Conference USA let us ink-stained wretches handle the preseason poll this year. The final results can be found here. Reader’s Digest version: WKU and Louisiana Tech are picked to win their respective divisions, and Marshall is picked to finish second in the East.
I was among the ink-stained wretches to vote in this poll. Here’s how my ballot stacked up …
I ranked UTSA sixth, because it returns a whopping two offensive starters — a guard and a tight end — plus four defensive starters from a 4-8 team. That’s not a formula for success. North Texas, another 4-8 team from last year, came in fifth. Southern Miss lost just one offensive starter from last season, and I’ve had a good feeling about Golden Eagles QB Nick Mullens, so I slotted them fourth. Rice is always solid, and David Bailiff has performed miracles there as a coach, but I’m not sold on QB Driphus Jackson taking the next step to become a top-end C-USA quarterback, plus the Owls lost eight defensive starters. I ranked Rice third and put UTEP at No. 2. The Miners had solid 2014 and returns RB Aaron Jones and four OL starters.
Louisiana Tech was my pick to win the West Division. The Bulldogs return seven offensive starters, including RB Kenneth Dixon. Skip Holtz’s one-year wonder QB strategy worked last season with Cody Sokol, and he’s bringing in former Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel this year. LaTech should repeat.
Charlotte went 5-6 with an FCS schedule. The 49ers’ awakening in C-USA will be as rude as living next to a missile testing site. They’re seventh on my ballot. Until Florida International actually does something notable in the post-Mario Cristobal era, I’m not ranking the Panthers any higher than sixth. Old Dominion had a solid conference debut last year, but the guy who made the Monarchs go, QB Taylor Heinicke, is gone. I can’t see ODU any higher than fifth.
Fourth and third were a toss-up for me between Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. But I’ve said on other sites that FAU should be the surprise of the conference, so I’ll put my money where my mouth is and slot MT into No. 4 and the Owls into No. 3. FAU QB Jaquez Johnson is the real deal and among nine returning offensive starters, and if RB Jay Warren stays healthy, he should provide the run support to give the Owls the nod.
That leaves Marshall and Western Kentucky, who played the craziest game I’ve ever covered last season, a 67-66 WKU overtime win that knocked the Herd from the realm of the unbeatens. Marshall returns a bunch of great receivers, three OL starters including all-conference tackle Clint Van Horn, and superstar RB Devon Johnson. It doesn’t, however, return QB Rakeem Cato, the school’s career leader in nearly every major passing category, or slot WR Tommy Shuler, the Conference USA career leader in receptions. It remains to be seen how the transition from Cato to Michael Birdsong will go, though Birdsong has starting experience at James Madison and looked good during the spring. And while the LB and secondary corps look great for the Herd, it has to replace three of four DL starters, especially James Rouse.
Western returns QB Brandon Doughty, the 2014 conference MVP, plus RB Leon Allen, three starting WRs and three OL starters. Allowing that unit another season to jell could produce offensive numbers that cause scoreboards to flash “TILT.” WKU also returns nine defensive starters. Now, that unit gave up some downright ghastly numbers last season — 509.9 yards and 39.9 points per game — but there’s no way the Hilltoppers would stand pat with that kind of production. They’ll try to figure out something to get those numbers down. Marshall did the same after that disastrous defensive season in 2012.
In the end, the East Division — and probably the overall conference title — comes down to the day after Thanksgiving and the Herd and Hilltoppers in Bowling Green, Ky. Because of all that returning firepower, and home-field advantage in that game, I’m giving the edge to WKU. Marshall was No. 2 on my ballot and Western Kentucky was No. 1.
I now await your pitchforks and torches.