2014 NCAA Football Preview: Conference USA

August 16, 2014

I didn’t receive any questions about Conference USA, so I can only imagine how many thousands of readers this post will get.

Hopefully my small but viciously loyal following will feign interest for some of the Power Five conference previews that will be posted in the coming days.

At any rate, let’s take a look at Conference USA.


Sometimes, I have to use what writers would call a “poetic license” to make a mid-major conference such as Conference USA seem interesting to the average (see: casual) football fan. But no such license is necessary for this conference in 2014. Despite further conference alignment that saw three teams leave (farewell, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa) and two teams join the conference (hello, Old Dominion and Western Kentucky), there hasn’t been this much buzz surrounding Conference USA in a decade.

This buzz, of course, is thanks in large part to the Marshall Thundering Herd. The Herd, which finished their 2013 campaign at 10-4 with a bowl victory over Maryland, have been receiving attention for two reasons. The first is the team’s potential to finish the regular season unbeaten, which if it happens would almost surely see Marshall land in one of the prestigious “access” bowls. The Herd would also become the first C-USA team since the 2004 Louisville Cardinals to finish ranked in the AP poll. The second reason for attention is quarterback Rakeem Cato, a darkhorse but serious threat to receive an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.

So if you’re a fan of a school not named Marshall that competes in Conference USA, go thank a Thundering Herd fan when you get the chance. Their team is the reason C-USA will get some media attention this season. If you’re just a casual fan still wondering why you should pay attention to the conference, fire up ESPN3 on your computer and watch a bit of the Marshall/Miami (Ohio) game during the opening weekend. Once you see the pace of Marshall’s offense, you’ll know why.

So…do you think Marshall’s athletic department is going to contact me about a media position after reading this? Because those last two paragraphs are straight up selling the Thundering Herd. You’re welcome, Doc Holliday.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


Yes, Marshall is good enough to remain unbeaten this season. But no, that still won’t be enough for Conference USA to sneak a team into the inaugural playoff. The Thundering Herd won’t begin the season ranked in the Top 25, and even if they did, you have to keep in mind that the playoff selection committee is still comprised of human beings. The committee is going to take a look at things such as strength-of-schedule, opponents’ record and opponents’ opponents’ record. Despite Conference USA having several other strong teams such as Rice, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State, the Thundering Herd aren’t going to be able to overcome the fact that other teams simply have stronger schedules to navigate.

Unless we see an unprecedented year in which Marshall or some other C-USA school goes undefeated and every other team in the country has at least two losses, this conference won’t be playoff bound. A more realistic goal for any Conference USA team would be to finish as the highest ranking champion of the “Group of Five” conferences and punch a bid to the Cotton, Fiesta or Peach bowls. That, in essence, is the playoff for the teams in this conference.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

UT-San Antonio

The West Division, which could also be referred to as “the division without Marshall”, is wide open in 2014. And the team that may be able to steal the crown is one that wasn’t even in existence prior to 2011. The Roadrunners have made an extremely smooth transition from FCS to FBS, finishing with a winning record in both years as an FBS school. Now in its first year of bowl eligibility, UTSA is stacked with upperclassmen and returning starters ready to make an impact. In fact, there is the possibility that every starting position could be filled by upperclassmen for the team’s opening contest versus Houston.

Head coach Larry Coker has done a tremendous job instituting his offense scheme, which is why the Roadrunners should be fine offensively even though they will be starting over with a new quarterback. The defense really came together at the end of 2013 and didn’t allow more than 15 points in a game over the last four contests, all victories. Thus the poor defensive numbers, especially against the pass, shouldn’t be indicative of what this team is capable of doing this season. A tough non-conference schedule will prepare the Roadrunners well for a conference slate in which UTSA should be favored in the majority of games. If Coach Coker’s team can steal a win on the road against Rice in early November, it may be enough to send them to the conference title game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Rakeem Cato (Sr.), Marshall quarterback

Cato has already been referenced a couple of times in this preview, and for good reason. The senior quarterback is the motor for the Thundering Herd offense, which was No. 12 nationally in total yards per game last season. In head coach Doc Holliday’s hurry-up offense, Cato has developed into an extremely dangerous weapon by being able to distribute to a number of different receivers in the short passing game. Twelve players caught a touchdown pass for Marshall last season and seven had at least 10 receptions on the year, a testament to both Cato’s vision and Holliday’s system.

The chances of Cato hanging around in the Heisman hunt depend greatly on the success of the Thundering Herd as a team. As long as Marshall’s record is unblemished, Cato will be a darkhorse for the award because his presence on the field is what makes the team so dangerous. Don’t be surprised if Cato joins the 4000/40 club (4,000 passing yards, 40 touchdowns) this season, as he was extremely close to doing so in 2013. Only two quarterbacks had that distinction last season: Fresno State’s Derek Carr and 2013 Heisman Trophy recipient, and national title winner, Jameis Winston.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Florida Atlantic vs. Nebraska (August 30th)

Nebraska has had a history of starting out of the gates slowly, and with a new quarterback to break in this season things could get ugly in Lincoln when Florida Atlantic visits. The Owls were the second best defense in terms of passing yards allowed last season and return an experienced and talented secondary. Do not be surprised if the Cornhuskers have a difficult time moving the ball through the air in this one. Ameer Abdullah may have to come to the rescue, but he is fully capable of doing so.

Florida Atlantic will be able to keep this one interesting with its defense, but chances are Nebraska is going to score some points regardless. For the Owls to really put pressure on the home team, the offensive line will have to be ready for the challenge. An almost completely rebuilt cast will be protecting quarterback Jaquez Johnson and inexperience could be a factor against a Big Ten opponent. Expect the Owls to hang around for awhile and if Johnson has time to work Florida Atlantic could shock the country.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Rice vs. Marshall (November 15th)

This game is huge for a number of reasons. One is that Rice will almost surely be in the West Division title hunt and a win against Marshall would be a pleasant surprise and potentially a huge boost. Another is that the Owls are the only team to beat the Thundering Herd since October 24 of last year, and it wasn’t close. Lastly, looking at Marshall’s schedule it appears as though Rice is one of the bigger roadblocks in the way of an undefeated season for the Thundering Herd.

Like Marshall, Rice should have one of the better offensive attacks in Conference USA this season which should lead to a lot of points being scored in this game. However, the Owls also had one of the better defenses in the league in 2013 and could be one of the few teams in the conference capable of slowing down Cato. It will be interesting to see how the Rice secondary is able to handle Marshall’s receivers, because that will likely be the most crucial matchup in the game. The Thundering Herd will almost certainly be favored to win, but this is a trap game. After last year’s C-USA title game, Rice knows it can hang with Marshall.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Marshall (12-0, [8-0])

2. Middle Tennessee State (7-5, [6-2])

3. Florida Atlantic (7-5, [6-2])

4. Old Dominion (5-7, [4-4])

5. Western Kentucky (3-9, [2-6])

6. UAB (3-9, [2-6])

7. Florida International (3-9, [1-7])

West Division

1. UT-San Antonio (8-4, [7-1])

2. Rice (8-4, [6-2])

3. North Texas (6-6, [4-4])

4. Southern Mississippi (4-8, [2-6])

5. Louisiana Tech (3-9, [2-6])

6. UTEP (3-9, [2-6])

Championship Game (Marshall vs. UT-San Antonio)

Winner: Marshall

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding C-USA or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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