Conference USA

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#88 MTSU Blue Raiders

NATIONAL FORECAST

#88

C-USA East PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Rick Stockstill, 57-55 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Buster Faulkner | DEF. COORDINATOR: Tyrone Nix

Middle Tennessee won enough games to be bowl-eligible last season, but the Blue Raiders didn't get an invite. Rick Stockstill's team returns 13 starters, but a tough schedule including a date with Alabama makes MTSU's path back to the postseason a difficult one.

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Previewing MTSU’s Offense for 2015
 

Middle Tennessee’s quarterback competition is a two-man race that might go well into the season. Returning starter Austin Grammer, a dual-threat performer, accounted for 2,999 yards of total offense and 23 TDs last season. But he had some turnover issues in key games, and the passing game rarely stretched the field. Redshirt freshman Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, may be a better passer, but Grammer is a better runner. It’s likely that game action will determine the starter. “We’ve got to move the ball and pass it better,” Rick Stockstill says. “In the last four or five games last year, our passing game struggled and people loaded the box on us. So whoever is out there has to pass the ball down the field. But I am in no hurry to make a decision.”

The air attack faces an uphill battle. Ed Batties is a proven pass catcher, but he needs help from other wideouts. Passing game aside, the Blue Raiders return some key components of a strong ground attack. Jordan Parker, Shane Tucker and Jeremiah Bryson have combined for 3,638 rushing yards and 39 total TDs in their careers, and freshman power back J’Vonte Herrod may also enter the fray. Plus, three starting offensive linemen are back.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing MTSU’s Defense for 2015

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The key cogs return in two senior standouts. Safety Kevin Byard’s 15 career interceptions stand only two shy of MTSU’s all-time record. Byard (246 tackles) and linebacker T.T. Barber (234) are both within reach of the team’s career mark in tackles (344).

They head a defense returning seven starters, but most of that personnel is better suited to stop the run than the pass. The top four defensive tackles return to clog gaps in the middle, but an every-down pass rusher is desperately needed. Juniors Steven Rhodes and Chris Hale showed some promise in that role in the spring, but junior college transfer Peter Bailey was signed specifically to bring pressure.

“I think defensive end is such a big area because we haven’t had that guy who can get to the quarterback on any down in a few years,” Stockstill says. “Adding that will be critical for what we need to do defensively.”

Depth is also needed at cornerback. Jared Singletary is solid, but the other starter and backups are concerns, especially for a secondary burned by big plays too often in 2014.

Previewing MTSU’s Specialists for 2015
 

Placekicker and punter are big concerns. Cody Clark is back, but he missed his last four field goals in 2014 and looked shaky in spring practice. He will compete for placekicking duties with freshman Matt Bonadies, who arrives as the frontrunner at punter. Record-breaking return man Reggie Whatley graduated, leaving a big-play vacancy. Batties, Bryson, Singletary and others will try to fill the void.

Final Analysis
 

MTSU has been bowl-eligible in five of the past six seasons, and the 2015 squad has enough talent and experience to add to that total. But the schedule doesn’t do the Blue Raiders any favors. Two weeks after a trip to Alabama, MTSU begins a three-game stretch against Illinois, Vanderbilt and high-powered rival Western Kentucky. The senior-laden squad could be Stockstill’s best in a few years, but the record might not show it.

“We’ve got some tough road games; it’s not just our out-of-conference games,” Stockstill says. “Western Kentucky could be favored to win the East, and we go there. Louisiana Tech could be favored to win the West, and we go there. But for us to contend (in Conference USA), we have got to stay healthy through those first five games so we can play well down the stretch in our conference.”




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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#70 Marshall Thundering Herd

NATIONAL FORECAST

#70

C-USA East PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Doc Holliday, 40-25 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill Legg | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chuck Heater

A year after a near-perfect season, Marshall still hopes to be in contention for a Conference USA title. The Thundering Herd lost 67-66 to WKU in overtime for their only loss of the season in 2014. Marshall has the personnel and schedule to challenge for another C-USA title — but it may again come down to a date with the Hilltoppers to end the season.


Related: 2015 C-USA Predictions
 

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Previewing Marshall’s Offense for 2015 
 

Michael Birdsong, a 6'5", 242-pound transfer from James Madison, steps in at quarterback to replace Rakeem Cato, who produced nearly 15,000 total yards and 146 touchdowns in his career. Birdsong possesses a live arm and the starting experience to help Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg keep his attack in the top 15 nationally for a fourth-straight year.

Birdsong will have plenty of help from a veteran group of skill players that includes senior running back Devon Johnson and junior Remi Watson as well as a bevy of talented receivers. Johnson rushed for 1,767 yards — sixth best in FBS — and 17 touchdowns last year, while Watson added another 546 yards on the ground for an offense that averaged 6.8 yards per rush in 2014.

While there is a new quarterback, the targets at receiver are familiar. Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and Deon-Tay McManus provide the Herd with guys who can stretch the field. Marshall has to replace Tommy Shuler, who left as Conference USA’s all-time leader in receptions, but the Herd coaching staff is high on Hyleck Foster, who had a strong year as a freshman reserve.

Along the offensive front, Marshall has moved right guard Michael Selby to center to replace four-year starter Chris Jasperse, who logged more than 4,000 career snaps. Right tackle Clint Van Horn and left guard Sebastian Johansson are proven starters, but the unproven entity will be sophomore Sandley Jean-Felix, who will assume the left tackle spot.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing Marshall’s Defense for 2015 
 

Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater transformed a team that was next to last in the nation in scoring defense in 2012 to a defense that was No. 18 in 2014, but his hands are full in 2015.

Top cornerback Darryl Roberts is gone, along with linebacker Neville Hewitt, who was Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year. While Hewitt’s loss looks biggest on paper, Roberts had keyed the defensive turnaround with an ability to win one-on-one battles, which freed up Heater to send multiple blitzes at the opposition. To continue this scheme, cornerbacks Keith Baxter, Antavis Rowe and Chris Williams-Hall will need to emerge quickly as physical defenders.

Hewitt became a leader in the middle of the defense last season, but Marshall is high on Shawn Petty, a transfer from Maryland who excelled in the spring. Petty joins D.J. Hunter and Evan McKelvey in a linebacking corps that should be among the best in the conference. McKelvey returns after missing much of 2014 with a knee injury.

The biggest defensive concerns will be the lack of a proven pass rusher, so big things will be asked of UCF transfer Blake Keller. Gary Thompson has shown his playmaking ability in spurts, and Joe Massaquoi is a guy who had a solid preseason.

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Marshall’s Specialists for 2015
 

Marshall returns one of the nation’s top punters in Tyler Williams, a Ray Guy Award candidate who has averaged 43.7 yards per punt in his career. Nick Smith is the likely replacement for Justin Haig at kicker, but Amoreto Curraj, who will handle kickoff duties, is also a candidate. The Herd’s kick return game looks strong with Deandre Reaves, who returned a kickoff for a score in the bowl win. Foster is the likely punt returner.

Final Analysis 
 

Johnson’s return and a bevy of talented receivers help ease the pressure on Birdsong for an offense that has eclipsed 500 yards per game on average for each of the last three seasons. If the defense provides anything this season, the Herd — who face another soft schedule — should be in contention for a Conference USA Championship and potential New Year’s Six bowl berth. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2015 PRESEASON TOP 25

#69 WKU Hilltoppers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#69

C-USA East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Jeff Brohm, 8-5 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Tyson Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Nick Holt

As far as entertainment value, there was no better ticket in college football late last season than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers defeated Marshall in overtime and then defeated Central Michigan in a bowl game. The two games totaled 230 points and each were decided by one point. With seven starters — including a quarterback and running back — returning on offense, WKU is built for fireworks again.
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Previewing WKU’s Offense for 2015 
 

Conference USA opponents, especially the defensive coordinators, must have gasped when the NCAA granted WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty a sixth season with a medical hardship waiver. Combined with running back Leon Allen, no QB-RB duo in FBS history has matched their staggering numbers of last season. Doughty led the nation with 4,830 passing yards, and Allen ran for 1,542, giving them a combined 6,372 yards, surpassing the previous record of 5,840 yards set by Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III (4,293) and running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547) in 2011. 

The Hilltoppers set or tied 50 offensive team and individual records. Only five quarterbacks since 1956 have thrown more than Doughty’s 49 touchdown passes that also led the nation. 

So much for the Hilltoppers’ offense taking a step back with the departure after one year of coach Bobby Petrino to Louisville. Rookie coach Jeff Brohm put the offense into an even higher gear, and more of the same can be expected with the return of three starters on the line — left tackle Forrest Lamp and guards Brandon Ray and Darrell Williams.

Also back is Doughty’s favorite target, senior receiver Jared Dangerfield, who had a school-record 69 catches for 825 yards and 11 touchdowns. Allen also is a receiving threat; his 476 yards pushed him over 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

Order a copy of Athlon's 2015 National College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Previewing WKU’s Defense for 2015 
 

The Hilltoppers have a lot of catching up to do on the opposite side of the ball. The return of seven starters, plus the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris, should improve a unit that nationally ranked 120th in total defense and 121st in scoring defense.

The top four tacklers return, including senior middle linebacker Nick Holt, the heart and soul of the defense. The son of defensive coordinator Nick Holt Sr., Holt had 111 tackles. Also returning to flank Holt at outside linebacker is senior Dejon Brown, who was second on the team with 78 tackles.

Morris isn’t listed as a returning starter for WKU, but he would have been for UAB had it not disbanded its program. At 6'2", 295 pounds, he will plug the middle at tackle after playing nose guard for the Blazers.

Strong safety Branden Leston and free safety Marcus Ward each had 63 tackles. Lesten led the team with four interceptions, while senior cornerback Wonderful Terry was indeed wonderful on his two interceptions, returning both for touchdowns. 

Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
 

Previewing WKU’s Specialists for 2015 
 

Kicker Garrett Schwettman and punter Joseph Occhipinti return. Schwettman had plenty of extra-point attempts to go with making 16-of-21 field-goal tries. The Hilltoppers didn’t do a lot of punting, but when they did, Occhipinti averaged 37.1 yards per try. Sophomore Kylen Towner has emerged as a reliable returner on kickoffs and punts. He averaged 22.7 on kickoff returns, including one of 94 yards for a score.

Final Analysis
 

Few programs have transitioned to the FBS level as well as WKU, which is just six years into its move up from FCS. Of 27 teams to make the jump since 1987, only eight reached a second bowl game during a six-year window. Eight of 20 head coaching openings in the country last year were filled by first-time head coaches, and Brohm was the only one of the eight to win a bowl game.

With all the offensive weapons returning, especially Doughty and Allen, the Hilltoppers will continue to score points. If the defense can at least start to slow teams down, WKU is poised to make that next jump to becoming a consistent Conference USA challenger. 




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