By Jeremy St. Louis (@jrstlouis)
To conclude our Conference USA pieces for kickoff week, I decided to sit down with two of my more learned football colleagues and get their predictions for the coming season.
Mike Fuentes is someone that has done pretty much everything at beIN Sports and I would put him in the top-5 people I know when it comes to football knowledge. And as you'll see, he's also pretty witty…
Alejandro Camargo caught my eye after last year's beIN Sports FFL Draft when a number of the not-so-heralded players he drafted turned out to be pretty decent picks. Alejandro also wrote each of the C-USA team preview pieces on the website.
JSL - Gentleman, the web team doesn't have too much space to give out so lets get into it starting with player award predictions before we do the East, West and League Champion.
Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year
Mike - Offensive Player of the Year will be Nick Mullens. Brandon Doughty is no longer around to own the conference. Mullens will channel the inner Brett Favre and win everything like he would have done last year if not for Doughty. Only thing that keeps him from being the OPOY is if he wins MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year will be Trey Hendrickson. This guy jumped up from five sacks in 2014 to 14 in 2015. If he is anything like a fine wine, I like him for DPOY.
And Coach of the Year is Jeff Brohm. He will find a way to get the Hilltoppers to double digit wins despite losing the conference’s MVP.
Alejandro - I am tempted to say Nick Mullens. Why? Easy, he’s a senior quarterback. Easy isn’t my style though, so I’m calling a flea flicker on this one. Middle Tennessee receiver Richie James will be OPOY. Just look at it - 108 receptions for more than 1,300 yards last year. Oh and did I mention that was just his freshman season? Yeah, this kid is good.
For Defensive Player - If you don’t think it’s going to be FAU’s star defensive end Trey Hendrickson then I’ll go ahead and let you borrow my glasses because you must be blind.
Coach of the year – WKU’s Jeff Brohm and Marshall’s Doc Holliday are the favorites for this one but I am going to call a double reverse here and say that Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill will win coach of the year. With his quarterback Brent Stockstill poised for a breakout season in 2016, look for the very first Coach/Father of the year award to be handed out this winter.
But seriously have you seen my glasses? I swore I left them around here…
JSL - I like those picks. For sure Offensive Player of the Year will be a battle between a few solid players but if Mullens picks up where he left off, it's his. BUT….if he's not the guy, for whatever reason, I like Brent Stockstill, Chase Litton and Aaron Jones to battle for it. Sorry, Richie…
Defensive Player of the Year - Mike, were you looking at my picks over my shoulder there? I've also got Hendricksen. Look, this guy is a beast and is a fanatic about his technique. He can dominate a guy but if he messes up his technique in any way, dude gets angry. I met him at C-USA Media Day and he's all business. If you're opposite him in a game, you're counting the minutes until it is over.
Coach of the Year is an easy one: Seth Littrell, North Texas. Look, any coach who is a dead-ringer for Coach Eric Taylor (from Friday Night Lights) is getting my 100% support and belief. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose. I'm with you coach! It'll be him or Jay Hopson from Sothern Miss. Likely Jay Hopson from Southern Miss…but I still believe in you Coach Littrell!
Mike - You know Friday Night Lights ended like five years ago, right?
JSL - Not at my house. I still haven't seen the final season so in MY mind, it's still going on. There are new episodes there whenever I want to watch them.
Alejandro - You know how it ended right? You know what happened?
JSL - SHUT UP! Lets move along…
East Division Champion
Mike - My pick to win the East is easy. FIU. No other reason but alma mater bias and school pride. You could line up 11 nuns on both sides of the ball for FIU and I would still pick them. Don’t even care that defending champions Western Kentucky, Marshall and Middle Tennessee share the division with them.
JSL - I'm taking WKU as well. Yes, they lost Doughty and that is a HUGE hole to fill but Anthony Wales and Taywan Taylor are good weapons for whomever steps in and that offensive line returns four starters. They may not average 44 ppg like they did in 2015 but they'll put up plenty.
Alejandro - I don’t expect WKU to keep the East division crown this season due to the losing possibly the best quarterback they’ve ever had in Brandon Doughty. My pick will be going for their fourth consecutive season with 10 or more wins. So I’m setting up an appointment with the Doc (Holliday) and saying Marshall ends up on top this season.
West Division Champion
Mike - For me it's all about Southern Mississippi. Last year’s conference runners up return future NFL quarterback Nick Mullens while their main competition Louisiana Tech, lost Jeff Driskel to the San Francisco 49ers. Barring a catastrophe or unforeseen breakout performance from somewhere else, Southern Miss in a landslide.
Alejandro - Possibly the quickest receiver in all of Conference USA is Louisiana Tech’s Trent Taylor, who is a terror in the slot, will do all he can to take them back to the top. Unfortunately, as you point out, the loss of Jeff Driskel is a big blow to their hopes, and recent troubles with current QB Ryan Higgins don’t help. The Golden Eagles will indeed rely on Mullens as he returns for his final year at Southern Miss. If he performs as well or better than last year’s 4,476 yard 38 touchdown season then they might have a shot at the conference tittle too.
JSL - I see we're all in agreement here, which is no fun. But it is all about Mullens. If Doughty gets hurt last year, Mullens wins MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, and likely the league title. He didn't, so Mullens has to wait and we'll see how hungry that has made him and the Golden Eagles. They lost the title game AND a bowl game. I bet they will be playing with some fire in 2016 and I think they win the West in a walk.
Conference USA Champion
Mike - Marshall.
JSL - Wait, what? You just picked Southern Miss and FIU. I was getting set to just hammer you…
Mike - Yeah I know, but things never go as planned and the universe tends to remind us that we indeed know nothing. The Herd also went 9-3 last year with one loss being a triple overtime defeat at Middle Tennessee which made them miss out on second place in the East. Yes, Western Kentucky may still be there but they won’t be the same. And any coach who has the name Doc Holliday…Tombstone…Val Kilmer…c'mon. Legend.
Alejandro - Nick “Midas” Mullens has a nice ring to it don’t you think? I’m going Southern Miss for the Conference USA Championship. The football ghost of legend Brett Favre will be whispering in his helmet to throw into double coverage off his back foot on game days. When he realizes everyone has a little Favre in them, he will proceed to strap on his Jansport and carry this team to the top.
JSL - I'm sensing some serious Mullens admiration from you Alejandro - not that there's anything wrong with that. Dude is a great QB. But the more I think about it, Mike might be onto something there. Tombstone was such a great movie. Having said that, maybe it's the romantic in me but with the team celebrating its 100th season, Brett Favre getting into the Hall, the team just missing out last year, Mullens looking as good as ever - it's the Golden Eagles winning it all for me.
Biggest Surprise, Biggest Disappointment
Alejandro - The hire of new head coach Seth Littrell is a start but North Texas have called upon collegiate QB legend Graham Harrell to be offensive coordinator for the Mean Green. If coach Harrell can get the North Texas offense to look anything like the Red Raider offense he ran as quarterback in the mid-2000’s then the Mean Green are in good shape.
After setting a high standard the last year my biggest disappointment is going to be Western Kentucky solely because I feel they will fall victim to a strong division. MTSU and Marshall will be on their heels and FIU looks to make a big jump this season with most skill position players returning for another year. Oh, and did I mention the Hilltoppers lost Brandon Doughty?
Mike - FIU will be the biggest disappointment. Never get too high... And that means the biggest surprise will be…. you guessed it…FIU. Never get too low.
JSL- Biggest disappointment for me will be Louisana Tech. Questions at QB, RBBC, a lot of losses on defense. I hope I'm wrong but in terms of good teams that could fall off the most, LA Tech is my pick.
Biggest Surprise - UTEP. They have a friendly schedule, a healthy Aaron Jones and one of the biggest offensive lines in C-USA. Jones will be a beast. They also have the best LB groups in the league and with seven home games, they'll be top-4 in the West.
Alrighty then. Thanks for the input guys - and thank you for reading.
Alejandro - Seriously guys, I still can't find my glasses…
Conference USA kicks off with UTEP hosting New Mexico State Saturday on beIN Sports. It'll be an historic night for us as we begin our college football coverage. We're on the air with the pregame show featuring Jeremy St.Louis, Donovan McNabb, O.J. McDuffie and Ki-Jana Carter at 7:30p ET. The game gets underway with Matt Martucci, Brett Romberg and Jordan Daigle at 8pm ET.