SQ Conference USA Preview

The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. And just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. We last covered the MAC, and today we'll take a look at Conference USA.

What Happened in 2014:

Conference Champion: Marshall 13-1 (7-1); defeated Louisiana Tech in C-USA title game, 26-23

Coach of the Year: Doc Holliday, Marshall

After leading Marshall to its first Conference USA title, Holliday got the recognition he deserved. Holliday coached up one of the nation's most potent offenses, one that averaged 45.6 ppg last season. The defense also wasn't too shabby either, finishing 18th in the nation in scoring (21 ppg). Showing how dominant it truly was, the Thundering Herd constantly blew out its opponents with an average margin of victory of 26.2 points. With results like that, the award had to go to Holliday, hands down.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Rakeem Cato, Marshall

You'd have to expect that the quarterback that led the conference's best offense would win this award. Cato was one of the top signal callers on the national spectrum as well, throwing for 3,903 yards (7th), tossing 40 touchdown passes (3rd) and averaging 278.8 passing yards per game (14th). An explosive athlete, Cato also got it done with his legs last season, rushing for 492 yards while averaging 5.13 yards per carry. 

Defensive Player of the Year: LB Neville Hewitt, Marshall

Just like Cato, Hewitt was an obvious choice. The senior linebacker was a little slow to get going, but after a season-ending injury to LB Evan McKelvey in the fifth game of the season, Hewitt really picked up his production. From that point forward, Hewitt averaged over 11 tackles per game with a season-high 18 against Florida Atlantic. Hewitt finished the season with 123 tackles (1st in C-USA), along with five sacks and 13 tackles for loss. 

Three Memorable Games: 

1. Marshall 66 vs. Western Kentucky 67 OT, Nov. 28th - When you get two of the nation's top scoring offenses together, you know there's going to be fireworks. For fans that got to see this game, they weren't disappointed. The first half alone had more points scored combined than most games total, as Western Kentucky led 49-42. Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty threw his Conference USA record eighth touchdown in OT, and followed that up with a two-point conversion to win the game.

2. Middle Tennessee 50 vs. Western Kentucky 47 3OT, Sept. 13th - Another overtime affair involving Western Kentucky, this time the Hilltoppers were on the wrong side of the battle. While not quite the shootout that fans saw in the game above, this one really got exciting when it got to overtime. Middle Tennessee QB Austin Grammer hooked up with receiver Ed'Marques Batties for a 25-yard game-winning dagger after Western Kentucky kicker Garrett Schwettman hit his fourth field goal to begin the third overtime.

3. Marshall 26 vs. Louisiana Tech 23, Dec. 6th - Louisiana Tech almost ruined Marshall's season by almost taking the conference championship away from the team that had been blowing everyone out. However, the Thundering Herd's 10-point swing in the fourth quarter put the team on top and gave it its first Conference USA title. Rakeem Cato's five-yard pass to Deon-Tay McManus with just under two minutes put the game on ice.

Looking Ahead to 2015:

Conference Favorite: Western Kentucky

It was tough choosing between last year's champion, Marshall, and Western Kentucky, but the edge in 2015 goes to the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky will again have a high-powered offense led by QB Brandon Doughty, who was the x-factor in this decision. To go along with Doughty, the team has a solid group of receivers and dynamic running back, Leon Allen. The duo of Doughty and Allen is one of historical proportions as they had 6,372 yards combined between passing and rushing, the highest total in FBS history.

The defense is a work in progress after finishing 120th in total defense (509.9 yards per game) and 121st in scoring defense (39.9 ppg) last season. Returning seven starters should help the unit improve, along with the addition of UAB transfer Jontavious Morris. If the defense can at least slow teams down, the offense will take care of the rest.

Conference Dark Horse: Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech is the clear favorite to win the C-USA West, but could also have a good shot at winning the conference championship as well. One of the more interesting aspects of this Louisiana Tech team is its offense. Looking to follow last year's recipe for success, the Bulldogs have landed a fifth-year senior quarterback to lead the offense. This season it will be former Florida QB Jeff Driskel, the 2011 No. 1 rated pro-style QB who wasn't able to live up to the billing down in Gainesville.

While Driskel had his issues facing SEC opponents, he shouldn't have the same problems in the C-USA. He has a st rong arm and can use his legs to make plays as well—Driskel broke Tim Tebow's record for rushing yards by a QB in a game while with the Gators. He'll also have plenty of weapons to help take the pressure off him while he gets comfortable in the new offense. Running back Kenneth Dixon is a workhorse in the backfield, rushing for 1,299 yards and 22 touchdowns, and Driskel has a strong trio of receivers in Trent Taylor, Carlos Henderson and Paul Turner, who each had over 500 receiving yards in 2014.

Defensively, there's little concern as to how the Bulldogs will play, especially after leading the nation in turnovers (42) and interceptions (26). Forming one of the conference's better duos in the defensive backfield, safety Xavier Woods and corner Adairius Barnes combined for 11 interceptions last season, looking to do much of the same this season. The only issue this defense could face is with a thin linebacker group. Three new starters will make their debuts and there's really not much behind them. 

Most Improved Team: Florida Atlantic

If there's a team that has a good shot to turn things around in 2015 it's the Florida Atlantic Owls. Although FAU finished just 3-9 last season, the Owls were a lot closer to bowl eligibility than what their record says. There were two games in which the Owls lost by a single point and two losses in which the difference was a field goal. 

On offense, FAU will look to run more of a read-option attack with QB Jaquez Johnson and running backs Jay Warren and Greg "Buddy" Howell. The duo of Warren and Howell combined for 824 yards last season, and will be especially counted on this season now that the team's top receiving targets have graduated. FAU returns just two pass catchers who reeled in more than 10 passes and totaled over 200 receiving yards in Jenson Stoshak (37 receptions, 508 yards) and Kalib Woods (16 receptions, 223 yards). 

It's going to be tough for the Owls to muster out the six wins required to become bowl-eligible this season, but they'll have the opportunities to do so. Getting FIU and Middle Tennessee at home could make the difference this season.

Freshmen to Watch:

1. Shuler Bentley, QB, Old Dominion - Taking over for Taylor Heinicke under center is a tall order, especially after Heinicke was third in the conference in passing yards last season. He definitely has potential to be great, as he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of South Carolina in 2013. Nonetheless, Bentley, a redshirt freshman, will take the reigns of this high-octane offense, which is a decision that head coach Bobby Wilder felt was a no-brainer.

"Shuler’s our starter,” Wilder said. “He was clearly the best quarterback in the spring. He was consistent, he was accurate. He completed 65 percent of all of his passes."

2. Blake Bogenschutz, QB, UTSA - There's a lot of buzz around "Bogey" down in San Antonio as the Roadrunners will be injecting the redshirt freshman into the starting QB position. He's a quiet leader who lets his play do the talking, and his teammates and coaches have taken notice. In the spring game he completed 15 of 23 passes for 233 yards, including a pair of touchdown passes that went for 75 and 29 yards. 

3. Trae Meadows, Safety, Middle Tennessee - Meadows is a guy that could come in and make a difference right away for a team that had a knack for giving up big yards last season. He brings great speed to the defense, as he was clocked at 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. Meadows also seems to have a nose for the ball, nabbing 12 interceptions over his last two seasons in high school. 

Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Brandon Doughty, QB, Western Kentucky

Although I think new Louisiana Tech QB Jeff Driskel could make things interesting, it's hard to bet against Brandon Doughty. Doughty, after all, did lead the nation in passing yards (4,830) and touchdowns (49) last year. There were five games in 2014 where Doughty threw for at least five touchdowns, including that C-USA record breaking performance against Marshall in which he threw for eight scores. It's just hard to bet against a guy that averaged 371.5 passing yards per game last season.

Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Xavier Woods, Safety, Louisiana Tech

Woods had a fantastic season in 2014 and was overlooked by most people in the country because of the conference he plays in. The standout safety recorded six interceptions, two of which he took back for touchdowns. Woods ra nked second in the nation in interception return yards, picking up 174 last season. He also made his way into the backfield for one sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. Woods ended the season with 71 tackles, 13 passes defended and also forced three fumbles.

Three Games to Watch:

1. Western Kentucky vs. Louisiana Tech, Sept. 10th - An early-season matchup between the two division favorites in the conference should give fans a good game to watch. This could very well be just the first time these two play each other in 2015, as this could be the billing for the title bout in December. Louisana Tech trots out a new QB in Florida transfer Jeff Driskel, while Western Kentucky returns Brandon Doughty under center, a guy who was one of the best in the country last season.

2. Western Kentucky vs. Marshall, Nov. 27th - This game could decide who represents the East in the C-USA title game. Last year's contest was a thriller until the end, with Western Kentucky QB Brandon Doughty throwing his eighth touchdown pass, then completing a two-point conversion to win the game in overtime. Marshall won't be the same offense it was a year ago without Rakeem Cato under center, but the Thundering Herd will no doubt be making itself heard in this game.

3. Rice vs. Louisiana Tech, Oct. 31st - Facing off on Halloween could make things interesting in this game between the last two C-USA West champions. Last season, Louisiana Tech put up 76 points on Rice, while forcing four turnovers in the process. If Rice is going to have any chance at reclaiming the division title this season, it has to come out on top against the Bulldogs.

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