The 2016 College Football season is right around the corner and that means prediction time. Below are five predictions for Conference USA for the 2016 season. Some predictions will be right, some predictions will be wrong, and some will be spectacularly awful by the end of the season.
There are no changes to the teams in 2016 as all thirteen teams will be the same from 2015 with seven teams in East Division and six in the West Division. The seven East teams are Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, and WesternKentucky. The six West teams are Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Southern Mississippi, Rice, UTEP, and UT-San Antonio.
Here are five predictions for Conference USA in 2016:
1. Rice will win the West Division – This will be either a spectacular pick or “what was I thinking pick?”. Rice has a total of 16 starters returning (7 on offense and 9 on defense), but will have to break in a new quarterback. The defense gave up 35.8 and 447 yards per game in 2015, but that was with only three starters back and that number triples this year, which should provide a vast improvement.
Rice will have to navigate a tough conference schedule of Western Kentucky (on the road in week one), at Southern Miss, and at Louisiana Tech. Each team in the West has questions surrounding them going into 2016 and Rice has a solid chance of taking the division this season.
2. Old Dominion will make a bowl game – Should this prediction come true, it would be the first bowl in school history for Old Dominion. ODU played in the FCS between 2009 and 2013 while taking the step up to the FBS and C-USA in 2014. They went 6-6 in 2014 (were not bowl eligible) and then 5-7 last year. Last year’s team lost a lot of experience and had 7 starters back on offense with 5 on defense while the quarterback position lost both experience and time due to injury.
2016 should produce better numbers on both sides staring with offense. 9 are back on that side including the both quarterbacks, the top three running backs, and the top five receivers. They had 24.3 points and 371 yards per game in 2015 while those numbers should go up. The defense gave up 35.8 points and 437 yards per game, but will return 8 starters from last year while those numbers should go down.
The schedule will be tricky with non conference games against Appalachian State and North Carolina State with those two both away from home. In conference, they have to deal with Western Kentucky (away), Marshall (home), Southern Miss (home), and Florida Atlantic (away). They can certainly reach six wins with games against Hampton, UTSA, Charlotte, UMass, UTEP, Florida International and a possible upset against the previously mentioned teams will go a long way to securing their first bowl bid.
3. Charlotte’s offense will top 25 points per game in 2016 – Charlotte is entering their fourth season of football with the first two played against weaker teams (FCS, DII, and DIII). 2015 was their first full season against the FBS and they had a rough time. They went 2-10, scored only 17.5 points per game, and gave up 36.3 points per game. This year, the 49ers return a total of 16 starters with nine on offense and seven on defense.
The offense will add in the very talented quarterback Kevin Olsen from Miami (FL) and Robert Washington (originally committed to Syracuse) at running back while also returning the top four receivers from 2015. Speedy receiver Austin Duke led the team with 53 catches for 534 yards and 5 touchdowns. There are few reasons for this offensive unit to not hit 25 points per game in 2016 with the combination of talent and experience.
4. North Texas will finish with double digit losses – The North Texas program went south in a hurry. After going a school record 9-4 in 2013, the Mean Green fell to 4-8 in 2014 and even further in 2015 to 1-11. Dan McCarney was fired after Portland State laid a 66-7 beat down on North Texas in Denton. The offense sputtered averaging only 15.2 points and 320 yards per game while the defense was shredded giving up 41.3 points and 503 yards per game.
The schedule is not kind to North Texas in 2016. They face SMU, Bethune-Cookman, Florida (away), and Army (away). It is not hard to envision a 1-3 non-conference finish for the Mean Green. In conference, their one winnable game in conference on paper looks to be Texas-San Antonio, but that game is away and UTSA should win it. I could be another 1-11 year or 2-10 if North Texas can pull an upset.
5. Middle Tennessee will finish no worse than 2nd in the East – The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee have a very good offense coming back in 2016. Brent Stockstill (pictured above and also the coach’s son) returns after throwing for 4,005 yards (66.7%) with 30 touchdowns and 9 interceptions as a freshman. Also returning are the two of the top three receivers for Stockstill. Richie James (108 catches for 1,346 yards and 8 touchdowns) and Terry Pettis (29 catches for 612 yards and 4 touchdowns) are those two receivers while three offensive linemen return. Coming into the mix is I’Tavius Mathers from Ole Miss at running back. For a unit that put up 34 points and 457 yards per contest in 2015, there should be no issues reaching those numbers again barring injuries.
The trouble will be on defense and the schedule. Defensively, MTSU returns five starters from the 2015 unit that allowed 26.6 points and 406 yards per game. With some high powered offenses that are in C-USA, that side of the ball will have to perform better. The schedule is not easy for MTSU as they face Western Kentucky (home), Marshall (away), and the potentially dangerous regular season finale against Florida Atlantic (home). Their benefit is they pulled North Texas and UT-San Antonio from the West, which should be two wins for the Blue Raiders. Going 2-1 against the three tough East teams should see MTSU finish second (or better if they go 3-0) in the East.
The Prediction Schedule
With the C-USA predictions above, there are now predictions for three conferences in the books. Below are the predictions completed and which conference is next.
The Big Ten had a full week of non-conference games before starting its conference schedule next week. It was a positive Saturday overall with the conference going 12-2, but, as always, there is room for improvement. Each game is broken down below.
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles at Nebraska Cornhuskers
Result: Nebraska Win 36-28 (Saturday, September 26)
Nebraska improved to 2-2 on the season, but it was another poor performance from the defense that should cause concern in Lincoln. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong went 23 of 35 for 368 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. He was also effective in the running game with 63 yards and a touchdown on 7 carries.
Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp had another big game with 11 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. Brandon Reilly had a few big plays, as he caught 3 passes for 112 yards. Terrell Newby had 76 yards on 18 carries to lead the Huskers in rushing. Andy Janovich was quietly effective with just five carries, but went for a total of 68 yards.
While the offense was good by racking up 610 yards, it was not very effective when it needed to be. Kicker Drew Brown attempted 7 field goals and connected on five. An 8 point win could have been a lot more comfortable had they converted two or three of those field goals into touchdowns. The offense went 4 of 13 on third down.
The defense largely held the Southern Miss running game in check with only 11 yards allowed, but gave up 447 yards through the air. Most worrisome is that the defense gave up three touchdown drives of at least 53 yards and 21 points. It has been a constant them for the Huskers that their defense is giving up quite a few points in the fourth quarter and we have already seen it cost them one game on the final play.
Nebraska faces Illinois next week on the road in their conference opener.
Kansas Jayhawks at Rutgers Scarlet Knight
Result: Rutgers Win 27-14 (Saturday, September 26)
Rutgers took care of business against Kansas, one of the weakest (if not the weakest) teams in all of FBS. That makes it hard to judge the performance, but a win is a win.
Chris Laviano had a decent game going 18 of 25 for 201 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. The rushing game was very good for the Scarlet Knights as they rushed for 312 yards and 2 touchdowns on 58 carries as a team. Josh Hicks led the way with 113 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21 carries while Robert Martin also broke the century mark at 102 yards on 17 carries. Overall, the offense was very effective with 513 yards, but converted on 8 of 12 third downs as well.
Defensively, it is hard to gauge this effort. They held Kansas to 342 yards of total offense including 64 yards on the ground. They forced just one turnover, but did not have a lot of trouble overall. Perhaps this will give them some confidence as they continue on in the Big Ten conference schedule.
The Scarlet Knights are off next week. Rutgers will have a stern test at home in two weeks against Michigan State.
#22 BYU Cougars at Michigan Wolverines
Result: Michigan Win 31-0 (Saturday, September 26)
Michigan looked incredible on Saturday against BYU, a team that had impressed the first three weeks. The defense was particularly impressive for the Wolverines.
Jake Rudock had a solid game with 14 of 25 passing for 194 yards and a touchdown. There were no interceptions or fumbles from him and he accounted for another two touchdowns on the ground (10 carries for 33 yards). De’Veon Smith had 125 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries while his bruising 60 yard touchdown run was the highlight of the game. Smith did leave the game in the second half and did not return, but he is expected to be fine for next week’s game.
Amara Darboh had 4 catches for 57 yards and a touchdown including a wonderful one handed catch in the first half. Nine different players caught a pass for Michigan in a very equal passing game by Rudock.
The real story for Michigan was the defense. They allowed 105 total yards of offense to BYU with 55 through the air and 50 on the ground. BYU went 4 of 15 on third down and had just 8 first downs the entire game. The Wolverines did not allow them to get into a rhythm and this is what we expect from a JimHarbaugh coached defense.
Michigan travels on the road next week to face Maryland.
Central Michigan Chippewas at #2 Michigan State Spartans
Result: Michigan State Win 30-10 (Saturday, September 26)
Michigan State looked far from the #2 team in the nation on Saturday against Central Michigan, but they got the job done.
Connor Cook went 11 of 19 for 143 yards and a touchdown, but the offense did not always look great. Madre London ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries while Gerald Holmes rushed for 22 yards and 2 touchdowns (both coming in the fourth quarter) on 4 carries.
The defense also had its issues against the Central Michigan offense. Cooper Rush threw for 285 yards and a touchdown on 26 of 39 passing. The trio of Jesse Kroll, Anthony Rice, and Corey Willis all had at least 5 catches and 57 yards.
Shilique Calhoun was disruptive for the Spartans on defense and also blocked a field goal. That was one of two blocked field goals by the Spartans. More worrisome for Michigan State is the possible losses of JackConklin, RJ Williamson, and Josiah Price.
Michigan State takes on Purdue next week at home in their Big Ten opener.
Bowling Green Falcons at Purdue Boilermakers
Result: Bowling Green Win 35-28 (Saturday, September 26)
Purdue slumped to 1-3 this year thanks to a loss to MAC opponent Bowling Green. It was not the worst loss for Purdue, as there was a good sign of improvement at quarterback.
David Blough was named the starter for this game and he did well. He went 29 of 39 for 340 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for a touchdown, but the Boilermakers were not good rushing with just 77 yards on 38 carries as a team.
The defense was all or nothing in the first half. Bowling Green scored a touchdown, then lost a fumble, scored a second touchdown, was intercepted, and ended the first half with a third touchdown. Purdue was able to turn one of the turnovers into a touchdown, but missed a field goal on the other.
The defense was better overall in the second half, but still could not do enough to hang on for the win. They allowed 539 yards of offense and also allowed Bowling Green to convert 11 of 16 third downs.
It will be a tall task next week for Purdue with a road trip to Michigan State.
Indiana Hoosiers at Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Result: Indiana Win 31-24 (Saturday, September 26)
Indiana got a road win to open the season 4-0 and sit just two games away from bowl eligibility. The defense was improved, but there is still plenty of concern on that side of the ball.
Nate Sudfeld had pedestrian numbers considering his normal output. He went 19 of 34 for 205 yards with 2 touchdowns. Jordan Howard had another big rushing game with 168 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. The offense converted 7 of 17 third down opportunities.
The defense played well early on for Indiana. The first three drives for Wake Forest yielded just one yard. The Hoosiers did allow 10 points in the second quarter, but held a 17-10 lead at the break. The defense played well again after halftime. A 20 yard pick six early in the fourth quarter by Kendall Hinton put the Hoosiers up 31-10. The concern is that Wake Forest scored two touchdowns on the next two drives. They did hold the Demon Deacons to 363 yards of offense including 99 on the ground and 4 of 18 on third down.
Indiana goes from facing Wake Forest on the road to Ohio State at home next weekend.
Maryland Terrapins at West Virginia Mountaineers
Result: West Virginia Win 45-6 (Saturday, September 26)
The worst Big Ten performance of the week belongs to Maryland. It was terrible performance, particularly from the quarterbacks.
Caleb Rowe went 10 of 27 for only 67 yards, no touchdowns, and 4 interceptions (!). Daxx Garman came in and threw for 86 yards with one touchdown and one pick. Brandon Ross did well to pick up 130 yards on 15 carries, but he was the lone bright spot in a dismal offense.
The defense struggled to put up any resistance to the West Virginia offense. The Mountaineers put up 601 yards of offense and it was nearly even with 297 through the air and 304 on the ground.
Maryland may find themselves struggling to get offense going again next week. They face Michigan at home, a team that has been solid on the defensive side of the ball.
North Texas Mean Green at Iowa Hawkeyes
Result: Iowa Win 62-16 (Saturday, September 26)
Iowa completely crushed North Texas to finish their non-conference schedule 4-0. It was a complete domination by both sides of the ball for Iowa.
C.J. Beathard was deadly accurate and efficient. He went 18 of 21 for 278 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Jordan Canzeri had a field day running the ball as well. He had four rushing touchdowns to go along with 115 yards on 22 carries. Tevaun Smith had 4 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.
The defense had only two turnovers, but both were interceptions returned for touchdowns. First, it was Josey Jewell for a 34 yard pick-six late in the third quarter. The second one came late in the game with BoBower taking a pick 88 yards to the house.
Big Ten play begins next week with one of the toughest games on their schedule. Iowa travels to play Wisconsin in Madison with the winner having an early inside track on the Big Ten West.
Ohio Bobcats at Minnesota Golden Gophers
Result: Minnesota Win 27-24 (Saturday, September 26)
For the second week in a row, Minnesota escaped at home against a MAC foe. This week, at least there was more scoring.
Mitch Leidner had a solid day going 22 of 32 for 264 yards with no touchdown or interceptions. He also ran for 22 yards and a touchdown on 8 carries. Rodney Smith had a solid day as well with 94 yards on 16 carries, but Shannon Brooks emerged with 10 carries for 82 yards and 2 touchdowns including the game winner late. The offense looked much better this week and they put up 468 yards of offense and had only one turnover.
In an odd twist, the defense did not play as well as we have seen. They certain were not terrible, but it was not as stout as they were in the first three games. They allowed 8 of 16 on third down conversions and also gave up 345 yards of offense. They allowed 10 points in the fourth quarter that made it way too uncomfortable for the Gopher faithful.
Another worry, at least late, was the special teams. A muffed punt by Cody Grilliot was recovered by Ohio and led to a touchdown. They also gave up a massive kick return with less than 30 seconds remaining to Ohio after they just took the lead.
Minnesota finished their non-conference slate at 3-1 and they will have a defensive battle next week against Northwestern on the road.
Western Michigan Broncos at #1 Ohio State Buckeyes
Result: Ohio State Win 38-12 (Saturday, September 26)
Ohio State may have decided on a quarterback, but it still does not look like the Buckeyes we saw in 2014.
Cardale Jones went 19 of 33 for 288 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. His second half left a lot to be desired as he completed only 6 of 14 passes. Ezekiel Elliott, unsurprisingly, was good with 124 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Curtis Samuel had 2 carries for 55 yards including a 40 yard run for a touchdown just before the midway point of the fourth quarter. The offense still managed to put up 511 yards with 288 passing and 223 on the ground. They did go 8 of 13 on third downs, which is a big improvement over the 2 of 13 they managed against Northern Illinois last week.
The defense was very good for Ohio State. They did not allow Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell to get into a rhythm. He finished 18 of 33 for 169 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception. That interception was returned 20 yards for a touchdown by Adolphus Washington. The Buckeyes did allow Daniel Braverman to catch 10 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, but they clamped down in the second half.
Ohio State begins the defense of their Big Ten title next week on the road at Indiana.
San Diego State Aztecs at Penn State Nittany Lions
Result: Penn State Win 37-21 (Saturday, September 26)
Penn State relied on their running backs last week to get the offense going, but it was Christian Hackenberg that woke up the dormant offense this week. Hackenberg threw for 296 yards and 3 touchdowns on 21 of 35 passing.
Saeed Blackwell led the Nittany Lions with 4 catches for 101 yards while Chris Godwin had 5 receptions for 78 yards with a touchdown. The running game was dealt not one, but two blows, thanks to injuries. Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch both left leaving Nick Scott and Mark Allen to try and pick up the slack. Allen ran for 5 yards on 5 carries, but did catch 2 passes for 29 yards and a touchdown. Scott had 6 carries for 9 yards. Those numbers will surely need to improve or Hackenberg will be primary target number one if Barkley and Lynch miss any time.
The defense was decent, but the highlight went to Austin Johnson. The defensive tackle ran (rumbled?) 71 yards for a fumble return touchdown that put Penn State up 34-21 early in the fourth quarter. The defense did only allow 242 yards of offense to SDSU including a poor 10 of 29 for 141 yards throwing.
The special teams is still a question mark after week four’s performance. They gave up a 100 yard kick return, fumbled a punt return that led to a touchdown, and also missed a field goal.
Unlike much of the Big Ten, they have not completed their non-conference schedule. Army visits next week in an early kickoff.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders at Illinois Fighting Illini
Result: Illinois Win 27-25 (Saturday, September 26)
Illinois bounced back from last week’s thrashing at North Carolina, but it was not easy by any means. They needed a last minute field goal from Taylor Zalewski and also needed a missed field goal from Middle Tennessee with seconds remaining to pull out the win.
Wes Lunt went 29 of 49 for 238 yards with 1 touchdown and no interceptions. The large amount of incompletions are a bit worrisome, especially after he went 15 of 32 against North Carolina a week ago. Josh Ferguson ran for 83 yards on 20 carries while Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 80 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Geronimo Allison easily led the team in receiving with 10 catches for 128 yards. Desmond Cain was also involved in the passing game with 7 catches for 48 yards. Coming into the game, Cain had 8 catches for 53 yards on the year.
The defense gave up only 38 yards rushing to Middle Tennessee thanks largely to -30 yards rushing by the Middle Tennessee quarterback on sacks. They allowed 330 yards through the air as well as 3 touchdowns. The defense allowed 13 fourth quarter points as the Blue Raiders moved down the field with ease.
The special teams unit was good overall. There was a missed field goal, but a blocked punt subsequently allowed Illinois to build a 14-3 in the second quarter. Clayton Fejedelem fell on the ball in the end zone for the score.
Illinois enters Big Ten play 3-1 and they immediately get Nebraska next week at home. It is a potentially big game, as Illinois needs three wins to make bowl eligibility.
Ball State Cardinals at #17 Northwestern Wildcats
Result: Northwestern Win 24-19 (Saturday, September 26)
Northwestern was able to hang on against Ball State in a deceivingly good second half from the offense. The first half left a lot to be desired from the Wildcats, especially at the quarterback position.
Clayton Thorson looked like a freshman during the first half. He lost a fumble after a nice run, which led to a field goal for Ball State. He also threw an interception (led to a missed field goal), but his fumble late in the first half allowed Ball State to score a touchdown and take a 10-7 lead at halftime.
The second half was like a whole new ball game for the Wildcats on offense. Their first three drives resulted in 17 points and a 24-10 lead. Thorson finished the game going 18 of 31 for 256 yards with 3 touchdowns and the interception. He also ran for 45 yards on 9 carries. Justin Jackson had a big game rushing the ball with 184 yards on 33 carries. Dan Vitale easily had his best game of the year with 5 catches for 108 yards and 2 touchdowns. His emergence really helped Thorson in the final 30 minutes.
The defense played solidly and it is worth noting that they kept the game close while the offense struggled in the first half. They recovered a fumble deep in their own territory and forced a total of four field goals from Ball State. Ball State missed two field goals, which would have been the difference.
Northwestern is likely to have a defensive battle next week at home in their Big Ten opener against Minnesota.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at #22 Wisconsin Badgers
Result: Wisconsin Win 28-0 (Saturday, September 26)
Taiwan Deal rushed for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns on 26 carries while Dare Ogunbowale had 15 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers rushed for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns as a team on 54 carries. Most importantly, the offense looked to have gotten their running game back, if only for this week. The offense nearly held a 2-1 advantage in time of possession, another good sign.
Joel Stave was not overly impressive, but he was smart with the ball and did not force unnecessary throws. He went 14 of 23 for 164 yards and a touchdown. In no surprise, Alex Erickson was his top target with 9 catches for 87 yards. Austin Traylor had 2 catches for 23 yards and a touchdown and is quietly becoming a big red zone target for Stave.
The defense did not make any big plays, but they did not allow any type of rhythm for the Hawaii offense. Hawaii’s longest drive was 60 yards, but the defense held firm on fourth and three at the Wisconsin 33. Another drive got as close to the Wisconsin 1 yard line, but a series of penalties by Hawaii resulted in a missed 49 yard field goal. In the last three games, Wisconsin has allowed a total of 3 points and has two shutouts.
Wisconsin faces Iowa at home in their Big Ten opener next week.
Check back next Sunday for a look at the Week 5 Big Ten Roundup. There will be plenty of Big Ten Conference action that is dissected.
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.
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 KennethDixon 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 JameillShowers. 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 JowanDavis. 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. AntoineJimmerson and JeffreyWilson 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 BennettOkotcha 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.
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
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.