Last year the race for the top spots in both divisions of Conference USA came right down to the wire. Marshall won the East with a record of 7-1, but were just a game ahead of both East Carolina and Middle Tennessee. A similar outcome occurred in the West, where Rice finished a game in front of both UTSA and North Texas with a record of 7-1. The Owls would go on to upset the Thundering Herd 41-24 in the C-USA Championship Game.
While things were extremely competitive inside C-USA play, the conference as a whole did not perform well. C-USA had an overall record of 32-72, which was the worst mark of any FBS conference. On the flip side of that, C-USA did go a respectable 5-24 against BCS opponents, which was better than both the Mountain West and MAC. They also went 3-3 in bowl games, improving their record to 7-4 over the last two years.
One of the reasons that C-USA has been on the decline is they have been hard with all the realignment that’s taken place over the last couple of years. The conference lost Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU to the American Athletic last year and will send three more to the AAC this year in Tulsa, East Carolina and Tulane. In 2013 they replaced those that they lost with the likes of North Texas, Louisiana Tech, FIU, Florida Atlantic, UTSA and Middle Tennessee and will be adding in Western Kentucky and Old Dominion this year and Charlotte in 2015.
To give you an even better idea of what kind of programs C-USA has lost over the last decade. Of the 14 teams who have the best record inside the conference over the last 10 years, only Southern Miss and Marshall are current members.
It’s now time to turn our attention to the 2014 campaign. After taking a close look at all 13 teams, I’ve put together my prediction on how I see both divisions playing out, plus I give my pick on who will win the C-USA Championship Game.
C-USA East Standings
C-USA East Predictions
I don’t think there’s any arguing that the team to beat in the East is Marshall. The Thundering Herd get back 14 starters, including quarterback Rakeem Cato, who was the 2013 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year. Not only does Marshall figure to have the best offense in C-USA, but they figure to field the top defense as well. With a favorable non-conference schedule, the Thundering Herd have an excellent shot at finishing the year undefeated at 12-0.
While I have Middle Tennessee picked to finish 2-games ahead of Florida Atlantic for runner-up in the East, you could actually make the argument that the Owls are the more talented team, as they get back one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Jaquez Johnson, while the Blue Raiders will have a new signal caller and return just 5 starters on offense. What has me picking Middle Tennessee to finish higher in the standings is the fact that the Blue Raiders get to host the Owls and their two-crossover games come against Southern Miss and UTEP, while FAU has to take on both North Texas and UTSA.
I believe the biggest surprise on this side of the conference will be Old Dominion, who I’m expecting big things out of despite the fact that only 1 of their 8 wins last year came against an FBS opponent (1-4). However, three of their losses against FBS foes came against teams out of the ACC. The other was a 14-point loss at East Carolina in the opener.
I’m also expecting Western Kentucky to have a respectable debut in C-USA at 3-5. Had the Hilltoppers not lost head coach Bobby Petrino, I would have had them even higher in the standings.
Rounding out the East will be UAB and FIU. Both of these teams figure to be improved, but both face a brutal home schedule that will make it difficult for either to improve on last year’s poor finish.
C-USA West Standings
C-USA West Predictions
While it’s pretty clear that Marshall is the clear-cut favorite in the East, it’s the complete opposite in the West. You could make a strong argument for UTSA, North Texas, Rice and Louisiana Tech to all win the division.
For me it came down to experience and head coach and the Roadrunners are clearly ahead of the class in both of those categories. UTSA has a proven winner at the top in head coach Larry Coker and their 20 returning starters are the most of any team in the conference. While they have to go on the road to face both Rice and Louisiana Tech, they get North Texas at home and avoid having to play Marshall out of the East.
I got Rice and North Texas ending up in a tie for second at 6-2, but technically I have the Owls rated higher due to fact that I have them beating the Mean Green at home. While I’m a huge fan of North Texas head coach Dan McCarney, the Mean Green have a lot of uncertainties with just 9 starters coming back. Whether or not Rice will be able to exceed expectations and defend their title will come down to the play of junior quarterback Driphus Jackson.
Even though I have Louisiana Tech picked to finish 4th at 4-4, this is definitely a team that could surprise. The Bulldogs have 13 starters coming back and should get a lot better play out of the quarterback position with the addition of former Iowa recruit Cody Sokol. Louisiana Tech will also be in the 2nd year of head coach Skip Holz, who has won this conference before with East Carolina.
That leaves UTEP and Southern Miss to battle it out for the final two spots in the West. Both teams have a lot of experience coming back, as the Miners return 15 starters and the Golden Eagles bring back 16. Southern Miss is only 2 years removed from winning the C-USA title and UTEP is going to be a greatly improved team in the 2nd year under Sean Kugler.
C-USA Championship Game Prediction: Marshall defeats UTSA
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