by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We conclude our look at Confernece USA with a preview of the East half of the loop. Teams are presented in order of predicted finsih, with 2013 straight-up and pointspread records included...

Call it Tulane 1998 redux.

We’re talking about the prospects for the Marshall Thundering Herd (2013 SUR 10-4, SUR 9-5) becoming the first Conference USA team to run the table since the 1998 version of the Green Wave.

You remember that Tulane team, right? Tommy Bowden was in his second year as head coach. Almost all of the key players from the Green Wave's 7-4 1997 team returned, the schedule didn't appear to be demanding, and no team had a clue how to stop offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez's newfangled offense, known today as the spread. In QB Shaun King, Bowden and Rodriguez had the perfect triggerman for their electrified attack. By midseason, it was readily apparent that Bowden was going to be targeted by a higher-profile school; Clemson was already laying the groundwork to lure Bowden to Death Valley. But the Wave avoided any potential distractions and kept winning and winning, with no foe ever closer than six points.

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By the time the season concluded, the only other undefeated team left standing was BCS champ Tennessee. But there was no real clamor for the Wave to appear in the title game, or even into the BCS (then it its first season of existence) for one of its other bowls, because the ‘98 schedule was so undemanding.

By the time it came to face BYU in the Liberty Bowl, Bowden was already gone to Clemson, and the Wave had planted the seeds for a return to mediocrity when bypassing Rodriguez as the successor, instead opting for Chris Scelfo. With King at the controls, Tulane had no trouble with BYU in the bowl, winning 41-27, but the comet-like Wave quickly disappeared from view in 1999, dropping to 3-8.

(Note: the Herd is not unfamiliar with unbeaten seasons either, having recorded a 13-0 mark in 1999 shortly after its transition from the old D-IAA ranks to the MAC. But for C-USA purposes, the comparisons to the unbeaten Tommy Bowden Green Wave edition seem more appropriate).

The parallels between Tulane 1998 and Marshall 2014 are apparent, and similar enough that valid comparisons are already being drawn. That Bowden Green Wave team represented C-USA’s best chance to get involved in the 16-season run of the BCS, but unlike 1998, now there is a designated path for the league champ to qualify for a spot in the “New Year’s Six” that is the de facto successor to the BCS. An invitation to the College Football Playoff remains very remote, but a spot is being reserved from among the highest-ranked C-USA, Mountain West, American, MAC, and Sun Belt rep for an invitation to the one of the “NY6" bowls. And, at this stage, the Herd would be the consensus pick among that group to receive the invite.

Of course, they have to play the season first, but all systems look go in Huntington for HC Doc Holliday, a recruiter extraordinaire now entering his fifth season as coach. The breakthrough occurred last season when Marshall won ten games for the first time since 2002, topping off the fun with a comfy win over Maryland in the Military Bowl. While Holliday lost some important pieces from last year’s puzzle, enough key elements remain to suggest running the table is not a far-fetched notion this fall.

The Herd put a hurtin’ on plenty of foes last season, cracking the 50-point barrier on five different occasions, and sr. triggerman Rakeem Cato is back for one more go in 2014. Cato completed 60% of his passes a year ago, good for a whopping 3916 yards and 39 TDs, with just 9 picks. Over the past two seasons, Cato has tossed 76 TD passes and now has over 10,000 passing yards in his career. Cato is also an experienced detonator of o.c. Bill Legg’s hurry-up offense that has produced better than 500 yards per game the past two years (last season good for 12th in the country).

C-USA sources say that Cato, who has spent most of the past three years throwing short-to-intermediate passes, worked on his deep ball in the spring, and the chance to stretch enemy defenses even further is a frightening thought for Marshall foes. Slot receiver Tommy Shuler has been able to benefit from the short stuff and has caught at least 100 passes in each of the past two seasons. The Herd will have to replace big-play TE Gator Hoskins (Miami Dolphins camp), who caught 15 TD passes a year ago, though sr. Eric Frohnapfel suggested in spring that he could fit the bill. The possible breakthrough threat will be jr. WR Davonte Allen, a speedburner who has gained almost 18 yards per catch in limited work the past two seasons but hinted at much bigger things (and the deep threat Cato needs) in spring. Regional sources insist that if Allen becomes the legit deep threat that Marshall lacked last season, the Herd could even better last year’s 42.1 ppg (ranking 7th nationally).

There are no worries regarding an OL that returns three starters, and replacing graduated top rusher Essray Taliaferro should be handled easily by committee, as coast-to-coast jr. Steward Butler gained 8.8 ypc in 2013, and Kevin Grooms has gained over 1200 YR the past two seasons. All each have lacked is the chance to carry the ball more often, which should not be a problem this fall for an infantry that gained almost 206 ypg a year ago.

Elsewhere on these TGS pages in our Big Ten Retrospective piece, we mentioned the name of Chuck Heater, a onetime featured RB for Bo Schembechler’s early ‘70s powerhouses at Michigan and eventually a coach of some repute. Bo would be proud his former student, who burnished his legacy when arriving in Huntington last season to fix what was one of the leakiest defenses in the country in 2012. Heater’s upgrades were noteworthy, if not breathtaking, as the Herd ranked in the top quartile nationally of some important defensive stats while allowing a very respectable 22.9 ppg (32nd nationally), a number better than it looks considering the fast pace of Marshall’s games, and almost cutting in half the whopping point allowance (43.1 ppg!) from 2012. Statistically, no “D” improved as much in the nation from the previous season.

Heater’s 4-2-5 requires active LBs, and the top three tacklers from last season all played at the position and return this fall, with Jermaine Holmes and Evan McKelvey likely to be on the field the most. A key adjustment to watch is jr. D.J. Hunter, who struggled at times as a strong safety last season and is moving to a strongside LB slot (where he was a Frosh A-A two years ago). Last year’s nickel back, Conference USA co-Frosh of the Year Corey Tindale, is slated to start at a CB spot this fall. Impactful DT tackle James Rouse has also been granted a sixth year of eligibility and returns after earning All-C-USA honors last fall.

Further fueling the optimism is what looks like a forgiving schedule, with an opening game at Miami-Ohio against a RedHawks team that was 0-12 last season and lost 52-14 to the Herd. The only significant non-league challenge will likely be vs. Frank Solich’s Ohio Bobcats, who scored a mild 34-31 upset in Athens last season; they make the relatively short trip to Huntington on September 13. Rice, Marshall’s conqueror in the C-USA title game last December, also must visit Edwards Stadium on November 15.

As long as Cato doesn’t get hurt, the Herd figures to be a substantial favorite in every game it plays until the bowls. And unlike Tulane 16 years ago, there is a path for Marshall to get a major bowl invitation. Let the comparisons to the 1998 Green Wave begin.

It sounded more like an episode from CSI Miami than news about Florida Atlantic’s (SUR 6-6, PSR 9-3) football program. Indeed, the late October dismissal of HC Carl Pelini was one of the strangest storylines of the 2013 season. Presented with allegations of illegal drug use by AD Pat Chun, Pelini and d.c. Pete Rekstis either resigned or were fired, depending upon which legal version you want to believe. Initial reports stated that Pelini and Rekstis resigned on the spot, but after a few weeks it became obvious this was a more tangled web worthy of intervention from David Caruso.

Pelini has denied he used illegal drugs, though a member of his FAU staff assisted the school's investigation by writing an affidavit claiming to have personally witnessed him using marijuana and cocaine. Pelini later asked that the resignation be withdrawn, and that request was granted on Nov. 26 when Florida Atlantic changed the resignation to a firing. FAU said it had cause to dismiss Pelini because he failed to report certain conduct of a staff member. The letter notifying Pelini of his firing did not cite drug use as a reason for the firing.

"Ultimately, I think it boiled down to an athletic director (Chun) who didn't hire me," Pelini said in a subsequent radio interview. "We were making improvements. He came down from Ohio State. He was their No. 1 fundraiser and made a lot of promises about money he was going to raise and changes we were going to make facilities-wise. He was not having a lot of success and we were growing as a football program. I think he wanted to hitch his reins to a new horse and get some credit for it and wanted to make a change."

Pelini said he regretted his initial decision to resign from FAU. He said Chun did not accurately describe the circumstances around his resignation and firing.

"I trusted him," Pelini said. "He looked at me over the desk and said, ‘If you sign this paper, I will take care of you. I’ll explain what went down. We want to be clear about why you resigned.’ And then he wasn't. He went back on his word and it really disappointed me."

What was more remarkable was that the Owls, who had battled hard but won just 2 of 8 games prior to Pelini’s resignation/termination in their transition year to C-USA from the Sun Belt, suddenly caught fire thereafter, winning their last four games to claw to the .500 mark and narrowly missing out on a bowl invitation. All of that was done after o.c. Brian Wright was promoted to interim HC.

Moving forward, Chun acted quickly to name Pelini’s successor once the season concluded, tabbing Charlie Partridge, Bret Bielema’s sidekick at Wisconsin and Arkansas for the past six seasons. Part of Partridge’s appeal to FAU was his role as Bielema’s lead recruiter in Florida, helping the Razorbacks land ballyhooed RB Alex Collins (a Fort Lauderdale product) a year ago. As a bridge between the regimes, Partridge, making his HC debut at any level, opted to keep Wright on staff in the same o.c. position he held under Pelini, a move that was applauded by most C-USA observers.

Wright’s offense made significant strides last season and Partridge is allowing the “O” to pick up where it left off last fall when it scored 38 ppg over the season-ending 4-game win streak. Former juco Jaquez Johnson emerged as a dangerous playmaker at QB, passing for 1876 yards and running for another 772, accounting for 22 TDs via ground (10) and air. In spring, Johnson was pushed by soph Greg Hankerson, who started one game last season but made a spirited bid for more playing time in March and April workouts. While Johnson likely remains the starter, Partridge and Wright defintiely have some QB depth at their disposal. Senior WR William Dukes will be the preferred target after gaining an impressive 16 yards per catch on his 35 receptions a year ago, often accomplished while being double or triple-teamed.

Three starters also return along the OL, though there was some position shifting going on in spring, with Braden Lyons moving from LT to C and Dillon DeBoer moving from RG to LT. Identifying a featured RB remains an ongoing process, though soph slasher Jay Warren hinted at some real upside when emerging as the Owls’ starter late in his frosh season, with a best effort of 105 YR in a 41-7 romp past Southern Miss on November 16.

Pelini’s specialty was defense, and the brother of Bo molded a scrappy platoon the past two years that was as good as any in C-USA, both schematically and personnel-wise, and held foes to just 10 ppg in the season-ending 4-game win streak. Overall, the Owls finished an eye-opening 11th in national total defense stats, allowing only 325.9 ypg. Those are very unique accomplishments for a C-USA defense. Partridge, who has been a DL coach for most of his career, hopes to continue that pattern.

New defensive Roc Bellantoni will be adding some of his own twists and tweaks to a defense that often aligned in 4-2-5 looks last fall. Bellatoni can count upon returning playmakers at each level of the stop unit--DT Brandin Bryant, LB Andrae Kirk and CB D’Joun Smith. Bryant suffered a torn ACL in the 2013 finale vs. FIU but should be ready to go by fall. Along with partner DT Trevon Coley, FAU was able to control action in the pits vs. most C-USA foes and shut down opposing infantry attacks.

The strength of the platoon figures to be a secondary that paced the nation’s second-ranked pass defense in 2013 (just 162 ypg). With CB Smith (7 picks and 13 breakups in 2013) leading the way, the Owls should again have the premier pass “D” in C-USA. After being forced to play on a corner last season due to injuries, sr. Christian Milstead moves back to his more-familiar FS spot this fall, playing alongside another returning sr. starter, hard-hitting SS Damian Parms.

Note that the Owls have also developed a following among patrons at Las Vegas sports books, having covered 17 of their last 22 games on the board since early in the 2012 season. Most of that damage occurred on Pelini’s watch, but FAU should continue to fly beneath the radar, and might offer good spread value again.

FAU could get roughed up in its first two games at Nebraska (where former HC Pelini has moved and will undoubtedly be in attendance, probably a guest of brother Bo) and Alabama, and there is an odd trip to Wyoming later in September, but the Owls figure to have their chances against most of the foes on their slate. As long as Partridge can continue the momentum developed under Pelini and kept alive by o.c Wright late in 2013, FAU could go “bowling” for the first time since Howard Schnellenberger’s last winning FAU team in 2008. The possible C-USA East showdown vs. Marshall will take place on the road, but the Owls won’t fear the Herd, either, after losing a bitter 1-point decision in Boca Raton last October. Watch these guys.

It proved an easy move for Middle Tennessee (SUR 8-5, PSR 5-8) into C-USA from the Sun Belt last fall, which made officials at the league offices in Las Colinas very happy. MTSU was one of several former Sun Belt members brought into C-USA last year, and its potential as a flagship program for the conference in the mid-South region was part of its appeal. With FAU and FIU providing a new presence (however minor) in the Miami area, and North Texas at least allowing C-USA to maintain a presence in the Metroplex after SMU moved to the American, there was some “strategry” (as Will Ferrell's caricature of George W. Bush might have said) in also recruiting MTSU, just an hour of so south of the Nashville Airport and effectively part of the ever-expanding Nashville metro area. Access to a major airport, and easy transportation in and out of Murfreesboro, conveniently located off of I-24, and the league's intro into the burgeoning Nashville metro area, were all pluses for the conference.

Longtime HC Rick Stockstill found another benefit of C-USA membership with access to more minor bowl slots than previously existed in the Belt. Although the Blue Raiders didn’t fare too well in their postseason adventure at Fort Worth, losing to Navy 24-6 in the Armed Forces Bowl, it is unlikely that MTSU would be subject to any future bowl snubs, as was the case in 2012, the Blue Raiders’ last year in the Sun Belt when their 8-win season did not generate a bowl invitation.

MTSU figures to have a chance to return to the postseason, as Stockstill’s time-tested offensive formula featuring zone-read looks should function efficiently once again this fall despite the loss of eight starters from last year’s offense. Included in those who have departed was longtime starting QB Logan Kilgore, who graduated after setting a school record for career TD passes. Stockstill, however, has three dual-threat types more reminiscent in style to Kilgore predecessor Dwight Dasher all still vying for the starting job heading into fall camp. Spring work did little to separate soph Austin Grammar, who saw limited work in relief of Kilgore last season, RS frosh A.J. Erderly, and true frosh Brent Stockstill (son of you-know who), who will resume their competition in August. C-UUSA insiders expect little dropoff in QB production this fall.

There is also more experience than the returning starter chart would indicate up front, partly because RG John Chester started early last season before going down with an ankle injury. Both starting OTs return, though extra attention will be paid to the rebuilt interior of the line, a key for the capable Blue Raider infantry which returns its top four rushers, including slamming 220-lb. Jr. Jordan Parker, who finished with 745 YR in 2013 despite missing significant action down the stretch with injury. A 5'7 roadrunner, Reggie Whatley, gained 6.5 ypc and posted three 100-yard plus rushing efforts last season while fighting through his own injury woes. The Stockstill offense has been able to feature its RBs more prominently in recent years and should do so again after posting solid numbers (199 ypg, ranking 31st nationally) on the ground last fall.

There is returning experience at the WR slots, too, including sr. Marcus Henry, who emerged as a downfield threat when catching 38 passes a year ago. Three other returnees at the receiver spots also recorded double-digit catch numbers a year ago, and will be augmented by touted juco Ed’Marques Battles, whose parents could apparently not decide if he should be named after former CBS 60 Minutes co-host Ed Bradley or ex-NBA star Marques Johnson, and simply chose both. Battles caught 67 passes for 11 TDs at the respected Kilgore College in Texas a year ago.

There were some bright spots within the MTSU defense last season, including a playmaking bent reflected in a No. 5 national ranking in takeaways (33), part of the emphasis of d.c. Tyrone Nix. But the generally faster pace of C-USA games, compared to previous years in the Sun Belt, exposed a few holes, especially vs. the run where the Blue Raiders were a bit leaky, conceding almost 200 ypg (ranking 96th), and on third downs, where MTSU was for too permissive and ranked a very poor 119th, allowing conversions 48% of the time. Part of that problem was the lack of a proven pass rusher and shutdown corners.

But seven starters return to a platoon that has now had a look at most of the C-USA offenses it saw for the first time last season. And there are some difference makers still in the fold, including LB T.T. Barber, who had three picks, three fumble recoveries, and three forced fumbles in 2013, and SS Kevin Byard, the NCAA’s active career leader in interception return yards after just two seasons, as four of his picks have been returned for TDs, imitating a modern-day Kenny Houston. Indeed, Byard (five) and Barber (three) combined for more than half of MTSU’s 15 picks a year ago.

With Kilgore in the fold last season, MTSU was good enough to hand Marshall its only regular-season conference defeat in a last-second 51-49 thriller at Murfreesboro. This season, the return match is set for Huntington, where the Herd waits for revenge and faces a Blue Raider team with a new QB. That task will be daunting for MTSU, but aside from that road trip, plus an early-season game at Minnesota, and perhaps a late-season contest vs. BYU, the Blue Raiders might not project as an underdog in any other game. As long as the new QBs don’t implode, MTSU looks a good bet to get back to another minor bowl...which is still a big deal in Murfreesboro.

True to its reputation as Delta’s Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport hub of college sports, because everyone seems to pass through Conference USA once in a while, part of this year’s inflow to the league is Western Kentucky (SUR 8-4, PSR 5-7), which not long ago transitioned to the FBS and Sun Belt from decades of service, sometimes notably, at the lower levels. The last couple of years have been especially interesting in Bowling Green, as the Hilltoppers got to their first bowl in 2012 and then won another eight games a year ago, suggesting WKU is a program on the move.

On the move both literally and figuratively, perhaps, as the Tops are not only switching leagues but also working on their third coach in as many years. Although sources say all of that had been expected at WKU. First, it was no surprise that HC Willie Taggart became in-demand, and subsequently moved to South Florida following the 2012 breakthrough, while the Tops knew they were only renting Bobby Petrino when offering him a rehabilitation opportunity a year ago. As long as the situation at WKU didn’t explode on Petrino as did his previous stint at Arkansas, Bobby was strictly a short-term hire, confirmed by Louisville luring him back to Papa John’s Stadium after Charlie Strong moved to Texas.

Petrino, however, provided some added visibility to the program, and the post-Petrino phase is hardly going to involve a complete makeover. In fact, the transition has thus far been rather smooth to new HC Jeff Brohm, a former Louisville QB and Petrino’s o.c. last year with the Tops. Most of the WKU schemes and terminology remain from a year ago, as does Petrino’s d.c., Nick Holt, who formerly held the same positions at Washington and USC (and also HC for a short while at Idaho) and retained by Brohm.

In fact, it was Holt’s defense, perhaps more than the Petrino offense, that helped the Tops to win eight games in 2013 and finish a very notable 14th nationally in total defense stats, almost unheard of for a Sun Belt rep. Holt, however, will have his hands full after losing nine starters from a year ago. That includes all of the first-stringers from a hard-hitting LB crew that featured Andrew Jackson (Colts 6th round pick) and Sun Belt Defensive MVP Xavius Boyd (Ravens camp). Safety Jonathan Dowling departed a year early and was a 7th-round draftee of the Raiders, so Holt has some gaps to fill.

There are plenty of untested parts, but C-USA scouts warn to not underestimate Holt’s defense, which retains plenty of foot speed and showcased various capable-looking replacements in spring. Senior MLB Terran Williams has simply been waiting for his opportunity and was one of those who shined the most in spring. Holt’s son, also named Nick, was a decorated juco LB who has joined forces with his dad. Three linemen with starting experience return, and it is hoped that 332-lb. sr. DT Jamichael Payne might finally live up to expectations. Senior CB Cam Thomas is also rated as an NFL prospect after leading the Sun Belt and tying for 18th nationally with five picks a year ago.

There is no adjustment phase for Brohm’s offense that returns seven starters including productive QB Brandon Doughty, who set school records in 2013 for passing yards (2857) and completion percentage (65.8). In fact, Brohm’s offense (which, to be accurate, was also Petrino;’s offense) set an astounding 20 school records, split evenly among team and individual, last season. Doughty, as mentioned, was responsible for some of those, as was RB Antonio Andrews, the national leader in total yardage over the past two seasons. The slam-bang Andrews, however, has departed and is spending summer in the NFL Titans camp, so Brohm will have to find a new featured back. The top candidate to become the go-to guy is 6'0, 235-lb, jr. Leon Allen, built along the lines of Andrews and having gained 357 YR in limited work a year ago, although Brohm likely rotates backs. Andrews’ effectiveness as a receiver (he caught 78 passes over the past two years, too) might be the biggest challenge for his replacements to replicate.

Doughty will also have his top four receivers from 2013, including sr. WR Willie McNeal (44 catches LY), and a pair of intriguing juco imports, Jared (Rodney) Dangerfield from Fort Scott JC in Kansas and Antwane (U.S.) Grant from Nassau CC in New York, both big targets with speed to get deep and who should provide size and physicality to the receiver corps. Doughty will be protected by a line that returns three starters, although he will be expected to cut down on his troubling number of picks (14) from a year ago.

While Brohm’s only previous experience as a head coach was a short one with the Louisville Fire of the Arena League way back in 2002, and embarks upon what is still a relatively new adventure, fact is that Petrino was not around WKU long enough for his departure to be considered a negative, and the program already adjusted seamlessly between regimes a year ago. The changes this season are far more subtle. We’ll see how Brohm handles this new assignment, but the offense should be serviceable at the least, so the key to the tops becoming an immediate factor in their new C-USA digs is going to probably be Nick Holt’s rebuilt defense.

The schedule is tricky at the outset, on the road all of September after opening with MAC favorite Bowling Green, but it eases considerably thereafter. If all goes well, perhaps the Tops’ regular-season finale at Marshall will have C-USA East title implications. But WKU backers would probably be thrilled by a minor bowl appearance, of which C-USA offers many opportunities.

Here comes Old Dominion (SUR 8-4, PSR 3-2)! The Monarchs have made a quick ascent since resurrecting their program, which had been on hiatus since just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. But ODU began playing football again in 2009 and quickly made its way through the FCS ranks, qualifying for the playoffs out of the Colonial Atheltic Association in 2011 & 2012 before making a provisional move to the FBS ranks last season.

Now, ODU is a full-fledged FBS and C-USA member and has even been granted a special dispensation from the league, making it immediately eligible for the conference championship and bowl bids and not having to endure the usual multi-season wait that usually accompanies programs transitioning up the ranks. The Monarchs are also reintroducing top-level football to Norfolk, which for years hosted an annual “Oyster Bowl” regular-season game at venerable Foreman Field, attracting many big-name schools (such as Syracuse during the days of Ernie Davis, SMU with Don Meredith, Navy with Roget Staubach, and Virginia Tech with Bruce Smith). Foreman’s capacity is only 20,086, but it has been upgraded for the ODU gridiron relaunch and will provide the Monarchs with a home until their new on-campus 30,000-seat stadium, is ready, whenever that might be (the project is encountering funding problems at the moment in the Va. General Assembly, which won’t authorize student fees to be used for the stadium, requiring private donations instead for the bulk of the contruction costs).

ODU got a taste of big-time football last season when playing five FBS-level opponents. An indicator of how far the Monarchs must ascend to compete vs. top-tier foes came in a late-season game at North Carolina, when the affair was so lopsided that the Tar Heels agreed to reducing the 4th Q to ten minutes en route to piling up 80 points. It was the first “mercy” situation with the clock that we recalled since Ara Parseghian agreed to a running clock for the second half of a 1968 Notre Dame game against woeful Pitt, which trailed 49-0 at the break. (The merciful Irish would win, 56-7.) Bowl-bound Maryland also whipped a star-struck ODU by a 47-10 count early in the season.

But in other games vs. the FBS, the Monarchs mostly traded punches vs. eventual bowl winners East Carolina (a 52-38 winner) and the same Pitt that once requested a running clock for the second half against Notre Dame (a 35-24 Panthers win). ODU also scored a win vs. the FBS when scalloping Idaho, 59-38.

This season, however, all but one Monarch foe will be an FBS team, including a full C-USA East schedule, so we’ll see if the program has developed sufficient depth to compete.

Most regional observers suggest ODU is unlikely to embarrass itself, partly because of the presence of program architect Bobby Wilder, who arrived from Maine in 2009 to effectively begin an “expansion” team in Norfolk and has won an astounding 46 games in five seasons. Whatever the league, 46 wins from scratch in five seasons is an eye-opener, and suggests the head coach knows what he is doing.

Wilder’s no-huddle spread has been wreaking havoc for several seasons and returns sr. trigger-man Taylor Heinicke, who has 33 straight starts at QB and passed for a whopping 4022 yards last season. That was after winning the Walter Payton Award as the best player in FCS as a soph in 2012 when he passed for 5076 yards, including a D-I record 730 yards (!) vs. New Hampshire. Overall, he’s tossed for 11,483 yards in his career and completed 70% of his passes. Again, whatever the league or level of play, those numbers are certainly not chopped liver. Call it audacious, but ODU plans to mount an insurgent Heisman campaign for Heinicke in the fall!

The high-powered Monarchs scored a hefty 42.7 ppg in 2013 and return seven starters on offense, including dual-threat Heinicke, who also ran for 348 yards and 5 TDs last fall. There is lots of experience at the WR spots, where srs. Larry Pinkard, Antonio Vaughan, and Blair Roberts have combined to catch 333 passes for 4962 yards and 33 TDs in their careers. The concern area on offense is along the line, which lost three starters and then watched the only two returning starters, LT Connor Mewbourne and C Josh Mann, miss spring practice due to knee injuries. Alongside Heinicke in the backfield, hopes are high for soph RB Gerald Johnson, a 5'9, 200-lb. slasher, with true frosh Ray Lawry and Vincent Lowe also expected to join the fight for carries.

Allowing 80 points (in 55 minutes) to North Carolina suggests a potential Achilles Heel with the stop unit, which has been a concern for Wilder over the past couple of years as he has dismissed or demoted at least one defensive assistant each of the past three seasons. Wilder was a bit forgiving after last year with his new d.c. Rich Nagy, hired off the Western Michigan staff and forced to regularly use eight true frosh on the platoon in 2013, but Wilder did make other defensive staff adjustments.

All but two of the starters from the end of the 2013 season are back, augmented by juco newcomers Martez Simpson and Reece Schmidt, a pair of LBs who earned starting berths in spring. A highly-rated frosh, LB/DE Daniel Appouh, is likely to break into the lineup at some point as well. There is good size at the DT spots, where 327-lb. Chris Smith and 300-lb. Rashard (Don’t Call Me A) Coward roam. Another true frosh, S Christian Byrum, is one of Wilder’s most-touted prep recruits, having reportedly spurned offers from NC State, Syracuse, and Wisconsin to instead enroll at ODU. Byrum might get a chance to contribute immediately, as pass defense was a real weak link last season, especially vs. the five FBS foes who torched ODU for a whopping 452 ypg thru the air. But C-USA sources also noted that the defense appeared larger, stronger, and quicker in the spring than when last seen in the fall.

With a threat like Heinicke in the fold, ODU would figure to have a puncher’s chance vs. most of the opponents its schedule. Non-conference road foes NC State and Vanderbilt might be in a different weight class, and we’re not sure the Monarch defense can slow high-powered Marshall when the Herd visits on October 4, but ODU doesn’t appear to be outclassed vs. the other foes. With Heinicke and an upperclass-laden roster, this might even be Wilder’s best shot to get to a bowl for a couple of years, but unless the “D” upgrades in a hurry, Heinicke will probably be required to engage in shootouts than Wilder would wish. Whatever, unlike some other C-USA reps, we expect the Monarchs and Heinicke will at least be fun to watch this fall.

Sometimes, we feel like asking why they are still playing football at UAB (SUR 2-10, PSR 4-8). Unfortunately, even many locals in Birmingham don’t seem to have an answer because they don’t know the Blazers exist. Birmingham is only 70 miles east of Tuscaloosa and remains Alabama territory, even though the Crimson Tide stopped playing the occasional home game at Legion Field years ago. With plenty of Auburn fans hanging around as well, it’s easy for UAB to get overlooked.

The Blazers haven’t done much to attract attention lately, anyway, bottoming out last year at 2-10, the worst-ever record at UAB since the program began in 1991. There were even rumors of the Blazers offering to subject themselves to a form of human fracking to hopefully extract better performance. (We’re just joking, but at this point, the desperation levels for this win-starved program suggest anything might be possible).

The deck has been stacked against the upstarts from the Birmingham branch ever since they decided to give football a whirl in the ‘90s. After Jim Hilyer coached the team in its formative years in the early ‘90s, the Blazers began to make progress under real program architect Watson Brown, a long-ago Vanderbilt QB who was once considered a boy wonder coach when leading his Cincinnati Bearcats to a win over Penn State and Joe Paterno in 1983. Mack’s older brother would move to Rice and then to his alma mater before resurfacing at UAB to shepherd the program into the then D-I in the mid ‘90s. The Blazers indeed made some progress and became competitive soon after the gridders began to play a C-USA schedule in the late ‘90s, and Brown took UAB to the Hawaii Bowl in 2004. But progress stalled and Brown was on the move in a few years. Which is when we realized that powers within the state had no desire for the Blazers to ever challenge Bama or Auburn when nixing UAB’s plan to hire Jimbo Fisher, then an up-and-coming o.c at LSU, as the new coach, forcing Georgia assistant Neil Callaway, who was a lineman for Bear Bryant in the ‘70s, on the Blazers instead.

There hasn’t been much good to talk about at UAB since except to note their awfully sharp-looking green-and-gold uniforms. The program has not had a winning season since the bowl year of 2004 and is a putrid 23-61 in the seven seasons since Brown left under pressure for Tennessee Tech. Callaway could only win 18 games in five campaigns, and successor Garrick McGee, hired off of Bobby Petrino’s staff at Arkansas, could only win five games total the past two years. Along the way, the crowds at Legion Field have often looked like they could fit inside of a local Waffle House, and even the one foe with whom the Blazers had developed a little rivalry, Memphis, and the “Bone” (as in BBQ) that went to the winner of their annual game, has been put in the freezer since the Tigers moved to the American last season.

The previous mention of Petrino was not without accident in regard to the Blazer program, as in the offseason McGee decided to rejoin Petrino and his new staff at Louisville, where Garrick resurrects his old o.c. duties from Arkansas. Without much to sell, or money to lure a bigger-name coach, UAB offered the job to Bill Clark, a successful prep coach in the state at Prattville High and HC last year at Jacksonville State, which won 11 games and reached the FCS quarterfinals. Given Clark’s roots in the vicinity and sparkling past record as a head coach, his hire looks a worthwhile risk, although we'll find out this fall how well Clark can coach when he is mostly going to be at a manpower disadvantage (not the case in his other head coaching stops). Clark is also not fresh out of high school as were others such as Bob Commings (Iowa), Gerry Faust (Notre Dame), and Todd Dodge (North Texas) who have made that immediate jump in recent memory, as Clark has been coaching at the college level for the past six seasons, including five as d.c. at South Alabama.

Whatever Clark knows about defense will be put to the test with the Blazers, who fielded one of the most inept stop units in the country last season, ranking near the bottom nationally in every meaningful defensive category (including 119th in scoring and 116th in total defense). It was an equal-opportunity platoon, generous vs. the run (ranking 109th) and pass (ranking 115th). If only our elected officials from different political parties could share the blame so well. Injuries were part of the problem last season, especially in a decimated secondary.

Clark and new d.c Dowan Walker, who opened up all competitions for jobs in spring and will continue to conduct auditions into fall camp, will be looking for immediate help from the juco ranks, especially along the defensive front, where transfers Parrish Hudleston and Robert Mondie could make an immediate impact where help is needed at the tackle spots. From the edge, DE Diaheem Watkins has generated a real push at times in the past, but the defensive front needs to upgrade in a hurry if Clark has any chance to improve upon last year’s record.

It’s in the secondary where most C-USA observers believe the Blazers could make the most strides. Calvin Jones and Jay Davis, the starting safeties in last year’s opener at Troy, were both soon lost for the season with injuries, but will return (hopefully healthier) in the fall. Another juco addition, Kalen Jackson, is a big hitter who could make an impact at strong safety or perhaps as an edge rusher from a LB spot.

Unlike the defense, the offense showed occasional signs of life last season, but enters the fall with no significant FBS experience at the QB spot after Austin Brown, the projected starter who split snaps with Jonathan Perry last fall while tossing 9 TD passes and only 3 picks, transferred out to Charleston Southern. Which leaves California juco Cody Clements or RS frosh Jeremiah Briscoe, who spent last season in dry-dock with shoulder problems.

The new QBs will have some established receiving threats led by deep threat deluxe Jamarcus Nelson, who gained over 20 yards per catch on his 42 receptions last season. Soph wideout Jamari Staples (31 catches in 2013) also made an immediate impact as a frosh. An intriguing possibility for the aerial game is 6’3 sr. speedster Maudrecus Humphrey, a long-striding WR who started his career at UAB before moving to Arkansas and now returns for one last shot with the Blazers.

Further easing the transition for the new QBs will be a functional ground game led by punishing 228-lb. soph Jordan Howard, who ran for 881 yards and 6.1 yards per carry as a frosh in 2013. Four returning regulars are also back along the OL.

The Blazers became listless as last season progressed as it became apparent that McGee might be better suited to coordinator duties than those of a head coach, as the embarrassing loss to winless Southern Miss in the final suggested. We at least know that Bill Clark knows what to do as a head coach when he is not at a personnel disadvantage; let's see how he handles "the other side" this fall. The Blazers should improve if Clark can coax something out of his defense, but breaking in a new QB against a schedule that includes non-conference road trips to Mississippi State and Arkansas makes any significant advance in the win column look rather iffy. We suspect any bowl talk will have to wait into the future at UAB.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first at Florida International (SUR 1-11, PSR 4-8). Yes, it could get worse this season for the Golden Panthers. They could lose all twelve of their games. Remember, a year ago, FIU did actually win a game, a one-pointer over Southern Miss, although we won’t hold that against you if you don’t recall, because highlights were not featured on ESPN Sports Center.

Whatever, we think FIU, more specifically AD Pete Garcia, got what it deserved after running out promising HC Mario Cristobal following an admittedly disappointing 3-9 season in 2012. Cristobal, if you refall, had steered the Golden Panthers to their first-ever bowl games the previous two seasons, had local ties from his days with the Miami Hurricanes (both as a player and assistant coach), and was considered a star on the rise in the coaching ranks.

Apparently, the autocratic Garcia thought his program was above and beyond an off-year and should be on an uninterrupted beeline to a national championship. Using those standards, Florida HC Will Muschamp is lucky that Garcia isn’t his AD. Whereas Garcia had no more use for Cristobal, none other than Alabama’s Nick Saban had plenty of use for Mario, immediately hiring him to the Crimson Tide staff.

Hiring coaches is not apparently a strength of Garcia’s. He’s the same guy who enlisted Isiah Thomas to lead the basketball program a few years ago. In fact, he has already undone what was his best hire, Cristobal. And the same AD who once brought Isiah Thomas to FIU has also brought the well-traveled Ron Turner to ignite the football program.

After Garcia jettisoned Cristobal, he tried to justify the move. "We've gone backwards," Garcia explained his decision. Well, if the program was moving backwards for Cristobal, it shifted into reverse overdrive last year during a 1-11 train wreck for Turner.

Ron Turner? Hardly a progressive hire for an up-and-coming program. Turner was well-regarded once upon a time, during the days of the Clinton administration, but had been run out of Illinois after the 2004 season, recording a 35-57 record in eight years on the job. Twice his Illini teams were winless in the Big Ten. Bouncing around as an NFL assistant in succeeding years (including service as the Bears’ o.c. during their Super Bowl qualifying season of 2006), the 60-year-old Turner was not being mentioned for any other head coaching positions until Garcia made the surprise hire, which some observers believe was done on the cheap, with Turner happy for the opportunity and Garcia saving a few bucks after swallowing the final years of Cristobal’s deal.

Turner’s onetime reputation as an offensive mastermind suffered grievous harm last season, too, as the Golden Panthers ranked at or near the bottom nationally in almost every significant offensive category, including an ignominious parlay of ranking last in both total offense (219 ypg) and scoring (9.8 ppg, sharing the bottom ranking with Miami-Ohio). And Garcia supposedly hired Turner because of his reputation as a creative offensive mind?

Fittingly, Garcia (who when sans mustache bears a remarkable resemblance to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan) is now coming under fire, as school president Mark Rosenberg has been forced to deliver votes of confidence both for his AD and Turner. But like all votes of confidence, they are not etched in granite, and we would have to assume that anything even remotely resembling 2013's failings will put both Garcia and Turner under fire.

If it seems as if we are avoiding much talk about what’s happening on the field with the Golden Panthers, well, it’s because there’s not much to talk about. The return of nine starters from the nation’s worst offense is hardly cause for optimism. Last year’s beleaguered starting QB Jake Medlock took another look around in the offseason and decided he would be better off almost anywhere else, even bypassing the FCS ranks to land at Division II Valdosta State. Last year’s backup QB who saw considerable action, skittery local product jr. E.J. Hilliard (3 TD passes in 132 pass attempts LY), could be beaten out by one of two true frosh, Tampa product Alex McGough (the star of the spring game) or Fort Lauderdale product Bud Martin, both classified as “pro-style” QBs.

We are unmoved by the five returning starters along the OL or any of the skill position threats, although under different circumstances perhaps workhorse jr. RB Lamarq Caldwell (a heroic 504 YR in 2013) could be a force. The Golden Panthers’ top seven receivers return, but they were often guilty of a case of the "dropsies" as QBs Medlock and Hilliard were under constant siege last season and rarely had the time to set their feet and throw downfield, forced to continual dump-offs instead. FIU QBs were sacked 52 times last season, though we cannot confirm the rumors that Medlock left the program because even Obamacare considered refused him insurance, so dangerous was the job behind a leaky OL.

The defense wasn’t much better than the offense last season, conceding 37 ppg, a number that was worse down the stretch when the stop unit assumed a liquid-like form. The DL must be rebuilt after losing three starters, though that could be addition by subtraction after allowing a hefty 5.3 ypc a year ago. The offspring of former Nebraska defensive star Wonder Monds, his son Wonderful Terrific Monds II, is a jr. DE rated highly by some of our C-USA sources. West Virginia transfer DE Imarjaye Albury also opened some eyes in spring. If there was a relative strength of the defense last season, it was a secondary that ranked a respectable 54th in pass defense, although that number might have been inflated by foes content to run over the defense instead. The return of CB Richard Leonard from academic ineligibility should help.

After sinking to depths last season heretofore only explored by Jacques Cousteau and the Calypso, it is difficult to envision any sort of a significant rebound by the Golden Panthers, among whose ignominies in 2013 included a 72-0 loss to Louisville and 34-13 loss to lower-level Bethune-Cookman. FIU does the FCS double by opening again vs. the Daytona Beach-based Wildcats as well as Bob Beckel’s alma mater Wagner in the first two weeks of the season before Pitt and Louisville, with new HC Bobby Petrino (who is meaner than Charlie Strong) visit Miami. Ouch! Maybe the Golden Panthers have a chance vs. the FCS foes and/or lowly UAB on September 27, but beyond that, we’re not bold enough to suggest any other wins on the schedule.


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