Conference USA enters 2014 with more changes in its league roster, adding WKU and Old Dominion to replace East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to have a 13-team format for one season. UNC Charlotte will join the league in 2015 to give Conference USA 14 teams and seven teams in each division.
While the future of the league appears to be stable, could 2014 be a special season for Marshall? The Thundering Herd will be favored in every game and return dynamic senior quarterback Rakeem Cato. With 13 overall starters returning and MTSU, FAU and Rice visiting Huntington, Marshall has a good shot at an unbeaten record, as well as the opportunity to be the No. 1 team from outside of the five power conferences. If the Thundering Herd finishes 2014 unbeaten and rank as the top team from outside of the power leagues, Marshall would play in one of college football’s top bowl games.
MTSU, FAU and WKU are the top challengers to Marshall in the East. The Blue Raiders return only three starters on offense, but the schedule is favorable. MTSU does not play one of the predicted top-three teams from the West.
New FAU coach Charlie Partridge inherits a team that won its final four games to finish 6-6. The Owls have talent, and Partridge is a noted recruiter in Florida. However, this will be Partridge’s first head coaching position, and the Owls have question marks on the offensive line. FAU’s strength should be a defense that ranked No. 1 in Conference USA against the pass and No. 1 in fewest yards allowed in 2013.
WKU has a tough schedule to navigate in its Conference USA debut, featuring road trips to MTSU, FAU and Marshall, along with a crossover game against UTSA. The Hilltoppers must replace standout running back Antonio Andrews, but junior Leon Allen is a capable replacement, and quarterback Brandon Doughty should improve his second year under center. WKU's biggest concern is a defense that returns only two starters.
UAB, Old Dominion and FIU round out the East Division predictions, with the Blazers picked at No. 5, the Monarchs at No. 6 and the Panthers at No. 7. New UAB coach Bill Clark is the right man for the job in Birmingham, but the Blazers lack experience at quarterback. Old Dominion should have no trouble scoring points behind quarterback Taylor Heinicke, but the defense is a huge issue. FIU struggled in Ron Turner’s debut and has several question marks to address before escaping the cellar of the division.
There’s not much separating the top three teams in the West. North Texas, Rice and UTSA are all contenders for the division title, with the Mean Green checking in as Athlon’s pick to win the West.
North Texas has plenty of personnel losses on offense, but the line will be a strength with four starters back. And even though the Mean Green return only four starters on defense, there’s plenty of optimism this unit will remain near the top of the conference.
Rice might have the most favorable schedule in the West, as North Texas and UTSA play at Rice Stadium in 2014. Of course, the Owls also have to play at Marshall in crossover play. If new quarterback Driphus Jackson picks up where he left off in a reserve role in 2012, Rice could push Marshall for the No. 1 spot in the conference.
UTSA is loaded with 17 starters back in 2014. The Roadrunners have a senior-laden depth chart and won’t have to play Marshall during the regular season. Coach Larry Coker and his staff built UTSA into a Conference USA title contender in just four years. Even with the talent in the San Antonio area, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and UTEP round out the predictions for the West Division.
The Bulldogs struggled in Skip Holtz’s debut, and offensive line concerns could keep Louisiana Tech out of the postseason once again. Running back Kenneth Dixon should be a 1,000-yard rusher, and the addition of Manny Diaz as coordinator should help the defense. But in addition to the concerns on the line, Louisiana Tech needs to find a quarterback.
Southern Miss has been on a surprising decline over the last few seasons, but it appears the program is headed on the right track. Second-year coach Todd Monken finished 2013 with a little momentum, and sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens is a promising prospect.
UTEP has a dangerous offense, but the Miners ranked near the bottom of the nation in scoring and total defense. With Jameill Showers back at quarterback and two solid running backs in Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery, UTEP has potential to average 30 points a game. However, the Miners may need to win a lot of shootouts to exceed last year’s two-win mark.
2014 Conference USA Team Previews
Conference USA Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014
New Mexico: C-USA vs. MW
Hawaii: MW vs. C-USA
Heart of Dallas: C-USA vs. Big Ten
Boca Raton: C-USA vs. MAC
New Mexico: MW vs. C-USA
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the College Football Playoff: