Conference USA

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#116 Old Dominion Monarchs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#116

C-USA East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Bobby Wilder, 46-14 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Brian Scott | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kermit Buggs, Rich Nagy

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. 116 Old Dominion.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Offense for 2014: 

As it moves into its second season in FBS and its first in Conference USA, Old Dominion has the luxury of a proven quarterback in senior Taylor Heinicke. He begins this season with a string of 33 straight starts and the 2012 Walter Payton Award — the FCS equivalent of a Heisman — on his résumé. Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder says Heinicke’s decision-making is critical for his young team. Last year, the Atlanta native completed 70.0 percent of his passes for 4,022 yards with 33 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.

He’ll have some options in the passing game as Antonio Vaughan and Zach Pascal return after catching 40 or more passes last year. There’s also a wave of young talent at receiver behind them that has the Monarchs’ staff excited.

The running backs will be young — the more established trio of Gerard Johnson, Cam Boyd and Malik Moseley might have to share time with newcomers. After losing some key contributors on the offensive line, the Monarchs are looking for answers there, too, although coaches believe there’s enough raw talent on hand to form a solid group.
Old Dominion as a program is still in the process of adjusting to the FBS level, but the Monarchs’ offense — which averaged 42.3 points per game as Heinicke torched opposing defenses — is ready to compete in Conference USA.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Defense for 2014:

All but two of the Monarchs’ defensive starters from the end of the 2013 season are back, but that may not mean much. After the Old Dominion defense gave up 34 points and more than 450 yards per game last season, every spot is up for grabs.
The main culprit for the struggles was inexperience. The Monarchs were painfully young on the defensive line in 2013, starting six first-year players at various points. All of them are back, and the coaches hope they’ll be able to build on that experience.

After strong springs, junior college transfers Reece Schmidt and Martez Simpson will provide a boost for the linebacker corps. Andre Simmons should help too after moving down from the safety spot.

The secondary returns two starters, including last season’s leading tackler Fellonte Misher.

For a unit that had its share of low moments last season, most notably giving up a head-spinning 80 points at North Carolina, improvement is mandatory if the Monarchs plan on making any noise in their new league.

Previewing Old Dominion’s Specialists for 2014:

Ricky Segers will handle the kicking duties after redshirting last season. Sophomore Joe Pulisic and freshman Jarrett Cervi will likely battle in preseason for the punter job. All of them should benefit from experienced long snapper Rick Lovato. In addition to being key cogs on offense, Vaughan and Moseley will figure prominently in the return game as well.

Final Analysis 

Since the program restarted in 2009, the Monarchs have shown that they can adapt. In their second year in the powerful CAA, they won a league title and reached the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs. In their first season as an FBS program, they knocked off Idaho and hung with bowl teams East Carolina and Pittsburgh. In five seasons, all under Wilder, the Monarchs are 46–14.

The challenge will be steeper this season as there’s only one FCS school on the schedule as opposed to the seven that the Monarchs played in 2013.

But with Heinicke as the face of the program and last season’s young talent maturing, Old Dominion appears to have what it needs to keep that steady upward trajectory in place.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#109 UAB Blazers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#109

C-USA East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Bill Clark, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryant Vincent | DEF. COORDINATOR: Duwan Walker

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. 109 UAB. 

Previewing UAB’s Offense for 2014

Finding playmakers shouldn’t be a problem for the Blazers. Finding someone to get the football to the playmakers could be a bit trickier. UAB has several quarterback candidates but none with any significant FBS experience. Junior college transfer Cody Clements moved to the front during spring practice, but redshirt freshman Jeremiah Briscoe, who had shoulder surgery last season, is not far behind. Four other quarterbacks are on the roster, including a pair of true freshmen, but it looks like the job will go to either Clements or Briscoe.

The good news is, they can spread it around to some quality playmakers. Sophomore running back Jordan Howard was a Freshman All-Conference USA selection after sharing the position with departed standout Darrin Reaves. If junior Bashr Coles stays healthy, then the Blazers have a pair of rugged runners.
Senior receiver Jamarcus Nelson was one of the most dynamic receivers in the conference last season — averaging 20.1 per catch on his 42 receptions and scoring eight touchdowns — and sophomore Jamari Staples is also a big-play threat. They are just the start of a deep and talented corps of pass-catchers that also features the top C-USA tight end in veteran Kennard Backman.

UAB should be solid up front, even though there could be a bunch of interchangeable parts. The Blazers have four returning regulars, including a pair of solid tackles in Cameron Blankenship and Victor Salako, and plenty of incoming help. Redshirt freshman center Zach Sims could be a future star.

Previewing UAB’s Defense for 2014

UAB fans are accustomed to bad defense. New head coach Bill Clark, a defensive coach by trade, looks to change that quickly. The Blazers appear to be deep on the defensive side and possibly more talented than in the recent past. Time will tell if that translates into more defensive success.

The secondary should be a strength after a disastrous 2013 when injuries decimated the defensive backfield. Calvin Jones and Jay Davis, who started at safety in last year’s opener, return after missing most of the season with injuries. They are part of a deep group of safeties, including intriguing junior college transfer Kalen Jackson, who also could play linebacker. Cornerback is well manned with Kelton Brackett, Lamarcus Farmer and Jimmy Jean leading the way.

UAB has to get better up front. Defensive ends Diaheem Watkins and undersized Chris Rabb give UAB speed on the edge, but the Blazers need to shore up the inside. Junior Jontavious Morris is solid at nose tackle, and junior college transfers Parrish Huddleston and Robert Mondie will contribute. Health is not an issue, and the numbers are good if some first-year players can fit in right away.

Jake Ganus, last year’s leading tackler, returns at linebacker but is not guaranteed a starting spot. Truth is, no one had a starting spot secured heading into fall camp. Destin Challenger played well in a short stint before getting injured last season, and Shaq Jones is impressive physically. Perhaps the most important thing is finding someone to win the job in the middle.

Previewing UAB’s Specialists for 2014

The Blazers have one of the top pairs of specialists in the league in kicker Ty Long and punter Hunter Mullins. Nelson is a dynamic kick returner.

Final Analysis

Don’t expect miracles from Clark in his first season, but do expect improvement from Garrick McGee’s short tenure as the program’s head coach. Defensive improvement is a must, and someone needs to secure the quarterback job. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see UAB double its win total from last season, which was two, but they are probably a couple of years away from turning things completely in the right direction.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#127 FIU Panthers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#127

C-USA East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Ron Turner, 1-11 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Steve Shankweiler | DEF. COORDINATOR: Josh Conklin

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. 127 FIU.

Previewing FIU’s Offense for 2014:

Coming off arguably the worst offensive season the Football Bowl Subdivision has seen since 2005, further regression seems impossible for FIU. The team will be based around an offensive line that returns five starters from last season, including left guard Jordan Budwig, a local product who started as a true freshman last season and was the team’s best run-blocker.

In all, FIU returns offensive linemen with a combined 69 career starts. The hope of FIU coach Ron Turner and his staff is that experience will help the Panthers improve a rushing offense that averaged 2.1 yards per carry last season (last in the nation, and it wasn’t even close) and a passing game that was forced into quick dump passes on nearly every down.

The big question for FIU in 2014 is who will be under center (and that idiom still applies to the pro-style Panthers). Jake Medlock, the Panthers’ starting quarterback last year, transferred to D-II Valdosta State for his senior season, leaving the man he beat out last year, E.J. Hilliard, and a promising pair of early enrollee freshmen to battle for the job. Hilliard, a scrambling quarterback from nearby Miami Northwestern, has never looked comfortable in Turner’s anti-spread scheme. His competition for the starting job comes from Tampa product Alex McGough. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, McGough is as prototypical of a pocket passer as FIU is going to find, and he stole the show in the Panthers’ spring game. He’ll be pushed by fellow freshman Bud Martin, who has the best arm strength of the three.

Regardless of which quarterback plays, he’ll be handing the ball off to junior running back Lamarq Caldwell, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season. For a team based in South Florida, FIU has a surprising dearth of playmakers at wide receiver. Sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith picked up many of those dump passes.

Previewing FIU’s Defense for 2014: 

FIU didn’t exactly pair a strong defense with its anemic offense last year, and the defense could devolve further in 2014.

Finding two defensive tackles who can replace Greg Hickman and Isame Faciane is priority No. 1 in West Miami. The two tackles were the reason FIU’s 5.28 yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt wasn’t a bigger number and that the FIU pass rush had any numbers at all. With both gone to graduation, the Panthers will give first dibs on their jobs to junior Lars Koht and sophomore Imarjaye Albury.

There’s depth at defensive end, with Giovani Francois and Denzell Perine standing out. Wonderful Monds II should provide quality snaps as well. Darrian Dyson can play multiple positions and could be the D-line’s X-factor.

The return of cornerback Richard Leonard from academic ineligibility should boost an already solid secondary, which is anchored by free safety and male model (seriously) Justin Halley.

Linebacker is another position of concern. Middle backer Luis Rosado is the group’s top returning tackler (35). He’ll be flanked by Davison Colimon and Patrick Jean, who combined for 39 tackles.

Previewing FIU’s Specialists for 2014:

The Panthers are young on special teams. Austin Taylor returns after a decent freshman season in which he made 8-of-12 field goals. True freshman Luke Medlock is likely to win the starting punting job.

Final Analysis

While the natural progression of players and the return of Leonard at cornerback provide hope that FIU can improve, holes in the defensive front seven and the possibility that a true freshman will start at quarterback extinguish those small bits of positivity. Games against Louisville, Pitt, Marshall and even rival FAU are likely to be embarrassingly lopsided. The Panthers have a better chance of going winless than making a bowl game. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#117 UTEP Miners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#117

C-USA West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Sean Kugler, 2-10 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Patrick Higgins | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scott Stoker

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. 117 UTEP.

Previewing UTEP’s Offense for 2014: 

When UTEP’s skill position players were healthy and whole in the first half of the season, the Miners’ run-oriented attack was humming.

Most of the key pieces are back, led by quarterback Jameill Showers, who transfered from Texas A&M after finding himself behind Johnny Manziel. Showers played well before separating his shoulder in the seventh game. He completed 57 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions despite playing behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him.

Showers has to find a new No. 1 receiver after Jordan Leslie, who was on track to make a run at every school receiving record, transferred to BYU. Senior Ian Hamilton is the likely new top target after catching 25 passes a year ago. Malcolm Trail and Jarrad Shaw, along with tight end Eric Tomlinson, will also be a big part of the passing attack.

A Sean Kugler offense, however, starts with the running game, and Aaron Jones returns after a spectacular freshman debut — 90.1 yards per game, first among freshmen nationally — that was cut short by injury after nine games. Senior Nathan Jeffery has been productive when healthy.

The line returns three starters, but they are all changing positions as the Miners look to get bigger. Jerel Watkins and Kyle Brown, athletic but smallish for what UTEP is trying to do in the middle, are moving from guard to tackle, and center Paulo Melendez is moving to guard. UTEP should be 10 pounds heavier per man on the line than it was last year, but this is still the area of concern.

Previewing UTEP’s Defense for 2014:

UTEP’s been bad on defense for a decade, and last year may have been a new low point. Last spring, the Miners switched to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Jeff Choate, but he left the program in April. They then made the move to a 4-2-5 under Scott Stoker, who was hired away from Sam Houston State.

They spent most of the fall looking confused. UTEP ranked 12th in Conference USA in total defense (468.3 ypg) and was especially bad against the run. The Miners gave up 6.2 yards per rushing attempt (119th in the nation) and allowed 18 rushes of 30 yards or more. They also tied for last the league with only 13 sacks. There wasn’t much that this defense did well.

End Roy Robertson-Harris, perhaps the best athlete on the team, will lead an otherwise young line. The back seven is far more experienced. Linebacker Anthony Puente and several defensive backs with starting experience in last year’s revolving door are back, led by corners Adrian James and Ishmael Harrison and safeties Dashone Smith, Devin Cockrell and Wesley Miller.

Previewing UTEP’s Specialists for 2014: 

The Miners weren’t very good at kicking last year, but they still felt good enough about Jay Mattox (7-of-15 on field goals) that they didn’t recruit another placekicker. Punter Mike Ruggles (40.0 yards per attempt) was solid enough, but the star of the special teams is kick returner Autrey Golden, who was among the national leaders in both return average (27.6) and touchdowns (two).

Final Analysis 

As long as the Miners stay healthy at the offensive skill positions, they should score enough points to keep them in most games. That happened for the first part of last season, but they didn’t win many games because the defense was so porous.

A combination of a second year in the system and a host of experience in the back seven should lead to improvement on defense, but it will have to be dramatic for UTEP to win six games and challenge for a bowl.




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.




Unpublished

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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