Conference USA

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#90 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#90

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

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

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

Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2014:

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

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

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

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

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2014: 

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

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

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2014: 

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

Final Analysis

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

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

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




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#89 UTSA Roadrunners

NATIONAL FORECAST

#89

C-USA West PREDICTION

#3

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

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

Previewing UTSA’s Offense for 2014: 

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

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

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

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

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

Previewing UTSA’s Defense for 2014:

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

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

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

Previewing UTSA’s Specialists for 2014:

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

Final Analysis

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

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




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#86 North Texas Mean Green

NATIONAL FORECAST

#86

C-USA West PREDICTION

#1

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

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

Previewing North Texas’ Offense for 2014: 

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

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

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

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

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

Previewing North Texas’ Defense for 2014:

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

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

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

Previewing North Texas’ Specialists for 2014:

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

Final Analysis

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

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

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




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#92 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#92

C-USA East PREDICTION

#4

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

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

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Offense for 2014

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

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

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

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

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Defense for 2014

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

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

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

Previewing Western Kentucky’s Specialists for 2014

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

Final Analysis

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




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Unpublished

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#40 Marshall Thundering Herd

NATIONAL FORECAST

#40

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Doc Holliday, 27-24 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Legg | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Heater

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. 40 Marshall.

Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2014: 

You can be sure that one team that was opposed to the NCAA’s proposed slow-down rule was the Thundering Herd. Over the past two years with quarterback Rakeem Cato at the helm, no team has averaged more plays per game. Marshall’s hurry-up offense has produced back-to-back seasons of 500-plus yards of offense per game, and with Cato returning for his senior year, there is a good chance that streak will grow to three years in a row. Cato’s 39 touchdown passes in 2013 were third in the nation, and he spent the spring working on his deep balls.

The short-to-intermediate passing attack will be paced by first-team All-C-USA receiver Tommy Shuler, who has a chance to make NCAA history with his third straight 100-catch season. Tight end Eric Frohnapfel will have to replace Gator Hoskins, but showed in the spring he will also be a weapon in the middle of the field. The key to making Marshall’s offense even more productive will be the emergence of more consistent outside receivers. Davonte Allen is a special athlete. MU coaches have been waiting for Allen to break out, and he began to dominate late in the spring.

Up front, three starters return, led by first-team All-C-USA Chris Jasperse at center. The offensive line will pave the way for a new starting running back, which could be Kevin Grooms, Steward Butler or Remi Watson. All three should see the ball, with Grooms and Butler providing the home-run threats.

Previewing Marshall’s Defense for 2014: 

Marshall made big strides in 2013 on defense. Seven starters will return from a unit that trimmed its points allowed per game from 43.1 in 2012 to 22.9 last season — the biggest improvement in the nation. Sixth-year senior James Rouse returns at defensive tackle after earning first-team All-C-USA honors and will command the attention of opposing interior offensive lines. On the outside, Ra’Shawde Myers (5.5 sacks) is back, and he will be spelled by Miami (Fla.) transfer Ricardo Williams, who impressed in spring ball.

The team’s three top tacklers a year ago were all linebackers, which was impressive given how often Marshall played with just two linebackers on the field. All three are back, with Jermaine Holmes and Evan McKelvey slotted to be the two linebackers on the field the most. Neville Hewitt, Stefan Houston and converted safety D.J. Hunter should receive significant time as well.

In the secondary, Darryl Roberts and Corey Tindal will man the corners, with athletic Michael Johnson coming in as a new starter at nickel. At free safety, A.J. Leggett has beat out incumbent starter Taj Letman, while Tiquan Lang returns at strong safety after winning the job halfway through his freshman season.

Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2014:

Kicker Justin Haig returns after hitting 11-of-16 field goals with a long of 42 yards. Marshall may look at kickoff specialist Amoreto Curraj for anything beyond 40 yards. Punter Tyler Williams is also back. The Herd were 92nd in net punting a year ago, but Williams did pin Maryland inside its 10-yard line four times in the bowl victory. Deandre Reeves will likely handle both punt and kick return duties.

Final Analysis 

Could Marshall go undefeated? When Louisville had to postpone its 2014 date with the Herd due to an ACC-obligated matchup with Notre Dame, Rhode Island became Marshall’s final non-conference opponent. The Herd certainly should be favored each week as long as Cato remains healthy (backup QB is a big concern heading into the fall). The three teams that beat Marshall last year that are on the schedule this year all must visit Huntington, where Marshall has won eight straight. A highly productive offense led by an elite quarterback and solid, veteran defense could lift the Herd to a historic season. 




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