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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.