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Lane Kiffin
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Team Previews

Conference USA East Preview

by Connor Allen
Updated On: July 3, 2019, 12:55 am ET

Welcome to the Rotoworld college football preview series! Leading up to the start of the season, we will be publishing previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of Rotoworld analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. The Conference USA West division preview will be published on Wednesday, with the Mountain West conference to follow on Thursday.

Before we get started, a lot of the analytics used in this article stem from Football Outsiders and SB Nation's Bill Connelly. S&P+ is "a metric that's based around the core concepts of the Five Factors: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers." Definitions of other metrics ("line yards" & "sack rate") I mention can be found here.


Conference USA Fantasy Projections

QuarterbacksPaYDPaTDRuYDFPPG
Mason Fine (North Texas, SR)38232710923
James Morgan (Florida International, SR)2986282419
J'mar Smith (Louisiana Tech, SR)31751819018
Tyler Johnston III (UAB, SO)24811730518
Randall Johnson (Middle Tennessee, JR)24911622518
Isaiah Green (Marshall, SO)2806177516
Jack Abraham (Southern Mississippi, JR)2786178517
Frank Harris (UTSA, SO)20871035415
Messiah deWeaver (Old Dominion, JR)24011314217
Steven Duncan (Western Kentucky, JR)18991515116
BranDon Jones (UTEP, SR)1720105814
Nick Tronti (Florida Atlantic, SO)1326717216
Tom Stewart (Rice, SR)1383714411
Chris Reynolds (Charlotte, SO)117572512

 

Running BacksRuYDRuTDReYDFPPG
DeAndre Torrey (North Texas, JR)8391217819
Benny LeMay (Charlotte, SR)932827117
Spencer Brown (UAB, JR)914124916
Brenden Knox (Marshall, SO)89667713
Chaton Mobley (Middle Tennessee, SO)708516713
Jaqwis Dancy (Louisiana Tech, SR)596812413
B.J. Emmons (Florida Atlantic, JR)82574012
Quardraiz Wadley (UTEP, SR)59278511
Kesean Strong (Old Dominion, SR)362515410
Trivenskey Mosley (Southern Mississippi, SO)52521329
Loren Easly (North Texas, SR)52051019
Juma Otoviano (Rice, SO)6185339
Anthony Jones (Florida International, SR)4226539
James Charles (Florida Atlantic, JR)5905409
Brenden Brady (UTSA, SO)5095779
Tyler King (Marshall, JR)5774408
Napoleon Maxwell (Florida International, SR)4475578
D'Vonte Price (Florida International, JR)38631028

 

ReceiversRecReYDReTDFPPG
Rico Bussey Jr. (North Texas, SR)731042819
Adrian Hardy (Louisiana Tech, JR)62906415
Quez Watkins (Southern Mississippi, JR)67773515
Eric Kumah (Old Dominion, SR)62818514
Ty Lee (Middle Tennessee, SR)63790414
Obi Obialo (Marshall, SR)64775514
Isaiah Graham (Louisiana Tech, JR)56706412
Maurice Alexander (Florida Int., SR)45523512
Victor Tucker (Charlotte, SO)51671311
Lucky Jackson (Western Kentucky, SR)52579411
Willie Wright (Florida Atlantic, JR)57517311
Jaelon Darden (North Texas, JR)50614411
Austin Maloney (Florida International, SR)37563510
Austin Trammell (Rice, JR)49540210
CJ Windham (Middle Tennessee, SR)42558310
Aaron Cephus (Rice, JR)41556310
Brad Anderson (Middle Tennessee, JR)42473210
Jaylond Adams (Southern Mississippi, JR)4647539
Kenyan Foster (UTEP, SR)4641739
Kendall Parham (UAB, SR)3447939
Tavin Richardson (Marshall, SR)4339749
Jordan Mitchell (Southern Mississippi, SR)4340538
Austin Watkins (UAB, SR)3448638
Jacquez Sloan (Western Kentucky, JR)3544228
Quin Jernighan (Western Kentucky, SR)3840028
Cameron Dollar (Charlotte, SO)3543128

 

Tight EndsRecReYDReTDFPPG
Harrison Bryant (Florida Atlantic, SR)4149949
Kelvin Smith (North Texas, SR)3633737
Kyle Fourtenbary (Western Kentucky, JR)3731527
Sterling Palmer (Florida International, SO)2931437
Armani Levias (Marshall, SR)2735026
Chris Cunningham (Old Dominion, SR)2625025

 

Projected Standings

East

Marshall 10-2 (8-0 in conference)

FIU 9-3 (6-2 in conference)

FAU 6-6 (4-4 in conference)

Western Kentucky 5-7 (6-2 in conference)

Middle Tennessee 4-8 (3-5 in conference)

Old Dominion 4-8 (2-6 in conference)

Charlotte 3-9 (1-7 in conference)


Marshall Thundering Herd

2018 record: 9-4 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: C Levi Brown. Brown plays with nimble feet and quickness, with some interior flexibility between guard and center (though he has played center for the vast bulk of his career). Unfortunately, he simply might not have the size to stick in the pros.

 

The case for:  Coming off a 9-4 season in 2018, the Thundering Herd return a group of exciting players. That starts with redshirt sophomore QB Isaiah Green who averaged 7.5 yards per attempt last year. The Thundering Herd went 7-3 under his tutelage including a close, 26-24 loss to Southern Miss.  In addition to Green, they return their top two running backs in Brenden Knox and Tyler King. Offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey leaned on four running backs last year, but Knox and King are more than capable of taking on an increased workload this year. The receiving corps loses Tyre Brady to the NFL but returns a lot of veteran depth at the position. Marshall’s offensive line should remain dominant as they return three starters, three others with starting experience, and landed Josh Ball, a JUCO transfer who started nine games at FSU before a suspension.

The secondary should be the anchor of Marshall’s defense with everyone but S Malik Gant returning to the unit that ranked 41st in S&P+ last year. The front seven will need to be reworked, but if they can come anywhere close to last season’s 13th ranked run defense in S&P+ they should continue to be dominant in Conference USA.

The Thundering Herd went 3-1 in one-score games last season, so there shouldn’t be too much regression in that category. Their season starts off tough, with three difficult non-conference games against Boise State, Ohio, and Cincinnati. Luckily, only one of those games is on the road. The back-half of their schedule is much lighter and they won’t be forced to play a dreaded back-to-back road game.

The case against: Marshall returns a lot of depth, but if that depth can’t fill the shoes of a departed star like Tyre Brady (71-1002-9), the offense may sputter. Their receiving corps has a lot of potential with Obi Obialo (42-505-4) and Armani Levias (25-327-3) returning, but neither is a guarantee to take that next step forward. Isaiah Green is also a bit of a misfit for OC Tim Cramsey’s pass-happy offense. Green was solid -- but not spectacular -- as a passer (56% completion rate) and will need to be much more efficient if Cramsey doesn’t shift his gameplan.

The defense was really good last season (22nd in S&P+) but they lose seven of their top 11 players in the front-seven (defensive line or linebacker). Beyond significant losses up front, last season’s defensive coordinator, Adam Fuller, performed so well he took a coaching gig at Memphis. Doc Holliday has yet to officially replace Fuller but instead brought in former Charlotte head coach Brad Lambert as a “volunteer defensive assistant.” The secondary remains intact, but Lambert will have his hands full figuring out the front-seven. He won’t have much time to do so with three of their toughest opponents in the first four weeks. 

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER


Florida International University Golden Panthers

2018 record: 9-4 (6-2 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: DT Teair Tart -- Still working for his first starting shot, but has shown an encouraging ability to pressure the passer up the middle. A lack of reps and a lack of strength clouds his future for the pros.

 

The case for: Relative to expectations, Butch Davis has been one of the best coaches in the NCAA. Since taking over as the head coach in 2017, FIU has gone a combined 17-9 in two seasons. They won as many games in 2018 (9) as the previous two seasons combined before Davis’ tenure. 2019 looks like it could be another successful season for the Golden Panthers if everything comes together.

They return a lot of talent on both sides of the ball including graduate transfer QB James Morgan who was efficient in offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky’s quick-hitting offense in 2018 (65 percent completion rate). He returns most of his receiving weapons and should be able to show improvement in his second year of Skrosky’s system. If FIU’s four-pronged running back group can take a step forward in efficiency, the offense should handily exceed their 86th ranked offense (Football Outsiders’ S&P+) from last season.

The defense could make-or-break this team. Their pass-defense projects to be one of the best after ranking 72nd in S&P+ last season and returning their full secondary outside of CB Emmanuel Lubin. They could also potentially add Iowa transfer, Josh Turner, if he’s able to get a waiver. The run defense needs to step up after ranking 111th in S&P+ but there’s room for optimism as multiple contributors return and flashed upside at times. Both units have lots of potential but aren’t significantly better than most of their conference. After going 8-2 in one-score games the past two seasons, the Panthers will need to continue pulling off close games if they want to remain a Conference USA front-runner.

The case against: FIU’s biggest vulnerability is in the trenches. They lost four total players on the offensive line and only return three with any kind of starting experience. They ranked 2nd in sack rate allowed last season and could be in that same range again this fall given their losses. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was among the NCAA’s worst and brought in little-to-no talent. They allowed a whopping 5.0 yards per carry (111th) and ranked 114th in Football Outsiders’ “line yards” metric.  Banking on improvement from players who struggled mightily the season prior isn’t a strategy we’re keen on.

The running game could also use some consistency from their stable of backs. Four running backs had 60-to-130 carries last season and led the team to a 93rd overall finish in terms of S&P+. This isn’t awful, but it dragged down the higher-ranked offense. As I mentioned above, the Golden Panthers will need to continue winning one-score games in order to keep up their impressive two-year run. The issue is, winning one-score games is one of the statistics most likely to regress year-to-year. If things break poorly, a tumble toward .500 would not be completely out of the question.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER


Florida Atlantic University Owls

2018 record: 5-7 (3-5 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Harrison Bryant. A bruiser with an NFL-ready frame, Bryant could gain traction on draft boards in what is a thinner tight end class following this spring’s monster position group.

 

The case for:  Despite the total collapse from 2017’s 11-3 season, last year’s five wins were partly due to bad luck. FAU lost all four one-score conference games, a stat that has been proven to regress year-over-year. Lane Kiffin remains intact despite the "down season" and has a good chance to bounce back.  He’ll be tasked with replacing stud RB Devin “Motor” Singletary and leading WR Jovon Durante on offense.  Motor was a big part of their offense but wasn’t overly efficient in 2018 (5.2 yards per carry). The Owls should be able to find a suitable replacement in either former Alabama RB BJ Emmons, redshirt freshman Malcolm Davidson, or junior James Charles. The group may not combine to perform as well as Singletary did in 2017 (6.4 yards per carry) but should be above replacement level.

The Owl’s starting quarterback Chris Robison returns, though he was suspended for the spring due to an investigated case of domestic violence (no charges filed). He has since been reinstated to the team, but will be skating on extremely thin ice given his various off-field misdeeds over the past few years. Former FSU QB Deondre Francois would have given the Owls much-needed depth but at the moment may be eyeing a transfer to FBS Alabama State. WR Willie Wright is their top returning pass-catcher after posting a 46-464-2 stat line last season. Tight end Harrison Bryant also returns and is among the nation’s best at the position. The team has six incoming three-star freshmen that should help fill out their depth chart nicely.

The defense was slightly improved from 2017 but didn’t do enough to keep former DC Tony Pecoraro around for another season.  The Owls replaced him with former Charlotte DC Glenn Spencer who could help the defense take another step forward. Most of the secondary returns and the defense added a whopping 13 three-star recruits on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. A few of them are bound to be early bloomers. FAU has a favorable schedule with six opponents ranking 100th or worse in projected S&P+. After two tough matchups to begin the year against teams projected to be in the top-30 (Ohio State and UCF), every game thereafter is at least a coin-flip.

The case against: Last season I wrote that FAU was “[t]he one team in C-USA East that could belong in the national conversation.” Boy was I wrong. They had a chance to prove they could hang with the big boys early in the season but were molly-whopped by Oklahoma 63-14 in the first game of the year. Things didn’t get better from there as they ranked 49th in offensive S&P+ (down from 30th in 2017) and 82nd in defensive S&P+ (up from 89th in 2017). 

The offense returns their quarterback but loses three starters from the offensive line.  It’s unlikely they are able to post another top-10 sack-rate allowed given their losses up front. Durante and Singletary seriously sap the offenses proven play-making ability and without a younger player stepping up their offense may not be anywhere near as efficient as last season. Their defense returns a few key members in the secondary but not much else. Two of their top three linebackers and four of their top seven linemen have also departed. The story of this team is the same on both sides of the ball, unless they receive some serious contributions from freshman their tumble may continue.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: UNDER


Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers

2018 record: 3-9 (2-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Lucky Jackson. A vocal leader with strong hands and a high football IQ, the biggest questions around Jackson relate to his overall athleticism and top-end speed. He will need to gain a foothold early in the evaluating season if he is to finish with actual draft traction when April rolls around.

 

The case for:  Out goes Mike Stanford, in comes Tyson Helton. Former head coach Mike Stanford went 3-9 in 2018 and was 1-9 prior to the final two contests. That wasn’t going to cut it for a Western Kentucky program that’s two years removed from an 11-win season. Rather than trusting Stanford to turn things around in 2019, they decided to bring back a taste from the Jeff Brohm era in Tyson Helton. Taking over a team isn’t easy, but expectations aren’t overly high for the Hilltoppers either.

Junior QB Steven Duncan and sophomore QB Davis Shanley both saw time last season after starter Drew Eckels went down with an injury. Shanley was the better of the two with a 10 percent higher completion percentage (68.1 percent), while averaging a full yard per attempt (6.7 YPA) more.  They boasted one of the best offensive lines in Conference USA last season ranking 39th in Football Outsiders’ “Line Yards” and 46th in “Stuff Rate” while posting a slightly below average sack rate (83rd). The entire unit from last season returns, giving them a solid base to build around. In addition to a strong line, the Hilltoppers also return key skill players RB Joshua Samuel (5.3 yards per carry), WR Jacquez Sloan (16 yards per reception), and WR Lucky Jackson (552 receiving yards). It would be extremely surprising if they don’t rank better than last season’s 120th in S&P+.

Defense has never been Western Kentucky’s specialty and as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly notes, “the Hilltoppers have topped 80th in Def. S&P+ only twice: 69th in 2012 (Willie Taggart’s second bowl run at WKU) and 46th in 2016.” The defense ranked 93rd in S&P+ last season and while they lose a couple of players, they have some key returners which should anchor the unit. The pass defense (65th in S&P+) was much stronger than the run defense (114th in S&P+), and that’s likely to remain the case in 2019 given their losses. While most teams with a new coaching staff tend to take a step back prior to making strides forward, WKU has a good chance of at least matching last season’s 3-9 finish.

 

The case against: Western Kentucky got a much-needed breath of fresh air in Tyson Helton but he has no head coaching experience, only a few offensive coordinator gigs. First-time head coaches are generally tough to predict because we don’t have much to go off. The offense returns a lot of key skill players, but none of them were all that good. Lucky Jackson was the team’s leading wideout and only averaged 11 yards per reception while their top running back only had 639 rushing yards. They weren’t productive last season and it may be a big ask for them to more than double their production.

The pass-defense was admittedly strong but lost a starting cornerback and safety. They likely won’t be able to match last season’s finish of 65th in S&P+. Their run-defense may actually get worse with the loss of two linebackers and two defensive tackles from their front seven. Unless other players step up in a big way the Hilltoppers could be among the worst at stopping the run in all of Conference USA this fall. The schedule doesn’t do them too many favors either with a road game against FIU and neutral game against Louisville in back-to-back weeks. They also have back-to-back road games at the end of the season with Arkansas and Southern Miss. They only play three games against teams projected to rank outside the top-100 in S&P+ meaning it might be tough for them to win more than five games next year.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 5

Prediction: PUSH