Tag Archives: College Football Preview

2015 College Football Preview: FBS Independents

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

2015 College Football Preview: FBS Independents

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

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

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

1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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

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

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

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

2. BYU Cougars

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

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

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

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

3. Army West Point Black Knights

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

1. Notre Dame

2. BYU

3. Army

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

2015 College Football Preview: AAC West

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

2015 College Football Preview: AAC West

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

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

Sun Belt – July 28

FBS Independents – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

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

1. Navy Midshipmen

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

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

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

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

2. Houston Cougars

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

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

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

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

3. Memphis Tigers

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

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

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

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

4. Tulane Green Wave

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

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

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

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

5. Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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

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

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

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

6. SMU Mustangs

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

1. Navy

2. Houston

3. Memphis

4. Tulane

5. Tulsa

6. SMU

AAC Championship Game

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

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

2015 College Football Preview: 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.

2015 College Football Preview: MWC West

Donnel Pumphrey is poised to have another monster year in 2015. Will it be enough to lead San Diego State to the Mountain West Title Game? (Lance King/Getty Images North America)
Donnel Pumphrey is poised to have another monster year in 2015. Will it be enough to lead San Diego State to the Mountain West Title Game? (Lance King/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: MWC West

Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview is up to part four and the Mountain West Conference’s West Division. The MWC’s Mountain Preview can be found here while the entire schedule for each conference or division preview is below.

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 a look at the Mountain West Conference’s West Division and conference championship prediction.

1. San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State will be in their 5th year under head coach Rocky Long and he has been ultra consistent making a bowl game in each of his first four seasons. Year 5 will have added pressure as they will be one of the favorites to make the Mountain West Championship Game.

The offense will be led by Donnel Pumphrey at the running back position. All he did was run for 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2014 with a 6.8 yards per carry average. Even his backup, Chase Price, ran for 674 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those two will be important as the Aztecs are breaking in a new quarterback in Maxwell Smith, who has transferred in from Kentucky. He should be able to be on par with last year’s starter Quinn Kaehler. Kaehler threw for 2,157 yards with 9 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and 55% completions. Smith will also have two of the top three receivers from 2014 as well as 3 starters from the offensive line returning. The offense should be just fine in 2015.

The strength of the San Diego State team in 2014 was the defense. They gave up only 19.8 points and 332 yards per game while bringing back only 4 starters. In 2015, the number of returning starters is eight including six of the top 7 tacklers. The losses are all in the front seven with one on the defensive line and two at linebacker. The secondary will be the focal point for the Aztecs defensively. They gave up only 179 passing yards per game and allowed only 55.8% on completions. All four starters return, which means opposing quarterbacks better watch out.

San Diego State opens the season against fellow city university San Diego before an in-state road trip to California and another home game against South Alabama. The wrap up their non-conference schedule at Penn State before another home game against Fresno State. The Aztecs have a fairly easy Mountain West schedule by not having to face Air Force or Boise State and get Utah State at home as well. Things are looking very good for San Diego State in 2015.

2. San José State Spartans

It is probably a bit surprising to see San José State here in the second spot of the West Division after a 3-9 season in 2014, but there are plenty of positives including 16 starters returning.

On offense, the Spartans return 10 starters with their lone loss at the center position. Joe Gray returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,305 yards with 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. His most impressive stat from 2014 is the fact he completed 63.6% of his passes. He will also have his top three receivers from 2014 back including Tyler Winston. Winston caught 78 passes for 694 yards and 5 touchdowns. Newcomer Kanya Bell is a prized recruit who is likely to see a big role in 2015. Tyler Ervin will be the starter at running back after 888 yards and 4 touchdowns with four of his offensive linemen back to pave the way. After averaging only 19.3 points and 395 yards per game in 2014, the offense should do far better this year.

San José State has 6 starters returning on defense including linebacker Christian Tago, who tied for the team lead in tackles with 96. He also recorded 5.5 tackles for loss. Both the defensive line and linebacking units lose two starters, but considering the fact they gave up an average of 259 rushing yards per game in 2014, it may not be the worst thing. The secondary only allowed 118 yards passing per game in 2014 and they return three starters as well as adding in a solid freshman (Tae’on Mason). The defense should be solid again in 2015.

San José State has a tough start to the season after an opening game against New Hampshire. They have back-to-back road games against Air Force and Oregon State before a home game against Fresno State. They draw New Mexico and Boise State from the Mountain Division in addition to Air Force. San José State could surprise many and they are right in the thick of the race for second in Mountain West Conference’s West Division.

3. Fresno State Bulldogs

Fresno State has made the first two Mountain West Championship Games in 2013 and 2014, winning the first and losing the second. However, 2014 was a sub-standard season with a 6-8 record including losses in the MWC Title Game and bowl game.

In 2015, the offense will have some work to do with the top quarterback and wide receiver departing. Marteze Waller will have a heavier burden, but that should not be too much of an issue. Waller ran for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2014. The quarterback battle will be down to freshman Chason Virgil and sophomore Zack Greenlee. Greenlee started against Wyoming, but had a very poor outing going 7 of 16 for 55 yards. Gone at wide receiver is Josh Harper (90 catches, 1,097 yards, and 7 touchdowns) while Aaron Peck will step in to fill his shoes. Peck caught 32 passes for 419 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2014. There will be some growing pains for Fresno State on offense, but should be able to reach their 2014 numbers of 28.5 points and 406 yards per game.

The defense will have 5 starters back in 2015 from a defense that gave up 32.4 points and 456 yards per game a year ago. The defensive line has only 1 starter back in Todd Hunt, who recorded 54 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. There are two starters back at linebacker and in the secondary. The pass defense was poor in 2014 with 254 yards passing a game given up as well as 60.4% on completions. Like offense, there will be some growing pains.

Fresno State has an easy game against Abilene Christian to start the season before back-to-back toughies at Ole Miss and home to Utah. In conference, they have early road tests against San José State and San Diego State in back-to-back games before a home game against Utah State. They draw Air Force and Colorado State out of the Mountain Division as well. Fresno State could finish as high as second or as low as fourth in this division, but should be able to reach bowl eligibility.

4. Nevada Wolf Pack

Nevada enters 2015 with Brian Polian in his third season at the helm. Polian led Nevada to a 4-8 record in 2013 before a 7-6 record and a bowl game in 2014.

2015 will bring back six starters on offense for the Wolf Pack, but one of them is not at quarterback. Cody Fajardo is gone after throwing for 2,498 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions as well as running for 1,046 yards and 13 touchdowns. Replacing Fajardo will be redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick. He will have four of the top five receivers as well as the second and third leading rushers from 2014. Don Jackson ran for 957 yards and 7 touchdowns while James Butler contributed 635 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns. There are only two starters returning on offense and the losses give some worry about their performance, at least in the early part of the season.

On defense, there will be 5 starters returning from a unit that allowed 27.2 points and 447 yards per game in 2014. That unit also had 10 starters returning. Both the defensive line and secondary were hit hard by losses with two losses on the line and three in the secondary. The linebacker unit will be the strength with the #2 and #3 tacklers from 2014 comprising this group. Those two are Jordan Dobrich, who started only 6 games in 2014, but still managed to record 85 tackles. The other is Matthew Lyons who finished with 80 tackles. This defense will probably take a step back in 2015.

Nevada will open the season with back-to-back home games against UC Davis and Arizona before road trips to Texas A&M and Buffalo. In conference play, Nevada draws New Mexico (home), Wyoming (road), and Utah State (road) from the Mountain Division, but have a brutal four game stretch to finish the season. Those four games are Fresno State (road), San José State (home), Utah State (road), and San Diego State (road). Nevada could finish second or third if they do well in the final stretch and should also make a bowl game in 2015.

5. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Hawaii has hit hard times after their spectacular 12-1 season in 2007. Norm Chow has gone 3-9, 1-11, and 4-9 in his first three seasons and another losing record in 2015 could see the end of his time in Honolulu.

2015 should produce Hawaii’s best offense under Chow. They return 8 starters from 2014 including their quarterback, but he is likely to be usurped by new arrival Max Wittek, who was previously at USC. Also returning is the top rusher from a year ago in Steven Lakalaka, though he only ran for 646 yards and 2 touchdowns. Wittek will have he top two receivers from 2014 as well with Marcus Kemp (56 catches for 797 yards and 3 touchdowns) and Quinton Pedroza (59 catches for 674 yards and 3 touchdowns). The highest production under Chow was in 2013 when Hawaii put up 27.4 points and 416 yards per game. 2015 should produce those numbers again, if not higher.

On defense, the Warriors will have 6 starters back including their #2, #3, and #4 leading tacklers from 2014. Two starters have to be replaced on the defensive line and at linebacker. Kennedy Tulimasealii will anchor the line after recording 40 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 7 tackles for loss. Simon Poti will be one of the top men at linebacker after putting up 64 tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 tackle for loss. The secondary will return three starters and a former starter in Marrell Jackson at safety, who started 15 games in his first two seasons. The defense should put up similar numbers as it did in 2014 (26.8 points and 418 yards per game).

Hawaii does not have an easy non-conference schedule. They open with a home game against Colorado, travel to face Ohio State, come back home to face FCS UC Davis, and then travel to Wisconsin to close out September. Hawaii will also face Louisiana-Monroe on the final weekend in November to end the regular season. In conference, the Warriors draw Boise State (road), New Mexico (road), and Air Force (home) out of the Mountain Division. They do get San Diego State, Fresno State, and San José State at home, but it looks like another losing season for Hawaii.

6. UNLV Rebels

Bobby Hauck was given 5 years to turnaround UNLV and it looked like he would after a 7-6 season in 2013. However, the 2014 season produced a 2-11 record with both the offense and defense getting worse. Now, former high school head coach Tony Sanchez is the head coach and he has his work cut out.

The offense returns five starters from a unit that produced 21.9 points and 387 yards per game. They will be learning a new system, but do return quarterback Blake Decker. Decker threw for 2,886 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions while completing 57.6% of his passes. He also ran for 365 yards and 5 touchdowns as the third leading rusher in 2014. The running game was by committee and the leading rusher from last year is gone while the #2 rusher, Keith Whitely, is back after running for 504 yards and 2 touchdowns. The top receiver in Devonte Boyd is back as well after he put up 65 catches for 980 yards and 4 touchdowns. Things are not looking too bad for UNLV, but 2015 might be a learning experience with the new offense being put in place.

The defense also returns five starters as well as five of their top six tacklers from 2014. The defensive line was decimated by departures with only one starter returning, but that group gave up an average of 294 yards rushing per game last year. All three linebackers return including 2014’s leading tackler Tau Lotulelei. He had 99 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss. The secondary was also hit hard with three starters lost. The lone returning starter is Peni Vea who had 88 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 interceptions last year. The defense could be in for a long season with the losses they have sustained.

The non-conference schedule will be tough for a new head coach. The Rebels open with a road trip to Northern Illinois, a home game against UCLA, another road trip to the Big House to face Michigan, and finish September with a home game against FCS Idaho State. The Rebels will be lucky to get a win from Mountain West play and could finish with double digit losses for the fifth time in six seasons.

Overview

The 2015 Mountain West Conference’s West Division looks to be pointing to San Diego State as the winner. However, if they stumble or have a lot of bad luck, then it will be between San José State, Fresno State, and Nevada to win. Hawaii is a cut below the top four while UNLV will be back in the basement for 2015. Below is predicted order of finish for the West Division.

1. San Diego State

2. San Jose State

3. Fresno State

4. Nevada

5. Hawaii

6. UNLV

2015 Mountain West Championship

Part three of the 2015 College Football Preview looked at the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division and took Boise State to win. With San Diego State predicted as the West Division winner, that means it will be between Boise State and San Diego State for the conference championship. Boise State looks like the superior team and they are predicted to win the 2015 Mountain West Conference Championship Game.

Check back on Tuesday, July 14 for an in-depth look at Conference USA’s East Division Preview.

2015 College Football Preview: MWC Mountain

Boise State looks to continue their dominance in the Mountain West during the 2015 season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)
Boise State looks to continue their dominance in the Mountain West during the 2015 season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: MWC Mountain

Part 3 of the 2015 College Football Preview dives into the Mountain West. Specifically, the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference will be previewed. Below is a look at the entire 2015 College Football Preview schedule:

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

Now, let’s take a look at the Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division preview.

1. Boise State Broncos

The first year for head coach Bryan Harsin was a major success for Boise State, as the Broncos went 12-2 and won the Mountain West’s inaugural Championship Game. Year 2 under Harsin will them poised to continue the success.

The offense will have 9 starters back from last year’s unit that put 39.7 points and 494 yards per game. The losses are at key positions, however. Quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi are both gone. Ajayi’s departure is offset by the addition of Kelsey Young as a transfer from Stanford. Quarterback will likely be played by Ryan Finley who saw action in five games in 2014. He will have his entire offensive line returning and some top targets in Thomas Sperbeck (51 catches for 877 yards and 3 touchdowns), Shane Williams-Rhodes (68 catches for 585 yards and 7 touchdowns, and tight end Jake Roh (35 catches for 408 yards and 2 touchdowns). The offense may not put up as many points, but it will still put up more than enough to outscore most opponents.

Boise State sees 8 starters return on defense including the top 5 tacklers from a season ago. The losses are spaced out evenly with one at each level. Middle linebacker Tanner Vallejo will be leading the defense again after recording 100 tackles, 3 sacks, and 13.5 tackles for loss. On the defensive line, Kamalei Correa looks to have another double digit sack season after recording 12 sacks in 2014. The defense gave up 26.8 points and 375 yards per game in 2014 and similar numbers, or better, can be expected.

Boise State starts the season with a match up against former head coach Chris Petersen and the Washington Huskies at home. They then have a road trip to BYU, are home against Idaho State, and travel again to face Virginia. Their Mountain West schedule sets them up nicely for a shot at an undefeated conference season. Their toughest games will be at Utah State and home to Air Force, but they draw Hawaii, UNLV, and San José State from the West. Those are three teams the Broncos should crush. The Broncos should have a relatively easy time winning their division and reaching another MWC Title Game.

2. Air Force Falcons

2014 was a major turnaround season for Air Force. In 2013, the Falcons went 2-10 with their only triumphs being against FCS Colgate and Army. In 2014, they went 10-3 with their three losses all coming in Mountain West play (Wyoming, Utah State, and San Diego State).

In 2015, Air Force has 7 starters returning on offense led by running back Jacobi Owens and wide receiver Jalen Robinette. Owens led the Falcons with 1,054 yards and 5 touchdowns rushing while Robinette had 43 catches for 806 yards and 4 touchdowns. The offensive line has to replace three starters, but as usual, it will be upperclassmen filling the vacancies. At quarterback, Nate Romine is expected to return to start. He started 5 games in 2013 and one game in 2014. The offense averaged 31.5 points per game a year ago and could come close to that in 2015.

The major area of concern for Air Force is on defense where only 4 starters return. The last time they had this few starters return was in 2012 with 2 and gave up an average of 29 points per game. Alex Hansen will anchor the defensive line after garnering 2nd Team All-Mountain West honors in 2014 with 56 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss. Connor Healy will be the star linebacker after finishing second in tackles in 2014 with 90. Weston Steelhammer is back at strong safety after he made the 1st Team All-Mountain West in 2014. He had 51 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and 6 interceptions. This unit lost a lot in the way of experience and will probably suffer a bit.

Air Force stars off with a game against FCS Morgan State before starting conference play at home against San José State. Next up is a road trip to Michigan State before a bye and another road trip to Navy. The reason they are put second on this list is due to the Mountain West schedule. They will have to face Fresno State at home, but get a road trip to Hawaii and have the aforementioned game against San José State. That is not the toughest West draw and with a win against Utah State on November 14 at home, the Falcons could be sitting behind Boise State when all is said and done.

3. Utah State Aggies

2014 produced a surprisingly good year for Utah State despite a few negatives. They entered 2014 with only 7 returning starters and lost star quarterback Chuckie Keeton after 3 starts, but were able to finish 10-4. 2015 looks even better for the Aggies.

On offense, the Aggies return 9 starters including Chuckie Keeton. Keeton was given a 6th year of eligibility after being injured last season. He will have running back LaJuan Hunt back as well after he ran for 540 yards and a touchdown. Keeton will also have the top two receivers from last year (Hunter Sharp and JoJo Natson) as well as four starters back on the line. After averaging 26.9 points and 379 yards a game in 2014, the Aggies should have better output in 2015.

As previously mentioned, 2014 was a big year for Utah State and the defense was a massive part of the reason. Despite only having 4 starters back, the unit gave up 19.7 points and 356 yards per game. In 2015, they will have 6 starters returning. The strength of the defense will be at linebacker with three of the four starters returning including Nick Vigil, who recorded 134 tackles, 7 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, and an interception a season ago. The defensive line has to replace two starters as does the secondary. The defensive line should do well while the pass defense may have some struggles this season.

Utah State has a rough out of conference schedule after their opener against Southern Utah. They face back-to-back Pac-12 foes on the road in Utah and Washington. Their last non-conference game is against BYU at home in the regular season finale. During Mountain West play they will have a rough time as well. They get Boise State at home and travel to Air Force, but the teams from the West Division is what really hurts. They face three of the top teams in Fresno State (road), San Diego State (road), and Nevada (home). Utah State will make another bowl game in 2015 and they could surprise with a winning record against the 5 aforementioned Mountain West foes.

4. Wyoming Cowboys

Craig Bohl‘s first season in the FBS in 2014 was not kind as Wyoming finished 4-8 with the offense averaging only 21.1 points per game and the defense surrendering 32.8 points per game. 2015 may a bit better for Wyoming despite only 9 starters returning.

The Cowboys will have 5 starters back on offense and one of them is not at quarterback. However, that may not be a problem as they have Cameron Coffman who transferred from Indiana. Coffman threw for 2,734 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 2012. The top two running backs also return in Brian Hill (796 yards and 7 touchdowns) and Shaun Wick (753 yards and 6 touchdowns). Wyoming does lose their top two receivers, but those two only combined for 86 catches, 1,172 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Despite the losses, the offense should perform better with a year of Bohl’s system under their belts.

The defense returns only 4 starters, but one of those is 1st Team-All Mountain West defensive end Eddie Yarbrough. He finished 2014 as the second leading tackler with 63 and also recorded 4 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. 2 other projected starters on the defensive line have experience starting as well. The linebacking unit has only 1 returning starter, but Lucas Wacha started 11 games in 2013 and returns to start at the weak side. The secondary only returns one starter from 2014, but strong safety Chad Reese was a constant starter between 2011 and 2013 before missing all of 2014. The defense does not have a lot of starters returning, but they are in the second year of Bohl’s system and have several starters from years prior to 2014.

Wyoming has a relatively easy non-conference schedule with back-to-back home games against North Dakota and Eastern Michigan. They then travel to Washington State before starting conference play at home against New Mexico. Their non-conference schedule wraps up on October 3 with a road game at Appalachian State, which could see them sitting at 4-1 in early October. They have a rough conference schedule with road games against Air Force, Boise State, Utah State, and San Diego State. They also have Nevada and UNLV from the West division. The Cowboys will probably need an upset or 2 to reach bowl eligibility, but that is not out of the question for Craig Bohl.

5. Colorado State Rams

Colorado State has been on the up and up since Jim McElwain took over in 2012. They went from 4-8 in 2012 to 8-6 in 2013 to 10-3 in 2014. However, McElwain departed to take over at Florida and Mike Bobo was brought in from Georgia.

Bobo will have 7 starters back on offense including one of the best receivers in college football from 2014. Rashard Higgins caught 96 passes for 1,750 yards and 17 touchdowns while making the 2014 1st Team All-American squad. He will not have his top quarterback, however, and that will probably hurt the output. Seth Grayson threw for 4,006 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Also missing is the leading rusher from last year, Dee Hart, who ran for 1,275 yards and 16 touchdowns. After putting up 33.9 points per game in 2014, the offense will probably see a drop off despite the return of Higgins.

Defensively, the Rams have 8 starters returning, but two of the losses are the top two tacklers in 2014. The defensive line will be moving to a 4-3 from a 3-4, but they do return 3 starters, which should see them improve on the 201 rushing yards per game they surrendered in 2014. Linebacker is where the losses hurt the most with the two leading tacklers gone and there will most likely be drop off there. The secondary returns all four starters including the #3, #4, and #5 leading tacklers in 2014. This will be the strength of the defense and they only gave up 224 passing yards per game in 2014.

The Rams open the season with back-to-back home games against Savannah State and Minnesota before facing arch-rival Colorado in Denver. The wrap up non-conference with their first road trip outside of Colorado to face Texas-San Antonio. In conference, the Rams will have home games against Boise State and Air Force while drawing San Diego State, UNLV, and Fresno State from the West.

It might be a little harsh to put Colorado State 5th in the Mountain Division after their excellent season a year ago. They lose their quarterback, top rusher, top two tacklers, and have a new coach with new systems to install. Still, the Rams have an excellent shot at topping 6 wins and making another bowl game.

6. New Mexico Lobos

2015 will be Bob Davie‘s fourth season in charge at New Mexico. He has yet to do better than 4 wins, but will 2015 be different? To start, he will have 7 starters returning on offense including his top 3 rushers from his run based offense. Quarterback Lamar Jordan threw for only 895 yards with 6 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, but was able to run for 612 yards and 3 touchdowns. Also in the backfield is Jhurell Pressley (1,083 yards and 12 touchdowns) and Teriyon Gipson (809 yards and 8 touchdowns). They also have 3 starters returning on the offensive line to pave the way. With the amount of talent and experience returning in 2015, the Lobos should be able to average at least the 310 yards rushing per game they did in 2014.

On defense, Davie will also have 7 starters returning and that is the most since he started at New Mexico in 2012. Two of the three defensive linemen return including Nik D’Avanzo who recorded 52 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. Three of the four linebackers return with that unit led by the tackling machine of Dakota Cox. He finished 2014 with 116 tackles to lead the team en route to finishing on the 1st Team All-Mountain West squad despite only playing the first 9 games. The secondary returns two starters as well and should continue to improve. The defense will probably improve on their 35.9 points and 519 yards per game given up in 2014, but will need to do much better.

New Mexico kicks off the season with homes games against Mississippi Valley State and Tulsa before a road trip to Arizona State. They open their conference schedule at Wyoming before facing New Mexico State at home to finish the non-conference portion of their schedule. From the West Division, the Lobos will face Nevada and San José State on the road while getting Hawaii at home. The Lobos could possibly go 2-1 in those three games and combined with an expected 2-2 non-conference record, be just two wins away from bowl eligibility. The Lobos will come close to 6 wins, but may fall just a bit short in 2015.

Overview

The Mountain West Conference’s Mountain Division is Boise State’s to lose. They have a solid offense and a strong defense that appears to be much better on paper than any of their conference opponents. With a few upsets, Utah State or Air Force could win the division, but that is unlikely with those two teams battling it out for second along with Wyoming and Colorado State. New Mexico will be close to getting back to a bowl game but probably needs another year. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Boise State

2. Air Force

3. Utah State

4. Wyoming

5. Colorado State

6. New Mexico

The Mountain West Conference West Division will be out on Friday, July 10 along with the Mountain West Title Game prediction.

2015 College Football Preview: MAC East

Bowling Green Head Coach Dino Babers led the Falcons to the MAC Title game in 2014. Can he do it again in 2015? ( Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)
Bowling Green Head Coach Dino Babers led the Falcons to the MAC Title game in 2014. Can he do it again in 2015? ( Leon Halip/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: MAC East

The start of the college football season is right around the corner on August 29 with an FCS game between North Dakota State at Montana. In the build up to the season, we will provide in-depth previews of each conference and division starting with the Mid-American Conference East Division. The entire preview schedule is as follows:

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

Without further ado, let’s jump into the MAC East.

1. Ohio Bobcats

There is a lot to like about Ohio’s chances to win the MAC East. They return a total of 18 starters with 10 on offense and 8 on defense. Their lone loss on offense was their top receiver from 2014, but his production (21 catches for 443 yards and 1 touchdown) can be replaced with the second, third, and fourth leading receivers returning. The quarterback battle will be between JD Sprague and Derrius Vick, but whichever one wins the battle will do well lead the offense. 2014’s leading rusher was AJ Oullette who ran for 785 yards and 7 touchdowns on 160 carries (4.9 yards per carry).

On defense, the Bobcats lose two linemen and a defensive back. They return their top three tacklers (Quentin Polling, Jovon Johnson, and Blair Brown), who all play at linebacker. The defensive backfield is stocked full of seniors at all positions while the defensive line is full of upperclassmen.

If Ohio is to win the MAC East they will have to overcome a tough trio of in-conference games. They get an up and coming Western Michigan team at home on October 17, but have road tests at Bowling Green (November 4) and Northern Illinois (November 24). If Ohio can at least beat Bowling Green, they will be in excellent position to win the MAC East.

2. Bowling Green Falcons

The favorite to win the MAC East belongs to the Bowling Green Falcons under second year head coach Dino Babers. BG won the MAC East last year, but was crushed by Northern Illinois 51-17 in the Title Game. What is really scary about the Falcons is that they return 10 starters from an offense that averaged 30 points a game. There is no reason to expect that average to go down with a full year in the system and two experienced quarterbacks in Matt Johnson and James Knapke. Scary indeed.

The one area of concern for Bowling Green is on defense where they return 5 starters from a unit that surrendered 33.5 points per game in 2014. The losses are immense in the back seven with 5 starters gone from the linebacker and secondary units. The top four tacklers are also gone with several inexperienced players projected to start. One player that is coming in and expected to start is Eilar Hardy from Notre Dame at the strong safety position.

The MAC East will likely come down to a matter of three games in the span of two weeks. They will face Ohio at home on November 4 and then take on Western Michigan on the road November 11. The gauntlet ends with Toledo visiting Bowling Green on November 17. A 2-1 record in those games, especially a victor over Ohio, will probably give them the inside track to win the division.

3. Massachusetts Minutemen

There is no doubt that Mark Whipple made an impact on this team in 2014 in his first year back at the helm. The team lost by field goals to Colorado and Vanderbilt while playing Bowling Green, Miami (OH), and Toledo close, losing those three games by a touchdown or less. UMass beat Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and Ball State to finish 3-9.

In 2015, the Minutemen return a total of 19 starters with 10 on offense and 9 on defense. The offense was vastly improved last season going from 11.7 points per game in 2013 to 27.3 in 2014. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel will be leading the offense for the second straight year after throwing for 3,345 yards (55.1%) with 23 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He also has his top target in Tajae Sharpe back (85 catches for 1,281 yards and 7 touchdowns). The offense will continue to put points on the board in 2015.

The defense, however, will need to improve drastically if Massachusetts wants to make their second bowl game in school history. In 2013, they gave up 33 points per game and did the same in 2014 with five starters back. Nine starters return in 2015 and it would be surprising if they did not improve across the board. Under this 3-4 system, UMass has seven seniors projected as starters in the linebacking and secondary units.

UMass has also been given a favorable schedule in their final season in the MAC. They face Bowling Green on the road, but draw Toledo at home and will not play fellow MAC East opponent Ohio in 2015. They will also face a couple of Western Division bottom feeders in Ball State and Eastern Michigan. UMass could be headed to a bowl game in 2015.

4. Akron Zips

It has been a decade since Akron made a bowl game, but they have been close the past two seasons with back-to-back 5-7 records. They return six starters on offense led by quarterback Kyle Pohl. He threw for 2,189 yards (54.3%) with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in an injury plagued season. He will need to stay healthy because he does not have his top two receivers from a year ago nor does he have the top returning rusher. The second leading rusher in 2014, Conor Hundley, ran for 540 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 carries. The offensive line looks like the strength of the offensive with four senior starters and could be key to helping the Akron offense.

Like offense, the defensive side of the ball returns six starters as well. The strength appears to be on the defensive line with three returning starters coming back from a unit that allowed only 149 yards rushing per game in 2014. The defense loses 8 of the top 11 tacklers, but the top tackler in Jatavis Brown will anchor the linebacking unit. He had 99 stops, 4 sacks, and 10.5 tackles-for-loss last season. The secondary loses two starters, but should be decent in 2015.

The schedule was kind to Akron. From the MAC West they drew Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, two teams that are expected to be near the bottom of that division. They get Ohio for homecoming on October 3, and have road games at Bowling Green and Massachusetts. Akron has a real chance at making their second bowl game in school history in 2015.

5. Buffalo Bulls

2015 will be a season of change for the Buffalo Bulls. They made a splash hire by taking Lance Leipold away from Division 3 Wisconsin-Whitewater. At Whitewater, Leipold won 6 National Titles in 8 seasons while making the National Championship 7 times. While he should not be expected to win a National Title in Buffalo, he should have them contending in the MAC within a few years.

Leipold inherits seven starters on offense including the top returning quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. Joe Licata threw for 2,647 yards (64.9%) with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, Anthone Taylor ran for 1,403 yards and 12 touchdowns (5 YPC), and Ron Willoughby caught 50 passes for 771 yards and 9 touchdowns. Leipold has the pieces in place on offense to run his system well in his first season.

On defense, Buffalo returns only four starters from a defense that gave up 31.5 points and 398 yards per game. The top four leading tacklers from 2014 depart and the biggest loses come in the secondary. They lost three starters that accounted for 90 career starts. It is hard to see the defense improving drastically with the experience and talent lost from last year.

To win the MAC East, Buffalo will need some help. The face Bowling Green at home to start conference play on October 3 and they were able to draw Central Michigan from the West. However, they will have to play Northern Illinois at home in November. Buffalo has a chance at getting to six wins with some wins in the toss up games.

6. Kent State Golden Flashes

It has been tough for Kent State since Darrell Hazell‘s departure after the 2012 season when they went 11-3. They have gone a combined 6-17 in 2013 and 2014 while the offensive numbers have slipped and the defensive numbers have gotten worse.

Kent State has 8 players coming back on offense, their most since 2011, which was Hazell’s first season in charge. They have to replace a wide receiver, tight end, and center, otherwise the offense remains intact. Quarterback Colin Reardon has been the starter since the beginning of 2013, but saw a small dip in his numbers last year. He loses his top two receivers, but adds in former West Virginia player Connor Arlia. The running game should also be just fine with Nick Holley returning as starter.

Defensively, Kent State has 9 starters coming back from a defense that gave up 29 points and 430 yards a game in 2014. The biggest area of improvement needed is stopping the run, as Kent State gave up an average of 214 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. The two starters need to be replaced on the line. Overall, Kent State returns their top 11 tackles from a season ago and the entire secondary returns, which gave up only 216 yards passing per game. That will be the strength once again.

Kent State has some tough games if they want to win the MAC East. They have back-to-back road games at Toledo (October 10) and Massachusetts (October 17). That is followed up with a home game versus Bowling Green on October 24. After a bye week, they face a winnable game against Buffalo on November 5, but have a quick turnaround to face Ohio on the road November 10.

7. Miami (OH) Redhawks

Year 1 under Chuck Martin saw improvement from the Redhawks. They improved their win total by two, but more importantly they improved on offense and defense. The offense went from 9.8 points per game in 2013 to 22.3 in 2014. The defense went from 35.7 points per game to 31.8 despite only 6 six starters returning.

The unfortunate part for Miami in 2015 on offense is the return of only four starters. They lost their top quarterback, rusher, and receiver from 2014, which puts them in a bad position. The projected replacements at both quarterback and running back are redshirt freshmen. The lone bright spot is the second, third, and fourth leading receivers return. Expect some worse numbers from the offense this season.

The Redhawks will probably continue to improve on defense with 8 starters coming back. The defensive line should improve after giving up 200 rushing yards per game in 2014 as all four starters return. Two of the three linebackers return to help the rush defense including 2014’s second leading tackler in Joe Donlan. The secondary returns two starters as well with the top tackler in 2014 returning in Heath Harding (98 tackles). The defense should improve, but it will need to be a lot better if Miami has hopes of getting near bowl eligibility.

Miami has a tough year ahead in 2015. They have only one winnable game in non-conference action (Presbyterian opening week) and only a few in conference. They drew Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan from the MAC West with only the latter being possible as a win. It looks to be another long season for Miami.

Overview

The MAC East appears to be coming down to Ohio and Bowling Green. Bowling Green will have an incredibly potent offense while Ohio has more experience returning on both sides of the ball. The meeting between those two teams on November 4 could decide the MAC East representative in the Championship Game.

Outside of those two, Akron, Massachusetts, Kent State, and Buffalo will be vying to make bowl eligibility. Meetings between those teams could determine who makes a bowl game and who does not.

To recap the predicted order of finish:

1. Ohio

2. Bowling Green

3. Massachusetts

4. Akron

5. Buffalo

6. Kent State

7. Miami (OH)

Check back on Friday, July 3 to see the MAC West Preview and who will be predicted to win the MAC Championship in 2015.