Football

Athlon Picks Southern Miss, Middle To Win C-USA Divisions 2016

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HUNTINGTON — Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee were picked by Athlon College Football magazine 2016 as the top two teams in the Conference USA race this coming season, with the Thundering Herd of Marshall picked as a close second to the Blue Raiders in the East. Southern Miss, under former USM and Marshall assistant Jay Hopson for the first time this season, is the pick to win C-USA.

Marshall placed 10 players on the four-deep preseason All-C-USA team picked by Athlon, including first team selections of offensive linemen Michael Selby and Clint Van Horn, defensive end Gary Thompson and safety Tiquan Lang.

Second team picks included tight end Ryan Yurachek and defensive end Ryan Bee, third team selection in Herd true sophomore quarterback Chase Litton and fourth team selections in wide receiver Deon-Tay McManus, cornerback C.J. Reavis and linebacker Shawn Petty.

Middle received a rank of 70th in the nation to top C-USA’s East Division, followed by Marshall (73), WKU (76), Florida Atlantic (103), Old Dominion (104), FIU (105) and Charlotte (125). In the West, Southern Miss got the best national ranking of all teams by coming in with a 68, followed by Louisiana Tech (85), UTEP (92), Rice (109), UTSA (123) and North Texas (128).

The conference races are detailed at http://athlonsports.com/college-football/conference-usa-football-2016-predictions.

Only five Conference USA teams finished with a winning record and qualified for a bowl trip last year. That number should grow in 2016, as WKU, Marshall, MTSU, Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech are safe bets for bowls, with FAU, Old Dominion and UTEP expected to take a step forward this fall.

New coaches Seth Littrell (North Texas) and Frank Wilson (UTSA) should provide a spark, but both programs have a ways to go before contending for a winning record. Jeff Brohm of WKU is Athlon’s pick as the top coach in C-USA, followed by Marshall’s Doc Holliday, Skip Holtz of LA Tech and Rick Stockstill of Middle Tennessee, Bobby Wilder at ODU and David Baliff at Rice.

Most of the discussion in Athlon’s Conference USA prediction meeting was spent sorting out the top of the East Division. Not much separates WKU, Marshall and MTSU, and all three teams have key question marks to address.

For WKU, how quickly will Mike White settle into the quarterback role and replace Brandon Doughty? Additionally, the Hilltoppers return only four starters on defense, and the schedule features road trips to MTSU, Marshall and Louisiana Tech.

MTSU returns the league’s top pass-catch combination in quarterback Brent Stockstill and receiver Richie James, but Rick Stockstill’s team has a few voids to patch on both sides of the ball. Additionally, there’s a road trip to Marshall in mid-November that could decide the division title.

The Thundering Herd have the best collection of talent in Conference USA and return promising sophomore quarterback Chase Litton. A crossover game against Southern Miss is challenging, but Marshall hosts WKU and MTSU. Litton needs a few weapons to emerge in the supporting cast, while the defense suffered key losses at each level.

There’s no clear favorite in the East, but Athlon eventually picked MTSU thanks to its edge at quarterback.

FAU and Old Dominion are two teams to keep an eye on. The Owls have recruited well under Charlie Partridge, and the pieces are starting to fall into place for the third-year coach. After losing four games by seven points or less in 2015, the development of FAU’s young talent this offseason could translate into a bowl for 2016.

The Monarchs played better over the second half of last year and just missed on a six-win season after a two-point defeat to FAU in the finale. Coach Bobby Wilder is a sharp offensive mind, and the Old Dominion attack should get back on track in 2016. Quarterback David Washington is expected to recover from a knee injury by the opener, and sophomore Shuler Bentley had a promising close to 2015. The defense surrendered 35.8 points a game last year, but there’s hope for improvement with seven returning starters.

FAU and Old Dominion are longshots to win the division. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both teams make a trip to a bowl in 2016.

Coaching changes are never easy, especially ones that take place late in the offseason. Todd Monken’s departure to Tampa Bay came as a surprise, but Southern Miss landed a quality replacement in Jay Hopson. The Mississippi native has a wealth of experience as an assistant (including two previous stints at Southern Miss) and guided Alcorn State to a 32-17 record over the last four seasons as the program’s head coach.

Hopson has to put his own stamp on the program, but it’s hard to envision many major changes for 2016. The Golden Eagles return 12 starters from a team that won Conference USA’s West Division last year and own one of the top offenses from the Group of 5 ranks.

While the transition may have a few bumps in the road, Southern Miss still has quarterback Nick Mullens to lean on. That should be more than enough to win the West Division and push for the overall league title.

But if Jay Hopson’s team slips, Louisiana Tech and UTEP should have the best shot at the top spot. The Bulldogs must replace quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Kenneth Dixon and return only three starters on defense. However, Louisiana Tech has a good foundation in terms of talent and coaching in place, which should prevent a major drop in wins. Injuries hit UTEP hard last season, including a season-ending knee injury to standout running back Aaron Jones early in the 2015 campaign. With Jones back to full strength and a favorable schedule in place for coach Sean Kugler’s team, the Miners should easily rebound back into the postseason. With Southern Miss visiting El Paso on Sept. 24, UTEP has a chance early in the year to stake its claim for the division title.

Athlon’s 2016 All-Conference USA Team

First-Team

Offense

Second-Team

Offense

Third-Team Offense

Fourth-Team Offense

QB

Nick Mullens

USM

Brent Stockstill

MTSU

Chase Litton

Marshall

Alex McGough

FIU

RB

Ray Lawry

ODU

Aaron Jones

UTEP

Kalif Phillips

Charlotte

I’Tavius Mathers

MTSU

RB

Anthony Wales

WKU

Jarveon Williams

UTSA

Jeffrey Wilson

North Texas

Darik Dillard

Rice

AP

Richie James (WR)

MTSU

Ito Smith (RB)

USM

Alex Gardner (RB)

FIU

Carlos Henderson

La. Tech

WR

Taywan Taylor

WKU

Zach Pascal

ODU

Thomas Owens

FIU

Deon-Tay McManus

Marshall

WR

Trent Taylor

La. Tech

D.J. Thompson

USM

Nicholas Norris

WKU

Zach Wright

Rice

TE

Jonnu Smith

FIU

Ryan Yurachek

Marshall

Hayden Plinke

UTEP

Connor Cella

Rice

C

Cameron Tom

USM

Michael Montero

FIU

Kaydon Kirby

North Texas

Max Halpin

WKU

OL

Reggie Bain

FAU

Darrell Brown

La. Tech

O’Shea Dugas

La. Tech

Dillon DeBoer

FAU

OL

Forrest Lamp

WKU

Will Hernandez

UTEP

Jordan Budwig

FIU

Calvin Anderson 

Rice

OL

Michael Selby

Marshall

Brandon Ray

WKU

Jamal Covington

Charlotte

Daniel Stephens

MTSU

OL

Clint Van Horn

Marshall

Maurquice Shakir

MTSU

Kelly Parfitt

FAU

Jerome Daniels

UTEP

First-Team

Defense

Second-Team

Defense

Third-Team

Defense

Fourth-Team

Defense

DL

Dylan Bradley

USM

Ryan Bee

Marshall

Chris Hale

MTSU

Omarius Bryant

WKU

DL

Jaylon Ferguson

La. Tech

Marcus Davenport

UTSA

Hunter Snyder

FAU

Graysen Schantz

Rice

DL

Trey Hendrickson

FAU

Larry Ogunjobi

Charlotte

Jarrian Roberts

North Texas

Jimal McBride

MTSU

DL

Gary Thompson

Marshall 

Oshane Ximines

ODU

Derik Overstreet

WKU

Nick

Dawson-Brents

WKU

LB

T.J. McCollum

WKU

D’Nerius Antoine

USM

Dalton Santos

La. Tech

Davison Colimon

FIU

LB

T.J. Ricks

ODU

Keith Brown

WKU

Alvin Jones

UTEP

Shawn Petty

Marshall

LB

Anthony Wint

FIU

Alex Lyons

Rice

Azeez Al-Shaair

FAU

Nick Usher

UTEP

CB

Cornell Armstrong

USM

Mike Minter

MTSU

Terrance Winchester

Charlotte

C.J. Reavis

Marshall

CB

Jeremy Cutrer

MTSU

Aaron Young

ODU

Jalen Young (S)

FAU

Brandon Addison

ODU

S

Tiquan Lang

Marshall 

Kishawn McClain

North Texas

Ocie Rose

FAU

Devin Cockrell

UTEP

S

Xavier Woods

La. Tech

Marcus Ward

WKU

Michael Egwuagu

UTSA

Picasso Nelson

USM

First-Team

Specialists

Second-Team

Specialists

Third-Team

Specialists

Fourth-Team

Specialists

K

Jonathan Barnes

La. Tech

Jay Mattox

UTEP

Trevor Moore

North Texas

Austin Taylor

FIU

P

Dalton Schomp

FAU

Alan Luna

UTEP

Eric Keena

North Texas

Gerald Shouse

La. Tech

KR

Kylen Towner

WKU

Carlos Henderson

La. Tech

Anthony Jones

FIU

Terry Juniel

UTEP

PR

Trent Taylor

La. Tech

Richie James

MTSU

Anthony Jones

FIU

Nacarius Fant

WKU

About Woody Woodrum

Senior Editor and columnist/writer for Herd Insider since 2003, with Kindred Communications on radio for Marshall football/men's basketball pregame and postgame shows since 1996 and with First Sentry Bank Sportsline (Also Scott on Sports, Sideline Sports and Herd Insider Sportsline) since 1997. Married to Liz (12-22-1990) and one son, Tre' (11-7-1997). National Sportswriters & Sportscasters West Virginia Broadcaster of the Year winner for radio, 2000; won W.Va. Broadcasters Best Talk Show in 2013 with co-host Paul Swann and W.Va. Broadcasters Best Play-by-Play in 2015 with Jason Toy (Huntington at South Charleston, state AAA semifinals). Member of (College) Football Writers Association of America, (College) Basketball Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Color commentator for Marshall football (1999-2000), for Marshall basketball (2004-2016) and Marshall baseball (2004-2016). Color for high school football at Spring Valley (1999-2008), Cabell Midland (2009-2012) and Huntington (W.Va.) High School (2013-2016).

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