Tag Archives: Greyson Lambert

2015 College Football Preview: SEC East

Maty Mauk has been an integral part of Missouri making back-to-back SEC Championship games in 2013 and 2014. Will it be a third in a row for the Tigers? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)
Maty Mauk has been an integral part of Missouri making back-to-back SEC Championship games in 2013 and 2014. Will it be a third in a row for the Tigers? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: SEC East

Part 18 of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football preview looks at the SEC East in the penultimate preview. As usual, the SEC East is wide open with talented teams and an up and coming team all in the mix. Below are the previews completed and the SEC West preview scheduled for Friday, August 28.

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

Let’s take a closer look at how the SEC East will shake out.

1. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee has fallen on hard times in recent years. Between 2008 and 2012, the Volunteers had four losing seasons with only two bowl appearances and they lost both of those games. Butch Jones came in for the 2013 season after three years at Central Michigan (2007 through 2009) and Cincinnati (2010 through 2012). Tennessee went 5-7 in his first year (2013) and improved to 7-6 in 2014 with smashing 45-28 victory in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Iowa. 2015 provides Jones with his most experienced team.

The offense will have 10 starters back, which is double the number from both 2013 and 2014. In 2013, the offense put up 23.8 points and 353 yards per game while that number went up to 28.9 points and 371 yards per game in 2014. The quarterback position was hampered by injuries in 2014 with Joshua Dobbs the top returning guy after throwing for 1,209 yards with 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. At running back will be Jalen Hurd (899 yards and 5 touchdowns) and former Alabama commit Alvin Kamara. Dobbs also has some wheels after rushing for 469 yards and 8 touchdowns. The entire receiving unit is back with Pig Howard (54 catches for 618 yards and a touchdown), Von Pearson (38 catches for 393 yards and 5 touchdowns), Marquez North (30 catches for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns), and Jason Croom (21 catches for 305 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has four starter back and the offense should be able to easily produce the highest numbers under Jones.

The defense will have eight starters back from a unit that allowed 24.2 points and 365 yards per game. The defensive line will have two starters back led by Derek Barnett, who was a monster in 2014 with 72 tackles, 10 sacks, and 10.5 tackles for loss. Three linebackers return in Jalen Reeves-Maybin (101 tackles, 2 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss), Curt Maggitt (48 tackles, 11 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss), and Corey Vereen (24 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss). The secondary will also have three starters back including both safeties in Brian Randolph (88 tackles and 2 interceptions) and LaDarrell McNeil (76 tackles and 2 interceptions). Cameron Sutton will be at cornerback after recording 37 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 13 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions. The defense should be even better in 2015, which is a scary thought.

Tennessee opens the year with Bowling Green in Nashville before a big game against Oklahoma at home. They will also face Western Carolina and North Texas at home to close out their non-conference schedule. In conference, the Vols will play Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri on the road while staying home to face Georgia, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. From the West, Tennessee has Arkansas at home and will face their rival Alabama on the road. Despite the tough draw from the West, Tennessee has the ability to win those games and have a great chance against the biggest contenders in the East. Tennessee is the pick to win the East in a surely contentious and open division.

2. Missouri Tigers

Missouri was in the Big 12 Championship in the 2007 season with a chance to make the National Championship, but were demolished 38-17 and ended up being left out of the BCS altogether. The Tigers still had really good seasons in 2008 (10-4) and 2010 (10-3), but began their SEC life with a 5-7 record. That changed in a hurry as the Tigers have been to back-to-back SEC Championship games under Gary Pinkel.

The offense took a big step back in 2014 with only 27.8 points and 367 yards per game of output. Compared to 2013, when they put up 39.1 points and 491 yards, it was tough year even with four starters back. In 2015, there will be six starters back led by quarterback Maty Mauk, who had 2,648 yards with 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Russell Hansbrough returns after rushing for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns and Mauk can run the ball if needed as well (373 yards and 2 touchdowns). Wide receiver is a concern with the top four gone. The top returning receiver is tight end Sean Culkin, who had 20 catches for 187 yards and 1 touchdown. Others who may have an impact are J’Mon Moore (2 catches for 33 yards), Nate Brown (5 catches for 45 yards), and Wesley Leftwich (3 catches for 36 yards), but are light on experience. The offensive line will have four starters back, which will create plenty of protection for Mauk and running lanes. The concern is the receivers, but Missouri has the ability to produce higher totals this year despite that.

The defense has been very solid the last two years. In 2013, the defense gave up 23.1 points and 418 yards per game while those numbers went down to 21.1 points and 346 yards per game in 2014 (only 4 starters back). There will six starters back in 2015 including the top two tackles. On the line, only Harold Brantley returns after recording 54 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, and 3 pass breakups. The top tacklers from 2015 reside in the linebacking unit. Kentrell Brothers had 122 tackles, 1 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss while Michael Scherer had 114 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back from a unit that allowed 213 passing yards per game and 60.8% completions. Aarion Penton (36 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions), Kenya Dennis (61 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and an interception), and Ian Simon (54 tackles and 1 interception) are the returners. The defensive line is the obvious worry, but the Tigers could match last year’s numbers and possibly improve them.

The Tigers have only one real test on the non-conference slate. They will face Southeast Missouri State (home), Arkansas State (road), Connecticut (home), and BYU (in Kansas City, Missouri). Within their division, Missouri will face Kentucky, Georgia, and Vanderbilt on the road while playing South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee at home. They have to play Mississippi State (home) and Arkansas (road) from the West, but they can win both of those games. The schedule sets up well for Missouri to have a serious shot at winning a third straight East Division title and another big bowl game.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia is consistently one of the better teams in the SEC under Mark Richt. The Bulldogs have made a bowl game in all 14 years under Richt and have only one losing season in 2010 when they went 6-7. More impressively, Georgia has won at last 10 games nine times with Richt at the helm. The Bulldogs have also won 2 SEC Championship under Richt, however, the last one came in 2005. The Bulldogs went 10-3 in 2014 without Aaron Murray and will look to do the same without their starter from last year.

The offense has seven starters back, but as alluded to earlier, Hutson Mason (2,168 yards with 21 touchdowns and 4 interceptions) is not one of them. Brice Ramsey seems to be in line to start (333 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions), but he will have competition from Faton Bauta and Greyson Lambert. Nick Chubb will be the top running back after rushing for 1,547 yards with 14 touchdowns while Todd Gurley (911 yards and 9 touchdowns) was hampered by an NCAA investigation and eventually a torn ACL. The top two receivers are gone as well, but Jeb Blazevich (18 catches for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Malcolm Mitchell (31 catches for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns) are set to step up. The offensive line has four starters back, but the losses at quarterback and receiver are worrisome. The Bulldogs put up 41.3 points and 458 yards per game in 2014 and will probably not match that in 2015.

The defense was stout last year by giving up only 20.7 points and 337 yards per game with eight starters back. There will be six starters back in 2015 with one starter back on the line in Jordan Jenkins from linebacker. Jenkins had 70 tackles, 5 sacks, and 4.5 tackles for loss. Two linebackers return in Lorenzo Carter (41 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss) and Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, 6 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss). The secondary will have three starters back from a group that allowed only 170 passing yards per game and 53.8% completions. The trio returning are Aaron Davis (40 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and an interception), Quincy Mauger (51 tackles, 4 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions), and Dominick Sanders (34 tackles, 5 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions). The defense should be solid again and while they may not match or top last year’s numbers, they could come close.

Georgia faces Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech in non-conference action with the only road game against the Yellow Jackets. In conference, Georgia has to face Vanderbilt and Tennessee on the road while playing Florida in Jacksonville, as usual. They will also face South Carolina, Missouri, and Kentucky at home. From the West, Georgia will take on Alabama (home) and Auburn (road) to give them another tough draw. Georgia has the talent to win the East and the division is certainly there for the taking.

4. Florida Gators

Since Urban Meyer’s departure after the 2010 season, there have been more bad times than good for the Florida Gators. They went 7-6 in 2011 before a slight resurgence to 11-2 and a Sugar Bowl appearances, but they were crushed in that game and it was all downhill after that. They missed a bowl game entire in 2013 with a terrible 4-8 record and went 7-5 last year. Will Muschamp was in charge for the last four seasons, but he was let go. Jim McElwain has been installed as the head coach after three seasons at Colorado State where he went 22-16.

The offense in 2013 for Florida was atrocious. They put up a paltry 18.8 points and 317 yards per game while the numbers improved drastically in 2014 with 30.3 points and 368 yards per game. Enter McElwain, who nearly 35 points and 500 yards per game in his final two years at Colorado State. The quarterback position was unsettled last year due to injuries, suspensions, and ineffectiveness. Treon Harris threw for 1,019 yards with 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, but will be competing with Will Grier for the QB duties. The running back position is led by Kelvin Taylor, who had 565 yards and 6 touchdowns, but the loss of Adam Lane (181 yards and 1 touchdown) will hurt the depth. Demarcus Robinson (53 catches for 810 yards and 7 touchdowns) was the top receiver last year and returns for 2015 along with Ahmad Fulwood (12 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown), Latroy Pittman (15 catches for 164 yards), and Brandon Powell (15 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown). There is only one offensive lineman returning and the offense is also learning new schemes. With all that in mind, it is tough to see the Gators putting up a high amount of points, but there is serious talent left over from Muschamp’s tenure.

The defense was very good to excellent under Muschamp, which is no surprise. In 2012, the defense allowed 14.5 points and 287 yards per game in their 11-2 season. The numbers rose to 21.1 points per game in both 2013 and 2014 while the yards per game were 314 in 2013 and 330 in 2014. This year, there will be seven starters back with two on the line in Bryan Cox (29 tackles and 4 sacks) and Jonathan Bullard (52 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 6 tackles for loss) while highly rated freshman Cece JeffersonAntonio Morrison is the lone linebacker returning, but he is a good one after leading team in tackles with 101. The secondary is clearly the strength of the defense with all four starters back led by Vernon Hargreaves (50 tackles, 13 pass breakups, and 3 interceptions). Brian Poole (45 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions), Keanu Neal (45 tackles and 3 interceptions), and Marcus Maye (62 tackles) all return as well. The secondary should be one of the best, if not the top, secondaries in the nation. Overall, the defense should be stout again with that back four leading the way.

Florida faces New Mexico State, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, and Florida State as part of their non-conference schedule and all four of those games are at home. Within their division, Florida faces Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina on the road while playing both Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home. The Gators also face Georgia in their annual clash in Jacksonville. From the West, Florida will play Ole Miss (home) and LSU (road) in two tough games. The talent is there for the Gators to win the East, but a new coach and some losses on the offense leave some worries about actually getting it done.

5. South Carolina Gamecocks

It is hard to believe that Steve Spurrier will be entering his 11th year at South Carolina. He has led South Carolina to an overall record of 84-45 and has not had a losing season. However, the Gamecocks have not won the SEC Championship and have only played in the SEC Championship game once in 2010 when they were lit up 56-17. Still, South Carolina had three straight years of 11-2 records from 2011 through 2013 and Spurrier looks to get them back to those heights after a 7-6 record in 2014.

The offense put up 32.6 points and 443 yards per game, but will only return four starters from last seasons. The quartet of Connor Mitch, Perry Orth, Lorenzo Nunez, and Michael Scarnecchia will battle it out to replace Dylan Thompson (3,564 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). The top returning rusher is Brandon Wilds (570 yards and 4 touchdowns) and he will be joined by David Williams (256 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Shon Carson (141 yards with 2 touchdowns). Pharoh Cooper returns at wide receiver after leading the team in 2014 with 69 catches for 1,136 yards and 9 touchdowns. Tight end Jerell Adams is the second leading returning receiver with 21 catches for 279 yards and 1 touchdown. There are three starters back on the line as well. The lack of experience is a huge concern for the offense and the last time this few of starters returned, they only put up 20.6 points and 347 yards per game.

The defense is in better shape than the offense with eight starters returning including three on the offensive line. The duo of Gerald Dixon (42 tackles and 2 sacks) and Gerald Dixon Jr. (29 tackles) will be joined by Darius English (24 tackles) and junior college transfer Marquavius Lewis. The top three linebackers return in Skai Moore (93 tackles and 3 interceptions), TJ Gurley (80 tackles), and Jonathan Walton (61 tackles). The secondary is the concern here with two starters back in Chris Lammons (21 tackles) and Chris Moody (37 tackles). The defense allowed 30.4 points and 433 yards per game in 2014, but those numbers should improve in 2015 with more experience returning.

South Carolina opens the year with a game against North Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their three other non-conference games are against Central Florida, The Citadel, and Clemson with all of those games at home. They will face Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee on the road in three tough games while playing Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida at home. From the West, the Gamecocks have LSU (home) and Texas A&M on the road. If the offense can get its act together quickly and perform well above expectations, then South Carolina has a great chance at contending in the East.

6. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky has been a middle of the road SEC team at best for a long while. With Joker Phillips at the helm, the Wildcats went 6-7 in year one before falling off to 5-7 and 2-10 in his final two years. Mark Stoops was brought in and produced the same 2-10 record in his first year. 2014 was a step in the right direction with a 5-1 that included a brutal triple overtime loss to Florida, 36-30. They finished the year with six straight losses preventing them from making a bowl game.

Kentucky’s offense put up 29.2 points and 384 yards per game in 2014, a step up from the 20.5 points and 341 yards per game they produced in 2013. This year, seven starters are back led by quarterback Patrick Towles, who threw for 2,718 yards with 14 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The running game has Stanley Williams back after he ran for 486 yards and 5 touchdowns as the leading rusher, though that will need to go up in 2015. Jojo Kemp (323 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Mikel Horton (306 yards and 2 touchdowns) are also at running back. Ryan Timmons is back after leading the team with 45 receptions for 536 yards and 2 touchdowns. Also returning are Garrett Johnson (22 catches for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns), Dorian Baker (19 catches for 199 yards and 1 touchdown), and Blake Bone (14 catches for 194 yards with 2 touchdowns). The offensive line has four starters back and the offense should continue its upward trend in points and yards per game in 2015.

The defense has been consistently sub par in Stoops’ first two years. In 2013, the defense gave up 31.2 points and 427 yards per game and those numbers were nearly the same in 2014 when they allowed 31.3 points and 407 yards per game. In 2015, the number of starters returning is seven including four of the top six tacklers. On the line, Melvin Lewis is the lone returning starter after recording 37 tackles last year. The three linebackers all return in Ryan Flannigan (57 tackles), Khalid Henderson (53 tackles), and Josh Forrest (110 tackles and 7 tackles for loss). The secondary has three starters back led by Cody Quinn (35 tackles), Fred Tiller (46 tackles, 9 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions), and AJ Stamps (56 tackles and 4 interceptions). Year three of the Stoops era should produce the best defense yet.

Kentucky has a non-conference schedule that consists of Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Charlotte, and Louisville with all those at home. They will face South Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt on the road while taking on Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee at home. From the West, Kentucky will play Auburn (home) and Mississippi State (road). Kentucky is the wild card team in the East due to their ability to completely shake up the standings.

7. Vanderbilt Commodores

Vanderbilt was undoubtedly going in the right direction under James Franklin. He led them to three straight bowls between 2011 and 2013 while going 9-4 in his final two years. Unfortunately, Derek Mason was not able to produce the same results in his first year with Vanderbilt going backward to 3-9 including 0-8 in the SEC last year.

The offense for Vandy in 2014 was poor gaining only 288 yards per game and scoring just 17.2 points per contest. There will be in starters back from that group led by quarterback Johnny McCrary, who was the leading passer in 2014 with only 985 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Wade Freeback threw for 365 yards with 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions. At running back will be Ralph Webb, who was a bright spot as a freshman with 912 yards and 4 touchdowns. The top three receivers are back in Steven Scheu (39 catches for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns), CJ Duncan (28 catches for 441 yards with 4 touchdowns), and Latevius Rayford (36 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown). The offensive line has four starters back and the offense should produce better in 2015.

The defense has nine starters back from a group that allowed 33.3 points and 402 yards per game. There are two back on the line led by Caleb Azubike (39 tackles and 4 sacks) and Adam Butler (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 5 tackles for loss). The linebackers have three returning starters in Nigel Bowden (78 tackles), Stephen Weatherly (55 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 8 tackles for loss), and Darreon Herring (45 tackles). The secondary has all four starters back with Torren McGaster leading the way with 66 tackles and 2 interceptions. The defense should improve in 2015 with the experience and depth returning.

Vanderbilt will play Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and Houston with the first two at home and the second two on the road. In their division, Vandy will take on South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee on the road and play Georgia, Missouri, and Kentucky at home. From the West, they will play Ole Miss (road) and Texas A&M (home). Vanderbilt will be struggling for wins again in 2015, but they will be a tough out in some games this year.

Overview

The SEC East is wide open with Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina all having enough talent to win the division. Kentucky is a dangerous team that can spoil the hopes of any of the top five teams with an upset while Vanderbilt is still lagging behind. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Tennessee

2. Missouri

3. Georgia

4. Florida

5. South Carolina

6. Kentucky

7. Vanderbilt

Check back on Friday for the final preview of this series with the SEC West. We will also predict the winner of the SEC Championship.

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.