Conference USA

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#115 Southern Miss Golden Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#115

C-USA West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Todd Monken, 1-11 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chip Lindsey | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Duggan

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 115 Southern Miss.

Previewing Southern Miss’ Offense for 2014:

Nick Mullens moved into a starting role midway through his freshman season last fall and appears to be coach Todd Monken’s quarterback of the present. Mullens ended the season by leading the Golden Eagles to a lopsided victory over UAB that snapped a 23-game losing streak. Mullens should prosper under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey, who came from the Auburn staff and is Mullens’ former high school coach. While not blessed with the greatest mobility, Mullens is a heady player with an accurate arm.

The reuniting of Mullens and Lindsey could aid the entire offense. Owners of an anemic running game in 2013 — the Golden Eagles didn’t score a rushing touchdown until the seventh game of the season — USM returns running backs Jalen Richard and George Payne. Richard rushed for 324 yards last season after gaining 426 and scoring four touchdowns as a freshman. At 5'8" and 208 pounds, Richard doesn’t possess a punishing-type running style, but he’s not afraid to carry between the tackles. Payne, 6'0" and 200 pounds, is a bigger, downhill runner.

Sophomore Tyre’oune Holmes averaged only 7.7 yards per reception, but he led the team with 53 catches, 20 more than Markese Triplett. Both Holmes and Triplett should thrive with Mullens entrenched at quarterback. The Golden Eagles also are expecting more from Marquise Ricard, who improved as the season progressed and finished with three TD catches.

Previewing Southern Miss’ Defense for 2014:

Seven starters return from a unit that struggled mightily in 2013. But there is reason for Southern Miss to be encouraged.

An experienced secondary will be led by safety Jacorius Cotton, a punishing tackler who missed last season because of academic issues. He has 20 career starts. Senior Emmanuel Johnson, the other safety, has started 15 games and was the team’s fourth-leading tackler a year ago. At cornerback, Kalan Reed and Ed Wilkins are returning starters.

The defense also missed the presence of linebacker Alan Howze most of last season after he sustained a season-ending injury in the team’s fourth game. Howze was granted a medical redshirt for a second senior season. Justin Penn, a hard-hitting special teams player last year, may push for a starting role at Spur, the hybrid safety/linebacker position.

Up front, yet another key player who missed most of the season returns as Rakeem Nunez-Roches, the team’s best defensive tackle, is back from a foot injury he suffered in the team’s early-season loss at Nebraska.

Previewing Southern Miss’ Specialists for 2014:

The kicking game appears set behind Corey Acosta and Tyler Sarrazin. Acosta, a senior, overcame a difficult midseason stretch in which he missed six straight field goals to connect on six of his final eight, including a 50-yarder. Sarrazin averaged nearly 40 yards per punt. Johnson averaged 25.5 yards per kickoff return and, along with Evan Osborne, should give the Golden Eagles a solid duo. Southern Miss returned only 12 punts a year ago but averaged 13.4 yards on those limited opportunities.

Final Analysis 

Perhaps the nightmare is over for Southern Miss. After setting a standard for success in Conference USA, the Golden Eagles went winless in 2012 and lost their first 11 games in 2013. The Mullens-Lindsey combination seems destined to improve the offense, and the return of several key players from injury should bolster the defense. There’s a rough non-conference slate, but Monken should have a competitive and relatively experienced squad —  as many as 14 freshmen and sophomores starting by season’s end — prepared to compete in league play.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#112 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#112

C-USA West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Skip Holtz, 4-8 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tony Petersen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Manny Diaz

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 112 Louisiana Tech.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Offense for 2014:

When you go from scoring 51 points per game one season to 19 points the next, you know you’ve got some issues. Louisiana Tech knew it would take a step back in 2013 after the departures of quarterback Colby Cameron and other experienced players on offense. But to have the production cut so dramatically in Skip Holtz’s first season was definitely cause for concern.

It starts at quarterback. Ryan Higgins and Scotty Young shared the position in 2013, essentially replacing each other every time one was injured. Young, who began his career at Texas Tech, left the program after spring, leaving Higgins to battle Iowa transfer Cody Sokol for the starting assignment in the fall. Sokol, a former junior college transfer, did not attempt a pass during his time at Iowa.

There is plenty of talent at running back, with Kenneth Dixon starting and the explosive Tevin King spelling him for carries. Knee injuries cut into Dixon’s sophomore production after he racked up an amazing 28 total touchdowns as a freshman in 2012. The offensive line was a major weakness last season, and with two starters gone, it’s a question mark heading into the 2014 season.

In Tech’s four-receiver set, LSU transfer Paul Turner is expected to provide a spark on the outside after sitting out last season. Inside receivers Hunter Lee and Trent Taylor combined for 44 catches in 2013.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Defense for 2014: 

Three new defensive coaches were added in the offseason, including coordinator Manny Diaz, who most recently had the same position at Texas. Diaz will have six returning starters to work with on a unit that gave up 408.3 yards and 26.3 points per game.

The defensive line lost three starters, but the Bulldogs used an eight-man rotation, so there is experience up front. End Vontarrius Dora was part of the first unit a year ago, and Vernon Butler is a potential all-league candidate at defensive tackle. The Bulldogs added an intriguing piece after spring practice when Houston Bates, an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick while at Illinois in 2013, announced he was transferring to Tech for his final season. He is a hybrid end/linebacker who can get after the quarterback.

Louisiana Tech will likely use a 4-3-4 set this season after going 4-2-5 in 2013. Mitch Villemez was third in tackles and forced three fumbles, starting all 12 games. Beau Fitte is a candidate to break out this season after recording a sack and two interceptions in a reserve role as a sophomore.

The Bulldogs’ secondary should be a position of strength. Five players who started last year are back, led by potential all-league picks Adairius Barnes (corner) and Xavier Woods (safety). Woods, who started 10 games as a true freshmen, moves to nickel when the Bulldogs go with five defensive backs.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Specialists for 2014:

Both kicker Kyle Fischer and punter Logan McPherson will resume their duties. Fischer was 4-for-6 from beyond 40 and made 12 of his last 13 field goals after an early-season slump. McPherson averaged a C-USA-low 38.0 yards per punt. Lee is expected to take over for Lyle Fitte as the Bulldogs’ primary kickoff returner. He averaged 22.2 yards on five returns in 2013.

Final Analysis 

It was a rough first season for Holtz, and Year 2 may be a struggle as well. Four of the first five games are on the road, including trips to Oklahoma and Auburn. For Louisiana Tech to improve, the quarterback situation needs to sort itself out, and the offensive line has to provide more help for the talented running back tandem of Dixon and King. The defense has a chance to be decent if the front four can get stronger against the run. Bowl eligibility would be a significant step forward for Holtz and the Bulldogs.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#91 FAU Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#91

C-USA East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Charlie Partridge, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Wright | DEF. COORDINATOR: Roc Bellantoni

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 91 FAU

Previewing FAU’s Offense for 2014

Offensive coordinator Brian Wright took over as FAU’s head coach with four games remaining last season and led the team to four wins and bowl eligibility for the first time since 2008. Wright was passed over for the permanent head coaching job but remained at FAU and will be the Owls’ offensive coordinator for a third year. The continuity should be evident in 2014.

FAU returns two quarterbacks who saw action last year and will battle for the starting job deep into — or perhaps through — preseason camp. Junior incumbent Jaquez Johnson is the reigning Conference USA Newcomer of the Year after accounting for 22 touchdowns (12 passing, 10 rushing). Sophomore Greg Hankerson, who played in eight games last year, starting one, had a stellar spring camp to re-ignite the battle.

Both quarterbacks will have the luxury of throwing to senior wideout William Dukes, who — despite double- and triple-teams — caught six touchdowns and averaged 15.8 yards per catch last season.

Sophomore Jay Warren, who became the starter at the end of the 2013, will be the Owls’ feature back in 2014. He rushed for 340 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season.

FAU enters the season needing to replace its starting left tackle and center. Instead of flipping to the left side, right tackle Braden Lyons will be at center in 2014. Vinny Davino and true freshman Reggie Bain (who had a stellar spring) will compete for the starting left tackle spot.

Previewing FAU’s Defense for 2014

FAU returns four of its five best defensive players in cornerback D’Joun Smith, strong safety Damian Parms, defensive tackle Brandin Bryant and middle linebacker Andrae Kirk. Despite a new defensive coordinator in Roc Bellantoni, no radical changes are expected to be made to a unit that finished 11th nationally in total defense (325.9 ypg).

Bryant had 9.5 tackles for a loss in 2013 but tore his ACL in the final game of the year. His return, along with that of defensive tackle Trevon Coley, who has started every game of his two-year career, should help FAU control the run game in 2014.
With Smith leading the way (seven INTs, 13 breakups in 2013), FAU should have Conference USA’s best secondary. Injury forced Christian Milstead to play corner last season, but he’ll be moving to free safety for his senior season. Add in the do-it-all Parms as the linchpin, and it’s going to be difficult to pass on FAU in 2014.

Linebacker could be a concern. Kirk returns a team-leading 84 tackles, but he’ll be flanked by inexperience. Junior Freedom Whitfield and sophomore Robert Relf are the favorites to start at outside linebacker, though FAU has experimented with Parms as a ‘star’ linebacker/safety in a nickel set.  

Previewing FAU’s Specialists for 2014

FAU signed one of the nation’s top kicking prospects, Landon Scheer, in Partridge’s first recruiting class. He’ll be the Owls’ top kicker from the first day he steps on campus in the summer. Sean Kelly was one of the top punters in Conference USA last season, but he transferred from the team in June. It's uncertain who will replace Kelly. The Owls will likely go with a returner-by-committee system with Cre’von LeBlanc, Smith, Lucky Whitehead and DJ Juste splitting time on both punt and kick returns.

Final Analysis

If the offensive line can find cohesion, FAU has the weapons to put up a lot of points in 2014. The defense lacks depth but boasts an outstanding secondary and a defensive tackle rotation that should limit big gains by opponents via the ground game. FAU should make a bowl for the first time in six years and could gain some national notoriety with an upset in Week 1 at Nebraska. But the season will be defined in back-to-back weeks in October, when FAU hosts Western Kentucky and then travels to C-USA favorite Marshall.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#87 Rice Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#87

C-USA West PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 40-48 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Lynch, Larry Edmondson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 87 Rice.

Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2014:

The Owls may have lost last year’s top rusher, Charles Ross, and quarterback Taylor McHargue, but they still have plenty of firepower available this season. New offensive coordinator Larry Edmondson is quite comfortable at Rice, since he has spent the last three seasons directing the passing game and coaching the quarterbacks.

That’s good news for quarterback Driphus Jackson, who missed most of last year with injuries. The junior can pressure defenses by running and throwing, and if he becomes a more consistent passer, Rice will be in good shape. “He had a good spring,” coach David Bailiff says of Jackson. “It was important for his growth that we kept the continuity in the offense. Driphus was consistently able to work on getting better. He’s a tremendous leader of our football team and is courageous.”

Expect several backs to get carries, including Jowan Davis (476 yards), Darik Dillard (396) and Luke Turner. They’ll work behind a line that has three returning starters, although left tackle remains a question mark. Jordan Taylor caught 55 passes and scored eight times last year, making him a top target, and Dennis Parks averaged 17.5 yards on his 29 catches.

Previewing Rice’s Defense for 2014:

The Owls didn’t shackle opponents last year, but they were pretty solid most of the time and held six opponents under 20 points. There is reason to believe that the unit will be even better this year.

Bailiff calls the linebacking corps “the depth of the defense,” but Rice’s defensive front will be pretty good, too. Junior tackle Christian Covington was a first-team all-conference choice last year. Nose guard Stuart Mouchantaf tore his knee last October and was expected to be ready for the opening of preseason camp. However, Mouchantaf was ruled out for the 2014 season in early June. The end positions feature new starters.

Senior weak-side linebacker James Radcliffe has good speed and can find the football, while sophomore Alex Lyons showed he was a sure tackler in space on the strong side in 2013. Expect junior Nick Elder and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Nick Uretsky and DJ Green, to see time at linebacker, also.

Although the Owls return three starters to their five-man secondary, Bailiff acknowledges that the departure of cornerback Phillip Gaines is “a big loss.” But there is a lot of reason for optimism in a secondary that allowed rival passers to complete only 51.7 percent of their throws last year. Senior safety Julius White was third on the team in tackles and picked off two passes, while seniors Bryce Callahan and Malcolm Hill, a converted safety, provide a strong pairing on the corners.

Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2014: 

Junior James Farrimond had a solid season in 2013, averaging 42.1 yards per punt, but he could be better. Hill and Callahan are serviceable return men, but the Owls need to find a new kicker.

Final Analysis 

The Owls won 10 games last year and took the C-USA title by whipping Marshall in the championship game. Two years ago, Rice fans wondered whether Bailiff was the man to run the program. Now, they are convinced of his ability to lead. The Owls are in a position where they can redshirt just about all their freshmen. That’s huge.

But Rice will be tested this year. The schedule features seven road games with four of the first five away from home. If Jackson can return to the form he flashed at the end of the 2012 season, Rice will be dangerous on offense, thanks to a strong supporting cast around him. The defense is deep and experienced. Another C-USA title may be asking too much, but the Owls should be bowling, for sure.




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#90 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#90

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 51-49 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Steve Ellis, Tyrone Nix

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 90 MTSU.

Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2014:

A change at quarterback should have far-reaching effects. Pocket passer Logan Kilgore graduated after setting the school record for career TD passes, and a trio of dual-threat quarterbacks will compete for his job. Sophomore Austin Grammer, redshirt freshman AJ Erdely and true freshman Brent Stockstill (son of head coach Rick Stockstill) have staged a tight race, and all three could get their chance in 2014. Regardless of the starter, the offense will go toward a zone-read look with a mobile quarterback and four strong running backs returning to stock the deepest backfield in Conference USA. Downhill runner Jordan Parker and big-play sprinter Reggie Whatley lead the group, which helped MTSU rush for nearly 200 yards per game last season.

“It helps us so much more when the quarterback is a threat to run,” Stockstill says. “Anytime you have a quarterback that can buy some time in the passing game and get some first downs in the run game, it opens up so much more for your running backs and receivers.”

The receiving corps has traded in the experience and sure hands of last season’s seniors for more speed and athleticism. Marcus Henry (38 receptions, 549 yards) is the total package, but newcomers carry high hopes. Junior college transfer Ed’Marques Batties and redshirt freshman Shannon Smith should both make an impact.

Both offensive tackles return, but there are concerns in the rebuilt interior of the line with three new starters at center and guard. For the ground game to equal last year’s pace, the middle must be solidified.

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2014: 

Linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard are among the best at their positions in C-USA. Barber is a playmaker who had three interceptions, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles in 2013. Byard is already the NCAA’s active career leader in interception return yards after only two seasons, and he has returned four picks for TDs. But the supporting cast carries questions.

Seven starters return for a defense that tied for fifth nationally in takeaways last season, but there are unproven players in both the defensive line and secondary. Defensive co-coordinator Tyrone Nix transformed the Blue Raiders into a turnover-forcing machine last season, but repeating that performance without a proven pass-rusher or shutdown cornerback will be a challenge. Third-down defense must also improve from a ranking of 119th last season.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2014: 

Placekicker Cody Clark lacks a big leg, but he is consistent at reasonable distances. He made 12-of-16 field goals as a freshman last season. Freshman A.J. Wells was signed specifically to take over punting duties in his debut season. Whatley is among the nation’s most dangerous kick returners, if he can avoid injuries.

Final Analysis

Almost always a contender but rarely a champion, MTSU has been bowl-eligible five times in Stockstill’s eight seasons but has earned only a share of one conference title. Back-to-back eight-win seasons in two different conferences (Sun Belt, C-USA) provide a good springboard for another bowl bid this year.

With East Carolina out of the league, MTSU likely must beat out Marshall, Florida Atlantic and old Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky for the C-USA East title. Finding a dependable quarterback and duplicating last season’s terrific turnover margin will be key if the Blue Raiders want to make a run at a conference title rather than just hang around .500.

“Each year your team changes, but you know we’re close,” Stockstill says. “We were a game out of winning it in our last year in the Sun Belt. And we were basically a game out from winning it this past year in Conference USA. Marshall will obviously be the favorite, but we’re close.”




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#89 UTSA Roadrunners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#89

C-USA West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Larry Coker, 19-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Brown | DEF. COORDINATOR: Neal Neathery

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 89 UTSA.

Previewing UTSA’s Offense for 2014: 

UTSA has a boatload of experience coming back on the offensive line and a running back capable of a 1,000-yard season, so it makes sense to assume that the Roadrunners will likely run more than they throw for the second straight season.

One of the two positions that does not return a starter is quarterback, another reason why the Roadrunners will emphasize the run. Senior Tucker Carter takes over for the departed Eric Soza, who was a talented red zone runner (seven TDs) and adequate passer (12 TDs, 11 INTs). Carter has a bigger arm and is less mobile, but the scheme should remain the same.

The featured back should be David Glasco II, who led the team with 496 yards (on 5.2 yards per carry) and five TDs as a junior while missing two games due to injury and splitting the ball-carrying duties. Should the Roadrunners go with a rotation at tailback, look for sophomore Jarveon Williams to get the call (4.5 ypc in limited duty in ’13).

Keep an eye on Kam Jones, the team’s most athletic wideout. Jones will see his share of action as a Wildcat quarterback, especially with Carter being more of a pass-first QB. Jones leads the list of UTSA’s top 10 pass-catchers who return in 2013.

The line welcomes back all five starters, three of whom have been starting for three straight years. Guard Scott Inskeep is the player in this group who will grab the attention of NFL scouts.

Previewing UTSA’s Defense for 2014:

Nine starters return to a defense that held its opponents to an average of 11.3 points over the final four games. Four seniors man the defensive line, including a pair of former Big 12 signees. Defensive tackle Ashaad Mabry (6'3", 315), who originally signed with Oklahoma State, will compete for all-conference honors. Baylor transfer Robert Singletary led the team in sacks (5.0, tied with Codie Brooks) and hurries and seems primed for a big year.

At linebacker, Drew Douglas returns, but second-leading tackler Steven Kurfehs needs to be replaced in UTSA’s 4-2-5 alignment. Jens Jeters should get first crack at Kurfehs’ spot, although he will be pushed by Blake Terry, who originally committed to Kentucky. The Roadrunners may utilize all three players in a rotation format for the two spots.

There won’t be a rotation at safety, where Triston Wade and Nic Johnston will start for their third seasons. Both players are disruptive forces, with Wade leading the team in tackles and interceptions. Oklahoma transfer Bennett Okotcha is the team’s best shutdown corner.

Previewing UTSA’s Specialists for 2014:

Punter Kristian Stern and kicker Sean Ianno both return. UTSA was 90th in net punting last year, while Ianno was 9-of-11 inside 40 and 2-of-8 beyond 40 despite playing seven games indoors. Jones is a dangerous kick returner, but he never shook loose for a long one in 2013.

Final Analysis

UTSA’s rise in its first three seasons as a football program has been remarkable. The Roadrunners have gone from not having a team to being a legitimate threat to reach the Conference USA Championship Game in just four years. This is a senior-laden squad with experience at every position except quarterback, and this group has been building toward the 2014 season, since it’s the first year that the program is eligible to participate in a bowl game.

Coach Larry Coker has built his team primarily from the Texas high schools, especially the San Antonio area, which is home to almost 30 players on the current roster. The transitional phase to the FBS has been smoother than expected, and now comes a new hurdle for this very new program — expectations.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#86 North Texas Mean Green

NATIONAL FORECAST

#86

C-USA West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Dan McCarney, 18-19 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Canales | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Skladany

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 86 North Texas.

Previewing North Texas’ Offense for 2014: 

Four offensive line starters return for one of Conference USA’s best units at any position. Coach Dan McCarney hopes that’s enough to support a new starting quarterback and a revamped rotation of skill players.

“Our offensive line is definitely the strength of our football team,” says McCarney, who returns only five offensive starters overall. “And those linemen are my kind of guys. We are just trying every day to find playmakers to put with them. But it’s hard to get a feel for that. How do you really know?”

Junior Andrew McNulty and junior college transfer Josh Greer should take their quarterback competition deep into preseason camp. Their skill sets are similar, but both carry concerns over their inexperience. McNulty, a career backup, has thrown only five passes in the past two seasons. Greer had an impressive run at nearby Navarro (Texas) College, but it lasted only six games. The starter will be expected to protect the ball and provide a few big plays amid a new assortment of offensive weapons.

Wideout Carlos Harris (47 receptions, 553 yards) steps into the go-to-guy spot, but the No. 2 receiver role is an unknown. Sophomore Darvin Kidsy and senior Darius Terrell, a former Texas Longhorn, are the top candidates.

Running backs Antoinne Jimmerson (446 yards, seven TDs) and Reggie Pegram (338 yards, six TDs) should benefit the most from the veteran offensive line, which is led by surefire NFL prospect Cyril Lemon and fellow all-conference selection Mason Y’Barbo.

Previewing North Texas’ Defense for 2014:

The 2013 squad ranked second nationally in red-zone defense, fourth in takeaways and eighth in scoring defense, but only one among the starting front seven returns. The entire defensive line is gone, and star middle linebacker Zach Orr must also be replaced.

Senior linebacker Derek Akunne takes the torch. He has 200 career tackles and the respect of his teammates to assume a leadership role. McCarney has faith that the defensive line questions will be answered in time.

“We will get to an eight-man rotation,” McCarney says. “I know it doesn’t look like it now, but I’ve seen it before. We got to that point in the second half of last season.”
The good news is that three of four starting defensive backs return, led by cornerback Kenny Buyers and safety Lairamie Lee. Cornerbacks Zac Whitfield and James Jones are also back. The trio combined for nine of the team’s 18 interceptions in 2013.

Previewing North Texas’ Specialists for 2014:

Replacing Brelan Chancellor, one of the nation’s best kick/punt returners, will be a tall order and likely an open competition early in the season. Zach Paul was 10-of-15 on field goals last season, but he may get a battle from lauded freshman kicker Trevor Moore. Blake Macek returns as punter.

Final Analysis

A new starting quarterback and a rebuilt defensive front seven usually point to a rebuilding year, and that still may be the case for the Mean Green. But there are enough concerns elsewhere in the C-USA West Division to keep North Texas right in the mix for contention. Plus, the program has a different feel after posting nine wins and the Mean Green’s first bowl victory in 11 years last season.

“(Rebuilding) is fair for people to say, but great programs reload,” McCarney says. “Not many people knew about us when I got here. We need to keep it going and not go back into the woods.”

A home opener against SMU should be telling about the team’s potential. And if the Mean Green are still in the hunt, an Oct. 25 trip to Rice could provide a title shot. North Texas handed C-USA champion Rice its lone league loss last season.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#92 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#92

C-USA East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 92 Western Kentucky.

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Offense for 2014

Bobby Petrino’s cup of coffee as Western Kentucky coach produced 20 offensive school records (10 team, 10 individual) and an 8–4 record before he shuffled off to be Louisville’s coach again. The offensive wizard thought enough of Jeff Brohm to name him offensive coordinator, and WKU thought enough of the former Louisville quarterback and NFL backup to name him Petrino’s successor.

Those 10 offensive player records were split evenly between running back Antonio Andrews, the national leader in total yardage the last two seasons, and quarterback Brandon Doughty, who led the best offensive season (5,502 yards) in program history. Doughty set season records in passing yards (2,857) and completion percentage (65.8) and single-game marks in completions (29) and yardage (387).

With Brohm coaching, Doughty directing and six starters returning, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat, even if Andrews is gone and the level of competition is upgraded from the Sun Belt to Conference USA. Junior running back Leon Allen has breakout potential and is ready to take on the role of lead ball-carrier. Three returning receivers, led by senior Willie McNeal, are joined by junior college standout Jared Dangerfield. Tight end Mitchell Henry is reliable and productive.

Several contributors along an offensive line that paved the way for Andrews to set a WKU single-season rushing record return — although there could be some players switching positions. The group is led by senior right tackle Cam Clemmons, a fourth-year starter.

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Defense for 2014

It’s a misconception to assert that Petrino’s teams don’t play defense. The Hilltoppers finished 14th in the nation in total defense, with a 10th-ranked pass defense. Veteran coordinator Nick Holt has his hands full to try to reproduce those numbers with only two returning starters.

But one of those back is senior Cam Thomas, who’s among the top cornerbacks in the country. He led the Sun Belt and tied for 18th nationally with five interceptions. Secondary running mates are inexperienced but promising.

It’s a clean slate at linebacker, where WKU stayed within the family to sign Nick Holt, son of the defensive coordinator. One service ranked Holt the 11th-best junior college middle linebacker in the nation. Junior end Gavin Rocker is the only returning starter on the defensive front. At 6'1", 332 pounds, senior tackle Jamichael Payne has one last chance to live up to lofty expectations.

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Specialists for 2014

Junior Garrett Schwettman is a capable kicker who made seven field goals in a row during one stretch last season. He’s 23-of-29 (79.3 percent) over two seasons. Sophomore punter Joseph Occhipinti needs to improve on his average of 32.8 yards per punt (in part-time duty). The return game was hit hard by the loss of Andrews, who handled kickoff and punt duties. McNeal has the sure hands and athleticism to return punts.

Final Analysis

After seven seasons as an NFL backup quarterback with six teams, Brohm quickly transitioned to college coaching. A dozen years later, he is getting his first opportunity as a head coach. And of the 20 new coaches in the FBS ranks, Brohm is the only one promoted to the top job from the previous staff. Six assistants also stayed instead of following Petrino or jumping elsewhere. That rare continuity after a coaching change should bode well for a team that was snubbed for a bowl berth despite winning eight games. The Hilltoppers figure to have a tough time matching last year’s win total — the schedule is more difficult — but this is a program that can compete for C-USA titles in the near future.




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