they have returning.

Oklahoma State has a very easy non-conference schedule with Central Michigan (road), Central Arkansas, and Texas-San Antonio on the slate. In conference, they have Texas and West Virginia on the road, but get Kansas State, TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma all at home. Oklahoma State has a shot of getting back to 10 wins in 2015 with just an upset or two.

6. Kansas State Wildcats

Bill Snyder retired in 2005 and handed over the program to Ron Prince. However, Prince led KSU to records of 7-6, 5-7, and 5-7 prompting Snyder to come out of retirement. Snyder has led KSU to at least a .500 record or better in the last six years including two double digit win seasons.

The Wildcats have six starters back on offense, but the losses are heavy with quarterback Jake Waters as well as wide receivers Tyler Lockett, Curry Sexton, and Zach Trujillo all departing. The quarterback job is not settled and will come down to freshman Alex Delton, junior Joe Hubener, sophomore Jesse Ertz, or junior college transfer Johnathan Banks. Charles Jones led KSU in rushing last year, but had only 540 yards while scoring 13 touchdowns. The top receivers back are Kody Cook (20 catches for 251 yards and a touchdown) and Deante Burton (17 catches for 171 yards). Four offensive linemen return from a unit that scored 35.8 points and put up 422 yards per game. The offense probably will not match those numbers in 2015, but Snyder always gets the best out of his teams.

The defense also has six starters back from a group that allowed 23.2 points and 369 yards per game. The line has two starters back in Jordan Willis (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and .5 tackles for loss) and Travis Britz (27 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss). Linebacker has no starters back, which will hurt the defense, but three starters return in the secondary. Dante Barnett had 77 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions last year. The defense will have another solid year under Snyder.

Kansas State has an out of conference schedule comprised of South Dakota (home), Texas-San Antonio (road), and Louisiana Tech (home). They will face the TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, and West Virginia at home while going on the road to play Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech. KSU should take a step back, but still be able to make a bowl game this year as well as pull an upset or two in the Big 12.

7. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech began sparklingly in 2013 going 7-0 and reaching as high as tenth in the nation. An eight point loss to Oklahoma started a five game losing streak that ended with four consecutive blowouts. Texas Tech finished that season 8-5 thanks to a win over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, but high hopes for 2014 were dashed following a 4-8 record. Kliff Kingsbury needs to have a bounce back season in 2015.

The offense has nine starters back including two quarterbacks who played last year. Davis Webb started the year, but was injured late in the season and finished with 2,539 yards with 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Patrick Mahomes started the last four, throwing for 1,547 yards with 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. DeAndre Washington, who ran for 1,103 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, returns at running back. Washington also caught 30 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jakeem Grant (67 catches for 938 yards and 7 touchdowns), Devin Lauderdale (31 catches for 589 yards and 2 touchdowns), and Ian Sadler (23 catches for 336 yards and 2 touchdowns) all return at receiver with only the number two guy (Bradley Marquez; 65 catches for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns) departs. Four starters also return on the offensive line and the Red Raiders are likely to beat their 2014 output of 30.5 points per game this year.

The defense has eight starters returning, but struggled mightily last year. With four starters back, the defense allowed 41.3 points and 513 yards per game. Those numbers were over 10 points and nearly 100 yards per game higher than 2013. Defensive end Pete Robertson led Texas Tech in tackles last year with 81 while also recording 12 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 3 pass breakups. Micah Awe returns at linebacker after tallying 69 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss. The secondary has all four starters back and should improve on their 253 passing yards given up per game in 2014. Overall, the defense should get back to 2013 numbers of 30.5 points and 419 yards per game.

Texas Tech opens with Sam Houston State and UTEP at home before traveling to face Arkansas in their final non-conference game. In conference, they face TCU, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State at home. They will face Baylor in Arlington, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Texas on the road. Texas Tech will need to pull a couple of upsets to reach bowl eligibility, but they certainly are able to do so.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia moved to the Big 12 prior to the 2012 season and has seen some success. They have gone 7-6, 4-8, and 7-6 in their first three seasons while having some potent offenses. 2015 will be Dana Holgorsen’s fifth season with the team.

Six starters are back for West Virginia on offense, but two of those will not be quarterback Clint Trickett and wide receiver Kevin White. Skyler Howard is expected to lead WV after throwing for 829 yards and 8 touchdowns (no interceptions) after starting the final two games. Rushel Shell ran for 788 yards and 7 touchdowns while Wendell Smallwood ran for 722 yards and 2 touchdowns with both of those backs returning. Jordan Thompson is the top returning wideout after grabbing 49 catches for 598 yards and 2 touchdowns. The offense put up 33.5 points and 500 yards of offense last year and may come up short of reaching those numbers this year with a new quarterback and the loss of White.

The 2015 defense will be the most experienced under Holgorsen with nine starters returning. Two starters on the defensive line, but linebacker is where the top returnee is. Nick Kwiatkoski led the team with 103 tackles, but also had 0.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups. The secondary has all four starters back as well as KJ Dillon (62 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions) at the Spur position. The secondary should be the best part of the defense this year.

West Virginia has three non-conference home games to start the year with Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Maryland all going to Morgantown. Also going to Morgantown in Big 12 play will be Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Texas. West Virginia will have to travel to Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU, and Kansas State. West Virginia will be close to bowl eligibility this year and should get there with an upset in the Big 12.

9. Iowa State

Paul Rhoads has led Iowa State to three bowl games in six seasons, but also has five losing seasons at Iowa State (two years of 6-7 records). Iowa State went 3-9 in 2013 and 2-10 in 2014. Rhoads will need to improve in 2015 if he is to keep his job in 2016 and beyond.

The offense has seven starters back led by Sam B. Richardson and his top two wide receivers. Richardson threw for 2,669 yards with 18 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He also ran for 421 yards and 3 scores. He will be throwing to D’Vario Montgomery (44 catches for 605 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Allen Lazard (45 catches for 593 yards and 3 touchdowns). A top running back will need to be found with Tyler Brown (109 yards) and Martinez Syria (47 yards and a touchdown) the top returning rushers behind Richardson. The offense will be guided by Mark Mangino in his second year. After putting up numbers of 23.2 points and 373 yards per game, Iowa State should be able to match those numbers on offense.

The defense last year was the worst under Rhoads. The unit gave up 38.8 points and 529 yards per game. Now, six starters are back (five were back in 2014) and Rhoads’ work is cut out for him. The defensive line has Trent Taylor back (37 tackles, 2 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss), but adds in two highly rated junior college transfers in Bobby Leath and Demond Tucker. Linebacker has only Luke Knott returning, but he had 74 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception last year as a starter. The secondary is bring back three starters in Sam E. Richardson, Nigel Tribune, and Kamari Cotton-Moya. Cotton-Moya was the teams leading tackler in 2014 with 77 stops and was named the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. It is hard to see the defense not getting better under Rhoads this year.

Iowa State opens with rivalry games against Northern Iowa and Iowa at home before a road test against Toledo. They open Big 12 play against Kansas at home in a game that could determine who finishes last in the Big 12. They also TCU, Texas, and Oklahoma State at home while facing Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State, and West Virginia on the road. Iowa State usually gets a shocking upset or two against Big 12 foes and that should be expected in 2015. However, it will probably not be enough to get the back to bowl eligibility.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Given the current state of Kansas’ football program, it is surprising to think they were one of the top teams in 2007 when they reached #2 before a loss against Missouri in the regular season finale. Kansas went on to win the Orange Bowl 24-21 over Virginia Tech. Since then, it has been downhill with Kansas having six straight losing seasons. Since Mark Mangino was fired after the 2009 season, the Jayhawks have not won more than three games in a season. David Beaty is now in charge of turning the Kansas football program around and it will be difficult in 2015.

Kansas’ offense has not averaged more than 20 points per game in a season since 2011 when they hit 22.3 points per game. In 2015, there will be only four starters back for Beaty to work with. Montell Cozart (1,715 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions) and Michael Cummings (701 yards with 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions) back from 2014. Also with a chance to win the starting QB spot are TJ Millweard, Carter Stanley, and Ryan Willis. Corey Avery ran for 631 yards and 5 touchdowns last year, but was suspended for spring and kicked off the team in June. That leaves De’Andre Mann as the top returning rusher with 399 yards. Ke’aun Kinner transferred in from his junior college and is expected to get snaps as well. Wide receiver was crushed by losses with the top six receivers gone. Kent Taylor, who was one of the top tight ends in 2013, has transferred in from Florida. The line returns two starters and Kansas may not even match last year’s production of 17.8 points and 324 yards of offense per game this year with a new coach and schemes.

Defense is also an issue for Beaty in year one. He has only three returning starters from a unit that allowed 33.3 points and 453 yards per game in 2014. Ben Goodman is the only starter returning on the line after recording 21 tackles, 1 sack, and a tackle for loss last season. The other two starters returning are at linebacker with Jake Love (53 tackles, 3 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss), and nickelback with Tevin Shaw (36 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss). The defense should be in store for another rough year.

Kansas opens with South Dakota State and Memphis at home before a bye week leads into a road game at Rutgers. Their Big 12 slate opens with a road game at Iowa State that will probably determine the bottom team in the Big 12. It is hard to see Kansas getting more than a victory or two in 2015 and Beaty has a lot of work ahead of him if Kansas is to get back to being competitive in the Big 12.

Overview

The Big 12 looks like a two horse race between TCU and Baylor for the title. However, the second tier of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State could surprise with a few upsets or the top two do worse than expected. Texas Tech and West Virginia will be battling for bowl eligibility while Iowa State and Kansas will play to stay out of the cellar. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. TCU

2. Baylor

3. Texas

4. Oklahoma

5. Oklahoma State

6. Kansas State

7. Texas Tech

8. West Virginia

9. Iowa State

10. Kansas

Check back on Tuesday, August 4 for a preview of the ACC’s Coastal Division.

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State's reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)
The duo of Fredi Knighten (#9) and Michael Gordon (#34) are hoping to continue Arkansas State’s reign as the best team in the Sun Belt over the past five years. (Michael Chang/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Sun Belt

Part eight of Sports Enthusiasts 2015 College Football Preview will look at the 11 teams in the Sun Belt Conference. In addition, the FBS Independents Preview can also be seen here in this double release. Below is a schedule of the conferences that have already been previewed and which ones are still ahead.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is a look at each of the Sun Belt teams and their outlook for 2015.

1. Arkansas State Red Wolves

Arkansas State has finally found a bit of stability in their head coach after seeing four different coaches in four seasons from 2011 through 2014. Blake Anderson came in for the 2014 season and led Arkansas State to a 7-6 record and 5-3 in the Sun Belt. 2015 is looking pretty good for Arkansas State as well.

2014 saw only three starters back for the Red Wolves on offense, but that was not an issue as they put up 36.7 points and 476 yards of offense. Quarterback Fredi Knighten will lead another high powered attack after throwing for 3,277 yards with 24 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He also ran for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns and he will have his main workhorse running back returning as well. Michael Gordon ran for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns making this backfield incredibly dangerous in the Sun Belt. ASU had three receivers with at least 35 catches and 600+ yards in 2014 and all three are back (Tres Houston, Dijon Paschal, JD McKissic). It is scary to think that ASU could put up even higher numbers in 2015 with nine starters back, but it is a strong possibility with one of the best, if not already the top, offense in the Sun Belt.

The defense returns six starters after surrendering 30.5 points and 421 yards per game last year. Three defensive linemen are back after giving up 205 yards rushing per game including Chris Stone. Stone had 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2014 and will need to have a strong year again. ASU lost their top linebacker from a year ago, but do return the other two. The secondary has only one starter back in Money Hunter and will possibly struggle back there. The Red Wolves may struggle at times, but should have a similar season defensively that they produced last year.

Arkansas State opens with a road game at USC before back-to-back home games against Missouri and Missouri State. They travel to face Toledo before entering conference play. They have some tough games in the Sun Belt with Appalachian State and UL-Monroe on the road as well as UL-Lafayette and Texas State at home. They are the team to beat in the Sun Belt with this offense.

2. Texas State Bobcats

Texas State has been part of the FBS since 2012 and head coach Dennis Franchione has been with them since 2011. The Bobcats have not been bad by any stretch of the imagination as they have three seasons of 6-6 or better. 2015 is a great chance for them to make their first bowl game in school history.

The offense will return eight starters from a unit that put up 33.8 points and 464 yards in 2014. Tyler Jones threw for 2,670 yards with 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while rushing for another 539 yards and 6 touchdowns. Running back Robert Lowe ran for 1,091 yards and 12 touchdowns while the return of Chris Nutall could give the Bobcats an excellent 1-2 punch. Bradley Miller was the top receiver last year with 44 catches for 431 yards, but the second, third, and fourth leading receivers from 2014 return and could have a better year of production. The offense will continue to do well for Texas State.

The defense was respectable last season with only four returning starters back. They gave up 27.7 points and 446 yards per game and now return six starters for 2015. Three starters are back on the line while linebacker will have to replace the monster in David Mayo. Mayo recorded 154 tackles in 2014 and it will fall to Trey McGowan to lead the unit (80 tackles in 2014 as the team’s second leading tackler). Two starters are back in the secondary and should see some steady improvement over 2014. The defense should be no worse than they were a year ago even with Mayo gone.

Texas State has Florida State on the road to start the season while they will then play the duo of Prairie View and Southern Miss at home. They will face Houston on the road to close out the non-conference portion before facing UL-Lafayette on the road with that game sandwich between two bye weeks. Other games that will be a test include Georgia Southern (road), UL-Monroe )home), and Arkansas State (road) in the final week of the season. That final game could determine which team is the winner of the Sun Belt in 2015.

3. Georgia Southern Eagles

Georgia Southern’s first year in the Sun Belt in 2014 was simply amazing. They went undefeated in conference play at 8-0 and finished the year at 9-3. They lost by a grand total of five points to North Carolina State and Georgia Tech on the road as well. Thanks to an NCAA rule prohibiting transitional teams from the FCS to make bowl appearances, they were not in the post-season. Could 2015 provide Georgia Southern with a second straight championship?

The offense was spectacular in 2014 with 39.1 points and 488 yards of offense produced per game. The main core of the offense is back with five starters returning. Kevin Ellison threw for 1,001 yards, five touchdowns, and three interceptions while finishing second on the team in rushing at 1,096 yards and 12 touchdowns. The top running backs all return led by Matt Breida. He had 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns while Alfred Ramsby (691 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Favian Upshaw (385 yards and 2 touchdowns) are returning as well. The number one and three receivers depart, but BJ Johnson led the Eagles in catches with 23 for 312 yards and 3 touchdowns. The passing game is not the focus of the offense, but there is only one starter back on the line. The offense will still be potent in 2015, but it may not reach the same heights it did last year.

The defense performed quite admirably in 2014 by allowing 23.4 points and 388 yards per game in the Eagles’ first full FBS season. The entire defensive line returns intact after giving up 154 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Linebacker is the weak spot with only Antwione Williams back after recording 65 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss and the loss of Edwin Jackson will be tough (100 tackles to lead team). The secondary returns three starters from a group that allowed 58.5% completions. The defense will be solid again in their second year of FBS play.

The Eagles will open the season on the road at West Virginia before back-to-back home games versus Western Michigan and The Citadel. They open conference play after that with back-to-back road games against Idaho and UL-Monroe. Their final non-conference game is in late November at Georgia. They will have to face the likes of Appalachian State (road) and Texas State (home), but avoid Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette. Georgia Southern should be in their first bowl game (they are eligible this year) and should finish high in the Sun Belt.

4. Appalachian State Mountaineers

Like Georgia Southern, Appalachian State was in their first full FBS season in 2014. They had an awful start going 1-5 before winning their final six games to finish 7-5. Also like Georgia Southern, they were not eligible for a bowl game.

The offense returns a whopping 10 starters after averaging 35.7 points and 462 yards per game last year. Taylor Lamb threw for 2,381 yards with 17 touchdowns and 9 interceptions while also rushing for 483 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top two rushers, Marcus Cox (1,415 yards and 19 touchdowns) and Terrence Upshaw (573 yards and 4 touchdowns) are back as well. The top five receivers also return though the top two receivers, Malachi Jones and Simms McElfresh, will need to have better production. Jones caught 36 passes for 585 yards and 3 touchdowns while McElfresh had 42 catches for 484 yards and 5 touchdowns. Four starters return on the offensive line as well, which only helps. This offense looks scary and could be even scarier if the passing game improves.

The defense is a mirror image of the offense in that ten starters return. The defense gave up 27.3 points and 348 yards per game with the top six tacklers back. The entire line remains intact after allowing 152 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry. Ronald Blair will be at one of the end spots after recording 43 tackles, 6 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. All four linebackers are returning as well in this 3-4 scheme. John Law led the team in tackles with 91, but also recorded 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception. The secondary has three of the four starters back after giving up 195 yards and allowing 59% completions. The defense should be just as good this year.

App State will face FCS Howard opening week before going on the road to face Clemson. They will have a bye week before facing Old Dominion on the road and Wyoming at home to end their non-conference schedule. App State has several tough games in conference that may prevent them from winning the title. They have UL-Monroe (road) and Georgia Southern (home) in a span of five days from October 17 to October 22. They also have to face Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette, but get both of those at home. It is tough to pick App State fourth with the amount of experience returning, but they should make their first bowl game in school history at the very least.

5. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Louisiana-Monroe has been to only one bowl game in school history and that was a 45-14 loss in 2012 to Ohio in the Independence Bowl. The Warhawks have gone downhill since then with a 6-6 record in 2013 and 4-8 record in 2014. This season must provide a better result if Todd Berry hopes to stick around for 2016.

The offense returns six starters from a unit that produced only 20.1 points and 349 yards per game. The rushing game was abysmal with only 70 yards per game. Both the top passer and rusher are gone, but the running back production is easy to replace given the awful stats put up. Brayle Brown is expected to be the starting quarterback , but he went 14 of 24 for 172 yards with a touchdown and interception in backup duty. Brown will have two of the top receivers back in Rashon Caeser (77 catches for 872 yards and 3 touchdowns) as well as Ajalen Holley (57 catches for 863 yards and 7 touchdowns) to help him out. Three starters are back on the line and assuming the running game has better production (how can they not?) the offense will be better even with a new quarterback.

The defense will have eight starters back after a solid season in 2014 when they gave up 26.3 points and 373 yards per game. Two of the three defensive linemen return and the guy to watch out for is Gerrand Johnson. As a nose tackle, he led ULM with 93 tackles while also recording 6 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Three of the four linebackers return in Mitch Lane, Hunter Kissinger, and Michael Johnson, which is a good sign because they were the second, third, and fourth leading tacklers respectively last year. The secondary also has three starters back with Trey Caldwell at one of the cornerback spots. He was was solid with 42 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 8 pass breakups, and an interception. The ULM defense should be one of the best in the Sun Belt.

Louisiana-Monroe has five non-conference games spread over the course of the season thanks to a trip to Hawaii. They open with a road game at Georgia before a home date against Nicholls State. A bye week leads into a game at Alabama before conference play commences. ULM will travel to face Tulsa (Oct. 10) and Hawaii (Nov. 28) later in the season. The Warhawks have quite a few tough in-conference games with Georgia Southern (home), Appalachian State (home), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and Texas State (home) all on the slate. That daunting schedule may keep them from finishing higher in the Sun Belt.

6. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Since Mark Hudspeth took over Louisiana-Lafayette in 2011 there have been two constants each year: a 9-4 record for the year and a win in the New Orleans Bowl. Will 2015 be a carbon copy of the first four years under Hudspeth?

The offense has six starters back, but the loss of Terrance Broadway will hurt the team. Brooks Haack threw for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns in backup duty last year and will probably not match the ability of Broadway. Elijah McGuire is back after running for 1,264 yards and 14 touchdowns and will be the main back in this offense. McGuire is also the top leading receiver returning after having 45 catches for 468 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top returning wide receiver is Al Riles who had 34 catches for 354 yards and a touchdown. Three offensive linemen also return, but the offense will struggle at times with many new personnel at the skills positions.

The defense also has six starters back after allowing 26 points and 406 yards per game in 2014. Only the second and seventh leading tacklers return from the top eight.The defensive line has only Jacoby Briscoe back from last year, but he started just four games. Dominique Tovell was the second leading tackler last year with 67 stops, 2.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss and will be leading the linebackers. Two starters are back in the secondary and should improve on their 65% completions allowed. The defense will probably allow similar numbers to last year.

ULL will open the season with a road game against Kentucky and then welcome Northwestern State home. After a bye, ULL will face Akron at home and then play Louisiana Tech on the road. In conference, ULL has several tough games to start conference play. They face Texas State at home and then take on Arkansas State on the road. They also have UL-Monroe (home) and Appalachian State (road). UL-Lafayette will be looking for a fifth straight bowl game and have a good shot at getting there.

7. New Mexico State Aggies

New Mexico State was a member of the Sun Belt from 2000 through 2004 before joining the WAC for the 2005 season. They rejoined the Sun Belt in 2014 and went 2-10 in both of Doug Martin’s first two seasons. 2015 provides Martin with his most experienced team.

The offense made good strides in 2014. They put up 24.5 points and 421 yards per game with eight starters back in the fold. Eight starters are back in 2015 including the top skills players. Quarterback Tyler Rogers threw for 2,779 yards with 19 touchdowns, but had an incredibly high 23 interceptions as well. Larry Rose ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns despite missing time due to a sprained MCL. Teldrick Morgan caught 903 yards and 7 touchdowns on 75 receptions and will the be the top target once again. With four starters back on the offensive line as well, the Aggies can expect to have another improvement in the offensive numbers in 2015.

The defense has not been good for Martin in his first two years. In 2013, the unit allowed 44.6 points and 550 yards per game, but did improve in 2014 to 39.1 points and 484 yards per game. 2015 will have ten starters back for the defense with the only loss on the line. The line produced only five sacks in 2014 and will need to improve on that. The linebackers return and that is good thing for the Aggies because Rodney Butler (119 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss), Derek Ibekwe (102 tackles and 4 tackles for loss), and Dalton Herrington (85 tackles, 1 sack, and 2 tackles for loss) were the team’s top three tacklers. The secondary was not too bad last year giving up 175 yards and 62.5% completions. The defense should continue to improve overall, but could make a big step forward if the line surprises with better rush defense.

The Aggies will open with a road game at Florida before starting Sun Belt play in week two against Georgia State at home. They will face rival UTEP at home in week three and complete their non-conference schedule after a bye week with road games at New Mexico and Ole Miss. In conference, they will have to face Georgia Southern (road), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (road), Arkansas State (home), and UL-Monroe (road). The Aggies are a young team and should be able to continue improving while winning more than two games in 2015.

8. South Alabama Jaguars

South Alabama has been a member of the Sun Belt since 2012 and made their first bowl game last year against Bowling Green in the Camellia Bowl. Joey Jones has been with South Alabama since they started back in 2009 while 2015 will probably be the most interesting season to date with only five total starters returning.

South Alabama has only three starters back on offense, but have a few UAB transfers coming in as well. Quarterback Cody Clements is one of those UAB transfers and he will also have his offensive coordinator coming over as well. Clements threw for 2,227 yards with 14 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2014. The duo of Xavier Johnson (438 yards and a touchdown) and Terrance Timmons (403 yards and 4 touchdowns) are returning at running back, but may be beat out by Dami Ayoola. The top wideout is also gone, but Danny Woodson (former Alabama player) caught 30 passes for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The UAB duo of DJ Vinson and Josh Magee are looking to team up with their former quarterback. There is another UAB transfer on the offensive line, which returns only two starters. The offense averaged 22.5 points and 376 yards last year and will probably be able to at least match that in 2015.

The defense has only two starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 399 yards per game. The defensive line is bereft of experienced starters with none back. The linebacker unit is the same, but does add in UAB transfer Kalen Jackson as well as Texas Tech transfer Blake Dees. The two starters back on defense reside in the secondary with Roman Buchanan and Antonio Carter. Buchanan was third on the team in tackles with 74 while also recording 3.5 tackles for loss and 7 pass breakups. The defense has little experience and will likely struggle to meet last year’s numbers.

South Alabama opens their season with Gardner-Webb at home before embarking on a two game road trip against Nebraska and San Diego State. They wrap up conference play against North Carolina State. They have a tough games in Sun Belt play against Arkansas State (home), Texas State (road), UL-Lafayette (home), Georgia Southern (road), and Appalachian State (home). South Alabama appears headed for a down year with only five starters back.

9. Troy Trojans

Troy has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when the destroyed Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl 48-21. Larry Blakeney had been head coach of Troy since 1991, but they have opted to move on and take Neal Brown in as their top man.

Troy was not very good on offense last year with only 21.8 points and 363 yards per game. Seven starters return in the first year under Brown’s offense. Brandon Silvers threw for 1,836 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions while completing 70.5% of his passes. The top two running backs also return with Brandon Burks and Jordan Chunn. Burks ran for 584 yards and 3 touchdowns while Chunn ran for 505 yards and 6 touchdowns. The top wideout is also back in Bryan Holmes (34 catches for 474 yards and 5 touchdowns), but the production will need to improve from that unit. There are two starters back, but the offense should be able to match last year’s production at least in 2015.

Six starters are back from a unit that allowed 36.2 points and 454 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line has three starters back, but gave up 246 rushing yards per game in 2014. End Jamal Stadom was third on the team in tackles with 55 while also recording 4.5 sacks and 2 tackles for loss. The three starting linebackers are gone from last year’s team, but Terris Lewis was able to start three games en route to recording 25 tackles despite playing only five games. The secondary returns two starters in JaQuadrian Lewis and Montres Kitchens while also adding in UAB transfer LaMarcus Farmer. The secondary should be solid again in 2015 after allowing 208 passing yards per game in 2014. The defense should improve in 2015 despite a new head coach.

Troy does not have an easy non-conference schedule. They open with a road game at North Carolina State, come home to face FCS Charleston Southern, and then goes on the road again to Wisconsin. They also face Mississippi State in Starkville on October 10. In conference, Troy will face Appalachian State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Georgia Southern (home), and UL-Lafayette (road). They also take on South Alabama (home) and New Mexico State (road) that could determine how high they finish. Troy should see improvement in 2015, but not good enough to make a bowl game.

10. Idaho Vandals

Idaho has not had sustained success since the 1990s and have only two bowl game appearances in school history. Their last, a 43-42 win over Bowling Green, came in the 2009 Humanitarian Bowl. Paul Petrino took over a very bad team and has gone a combined 2-21 in his first two years.

The offense will have six starters back from a unit that improved between 2013 and 2014. The offense put up only 18.2 points per game in 2013, but saw that number increase to 25 last year. Quarterback Matt Linehan threw for 2,540 yards with 11 touchdowns, but also threw 18 interceptions. Elijhaa Penny ran for 589 yards and 12 touchdowns while splitting the carries and is likely to earn the number one reps. The wideouts see the top three depart from 2014, but back on the team is Dezmon Epps. Epps had 980 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2013. There are three starters back on the line and the Idaho offense should continue to improve.

The defense also has six starters back. Like the offense, they have also improved in Petrino’s first two seasons. They allowed 46.8 points and 529 yards per game in 2013 while dropping those numbers to 37.3 points and 463 yards per game. The two interior linemen return led by Quinton Bradley. Bradley had 52 tackles, 6 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. Two linebackers return including 2014’s leading tackler Marc Millan. Millan had 102 tackles, 2 sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. The secondary has Jayshawn Jordan at cornerback and Russell Siavii returning. The defense will continue to improve this year, but may hold the Vandals back from doing even better.

Idaho will open their season with Ohio at home before a road game at USC and then another home game against Wofford. They will also face Auburn on the road on November 21. In conference, they have a very tough schedule with games against Georgia Southern (home), Arkansas State (road), UL-Monroe (home), Appalachian State (home), and Texas State (home). Idaho should be able to easily match two wins in 2015, which is the total number of wins under Petrino entering the season.

11. Georgia State Panthers

Georgia State started their football program in 2008 and played their first season in 2010. They went 9-13 in their first two season facing mainly FCS competition. Since joining the FCS’ Colonial Athletic Association in 2012 and then the Sun Belt in 2013, they have a combined record of 2-33. Trent Miles will be in his third season at the helm of Georgia State in 2015.

Miles will eight starters back on offense, but that is only the second highest number of returning starters on offense under his regime (9 in 2013). Nick Arbuckle won the starting job and threw for 3,283 yards with 23 touchdowns and 17 interception. He will be back to throw the ball all over the yard, but could use help from his tandem of running backs in Marcus Coffey and Kyler Neal. Coffey only ran for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns while Neal ran for 209 yards and a score (Neal suffered an MCL injury that caused him to miss the last 8 games. Those two were also the leading rushers on the team. Arbuckle will have his top two receivers from 2014 back with Donovan Harden (60 catches for 885 yards and 7 touchdowns) and Robert Davis (50 catches for 732 yards and 2 touchdowns). The offense put up 22.7 points and 375 yards per game in 2014. If the running game improves even slightly, they should easily surpass those numbers.

The defense was bad last year with only four returning starters. The unit gave up 43.3 points and 497 yards per game. Miles will have his most experienced defense in 2015 with nine starters returning. The entire defensive line is back including the entire two deep in this 3-4 defense. After giving up 303 yards rushing per game, it is safe to say GSU can only improve there. At linebacker, Joseph Peterson is back after leading the team in tackles with 93. He also added 3 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, and an interception. He will be joined by former Michigan player Kaleb Ringer. The secondary has all four starters back, but was not as bad as the numbers would indicate. They gave up only 194 passing yards per game, but did allow 68.1% completions against them. The defense should get better in 2015 compared to 2014.

Georgia State does have a chance to win a few games in 2015. They open with Charlotte at home before back-to-back road games at New Mexico State and Oregon. They face Liberty at home and then also face Ball State on the road to close out their non-conference schedule. The conference portion of their slate is daunting with the likes of Appalachian State, Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette, Texas State, South Alabama, Troy, and Georgia Southern. Georgia State will need an upset or two in order to break their three year double digit loss column streak.

Overview

The Sun Belt Conference is shaping up to be a wide-open race in 2015. Arkansas State, Texas State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana-Lafayette could come out and win the conference. New Mexico State and South Alabama will look to finish in the middle of the pack while Troy, Idaho, and Georgia State will battle it out for the bottom spot. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Arkansas State

2. Texas State

3. Georgia Southern

4. Appalachian State

5. Louisiana-Monroe

6. Louisiana-Lafayette

7. New Mexico State

8. South Alabama

9. Troy

10. Idaho

11. Georgia State

Be sure to check out the FBS Independents preview as well as the next preview on Friday. We will be looking at the Big 12 Conference then.

2015 College Football Preview: FBS Independents

Malik Zaire is the future for Notre Dame at quarterback. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)
Malik Zaire is the future for Notre Dame at quarterback. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: FBS Independents

We have reached the ninth and final single digit in this 2015 College Football Preview with the FBS Independents. Also part of this release is the Sun Belt Preview, which can be found here. Below is a schedule of all the previews from those already published to those in the future.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a look at the three teams that comprise the FBS Independents.

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to through their fantastic 2012 season, which culminated in a crushing 42-14 loss in the National Championship. Outside of that 12-1 season, Kelly has not won more than nine games, nor lost less than four. The pressure may be on Kelly to get the Irish back into the national spotlight.

The offense returns seven starters, but one of them is not quarterback Everett Golson. Malik Zaire will be at the helm after a very nice starting performance in the Music City Bowl against LSU, finishing the season with 266 yards and a touchdown in only seven appearances. He will have both Tarean Folston (889 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Greg Bryant (289 yards and 3 touchdowns) in the backfield again this season. More importantly for Zaire is that he will have the top four receivers from 2014 back led by Will Fuller. Fuller had 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns while easily becoming the most productive receiver last season. The Irish put up 32.8 points and 445 yards of offense per game in 2014 and if Zaire protects the ball better than Golson, they will do even better this year.

The defense had its worst season in 2014 under Kelly. With four starters back, the gave up 29.2 points and 404 yards per game. The defense in 2015 will have 10 starters back and the one replacement is KeiVarae Russell, who was a starter in 2012 and 2013. The defensive line starters all had at least 39 tackles and a sack in 2014. The linebackers are led by Jaylon Smith. Smith had 112 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss on his way to 2nd Team All-American accolades. The secondary has three starters back as well as the aforementioned Russell. The defense will be much better in 2015 and makes the Irish a serious threat to reach the College Football Playoffs.

Notre Dame has several tough games in 2015. They open with a home game against Texas, but also face Georgia Tech (home) and Clemson (road) in the first five weeks. USC will travel to South Bend on October 17 as well, but the final five games of the Irish schedule look manageable. It looks very possible that Notre Dame will be back near the top of the national rankings again this year.

2. BYU Cougars

BYU went from the Mountain West in 2010 to independent status in 2011. It looked like the right move as they went 10-3 in 2011, but have subsequently had three straight 8-5 seasons. 2014 started off great for BYU until the injury to star quarterback Taysom Hill. What will 2015 have in store for the Cougars?

The offense has eight starters back including quarterback Taysom Hill. Hill was have an excellent year in 2014, but his injury forced Christian Stewart into action. Stewart did well in place of Hill by throwing for 2,621 yards with 25 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The running game was not as strong with Jamaal Williams leading the team with 518 yards and 4 touchdowns while also having injury issues throughout the seasons. Mitch Mathews is also back after grabbing 73 passes for 922 yards and 9 touchdowns. Despite the injuries, BYU still managed to put up 37.1 points and 460 yards of offense in 2014. Now that Hill is back for 2015, the BYU offense could go even higher.

The defense has only five returning starters and three of those reside on the defensive line. The line allowed only 122 rushing yards per game and only 3.3 yards per carry. The lone returning linebacker is Manoa Pikula and he finished 2014 with 49 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and an interception. In the secondary, only Michael Davis is back after having 43 tackles and 6 pass breakups last season. The back eight have a lot of inexperience so the Cougars may be playing in quite a few shootouts this year.

BYU has a tough schedule in 2015 as they open with three road games in the first four weeks. They face Nebraska (road), Boise State (home), UCLA (road), and Michigan (road). The middle portion of their schedule is a bit easier with games versus Connecticut, East Carolina, Cincinnati, and Wagner with all of those at home. After a bye week, they will face San Jose State (road), Missouri (Kansas City), Fresno State (home), and Utah State (road). It will be tough for BYU to reach double digits in the win column for 2015 even with Taysom Hill back.

3. Army West Point Black Knights

Jeff Monken took over Army in the offseason prior to 2014 and managed a 4-8 record with 14 starters back. This offseason, Army rebranded itself as Army West Point, but we will still refer to them as just Army. Will the second year of Monken and a new name help Army back to a bowl game?

The offense returns only five starters. Quarterback will be a battle between the oft-injured AJ Schurr and Matthew Kaufmann. Schurr is likely to get the job if he is healthy considering he had 320 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns in addition to his 242 yards passing with a touchdown and interception. The running game has been hit hard by the loss of Larry Dixon (1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns) with Aaron Kemper (158 yards and a touchdown) and Matt Giachinta (152 yards and a touchdown) the top returning rushers behind Schurr. Edgar Poe had 10 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown in 2014, but the passing game is not the focal point of this offense. There are three starters back on the line as well as others who have seen time at multiple positions. The offense put up 24.9 points and 359 yards of offense in 2014 and could produce similar numbers this year as well.

The defense also has only five starters returning. The defensive line has been raided by losses with no starters returning after they surrendered 193 rushing yards per game last year. Linebacker is strong with two starters returning led by Jeremy Timpf. He had 117 tackles, 1 sack, 13.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions. He will be joined by Andrew King (63 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss). The secondary has three starters back including former wide receiver Xavier Moss. Josh Jenkins will be one of the cornerback spots (64 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 8 pass breakups, and 4 interception) with Chris Carnegie at the other corner position (54 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 7 pass breakups, 3 interceptions).

Army will face Fordham (home), Connecticut (road), Wake Forest (home), and Eastern Michigan (road) to start the season. It gets tougher from there with Penn State (road), Duke (home), Bucknell (home), and Rice (road) in the next four games. Games against Air Force (road), Tulane (home), and Rutgers (home) all lead into the Army-Navy game on December 12 in Philadelphia. Army has lost 13 straight to Navy and even if that is the only game they win in 2015, they will a successful season. It does, however, look like it will be a 4 to 5 win season for Army.

Overview

The FBS Independents are easy to sort out for 2015. Notre Dame is clearly the best team while BYU will have another solid season. Army is probably still a year away from being a bowl contender. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Notre Dame

2. BYU

3. Army

Be sure to check out the Sun Belt preview and check back on Friday for the Big 12 preview.

2015 College Football Preview: AAC West

Navy has joined a conference for the first time in their history. How will they fare in The American in 2015? (Rob Carr/Getty Images North America)
Navy has joined a conference for the first time in their history. How will they fare in The American in 2015? (Rob Carr/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: AAC West

We are up to part eight in the 2015 College Football Preview with a closer look at The American Athletic Conference’s West division. Also included is the Championship Game prediction for The American. As a reminder, below is 2015 College Preview Schedule as well as links to conferences already previewed.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is the preview for each team in The American’s West Division.

1. Navy Midshipmen

2015 will be very historic for the Naval Academy. For the first time, they will be playing in a conference after 124 years of independence. It will be Ken Niumatalolo’s eighth year at Navy and he has only had a losing record one time, which was in 2011.

There will be only four starters back on offense for Navy, but the most important one is quarterback Keenan Reynolds (pictured at the top). Reynolds ran for 1,191 yards and 23 touchdowns while also throwing for 843 yards with six touchdowns and 3 picks in 2014. He also had some injury issues and will have his top target back in Jamir Tillman (20 catches for 386 yards and 3 touchdowns). With the triple option, the quarterback will also need to have his running backs help out. Chris Swain ran for 693 yards as the third leading rusher. Watch out for DeBrandon Sanders, who ran for 231 yards and 3 touchdowns on 29 attempts for an average of 8 yards per carry. The last time Navy had only four starters returning on offense, they averaged 28 points per game (2009). The offense will be fine in 2015.

The defense is in better shape with six starters back from a unit that gave up 27.3 points and 404 yards in 2014. The defense will be set up in a 3-4 scheme and has two starters back on the line with Will Anthony as the top threat. He finished 2014 with 67 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. The linebacking unit has only one starter back in Daniel Gonzales, who had 86 tackles in 2014 to finish second on the team. and also intercepted three passes. Another strength on the defense will be the secondary with three starters back. The defense should acclimate well in The American during 2015.

Navy opens with a home game against Colgate before a bye week and then facing East Carolina at home. Their other non-conference games are against Air Force at home on October 3, at Notre Dame on October 10, and, of course, the Army game on December 12 in Philadelphia. From the East, they will have East Carolina (home), Connecticut (road), and South Florida (home). They will have road games against Memphis and Houston during, but should be in contention to win The American in their first season.

2. Houston Cougars

Houston will be under the control of Tom Herman after Tony Levine was fired following a 7-5 regular season in 2014. Herman has no prior head coaching experience, but he helped coach the trio of quarterbacks at Ohio State (Braxton Miller, JT Barrett, and Cardale Jones) in 2014 that culminated in the National Championship victory. The importance of the quarterback spot in the modern game cannot be understated.

Herman will have five starters back on offense. Wide receiver turned quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw for 2,010 yards with 12 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while Adam Schulz and Kyle Postma will also have a chance to win the starting QB spot. Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson are both back at running back, which will help out the QB. Farrow ran for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns while Jackson ran for 610 yards and 5 touchdowns. Ward even ran for 573 yards and 6 touchdowns as the third leading rusher. The top two receivers are gone, which will put Demarcus Ayers (33 catches for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Steven Dunbar (20 catches for 286 yards) in line to take over at receiver. The offense put up 29.8 points and 414 yards in 2014, but may do slightly worse with a new coach in 2015.

The defensive side of the ball will have six starters back, but the losses are heavy in the front six. Only one defensive lineman (BJ Singleton) and linebacker (Steven Taylor) return. The strength for the defense will be the secondary with four starters returning from a unit that allowed 200 yards passing and only 55.8% completions against them a season ago. Adrian McDonald finished 2014 with 75 tackles (third on the team) and 5 interceptions while being named to the AAC 1st Team. There will be some struggles in the front six, but the secondary should help the defense perform solidly overall.

Houston will have an easy opening week test against Tennessee Tech before a road game against Louisville. They face Texas State at home after a bye week and Vanderbilt will also come to town on Halloween (Oct. 31) to round out the non-conference portion of their schedule. In conference, Houston faces Central Florida (road), Cincinnati (home), and Connecticut (home) from the East division. Houston will face both Memphis (Nov. 14) and Navy (Nov. 27) at home and that could be the difference to win the AAC West.

3. Memphis Tigers

Memphis made a massive jump in year three of Justin Fuente’s tenure in 2014. After going 7-17 in his first two years, Fuente led Memphis to a 10-3 record in 2014 and looks to continue that momentum this year.

In 2014, the offense produced 36.2 points and 427 yards per game with nine starters returning. In 2015, there will be eight starters returning led by quarterback Paxton Lynch. Lynch threw for 3,031 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He also ran for 321 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. The top running back from 2014, Brandon Hayes (949 yards and 5 touchdowns), is gone, but the combination of Jarvis Cooper, Sam Craft, and Doroland Dorceus will try to replace him. That trio will have four starters back on the offensive line to help lead the way. 2014’s top receiver is also gone (Keiwone Malone with 45 catches for 555 yards and 4 touchdowns), but his numbers are not too much to replace. Mose Frazier had 47 catches for 405 yards and 3 touchdowns while Tevin Jones caught 33 passes for 442 yards and 3 touchdowns. Memphis should be able to put up around the same numbers they did in 2014.

Memphis’ biggest concern is the defense with only three returning starters. The three starters back, Ernest Suttles, Jackson Dillon, and Reggis Ball, will be leading their respective units. Suttles, a sophomore defensive lineman, will be joined by Latarius Brady and Mike Edwards. Dillon finished with 43 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss at the hybrid linebacker spot in 2014. Ball will be back at free safety as the top returning defensive back. After giving up only 19.5 points and 350 yards per game in 2014, the Tigers can expect a modest rise in those numbers with as much inexperience as they have.

Memphis will open the season against FCS Missouri state before back-to-back road games against Kansas and Bowling Green. Their final non-conference game will be at home against Ole Miss on October 17. In conference, Memphis will face Cincinnati (home), South Florida (road), and Temple (road) from the East. The deciding games will take place in the span of a week with a home game against Navy (Nov. 7) and a trip to Houston (Nov. 14). Memphis has a chance to win The American’s West division, but at the very least can expect a bowl appearance.

4. Tulane Green Wave

Tulane has been through some tough times since the turn of the century. Between 2003 and 2012, Tulane did not make a bowl game, nor did they have a winning season. Curtis Johnson ended that streak in 2013 with an appearance in the New Orleans Bowl, but lost 24-21 to UL-Lafayette. Tulane fell to 3-9 last year and Johnson will be looking for a bounce back year in 2015.

Nine starters are back for the Green Wave on offense in 2015 including quarterback Tanner Lee. As a freshman last year, Lee threw for 1,962 yards with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Fellow freshman running back Sherman Badie is also back after running for 688 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he will also be joined by Lazedrick Thompson (533 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Dontrell Hilliard (452 yards and 3 touchdowns). Two of the top three receivers are gone while Teddy Veal returns after 40 catches for 381 yards and a touchdown in 2014. Terren Encalade finished with 20 catches for 235 yards and the receiving group should do better as long as the quarterback play is better. The offense struggled in 2014 putting up only 16 points and 347 yards per game, but those numbers should improve in 2015.

The defense will have seven starters back after giving up 28.4 points and 388 yards per game. Three of the defensive linemen return including Royce LaFrance. LaFrance had only 34 tackles last year, but recorded six sacks and 5 tackles for loss. It is rare to mention Bob Marley in a football article, but his grandson Nico Marley is back at linebacker. Nico Marley recorded 82 tackles (second on the team), 0.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and an interception while being named to the AAC’s 3rd Team last year. Two starters are back in the secondary in Parry Nickerson and Darion Monroe. Nickerson had 51 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 6 interceptions while Monroe had 73 tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions. The defense should be able to improve on their 2014 numbers.

Tulane has a rough opening to the season with a home game against Duke and a road game versus Georgia Tech before FCS Maine visits in the third week. They face Army on the road November 14 to close out their non-conference slate. Tulane will face Central Florida (home), Temple (road), and Connecticut (home) from the East division. The tough schedule for Tulane also includes conference games against Houston, Navy, and Memphis. Tulane will be better in 2015, but the schedule makes it tough for them to reach another bowl game under Johnson.

5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Todd Graham led Tulsa to three double digit win totals between 2007 and 2010 before leaving for Pittsburgh and then Arizona State. Bill Blankenship took over in 2011 and led Tulsa to 8 and 11 win seasons in his first two years before everything unhinged, going 5-19 his last two years. Enter Philip Montgomery for his first year in 2015.

Offense was not too much an issue for Tulsa, as they averaged 24.7 points and 413 yards per game in 2014. This year, Tulsa will have 10 starters back on offense with the only replacement being at left tackle. Dane Evans threw for 3,102 yards with 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions while undoubtedly looking for Keevan Lucas again. Lucas had 101 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns. Also back are running backs Zack Langer (801 yards and 4 touchdowns) and James Flanders (456 yards and 1 touchdown). Even with a new coach/system in place, Tulsa will be putting up some points in 2015.

The defense was a mess in 2014 for Tulsa. Despite having eight starters back, they gave up 39.3 points and 487 yards to opposing offenses. Six starters return this year with three on the line. Derrick Alexander was a monster in 2014 with 42 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles en route to making the AAC’s 2nd Team squad. Linebackers Craig Suits (81 tackles, 1 sack, 6.5 tackles for loss, and a pick) and Trent Martin (64 tackles, 1 sack, and tackles for loss) are also back. The front seven will need to better because there is only one starter back in the secondary. Safety Michael Mudoh was the top tackler for Tulsa last year with 113 stops while also intercepting two passes. The defense should not be giving up nearly 40 points and 500 yards a game in 2015.

Tulsa will face Florida Atlantic at home followed by road trips to New Mexico and Oklahoma to start the year. After opening AAC play at home to Houston, they will face UL-Monroe at home as well to finish their non-conference schedule. What hurts Tulsa in conference is that they will be facing the trio of East Carolina (road), Central Florida (home), and Cincinnati (road) from the East and those three are in contention to win the division. Tulsa should have a better season, but still have a tough road ahead of them in 2015.

6. SMU Mustangs

SMU was taken over in 2008 by June Jones and he did a great job leading the Mustangs back to a bowl game in his second season in 2009. They won that game with ease against Nevada 45-10 and Jones followed that up with three more bowl in a row (3-1 in those games). After being blown out by a combined score of 88-6 in the first two games of 2014, Jones resigned while SMU crashed to a dismal 1-11 record. Chad Morris takes over after several seasons in charge of the explosive Clemson offense.

There is no other way to talk about SMU’s offense in 2014 other than to say it was putrid. They put up only 11.1 points and 269 yards per game. Nine starters are back in 2015 and the quarterback duties will likely not be split up between three players. Matt Davis took all of the top reps in spring after throwing for 855 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions last year. Davis also ran for 613 yards and 4 touchdowns, which makes him a dangerous dual threat QB. The duo of Prescott Line and Daniel Gresham will battle it out at running back, but the top running back in 2014 was Line with 256 yards and 4 touchdowns. Two of the top three receivers are gone while Darius Joseph (54 catches for 379 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Deion Sanders Jr. (son of former NFL player Deion Sanders; 23 catches for 188 yards) will be likely to take over starting spots. The entire offensive line returns, but will have to learn new schemes. It is safe to say that SMU will be putting up better numbers in 2015 with Morris in charge.

The defense has seven starters returning from a unit that gave up 41.3 points and 499 yards per game in 2014. Three starters will return on the defensive line, but they surrendered 236 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry in 2014. Linebacker Jonathan Yenga recorded 65 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss in 2014 and he will anchor his unit. Three starters are back in the secondary led by Darrion Richardson. He had 69 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and an interception. SMU really cannot get much worse than their 2014 performance.

SMU will face Baylor and North Texas at home before a road game at TCU in the third week. James Madison will visit in the final weekend of September before SMU kicks off their conference slate. SMU has a brutal AAC schedule having to face the likes of East Carolina, South Florida, and Temple from the East in addition to the five other teams from their division. SMU will be better, but may finish with double digit losses again.

Overview

Much like the AAC’s East division, the West is also wide open. Any one of three teams – Navy, Houston, or Memphis – look solid enough to claim the title. Tulane will be close to bowl eligibility while Tulsa should fare better in 2015. SMU is in rebuilding mode, but Chad Morris is pointing them in the right direction. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Navy

2. Houston

3. Memphis

4. Tulane

5. Tulsa

6. SMU

AAC Championship Game

We predicted that Temple would win the AAC East on Tuesday and Navy will capture the West division. What a matchup that would be to see if it does indeed happen. Here, we will call for Navy to win the AAC West and the AAC Championship Game in their first ever season in a conference.

Check back on Tuesday, July 28 for a double release preview of the Sun Belt Conference as well as the FBS Independents.

2015 College Football Preview: AAC East

Tommy Tuberville has finish third and first in his first two years with Cincinnati. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)
Tommy Tuberville has finish third and first in his first two years with Cincinnati. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: AAC East

Part seven of the Sports Enthusiasts’ College Football Preview delves into The American with a specific look at the East Division. Below is a schedule of the 2015 College Football Preview.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at the AAC’s East Division.

1. Temple Owls

It has been a wild ride for the Temple football program. They have gone from the Big East in 2004 to Independent status in 2005 to the MAC from 2007 through 2011. They then went back to the Big East for the 2012 season before the name change to The American beginning in 2013. Matt Rhule is in his third season and led Temple to a 2-10 record in 2013 before improving them to 6-6 last year.

2015 will easily be Rhule’s most experienced team. He has nine starters back on offense and the biggest loss was top wide receiver Jalen Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had 53 catches for 730 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2014. Quarterback PJ Walker returns after putting up 2,317 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year. Walker was more inconsistent last year than in 2013 and he will need to develop some receivers to have a better season. Running back Jahad Thomas ran for 384 yards as the top rusher in 2014, which will need to be improved upon drastically. He could be replaced by freshman TJ Simmons or sophomore Zaire Williams. With all five starters back on the offensive line, there should be no reason the offense cannot produce the highest output under Rhule.

In 2014, the defense made the biggest strides under Rhule. They gave up 17.5 points and 347 yards per game last year after giving up 29.8 points and 474 yards in 2013. 2015 could be even better with 10 starters back. There is not much to say about the defense other than their only loss was at strong safety, but the replacement, Will Hayes, started seven games in 2014 at three different positions. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich was easily the team’s leading tackler after recording 117 stops, 1.5 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and an interception. The defense will be excellent again in 2015.

Temple opens the season with a home game against Penn State (Rhule’s alma mater) before back-to-back road games against Cincinnati and Massachusetts. They face Charlotte on the road after a bye week and also have Notre Dame coming to town on Halloween to complete their non-conference schedule. They have to play Memphis from the West, but get them at home and also get SMU (road) and Tulane (home) from the West Division. As for the East opponents, they will face Cincinnati and East Carolina on the road while facing Central Florida at home. It is weird to say this, but Temple looks like the team to beat in the East with their defense.

2. Central Florida Knights

George O’Leary has been magnificent at Central Florida including leading the Knights to the 2013 Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor. 2014 was a step back for UCF, but 2015 could go either way.

The offense returns five starters, but the big losses were at wide receiver where the top four from 2014 are gone. The biggest loss is Breshad Perriman after his 50 catches for 1,044 yards and 9 touchdowns. UCF does return quarterback Justin Holman and he threw for 2,952 yards with 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Also returning are running backs William Stanback (697 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Dontravious Wilson (347 yards and 3 touchdowns). Three linemen also return and the offense could do well this year if a few receivers are developed.

The defense has only four starters back in 2015 after giving up 19.2 points and 299 yards per game last year. The strength this year will be on the defensive line with three starters returning after giving up only 104 yards rushing and 3.2 yards per carry in 2014. Thomas Niles will be one of the ends after recording 49 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. They will need to be solid because the back seven return only one starter in linebacker Chequan Burkett. He recorded 40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. The secondary losses 148 career starts as well as all four starters, which is going to hurt the Knights. It will be tough to produce the same overall numbers in 2015 as they did in 2014.

Central Florida opens with Florida International (home), Stanford (road), Furman (home), and South Carolina (road) to start the season before beginning AAC play. From the West, they will play Tulane and Tulsa on the road while getting Houston at home. In division play, they will have Temple and Cincinnati at home and play East Carolina at home. O’Leary has stout defenses even when there are not a lot of starters returning (i.e. 2011 with 4 starters returning UCF allowed 18.3 points and 303 yards per game). That makes UCF dangerous to contend for the division title.

3. Cincinnati Bearcats

Tommy Tuberville left Texas Tech after the 2012 season to come to Cincinnati. 2015 will be his third year and he has led the Bearcats to a record of 9-4 in each of this first two seasons. 2015 is also a season of change for The American Conference, as they are now divided into two divisions. How will Tuberville do in the inaugural season of the East?

On offense, there are eight starter back this year led by quarterback Gunner Kiel. Kiel threw for 3,254 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions despite some injury issues and he will have seven of his top eight receivers back from 2014. The top threats are Shaq Washington, who had 66 catches for 761 yards and 4 touchdowns and MeKale McKay, who had 44 catches for 725 yards and 8 touchdowns. Mike Boone returns at running after running for 650 yards with 9 touchdowns as a freshman despite being the #2 guy. The offense will be explosive again in 2015.

The defensive side of the ball sees only five starters return with the bulk of the losses coming in the front seven. Only Silverberry Mouhon returns on the line after recording 45 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 tackle for loss. It is a similar story with the linebackers as only Leviticus Payne is back and he recorded 57 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 1 interception last year. The secondary is undoubtedly the strength going into the season with three starters back led by Zach Edwards. Edwards was second on the team in tackles with 121 and also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense have up 27.2 points and 439 yards per game in 2014 and it looks like that might happen again this year.

It will be an interesting start to the season for Cincinnati with two conference games in the first four weeks. They open with Alabama A&M and Temple at home before a road trip to Miami (OH). They have a quick turnaround of five days to face Memphis on the road and then get Miami (FL) at home on October 1. They have another road trip to BYU two weeks later after a bye. They also have to face Houston on the road out of the West. It will be another winning season for Tuberville, but the games against Central Florida (home), Temple, and East Carolina (road) as well as if the offense can outscore the opponents will decide where they finish.

4. East Carolina Pirates

A simple look at the 8-5 record for East Carolina in 2014 would suggest it was a slightly above average season for them. However, it was much bigger than the record indicates with wins over then #17 Virginia Tech on the road 28-21 and at home to North Carolina 70-41 in back-to-back weeks. Ruffin McNeill enters his sixth year in charge of his alma mater after compiling a 37-27 record. Let’s see what is in store for the Pirates.

The offense brings back six starters, but the losses are big at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Shane Carden threw for over 4,700 yards in 2014 and his main targets were Justin Hardy (121 catches for 1,494 yards and 10 touchdowns) and Cam Worthy (55 catches for 1,106 yards and 4 touchdowns). Kurt Benkert will take over at QB, but he has only throw 10 passes in his collegiate career. While the losses of the top two receivers will hurt, Isaiah Jones put up some good numbers in 2014 with 81 catches for 830 yards and 5 touchdowns. Running back is probably the easiest of the skill positions to replace for ECU with Chris Hairston running for 528 yards and 2 touchdowns on only 79 carries last year. The offensive line does return four starters, which should provide good running lanes and ample time to the QB. However, the offense will not be as potent this season as it was in 2014.

The defense will have five starters back from a unit that allowed 25.8 points and 367 yards per game last year. That was done with only three returning starters for the 2014 season. Defensive line returns only one starter from last year, but Terrell Stanley is back after starting 12 games in 2013 and then missing all of 2014. Linebacker has two starters returning led by Zeek Bigger. Bigger had an astounding 140 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The secondary will have two starters back including 2014 1st Team ACC cornerback Josh Hawkins. Hawkins had 44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 11 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions. The defense should produce similar numbers as they did in 2014.

East Carolina has FCS Towson to start the season before a road trip to Florida and another road trip to Navy to start conference play. They face Virginia Tech at home before back-to-back road games again with SMU and BYU on the schedule. The other team from the West, in addition to Navy and SMU, is Tulsa on October 17 at home. ECU faces fellow East contenders Temple and Cincinnati at home while getting Central Florida on the road. The final two weekends consist of UCF and Cincinnati. East Carolina will need to get their offense going right away if they are to challenge for the East, but look very good to reach another bowl game in 2014.

5. South Florida Bulls

2015 will be year three of Willie Taggart’s reign at South Florida. He has gone a combined 6-18 in his first two seasons, but the offense and defense have both improved in those two seasons.

In 2015, the offense has only four starters back and that will make it a bit harder to continue improving the offense. 2014’s starting quarterback Mike White is gone after transferring from the program and that leaves a battle between sophomore Quinton Flowers and former Penn State player Steven Bench. White threw for only 1,639 yards with 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year so the new QB should be able to top those stats. Marlon Mack will be the workhorse running back after running for 1,041 yards and 9 touchdowns as a true freshman. Mack also was named to the 1st Team AAC last year. The top wide receiver is gone, but Rodney Adams is back after catching 23 passes for 323 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite the low amount of returning starters the offense should produce more than the 17.2 points and 305 yards per game it did in 2014.

The defense is in a better situation with seven starters back including all of the top five tackles from a year ago. There is only one returning defensive lineman in Eric Lee, but both linebackers return in this 4-2-5 system. One of those linebackers, Nigel Harris, was second on the team with 77 tackles, 2 sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss. Three of the back five starters return from a unit that gave up 220 yards passing in 2014. Jamie Byrd was the top tackler in 2014 with 95 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions and he will be expected to help out in large volume again. The defense gave up 27 points and 403 yards per game last year and should improve on that this year.

South Florida opens with Florida A&M at home before back-to-back road trips to ACC teams Florida State and Maryland. They end their non-conference schedule against a third ACC team in Syracuse on October 10. From the West, USF will face contenders in Memphis (home) and Navy (road) as well as SMU (home). The game at Connecticut on October 17 is likely to decide who finishes last in The American’s East division. USF is probably a year away from contending for a bowl game appearance.

6. Connecticut Huskies

Bob Diaco took over at Connecticut in 2014 after Paul Pasqualoni was let go just after the start of the 2013 season. He went 2-10 in 2014 with only 12 returning starters on his team and UConn has not been to a bowl game since 2010 when they faced Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl (they lost 48-20).

Six starters are back for Diaco from an offense that scored 15.5 points and gained 276 yards per game last year. Quarterback Chandler Whitmer has departed while Tim Boyle threw for 335 yards with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions last season. Boyle will most likely play second fiddle again this year as North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs is likely to win the starting job. The running game only averaged 107 yards per game in 2014 and that should improve with four of the top five backs returning. Wide receiver sees the top two guys depart while Noel Thomas (26 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns) is one of the top targets. The offense should be better in 2015.

The defense gave up 29.8 points and 379 yards per game in 2014 with six starters back. In 2015, there will be eight returning starters with two on the defensive line and the top four tacklers are back as well on the line. Linebacker looks like an excellent unit for UConn with former Florida transfer Graham Stewart (94 tackles, 2 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss), Marquise Vann (105 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss), and Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry all expected to start. Byron Jones is gone from the secondary, but three starters return to help make this a solid unit. The defense looks like it will improve in 2015 as well.

UConn opens the 2015 season with home games against Villanova and Army. The travel to face Missouri before a home game against Navy and another road game against BYU. From the West, they will have the aforementioned Navy, but also Tulane (road) and Houston (home). As stated before, the game against South Florida on October 17 will most likely decide the AAC East’s bottom team. Diaco does have this team headed in the right direction.

Overview

The American Athletic Conference’s East division looks incredibly competitive. Any one of four – Temple, Cincinnati, Central Florida, or East Carolina – can win the division. South Florida and Connecticut will be battling to stay out of the cellar. Below is a recap of the predicted order of finish.

1. Temple

2. Central Florida

3. Cincinnati

4. East Carolina

5. South Florida

6. Connecticut

Check back on Friday, July 24 for The American’s West Division preview as well as the predicted winner of the conference championship game.

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA West

Kenneth Dixon will be a huge part of Louisiana Tech's offense. Will he be able to lead them back to the C-USA Championship Game? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)
Kenneth Dixon will be a huge part of Louisiana Tech’s offense. Will he be able to lead them back to the C-USA Championship Game? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA West

Part six of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview will look at Conference USA’s West division as well as predicting the champion of the C-USA Championship Game. Below is the schedule for the 2015 College Football Preview.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Below is an in-depth look at each team in the Conference USA West Division.

1. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Louisiana Tech nearly won the 2014 C-USA Championship Game, but came up short against Marshall in 26-23 loss. 2014 was also the second year of Skip Holtz’s tenure and he led them to their first bowl game since 2011, beating Illinois 35-18.

The third year under Holtz will have seven starters back on offense, but one of them will not be at quarterback due to Cody Sokol graduating after a 3,436 passing yard season with 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Replacing Sokol is the inconsistent Jeff Driskel from Florida. When Driskel is good, he can play at the top level, but that is the wildcard to do that over the course of a season. He will have Kenneth Dixon to hand the ball off to. All Dixon has done in his first three years is rush for 3,410 yards and become the school’s all-time leading rusher. He ran for 1,299 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2014. The top three receivers also return for La Tech including Trent Taylor, who caught 64 passes for 834 yards and 9 touchdowns. If Driskel can be consistent (and healthy), the offense should do well once again in 2015.

On defense, six starters return including three apiece on the line and in the secondary. The line’s top playmaker will be Vernon Butler at tackle after he made 1st Team C-USA in 2014 with 56 tackles, 1 sack, and 12.5 tackles for loss. The linebacker unit sees all three starters depart, but the replacements are all seniors. The secondary is also senior laden, but the star is junior free safety Xavier Woods. Woods was 1st Team C-USA after making 71 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 6 interceptions in 2014. The defense should be good in the 2015 again.

La Tech opens with a home game against FCS Southern before a road trip to open conference play against Western Kentucky and then another road trip to Kansas State. Their non-conference schedule wraps up with a home game against Louisiana-Lafayette (Oct. 3) and a road game at Mississippi State (Oct. 17). In addition to WKU out of the East, they also get a tough game against Middle Tennessee (home) and a winnable game at home versus Florida International. Their toughest West opponents (Rice and UTEP) are both on the road, but Louisiana Tech is in a good spot to make it to a second straight C-USA Championship Game.

2. UTEP Miners

UTEP improved drastically in 2014 on both offense and defense, which culminated with a bowl game berth (New Mexico Bowl), but lost 21-6 to Utah State. Year three for Sean Kugler is expected to provide even more.

Six starters return on the offensive side led by running back Aaron Jones. Jones ran for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the team and he will shoulder the load early on in the season with a new quarterback set to take over. Mack Leftwich and Garrett Simpson are expected to battle it out for the starting QB spot, but they will surely top last year’s production of 1,858 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions by Jameill Showers. The top receiver is gone (27 catches for 579 yards and 2 touchdowns), but his production can easily be replaced with better quarterback play. The offensive line returns four starters so there should be plenty of time for the new QB to gel with the offense.

The defensive side of the ball returns five starters including three on the defensive line. The line will need to get after the opposing quarterbacks. In 2014, UTEP allowed 177 yards rushing per game and recorded 26 sacks. At linebacker, Alvin Jones returns to lead the group. He recorded 55 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and an interception. Arkansas graduate transfer Kelvin Fisher will also be in the mix to start at one of the linebacker spots. The secondary returns Devin Cockrell as the lone starter from a unit that allowed 191 yards passing per game and 51.7% completions. The defense is likely to take a step back in 2015, but it may not be a big step back.

UTEP opens with three straight road games in 2015 against Arkansas, Texas Tech, and New Mexico State. They finish their non-conference slate with a home game against FCS Incarnate Word. In Conference USA play, they have winnable games from the East Division against Florida International (road), Florida Atlantic (home), and Old Dominion (road). They also get both Rice and Louisiana Tech at home, which makes them a threat to finish in the top spot as well. UTEP should be in a bowl game once more in 2015.

3. Rice Owls

Rice has been to three straight bowl games between 2012 and 2014. In 2013, the Owls won the C-USA Championship Game by defeating Marshall 41-24. 2015 is a chance to reach the title game again and a fourth straight bowl game.

The offense has six starters returning including quarterback Driphus Jackson and running back Jowan Davis. Jackson threw for 2,842 yards with 24 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while also rushing for 401 yards and 1 touchdown as the third leading rusher. Davis ran for 956 yards and 6 touchdowns while the second leading rusher, Darik Dillard, ran for 652 yards and 11 touchdowns. Dillard also returns this season to give Rice a 1-2 punch in the running game. The top two receivers are gone, but the third, fourth, and fifth leading receivers return. In addition, only two starters return on the offensive line. Rice may have some early season struggles, but should be able to reach their 28.8 points and 399 yards per game they recorded last year.

Rice’s defense has been hit hard by losses with only three starters returning. Linebacker Alex Lyons was the top tackler in 2014 with 71 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 tackles for loss.  The next five leading tacklers depart while Nick Elder was the seventh leading tackler at 40 stops, but did not start any games and is expected to take over one of the remaining linebacker spots. The defensive line and secondary also return one starter. After giving up 28.5 points and 386 yards per game in 2014, this unit will take a step back with the lack of experience.

Rice opens their season against FCS Wagner at home before three straight road trips against Texas, North Texas, and Baylor. They also face Army at home on October 24. From the East Division, Rice will face Western Kentucky (home), Florida Atlantic (road), and Charlotte (home), which should provide a winning record against those teams. They also face Louisiana Tech at home and a road trip to UTEP. With their schedule, Rice should be making a fourth straight bowl appearance.

4. North Texas Mean Green

North Texas made a bowl game in 2013 after a nine year absence. They won that bowl game against UNLV, but fell to 4-8 in 2014 with only nine returning starters. Dan McCarney is entering his fifth year and hoping to return to a bowl game in 2015.

The offense returns six starters beginning with quarterback Andrew McNulty. McNulty started the final six games and finished the season with 1,295 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Antoine Jimmerson and Jeffrey Wilson also return at running back to provide some help to McNulty. McNulty will also have Carlos Harris back to throw to after he caught 70 passes for 863 yards and 3 touchdowns. The offensive line returns only one starter, which may hurt some of the numbers early in the season. North Texas put up 27.2 points and 326 yards per game in 2014 and this year should produce similar or better numbers.

The defense also returns six starters, but none of the top three tacklers return. The defensive line has three starters back, which easily makes this the strongest unit on defense. They gave up an average of 162 yards rushing per game and should be able to produce that kind of performance again. Linebacker has two starters returning, but lost their top guy in Derek Akunne. The secondary has only Kenny Buyers returning, but he should be able to lockdown one of the corner spots. After surrendering 29.8 points per game in 2014, the defense should be able to match that again in 2015.

North Texas does not play opening week and will face SMU on the road in their first game on September 12. They then face Rice at home before back-to-back road games at Iowa and Southern Miss. They also face Portland State (home) and Tennessee (road) as part of their non-conference schedule. Out of the East Division, NT will face the top trio of Western Kentucky (home), Marshall (road), and Middle Tennessee (road), which puts an upper limit on their finishing position in the West. North Texas will probably need an upset or two to reach a bowl game.

5. Southern Miss Golden Eagles

It is hard to believe how fast Southern Miss fell in College Football after 2011. In 2011, Southern Miss went 12-2 with an upset victory over Houston in the C-USA Championship Game, but fell to 0-12 in 2012. They went 1-11 in 2013 and 3-9 in 2014. 2015 will be the third year in charge for Todd Monken.

Monken will have plenty to work with on offense, as ten starters return from 2014 and some nice talent has transferred in. Nick Mullens threw for 2,470 yards with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions last year, but may be challenged by former TCU player Tyler Matthews. Ito Smith was the top running back in 2014 with 536 yards and 2 touchdowns, but it could be Michigan transfer Justice Hayes who ends up as the number one running back. The top two receivers, Michael Thomas and Casey Martin, both return as does the entire offensive line. Southern Miss put up 17.1 points per game and 316 yards in 2013, 19 points per game and 365 yards per game in 2014, and will certainly obliterate those numbers this year.

The defense under Monken has struggled, but perhaps that is because there was not much in the cupboard. In 2013, eight starters returned and gave up an average of 41.9 points and 436 yards per game. 2014 was a a bit better as six starters returned and gave up 35.4 points and 451 yards per game. There will be five starters back in 2015. Michael Smith will be anchoring the defensive line at tackle, but perhaps the biggest addition is at defensive end with former Auburn player Ricky Parks. The linebacking unit has two starters back while only one returns in the secondary. Picasso Nelson is the returning starter in the secondary after starting 10 games as a freshman and recording 36 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense will continue to make small steps forward in 2015.

Southern Miss will open the season with home games against Mississippi State and FCS Austin Peay before back-to-back road trips against Texas State and Nebraska. The fifth game against North Texas at home on October 3 could determine which team finishes fourth. From the East Division, Southern Miss draws Marshall (road), Charlotte (road), and Old Dominion (home) while having to face UTEP at home and Louisiana Tech on the road. Southern Miss could be pushing for bowl eligibility with an upset or two in C-USA play.

6. Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners

Texas-San Antonio is a relative new program entering their fifth season of play in 2015. Larry Coker has been in charge since the start and has led them from the FCS to C-USA. In 2013, UTSA went 7-5 in their first season of C-USA competition before falling off in 2014 with a 4-8 record. 2015 may not be any better.

Coker has only two returning starters on offense, but that may not be a bad thing. In 2014, UTSA had ten starters returning, but only put up 17.1 points and 298 yards of offense per game! 2015 will see Michigan graduate transfer Russell Bellomy vying for the starting quarterback spot. Jarveon Williams is likely to assume the running back spot after running for 325 yards and 3 touchdowns as the second leading rusher last year. The offensive line returns only one starter while the top receiver returning from 2014 is tight end David Morgan. Despite the dearth of experience, it is hard to imagine UTSA doing much worse of offense than they did in 2014.

The defense has only four returning starters from a unit that was respectable in 2014. The defense gave up 25.9 points and 370 yards per game with ten returning starters last year. Middle linebacker Drew Douglas is the top returning tackler after recording 71 stops, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss. The defensive line has zero returning starters while the secondary has the other two starters returning in Bennett Okotcha and Mauricio Sanchez. The defense has been consistent under Coker, but with the lack of experience, there is a strong possibility of a step back.

UTSA has a brutal non-conference schedule with games against Arizona (road), Kansas State (home), Oklahoma State (road), and Colorado State (home) in their first four weeks. In conference, UTSA draws Old Dominion (home), Charlotte (road), and Middle Tennessee (home) from the East Division. It will be a long season for UTSA if both sides of the ball struggle. It is a rebuilding year for UTSA in 2015.

Overview

The Conference USA West Division is a three horse race with one team slightly better than the competition. Louisiana Tech looks like the best team in the division, but the duo of UTEP and Rice could win the division as well and it would not be a surprise. North Texas and Southern Miss will be battling it out under those three and will both need at least one or two upsets to get back to a bowl game. UTSA is in rebuilding mode with only six starters returning. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Louisiana Tech

2. UTEP

3. Rice

4. North Texas

5. Southern Miss

6. Texas-San Antonio

C-USA Championship Game

The previous part of the 2015 College Football Preview looked at the C-USA East Division and predicted Western Kentucky to win the division. That will set up a C-USA Championship Game between Western Kentucky and Louisiana Tech. In that game, Western Kentucky is predicted to defeat Louisiana Tech for the Conference USA Championship.

The next part of the 2015 College Football Preview will look at the American Athletic Conference’s East Division. That can be found on Tuesday, July 21 here at Sports Enthusiasts.

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA East

Conference USA's East Division looks likely to come down to Marshall and Western Kentucky in 2015. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Conference USA’s East Division looks likely to come down to Marshall and Western Kentucky in 2015. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: C-USA East

The 2015 College Football Preview has covered both the Mid-American Conference and Mountain West Conference Preview. Now, we are up to Conference USA and this section will look specifically at the East Division. Below is a schedule for each conference and division in the 2015 College Football Preview.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

Let’s take a closer look at the C-USA East Division.

1. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

Western Kentucky finished 4-4 in C-USA play in 2014 while finishing in a three way tie for third. They also were the only team to beat Marshall in 2014 with the crazy 67-66 win in overtime. Will 2015 be even better for WKU in Jeff Brohm’s second season?

There will be 7 starters back for a potent WKU offense that average 44.4 points and 535 yards per game in 2014. That number includes the quarterback, running back, and top two receivers. Brandon Doughty threw it all over the field in 2014 with 4,830 yards with 49 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing 67.9% of his passes. He will have his top targets in Jared Dangerfield (69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Taywan Taylor (45 catches for 767 yards and touchdowns) to throw to. At running back will be Leon Allen, who ran for 1,542 yards and 13 touchdowns while also grabbing 51 catches for 476 yards and 3 touchdowns. The offense will be high-flying once again for the Hilltoppers.

Defensively, WKU gave up 39.9 points and 510 yards per game in 2014 with only four starters back. That number more than doubles in 2015 to nine starters back as well as the top four tacklers. The two losses are at outside linebacker and cornerback, but the replacements have plenty of experience including Wonderful Terry (yes that is his name) at CB. He was 2nd Team-C-USA in 2014 after playing in 12 games and recording 43 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions.

The entire defensive line returns, but they will need to do better than the 221 rushing yards per game they yielding last year. They will also be backed up by two returning linebackers that were #1 (Nick Holt) and #2 (Dejon Brown) in tackles. The previously mentioned secondary returns three starters and the entire defense should perform better this year than in 2014.

The schedule is not as kind to WKU as they would have hoped. They face a road game at Vanderbilt in the opening before the conference opener at home against a tough Louisiana Tech team. Next up is a road game at Indiana before a home game against Miami (OH). They also have a road game against Rice from the West Division, road game at LSU near the end of October, but get Marshall at home to end the regular season. That game should determine the winner of the East Division and we will call WKU as that winner.

2. Marshall Thundering Herd

Marshall nearly had a magical season in 2014 with a chance to make a New Year’s Six game. However, they lost to Western Kentucky in the regular season finale before bouncing back to win the C-USA Championship and crushing Northern Illinois in the bowl game.

In 2015, Marshall will be hit heavily on offense with the losses being Rakeem Cato at quarterback and Tommy Shuler as the top receiver in 2014 with six starters turning. Replacing Cato will be either Michael Birdsong or Gunnar Holcombe, but they will not be putting up the same stats at Cato. Devon Johnson will be returning in the backfield to help out the new QB and he ran for 1,767 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2014. The Thundering Herd will miss their top receiver, but have the #2 (Davonte Allen), #3 (Angelo Jean-Louis), and #4 (Deon-Tay McManus) receivers as well as three offensive lineman. The offensive will not be nearly as potent (45.6 points and 559 yards per game) as it was with Cato leading the show.

Marshall has only five starters back on defense from a unit that allowed 21 points and 357 yards per game in 2014. The defensive line was hit hardest with three starters gone and Jarquez Samuel as the only returning starter (30 tackles, 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss). Linebacker was also hit hard with the top two tacklers from 2014 gone and the only starter back is DJ Hunter. Hunter, originally at Tennessee, recorded 80 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2014 and should have a big season again. The strength for Marshall on defense will be the secondary that returns three starters from a unit that only allowed 197 yards passing and 54.5% completions last year. They will be key to helping the front seven gel early in the season. Overall, the defense will take some steps back with the loses.

Marshall has a pretty easy out of conference schedule with a home game against Purdue, road trip to Ohio, home game against FCS Norfolk State, and road trip to Kent State. A 3-1 record is probable in that stretch. In C-USA play, they draw North Texas and Southern Miss from the West with both of those games at home. The do have to travel to Western Kentucky in the regular season finale and it would not be surprising to see them end up in the C-USA Championship Game.

3. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

2015 will mark head coach Rick Stockstill‘s 10th season in charge of Middle Tennessee. He has seen them progress from the Sun Belt to C-USA. He has also been in charge for all four of Middle Tennessee’s four bowl appearances (1-3 record). Will 2015 be the fifth bowl game for Middle Tennessee and Rick Stockstill?

The offense will return eight starters from 2014 including quarterback Austin Grammer, who threw for 2,557 yards (65.4%) with 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Brent Stockstill (son of Rick) could also see playing time. The top running back is gone for the Blue Raiders, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth leading rushers are back, which should soften the blow. The top and third leading receiver are also gone, but the offense was spread out evenly in regards to passing so the losses are not as detrimental while four starters return on the line. After averaging 31.6 points and 431 yards per game in 2014, a similar output can be expected in 2015.

The defense, like the offense, returns eight starters with the losses spread out evenly (one loss on the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary). The defense will be led by Will linebacker TT Barber, who had 72 tackles, 1 sack, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions while being named to C-USA’s 2nd Team. The defensive line allowed 183 rushing yards per game and a 4.3 yards per carry average with the number expected to improve with nearly all of their major players back. The secondary is headed by strong safety Kevin Byard, who was named to the 1st Team All-C-USA squad after putting up 66 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and intercepting 6 passes last year. The defense should be solid for Middle Tennessee.

Middle Tennessee will face three Power 5 conference members in the opening five weeks with games at Alabama and Illinois before Vanderbilt comes to town. They also have Jackson State in the opening week and a home game against Charlotte in Week 3. From the West division they draw Louisiana Tech (road), North Texas (home), and Texas-San Antonio (road) while facing East contender Western Kentucky on the road and Marshall at home. Middle Tennessee can expect another bowl appearance in year 10 under Stockstill.

4. Florida International Golden Panthers

Florida International has improved in the first two years under Ron Turner going from 1-11 in 2013 to 4-8 in 2014. The offense and defense both improved as well. The offense went from averaging 9.8 points per game in 2013 to 23 points per game in 2014 while the defense went from surrendering 37 points per game in 2013 to 24.8 points per game allowed in 2014. Year three should continue that trend.

The offense will be returning seven starters from a year ago including Alex McGough at quarterback. As a true freshman in 2014, McGough threw for 1,680 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while completing only 50.4% of his passes. Those numbers are far from overwhelming, but he should improve in year two of this offense. McGough will also benefit from the top three rushers returning led by the duo of Anthon Samuel and Alex Gardner. Both rushed for exactly 582 yards on the ground while Samuel had 5 touchdowns and Gardner scored only once. That duo should also improve. Jonnu Smith, the top receiver in 2014, is back as well after grabbing 61 passes for 710 yards and 8 scores. If McGough and the offense can find consistent second and third receivers, they will put up even better numbers in 2015.

The defense returns eight starters including the second, third, and fourth leading tacklers as well as eight of the top ten tacklers from 2014. Six of the front seven return including C-USA Freshman Team member Anthony Wint (48 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss). The defense gave up only 160 yards rushing per game including 4.1 yards per carry. That should be the case again in 2015. The secondary loses two players at the safety spots so it will be on the corners, Richard Leonard (1st Team C-USA) and Jeremiah McKinnon, to shut down the top opposing receivers. It should be another solid year, if not better, for FIU on defense.

FIU has a somewhat difficult out of conference schedule with back-to-back road games at Central Florida and Indiana before a home game against FCS North Carolina Central. They have a tough draw after that with back-to-back road games again, this time against Louisiana Tech from the West Division and Massachusetts from the MAC. They also draw UTEP out of the West division and will have the duo of Marshall (road) and Western Kentucky (home) to end the regular season. FIU looks poised to reach bowl eligibility and get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.

5. Old Dominion Monarchs

2014 marked the first season of Old Dominion in Conference USA and it is hard to call it anything but a success. They played 11 FBS teams and finished 6-6 including some incredibly entertaining games against North Carolina State, Rice, UTEP, Western Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. Old Dominion is now no longer the newcomer to the conference in 2015 thanks to the addition of Charlotte.

Eight starters are back on offense for ODU, but two of them are key losses. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke (3,476 yards with 30 touchdowns and 16 interceptions) and wide receiver Antonio Vaughn (63 catches for 1,019 yards and 12 touchdowns) have both departed. Quarterback duties will ended up being handled by redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley, true freshman Blake LaRussa, junior Colin McElroy, or Greyson Lambert. The quarterback may put up solid numbers, but it will be hard to replace Heinicke.

Running back Ray Lawry returns after a successful freshman campaign in which he ran for 947 yards and 16 touchdowns on only 134 attempts (7.1 yards per carry average). He will have four of the same offensive lineman from last year to help pave the way. The loss of Vaughn at wide receiver will hurt, but there are plenty of experienced players to help soften the loss. Zach Pascal had 59 catches for 743 yards and 7 touchdowns while David Washington caught 47 passes for 599 yards and 4 touchdowns. Overall, the offense could produce similar numbers of 32.7 points and 442 yards per game if the quarterback grasps the offense quickly.

2014 saw 10 starters return on defense, but they still gave up 38 points and 452 yards per game against a mostly FBS schedule. That is to be expected, but now the returning starters is halved to five. The defensive line was hit hard with only one returning starter in Poncho Barnwell, who had 34 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss. Linebacker loses two starters as well with middle linebacker TJ Ricks returning to anchor the unit. Ricks had 80 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss last year. The secondary allowed 230 passing yards and 68.6% completions and returns two starters at the safety spots. The defense may improve on the numbers a bit in 2015, but are still in the process of trying to make the entire roster full of FBS players.

Old Dominion has quite a few home non-conference games. They start with Eastern Michigan on the road before getting Norfolk State, North Carolina State, and Appalachian State on the road. A 2-2 or 3-1 record will put them in good position because they open C-USA play on the road at Marshall. From the West Division they get Texas-San Antonio, UTEP, and Southern Miss while games against Charlotte (home), FIU (road), and Florida Atlantic (home) will decide if they have at least six wins in 2015.

6. Florida Atlantic Owls

Florida Atlantic thought they had found their man in Carl Pelini until some rather unsavory allegations led to his departure from FAU during the 2013 season. FAU hired Charlie Partridge prior to the 2014 season he guided the Owls to a 3-9 record with only 11 starters returning.

In 2015, there will be six starters returning on offense led by quarterback Jaquez Johnson. Johnson threw for 2,215 yards (57.8%) with 17 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. He also ran for 513 yards and 7 touchdowns as the second leading rusher on the team. The top rusher, Jay Warren, also returns after running for 571 yards and 2 scores. Out of the top four receivers from 2014, only Jenson Stoshak returns. Stoshak was the second leading receiver with 37 catches for 508 yards and 2 touchdowns. After putting up 24 points and 363 yards per game in 2014, FAU should put up similar numbers, if not higher.

On defense, there are still some issues to work on after yielding 34.4 points and 461 yards per game in 2014. Six starters return, the same number that returned in 2014, but the back seven has been decimated with only two returning starters. The entire defensive line returns as well as Rutgers transfer Nick Internicola. The front four should improve vastly on the 222 rushing yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry average they gave up last year.

The linebackers have only one returning starter in Robert Relf, but he was the #4 tackler in 2014 after making 65 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has Cre’Von LeBlanc and Sharrod Neasman back, which will help shore up some of the inexperience issues. The defense will probably have a few struggles throughout the season.

FAU opens the season on the road at Tulsa before a home game against Miami (FL). They have another home game against Buffalo before a road trip to Charlotte. Their final non-conference game is at Florida on November 21. In conference, FAU has to face Rice (home) and UTEP (road) from the West. FAU will get close to bowl eligibility, but is probably a year away from getting back to a bowl game.

7. Charlotte 49ers

Charlotte has only been playing football since 2013 and have racked up a pair of 5-6 seasons against FCS, Division 2, and Division 3 opponents. 2015 will mark their first time against an FBS opponent and they will have 11 of them. Brad Lambert is in charge of the 49ers and has been with the program since its inception.

Charlotte will have 9 starters back on offense from a team that scored 38.8 points per game and put up an average of 487 yards a game. Matt Johnson threw for 1,941 yards with 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions before an injury against James Madison knocked him out for the season. His top two targets are back including Austin Duke, who had 79 catches for 1,373 yards and 9 touchdowns. Added into the mix is former Georgia Bulldog Uriah LeMay. Kalif Phillips ran for 1,436 yards and 20 touchdowns behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The offense will not put up the same numbers it did in 2014 thanks to tougher opponents.

The defense returns 8 starters from a unit that allowed 31.6 points and 477 yards per game in 2014. The front three will be back after allowing 193 rushing yards and 4.2 yards per carry in 2014. The linebacking unit has two losses and two returning starters, which will hurt them against FBS competition. Three of the four starters from 2014 return in the secondary including Branden Dozier, who had 86 tackles, 11 pass breakups, and 1 interception in 2014. Despite the experience coming back, the defense will probably see worse numbers this year.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, there will be 11 FBS opponents this year for Charlotte to face. They start with a game at Georgia State before playing at home against FCS Presbyterian. They face back-to-back C-USA opponents in weeks three and four before a home game against Temple. Their last non-conference game is against Kentucky in the penultimate weekend in November. Things will be tough for Charlotte in their first C-USA season with their best chance to win in conference against FAU on September 26 or Texas-San Antonio on November 14. It could be a double digit loss year for Charlotte as they get acclimated to playing in the FBS.

Overview

The Conference USA East Division is headed for a showdown between Marshall and Western Kentucky to determine the division champion. It just so happens to be that those two teams meet in the regular season’s final weekend (November 27) prior to the Championship game the following week. Middle Tennessee, Florida International, and Old Dominion look to be headed towards bowl eligibility while Florida Atlantic may come up just short. Charlotte will have a tough time in their inaugural season in C-USA. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Western Kentucky

2. Marshall

3. Middle Tennessee

4. Florida International

5. Old Dominion

6. Florida Atlantic

7. Charlotte

Check back on Friday, July 17 for the Conference USA West Division preview as well as the predicted winner of the C-USA Championship game.