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Observations, Opinion & Occasional Silliness by Richard L Gale
2013 MAC Preview
East Carolina v Tulsa perhaps, but could the Thundering Herd crash the party?
This is a conference where offense is king, where defense usually plays the joker, and where transition is the constant theme - not just the transition from senior graduates to sophomore heirs apparent, but the transition of teams from one conference to another. Stretching from Texas El-Paso to East Carolina (and next season as far east as Old Dominion), the conference earns its name. Conference Miscellanea could have been as apt, but there's little reason to harp on the fact that you need a crib sheet to check whose in the conference this year - its been this way ever since the Metro and Great Midwest conferences merged to get C-USA started. This time around UTSA and Louisiana Tech arrive from the defunct WAC, North Texas, Middle Tennessee and FAU from the Sun Belt, and I know you're pretending like you care. Next year Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina depart, Western Kentucky become the next Sun Belt transfer and Charlotte and Old Dominion join FBS football. Presumably at that point, with East Carolina and Tulsa gone, Marshall can have their way with the conference. However, they may not wait so patiently…
Remember how good Marshall were back in the days when they were transitioning from 1-AA to 1-A football, when Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington were quarterbacking the Thundering Herd? We may be back in that territory with Rakeem Cato, who whipped up 37 TDs to only 11 picks last season. The Herd's 5-6 record defied his performance, so its up to the rest of the team to get caught up. Well, obviously not receiver Tommy Shuler, who snagged 110 catches, and TE Gator Hoskins set a Marshall tight end record with 10 scores. Most of the line returns - left tackle Jordan Jeffries (6'8" 322lbs) is real interesting to scouts.
What keeps Marshall from the national picture is the defense, which gave up 40+ points seven times last season, 50+ points five times in 2012. A defensive line built of mostly senior starters - DEs Alex Bazzie and Jeremiah Taylor plus DT Brandon Sparrow - should take a big step in the direction of opposing backfields, and top recruit Stefan Houston could enhance the linebackers from the get-go. There's enough talent at cornerback - two seniors, one a starter, and two juniors one a starter and the other who should have started last year were it not for injury - that the Herd should be well placed to shut down the spread-happy C-USA. 10 wins is possible and they can't be counted out of either the C-USA East title or the conference title itself, in which case Rakeem Cato could edge onto the Heisman radar.
1000-yard RB Vintavous Cooper, suspended for misdemeanor possession in the spring, will return to the backfield in time for football (wow, what were the chances?) where he will join a cast of returnees including junior quarterback Shane Carden - who tossed 23 scores and ran for another 7 last year, a receiving corps that includes 6'8" 258 lb monster Justin Jones and 1100-yard (11 TD) receiver Justin Hardy, and most of last season's line. It's far to say that East Carolina are set on that side of the ball. But for all their offensive panache, they gave up a lot through the air - that's how you score 59 points and still lose (v Marshall last season). As for their rush defense, don't ask. They made garbage time backups look like Adrian Peterson. However, a new coordinator, Rick Smith, has plenty to work with - 8 starters return, a bunch of seniors amongst them, so the time is now, LB Derrell Johnson is a 3-4 terror on the outside, Jeremy Grove an inside-outside complement, so improvement seems likely. The kicking game is good, so the overall effect should be that all that talent on offense should stay ahead of the scoreline. The East Division title seems assured to come down to their regular season finale at Marshall.
There's a lot to like about Middle Tennessee: returning receivers, most of a line (line continuity is something of a C-USA theme this year), a careful though not spectacular QB in Logan Kilgore and a running back - Jordan Parker - who posted 851 yards as a freshman (and there's more freshman talent aboard this year). A new era of pass rushing personnel could yield better results all around; the secondary learned and suffered on the job last year. The Blue Raiders still had one of the Sun Belt's better Ds last year, but that's not saying much. At least safety Kevin Byard looks like a great one after just one season. They could tick along on offense, with the defense coming on down the stretch. After going 8-4 in Sun Belt action last season, they received no bowl invitation, so they could have fire in their bellies about that, and could bowl with no better a record this time. However, if ever a team was going to emerge from the pack and reshape the C-USA landscape, it could just be Middle Tennessee.
I confidently predict that Southern Miss will win more games in 2013 than 2012 because (…and you know how this sentence is going to end…) they won precisely none last year. The Ellis Johnson era didn't last long, and former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken takes the reins. Inevitably, the Golden Eagles are another team adopting the spread. Running backs are a strength, and the wide receivers have intriguing size, but the O-line experience is depleted - they'll have to learn alongside redshirt freshman Kyle Sloter. The teenage passer and the rookie coach give an air of 'year one' about the program, but on the flipside, the linebackers are all seniors as probably will be 3 of the 4 starters on the D-line, with new defensive coordinator Dave Duggan the guy who recruited them in the first place - he'll have their attention. They'll need to produce sacks - the best of the returnees had only 2.5 last season. The schedule is unforgiving. Bowl eligibility would be a minor miracle.
While UAB's defense loses the school's all-time leading tackler, the defensive line remains intact, and the next generation of linebackers combine to make the front seven overall one of the most solid in the conference. It's a young secondary - safety Calvin Jones is a rare senior in a sea of sophomores and freshmen - but there's enough continuity for the defense as a whole to function well again. Continuity could be the call at quarterback if they go with Sophomore Austin Brown, who posted 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season, but freshman Jeremiah Briscoe looked lively in spring camp. Whoever's the guy, his receivers have been contributors if not starters, and with Darrin Reaves a 1,000-yard back behind a seasoned line, reliability at kicker and some strong punting from Hunter Mullins, kick coverage is a rare weakness - .500 is a legitimate goal.
FAU football was born from Bo Schellenberger's mustachioed determination. After taking over from the old coach, Carl Pelini went 3-9 and it must be tempting to insert JuCo QB Quez Johnson to add both pep and historical distance, though senior Melvin German was top of the QB stack heading into training camp. If the line - a work in progress at this point - could function at least adequately, RB Jonathan Wallace could be a 1000-yard back. On defense, the corners are experienced and so too is the D-line now. The defense is general may be better than anyone realizes, though it needs to add sacks (OLB Randall Johnson could be the man). The pass defense looked good last year - first in the Sun Belt and 27th in the nation - but that may be because running on FAU was so attractive. Experience will help - it's the offense that's the weak link here.
I'll keep the FIU review short: They fired Mario Cristobal as coach, hired Ron Turner, and he's got nothing to work with. A grand total of five returning starters, no line experience to build around, quarterback Jake Medlock is safe at best, and there's no skill position players worth fearing. On defense, the leading sack threat is gone, and safety Jonathan Cyprien, the best 2012 talent, is now in the NFL. There is some experience at least, but the overall chemistry is unclear. Why even guess a win-loss? The upside is not high, and the kicking game has graduated. It's going to be a long year; three wins would be impressive.
The Hurricane certainly was Golden last year, with 11 wins and the conference title. Tulsa remain the team to beat in the West. With rushers Trey (son of JC) Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas combining for over 2000 yards last year behind RT Stetson Burnett and RG Gabe Moyer, and with QB Cody Green likely to find a new level after 17 TDs in his debut season for Tulsa and all the WRs back, there's likely to be no let-up offensively. On defense, nearly every starter left, but an aggressive set of edge rushers including Brentom Todd, Mitchell Osborne and inappropriately lightweight-sounding DE Chris Hummingbird represent the next generation. However, the cornerbacks are green as Kermit, and the kicking game stank last season, so getting by on offense and defensive aggression is no guarantee of a repeat. I thought the Golden Hurricane were going to be my pick in the West, but now I set it down, I'm not so sure. They may be lucky they're hosting Rice, October 5.
For the first five games of last season, Rices' D was capital-D-for-Dreadful, giving up 49, 24, 56, 54 and 35 points. Thereafter, they gave up more than 24 only twice, less than 20 five times, and most of that crew is back. The tackle rotation looks particularly strong, the linebackers led by Cameron Nwosu (and including roving DB Paul Porras) ready to shut down the run. Four starters return for the secondary, but Gabe Baker, Alex Francis, Ryan Pollard are all pushing through from the two-deep. This may be the deepest quality on one side of the ball in the C-USA. Even at placekicker they have the big leg of Chris Boswell back, On the offense as well, there's plenty of folks back - most of the line including the left side. QB Taylor McHargue could blossom as a senior, and Charles Ross leads a more than solid running game. This team should be good down the stretch again and if they upset Tulsa, they could roll into a conference championship game.
The Bulldogs produced massive offense last year, nine wins, one loss in overtime, and another by just 2 points. However, all the starters except the right guard are gone from the offensive side, the offensive coordinator is gone, and the head coach has gone. There's only so much continuity the locker room carpets can bring to a program. Skip Holtz arrives as a head coach who needs to get his mojo back after leaving East Carolina and C-USA for a regressive stint in charge of the South Florida Bulls; he's smart enough to retain the super-productive spread attack, with the hope that Scotty Young - a transfer from Texas Tech - is the guy to make the most of the opportunity. All of which ignores the established star of the offense, Kenneth Dixon, who posted a ridiculous 27 TDs rushing last season. However, with the offensive line mostly graduated, that's likely to remain the high water mark. The Bulldogs offer up another dreadful C-USA defense, 120th in the nation last year. To use my favorite phrase of the day, the D-line should be improved by experience (if they're not thoroughly traumatized by it). The back end of the 4-2-5 formation will be mostly new. They also lose Ryan Allen, their Ray Guy-winning punter who is presently wearing a Patriots jersey. Louisiana Tech won nine games last season, but at this point my faith in Skip Holtz to deliver improvement to a program is a little shaken. I'll take closer to seven.
This could be an utterly forgettable season for Tulane, but two JuCo transfers could equally motivate upsets along the way. For the offensive side, there's the possibility that they may ride the family intangibles of Nick Montana, son of Joe, who originally signed with Washington. He would play from behind a line that would be big on seniors and experience, while his receiving corps includes WR Ryan Grant, who went for 1149 yards last year. The X-factor on the defensive side will be NT Chris Davenport, a massive 330lb difference maker who transfered from LSU. Together with DT Kenny Welcome, DE Julius Warmsley could break out, or more likely into the backfield, leaving the linebackers to swarm where they're needed. Most of an experienced sophomore secondary is back - CB Lorenzo Doss and Darion Monroe were impact freshmen. This team went 2-10 last season. This team is way more talented than that.
The Miners are something of a mystery team. Given the swirl around Johny Manziel, QB Jameill Showers may wish he'd stayed at Texas A&M. As it is, he transfered here, and it looks like he'll start the season behind Blaire Sullivan on the depth chart. Either way, RB Nathan Jeffery will pace the team - and could be awesome - if his hamstring behaves, the starting WRs, including big play threat Jordan Leslie, are back. On the other side of things, the defensive line are seniors and two of the defensive backs - Adrian James and Richard Spencer (if a recent arrest doesn't preclude him) are former starters returning from injuries. But how the LB corps glues these parts together is anybody's guess. This just doesn't feel like a team likely to approach six wins.
The entire secondary returns, but a rash of surgeries on a defensive line that doesn't return significant starters could make that hard to take advantage of. LBs Derek Akunne and Zach Orr will be busy, but then they were last year. Special teams should be a strength. There's a good line, but unproven receivers, and quarterback Derek Thomson threw as many picks as touchdowns - 14 - last year. The backfield lacks a standout star. Watch for QB Brock Berglund operating from behind a senior line, but not yet… that's next season. For now North Texas remains all but a bye week for most FBS teams.
The tight ends find mismatches and Eric Soza finds the tight ends. It isn't rocket science, and the backfield by committee running back doesn't add up to a high-octane mix. With 18 returnees on offense and defense (19 if you count LB Blake Terry as a major contributor in a part time role last year), surely the Roadrunners are moving forward at just the right time - just as they start to fight a full FBS schedule. The safeties forced a lot of fumbles last year. Larry Coker took UTSA to 4-6 then 8-4, so expecting them to sink without trace in C-USA would be naive; likewise expecting them the ex-FCS team to upset the conference elite would be a fairytale. 2-3 wins and a couple of close ones feel about right.