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#85 Louisiana Tech Bulldogs





HEAD COACH: Skip Holtz, 27-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Todd Fitch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Blake Baker

Only three years into its membership in Conference USA, Louisiana Tech has established itself as one of the most consistent programs in the league. Coach Skip Holtz has led the Bulldogs to back-to-back nine-win seasons, the best two-year win total for the program since 1984-85. To continue the momentum, Louisiana Tech must replace transfer quarterback Jeff Driskel and touchdown machine Kenneth Dixon.

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Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Offense for 2016

Unlike the past two seasons, an experienced quarterback will not be transferring in to take control of Skip Holtz’s offense. Ryan Higgins, who started as a freshman in 2013 before backing up Cody Sokol and then Jeff Driskel, reclaimed the starting role after a strong performance in the spring. 

Higgins is comfortable running some zone read, but his primary job will be getting the ball out to a talented receiving corps. Louisiana Tech lines up four wide receivers in its base set, and it has strong options both inside (Trent Taylor) and outside (Carlos Henderson). Standing just 5'8", Taylor was a first-team All-C-USA performer last year after finishing second in the league with 99 catches. Henderson is a burner, and he will be joined by Utah transfer Alfred Smith, who appears to have just as much speed as Henderson. 

The offensive line is in great shape, with three returning starters, and a fourth — Kirby Wixson — who started in 2014 but missed 2015 due to injury. Guard O’Shea Dugas was a Freshman All-American, and left tackle Darrell Brown was second-team All-C-USA. 

At running back, Kenneth Dixon (second all time in NCAA career touchdowns) is gone, and it will be three players combining to fill his shoes in an offense that primarily lines up with one running back. Former walk-on Boston Scott led the team in rushing in the New Orleans Bowl and likely will start given his superior ability to break tackles. Jarred Craft is more of a short-yardage banger, and Jaqwis Dancy is a breakaway guy who could be a threat in the passing game.


Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Defense for 2016

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

With eight starters gone from a unit that ranked 62nd in scoring defense, the Bulldogs certainly face some challenges. The secondary returns just one starter, though it is a good one in safety Xavier Woods, an All-C-USA selection. The starting cornerbacks will be Arizona State transfer Ronald Lewis and Ephraim Kitchen. Another transfer, Jerrell Jackson from Hawaii, will be heavily in the mix, and junior college transfer DaMarion King should fill the nickel role as the Bulldogs attempt to improve their national ranking of 100th in passing defense. 

All three linebackers will be new, and there is concern as to who will step up. Russell Farris should be an every-down linebacker along with Brandon Durman, while a pair of redshirt freshmen in Donald Freeman and Collin Scott will try to become effective against the run. This unit received a boost after spring ball with the addition of graduate transfer Dalton Santos from Texas. 

The defensive line will feature a pair of strong defensive ends in Jaylon Ferguson and Aaron Brown, but losing NFL-bound Vernon Butler at defensive tackle leaves a gaping hole in the middle.

Previewing Louisiana Tech’s Specialists for 2016

Both kickers and long-snapper Darrell Travis are back. Placekicker Jonathan Barnes nailed 22-of-26 field goals, including 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Gerald Shouse had eight punts of more than 50 yards last season. The punt returner will again be Taylor, and Henderson was an honorable mention All-C-USA kick returner.

Final Analysis

With at least eight wins in four of the last five seasons, Louisiana Tech has established itself as one of the stronger Group of 5 programs in the nation. A very challenging September awaits, with non-conference road games against Arkansas and Texas Tech and a visit to C-USA East favorite Middle Tennessee. A green defense and new quarterback may not be ready for that gauntlet, but there are pieces in place for the Bulldogs to put things together in the second half of the season. Expect Louisiana Tech to stay in the top 30 in the nation in points scored. How many they are able to keep off the board will determine if a fourth bowl game in six years becomes a reality.


#76 WKU Hilltoppers





HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, 20-7 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Brohm | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

Western Kentucky enjoyed a banner year in 2016, riding a high-powered offense to its best season in the Hilltoppers short history as an FBS program. Now, WKU’s staying power will be tested. The offense moves on without a three-year starting quarterback, who accounted for nearly 10,000 yards and 100 touchdowns the last two seasons. Jeff Brohm remains one of the brightest young coaches in the business, so the ‘toppers should remain a factor in the Conference USA race.

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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2016

Western Kentucky has the unenviable task of replacing star quarterback Brandon Doughty. The six-year veteran rewrote the Hilltopper record book, throwing for 97 touchdowns and nearly 10,000 yards over his final two seasons. WKU had four candidates competing for the job in the spring and will add another freshman in fall camp. The spring didn’t present a clear starter, although junior Mike White appeared to be the frontrunner.

White — a transfer from South Florida who sat out at WKU last year — might bring the best physical talents out of the quarterbacks on the depth chart. The job won’t be decided until the fall.

The good news for the quarterbacks is that they’ll have a veteran nucleus around them. The Hilltoppers return their top eight offensive linemen, including star left tackle Forrest Lamp. That front line tied for 14th in the nation last year in sacks allowed per game. The top two running backs — sophomore D’Andre Ferby and senior Anthony Wales — return after combining for 20 touchdowns and more than 1,700 rushing yards last year.

WKU lost two of its top outside receiving threats, but its top target, senior standout Taywan Taylor, is back after his assault on the school’s receiving records last year. Taylor emerged as one of the most productive wideouts in the country despite starting only five games and briefly tested the NFL waters before deciding to return to school. WKU relies heavily on the tight end and must find a new option to replace star Tyler Higbee. All that adds up to some questions in Brohm’s explosive passing game, but the group has veteran leadership to lean on until it truly finds its way.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2016 

WKU’s defense improved last season from one of the nation’s worst units in 2014 to a more than capable group in 2015. The Hilltoppers lose seven starters from last year’s defense, but they’re not exactly devoid of experience. Those who’ve played before will be asked to take on larger roles, most notably at cornerback. The Hilltoppers must replace both starters, with juniors Joe Brown and De’Andre Simmons the most likely candidates.

WKU must replace three starters on the defensive line to go with returning junior defensive end Derik Overstreet. Senior tackle Omarius Bryant (6'3", 310 pounds) gives them a massive option in the middle, and senior Nick Dawson-Brents — a transfer from Louisville — provides more experience on the outside.

The linebackers should be the strength of the unit. The team’s leading tackler, junior T.J. McCollum, is back at outside linebacker. Senior Keith Brown, another transfer from Louisville, moves from a part-time starting role with the Cardinals to WKU’s middle linebacker position.


Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2016 

The kicking game is one of WKU’s biggest questions after graduating Garrett Schwettman, the school’s all-time leading scorer. Sophomore Jake Collins could be a candidate to handle both the field goal and punting duties. Junior receiver Kylen Towner has been WKU’s go-to return man since his freshman year. He tallied a 98-yard kickoff return TD last season.

Final Analysis

WKU is not likely to be the explosive bunch that posted video game-type numbers last season on its way to a 12–2 record, a Conference USA championship and a Miami Beach Bowl win. But that doesn’t mean the Hilltoppers won’t be in contention for another league title and a bowl berth. They may have to lean on their defense early until the offense finds its identity, but an experienced offensive line and many skill pieces should give the eventual starting quarterback plenty to work with in Brohm’s creative system.


#68 Southern Miss Golden Eagles





HEAD COACH: Jay Hopson, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Shannon Dawson, John Wozniak | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tony Pecoraro

Previewing Southern Miss’ Offense for 2016  

By pretty much any measure, 2015 was the most prolific offensive season in Southern Miss history. The Golden Eagles set school records for yards and points per game, as well as yards per play. Junior Nick Mullens attempted more passes for more yards, more touchdowns and a higher efficiency rating than any USM quarterback before him. Two different backs (Jalen Richard and Ito Smith) eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground, another first. There were single-season marks set for receptions (Casey Martin, 80) and receiving yards (Mike Thomas, 1,391), and Thomas added the record for receiving TDs (14).

That’s a tough act to follow, particularly after the architects of the breakthrough, head coach Todd Monken and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, both left for greener pastures. Thomas, Martin, and Richard all graduated, along with both starting tackles. But the 2016 offense is hardly starting from scratch: Mullens will be back to complete his assault on the school record book as a senior. Smith will take on the lion’s share of the ground game as a junior, running behind a long-in-the-tooth interior line led by All-C-USA center Cameron Tom. Senior D.J. Thompson has the look of the next big thing at receiver, unless he’s supplanted by sophomore Korey Robertson or junior college transfer Isaiah Jones. 

Some regression under the new coaching staff may be inevitable. But the scheme under new coordinator Shannon Dawson will remain largely the same — Dawson, like Monken, is steeped in the Air Raid philosophy.

, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Southern Miss’ Defense for 2016 

The offense was so good that it tended to overshadow the equally dramatic improvement on defense. Southern Miss led C-USA in yards allowed in conference games and ranked second in points allowed. Many of the headliners from that unit are back, including the leading tackler, senior D’Nerius Antoine, who experimented at linebacker in the spring after a stellar turn in 2015 at free safety; the top pass rusher, senior Dylan Bradley; and a pair of veteran stalwarts in the secondary, juniors Cornell Armstrong and Picasso Nelson Jr., who combined for 38 starts in their first two years on campus. 

Southern Miss lost both of last year’s starting defensive tackles, Michael Smith and Andrew Bolton, as well as middle linebacker Brian Anderson, who led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss. The Eagles held eight of nine C-USA opponents below their season average for rushing yards, a streak the new bodies in the middle (Draper Riley and LaDarius Harris on the line, Jeremy Sangster at linebacker) will be hard-pressed to repeat.


Previewing Southern Miss’ Specialists for 2016  

The kicking game was an adventure, beginning with placekicker Stephen Brauchle, who missed four PATs and his only field goal attempt beyond 40 yards. The punt team didn’t fare much better: Tyler Sarrazin forced just one fair catch on 45 attempts and posted a net average of just 34.5 yards. 

The Eagles will also be in the market for a new punt returner to replace Richard and Martin, neither of whom brought much juice to the role.


Final Analysis

Last year’s run to the C-USA Championship Game felt like a return to normal after the Eagles lost 33 of 36 games over the previous three seasons. Monken’s successor, Jay Hopson, doesn’t offer much in the way of name recognition, but he has much closer ties to the school and the state, having played at Ole Miss, served two separate stints as a Southern Miss assistant, and most recently resuscitated the fortunes of Alcorn State. 

He inherits Conference USA’s most accomplished quarterback and arguably its most talented roster, top to bottom. Aside from a midseason trip to LSU, every game on the schedule is winnable, including an Week 1 test at Kentucky.