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Conference USA Football 2016 Predictions

Nick Mullens

Nick Mullens

WKU cruised to the Conference USA title last season behind quarterback Brandon Doughty and a dynamic offense. However, with Doughty off to the NFL, the gap between the Hilltoppers and the rest of the league should close in 2016. Marshall and MTSU are threats to WKU’s division crown, and Southern Miss returns 12 starters from a team that won the West Division last season.

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Only five Conference USA teams finished with a winning record and qualified for a bowl trip last year. That number should grow in 2016, as WKU, Marshall, MTSU, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech are safe bets for bowls, with FAU, Old Dominion and UTEP expected to take a step forward this fall. New coaches Seth Littrell (North Texas) and Frank Wilson (UTSA) should provide a spark, but both programs have a ways to go before contending for a winning record.

5 Key Questions That Will Shape C-USA in 2016

1. Replacing Brandon Doughty at WKU

Brandon Doughty leaves big shoes to fill at quarterback after guiding WKU to a 12-2 record and a Conference USA title last season. Finding the right answer under center is likely the difference between the Hilltoppers winning the league once again or falling just short of the division title. Coach Jeff Brohm is one of the nation’s top offensive minds, and there’s a strong supporting cast in place to alleviate some of the concern at quarterback. USF transfer Mike White is the frontrunner to replace Doughty, and the Florida native showed promise in his limited action with the Bulls. Nelson Fishback was expected to push White for the starting job, but he is out 4-6 months due to a pectoral injury. Louisville transfer Tyler Ferguson and sophomore Drew Eckels are the next in line behind White. It’s unrealistic to expect White to match Doughty’s 2015 totals, but the USF transfer has the talent to be one of Conference USA’s top quarterbacks.

2. Marshall, WKU or MTSU in the East?

Most of the discussion in Athlon’s Conference USA prediction meeting was spent sorting out the top of the East Division. Not much separates WKU, Marshall and MTSU, and all three teams have key question marks to address. For WKU, how quickly will Mike White settle into the quarterback role and replace Brandon Doughty? Additionally, the Hilltoppers return only four starters on defense, and the schedule features road trips to MTSU, Marshall and Louisiana Tech. MTSU returns the league’s top pass-catch combination in quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James, but Rick Stockstill’s team has a few voids to patch on both sides of the ball. Additionally, there’s a road trip to Marshall in mid-November that could decide the division title. The Thundering Herd have the best collection of talent in Conference USA and return promising sophomore quarterback Chase Litton. A crossover game against Southern Miss is challenging, but Marshall hosts WKU and MTSU. Litton needs a few weapons to emerge in the supporting cast, while the defense suffered key losses at each level. There’s no clear favorite in the East, but Athlon eventually picked MTSU thanks to its edge at quarterback.

3. Impact of Coaching Change at Southern Miss?

Coaching changes are never easy, especially ones that take place late in the offseason. Todd Monken’s departure to Tampa Bay came as a surprise, but Southern Miss landed a quality replacement in Jay Hopson. The Mississippi native has a wealth of experience as an assistant (including two previous stints at Southern Miss) and guided Alcorn State to a 32-17 record over the last four seasons as the program’s head coach. Hopson has to put his own stamp on the program, but it’s hard to envision many major changes for 2016. The Golden Eagles return 12 starters from a team that won Conference USA’s West Division last year and own one of the top offenses from the Group of 5 ranks. While the transition may have a few bumps in the road, Southern Miss still has quarterback Nick Mullens to lean on. That should be more than enough to win the West Division and push for the overall league title.

4. FAU and Old Dominion Poised for a Breakout Year?

MTSU, Marshall and WKU are the clear favorites at the top of Conference USA’s East Division, but FAU and Old Dominion are two teams to keep an eye on. The Owls have recruited well under Charlie Partridge, and the pieces are starting to fall into place for the third-year coach. After losing four games by seven points or less in 2015, the development of FAU’s young talent this offseason could translate into a bowl for 2016. The Monarchs played better over the second half of last year and just missed on a six-win season after a two-point defeat to FAU in the finale. Coach Bobby Wilder is a sharp offensive mind, and the Old Dominion attack should get back on track in 2016. Quarterback David Washington is expected to recover from a knee injury by the opener, and sophomore Shuler Bentley had a promising close to 2015. The defense surrendered 35.8 points a game last year, but there’s hope for improvement with seven returning starters. FAU and Old Dominion are longshots to win the division. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both teams make a trip to a bowl in 2016.

5. Which Team Can Challenge Southern Miss in the West?

Even though the coaching change has added some uncertainty at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles are a heavy favorite to win the West Division. But if Jay Hopson’s team slips, Louisiana Tech and UTEP should have the best shot at the top spot. The Bulldogs must replace quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon and return only three starters on defense. However, Louisiana Tech has a good foundation in terms of talent and coaching in place, which should prevent a major drop in wins. Injuries hit UTEP hard last season, including a season-ending knee injury to standout running back Aaron Jones early in the 2015 campaign. With Jones back to full strength and a favorable schedule in place for coach Sean Kugler’s team, the Miners should easily rebound back into the postseason. With Southern Miss visiting El Paso on Sept. 24, UTEP has a chance early in the year to stake its claim for the division title. 

Conference USA 2016 Team Previews

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 National College Football Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 128 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year. 

Conference USA Predictions for 2016

C-USA 2016 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

David Fox

 

@AthlonSteven

@AthlonMitch

@AthlonMarkR

@DavidFox615

Offensive POY

Nick Mullens QB, USM

Nick Mullens QB, USM

Nick Mullens QB, USM

Brent Stockstill QB, MTSU

Defensive POY

Trey Hendrickson
DE, FAU

Trey Hendrickson DE, FAU

Trey Hendrickson DE, FAU

Jaylon Ferguson DE, La. Tech

Coach of the Year

Rick Stockstill MTSU

Jay Hopson USM

Jay Hopson USM

Rick Stockstill MTSU

Coach on Hot Seat

Ron Turner FIU

Ron Turner FIU

Ron Turner FIU

David Bailiff Rice

Top Freshman

Daniel Parr QB, FAU

Daniel Parr QB, FAU

Daniel Parr QB, FAU

Kevin McCrary DT, FAU

Top Newcomer

Mike White QB, WKU

Mike White QB, WKU

I'Tavius Mathers RB, MTSU

Mike White QB, WKU

Sleeper Team

UTEP

UTEP

FAU

FAU

Top Coordinator Hire

Tony Franklin OC, MTSU

Tony Franklin OC, MTSU

Tony Franklin OC, MTSU

Tony Franklin OC, MTSU

Key Position to Watch

MTSU LBs

MTSU LBs

MTSU LBs

MTSU LBs

Hardest to Evaluate

WKU

WKU

WKU

Old Dominion

Coach on the Rise

Jeff Brohm HC, WKU

Jeff Brohm
HC, WKU

Jeff Brohm HC, WKU

Jeff Brohm HC, WKU

Must-See Game

MTSU at Marshall

MTSU at Marshall

MTSU at Marshall

MTSU at Marshall

Breakout Player

David Washington QB, ODU

I'Tavius Mathers RB, MTSU

Jeffrey Wilson RB, N. Texas

Jarveon Williams RB, UTSA

Comeback Player

Aaron Jones
RB, UTEP

Jordan Budwig OL, FIU

Graysen Schantz DE, Rice

David Washington QB, ODU

Ranking Conference USA's Coaches for 2016

1. Jeff Brohm, WKU

2. Doc Holliday, Marshall

3. Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech

Click here to view the full C-USA Coach Rankings for 2016

Grading Conference USA's New Coach Hires for 2016

1. Seth Littrell, North Texas (B+)

2. Jay Hopson, Southern Miss (B+)

3. Frank Wilson, UTSA (C+)

Click here to view the full New Coach Grades and Rankings for 2016

Ranking Conference USA's Quarterbacks for 2016

1. Nick Mullens, Southern Miss

2. Brent Stockstill, MTSU

3. Chase Litton, Marshall

4. Alex McGough, FIU

5. Mike White, WKU

Conference USA's Top 10 Players on the Rise for 2016

1. Jaylon Ferguson, DE, Louisiana Tech

Recommended Articles

2. Chase Litton, QB, Marshall

3. Mike White, QB, WKU

4. Azeez Al-Shaair, LB, FAU

5. Keith Brown, LB, WKU 

6. Jeffrey Wilson, RB, North Texas

7. I'Tavius Mathers, RB, MTSU

8. Oshane Ximines, DE, ODU 

9. Darian Yancey, DE, Southern Miss

10. Calvin Anderson, OT, Rice

Conference USA's Top Five Non-Conference Games for 2016

1. WKU at Alabama (Sept. 10)

2. Louisville at Marshall (Sept. 24)

3. Marshall at Pittsburgh (Oct. 1)

4. Vanderbilt at WKU (Sept. 24)

5. MTSU at Vanderbilt (Sept. 10)

Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

1. Tony Franklin, Offensive Coordinator, MTSU

2. Travis Trickett, Offensive Coordinator, FAU

3. Tom Mason, Defensive Coordinator, UTEP

4. Frank Scelfo, Offensive Coordinator, UTSA

5. Tony Pecoraro, Defensive Coordinator, Southern Miss 

6. Graham Harrell, Offensive Coordinator, North Texas

Top Incoming Freshmen for 2016 (from 247Sports)

1. Jaquan Yulee, LB, Marshall

2. Xavier Gaines, QB, Marshall

3. Pro Wells, TE, Marshall

4. Jaquelle Green, S, UTSA

5. JaCorey Morris, LB, Southern Miss

6. JaQua Daniels, RB, Marshall

7. Sir Patrick Scott, CB, Marshall

8. Jon Randall Belton, QB, Louisiana Tech

9. Steven Frank, QB, FAU

10. Keon Howard, QB, Southern Miss