2014 is shaping up to be a special season for the Marshall Thundering Herd.
The Thundering Herd returned the potential C-USA offensive player of the year, senior quarterback Rakeem Cato. First-team All C-USA receiver, Tommy Shuler, has a chance to make NCAA history with his third straight 100-catch season. On the offensive line, three starters return led by first-team All C-USA Chris Jasperse at center. With 13 overall starters returning and a favorable schedule this year, Marshall has a good shot at going undefeated. Marshall is the unanimous favorite to win C-USA this year.
First year Florida Atlantic head coach Charlie Partridge took over a team that won its last four games to finish 6-6 last season. This is Partridge’s first head coaching position on any level, and the Owls have uncertainty on the offensive line, starting the season with a new left tackle and center. Junior quarterback Jaquez Johnson has the joy of throwing to William Dukes, who finished last season with six touchdowns and averaged 15.8 yards per catch.
FAU’s strength is a defense that ranked first in C-USA against the pass and first in fewest yards allowed last year.
Western Kentucky has a tough schedule to get through in its C-USA debut season, facing MTSU, FAU and Marshall, along with UTSA on the road. The Hilltoppers started the season looking to replace standout running back Antonio Andrews, but junior Leon Allen has taken control of the starting spot.
Quarterback Brandon Doughty, who finished last season with 2,857 passing yards and completed nearly 66 percent of his attempts, looks to improve in his second year under center. WKU’s biggest concern is a defense that returns only two starters.
UAB lacks experience at quarterback with junior college transfer, Cody Clements, taking the reins. Luckily for Clements, last year’s freshman All-Conference running back Jordan Howard is returning. Clements will also try and get the ball to Jamarcus Nelson early and often.
Nelson finished last season with 42 catches and eight touchdowns, averaging 20 yards a catch. The Blazers appear to be deep on the defensive side and possibly more talented than in the past. New head coach Bill Clark is a defensive minded coach so it should be interesting to see what he brings to the table this season.
Old Dominion should have no trouble scoring points; in its first season in C-USA, as quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 70 percent of his passes for 4,022 yards, with 33 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. After losing some key contributors on the offensive line, the Monarchs are looking for answers there. The defense is a huge problem; their defense gave up 34 points per game and more than 450 yards last season.
Florida International struggled in every aspect in Ron Turner’s first season as head coach. The Panthers’ strong suit this season is their offensive line as they are returning all five starters from a season ago. Last year, the Panthers’ rushing offensive averaged 2.1 yards per carry, the worst in the nation, and had no deep threat passing game.
E.J Hilliard is the man under center this season and Lamarq Caldwell is his back field partner.
North Texas has plenty of losses on offense, but the offensive line is a strength with four starters returning. The offensive line is led by Cyril Lemon, who is talented enough to play at the next level, and Mason Y’Barbo, who was an All-Conference selection in 2013.
North Texas was ranked second nationally in red-zone defense, fourth in takeaways and eighth in scoring defense last season, but only one of the starting front seven returns. The entire defensive line is gone, and so is star middle linebacker Zach Orr.
If new quarterback Driphus Jackson picks up where he left off in a reserve role in 2012, Rice has a solid chance at finishing atop C-USA. Jackson has a strong supporting cast surrounding him, including last year’s leading receiver Jordan Taylor who caught 55 passes and eight touchdowns.
In the backfield, the Owls are going with a running back by committee, featuring three running backs. The offensive line has three starters returning and the defensive line is anchored by first-team All-Conference defensive tackle, Christian Covington.
UTSA is returning 17 starters from a season ago. Among the new starters is quarterback Tucker Carter, who will benefit from having last year’s leading receiver, Kam Jones, returning. The Roadrunners use a two back system, with David Glasco II starting and Jarveon Willliams spelling him.
The offensive line is the most experienced position on the team, returning all five starters. Three of the starting offensive linemen have started for three straight years. Nine starters return to a defense that held its opponents to an average of 11.3 points over the final four games.
Louisiana Tech struggled in Skip Holtz’s first season as head coach, and offensive line concerns could hinder the Bulldogs once again. Running back Kenneth Dixon has a ton of talent and has the potential to break 1,000 yards rushing. The addition of wide receiver, LSU transfer Paul Turner, is expected to provide a spark on the outside.
New defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, should help the defense after coming over from Texas. He has six returning starters on a defense that gave up 408.3 yards and 26.3 points per game.
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 after a blowout victory at UAB, snapping a 23-game losing streak. Sophomore quarterback Nick Mullens is a promising prospect; he is a smart player with an accurate arm.
Freshman Ito Smith has proven he can carry the load for the Golden Eagles this season. Seven starters return on a defense that struggled mightily in 2013, but there is reason for Southern Miss to be encouraged. An experienced secondary will be led by safety Jacorius Cotton, a punishing tackler who missed last season because of academic issues.
Senior Emmanuel Johnson, the other safety, was the team’s fourth-leading tackler a year ago. At cornerback, Kalan Reed is a returning starter, and true freshman Picasso Nelson Jr. has impressed everyone with his play so far in the season.
UTEP has a dangerous offense, but the Miners ranked near the bottom of the nation on defense in total yards and points allowed. With Jameill Showers back at quarterback and two solid running backs in Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery, UTEP has potential to score over 30 points a game.
Senior Ian Hamilton is the likely new top target, after last year’s leading receiver, Jordan Leslie, transferred to BYU. Hamilton caught 25 passes a year ago. Malcolm Trail, Jarrad Shaw and tight end Eric Tomlinson will also be a big part of the passing attack.
UTEP ranked 12th in Conference USA last year in total defense giving up 468.3 yards per game and was especially bad against the run. The Miners gave up 6.2 yards per rushing attempt. They also tied for last the league with only 13 sacks.
Look for Marshall to run away with the East division crown with Middle Tennessee State, WKU, Old Dominion, FAU, UAB and FIU following, in order. In the West, look for Rice to repeat as division champs with North Texas, UTSA, La Tech, USM and UTEP following. With Marshall and Rice matched up in the conference championship game, Marshall should have no trouble taking the crown as they are clearly the most talented team in the conference.