by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After previewing the West half of Conference USA in our previous installment, we focus on the East half of the loop, Once again, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2015 SU, pointspread, and O/U records included...

Where has the time gone? It doesn’t seem so long ago that we knew of Rick Stockstill as the QB of the first powerhouse Bobby Bowden teams at Florida State. That, however, is now close to 40 years in the rear-view mirror. It also doesn’t seem as if Stockstill has been the HC for the past ten years at Middle Tennessee (2015 SUR 7-6, PSR 8-5, O/U 5-8), which in that span has made the move from the Sun Belt to C-USA and become bowl-eligible (though not necessarily bowl-selected) in six of the past seven seasons.

As for Stockstill, he seems content in Murfreesboro after a few dalliances with other jobs, including East Carolina a few years ago. It makes sense; the Blue Raider program has been on the move, and seems poised to make another move up the ladder, perhaps to the American should expansion elsewhere heist a few schools from that league. As Stockstill has stayed at MTSU, Murfreesboro has also grown along with the Blue Raider program, with the area now considered on the periphery of Nashville metro. Less than an hour from a major airport in Music City, MTSU is also conveniently located, with the ability to draw recruits from the region. The Blue Raider gig is now a pretty good one, which Stockstill seems to realize.


Maintaining recent momentum looks a good possibility because of another Stockstill, Rick’s son Brent, now a soph QB who came within 52 yards of Jameis Winston’s NCAA frosh record for passing yardage a year ago, when Brent recorded a whopping 4005 YP and the Blue Raiders fielded their most prolific offense in school history. After scoring 34 ppg, MTSU does not figure to take a step back with new/old o.c. Tony Franklin, a Hal Mumme and Mike Leach disciple who is well-versed in all aspects of the spread offense and is now on a second tour of duty in Murfreesboro after recent stints at La Tech and Cal.

Franklin’s go-go offense works best with a deep rotation of wideouts in 4-WR looks. Soph Richie James, who caught a staggering 108 passes last season, and freakish athlete 6'5 Terry Pettis, who gained over 21 yards per catch a year ago, will again be featured targets. Shane Tucker, who gained 413 YR out of a slotback position in last year’s offense, was moved to wideout in spring to give Stockstill more targets. Meanwhile, Ole Miss transfer I’Tavius Mathers returns to his hometown as the featured RB after gaining 1061 YR over three seasons in the SEC and starring in the MTSU spring game. The left side of the OL is looking for a couple of new starters, but there was good depth on the forward wall a year ago that should come in handy this fall.

The Blue Raider “D” has been representative for the past few years under d.c. Tyrone Nix’s schemes, though six new starters will need to step into the breach this fall. Big holes remain at the LB and safety spots after five of the top six tacklers graduated following last season.

On the plus side, the DL is loaded with experience, with three starters returning up front on an all-senior line featuring bookends Chris Hale and ex-Marine Steven Rhodes. Starters also return at both CB spots, where Mike Minter and ballhawk deluxe Jeremy Cutrer form one of the best coverage duos in C-USA. Though an all-new starting crew of LBs is slated, physical jr. Myles Harges likely would have been in the lineup last fall if not for injury. Soph OLB Chris Melton also might have provided a glimpse of things to come when impressing with six tackles in the Bahamas Bowl vs. Western Michigan.

The schedule is a bit of a concern because there are only five home games at Jonny Floyd Stadium, important because the Blue Raiders are 15-3 SU at Murfreesboro since 2013 and 6-14 SU away from home. A tough three-game stretch in September at Vanderbilt, Bowling Green, and home vs. West contender La Tech will likely set the tone for the rest of the season.

Spread-wise, note the streaky nature of Stockstill’s recent editions, which have three times in the past two years rolled off spread win streaks of three games or more, while also having a pair of 4-game spread losing streaks. Interestingly, MTSU covered all four of its chances as a double-digit favorite last season.

What a nice fit it has turned out to be in Huntington between HC Doc Holliday and Marshall (2015 SUR 10-3, PSR 8-5, O/U 4-9), which has returned to gridiron relevance though the Doc years. Though there was a time when Holliday (50-28 SU in six seasons on the job) seemed on shaky ground a few years ago, three straight campaigns of double-digit wins and bowl wins suggest that Doc could probably take this job into retirement if he so desires.

The Herd’s track record warrants its inclusion among the top contenders in C-USA, though this might be a season where Holliday struggles to get to that 10-win plateau, considering the extreme rebuild necessary on the defensive side, where only four starters return from an accomplished platoon that ranked 10th (17.8 ppg) in scoring defense, an almost unheard-of accomplishment for a C-USA entry. With so much youth on this year’s roster, however, the work is going to be cut out for Holliday.

At least the offense should continue to roll after scoring 31 ppg when breaking in a hardscrabble frosh QB, Chase Litton, last season. The rough-hewn Litton would eventually pass for 2605 yards and 23 TDs after taking over control of the offense in the third game of 2015 vs. Norfolk State. A year ago, however, Litton was surrounded with a group of experienced skill guys on the strike force, but graduation has altered that scenario, especially after top two receiving targets Davonte Allen and Deandre Reaves graduated, taking 114 catches and 9 TDs with them from a year ago. Expected to assume more of a receiving burden is jr. Deon-Tay McManus, who caught 35 passes a year ago, and Plaxico Burress-sized soph Michael Clark, a 6'7 deep threat.

The Herd usually has no shortage of runners, and even after the departure of the thundering Devon Johnson (now in the NFL Carolina Panthers’ camp), shifty Hyleck Foster (450 YR) has shown enough pop in the past to suggest he can handle feature-back duties. Punishing soph Keion Davis (331 YR LY) offers a nice change-of-pace and a pile-driving style. Four starters also return along the OL. Moreover, Marshall was also tops nationally in special teams efficiency a year ago. So, we don’t think the problem for the Herd will be scoring points this fall.

There might be issues, however, on a mostly-rebuilt “D” that will test vet coordinator Chuck Heater, once upon a time a tough RB for some of Bo Schembechler’s early Michigan teams. Of particular concern are the new CBs, a position with little experience on the roster and a concern for Heater, whose system requires the corners to win one-on-one battles with wideouts while the front seven utilizes various Heater-designed blitz packages. Heater also has to replace C-USA Defensive MVP LB Evan McKelvey.

In the secondary, Heater does have some experience at the safety spots, where returning starter Tiquan Lang and Virginia Tech transfer C.J. Reavis will roam. Soph DE Ryan Bee proved a pass rush force last fall for a “D” that was adept at forcing TOs and various three-and-outs from opponents. But that was with a far more-experienced stop unit a year ago.

We’ll find out early how far along Holliday’s seventh Herd version might be with a tough September meatgrinder (Akron, Louisville, and at Pitt) after an expected fun time in the opener vs. the pride of Baltimore, the Morgan State Bears. Top East contenders MTSU and WKU also visit Edwards Stadium in November. Another bowl bid is considered a minimum expectation, and a run at the East crown could materialize if the defense coagulates sooner rather than later.

Spread-wise, Doc has had the Herd rolling the past three seasons, with an overall 25-15-1 mark vs. the number since 2013. Herd is also 13-5-1 vs. the number at Huntington since 2013, though 6-0 of that mark is credited to the 2013 team.

It’s been a fun two years for Western Kentucky (2015 SUR 12-2, PSR 8-4-1, O/U 9-4), which has piled up 20 wins (including a couple of bowl successes) in the two seasons on HC Jeff Brohm’s watch while QB Brandon Doughty set all sorts of team records. These developments have proven quite satisfying in the land of mutton BBQ, especially after Bobby Petrino bailed on the program for Louisville after just one season in 2013.

Fortunately, the Tops have continued to progress under Brohm, who has been on the radar of some “Big 5" conference schools and might not be long for WKU if the team continues to succeed and entertain as it has done the past two seasons. To do so this fall, however, might not be so easy, with questions now at the QB spot and significant rebuilding required on the defensive side.

The Tops boasted of a top ten offense a year ago, scoring a staggering 44.3 ppg, but Doughty moved to the NFL and the Miami Dolphins in last April’s draft, and no successor clearly emerged in spring. Thus, the QB battle continues into fall camp with Doughty’s backup, Nelson Fishback, and South Florida transfer Mike White running neck-and-neck. Neither, however, is reminding anyone in Bowling Green of Doughty. Still, whichever QB emerges will have some established weapons at his disposal, including last year’s top two RBs, sr. Anthony Wales and soph D’Andre Ferby, who combined for over 1700 YR and 20 TDs in 2015. The top eight offensive linemen all return from last year as well.

Still, concerns abound with the passing game, even beyond whichever QB eventually wins the job. Keep in mind that Brohm lost two of his top outside receiving threats (Jared Dangerfield and Antwane Grant) to graduation, plus key TE and NFL Rams draftee Tyler Higbee, but sr. WR Taywan Taylor returns after recording 86 catches a year ago.,..while starting only 5 games! After toying with the idea of entering the NFL Draft, Taylor returns for one more year at Bowling Green, yet depth of the receiving corps remains an issue. Speaking of concerns, there are some with the kicking game as well following the graduation of PK Garrett Schwettman, the school’s all-time leading scorer.

The Tops’ defense improved a year ago from one of the nation’s worst in 2014 to a capable platoon that ranked in the middle of most national stat categories, not bad considering the accelerated pace of LY’s WKU games due to the offensive potency. Coordinator Nick Holt, however, must break in seven new starters on the stop unit, though several rotation pieces from last season will now get more-featured roles. A transfer from Louisville, DE Nick Dawson-Brents, should slide into the starting lineup, while another Louisville transfer, sr. Keith Brown, will likely start at an ILB spot. Consider Dawson-Brents and Brown the last gifts to WKU from Petrino.

Aside from a trip to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama on Sept. 10, WKU should be favored in its other non-conference games, including hosting SEC Vanderbilt on September 17. The C-USA schedule is a bit tricky with road trips to top contenders La Tech, MTSU, and Marshall. Getting the required six wins for bowl consideration should not be too much trouble, but we are reluctant to forecast anything like last year’s 12-2 mark, considering the questions at QB and the significant rebuild needed on defense.

Spread-wise, Brohm enters this season on a 10-5-1 uptick, but that damage was all done with Doughty in the fold. The Tops have also been making quite a fortress out of L.T. Smith Stadium, covering 7 of their last 8 as host.

Considering the quick re-start of the program a few years ago at Old Dominion (2015 SUR 5-7, PSR 3-9, O/U 7-5), the Monarchs have come a long way, falling just one win short in their first season of bowl eligibility last fall. After spending two seasons as an FCS Independent, two more years in the CAA, one as an FBS indie, and now two years in C-USA, it amazes that ODU has a 57-27 SU record that span under clever HC Bobby Wilder. Moreover, a new 30,000-seat stadium is in the works to replace old Foreman Field, once the home of annual “Oyster Bowl” games in steamy Norfolk. That’s a lot of accomplishment in a short period of time.

Last year’s 5-7 was far from Wilder’s best mark, but it impressed nonetheless considering it came after the graduation of do-everything QB Taylor Heinicke (who moved to the NFL Vikings), and a spate of injuries, including at the QB spot post-Heinicke.

Now, Wilder is establishing the necessary depth in the program to sustain it at the higher level, no longer fearful of redshirting incoming frosh, and no longer one of the nation’s youngest teams, as the Monarchs were a year ago. Whether that is enough to get ODU to its first bowl game this fall remains to be seen, but Wilder absolutely appears to know what he is doing, and it seems unlikely he meets the same fate anytime soon as another recent college “expansion” coach, UTSA’s Larry Coker.

Some answers at the QB position would be welcomed this fall, though even when soph Shuler Bentley was able to take most of the snaps in spring because sr. David Washington was recovering from ACL surgery, he didn’t lay claim to the job. Providing his knee is properly heeled, most C-USA observers believe the ex-WR Washington, who passed for 1155 yards in a handful of starts last year, is behind center for the September 3 opener vs. Hampton.

If the QB situation can sort itself, the Monarchs might have a chance, because nine starters are back on the attack end, with receivers who caught 211 of the 235 pass completions from a year ago, including top target sr. Zach Pascal (68 receptions in 2015). Expect the TEs to become more involved in the aerial show after dealing with injuries last season. Indeed, the TEs loom more important this season due to relative youth along the OL, where a pair of redshirt frosh are likely to be the starting tackles. ODU also has a effective change-of-pace RB combo in slasher Ray Lawry (1136 YR and 5.9 ypc LY) and banger Jeremy Cox (369 YR & 5.1 ypc in 2015).

As expected, the Monarchs were still down the charts in defensive stats a year ago, but improving depth should help upgrade those numbers in the fall. There are 13 players on the roster who have seen time on the defensive line, including rugged sr. NT Rashaad Coward. Senior T.J. Ricks was C-USA’s leading tackler from last season, but was moved in spring from an inside to an outside LB spot to take advantage of his size and quickness. Three starters also return in the secondary, including both corners, Brandon Addison and Aaron Young.

Outside of a trip to NC State, ODU has a favorable non-league slate, and several winnable games in Norfolk suggest that Wilder's troops could get to the magic six wins for bowl eligibility.

Spread-wise, the Monarchs dropped their first eight vs. the number last season, lowering their 16-game spread mark, dating to early 2014, to 2-14, before covering three of their last four games last fall. After dropping their first seven spread decisions as a favorite, ODU finally covered as chalk last November 14 at home vs. UTEP.

There were times last season when Florida Atlantic (2015 SUR 3-9, PSR 5-7, O/U 4-8) looked like a formidable team, such as when physically manhandling nearby FIU at Boca Raton. Too often, however, the Owls found ways to lose games, dropping four games by 7 points or fewer, therein costing a chance at bowl eligibility.

That sort of pattern, however, has become familiar for FAU, which has not been able to gain much traction since the end of the Howard Schnellenberger era, which in retrospect lasted a couple of years too long. Desirous of allowing program architect Schnellenberger to coach at least one season in the new Boca Raton stadium when it opened in 2011, the program deteriorated without an heir apparent on staff. When successor Carl Pelini was dismissed midway in the 2013 campaign, the Owls were forced to start from scratch again and lured Charlie Partridge off of Bret Bielema’s Arkansas staff for the 2014 season. A pair of 3-9 records later, FAU continues to spin its wheels.

Thus, Partridge is authorizing major changes for 2016, beginning with a new-look offense that is embracing all of the tenets of video football. It’s no-huddle, uptempo all the way under new o.c. Travis Trickett, most recently at Stanford and the son of Florida State OL coach Rick Trickett. All quite a departure from the jerry-rigged offense of the past few seasons and one that ended 105th in scoring (22.5 ppg) a year ago with ultra-physical QB Jaquez Johnson, who even wore a running back’s number (32) as he would try to run over defenders. Soph Jason Driskel, brother of the former Florida and La Tech QB Jeff, effectively split snaps with Johnson last fall, or RS frosh Daniel Parr, who rejected nearby Miami to sign instead with the Owls, will take their battle from spring into fall camp to determine which will start. Several C-USA observers would not be surprised if Partridge opts to use both early in the season.

Some experienced weapons remain in the mix, as jr. Buddy Howell and sr. Jay Warren have combined to rush for 1871 yards the past two seasons. Though they might have to sacrifice carries to true frosh Devin Singletary, a nearby Deerfield Beach product who spurned offers from the Big Ten to stay close to home. Partridge and Trickett moved 6'6 Nate Terry from TE to the slot in the spring, which also opens up the TE spot for Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cameron, who played some QB for the Deacs but will be utilized as a TE for FAU.

There is also hope that the Owls won’t have to utilize P Dalton Schomp as much as a year ago, but if they do, his 48.0 average was best in the nation and usually gave the Owls a field-position edge last fall.

Despite using ten true frosh on “D” and special teams last season, the stop unit was far from the worst in C-USA and returns some playmakers, including NFL prospect DE Trey Hendrickson, whose 13.5 sacks last season tied for second best in the nation. But with newcomers manning the DT spots, Hendrickson might be dealing with extra attention from opposing blockers in the fall. There is great anticipation that touted frosh DT Kevin McCrary, from up the coast at Daytona Beach, will make an immediate impact. Nickel back Ocie Rose was the big-play star for d.c. Roc Bellationi’s platoon last season, scoring three TDs--only two off of the team lead!

Road games in the first month down I-95 at Sun Life Stadium vs. Miami and at Kansas State appear to be difficult non-league hurdles, but the locals will be disappointed if the Owls can’t beat Southern Illinois and Ball State in Boca Raton. If the new offense clicks, FAU should have a shot at its first bowl since the Schenellenberger era of 2008, though we do not like the recurring pattern of the Owls finding ways to lose close games...a partial indictment, at least to date, of Partridge.

Spread-wise, the glow of the Pelini years, when the Owls were a combined 17-7 vs. the number in 2012-13, has worn off under Partridge, whose teams are 11-13 vs. the line. FAU has maintained its recent underdog prowess, however, standing 9-5 in that role for Partridge after a 14-4 dog mark the previous two seasons combined.

They still haven’t recovered at Florida International (2015 SUR 5-7, PSR 6-5, O/U 6-5) from the ill-advised move three years by AD Pete Garcia (who has another fancy title...but we’ll just call him the AD), when he fired up-and-comer HC Mario Cristobal, a Miami-area native who had taken FIU to bowls in 2010 & ‘11, and replaced him with journeyman HC Ron Turner, who has had more jobs over the years than Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Nick Saban, who knows a bit more about football than Garcia, would immediately hire Cristobal for his staff at Alabama, while Turner, to no one’s surprise, has struggled with the Golden Panthers, winning just 10 games in three seasons. Noting what happened with Cristobal after the 2012 season, some wise guys in South Beach have suggested that the likely way for Garcia to fire Turner would be for FIU to make a bowl game this season, but we digress.

Turner, whose career HC record is now 52-87 and a generation removed from when he was considered a hot up-and-comer at San Jose State in 1991, is feeling some heat after seeing his team collapse in the final two games of last season. Collapse might be an understatement, as the Golden Panthers were outscored a combined 115-7 by Marshall and WKU, and the game vs. the Tops was even called off early due to weather conditions. All of that after the FIU had clawed to 5-5 and within reach of a bowl bid. That postseason spot might be a prerequisite for Turner to keep his job into 2017...though with AD Garcia, we never know.

There are nine starters back on the offensive end, where Turner needs to develop some consistency or else risk a fourth straight losing season. Junior QB Alex McGough passed for 2722 yards and 21 TDs last season, and will be a three-year starter in the fall, but needs to take the next step as a leader and find ways to win close games. On the plus side, there are nine returning starters on offense, and established playmakers are at the skill positions. Including slashing RB Alex Gardner, who would gain 1200 yards from scrimmage a year ago as he also caught 68 passes. Top receivers wideout Thomas Owens (51 catches LY) and TE Jonnu Smith (36 catches) are also still in the fold. The veteran OL returns all five starters and many of its reserves after an injury-plagued 2015, but even considering the Turner offense is aerial-based, the forward wall needs to do a better job of run blocking as FIU finished 122nd nationally in rushing.

Lack of big plays also haunted the strike force last season, when no run play would gain more than 36 yards, and top receivers like Owens were gaining only 12 yards per catch.

FIU’s defensive numbers were all middle-of-the-road last season though were probably distorted by facing the sluggish attacks of UCF, NC Central, and UTEP. More illuminating might be the fact that six foes gained 450 yards or more. In May, Turner was also forced to juggle his staff after d.c Matt House took a job on Mark Stoops’s staff at Kentucky. Ron Cooper, once upon a time the HC at Louisville, was promoted from DB coach to House’s old coordinator position.

Only four starters return on the stop unit, and just one of those (sr. DT Imarjaye Albury) up front. Cooper will thus need newcomers to generate a pass rush. The return of sr. Davison Colimon, a 2014 starter who tore a pectoral muscle in the opener vs. UCF and missed the rest of last season, should bolster the LB corps. Alongside leading returning tackler Anthony Vint (98 tackles LY), the LB corps might be the strength of the defense. There is some experience in the defensive backfield, with jr. S Niko Gonzalez and CB Deonte Wilson, who started four games at S last season, but they need to generate more plays as Gonzalez was the only member of the returning secondary who had a pick last season (he had two).

FIU has an interesting early schedule with Big Ten Indiana and Maryland both lured to Miami for non-conference dates. The slate picks up again later in the season with a 4-game stretch vs. top C-USA contenders La Tech, MTSU, WKU, and Marshall. It will be hard to consider much progress being made in the program if Turner can’t win at least one of those games. Thus, some C-USA sources believe Turner’s eventual fate is determined by that 4-game stretch.

Spread-wise, Turner had forged a recovery that began late in 2013 and extended into last November, covering 15 in a 21-game run before failing to cover the last three on the board (and it would have been four Ls in a row had the WKU debacle not been called early due to weather). A four-game cover streak vs. nearby FAU was also ended unceremoniously in Boca Raton last Halloween.

And then there was Charlotte (2015 SUR 2-10, PSR 4-7, O/U 5-6), the latest FBS “expansion team” that enters its fourth year of competition this fall. The 49ers got their fans all jumpy last September when winning their first two games out of the chute as a real FBS entry, but reality soon set in and the enormity of the task at hand for HC Brad Lambert was confirmed by ten straight losses. While Charlotte has some capable frontline players, the depth is not yet up to FBS level, even those of C-USA, though no one in the region was expecting the 49ers to win the league in their first try.

They probably won’t win in their second trip around the track, either, but Charlotte might look a bit more like a real team as the 49ers get closer to full capacity and real FBS-level players enter the program. Including the new QB, Kevin Olsen, who began his career at Miami-Fla. but most recently was winging the ball for Riverside JC in California. He’s also the brother of NFL Panthers TE Greg Olsen, so Kevin at least has someone local to show him around town. Other transfer QBs include ex-East Carolina Cody Keith and ex-NC A&T Hasan Klugh, indicating the talent upgrades infusing the nascent 49er program.

With all of these new arms on campus, Lambert has switched last year’s QB, sr. Matt Johnson, to a RB spot, where he likely spots slashing sr. Kalif Phillips, a legit FBS runner who gained 961 YR a year ago despite missing most of the final three games with an injured knee. There are also some established targets for Olsen, as sr. WRs Trent Bostick & Austin Duke and jr. T.I. Ford combined for 1253 yards worth of receptions last fall. Four starters also return on the OL, including All-CUSA frosh G Nate Davis. Depth still needs upgrading along the forward wall, but it’s safe to say this apparently upgraded “O” can exceed last year’s 17.5 ppg, which ranked 119th nationally.

Charlotte’s defense allowed 36 ppg in 2015 but it nonetheless improved markedly a year ago under d.c Matt Wallerstedt, a teammate of Lambert’s in college at Kansas State and having also coordinated at Texas Tech and Air Force. The 49ers cut 58 ypg (down to 419) from 2014 despite playing a much upgraded slate a year ago. Wallerstedt’s 3-4 was stunting and blitzing consistently last season and made enough plays to prevent a few games from becoming runaways the other way.

Eight starters return on defense, led by sr. NG Larry Ogunjobi, who effectively clogs the middle and tied for second in C-USA tackles for loss with 14.5. Seniors man both CB spots, including Terrance Winchester, who recorded four picks last season and scored Charlotte’s first-ever FBS TD when he brought back a fumble to the house in the opening 23-20 win at Georgia State.

No one is expecting much this season from the 49ers, and the support base would probably be content to merely see improvement, fewer lopsided losses, and maybe an extra couple of wins. In another year or two, Lambert is going to need to do a bit better, but for the time being, Charlotte fans will be satisfied with a competitive product that continues to make progress.


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