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Ranking Conference USA's East Division

Who will top Conference USA's East Division in 2016 and who will bring up the rear?

By Jeremy St. Louis (@jrstlouis)

I'd like to start by acknowledging everyone who took the time to send comments and tweets regarding the West Division preview posted Monday. The great thing about social media is the fact you can get instant feedback - and when you're not feeling so motivated for a workout, you just read what people think of you and strangely the desire to lift heavy things and go just a little bit harder appears out of nowhere. 

So thank you for that.   

I have a feeling said motivation will also appear after you good folks read the East preview, which begins…now… 

1. Western Kentucky University

The reigning Conference USA champions have the league's biggest hole to fill - under center.  Graduated QB Brandon Doughty shattered every passing record at WKU as a three-year starter and finished with over 12,000 yds passing. The quartet of guys vying to replace him have passed for a quarter of that - combined. But whomever gets the nod (Mike White) will have a veteran offensive line and one of C-USA's best WR in Taywan Taylor and a 1,000 yd rusher in Anthony Wales. The team averaged 44.3 pts per game in 2015 and while they won't hit those heights in 2016, the drop-off may not be by much. 

On defense, there will be some adjusting with seven starters gone but a couple of Louisville transfers at MLB & DE will provide immediate help and the secondary is in good shape, despite the loss of both starting CBs. 

The schedule is not overly kind to the Hilltoppers with 11 straight games without a bye week. They also have to face LA Tech, Middle Tennessee and Marshall all on the road.  That's not to say they can't go 11-1, it's just not that likely given a new QB and a re-tooled defense.  Having said that, there is enough there to top the east. 

2. Marshall University

The Thundering Herd are chasing a 4th straight 10W season and they are a good bet to do it. Only four other college programs in the country have more consecutive double-digit winning seasons heading into 2016. QB Chase Litton was everything Doc Holliday had hoped he would be when he handed him the starting job in week three last year and Litton recorded 9W in 11 starts. Sophomore TE Ryan Yurachek led all FBS TEs in TDs last year (10) and will be one of Litton's go-to targets. There are questions at WR but the hope is Justin Hunt & Deon-Tay McManus can step up. Hyleck Foster starts the season as RB1. 

The defense is replacing a LB who was C-USA Defensive Player of the Year in Evan McKelvey but there is enough depth at the position that they should see little to no drop off in production. DE Gary Thompson is one of the marquee faces (9 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss in 2015) but LB Ryan Bee can also cause fits for opposing offenses. Friday, the team cut one of their top Safeties in Tiquan Lang (disciplinary issues) meaning freshman Jeremiah Maddox will likely start there. 

With one of the top defenses in the league, a potent offense and a schedule that sees WKU & Middle Tennessee come to Huntington, don't be stunned if the Herd finish top of the division and are playing for the C-USA title come December. 

3. Middle Tennessee State

QB Brent Stockstill is coming off a Freshman of the Year season in 2015 where he set a new league mark for passing by a Freshman with 4,005 yds and set a single-season FBS mark for completions with 327. Oh yeah, he also led the nation's freshman class in yards and TDs (30). With returning standout WR Richie James, he has his favorite target back but has lost TE Terry Pettis to a season-ending leg injury. RB I'Tavius Mathers transfer in from Ole Miss and gives the Blue Raiders a three-pronged attack. 

Defensively, they are solid up front with three starters returning and with Mike Minter and Jeremy Cutrer on the corners, they have returning talent in the right spots. Former Marine Steven Rhodes recorded 35 tackles last term  and is the blindside DE who will be a handful. Last year's rush defense was one of the best they've had in a long time but they've lost some good tacklers in the LB corps and that could leave them vulnerable. 

MTSU are 23-9 in C-USA play over the past four seasons and the pieces are there to be successful. This team could go to the C-USA title game - but may also fall just short. A bowl game will be a given. 

4. Florida International University

After an injury-hit 2015, the Panthers will reap the benefits of that, especially on the offensive line where eight lineman now have starting experience. Junior QB Alex McGough enters his third season as QB (2nd as starter) and should continue to show progress. On top of his veteran line, he has dual-threat RB Alex Gardner and senior TE Jonnu Smith, who is already the school leader in receptions, yards and TDs by a Tight End. WR Thomas Owens is the top returning target out wide. 

On defense, FIU ran hot and cold as a unit and enjoyed most of their successes against offensively-challenged opposition. Against teams with decent offenses, they gave up lots & lots of yards - six opponents produced more than 450 yds per game, including Marshall and WKU who combined for 940 yds and 115 pts! There's a new Defensive Coordinator (Matt House) and he has his work cut out with just five returning starters.   

Still, this team should find its way to 6W and could get to eight. Each of their non-Conference foes had losing records last year so that should help.   

5. Florida Atlantic University

With one of the worst offenses in college football last term, Travis Trickett has been brought in as Offensive Coordinator to give the Owls into a more up-tempo attack. QB Jeff Driskel didn't exactly get hearts racing last term (10 appearances, 965 yds, 3TDs, 4INTs) but he has Kamrin Soloman & Kalib Woods back at WR along with TE Tyler Cameron. Nate Terry, who split TE with Cameron in 2015, is now at WR so Driskel has a lot of familiar faces around him. Buddy Howell & Jay Warren are the RBs and will do some damage behind a solid offensive line. 

The defense is centered around one man - DE Trey Hendricksen - who is simply one of the best players at his position in the country. The LBs are also solid with Azeez Al-Shaair back after his team-leading 94 tackles in 2015. The Owls have lost both starting DTs though and will likely use a rotation system early on. The secondary could be the strength of this unit despite being very young. 

I haven't talked much about special teams but I cannot ignore Dalton Schomp, who is one of the best punters in the nation. Starting field position is vital and Schomp always gives his defense the edge by pinning teams deep (averages 48yd per punt). 

The offense will be better and if the defense tightens up, a Bowl game is not out of the question. They'll certainly be better than the past two 3W seasons. 

6. Old Dominion

The Monarchs could be one of those teams set to make a jump this year - could be. They have the league's top RB in Ray Lawry and QB David Washington gave the team a much-needed spark when he came in mid-season 2015.  Washington went over 290yds passing three times before injuring his knee versus Southern Miss in the penultimate game of the season and missed spring camp as he continued to recover. He'll be good to go and the team's no-huddle offense will add some new wrinkles to take advantage of Washington's speed & elusiveness.  WR Zach Pascal is the top receiving target and a healthy Melvin Vaughn is expected to add an athletic TE to the mix. 

Defensive Coordinator Rich Nagy enters his third year with the team and his slow rebuild of this defense should start to pay off. Nagy has eight starters back and has more depth on the line (three of four returning starters).  Senior LB TJ Ricks has been moved outside (1st in C-USA with 123 tackles last year) and the entire LB corps has experience. The secondary also has three returning starters and looked much better in spring practice. 

Success for the Monarchs will depend on the health of QB Washington and just how well the offense gels together.  The pieces are certainly there.  The schedule is relatively friendly and if head coach Bobby Wilder can get them to 5W in a 'rebuilding' year like 2015, 6W and a Bowl game is not an unrealistic expectation. 

7. Charlotte 49ers

2016 is a big year for the 49ers as they become bowl eligible and graduate their first senior class. It is their 2nd season in C-USA and the goal for this year is a first C-USA win - and they should get it. Senior RB Kalif Phillips was third in rushing average in the conference in 2015 and should build on that behind an experienced line anchored by Jamal Covington. Transfer Kevin Olsen takes over at QB (Carolina Panther Greg's younger brother) and has some talented WR to work with in Austin Duke and Trent Bostick. After a rotation at QB in 2015, more stability there this year should make a big difference. 

The 49ers took a big jump defensively last term under coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, who shifted from the 3-4 to a more multi-scheme look. Their yards-per-game allowed dropped from 477 to 419 - over 50yds per game!  With seven starters back this year, that number should continue to drop. On the line, Larry Ogunjobi tied for 2nd in C-USA with 14.5 tackles for loss in 2015 and is one of the best in the conference at clogging the middle. The secondary is also solid with Terrance Winchester leading the way. 

Charlotte kept things close in a number of games last term and their schedule has a number of toss-ups this year. November will be a big month for them (Rice, MTSU & UTSA) and will give strong indications as to the progress being made. They should hit 5W in 2016 and could even go one better and get into the fight for a bowl game. 

That’s it for the division previews. Coming up tomorrow, some not-so-perfect predictions. Remember, our Conference USA Football coverage begins Saturday night with the game between UTEP and New Mexico State from El Paso. The pregame show with Jeremy St.Louis, Donovan McNabb, O.J. McDuffie and Ki-Jana Carter is underway at 7:30p ET.   

 


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