Is Mark Richt ready to lead the Miami Hurricanes to their first trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game?
Y-Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 10-3 ( 7-2)
X-Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 7-5 (6-2)
X-Old Dominion Monarchs 7-5 (5-3)
Marshall Thundering Herd 5-7 (3-5)
Florida International Panthers 4-8 (2-6)
Charlotte 49ers 3-9 (1-7)
Florida Atlantic Owls 3-9 (1-7)
X-Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 9-4 (7-2)
X-Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners 8-4 (6-2)
X-Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 6-6 (5-3)
UTEP Miners 2-10 (2-6)
Rice 2-10 (2-6)
North Texas Mean Green 2-10 (1-7)
UAB Blazaers 0-12 (0-8)
Conference USA Championship Game: Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech
Conference Champion: Western Kentucky
2016 was a solid year on the gridiron for Conference USA as six of their 13 members played in bowl game, while three programs were in the top ten in the nation in regards to total offense. One of those top offenses belonged to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers who under head football coach Jeff Brohm went 11-3 last season. Western Kentucky had 11 games in which they scored at least 40 points as their wide open offense kept opponents on their toes. However Brohm’s success at Western Kentucky would not go unnoticed as he is now the head football coach of the Purdue Boilermakers in the Big Ten Conference.
Replacing Brohm at Western Kentucky will be Mike Sanford Jr. who has spent the past few years as an offensive assistant coach with the Stanford Cardinal, Boise State Broncos, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish respectively. In 2010 Sanford was the quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky under current Oregon Ducks head football coach Willie Taggart.
Sanford will have the luxury of working with one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA in senior Mike White. White began his collegiate career with the South Florida Bulls in the American Athletic Conference, and after sitting out in 2015 as he transferred, he was able to make a name for himself last year in Conference USA. White passed for at least 300 yards in a game eight times last year as he has a big arm that can find receivers all over the field. And this year White will be one of the favorites to be the Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year.
One player who will give White competition in regards to being Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year is Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders junior quarterback Brent Stockstill. Like White, Stockstill plays in one of the better offenses in the nation. In two years as Middle Tennessee State’s starting quarterback, Stockstill has thrown 61 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions. Stockstill is also an accurate quarterback, and although that he is slightly undersized for the position in regards to National Football League standards, Stockstill does have a future at the next level.
Stockstill’s main target in the passing game is returning in the form of junior wide receiver Richie James who reeled in 105 receptions last season. And if opponents of the Blue Raiders want to focus on stopping James, they could be burned by sophomore wide receiver Ty Lee who like James is a speedster.
For Middle Tennessee State head football coach Rick Stockstill, his defensive unit must improve as they were 96th in the nation in total defense last season which included them surrendering 40 points or more seven times. However one building block for the Blue Raiders defense will be junior outside linebacker Chris Melton who will tackle anything that moves. And as a unit, the Blue Raiders defense must find a way to build some momentum off of their high-powered offense.
The Old Dominion Monarchs are looking to build off of the momentum that they were able to create for themselves last season when they broke through to go 10-3. And only a loss to Western Kentucky prevented the Monarchs from advancing to the Conference USA Championship Game. Old Dominion head football coach Bobby Wilder has developed a winning culture around his program as this team has quickly become one of the better programs in Conference USA.
The Monarchs will no longer have the services of quarterback David Washington as sophomore Blake LaRussa will now have his chance to be Old Dominion’s signal caller. But whereas LaRussa is still green as far as being a starting quarterback, Old Dominion has one of the best rushing attacks in Conference USA. Senior running back Ray Lawry and junior running back Jeremy Cox give Old Dominion one of the better running games in the conference and I see Wilder leaning on his two running backs in order to offset the inexperience of his starting quarterback.
After the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs won the Western Division of Conference USA for the second time in three years, they have the potential to win it all this season. Under head football coach Skip Holtz, the Bulldogs had the ninth ranked offense in the nation last season and he must find a way to replace some of those key players from that unit. But the Bulldogs still have senior running back Jarred Craft who is one of the better ball carriers in Conference USA, and he is always a step away from breaking off a big run.
The Bulldogs also have junior defensive end Jaylon Ferguson who is the odds on favorite to be Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Last year Ferguson recorded 14.5 sacks as he was one of the top edge rushers in the country. This time it will be tougher for Ferguson to get to the quarterback due to the teams will be focused on stopping him; however his ability should open things up for his teammates such as junior defensive tackle Jordan Bradford to have better opportunities to get to the quarterback.
One team that could give Louisiana Tech a problem in Conference USA West could be the Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners. The Roadrunners are coming off of their first bowl appearance in program history as head football coach Frank Wilson is building off of what his predecessor Larry Coker started.
One player to watch out for at Texas San-Antonio is sophomore middle linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. Tauaefa exploded onto the scene last year as freshman by leading the Roadrunners in tackles with 115. Tauaefa combines his tackling ability with solid instincts which not only makes him one of the better linebackers in Conference USA, but he should also receive some recognition in regards to winning the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in the nation.
Other stories to follow this season in Conference USA will be some of the new faces around the league.
Butch Davis is set to begin his tenure as the head football coach of the Florida International Panthers. Davis is best known for restoring the Miami Hurricanes in the late 1990’s, while he also had some success with the North Carolina Tar Heels. And while at Miami and North Carolina respectively, Davis heavily recruited South Florida which he is hopeful to do once again.
Lane Kiffin is beginning his first season as the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls which will definitely add to the rivalry with Florida International. Kiffin has previously been a head coach in the National Football League with the Oakland Raiders, while he has also been the man in charge for the Tennessee Volunteers and USC Trojans. Most recently Kiffin was the offensive coordinator for the Alabama Crimson Tide whom he helped to win a national title during the 2015 college football season. However Kiffin has been known to burn bridges along each step of his college football journey, but he will be beat writers dream in South Florida.
And then there is the case of the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers who after pulling the plug on their program following the 2014 college football season have decided to give it another try. However UAB head football coach Bill Clark and his staff will have their work cut out for them as after not having a program for two years, they are literally starting over from scratch.
Some games to focus this season in Conference will be the meeting between Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky on November 17 as this could decide who wins the Conference USA East. And for the Blue Raiders it won’t get any easier when they travel to face Old Dominion on November 25. On November 18, Florida Atlantic will host Florida International, and although that neither team will be a title contender here in 2017, the anticipated rivalry between Davis and Kiffin will garner some media attention in South Florida.
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 11-2 (7-1)
Middle Tennessee State Tigers 9-3 (6-2)
Marshall Thundering Herd 8-4 (6-2)
Old Dominion Monarchs 3-9 (2-6)
Florida International Panthers 4-8 (2-6)
Charlotte 49ers 3-9 (1-7)
Florida Atlantic Owls 2-10 (0-8)
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 8-5 (6-2)
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 8-4 (6-2)
Rice Owls 5-7 (4-4)
Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners 4-8 (3-5)
Texas-El Paso Miners 5-7 (3-5)
North Texas Mean Green 1-11 (0-8)
Conference USA Championship Game: Southern Mississippi vs. Middle Tennessee State
Conference Champion: Western Kentucky
As the past few years in college football have been defined by re-alignment and transition, Conference USA has attempted to weather the storm as they’ve seen former members leave for larger paydays from bigger conferences. Of the 13 football members in Conference USA in 2015, five of them made bowl games with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers finishing the season ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. It’s a long shot that we’ll see a Conference USA school participate in the College Football Playoff, but the underdog conference should still provide plenty of excitement.
Last year Western Kentucky was able to dominate the Eastern Division of Conference USA, but have the Middle Tennessee State Tigers closed the gap on them? Middle Tennessee State head football coach Rick Stockstill has one of the best offenses in the nation which begins with a quarterback that could be Conference USA’s Player of the Year. Stockstill’s son Brent was Middle Tennessee State’s starting quarterback last year and as a redshirt freshman, he passed for 4,005 yards while also throwing 30 touchdowns. Stockstill’s main receiving target is sophomore wide receiver Richie James who is arguably the best receiver in the conference as this duo is very tough to stop.
As Jeff Brohm is set to begin his third year as the head football coach at Western Kentucky, he must find a way to replace that contributions that Brandon Doughty made over the last few years at quarterback. Junior quarterback Mike White will have his chance to be the Hilltoppers starting quarterback and he will have a ton of talent around him that includes a veteran offensive line with three starting seniors as they are led by left tackle Forrest Lamp. Senior wide receiver Taywan Taylor and junior wide receiver Nicholas Norris are the best pass catching duo in Conference USA as secondaries within the conference will once again have their hands full with the Hilltoppers.
But as Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky will be slugging it out to win the Eastern Division, the Marshall Thundering Herd could be laying in the weeds. Doc Holliday has comprised a record of 50-28 in six years as Marshall’s head football coach and he has provided wizardry on the offensive side of the football. Marshall has a promising quarterback in sophomore Chase Litton who has the ability to keep the Thundering Herd in the Conference USA Title picture.
Over in the West, the race will be between the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles and the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech represent the last two winners of the Western Division and they’ll once again be in the mix this year. The Bulldogs have a veteran laden team which features a trio of senior wide receivers in Carlos Henderson, Trent Taylor, and Conner Smith. Last year saw Ryan Higgins take a backseat to Jeff Driskel at quarterback. But as this is Higgins’ senior year, he is out to show what he can do and lead Louisiana Tech to the Conference USA Championship.
For Southern Miss, they are once again preparing for life under another new head football coach. After three years in Hattiesburg, Ted Monken departed to become the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he left a good team behind. Former Alcorn State Braves head football coach Jay Hopson inherits one of the best offenses in the nation that features senior quarterback Nick Mullens who passed for 4,476 yards last year, along with junior running back Ito Smith who could be the conference’s best running back, and senior wide receiver D.J. Thompson as this trio can put up points with the best of them.
Southern Miss senior defensive end Dylan Bradley can make life tough for opposing quarterbacks in Conference USA due to his pass rushing skills, and if he lines up on the same side of the formation with senior outside linebacker D’Nerius Antoine, then the Golden Eagles will have a huge advantage on defense.
The October 15 meeting between Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State, along with the November 25th affair between Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech will go a long way in determining who will get to the Conference USA Championship Game in December.
Coach of the Year: Jeff Brohm-Western Kentucky
Offensive Player of the Year: Nick Mullens-Quarterback-Southern Miss
Defensive Player of the Year: Dylan Bradley-Defensive End-Southern Miss
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 10-3 (8-1)
Marshall Thundering Herd 10-2 (6-2)
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 6-6 (4-4)
Old Dominion Monarchs 6-6 (3-5)
Florida Atlantic Owls 3-9 (2-6)
Florida International Panthers 3-9 (2-6)
Charlotte 49ers 1-11 (0-8)
Rice Owls 8-5 (7-2)
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 7-5 (5-3)
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 4-8 (3-5)
UTEP Miners 3-9 (2-6)
UTSA Roadrunners 2-10 (2-6)
North Texas Mean Green 2-10 (1-7)
Conference USA Title Game: Western Kentucky vs. Rice
Conference Champion: Western Kentucky
Conference USA should be renamed as the “transition conference” being that there has been nothing but a revolving door going on there as far as schools leaving and joining. But with college conferences having secured television deals that will last for the next few years, there doesn’t appear to be any more re-alignment coming down the pike as the dust has settled.
As the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers enter their second year in Conference USA, they are hopeful that they’ll have what it takes to overtake the Marshall Thundering Herd for the top spot in the Eastern Division. Marshall enters the 2015 college football season as the defending conference champs and for head football coach Doc Holliday, his Thundering Herd aren’t as talented as they were last season, but you can still expect a big season from senior running back Devon Johnson in Huntington, West Virginia. Western Kentucky was fourth in the nation in 2014 in total offense as senior quarterback Brandon Doughty can sling the football around while senior running back Leon Allen is arguably the best tailback in the conference. And it is only fitting that Western Kentucky and Marshall will meet on November 27 which is the final regular season game for each team as it could decide who’ll represent the East in the Conference USA Title Game.
In the Western Division, the Rice Owls are looking to win their second conference crown in the past three years. And Rice head football coach Dave Baliff has the combination to do it in the form of senior quarterback Driphus Jackson and junior running back Jowan Davis. Rice’s main competition should come from the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs who have a senior running back in Kenneth Dixon that is as sturdy as they come. But Rice should be able to navigate through to their second appearance in the Conference USA Title Game in the past three years.
Marshall Thundering Herd 10-2 (7-1)
Florida Atlantic Owls 7-5 (6-2)
Old Dominion Monarchs 7-5 (5-3)
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 6-6 (5-3)
Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 6-6 (4-4)
University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers 5-7 (3-5)
Florida International Panthers 2-10 (0-8)
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 9-3 (8-0)
Rice Owls 8-4 (6-2)
University of Texas at El Paso Miners 5-7 (4-4)
North Texas Mean Green 4-8 (3-5)
University of Texas at San Antonio Roadrunners 2-10 (2-6)
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles 2-10 (0-8)
Conference USA Championship Game- Louisiana Tech vs. Marshall
Conference USA Champion-Marshall
A new football season is upon us in Conference USA and of course there are some teams that have a better chance than others as far as winning the conference crown.
Last year the Marshall Thundering Herd had the 12th ranked offense in the nation and you can expect more of the same this year. For Marshall head football coach Doc Holliday, he knows that junior quarterback Rakeem Cato will be back under center for him in Huntington this season. Cato is only 6’1″, 188 lbs., but he can pass the football with the best of them and he’ll be in the running to be the Conference USA Player of the Year.
Charlie Patridge is taking over as the new head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls and he is hopeful that his squad will give Marshall all that they can handle in the Eastern Division of Conference USA. And if the Owls are able to hang with the Thundering Herd it will be on the legs of junior running back Jaquez Johnson.
The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs had a rough go of it last season. After 13 years in the now defunct Western Athletic Conference, the Bulldogs joined Conference USA and for their troubles in 2013, they were only 4-8. But Louisiana Tech head football coach Skip Holtz will rely on junior running back Kenneth Dixon to help lead what he hopes will be a Bulldogs resurgence that could lead to the Conference USA Championship.
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Cfbstats.com