Conference USA

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#73 Marshall Thundering Herd

NATIONAL FORECAST

#73

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Doc Holliday, 50-28 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Legg | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Heater

Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2015 
 

Quarterback Chase Litton threw for 2,605 yards and 23 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2015, benefiting from an experienced group of skill guys around him — a luxury that he won’t necessarily have in 2016. Litton lost his top two 2015 targets, Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves, but outside receiver Deon-Tay McManus returns, along with Justin Hunt and Michael Clark, a 6'7" deep threat. Tight ends Ryan Yurachek and Emanuel Byrd also will be bigger factors.

Marshall will likely use several running backs, including Hyleck Foster, Keion Davis and Tony Pittman, to replace the losses of Devon Johnson and Remi Watson. Foster is an explosive rusher, while Davis and Pittman are more physical backs.

The experience of the offensive line helps — especially the return of senior right tackle Clint Van Horn, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. Van Horn and guard Michael Selby have combined for 52 career starts on the right side of the line. Sandley Jean-Felix is back at left tackle, while Jordan Dowrey moves to left guard and Nate Devers to center after the two split starts at right guard last year.

With an experienced line and Litton in his second year leading the offense, the Herd could once again become an offensive power.

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

Previewing Marshall’s Defense for 2016 
 

Defensive coordinator Chuck Heater is going to field several new faces, none bigger than those who will be manning the secondary. With the losses of Keith Baxter (graduation) and Corey Tindal (turned pro) at cornerback, Marshall has just Rodney Allen and Antavis Rowe returning with corner experience. Heater’s system requires cornerbacks to win one-on-one battles to allow for the multiple looks in the front seven, meaning the pressure is on the duo. Safeties Tiquan Lang and C.J. Reavis, a former Virginia Tech player, will aid the corners in the early transition. 

Marshall has to replace the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in linebacker Evan McKelvey, and D.J. Hunter is also gone from the middle of the defense. Devontre’a Tyler and Shawn Petty have experience, but outside linebackers Davon Durant and Frankie Hernandez have to live up to expectations quickly.

Some pressure could be relieved up front with ends Gary Thompson and Ryan Bee serving as one of the more lethal duos in Conference USA. The interior defensive line lost three seniors, but the staff is high on youngsters Nyquan Harris, Tomell One, Jason Smith and Malik Thompson.

Marshall’s ability to create turnovers and three-and-outs keyed the defense in 2015, and that success was built on the unit’s experience. The Herd may have early growing pains, but the talent is there for Heater’s unit to enjoy success.

 

Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2016
 

This could be the biggest area of need. The Herd loses four-year starters in punter Tyler Williams and long-snapper Matt Cincotta, along with Reaves, who was the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year and the only player nationally in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt returns. 

Placekicking was inconsistent at best last season, but Nick Smith and Amoreto Curraj return. For the program that led the nation in special teams efficiency in 2015, there are major losses that must be replaced.

Final Analysis 
 

The experience of Litton and the entire offensive line will help the young skill players on offense immensely, so the Herd should see improvement despite the graduation losses. Defensively, the team is young but talented, and Heater’s defense has quietly been one of the nation’s best over the last five years. A tough non-conference schedule looms, but the Herd should be in position for their fourth straight 10-win season and a run at another Conference USA title.




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#70 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#70

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 64-61 (10 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tony Franklin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyrone Nix

Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2016

The record-breaking freshman passing tandem of Brent Stockstill and Richie James returns for Act Two. Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, passed for 4,005 yards, just 52 yards shy of Jameis Winston’s NCAA freshman record (4,057). James had 108 receptions for 1,346 yards, breaking school records in both categories. They led MTSU’s most productive offensive season in program history. Most of the records they broke were set in 2009 under offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, who returns to his old job this season. Franklin has spent the past six seasons at Louisiana Tech and Cal, but he’s back in Murfreesboro to take over a rising offense with a high ceiling.

Ole Miss transfer I’Tavius Mathers returns to his hometown to be the primary running back. He rushed for 1,061 yards over three seasons in the SEC. Desmond Anderson, an explosive sophomore, should be his sidekick in the backfield. There are a couple of holes on the offensive line, but depth from last season should fill the gaps well enough.

Franklin’s offense works best with a deep rotation of wide receivers. Terry Pettis is a 6'5" freakish athlete who had 612 receiving yards last season, and experienced wideout Demetrius Frazier is also back. But more targets will be needed. Shane Tucker’s move from running back to slot receiver could make a big impact. He has been an all-purpose playmaker for his whole career, racking up 20 TDs.

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2016

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

Big holes remain at linebacker and safety as five of the top six tacklers from last season graduated. The defensive line and cornerbacks should be strong, but there’s some work to do for veteran defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix in solidifying the unit. Safety Kevin Byard, one of the best players in program history with a school-record 19 career interceptions, must be replaced by sophomore Jovante Moffatt and other inexperienced defenders.

There are new starters at linebacker. D.J. Sanders is a speedy playmaker. Myles Harges is a physical tackler who missed most of 2015 with injuries. Chris Melton and Darius Harris are promising youngsters. They are all athletic.

The defensive line is stocked with experience, including senior bookends Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale. Cornerbacks Mike Minter and Jeremy Cutrer make up one of the best coverage duos in Conference USA. Minter is among the team’s best all-around players, and Cutrer is a ball-hawk who led MTSU in passes defended (13) last season.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2016
 

Placekicker is open after starter Cody Clark (12-of-16 FGs) left over a scholarship dispute. Canon Rooker will try to transition from kickoff specialist to placekicker, but freshman Crews Holt will be another option. Matt Bonadies is back at punter after a steady freshman season in which he averaged 41.3 yards per boot. James and Desmond Anderson are the likely punt and kick returners, respectively, but both positions could be flexible.

Final Analysis
 

MTSU can be penciled in for at least six wins, as the Blue Raiders have reached bowl eligibility in six of the last seven seasons. But this schedule has an obstacle with only five home games, which is especially key since MTSU has a 15–3 home record and 6–14 road/neutral mark over the past three seasons. There is a tough three-game stretch early on at Vanderbilt, at defending MAC champion Bowling Green and at home against Louisiana Tech.

A strong start would benefit the Blue Raiders, as the back half of the conference schedule gets easier. A Nov. 12 trip to Marshall, per usual, could carry ramifications in the East Division race. If the offense puts together another record-breaking year and the defense finds a pass rusher and new sources for disruptive plays, MTSU could be a Conference USA contender.




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#92 UTEP Miners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#92

C-USA West PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 14-23 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pease | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tom Mason

 just missed out on bowl eligibility last season, something the Miners accomplished in head coach Sean Kugler's first season in 2014. A team featuring 15 returning starters will try and get back to the postseason, but to do so will need to stay healthy and finish at least .500 in Conference USA play.

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Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2016


The UTEP offense is always going to be conservative and run-oriented under coach Sean Kugler, but after a season of struggles at the quarterback position and a general lack of production overall, Kugler brought in a new coordinator in Brent Pease to liven things up. Pease’s first task is to sort out a quarterback battle between Ryan Metz, who showed a high ceiling but also made mistakes last season, and Fresno State graduate transfer Zack Greenlee. That will likely be settled in the final week of August.

Whoever wins the quarterback derby will have a veteran group with which to work, starting with franchise running back Aaron Jones. A preseason all-conference selection a year ago, Jones’ injury in the second game started a downward spiral for the team. The junior is in position to become the school’s all-time leading rusher this year. He’s back and healthy, as are fullback Darrin Laufasa, the top two receivers in Jaquan White and Tyler Batson, productive tight end Hayden Plinke and four starters on an offensive line that led Conference USA in fewest sacks allowed.

That line, though, could have three new starters. Tanner Stallings is a junior college recruit targeted to be the new center, and a pair of sophomores in guard Derron Gatewood and tackle Jerrod Brooks could be ready to step up. The 6'5", 330-pound Brooks looks the most like an NFL player on the roster. The other side should be the same in senior tackle Jerome Daniels and junior guard Will Hernandez.

Related:

Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2016

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

UTEP is going through about as thorough of a scheme change as there is, moving from a 4-2 built around man-to-man coverage to a 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Tom Mason. There are eight players returning with starting experience, but some of them will be in new places as ends shift to outside linebackers in the new scheme. This will feature some combination of Luke Elsner, Nick Usher, Silas Firstley and Lawrence Montegut, who will join last year’s leading tackler Alvin Jones at linebacker. Stephen Forester is in line to be the other inside linebacker.

The secondary features a group of veterans in safeties Devin Cockrell, back after missing last season to injury, and Dashone Smith, and sophomore cornerbacks Nik Needham and Kalon Beverly. UTEP’s pass defense was very poor last year but did get better as the year progressed and Needham and Beverly improved.

Nose guard Gino Bresolin will be a third-year starter in the middle of the line, but UTEP is starting over at the end positions. For the most part, the Miners are moving tackles, players who haven’t seen much of the field, to the outside. Brian Madunezim and Mike Sota will get the first crack at the positions.

Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2016


The Miners return a pair of proven commodities in placekicker Jay Mattox and punter Alan Luna, who will look to build on solid seasons. Terry Juniel was recruited out of junior college last year to fix the anemic return games but then missed the season to injury. He’s back and will be the top return man.

Final Analysis


After a season torn apart by injuries, a veteran and experienced UTEP team looks to be well positioned for a quick bounce-back, but the Miners can’t absorb the health issues they had a year ago.

The other questions are finding a quarterback and adjusting to new systems. If that goes well, they could contend for a Conference USA West title. If they have the injuries they did a year ago — when 17 players were lost for the year at some point — they won’t.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#128 North Texas Mean Green

NATIONAL FORECAST

#128

C-USA West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Seth Littrell , First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Graham Harrell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mike Ekeler, Troy Reffett

Former North Carolina offensive coordinator Seth Littrell is hoping to establish a similar up-tempo, high-powered attack at . But this is Littrell's first head coaching gig, the Mean Green's offense was one of the worst in the nation last season and the schedule is not kind. North Texas won just one game last season, but don't expect that to change much in 2016.

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Previewing North Texas’ Offense for 2016


First-time head coach Seth Littrell and first-time offensive coordinator Graham Harrell must implement their wide-open passing offense with a roster built for power running. And their style and the personnel they inherit won’t be the only odd mix.

Alabama graduate transfer Alec Morris is a capable passer, but he has few, if any, proven weapons at his disposal. Morris was on two national title teams with the Crimson Tide, serving as the No. 3 quarterback the past two seasons. His most seasoned target at North Texas will be Turner Smiley (25 receptions, 255 yards), the only returning wide receiver with more than 15 catches last season. Talented Tee Goree and some other untested wideouts will need to break out to improve the Mean Green’s air attack from last season, when it ranked 126th in the nation in pass efficiency.

The offense’s best asset is running back Jeffrey Wilson, who rushed for 830 yards in 10 games last season. Also a good receiver out of the backfield, Wilson could be the dual threat who bridges North Texas’ past offense with its new one. His sidekick, Willy Ivery, averaged 6.6 yards per carry as a change-of-pace back last season. Together, they give North Texas a much-needed one-two punch to breathe some life into the offense. 

Standout center Kaydon Kirby took a leave of absence from the team in the spring after the death of his father. If he returns for his senior season, the line should be solid.

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

Previewing North Texas’ Defense for 2016


Defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler touts a strong coaching pedigree with stints as a successful assistant at Georgia, USC, Nebraska and LSU, among others. But he inherits a unit with depth issues and bad memories. In 2015, the Mean Green allowed more than 40 points and 500 yards per game. The scheme may be trial-and-error early on. North Texas lacks enough interior defensive linemen to run a traditional 4-3, and there’s some proven talent in the secondary. So a 3-4 or nickel defense may be the best fit, especially in facing some wide-open offenses in Conference USA.

Safeties Kishawn McClain (110 tackles) and James Gray (104) return as the top tacklers, and cornerbacks Chad Davis and Nate Brooks complete a strong secondary. The problems come up front, where the Mean Green had one of the nation’s worst rush defenses and pass rushes in 2015. Two hybrid positions as the scheme takes shape will be defensive end/outside linebacker and the linebacker/nickel back spots. Junior college transfer Joshua Wheeler will play the former, while Ashton Preston and junior college transfer Eji Ejiya should fill the latter position. Linebacker William Johnson, the team’s top recruit, must also make an early impact.

Related: 

Previewing North Texas’ Specialists for 2016


Trevor Moore had a record-breaking 2014 season, but he went 0-for-4 from 40-plus yards last season. Punter Eric Keena touts a big leg with a 44.2-yard average and one-fourth of his boots traveling at least 50 yards last season. Wilson could be the best option at kick returner, but he may be saved for offense. Punt returner will be up for grabs.

Final Analysis
 

Improving on last season’s 1–11 record wouldn’t seem to be too difficult, but there are not many likely wins on the schedule. Like most North Texas seasons, some measure of success will depend on head-to-head matchups with other Texas schools — SMU, Rice, UTSA and UTEP. Littrell helped transform North Carolina into an explosive offense, but the 37-year-old has a lengthy task with long-term roster turnover ahead to rebuild North Texas. This team might look like a square peg in a round hole, but the Mean Green must go through growing pains to fit Littrell’s vision. That picture might appear hazy until the team’s personnel changes over time.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#125 Charlotte 49ers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#125

C-USA East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Brad Lambert, 12-22 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jeff Mullen | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt Wallerstedt

Charlotte's maiden voyage in FBS went about as expected, as the 49ers went 2-10 and winless (0-8) in Conference USA play. There is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball, and progress should be made with 16 starters returning. But can the 49ers make enough in the one category that counts to get to a bowl game in their first year of eligibility?

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Previewing Charlotte’s Offense for 2016


After last season’s quarterbacks combined to throw 23 interceptions — versus just 12 touchdowns — 49ers coach Brad Lambert and his staff decided to hit reset. Senior Matt Johnson, the four-year old program’s all-time leading passer, was shifted to running back, allowing an array of other signal callers a shot at the starting gig. Junior college pickup Kevin Olsen, the younger brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, ended up winning a busy competition in the spring that included veteran Brooks Barden, North Carolina A&T transfer Hasaan Klugh and East Carolina transfer Cody Keith. Barden, though, missed much of the spring with a broken collarbone. 

Olsen will have some help. Senior running back Kalif Phillips will again play a featured role in the offense. The All-Conference-USA second teamer racked up 961 rushing yards last season despite missing most of the final three games with an injured knee. There will also be no shortage of proven targets in the passing game as senior receivers Trent Bostick and Austin Duke and junior T.L. Ford combined to register 1,253 yards and eight touchdowns last season. 

The offensive line returns four starters, including a 2015 Conference-USA All-Freshman Team selection in right guard Nate Davis, but Lambert says that one of the offseason’s top priorities has been to build depth up front. Despite the questions at quarterback, after Charlotte’s offense averaged just 17.5 points per game, the experience that comes along with having eight returning starters should translate into improvement.

Previewing Charlotte’s Defense for 2016

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

Of the eight starters returning on defense, nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi will likely concern opposing offenses the most. An All-Conference USA second-team selection last season, the 6-3, 294-pounder notched 14.5 tackles for a loss in 2015 and has started every game in Charlotte football history. He’ll be flanked by a pair of ends in Zach Duncan and Brandon Banks who started a combined 18 games last season. 

Nick Cook, last season’s leading tackler, will be back at inside linebacker alongside outside backer and fellow senior Daquan Lucas, who made 10 tackles for a loss last season. With two senior starters back, cornerback should also be a strong spot. Tank Norman, who accounted for 51 tackles last season, and Terrance Winchester, who picked off four passes, will reprise their roles. The questions come at safety, where Devin Pearson is the lone proven option.

Related:

Previewing Charlotte’s Specialists for 2016


Blake Brewer’s 56-yard field goal was the league’s longest last season. But after Brewer hit only 51.9 percent of his attempts, Lambert says he’d like to see a little more consistency. Junior Arthur Hart is a proven performer at punter after landing 20 punts inside the 20-yard line and unleashing a 66-yarder last season.

Final Analysis


The 49ers’ football program went about the transition from idea to actual functioning FBS team at a head-spinning pace. And last season, it showed. After two five-win seasons as an FCS Independent, Charlotte’s first season on the FBS level yielded only two victories. Lambert says that, for his players, the experience was eye-opening and served as motivation during the offseason. 

Another driving factor comes from the roughly 20 players who were there when the program began. This season marks the first that the 49ers are eligible for a bowl. While they return 16 starters, showing enough improvement to get to six wins — especially with non-conference road trips to Louisville and Temple — will be a tall order. But since they’re already used to doing things at warp speed, the core group of original 49ers aren’t shying away from setting that as the goal.




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#123 UTSA Roadrunners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#123

C-USA West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Frank Wilson, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Frank Scelfo | DEF. COORDINATOR: Pete Golding

Frank Wilson comes over from LSU looking to turn around an UTSA program that has seen its win total decline each season since 2012, bottoming out at 3-9 in 2015. The former running backs coach for the Tigers, Wilson will probably stick to the same game plan for a Roadrunners team that ran the ball fairly well last season. The defense, however, is a far cry from what Wilson saw during this time with the Tigers.

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Previewing UTSA’s Offense for 2016


With an unsetttled quarterback situation and a returning 1,000-yard rusher — coupled with a new head coach who was heavily involved in one of the strongest rushing attacks in the SEC — expect the ball to stay on the ground at UTSA in 2016. Even before former LSU running backs coach Frank Wilson became head coach in January, the Roadrunners ran the ball over 50 percent of the time last season (despite trailing at halftime eight times), and there is no reason to expect that number to swing in the opposite direction. Running back Jarveon Williams is the team’s marquee player after battling his way to 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns last season despite late-season injuries that finally resulted in him missing the season finale. 

Three starters return on the offensive line, which found much more success run blocking than pass blocking in 2015 (44 sacks allowed). The starting QB slot won’t be decided until the fall, as returnee Dalton Sturm will try to hold off Jared Johnson, a graduate transfer who earned 2015 Southland Offensive Player of the Year honors at Sam Houston State. Both Sturm and Johnson can do some damage on the ground as well. 

There is talent at wide receiver, led by Kerry Thomas Jr., but the questions are, who will try to throw him the ball, and whoever that is, will he have the time to throw it?

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

Previewing UTSA’s Defense for 2016


Wilson plans on keeping UTSA’s 4-2-5 alignment — at least for one more season based on the returning personnel. The Roadrunners’ defense experienced a significant drop-off in every major category from 2014 to ’15 and hopes to reverse that trend with a strong defensive line and experienced safety corps. 

End Marcus Davenport has all-league potential if he can add some weight and strength to his 6'6" frame, and Kevin Strong Jr. leads a very deep rotation at the tackle slots. Michael Egwuagu and Nate Gaines return as two of the three starting safeties after combining for six INTs (including two pick-6s). The third safety looks to be Andrew Martel, who missed last season due to injury and was extremely impressive in the spring. 

Linebacker will be an issue as the staff hopes a playmaker emerges from among Marcos Curry, La’Kel Bass and Anthony Hickey. The Roadrunners will be breaking in two new cornerbacks.

Related: 

Previewing UTSA’s Specialists for 2016


Both kicking specialists return, but that is not necessarily good news. Daniel Portillo was just 1-of-7 on field goals beyond 40 yards, and he missed five extra points in his first season as starter. The punting picture was better; Yannis Routsas’ average of 39.0 yards per kick was unspectacular, but he had only 21 of his 63 returned and had a respectable 37.0-yard net with 17 punts inside the 20. The team looked at a few walk-ons in the spring, but Portillo and Routsas held onto their jobs. The kickoff and punt return duties are up for grabs after Derrick Dick's decision to transfer to Sam Houston State after spring practice.

Final Analysis


Wilson replaces Larry Coker after six years as an assistant at LSU, where he had a reputation as a strong recruiter. The Roadrunners have slipped down the Conference USA pecking order after a stunning 6–2 debut in 2013, finishing 3–5 the last two seasons. It will be difficult to climb this season as the defense does not appear to be strong enough to make up for an offense that will likely struggle in the passing game again. The key will be the development of the offensive line, especially in pass protection, because any sort of passing attack will open things up for the talented Williams. The kicking game also must improve if UTSA wants to steal a game or two against more talented foes.

 




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#109 Rice Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#109

C-USA West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: David Bailiff, 53-60 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Larry Edmondson, Billy Lynch | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Thurmond

 did not play in a bowl game to end its 2015 campaign, ending a streak of three straight postseason appearances. David Bailiff's team returns plenty of experience as the Owls will look to start a new streak while navigating a challenging non-conference schedule.

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Previewing Rice’s Offense for 2016


Changes are on the way as Rice plans to use a slightly more up-tempo offense. For the first time in three years, Rice has a new quarterback, as senior Tyler Stehling gets his turn. Stehling has been used in mop-up duty the last two years, throwing a touchdown on his first career pass late in the 2014 season opener at Notre Dame and playing five games last season and throwing for 320 yards. “He realizes now that this is his time,” coach David Bailiff says. The book on Stehling is that he’s an accurate passer and — despite being 6'6" — is mobile and not afraid to run.

Rice likes to eat up the clock and returns its top four running backs from C-USA’s second-best rushing attack (177.6 ypg). Darik Dillard has accounted for more than 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns the last two seasons. Rice needs a bounce-back year from Jowan Davis, who was bothered by injuries and ran for only 236 yards in 2015 year after just missing rushing for 1,000 yards in 2014.

The offensive line had to grow up fast a year ago and returns second-year tackles Calvin Anderson and Sam Pierce, who played extensively as freshmen.

Leading receiver Zach Wright (39 receptions, 554 yards) is back. The only other returning receiver with at least 25 receptions is Temi Alaka.

Bailiff made some changes involving his co-coordinators, with Billy Lynch taking over play-calling duties and Larry Edmondson concentrating on developing the quarterback position with Stehling set to graduate after this season.

Related:
 

Previewing Rice’s Defense for 2016

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

Help is on the way for Rice’s four-man front that was banged up most of last season. After sitting out the 2014 season, end Derek Brown had four sacks in his first year playing defense full time, and end Brian Womac posted a team-high 12.5 tackles for a loss. Another end, Graysen Schantz, is set to return after missing all but one game last season with an ACL injury. He earned Freshman All-C-USA honors two years ago.

Because of the injuries, three freshmen — Carl Thompson, Blain Padgett and Preston Gordon — saw extensive action last season. Overall the Owls used 31 true or redshirt freshmen on both sides of the ball, the most of any FBS team.

The unquestioned leader of the defense is senior middle linebacker Alex Lyons, who has led the Owls in tackles each of the past two seasons. Rice made a switch in the offseason, moving Tabari McGaskey to strong safety and replacing him with Emmanuel Ellerbee at strong-side linebacker.

 Two areas that need vast improvement: pressure on the quarterback and turnovers. Rice finished 111th in the nation with 16 sacks and last with two interceptions.

Previewing Rice’s Specialists for 2016


Hayden Tobola joined the team as a walk-on before fall camp and went on to convert 8-of-13 field-goal attempts. Jack Fox is slated to take over the punting duties following the graduation of James Farrimond, who finished his career as one of the best in school history. Austin Walter, who averaged 21.7 yards on kickoff returns, has the type of speed that gives the Owls a breakaway threat.

Final Analysis


Bailiff says “it’s an exciting time” as Rice prepares to move into a new $31.5 million end zone facility this summer, the first major upgrade in decades at Rice Stadium. After having its run of three consecutive bowl appearances snapped, the Owls face a challenging schedule beginning with the opener at defending C-USA champion Western Kentucky. Two other key conference games (against Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech) are on the road, and the Owls’ non-conference schedule includes a home game against Baylor and trip to Stanford in the season finale.




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#105 FIU Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#105

C-USA East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 10-26 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Matt House

FIU took annother small step forward last season, finishing with five wins, the most since 2011. Even more is expected this season, as Ron Turner's team is hoping a veteran offense and a manageable schedule will result in the Panthers' first bowl invitation in five seasons.

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Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2016  
 

Quarterback Alex McGough enters his third year as the starter and leads a unit that has nine starters returning from 2015 — a season in which McGough threw for 2,722 yards and 21 touchdowns with just eight interceptions.

Every skill position returns a playmaker from 2015. Running back Alex Gardner is back after a season in which he eclipsed 1,200 yards from scrimmage (760 rushing, 442 receiving) and scored 10 touchdowns. He’s joined by a pair of talented pass-catching threats in tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Thomas Owens.

Along the offensive front, Michael Montero leads a veteran group that needs to improve its run blocking to allow the Panthers to see offensive continuity.

The knock on FIU’s offense is the lack of the big play, which needs to change in the 2016 season. Given the unit’s experience, big-play capability (or lack thereof) could be the difference. 

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

Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2016 
 

The strength of the defense is at safety, where Niko Gonzalez and Tyree Johnson bring playmaking ability and experience to the back end. That experience offsets the losses of talented cornerbacks Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon.

Anthony Wint led FIU with 88 tackles in 2015, and Treyvon Williams and Davison Colimon return from injuries to give the Panthers a strong corps of linebackers. Look for Vontarius West to be a playmaker after gaining much needed experience last season.

FIU will have to find newcomers to establish a pass rush with three of four starting defensive linemen gone. Imarjaye Albury, a senior, is the lone returnee on the line; the onus is on FIU to find young talent to step up at the defensive end spots.

The Panthers hope to avoid the injury bug and establish a pass rush. If they’re able to do so, the athleticism is there to make plays. Again, with so much experience on offense, the defense needs to be good, not great. Last year, they weren’t good.

Related: 

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2016  
 

FIU’s special teams unit was solid in 2015. Placekicker Austin Taylor is back, as is punter Stone Wilson. Numbers weren’t bad across the board, but given that C-USA had some of the nation’s best in the kicking game, continued improvement is a must. FIU needs to find someone to replace Leonard, who was a do-it-all return guy. Look for Anthony Jones to emerge as the primary option early, but head coach Ron Turner will try out several people in an attempt to get that explosive factor that Leonard brought to the table.

Final Analysis
 

The goal for this season can be summed up with one word: consistency. If FIU can be consistent, the schedule sets up for seven or eight wins. However, if both sides of the ball are inconsistent, FIU could be staring at a three- or four-win season.

McGough has to take the next step as a leader and find ways to win close games. FIU’s offense could be one of the surprises of C-USA in 2016 — if all returning parts continue to build chemistry and take care of the football. Defensively, it’s all about the pass rush. If FIU can establish solid ends, the talent is there in other spots to see the defense improve. Without a rush, young cornerbacks are going to have a world of trouble against C-USA receivers.

The Panthers’ schedule sets up to give them momentum and confidence heading down the stretch. After opening against Indiana and Maryland, the next five games don’t feature an opponent projected to be in the top 100 out of 128 FBS teams. They need to take advantage.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#104 Old Dominion Monarchs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#104

C-USA East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 57-27 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Rich Nagy

Old Dominion came up just short of earning the program's first bowl berth last season. Back-to-back losses to end the campaign left the Monarchs at 5-7, just shy of that magic six-win threshold. Sixteen starters are back as ODU looks to break through in just its fourth season as an FBS program.

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Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2016


Quarterback was a question mark last season and is likely to stay that way for now. Shuler Bentley and David Washington, a converted receiver, traded the starting gig last season. After taking over for Bentley midway through the year, Washington started in three wins before tearing his ACL. Bentley finished out the year throwing six touchdowns and one interception in the final two outings. With Washington limited in the spring, Bentley, a pocket passer, focused on improving his mobility. Coach Bobby Wilder expects the position to remain unsettled into the fall.

There are two solid options at running back as junior Ray Lawry and sophomore Jeremy Cox give the Monarchs what Wilder says should be as good a rushing tandem as there is in the league. The speedy Lawry, the conference’s top freshman in 2014, carried for 1,136 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Cox, who is the more physical of the two, filled in nicely as a banged-up Lawry missed time late in the season.

The Monarchs return the players who caught 211 of last season’s 235 receptions. But Wilder says he wants more out of this veteran group, which is led by senior Zach Pascal and junior Jonathan Duhart.

Prior to last season, the Monarchs’ staff decided to involve the tight end more. But when Melvin Vaughn suffered a season-ending knee injury late in fall camp and his backup, Adam Swann, broke his leg a few days later, the plan was scrapped. With Vaughn, Swann and a group of younger options all healthy, look for the tight ends to play a larger role. That will be important since the Monarchs will be young along an offensive line that will have to replace two starters.

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

Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2016 
 

Old Dominion welcomes back 13 players who saw time on the defensive line, including senior nose tackle Rashaad Coward, who racked up 47 tackles, as well as sophomore Oshane Ximines and junior Bunmi Rotimi, who were first and second on the team in sacks, respectively. 

While the strength of the unit will be up front, there’s reason to be optimistic elsewhere. Conference USA’s leading tackler, senior T.J. Ricks, will move from inside linebacker to outside to better take advantage of his size and quickness. In his place, a deep group of linebackers — including Wilder’s son Derek and promising sophomores Isaiah Worthy and Marvin Branch — expect to make an impact. 

The Monarchs return three of last season’s four starters in the secondary, with Denzel Williams looking likely to find a prominent spot in the rotation. Look for corners Aaron Young and Brandon Addison and strong safety Justice Davila to play major roles on a unit that’s steadily building depth. 
Related: 

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2016  
 

In an effort to bolster an underwhelming special teams game, the Monarchs brought in former Vanderbilt assistant Charles Bankins. He’ll have some promising pieces in sophomore kicker Chris Kirtley and sophomore kick returner Kesean Strong. But Bankins will have to find answers at punter and punt returner.

Final Analysis
 

Thus far, change has been the only constant for the modern incarnation of Old Dominion football. After restarting the program, the Monarchs spent two seasons as an FCS Independent, two seasons in one of the FCS’ top leagues, one season as an FBS Independent and now two seasons in Conference USA. So this season marks unprecedented consistency. According to Wilder, that will start showing as more high school recruits with redshirt years on their résumés start making their way to the field.

One of the youngest teams in the league last season, the Monarchs finished one win shy of their first bowl bid. If they can nail down some big questions — i.e., quarterback — this group should be in good shape to get over that barrier.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#103 FAU Owls

NATIONAL FORECAST

#103

C-USA East PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Charlie Partridge, 6-18 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Travis Trickett | DEF. COORDINATOR: Roc Bellantoni

has gone 3-9 in each of Charlie Partridge's two seasons as head coach. A new offensive identity and a more experienced roster are hoping to at least double that win total in Year 3, as the Owls aim for bowl eligibility this fall.

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Previewing FAU’s Offense for 2016  


Along with installing the #NoHuddleNoMercy up-tempo offense he brought from Samford, new offensive coordinator Travis Trickett’s biggest task will be choosing a quarterback. The candidates are young but talented. Sophomore Jason Driskel — younger brother of Jeff, the former Florida and Louisiana Tech QB — started two games and saw action in 10, throwing for 965 yards, three TDs and four interceptions. Freshman Daniel Parr spurned a late recruiting push from Miami to sign with FAU — then wowed coaches with arm strength and playbook mastery while redshirting last season. Even before the start of spring practices, coach Charlie Partridge proclaimed that the Driskel/Parr battle would carry into fall camp — maybe longer.

Whichever signal caller Trickett, son of FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett, ultimately selects will benefit from a deep crop of ball carriers. In junior Buddy Howell and senior Jay Warren, the Owls return two backs who have combined to start 15 games and rush for 1,871 yards over the past two seasons. Future feature back Devin Singletary, an incoming freshman who flipped from Illinois to FAU on Signing Day, could become a factor this season.

Nate Terry is primed to emerge as the Owls’ main receiving threat. At 6'6" with long arms, Terry made the move from tight end to slot receiver in the spring, and his adaptation delighted coaches. He should continue to be a strong red zone threat. Sliding Terry wide opens more playing time for tight end Tyler Cameron, who transferred to FAU from Wake Forest as a quarterback prior to last season but moved to tight end and became an unexpected threat in 2015.

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

Previewing FAU’s Defense for 2016 


FAU’s 2015 youth movement strongly positioned the Owls for this season. At 6'4", 280 pounds and possessing good power and speed, end Trey Hendrickson is the elder statesman. He’s not the kind of player who usually makes his way to FAU. Hendrickson’s 13.5 sacks tied for second in the nation last season, but with tackles Trevon Coley and Brandin Bryant now pursuing NFL careers, Hendrickson will have to try to repeat that performance against offenses geared to negate him.

Tackles Ray Ellis and Steven Leggett are run stoppers who are still developing pass-rush technique. FAU has demonstrated a surprising willingness to start a true freshman at defensive tackle, and incoming freshman Kevin McCrary is the most heralded defensive lineman ever signed by FAU.

The defense will be young, but it will be experienced. FAU played 10 true freshmen on defense and special teams last year, and the youngsters proved worthy of the playing time. Linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair led the Owls with 94 tackles, earning Freshman All-America honors from one outlet.

The three touchdowns Ocie Rose scored last season were only two off the team lead — and he was the nickel back. Jalen Young intercepted three passes and made 69 tackles.

Related: 

Previewing FAU’s Specialists for 2016  
 

Dalton Schomp led the nation in punting last season, averaging 48.0 yards, but is it ever a positive to put an image of the punter on the cover of the spring media guide, like FAU did? Schomp is the leading name in what has been an average-at-best special teams unit. FAU signed Landon Scheer in 2014, touting him as the top kicker in the nation. He’s yet to beat out walk-on Greg Joseph. 

Final Analysis
 

Entering his third season as FAU coach, Partridge has a team athletic enough to compete with every program in Conference USA. With non-conference home games against Southern Illinois and Ball State, anything short of bowl eligibility will be disappointing. If the young quarterbacks can quickly get a handle on Trickett’s offense, the Owls should head into conference play with momentum for the first time since, well, ever.




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