College Football Conference Previews

College Football Conference Previews

2014 American Athletic Conference Football Preview
Marc Lawrence
Playbook.com

Feels Like The First Time

The American Athletic Conference existed as the Big East Conference from 1979 through 2013. The league formally changed its name as of July 1, 2013.

UCF, which went 8-0 in conference play in 2013, was the winner of the first American Athletic Conference title. Central Florida made their first appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game, beating Big 12 champion Baylor 54-42. The Knights, who went 0-11 in George O'Leary's first season in 2004, have won 10 games or more four times in the last seven years.

Drawing A Line In The Sand

Five AAC teams ranked among the Top 16 teams nationally in rush defense last season.  Louisville (1), Rutgers (4), Cincinnati (6), Memphis (12) and UCF (16).

In addition, the conference ranked No. 2 overall in passing yards per games (259) - trailing only the Pac-12 (270).

Elite Company

The American Athletic Conference was one of three FBS conferences that had two 12-win teams last season (Louisville and UCF).

The Big Ten and the SEC also had two teams with at least a dozen victories.

Big Divide

With the addition of East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa this season, 'The American' will be comprised of 11 members: UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, USF, SMU, Temple, Tulane and Tulsa in 2014-15. Navy joins as a 12th football member in 2015.
Beginning in 2015, the West Division will consist of Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane and Tulsa. The East Division will include UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, East Carolina, USF and Temple.

Eight Is Enough

'The American' will add an eighth on-field official, who will be positioned behind the quarterback, for all of its conference games in 2014 for a one-season trial. The eighth official will also be used in all of Navy's games in which game officials are assigned by the AAC. The conference's head football coaches recommended implementation primarily to enhance student-athlete safety.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

CINCINNATI Off – 7/2 Def – 6/1   

TEAM THEME: HOT TUBS
After dropping 12 of his previous 20 games before jumping to Cincinnati last year, slumping Tommy Tuberville recorded an impressive 9-4 mark in his Bearcats debut, as Cincy has now won at least nine games six times in the last seven years. UC outstatted its opponents by 156 YPG last season behind a stop-unit that was ranked 9th best in the country in total defense. Offensively, senior QB Munchie Legaux continues to rehab from a serious knee injury suffered in the second game of the season last year and could challenge later in the fall but for now Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel looks to start under center. After a late start to the year (9/12), Tubs hits the road for tough trips to Ohio State and Miami Florida.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bearcats will play all six home games this season at Paul Brown Stadium as Nippert Stadium undergoes renovation.

CONNECTICUT Off – *7/1 Def – 6/2   

TEAM THEME: RISE UP. TOGETHER.
Despite winning their final three games after a 0-9 start, the Huskies did not retain interim HC T.J. Weist, who replaced Paul Pasqualoni in late-September. Instead, UConn brought in Notre Dame DC Bob Diaco amidst glowing praise to try to turn the program around. Diaco won the 2012 Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as he helped the Irish reach the BCS Championship game against Alabama. He welcomes back three QB's that saw starting time in 2013, including Casey Cochran who went 3-1 as a starter last season, tossing 11 TD for 1,293 yards as a freshman.  The problem is Diaco will need to replace four senior starters from the offensive line. Senior TB Lyle McCombs, the 4th leading rusher in UConn history, and 1000-yard receiver Geremy Davis, also return. It's time the Huskies make the climb.

Stat You Will Like: Notre Dame was 20-5 with Diaco as an assistant head coach.

EAST CAROLINA Off – *6/3 Def – 4/2   

TEAM THEME: THIS IS OUR STATE
We predicted Ruffin McNeill's breakout season on these pages last year and the Pirates didn't disappoint, delivering a 10-win campaign with a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl victory over Ohio U. Shane Carden returns for his senior season at QB after a phenomenal year in Greenville, throwing for 4,132 yards and 33 TD's, not to mention rushing for 10 more. His No. 1 target, Justin Hardy, is back as well. There are plenty of holes for McNeill to fill, however, especially in the defensive secondary. After clubbing both North Carolina and NC State last season, the Pirates will have the opportunity to lay claim to 'top dog' status in the state this year. We think not.

Stat You Will Like: McNeill is 24-7 SU and 19-7-1 ATS vs. losing teams, and 4-14 SU and ATS vs. winning teams.

HOUSTON Off – *8/3 Def – 9/4   

TEAM THEME: A CAN OF O'KORN
After facing the toughest schedule in program history last season (foes combined for 94 wins), the Cougars move into a new 45,000 seat state-of-the-art facility, Houston Football Stadium. The good news is the 2013 leader in nearly every major stat category returns in 2014. The roster sports 56 upperclassmen and 58 underclassmen, including SO QB John O'Korn who took over starting duties in Game Four last year. Though the Cougars were the 2nd worst team in the land in 4th down conversion percentage (.235), that number should improve as O'Korn matures. And talk about explosive, 32 of Houston's 65 scoring drives last season came in under two minutes.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since 2006, the Cougars own the top spot in college football as the nation's offensive yards leader (53,780… 1,458 more than Oregon).

MEMPHIS Off – *9/3 Def – 8/3

TEAM THEME: TIGER JUICE
After making great strides in 2012 under HC Justin Fuente, the Tigers took a minor step back in their first year in the AAC. The good news, though, is that QB Paxton Lynch returns to Memphis after a strong freshman season where he threw for over 2,000 yards, along with top rusher Brandon Hayes (860 YR) and Lynch's top four pass catchers from a year ago. The Tigers played seven teams that went bowling last season, losing to six of them, but the margin of defeat was just under 8 PPG. Non-conference road games in 2014 include UCLA and Ole Miss… all of which should prep the Tigers nicely for a second go-round in the AAC.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2014 Tigers roster features 273 returning starts.

PLAY ON: vs. Houston (10/11) - *Key as a dog

SMU Off – 6/3 Def – 6/3   

TEAM THEME: JUNE AWAKENING
Thanks to ranking dead last in the nation in net punting (31.3), June Jones' run & shoot offense shot itself in the foot last season, thanks primarily to poor field position. As a result, a 4-year bowl skein was snapped. Nonetheless, the love affair continues as Jones received a contract extension. Gone this year is star QB Garrett Gilbert and 1-year OC Hal Mumme, who resigned to assume a head coaching job with a lower level program. While the offense is basically being rebuilt with a plethora of sophomores and juniors, the defensive front is loaded with experience. A challenging schedule awaits with the Ponies who tackle bowl teams in five of their first six games.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: June Jones is 38-15 SU and 29-19-1 ATS, including 15-2 ATS as a dog, in seasons after his team failed to go bowling the previous year.

TEMPLE Off – *5/1 Def – 8/2

TEAM THEME: BEFORE AND AFTER
It was really a tale of two seasons in Matt Rhule's first year at the helm in Philadelphia. After trailing in 78% of the first six games, the Owls led or were tied in 85% of the final six contests, despite finishing the season at 2-10. The change basically coincided with Rhule's decision to insert freshman P.J. Walker into the lineup at QB, and Walker responded with 20 TD passes and over 2,000 yards through the air in his seven starts. Unfortunately, only one starter returns on the O-line. The defense will be led by LB Tyler Matakevich, who topped the country in solo tackles last season with 8.8 stops per game.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls are one of the youngest teams in the nation with only 8 seniors on the roster.

TULANE Off – *7/3 Def – 6/2

TEAM THEME: MOVING ON UP
The Green Wave continues to make quantum conference leaps, moving from the C-USA to the AAC this season. HC Curtis Johnson moved up five wins from his first season to his second at Tulane, taking the Wave to the New Orleans Bowl. An experienced mentor, CJ spent 10 seasons coaching WR's at the U in Miami, a group that included Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss. He also spent six years with the New Orleans Saints. Tulane was an extremely fortuitous team in 2013 with only the Houston Cougars gaining more turnovers than the Green Wave (+35). Behind a squad filled with 206 returning starts, anything less than a return to the bowls would be disappointing.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Curtis Johnson is 10-1 ATS in games versus an opponent off a win.

TULSA  Off – 5/3 Def – 10/4   

TEAM THEME: MISSION POSSIBLE
The exact opposite scenario from the 2013 season greets HC Bill Blankenship as he enters 2014. Instead of an experienced offensive unit with plenty of skill position returnees – coupled with a very green stop unit – he now heads into the year looking for a new QB, someone to consistently lead the ground game and a couple of good-hands people to catch the football. On the flip side, the defense should be strong after losing just one starter. Blankenship won 19 games in his first two seasons with the Golden Hurricane, but reality set in last year and he must now adjust to a new conference. It's a 'mission' he's anxious to start – and we're betting he succeeds.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last three times Tulsa finished with a losing record they bounced back to go 10-3, 9-4 and 8-5 (25-11-1 ATS combined).

UCF  Off – 6/2 Def – 9/3   

TEAM THEME: KNGHTS IN SHINING ARMOR
The losses are quite heavy on offense for the inaugural AAC  champs who, thanks to four come from behind wins in the fourth quarter last season, finished with their highest ranking in school history (No. 10 in the AP Coaches Poll) following a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. NFL 1st-round QB Blake Bortles is gone, along with top RB Storm Johnson and three All-conference offensive linemen. On the other side of the ball, the nation's 17th ranked scoring defense (21.3 PPG) returns almost completely intact, bringing back nine starters and plenty of experienced backups as 26 of the 29 players that saw action on defense in two or more games last season return. Meanwhile, HC George O'Leary will be looking to take the Knights to their 5th bowl game in six years.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Knights are 26-11 'In The Stats' the last three seasons.

PASS

USF Off – *10/5 Def – 5/1   

TEAM THEME: TAG, YOU'RE IT
The first season in Tampa for Willie Taggart was an absolute disaster – SB Nation's Bill Connelly put it rather succinctly: "Only brief bouts of competence in two games in October prevented a winless season." Since the disappointing campaign apparently was unstoppable, Taggart was smart enough to realize what he needed to do: give his inexperienced but promising players as much time on the field as possible. Then, he somehow went out and had the best recruiting haul in the AAC. Obviously, things can go nowhere but up, as the Bulls had five games where the offensive unit could not punch it over the goal line. Taggart will be on a short leash and needs to produce now.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Taggart is 19-3-1 ATS in away games.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 ACC Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

We Are The Champions

With a favorable schedule and a loaded roster, Florida State is positioned to repeat as college football’s national champions.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Only one team during the BCS era (Alabama) was able to win back-to-back titles.

Learning On The Job

What a difference a year makes.

The ACC had a league-record five quarterbacks returning last year who had at least 6,000 career passing yards.

With Miami's Ryan Williams sidelined with a torn ACL suffered during the spring, seven of the teams in the conference this season do not have a quarterback who has started a major-college game.

Coordinator Carousel

Seven new coordinators join the ACC in the 2014 season, four on offense and three on defense.

New offensive coordinators include:

Duke – Scottie Montgomery was a co-OC with Kurt Roper last season. Roper leaves to becomes Florida’ offensive architect, leaving Montgomery – an all-SEC WR at Duke in the late ‘90’s – as the lone coordinator.

Louisville – Garrick McGee, former head coach at UAB, takes over for Shawn Watson. McGee was an OC at Northwestern and worked with Bobby Petrino in his days at Arkansas from 2008-2011.

North Carolina – Seth Littrell assumes the reins from Blake Anderson, who left to become the head coach at Arkansas State. Littrell has been the OC at Indiana the last two seasons.

Wake Forest – Warren Ruggiero is in; Steed Lobotzke is out. Lobotzke was not retained by the new staff. Ruggiero comes in with new head coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green.

New defensive coordinators include:

Florida State – Charles Kelly fills the shoes of Jeremy Pruitt, who left after only one-year to become the new DC at Georgia. Kelly was the linebackers coach with the Seminoles last season. He will also oversee the defensive backs in 2014.

Louisville – Todd Grantham DC at Georgia the past four seasons, takes over for Vance Bedford who left with his old coach Charlie Strong for Texas. Grantham was also a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 2005-07.

Wake Forest – Mile Elko takes over for Brian Knorr, who resigned to take the same position at Air Force, before moving on 10 days later to accept the same position at Indiana. Elko comes over from Bowling Green with new head coach Dave Clawson where he served as the Falcons’ DC for five seasons.

Stand Up And Be Counted

Tobacco Road is a path most recognized and well-traveled by its basketball brethren. However, the ACC has more than held its own on the gridiron of late.

Looking back over the last nine years the ACC has sent 75 teams to a bowl game – including a conference-best 11 last season – a number topped only by the SEC (79) in that span.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

Atlantic Division


BOSTON COLLEGE (Offense – 3/3 Defense – 6/2)


TEAM THEME: GLORY DAZE
After losing star players Andre ‘2k’ Williams (2,177 rushing yards), 3-year starting QB Chase Rettig, and the 1,032 receiving yards gathered by his favorite target, Alex Amidon, former Florida QB Tyler Murphy transferred to Boston College to reunite with HC Steve Addazio, the man who recruited him to UF. Murphy – who graduated and is eligible to play this year – started six games for Florida after Jeff Driskel went down with injury, completing 112-of-185 passes for 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions before hurting his shoulder. Murphy is a start, but BC must improve its 117th ranking in first downs if the Eagles hope to hit the alleys again this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles were the No. 2 ranked team in the nation in red zone offensive efficiency in 2013.

CLEMSON (Offense – 4/2 Defense – 7/4)

TEAM THEME: RAISING THE BAR
The big playmakers are gone – Boyd, Watkins, McDowell and Bryant, who were involved in gaining nearly 5,200 of the Tigers 6,800 total offensive yards for OC Chad Morris – but the cupboard is far from bare for Dabo Swinney. The senior class of 19 players has recorded a 32-8 mark in their careers, including eight wins over Top 25 teams. The season starts off tough with road trips to Georgia and Florida State. FYI: The winner of the Clemson-FSU game has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic in each of the last five seasons. Senior Cole Stoudt leads the fight to replace Tajh Boyd at QB. His QB efficiency rating was 166.7, only 2 points below Boyd’s.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Only eight schools in the country have won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons. Clemson is the only one from the ACC.

FLORIDA STATE (Offense – *7/4 Defense – 7/3)

TEAM THEME: FEAR THE SPEAR
Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns for the national champions – everybody knows that. But here’s an incredible returning number you never would have guessed: 113 starts. That would be a decent number for any entire team, but for FSU, that's the number of returning starts compiled by the four offensive linemen back for their senior year! Plenty of stars have moved on, including three taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, but you can expect that several others will become household names by the end of the season. The question becomes: what does this team do for an encore, as the bar couldn’t be set any higher?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2013 FSU offense racked up 723 points to set an FBS record for 14 games, and the defense led the nation in scoring D, giving up just 12.1 PPG.

LOUISVILLE (Offense – 7/4 Defense – 4/1)

TEAM THEME: RETURN OF THE LIZARD KING
Once again Bobby Petrino assumes a new throne, returning to Louisville after seven seasons away – the last two with Western Kentucky – where he went 41-9 in his four years with the Cardinals from 2003-06. How long he stays… nobody knows. And like its vagabond coach, for the fourth time in 11 years, Louisville will play in a different conference when it joins the ACC in 2014. The good news is 19 full or part-time starters return, including last year’s RB, WR, punt and kick returner, and interceptions leaders. The bad news is QB Teddy Bridgewater is not one of them. With UL having gone 23-3 the last two seasons, the ACC eagerly awaits their arrival.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: 21 players on the Louisville spring roster hail from South Florida.

NC STATE (Offense – 7/4 Defense – 7/3)

TEAM THEME: PLOP, PLOP, FIZZ, FIZZ
A 3-1 start dissolved like Alka Seltzer in cold water when Dave Doeren suffered a disappointing 3-9 campaign last year after taking Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl the previous season. A soft opening schedule in 2014 could have the Wolfpack 4-0 before meeting Florida State in Week Five. Junior QB Jacoby Brissett sat out last season after transferring from Florida, and has been announced as the starter by Doeren (Brissett was the No. 3 QB prospect out of high school when he joined the Gators). Expect a bounce-back of major proportions as Doeren’s staff was relentless on the recruiting trail, bringing in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolfpack owned the No. 122 mark (2nd worst) in red zone defense in the nation last season.

SYRACUSE (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 7/3)

TEAM THEME: SOPHOMORE-ITIS
On the heels of a 7-6 bowl-winning season under 1st-year coach Scott Shafer in their 2013 ACC debut, Syracuse AD Daryl Gross was ecstatic when he proclaimed, “When you play Syracuse… they are going to bring it. They are tough. They are up Northeast where the weather isn’t always good and they don’t care. They are tough as nails and they are going to come at you. We didn’t just walk into this conference… we came in swinging, right from the beginning.” In truth, it was more a testament to their schedule. 2nd-year QB Terrel Hunt will find the sledding a lot tougher in 2014 with no less than 8 bowlers dotting this year’s itinerary.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Orange were favored in only two of their 12 lined games last season

WAKE FOREST (Offense – 5/3 Defense – 5/0)


TEAM THEME: SHAKING THE DEMONS
Dave Clawson was hired to replace Jim Grobe in Winston-Salem and he has a big job ahead of him. Wake Forest hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2008 and has been to only one bowl since. The prolific aerial combination of Tanner Price to Michael Campanaro is history since both players have graduated, and top rusher Josh Harris has moved on as well, so the cupboard is literally bare. Moving from the MAC to the ACC is obviously a step up (just ask Grobe) for Clawson and, despite owning a 14-6 SUATS conference road mark with the Falcons, any improvement over the next season with this relatively green team will likely be hard-earned.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Demon Deacons are 0-18 SU versus .500 or greater opponents from Game Eight out.

Coastal Division


DUKE (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 6/1)


TEAM THEME: DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS
Most of the key players return from last year’s 10-4 squad that would like to redeem themselves for a disappointing finish. No shame in getting whipped in the ACC Championship by the eventual national champs, or in losing a 52-48 shootout with Johnny Football in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. HC David Cutcliffe would certainly like to keep his Blue Devils moving forward in 2014. The good news is QB Anthony Boone returns, along with the team's top rusher in Josh Snead and leading receiver, Jamison Crowder. The problem is they will dress up with a large target on their back in payback games this go-round. A devilish task awaits.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Prior to last year, Duke’s last winning season was in 1994. Its last ACC title came in 1989.

GEORGIA TECH (Offense – 6/2 Defense – 4/1)

TEAM THEME: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
Losses are significant once again for Paul Johnson’s team, but the option wizard always seems to find a way to reload. While over half the 22 returning starters from 2013 have departed, 23 players with starting experience dot this year’s roster (seven who missed most or all of last season). The largest losses are QB Vad Lee, who transferred to James Madison, and two top rushers, Robert Godhigh and David Sims. Replacing Lee will be lightning-quick SO Justin Thomas, who saw limited action in 10 games last season. The schedule will be challenging, with the Jackets facing five bowl teams on the road. Nothing Johnson hasn’t experienced before.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Yellow Jackets have produced more than 400 yards of total offense in 49 of their last 79 games.

MIAMI FLORIDA (Offense – 7/3 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: WHERE HAVE ALL THE QB’S GONE?

Imagine Quarterback U without a quarterback. After losing Stephen Morris to graduation and seeing senior QB Ryan Williams blow out his knee in spring camp, the Canes will turn to SO QB Gray Crow (love that name) or they’ll be forced to start a freshman QB (Kevin Olsen) for the first time in school history. In addition to Morris – the only FBS QB with a pass of 50+ yards in nine different games last season – the Canes also lose senior WR Allen Hurns, who set the Miami single-season receiving yards record with 1,162 last season. The good news is Junior RB Duke Johnson – a Doak Walker and Paul Hornung Award candidate – is healthy and back to spearhead the attack. FYI: the last UM quarterback selected in the NFL draft was Ken Dorsey in 2003.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After starting 11-11 with Al Golden, the Canes are 11-4 in their last fifteen games.

NORTH CAROLINA (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 7/1)


TEAM THEME: HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF
North Carolina's disappointing 1-5 start last season included frustrating defensive performances against East Carolina, Georgia Tech and Miami. Rest assured, head coach Larry Fedora worked hard in the offseason putting measures in place to avoid a similar start in 2014. “I think our guys are hungry. They tasted the success at the end and nobody wants to do what we did in the first half of the season,” Fedora said. They are focusing, instead, on the 6-1 finish to conclude the 2013 campaign. QB Marquise Williams returns after starting last season’s final five games (UNC went 4-1) and leading the team to a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tar Heels were outgained 45 YPG their first five games last season. They outgained foes 76 YPG the last seven games.

PITTSBURGH (Offense– 8/4 Defense – 5/1)

TEAM THEME: A GUARANTEED WINNER
Despite putting up big numbers as OC at Wisconsin with attacks led by Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and James White, Panthers HC Paul Chryst refuses to prioritize schemes over relationships. “Players don’t care how much you know until they see how much you care,” says Chryst. The top three rushers from 2013 return, along with the nation’s most productive freshman WR Tyler Boyd, who smashed Larry Fitzgerald’s records. The biggest loss, though, is DL Aaron Donald, college football’s most decorated defensive player last year. Donald is a stout believer in Chryst, saying, “The program is going to be back on top with Coach Chryst. That’s a guarantee.”

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Panthers are 2-28 ATS as a favorite in games in which they allow 195 or more rushing yards.

VIRGINIA (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 9/2)

TEAM THEME: TIME TO TAKE A T.O.
You know you’re in trouble when the bulk of the text in your spring prospectus refers to the 2011 season, a year that the Cavaliers went 8-5 with a trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl (c’mon folks, that was THREE years ago!). But last year’s 2-10 record (0-8 in the ACC) was quite forgettable, although it was a very young team with only six seniors that saw significant playing time. To say that Mike London is on the hot seat would be an understatement, and with former Boston College and NC State head coach Tom O’Brien (and two of O’Brien’s former assistants) on the staff, a transition plan may already be on the drawing board in Charlottesville.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cavs played two ranked teams last year (Clemson and Oregon) and lost to them by identical 59-10 scores.

VIRGINIA TECH (Offense – 9/4 Defense – 5/1)

TEAM THEME: WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Similar to its cross-state rival Virginia Cavaliers, Tech has a roster with little or no marquee value, especially after the graduation of QB Logan Thomas. The difference is that we have a little more faith in Frank Beamer than we do in Mike London to get the most out of very little. Another difference is that the Hokies are coming off an 8-5 season. The challenges are obvious this season: three QB’s with almost no game experience, a top rusher who sat out spring drills after breaking his leg in last year’s regular season finale, and a defensive front seven that returns just two starters. The final score of the spring game (7-3) likely says it all.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hokies owned the No. 4 overall defense (283.6 YPG) and the No. 110 red zone offense last season.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 Big Ten Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Not So Big

In the last six NFL drafts, dating back to 2009, the Big Ten has not had a single player selected in the top ten.

The Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since Ohio State took home the title in 2002.

Big Ten Scoreboard: SEC Matchups Are Getting More Lopsided

From the 1930s until the end of the 1970s, games between schools in the two conferences were toss-ups.

The 1980s were dominated by the SEC (17-5 record), while the 1990s (16-11) and 2000s (18-15) were generally competitive.

In the 2010s, it’s been virtually all SEC. The Big Ten has won just six of 19 contests between the two.

With college football’s popularity skyrocketing, it’s going to be imperative that other conferences, namely the Big Ten, start winning big games and showing that the sport still has parity.

Delusions Of Grandeur

Ohio State has seven conference championships since 1998 and Wisconsin has five; no other school has more than three.

The Buckeyes played in ten BCS bowl games (6-4 record), winning the national title in 2002. Wisconsin reached five Rose Bowl games, going 2-3 in those contests. The rest of the conference went just 5-8 in BCS bowl games.

The league’s decision to bring both Rutgers and Maryland on was made for financial reasons. Neither program has ever been a football power and, more importantly, it doesn’t look like either is even on the rise. Capturing a share of the television markets in New York City and Washington DC will certainly help the Big Ten expand its brand, but it surely won’t help the product on the field.

Rutgers has played in just nine bowl games in its history. Maryland’s resume is a bit better, but the Terps only played in one BCS game during the entire 16-year era, a game in which they were blown out by Florida (2002).

Once again, it’s been said the Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany is secretly a plant in quest of more soil. In this crazy world of conference expansion, we couldn’t agree more.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on Offense and Defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

East Division

INDIANA (Offense – *8/5 Defense – 9/3)


TEAM THEME: STAND AND DELIVER
HC Kevin Wilson welcomes back most of an explosive Offenseense that averaged 38.4 PPG and 508 YPG. Unfortunately, a Defenseense that ranked 121st in the nation – behind the likes of Eastern Michigan, Idaho and Miami Ohio – allowed more points and yards than the Offenseense was able to muster. Overall, the team has taken baby steps in the three years under Wilson, improving its W/L record each year, but still falling short of a winning campaign in the tough Big 10. The Defenseensive reins have been handed over to Brian Knorr, who spent the last three seasons on the staff at Wake Forest. With 17 returning starters back, it’s time for the Hoosiers to stand and deliver.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Hoosiers were the only FBS team to rank in the Top 10 in total Offense and not go bowling last season.

MARYLAND (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 9/3)

TEAM THEME: SNAPPING TURTLES
The Terps enter their first season in the Big 10 with a boatload of returning skill players (39 of 45 two-deep players from last year) including QB C.J. Brown, their top three rushers, and top five receivers – including Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, who both missed the second half of last season with lower leg injuries. Randy Edsall added former NFL WR and Washington Redskins assistant Keenan McCardell to the staff to coach receivers. Meanwhile, Brown became the first player in school history to pass for over 2,000 yards and rush for more than 500 (2,242 and 576). On the Defenseensive front, Maryland’s 37 sacks last season were the most by a Terrapins team since 2002.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Edsall is 25-10 ATS in his career versus sub .333 opponents.

MICHIGAN (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 8/3)
   
TEAM THEME: HOKE SPRINGS ETERNAL
After a 6-1 start (the only loss a 4-OT thriller vs. Penn State), the season went downhill quickly for the Wolverines last year with narrow losses to Nebraska, Iowa and Ohio State to close the regular season at 7-5. Brady Hoke will literally have big shoes to fill with the graduation of OT Taylor Lewan (41 career starts), record-setting WR Jeremy Gallon, and RB Fitzgerald Toussaint. Should Michigan fans be concerned about the present? Listen to Hoke after Michigan's first spring scrimmage: "We learned some hard lessons. The only thing we can do is go forward. We're a long way from being any good." Is it Lou Holtz-talk, or is it prophecy? Stay tuned.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: 10 years… that’s how long it’s been since Michigan has won a Big 10 football championship.

MICHIGAN STATE (Offense – *7/2 Defense – 5/2)

TEAM THEME: MARK IT DOWN
In one of the greatest seasons in Spartans history, Michigan State set a school record with 13 victories, including a season-ending Rose Bowl win over Stanford, earning them a final No. 3 ranking in both polls. Mark Dantonio welcomes back QB Conner Cook, leading rusher Jeremy Langford (who averaged over 100 YPG on the ground and scored 18 times), and four of his top five receivers. Meanwhile, DC Pat Narduzzi’s Defenseense held nine foes to season-low – or 2nd low – yards, while also limiting six of the last seven regular season foes to season-low points. Topping all of that should prove difficult in 2014, especially against a bevy of avenging opponents.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Michigan State became the first undefeated team in Big 10 play last year to win every conference contest by double-digits since Michigan in 1943.

OHIO STATE (Offense – *5/1 Defense – 7/4)

TEAM THEME: FIRST CUT IS THE DEEPEST
At first glance, the attrition looks absolutely devastating: just 39 letterman return – one of the lowest numbers in all of college football – and the losses are heavy, especially on Offenseense. Sure, quarterback Braxton Miller and his top two targets are back, but the top two running backs have moved on. And so have four Offenseensive linemen with 141 starts! The good news is our STAT YOU WILL LIKE comes storming to their aid this season. Urban Meyer had won 24 straight games since taking over the program in 2012, but losses in the Big Ten Championship game to the Spartans and in the Orange Bowl to Clemson have the Buckeyes on a two-game skid. Time to reload.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Buckeyes return players with 221 starts this season.

PENN STATE (Offense – *5/3 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: FRANKLIN, THUNDER AND LIGHTNING
The Nittany Lions welcome James Franklin to replace Bill O’Brien, who departed for greener pastures in the NFL with the Houston Texans. O’Brien did well under difficult circumstances following the death of Joe Pa and the Sandusky scandal, finishing with a respectable 15-9 mark (10-6 in the tough Big 10) in his two seasons as HC. Franklin comes over from Vanderbilt – a perennial SEC doormat – where he changed the mindset during his three seasons there, going 9-4 in the last two campaigns. Franklin will have Big 10 Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg back under center, along with ‘Thunder & Lightning’ RB’s Zack Zwinak and Bill Belton to tote the football. Franklin’s Commodores averaged more than 2,000 rushing yards per season in his three years at Vanderbilt. Yes, electricity is back in the air at Happy Valley.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: PSU’s 63-14 loss to OSU last year was the worst in school history since 1899.

RUTGERS (Offense – *9/5 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: CHANGING FACES
Maybe the biggest news in Piscataway, besides seeing the Scarlet Knights enter their first season in the Big 10, is Kyle Flood’s addition of ex-Maryland coach Ralph Friedgren to his staff as Offenseensive coordinator. It’s also ironic since the Terrapins are the other school joining the Big 10 on 2014. The Fridge was so angry when he was fired that he burned his Maryland diploma and hasn’t coached since. QB Gary Nova, star RB Paul James and rising WR Leonte Carroo are back, along with a complete Offenseensive line returning intact. In addition, 17 different players made their first career start last season, while nine true freshmen earned playing time – including three of whom started at cornerback.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Rutgers is the only school in the nation to post a shutout each of the last eight seasons.

West Division

ILLINOIS (Offense – 6/4 Defense – 8/2)


TEAM THEME: CHAMPAIGN GONE FLAT
Last year was a difficult one for the Illini. After a 3-1 start, they went 1-7 with the lone victory over lowly Purdue. Defenseense was the weak link in Champaign last season, as it allowed over 450 yards in nine outings, including games where they coughed up over 600 yards to Washington and Indiana. Early indications are that with a year of experience for eight returnees, the unit will be much improved in 2014. With Nathan Scheelhaase out of eligibility, HC Tim Beckman must choose a new signal-caller from Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt and senior Reilly O’Toole. Lunt is a blue-chip recruit who started five games as a true freshman for the Cowboys.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Illinois is 1-17 SU and 6-12 ATS in its final six games of the regular season since 2011.

IOWA (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 5/3)

TEAM THEME: DOWNY SOFT
Kirk Ferentz is now the dean of Big 10 head coaches heading into his 16th season, tied for third in longevity among all BCS head coaches. At age 58, Ferentz has guided four teams to 10 or more wins in his career at Iowa, and has been bowl-eligible in 11 of the last 12 seasons. This year, he brings back QB Jake Rudock and leading rusher Mark Weisman, who both started all 13 games in last year’s 8-5 campaign. The thing that really stands out at first glance is the apparent ease of the soft schedule – you won’t find the Buckeyes, Spartans or Wolverines on the ledger. Hence, a 10-0 start does not seem out of the question for the Hawkeyes.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Iowa held seven opponents to season-low – or 2nd low – yardage last year.

MINNESOTA (Offense – 8/4 Defense – 7/3)

TEAM THEME: KILLING IT
Despite suffering at least five epileptic seizures on game day with the Gophers, and soundly Defenseeating Stage 4 kidney cancer, HC Jerry Kill refuses to quit. “Everybody has a struggle or two,” Kill said, “but you bounce back. I still believe it determines what kind of person you are with how you handle adversity.”And though assistant Tracy Claeys received a good deal of credit while the HC was away, Kill was always calling the shots. After compiling a 14-12 mark the last two years (and making two bowl appearances), Minnesota rewarded Kill with an extension through 2018, bringing his salary in line with several other Big 10 coaches. It’s about time.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Jerry Kill’s 10-man assistant coaching staff is the most tenured in college football, having been with him 134 years.

NEBRASKA (Offense – *5/1 Defense – 6/2)

TEAM THEME: LITTLE BO WEEP
Bo Pelini has been successful at Nebraska since taking over in 2008, winning nine or more games in all six of his seasons in Lincoln. As a result, he was awarded a contract extension, albeit much to the outcry of loyal Husker fans. Last year’s 9-win campaign was somehow accomplished despite ranking 121st in punt returns, 120th in net turnovers (-12) and 117th in red zone Defenseense. Bo can thank his lucky stars that his squad was 5-0 last season in games decided by 7 or fewer points, and is 9-0 the last nine. The Offenseensive line was decimated by graduation with five seniors accounting for 120 starts now departed. Not having to tackle Michigan and Ohio State helps.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskers have won 28 straight season openers.

NORTHWESTERN (Offense – 9/5 Defense – 8/3)

TEAM THEME: LATE-GAME MISFORTUNE, THY NAME IS…
Only five starters are not returning in 2014 for the Wildcats. One of them, QB Kain Colter, got most of the ink during the Offense-season by leading the movement to unionize athletes at the school. But he has paid his dues and used up his eligibility, so QB Trevor Siemian takes over (threw for 178 completions, 2,149 yards and 11 TD’s). Talented Venric Mark missed most of last season with injuries, but thanks to a fifth year of eligibility granted by the Big 10, will join top rusher Treyvon Green in the running game behind an intact O-line. Here’s hoping all this experience outweighs the bad experience of close-call losses the past two seasons.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wildcats have suffered four losses the last two years on a game-ending TD pass.

PURDUE (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: FLIP-FLOPS
It doesn’t get much rougher than the year Darrell Hazell had in West Lafayette. With glowing praise heaped on the young head coach after he directed Kent State to an 11-3 mark in his second season there, Hazell was hired to coach the Boilermakers. Unfortunately, his 8-0 conference mark with the Golden Flashes was flipped upside-down at Purdue to an 0-8 Big 10 record. QB Danny Etling and dual-threat RB Akeem Hunt will lead the Offenseense, and with all three WRs and the TE back, Hazell will use his background as a receivers coach to improve the passing game – but it’s going to take some time. Where have you gone, Drew Brees?

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hazell is 12-6 SU and 12-5-1 ATS versus MAC opponents, including 7-1 ATS as a favorite.

WISCONSIN (Offense – *6/3 Defense – 3/0)

TEAM THEME: STOP US IF YOU CAN
The footnote atop this year’s spring prospectus says it all: 3 Consecutive Big 10 Championships (2010-12) • 5 BCS Bowl Games • 12 Consecutive Bowl Games • 17 First-Team All-Americans Since 2000. That, and 300 RYPG, is what Wisconsin football has been all about since the turn of the century. A 0-2 finish soured Gary Andersen’s first campaign with the Badgers but not before a solid 9-win effort. This year’s edition features a total of 23 different players who started at least one game in 2013, including six who earned All-Big 10 honors. Included in that group is QB Joel Stave who directed the most prolific Offenseense in school history.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Andersen is 18-4-1 ATS versus non-conference foes, including 11-1 ATS as a dog.

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2014 Big 12 Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

The Big 3

Only three Big 12 teams finished in the final AP poll last season: Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
The trio of aforementioned teams combined for 32 victoories last season, while the rest of the conference tallied a total of 38 wins.
Heading into the 2014 campaign, the Cowboys suffered the most senior departures (28); TCU the fewest (16).

In The Eye Of The Beholder

Even before his team beat Alabama in last year's Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had insisted the Big 12 was better balanced - from top to bottom - than the SEC.

Not so as bowl records say different.  Since the turn of the new century the Big 12 stands 56-54 SU and 46-64 ATS in postseason play, while the SEC counters at 74-48 SU and 67-55 ATS.

Many thought Stoops was perhaps referring to offensive output, where six Big 12 teams landed in the nation's Top 20 in total offense in 2013, twice the amount of SEC squads.  The tables reversed last season, however, when the SEC finished with four Top 20 ranked teams in overall offense as opposed to two for the Big 12.

On the flip side, it's been no comparison defensively the past two seasons, either, with the SEC landing a total of ten schools in the Top 20 in scoring defense, as opposed to just one Big 12 entrant – Oklahoma last year.

Then And Now

The last time Mack Brown was not roaming the sidelines in Austin (1998), Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State ended the season with losing records, while seven of the 12 teams in the loop hit the alleys in postseason bowl games.

Texas concluded the season 9-3, routing Mississippi State 38-11 in the Cotton Bowl.

Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2014 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine.  Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

BAYLOR Off – *6/2 Def – 4/1   


TEAM THEME: FEEDING FRENZY
Head coach Art Briles remembers his goal six years ago after arriving in Waco was to just get his team "up to the table" so they could eat with the big boys. Now after a season where they stole food off the other boys' plates and took home a Big 12 championship (their first since 1980), Briles realizes that his Bears will be the ones with the targets on their backs. Despite some losses of very skilled players, Big 12 POY QB Bryce Petty returns for his senior season after shattering NCAA records in 2013, averaging 618.8 YPG and 52.4 PPG. His top target, Antwan Goodley ranked second in the conference in receiving yards en route to gaining first-team all Big-12 honors last year.  And the topping on the cake: Baylor moves into a new state-of-the-art, $260-million stadium on the Brazos River this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bears' big-play defense led the FBS with 6.5 'three-and-outs' per game last season.

IOWA STATE Off – *10/5 Def – 5/2

TEAM THEME: BACK WITH A VENGEANCE 
On the heels of a dismal 3-win season, Paul Rhodes welcomes his entire starting offensive team back to Ames, including big-play WR Quenton Brundage, leading rusher Aaron Wimberly, and QB's Sam Richardson and Grant Rohach, who split time under center and closed the season with 300+ yard performances in wins over Kansas and West Virginia. It all leads to an experienced squad with a combined 183 career starts. New OC Mark Mangino, former Kansas HC, was the first coach ever to be recognized as both the national Coach of the Year and the national Assistant Coach of the Year. Bigger and better things are in store for the Cyclones in 2014.

Stat You Will Like: Paul Rhoads was born 10 minutes from Jack Trice Stadium and went to high school 20 minutes from ISU's home field.

KANSAS Off – *8/3 Def – 9/2   

TEAM THEME: BAD TUNA
Year III of the Charlie Weis Project began with an all-out spring battle for the QB spot with senior Jake Heaps (former starter at BYU) and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard the likely finalists. Weis has only four wins under his sizable belt in the two years since he left his position as offensive coordinator at Florida, and contributions under Bill Belichick in New England (helping lead the Patriot offense in three Super Bowl victories in a four-year span) seem like a hundred years ago. Rest assured, with 17 returning starters, including 15 Juco's from last year, Charlie will be out of excuses – and a job – if he doesn't deliver this season.

Stat you Will Like: The Jayhawks are 2-40 SU in their last 42 conference games.

KANSAS STATE Off – *6/3 Def – 5/2   

TEAM THEME: A FAMILY AFFAIR
Bill Snyder is a great football coach, posting 178 victories in his 22 seasons in Manhattan while earning National Coach of the Year honors five times. After losing the 2013 opener to North Dakota State, then beginning the Big 12 slate with three straight losses, KSU was 2-4 and going nowhere fast. Snyder made the necessary adjustments, and his kids got on a roll: six wins in the next seven games, culminating in a beatdown of Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. With QB-turned-WR Daniel Sam deciding to transfer, senior QB Jake Waters will lead the offense along with All-American receiver Tyler Lockett, who led the conference in all-purpose yardage in 2013. Yes, gramps couldn't be any more content.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: KSU is 64-4 under Snyder at Bill Snyder Family Stadium versus non-conference opponents.

OKLAHOMA Off – *7/4 Def – 9/4   

TEAM THEME: BOMBS AWAY
Outside of the Sooners' 13-0 national championship season in 2000, none could match the sheer excitement of last year's sky-high finish. After capturing the Big 12 championship over in-state rival Oklahoma State, the Sooners went to the Sugar Bowl as heavy underdogs to Alabama and smashed the Crimson Tide in a 45-31 rout. Since the conclusion of WWII, no school has a better winning percentage (.764) than Oklahoma, but Bob Stoops has improved on that number since taking over before the 1999 season, going 160-39 (.804). The emergence of QB Trevor Knight, with last year's early starting QB Blake Bell making the switch to TE, has the folks in Norman eagerly anticipating a big year. The defense will need to comply.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Sooners are 22-0 SU in games off a regular season loss since 2003.

OKLAHOMA STATE Off – 4/2 Def – 4/2   

TEAM THEME: LEAN GREEN MACHINE
This will be a very inexperienced team for Mike Gundy: only four starters return on each side of the ball in 2014, while a mere six players on the team have 10 or more career starts. One is QB J.W. Walsh, who was the starter early last year before losing the job to Clint Chelf, who has graduated. The defense has been absolutely decimated by graduation, as departed seniors accounted for 78% of the team's tackles in 2013. The season begins with the Cowboys Classic in Arlington versus the defending national champs, and closes with Bedlam in Norman against the Sooners. But how many wins the Cowboys can string together in between is the real question.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cowboys won the stats in all three of their losses last season.

TCU Off – 8/3 Def – 8/3   

TEAM THEME: MISSION FROGS
Now that the Casey Pachall days are finally over (re: drug/alcohol suspensions and injuries), Gary Patterson's Frogs can get back to business. Patterson brought in new co-coordinators during the off-season, Doug Meacham from Houston and Sonny Cumbie from Texas Tech, whose schools were both offensive powerhouses. They'll have a very deep group of tailbacks to work with, including leading rusher B.J. Catalon. Versatile Trevone Boykin, who stepped in often for Pachall at QB, will look to ignite the offense while the stop-unit lost just three players from a group that led the Big 12 in total defense. With two-time all-conference DB Sam Carter, this is a mission team that should not be overlooked.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Boykin was the only player in the country to have a 100-yard rushing, 100-yard receiving and 200-yard passing game last season.

TEXAS Off – *7/2 Def – 8/2   

TEAM THEME: PICKING UP THE ASHES
There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Charlie Strong (the only coaching change in the Big 12). Strong has laid down the law in replacing Mack Brown, insisting his Horns will be tougher and more disciplined. With eight starters back on defense, it should be noted his Louisville squad led the nation in team sacks per game (3.31) last season. He has big shoes to fill, however. Brown was 158-48 at Texas, including 98-33 in Big 12 games. His teams went bowling every year except 2010 and were 10-5 in those bowl games. He also led the Longhorns to the 2005 national championship. Meanwhile, QB David Ash returns after missing 10 games last year (concussion).  He's joined by RBs Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Jonathon Gray, giving the Horns an explosive trio of ball carriers.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: No Texas Longhorns were selected in the 2014 NFL Draft for the first time since 1937.

TEXAS TECH Off – *8/4 Def – 4/1   

TEAM THEME: ORGANICALLY GROWN BUZZ
Who knew cool involved this much work? 34-year old head coach Kliff Kingsbury gets to Tech's football office each day at 4:30 a.m. While admitting to a mild case of OCD, Kingsbury insists all details must be right, and he's getting a lot right, creating a strong buzz on campus. After playing musical chairs at the quarterback position last year, Davis Webb emerges as the starter in 2014 as both backups have transferred out. Four starters on the OL return, bringing stability to an aerial attack that averaged 393 YPG (2nd in the nation) last season. Kingsbury's long-term goals are mostly singular: Win a Big 12 title. "I don't plan on leaving until that gets done," he insists.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Raiders finished No. 121 in turnover margin (-1.1 per game) last season.

WEST VIRGINIA Off – *6/2  Def – 7/1     

TEAM THEME: LOOKING FOR THE RESET BUTTON
The Mountaineers' disappointing 4-8 effort last year is best described by three I's: Inexperience, Injuries and Inconsistency. The inexperience reverses in 2014 with 20 lettermen back on offense, including 14 players with starts last year. The attack starts with QB Clint Trickett, who missed spring camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Injuries wrecked the defense in 2013 but 13 players with starting experience are back on that side of the ball. A 6-14 mark in his last 20 games, along with a tough schedule in the early going (seven of first eight opponents went bowling last year) could leave Dana Holgorsen with a warm and fuzzy fanny.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: WVU is 19-5 ATS as a conference dog, including 9-0 ATS from Game Ten out.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 Conference USA Football Preview
Marc Lawrence
Playbook.com

Bowling For Dollars

C-USA matched its record by sending six teams to bowl games in 2013. The league finished 3-3 in bowls, giving the league an 11-5 mark the past three seasons in postseason play.

2013 also marked the first time in C-USA history that eight teams won six or more games in one season.

Globetrotters

Speaking of non-conference play, stepping outside the conference, members will play 17 regular season games against foes from the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the SEC.

In head-to-head games against these three super conferences, the CUSA stands 46-219 SU and 116-142-5 ATS since the inception the conference, including a super-scary 2-123 SU and 41-87-2 ATS in games in which they fail to score 17 points.

Against all other non-conference foes the loop stands 365-350 SU overall.

West Is Best

The C-USA East versus West division results had crisscrossed results every year in conference play from 2005 thru 2009.

That has changed of late as the West Division has dominated the East each of the past three seasons, going 10-5 in 2013, 10-9 in 2012 and 11-8 in 2011.

Turnover Forcing Machines

C-USA produced three of the top five teams in the FBS in forcing turnovers in 2013 with Tulane, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State finishing tied for 2nd, 4th and tied for 5th respectively.

Only the Houston Cougars forced more turnovers than did the Green Wave.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

East Division


FLORIDA ATLANTIC (Offense – *6/2 Defense – 6/2)


TEAM THEME: THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY
Charlie Partridge, who spent the last six years as a defensive line assistant for Bret Bielema, takes over as head coach at FAU after following Bielema from Wisconsin to Arkansas for the 2013 season. After Carl Pelini’s career went up in smoke (pun intended) amid illegal drug accusations, OC Bryan Wright assumed the interim HC position and won the last four games of the season. Wright was wisely retained as the OC in hopes of maintaining team camaraderie. QB Jaquez Johnson returns after showing continued improvement throughout the tumultuous season, and with his double-threat athleticism, the Owls can only continue to get better.

Stat You Will Like: The Owls were the nation's 3rd ranked team in pass efficiency defense last season.

FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (Offense – *9/5 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: THOSE WERE THE DAYS
Roll the clock back to 2011. An 8-5 season by the Panthers was capped by a 2nd straight bowl appearance and Mario Cristobal was being hailed as the next Joe Paterno. Life was good. And then it all came apart. Cristobal was canned a year later, the Paterno-Sandusky sex scandal rocked the football world, and subsequently the Panthers were back where they began – in the toilet. The biggest flush occurred when they gained 30 total yards against Louisville. Second-year coach Ron Turner likely relishes a record eight home games in 2014. Hey, behind a 2-0 start (Bethune-Cookman and Wagner), it could be time for another ‘All in The Family’ re-run.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2014 roster features 30 players that made a combined 202 starts in 2013 and 229 in their careers.

MARSHALL (Offense – *6/3 Defense – 8/2)

TEAM THEME: HERD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE
QB Rakeem Cato returns for his senior season after having been named C-USA Offensive Player of the Year last season and C-USA MVP in 2012. His go-to target, WR Tommy Shuler is one of only eight players in major college football history with two 100-catch seasons (no player has had three). The best news for head coach Doc Holliday, though, was an improvement by 20.2 points in scoring defense, and 88.1 yards per game in total defense, from 2012 to 2013. Expect a dynamite secondary this year as five of the top six DB’s are back. You read it here: A 13-0 season is not out of the realm of possibility this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Cato has thrown at least one TD pass in 32 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the nation.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE (Offense – 5/2 Defense – 8/2)

TEAM THEME: NOT STANDING STILL
Rick Stockstill, a former QB for the FSU Seminoles, enters his 9th season after guiding the Blue Raiders back to a bowl game last season for the 3rd time in the last five years when, after a sluggish 3-4 start, they rallied to a 5-0 finish. With the departure of QB Logan Kilgore, though, Stockstill will choose a signal-caller from a group of three athletic underclassmen, including his son Brent, a freshman this year. He also lost his top two WR’s and four offensive linemen. Through it all, Stockstill recruited eight JUCO transfers to help fill the holes. Always well schooled, the Blue Man Group finished No. 3 in the nation in fumble recoveries in 2013.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The 2012-13 Blue Raiders team became the first MTSU squad in 21 years to win eight games in back-to-back seasons.

OLD DOMINION (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 9/3)

TEAM THEME: NEW DOMINION
Excitement abounds in Norfolk as the Monarchs make the official jump into FBS waters. Much like Larry Coker at UTSA, HC Bobby Wilder has been with the program since its inception, building the team from the ground up. Wilder has led ODU to a 46-14 record in five years while winning the CAA Championship in 2012. QB Taylor Heinicke and his two primary targets, WR's Larry Pinkard and Antonio Vaughan, are legitimate All-American Candidates. The 2014 ODU squad also features four WR's who caught 40 or more passes last season. The C-USA home opener against MTSU is the Monarchs’ first-ever Friday night game and will be nationally televised. Be there.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Heinicke returns as the FBS active career leader in passing yards, passing YPG, TD passes, completion percentage and total offense.

UAB (Offense – 7/3 Defense – 8/2)

TEAM THEME: BLAZING SADDLES
With only three wins the last two seasons versus FBS foes, the Blazers are changing saddles in 2014, bringing Bill Clark in for Garrick McGee. Clark’s Jacksonville State squad enjoyed a record-breaking season last year as they won two games in the FCS playoffs. Clark will rely heavily on SO RB Jordan Howard who rushed for 881 yards on 6.1 YPR last season, the 2nd best mark of all freshmen in the nation. In addition, PK Ty Long finds himself on the Groza Award watch list this season. The stop-unit will need to do a better job, though, as UAB allowed the most red zone TD’s (47) in the nation last season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Blazers are 2-27 SU and 8-21 ATS in the last 29 games in which they’ve been outgained.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Offense – *9/4 Defense – 4/3)

TEAM THEME: CARDINAL CONNECTION
With Bobby Petrino going back to Louisville for a second go-round, the Hilltoppers turned their eyes to another ex-Cardinal to replace him. Jeff Brohm quarterbacked Louisville in the early 90’s, then spent time with five different teams in the NFL. He was elevated from the OC position he held last year with WKU, and will look to improve on a solid 8-4 season with the return of QB Brandon Doughty (65.8% completions) and all but two starters on his unit that set a school record for total offense (459.6 YPG). However, the defense is a different story as the entire linebacking corps, and three of the four members of the secondary, will need to be replaced.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Not one of Western Kentucky’s opponents this season is projected to be ranked among the nation’s top 50 teams.

West Division


LOUISIANA TECH (Offense – *6/1 Defense – 7/1)


TEAM THEME: SKIP BACKWARDS
Three seasons under HC Sonny Dykes and his prolific offense created plenty of excitement in Ruston, but after he abruptly left for Cal before last season, the program was in shambles. The result was a five-game digression to 4-8 in the first season under Skip Holtz, and things won’t be easily turned around anytime soon. Holtz also lost three defensive assistant coaches and replaced them with new DC Manny Diaz and two of Diaz’s former Texas cohorts. Diaz was fired last season after one bad game, and was essentially the scapegoat for Mack Brown, whose fanny was getting torched at the time. Skippy needs to stop the free fall, pronto.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Skip Holtz is 3-17 SU and 5-15 ATS in his last 20 games versus .500 or better teams.

NORTH TEXAS (Offense – 5/4 Defense – 4/0)

TEAM THEME: BACK TO REALITY
It all came together for Dan McCarney’s squad last season. The Mean Green’s 36-14 win over UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl gave North Texas a final record of 9-4, its highest total since 2002 and tied for second-most in school history. In addition, they were the 2nd ranked team in the nation in red zone defense and No. 4 in turnovers gained (+34). And for the second year in a row, the offensive line ranked in the Top 10 in the nation for fewest sacks allowed. The good news is four of the starting offensive linemen return. The bad news is only five other starters overall are back. Yes, it was nice while it lasted.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After going 1-16 the three previous seasons, North Texas is 12-5 at Apogee Stadium under McCarney.

RICE (Offense – 6/3 Defense – 6/2)

TEAM THEME: WE WERE THE CHAMPIONS
The Owls enter off a C-USA Championship in 2013, the first outright league title for the program since 1957. Rice also made back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 1960-61, and matched a school record with 10 victories while producing a league-high 10 all-conference players. What do they do for an encore? After winning 15 of their last 19 games – and upon the departure of QB Taylor McHargue – the Owls turn to QB Driphus Jackson who defeated Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl. It’s good news that the top two receivers return, and RB Charles Ross is explosive. Still, a treacherous September awaits the former champs.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Owls have not had three winning seasons in a row since 1948-50.

SOUTHERN MISS (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 8/3)

TEAM THEME: HUNKER DOWN, WE WILL PREVAIL
Sloppy play was their Achilles heel as the Eagles led the land in turnovers lost (38) last year. That’s to be expected when a 1st-year coach is forced to play 14 freshmen and sophomores among his 22 starters. Building for the future (read: this year), FR QB Nick Mullens threw a school record-tying five touchdown passes (and ran for another) while tossing for 370 yards in last year’s season finale, a 25-point win at UAB as 15-point underdogs. Along with their top two receivers, the Golden Eagles return two key players on defense who were lost for the season early on last year. Don’t look now but a sense of normalcy may finally be returning to Hattiesburg.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Golden Eagles started eight true freshmen last season.

UTEP (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 7/1)

TEAM THEME: DATA MINING
Sean Kugler’s first year in El Paso was a mixed bag. The defense was awful early on and the offense was late arriving, never a good formula when designing a winning game plan. QB Jameill Showers (a Texas A&M transfer) tossed for 15 TD’s and only 4 INT’s in seven games last season before going down with a shoulder injury. Meanwhile, RB Aaron Jones rushed for 811 yards on 155 caries in nine games as a freshman, and cohort RB Nathan Jeffrey chipped in with 532 rushing yards. After fighting through inexperience, health and depth issues last year, things figure to only get better for the Miners in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Miners are 4-38 SU and 9-32 ATS in the last 42 games in which they have been outgained in the stats.

UTSA (Offense – 9/5 Defense – 10/4)

TEAM THEME: LARRY THE ABLE GUY
Larry Coker has done a phenomenal job at UTSA since being hired in 2009 to build the Roadrunner program from scratch. His 15-9 record in the program’s two years of FBS play is impressive. What really has fans excited, though, are the 38 seniors who will dot the roster. That, along with 55 returning lettermen – including the entire offensive line plus all five backups – finds this squad firmly entrenched as the team to beat in the C-USA West division. Despite the loss of QB Eric Soza, this team is special, loaded with chemistry and experienced players that will provide leadership and familiarity. In the end, Coker should finally get the recognition he deserves.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Coker is 10-1-1 ATS in his career as a dog versus greater-than .750 opponents.

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2014 Independents Football Preview
Marc Lawrence
Playbook.com

It Was Nice Knowing You

After a brief one-year romance as Independents, Idaho and New Mexico State have shaken their Independent status and headed out for the sun… the Sun Belt Conference, that is.

That leaves just four Independent teams for the 2014 campaign – Army, BYU, Navy and Notre Dame. But you had better take a picture - quick - as the ever-changing landscape of college football is forever evolving.

BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall is now making a case for the Cougars' inclusion into the Big 12.

"We would love to be in the Big 12," Mendenhall told an Austin newspaper. "I would love to be a member of that conference. I think that would make a lot of sense." Mendenhall said if the Big 12 is interested in expanding, BYU would have lots to offer.

"Our attendance is high enough. And our winning percentage is high enough," Mendenhall told the newspaper. "We have the entire Salt Lake City and Utah market as well as a worldwide following because of the church. There'd be a ton to offer the Big 12 because it's a money-generated world right now. You're talking about an amazing kind of brand."

It makes so much sense it will likely never happen. Out best guess: say hello, PAC 12.

Self-Sufficient Dogs

Keep this thought in mind when handicapping the chances of three of these four INDEPENDENTS this season - Notre Dame, BYU and Navy: Collectively, under their current head coaches, namely the trio of Brian Kelly, Bronco Mendenhall and Ken Niumatalolo, shine in games when taking points with their current affiliations, going 52-31-1 ATS combined.

Better yet, the triplets are 35-11-1 ATS collectively as 'dogs in games in which their clubs own a win percentage of less than .666 on the season – including a jaw-dropping 27-2 ATS from Game Five out.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

ARMY (Offense - *9/3 Defense - 7/4)

TEAM THEME: YOU’E IN THE ARMY NOW
Jeff Monken, a triple-option disciple of Georgia Tech HC Paul Johnson whom he served under at both Tech and Navy before taking over at Georgia Southern, was named the new HC at Army on Christmas Eve. Hopefully, it will be a holiday gift for Army fans, who saw little-to-no progress in five seasons under Rich Ellerson. In his four years at the helm with the Eagles, Monken compiled an impressive 38-16 mark and took GSU to three straight semi-final appearances in the FCS playoffs. He will continue the option attack at Army along with his OC Brent Davis, who accompanies him to West Point, as nine starters return on the offensive side of the football.

Stat You Will Like: The Cadets are 3-23 SU and 6-20 ATS with rest vs. Air Force and Navy.

BYU (Offense - *8/5 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: WHITE BRONCO ON THE LOOSE
When Bronco Mendenhall took over at BYU in 2005 following three consecutive losing years, much was expected thanks to the strong tradition of the football program. Mendenhall has fulfilled those expectations by averaging 9.1 wins over the past nine years, taking the Cougars to a bowl game every season. He welcomes back exciting QB Taysom Hill, who accounted for 29 TD’s (19 passing and 10 rushing) while throwing for 2,938 yards and rushing for 1,344. The starting offensive line returns intact along with five other backups that saw a great deal of action, including several starts. Yes, Bronco’s on the loose again.

Stat You Will Like: The Cougars' 353 victories the past four decades trails only Nebraska, Oklahoma and Ohio State.

NAVY (Offense - *8/5 Defense - 7/2)

TEAM THEME: FULL SPEED AHEAD
After winning the Commander-in-Chief trophy for the ninth time in 11 years, Coach Ken Niumatalolo welcomes back 15 starters, including star QB Keenan Reynolds (15-6 as a starter). As might be expected from a disciplined military team, Navy led the nation in fewest penalties and penalty YPG (21.7), and finished tied with Louisville for the top spot in fewest turnovers (10). It all goes hand-in-hand with the Middies’ resurgence of late: after going 3-30 from 2000-02, they are 92-49 since – including 21-2 versus fellow military foes. And with it, Navy’s 21 wins versus BCS schools since 2003 are the most in the nation by a non-BCS team.

Stat You Will Like: Only Navy and Michigan have produced a Heisman Trophy winner, a Naismith winner and a President of the United States.

NOTRE DAME (Offense - 5/3 Defense - 5/1)

TEAM THEME: GANG GREEN
A tradition of success is the rule at Notre Dame: the Fighting Irish own the highest winning percentage (.733) in college football history. Brian Kelly will try to improve on that in 2014 with a team stripped of its star power. Kelly had won 10 straight games that were decided by 7 points or less since arriving in South Bend, a streak that was snapped last November by 7-point losses to Pitt and Stanford. The pain of rebuilding is eased somewhat by the return of QB Everett Golston, the 2012 starter who missed all of last season due to academic suspension. The defense lost two of its stars up front, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, plus three senior linebackers.

Stat You Will Like: Kelly is 20-5-1 ATS as a dog versus sub .900 opponents.

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2014 MAC Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Bye, Bye Birdie

Entering its 68th year of gridiron competition, the MAC once again welcomes 13 teams in an unbalanced conference.

That will change next season when UMass flies to the coop after a short three-year visit.

S.O.S.

When it comes to determining a team’s strength of schedule the common rule is weighing the record of each team’s opponent from the previous season. According to hustlebelt.com, the MAC teams facing the three most difficult conference schedules in 2014 are Kent State (35-29), Western Michigan (37-27) and Eastern Michigan (37-27).

The records are a composite rank each team's schedule of four home games, then rank schedule of four road games. The result is the combined two rankings.

The three easiest conference schedules belong to Buffalo (25-39), Northern Illinois (26-38) and Akron (29-35).

The top three and bottom three teams each clearly separate themselves out from the middle of the pack.

Bowl Fodder

After going 2-16 SU and 3-14-1 ATS in bowl games from the calendar years 2007-2010, the MAC rebounded the next two years when they won 7 of 11 bowl games while going 6-5 ATS.

It was right back to square one when 2013 rolled around, however, as the MACers have since suffered seven SU and ATS bowl losses in a row.

And speaking of facing non-conference opposition, when traveling on the non-conference road the lightweight MAC is a staunch 18-3 SU and 13-7-1 ATS laying points, including 8-0 SU and 7-0-1 ATS when coming off a conference game.

Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

East Division

AKRON (Offense - *7/2 Defense - 7/2)


TEAM THEME: HAVE SHOES, WILL TRAVEL
The shoes were in the car and the bowling ball was in the bag and ready to travel. However, despite battling Michigan, La-Lafayette and Northern Illinois late into the fourth quarter before succumbing by single-digits last year – and winning four of their final five games of the season – the Zips fell one game shy of bowl eligibility. They also managed an important win over neighborhood rival Kent State to claim the Wagon Wheel (where do you store something like that?). FYI: Freshman Fransohn Bickley, an all-state WR/KR from LeBron James’ alma mater St.Vincent-St. Mary high school, was the team’s No. 2 target last season. Bickley is 5' 6”, 138 pounds.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Defensive wizard Chuck Amato – long-time right-hand man for Terry’s daddy – is back to direct an aggressive stop unit.

BOWLING GREEN (Offense - *7/3 Defense - 5/2)

TEAM THEME: BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES
Aside from winning their first MAC championship since 1992, no other team in the land had their hands on the ball more than the Falcons last season, leading the nation in time of possession (34 minutes per game). They were also the 3rd ranked team in the land in red zone defense, and the 5th best team in scoring defense (15.9). Dino Babers brings his speedy offensive game plan to BGSU, one he perfected at Baylor, then implemented with great success at Eastern Illinois where he guided the top offense in the FCS to 589.5 YPG and 48.2 PPG behind star QB Jimmy Garoppolo. QB Matt Johnson (3,467 passing yards and 25 TD’s) is Dino’s next clean-up hitter.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Over the last two years, the Falcons were 18-1 SU in games where they won the stats, and 0-8 SU when they lost the stats.

BUFFALO (Offense - *8/5 Defense - 5/2)

TEAM THEME: BUILD ME UP, BUTTERCUP
HC Jeff Quinn not only lost his two biggest stars to graduation – MAC Defensive POY Khalil Mack and RB Branden Oliver, the school’s all-time leading rusher – he is also replacing four assistants in 2014. In addition, top WR Alex Neutz is gone, along with all-conference guard Jasen Carlson. On the defensive front, defensive backs Okoye Houston and Najja Houston have run out of eligibility, as has outside linebacker Adam Redden. The cupboard is not entirely bare, though, with eight starters back on offense, including QB Joe Licata. Due to two FCS foes on the schedule, Quinn will need to win seven games to go back bowling. That could be a stretch.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Quinn is 4-27 SU and 8-22-1 ATS versus greater-than .250 opponents.

KENT STATE (Offense - *6/3 Defense - 5/2)

TEAM THEME: LAMB CHOPS
The biggest drop-off for the Golden Flashes between 2012’s 11-3 success under Darrell Hazell and last year’s 4-8 struggle behind HC Paul Haynes was not in total offense – which decreased by only 20 YPG – but in points scored (33.1 PPG vs. 20.8 PPG last season). The Flashes are one of two MAC teams (UMass the other) without an FCS foe on the schedule this season. As a result a tough schedule, including a sacrificial lamb spot in Week 3 at Ohio State, pretty much guarantees a losing record heading into October. Haynes welcomes back QB Colin Reardon after a rollercoaster freshman season, but he will not have veterans Dri Archer or Tyron Goode as targets. Better news is the return of leading pass-catcher Chris Humphrey and top rusher Trayion Durham.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Flashes were outgained by 800 net yards the first six games in 2013. They outgained foes by 401 net yards the last six games.

MIAMI OHIO (Offense - 8/4 Defense - 7/2)

TEAM THEME: CLEANING HOUSE
A third losing season in a row – including a 0-12 effort last year – closed the door on the Don Treadwell era at Miami Ohio. Enter Chuck Martin, Miami’s 36th head coach. Martin comes to Oxford with a 74-7 career record while leading Grand Valley State to back-to-back National Championships in 2005-06. In addition, 14 new assistant coaches enter their first season at Miami. And while 15 starters are returning, expect a housecleaning there, too. A litany of disgusting performances took center stage in 2013, including the nation's worst red zone offense, 2nd worst in 3rd down conversion, and 3rd worst in sacks allowed… just to name a few.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Miami was 1-16 SU and 4-13 ATS versus .500 or greater opponents in the Treadwell era.

OHIO U (Offense - 4/2 Defense - 8/4)

TEAM THEME: BOBBIN’ AND WEAVIN’
The Bobcats will have a new look in 2014 for the first time in a while, as their two leaders for the past few years – QB Tyler Tettleton and RB Beau Blankenship – have graduated. The real problem, though, is Frank Solich’s teams seem to lose steam late in the season, finishing 1-4 in the 2012 regular season and 1-3 last year. Outside of the loss of three offensive linemen, five of the top six receivers, the top two rushers and a star quarterback, everything is fine in Athens. Seriously though, the defense, which was hampered by inexperience, brings back nearly everyone. Solich will be hard-pressed to extend OU’s 5-year bowl streak this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Solich is 5-0 ATS home off a SU underdog win in his college career.

UMASS (Offense - *7/4 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: WHIPPLE’S CRIPPLES
Mark Whipple, a former OC at Miami for two seasons under Randy Shannon and an offensive assistant in the NFL with three different teams, returns to UMass for his second go-round (HC in Amherst from 1998-2003) where his teams won 49 games in 6 years, including an FCS title in his first year. Whipple has a monumental task at hand, and he will try to rejuvenate a crippled program that went 1-11 each of the last two years – with both wins coming against teams that went winless in MAC play: Akron in 2012 and Miami (Ohio) in 2013. Whipple's prayers may have been answered with the transfer of QB Blake Frohnapfel – an academic grad eligible to play this season – to UMass after spending the last two seasons backing up the electric Rakeem Cato at Marshall. And speaking of transfers, the Minutemen have announced they are leaving the MAC in 2015. Good luck finding a new conference with open arms.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Minutemen play their home games at Gillette Stadium (home of the New England Patriots), which is a 100-mile drive from Amherst.

West Division

BALL STATE (Offense - 5/3 Defense - 6/1)


TEAM THEME: FLYING HIGH
Football fans and critics alike are recognizing the coaching prowess of Pete Lembo, who enters his 4th year at Ball State. The Cardinals are coming off a stellar 10-3 season, but Lembo will be tested with the loss of QB Keith Wenning (92 career TD passes and over 11,000 passing yards). Also departed are prolific receivers Willie Snead and Jamill Smith, although 1,000-yard WR Jordan Williams returns. All-MAC second-team RB Jahwan Edwards, who has rushed for 39 TD’s, is back too. But can Lembo fill Wenning’s big shoes? Says Bill Connelly of SB Nation: “If they could get a washing machine to fly, Pete Lembo could land it.” Case closed.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Ball State is the only Football Bowl Subdivision school in the nation to have upped its season win totals every year from 2010 to 2013.

CENTRAL MICHIGAN (Offense - *10/4 Defense - 8/2)

TEAM THEME: PUT UP OR SHUT UP
It’s now or never for Dan Enos to show that his program can take the next step to consistent winning seasons. This year’s schedule fits the bill: if any coach in the country had the chance to hand-pick one opponent each from the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences, they would most likely choose Purdue and Kansas. Hence, behind 18 returning starters, the Chippewas could likely enter conference play at 4-0. The defense lost just one starter each among the three groups (line, linebackers and secondary). The offense loses only one starter on the OL, but Cody Kater (missed 2013 with broken collarbone) and JUCO transfer Ryan Lamb will challenge. No excuses this year, Dan.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Chippewas are 2-14 SU and 4-12 ATS versus .500 or greater MAC opponents under Enos.

EASTERN MICHIGAN (Offense - 8/3 Defense - 5/2)

TEAM THEME: OUT WITH THE OLD… IN WITH THE NEW
After struggling through a miserable 2-10 season in which HC Ron English was fired in early November, the Eagles make a fresh start in 2014 with a new coaching staff headed by Chris Creighton, who led Drake University for six years where he went 42-22. Not only is the old regime gone, so too is its “The Law Of The Price Tag” motto. After opening at home against FCS opponent Morgan State, EMU will travel for three straight weekends, with road games against two of the nation’s top programs (Michigan State and Florida). Unfortunately, near-blue chip SO QB Brogan Roback will soon learn that EMU fought the law… and the law won.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Since 1990, EMU has finished with a winning record just once (6-5 in 1995).

NORTHERN ILLINOIS (Offense - 9/4 Defense - 5/0)

TEAM THEME: THE MISSING LYNCH PIN
The good news is that nine offensive starters return from the prolific unit that rolled up 519 YPG in 2013. The bad news is that the player who accounted for 65% of those yards has moved on. QB Jordan Lynch, who finished third in the Heisman balloting, has used up his eligibility and left a virtual sinkhole for HC Rod Carey to fill. In fact Lynch, who lost just one MAC game in his career, became the first QB in league history to beat two Big 10 teams in the same season last year. On the flip side, the linebacking corps is strong, but the defensive line and secondary need to be rebuilt. NIU – you’re on your own.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies are 15-0 SU and 12-3 ATS in their last fifteen road games.

TOLEDO (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 9/3)

TEAM THEME: ALL FUELED UP
HC Matt Campbell faces a problem most coaches would die for. “I feel we have more players who can help us on the football field than we’ve ever had before,” he says, as 16 returning starters, including six All-MAC performers, look to make amends for missing out on a bowl game last year for the first time since 2009. QB Logan Woodside replaces 3-year starter Terrance Owens and will play behind an offensive line that features four returning starters – all seniors – that was the stingiest in the land in sacks allowed (6) last season. In addition, nine returning starters anchor the defense. Says Campbell, “We are coming back in 2014 with a renewed sense of focus.”

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Lou Groza finalist PK Jeremiah Detmer has connected on 36 of his last 37 field goal attempts over the past two seasons.

WESTERN MICHIGAN (Offense - *5/4 Defense - 8/2)

TEAM THEME: FROM ZERO TO HERO
Last year at this time, hopes were sky-high with the arrival of dynamic HC P.J. Fleck. Unfortunately, when a new coach tries to implement his new system, Year One can seem more like Year Zero, as it is often not even a chance for a fair start. As a result, the Broncos became one of the worst teams in the FBS – they lost to Nicholls State and their only victory was a 31-30 win over UMass on a failed late 2-point conversion. Hope abounds as Fleck’s staff signed 14 Rivals.com three-star recruits. After using trial-by-fire for several of his freshmen last year, including MAC Freshman of the Year WR Corey Davis, Fleck is poised to make amends.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Broncos recorded the fewest team sacks (7) in the land last year.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 MWC  Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

We’re Back, Again

For the sixth consecutive year, the Mountain West sent at least five teams into postseason bowl games in 2013. The MWC has earned 62 bowl bids since 1999 and holds a 35-27 (.565) all-time record in those contests. However, the Mountain West finished with a 3-3 mark in postseason play in 2013, marking the third year in a row the league failed to post a winning bowl record (6-10 last three seasons).

Fresno State (11-2), Utah State (9-5), Boise State (8-5), San Diego State (8-5), Colorado State (8-6), UNLV (7-6) and San Jose State (6-6) all reached bowl eligibility, marking the ninth year in a row, and tenth overall, the MWC has boasted at least five bowl-eligible teams.

In fact, its .596 win percentage (28-19) in bowl games since 2004 is second only to the SEC’s .659 glossy (54-28) mark.

Newbies

The Mountain West has welcomed 22 new head coaches over the last 15 seasons, nine of which played in a bowl game in their rookie year.

Former BYU head coach Gary Crowton posted the most wins and highest win-percentage among the group with 12 victories and an .860 win percentage in his inaugural year in 2001. Utah State’s Matt Wells became the first to conclude his inaugural season by leading his team to the Mountain West Championship Game and a bowl appearance.

Two new head coaches debut this season: Bryan Harsin with Boise State and Craig Bohl with Wyoming.

We Won’t Back Down

The 2014 non-conference slate features 25 games against teams that earned bowl berths last season.

Six non-conference opponents finished ranked in last year’s final USA Today/Coaches’ and Associated Press Top 25 polls.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

Mountain Division

AIR FORCE (Offense - *7/2 Defense - 9/2)


TEAM THEME: A MAJOR FLYOVER
Talk about a difficult job. After winning 34 games in his first four seasons, and taking the program to six straight bowl games, Troy Calhoun is suddenly up against it. Between no redshirts, a successful Navy program siphoning off considerable talent, and government budget cuts, Calhoun has witnessed three years of regression. Ravaged by injuries, the Flyboys were forced to play a slew of backups last season, including four different QB’s. As a result, Air Force lost 10 games for the first time in the program’s history. Ron Vanderlinden, former Maryland head coach and LB coach at Penn State the last 13 years, arrives to shore up 2013’s dreadful defense.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Falcons were the worst team in the nation in Turnovers Gained (9) last season.

BOISE STATE (Offense - 5/2 Defense - 8/1)

TEAM THEME: A COMFORTABLE PAIR OF SHOES
An 8-5 record is perfectly acceptable at most schools, but not at Boise State. The school won 112 games during the double-oughts (2000-09), an unprecedented mark for any school since 1900. Now for the first time in eight years, the Broncos will head onto the blue turf led by someone other than Chris Petersen, who went 84-8 as HC from 2006-12. Fortunately, it's a familiar face, that of Bryan Harsin – who played his entire college career and then coached on the Bronco staff from 2001-10 (Boise went 61-5 during his tenure as OC from 2006-10). His staff is young with all sorts of ties to BSU. Petersen left some big shoes to fill. Harsin breaks in a new pair this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last 5-loss season for the Broncos was in 1998. They have averaged an 11-2 season since.

COLORADO STATE (Offense - *5/1 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
Jim McElwain, a Nick Saban disciple, welcomes back the top returning passer in the Mountain West, Garrett Grayson, who threw for 3,696 yards and 23 TD’s last season. Three of Grayson’s top four receivers are back as well, but someone will need to fill the shoes of Kapri Bibbs, who left early for the NFL draft, and the loss of four senior OL. Fortunately, the Rams will be playing two-thirds of their games in the state of Colorado. McIlwain will try to build on last year’s successful campaign that concluded with an incredible 48-45 win over Washington State, a game in which they were down by 15 points with 3 minutes to play in the New Mexico Bowl.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: CSU was the only team in the nation to end the 2013 season with a 3,000 yard passer (Grayson) and a 1,500 yard rusher (Bibbs).

NEW MEXICO (Offense - *6/3 Defense - 6/1)


TEAM THEME: THE NEXT STEP
The Lobos enter the 3rd year of a rebuilding plan masterminded by HC Bob Davie. Progress has been slow but the improvement is evident. “It’s time for us to take the next step and start to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” says Davie. The footprint on the team is its overland game, one that ranked No. 4 (308.8) overall last year. QB Cole Gautsche, who rushed for 872 yards last season, keys the offense. The problem is the Lobos owned the worst Passing Efficiency Defense in the nation in 2013. After enduring sanctions, New Mexico has a full 85-man roster for the first time since 2008, albeit only two 5th-year seniors on the squad.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Lobos have been outscored 7.1 PPG under Davie. They had been outscored 26.0 PPG the prior three seasons.

UTAH STATE (Offense - *4/1 Defense - 5/1)

TEAM THEME: CHUCKIE’S BACK
En route to winning back-to back-bowl games for the first time in school history last year, 1st-year HC Matt Wells was named MWC Coach of the Year. The Aggie defense did not appear to fall off much when Gary Andersen left for Wisconsin last year. After earning the top spot in the land in red zone defense in 2012, USU finished No. 6 last season. The big news this year, though, is the anticipated return of star QB Chuckie Keeton, a 3-year starter who missed the final seven games with a broken leg and knee injury last year. His backup, Darell Garretson, went 6-1 as a true freshman last year, including five straight wins to start his career.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies are 25-8 in their last 33 games, with the eight losses coming by a combined 48 points.

WYOMING (Offense - 7/2 Defense - 9/3)

TEAM THEME: A COWBOY COUP D’ETAT
To quote Bill Connelly of SB Nation, “Wyoming pulled off a coup by landing Craig Bohl as its new head coach.” The former HC at North Dakota State led his team to three consecutive FCS championships the last three years, going 42-3 in the process – including a season-opening shocker at Kansas State last year. A former DC at Nebraska (his alma mater), Bohl needs to desperately remold a defense that surrendered nearly 50 PPG in its final six games last season. Losing QB Brett Smith in an early out to the NFL hurts but returning the Cowboys’ leading rusher and wide receiver is certainly a huge plus. September road trips to Michigan State and Oregon are not.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cowboys were the worst-ranked team in the nation in Time Of Possession last season.

West Division

FRESNO STATE (Offense - 5/3 Defense - 8/1)


TEAM THEME: CARR TROUBLES
With the Derek Carr era now in the rear-view mirror, 2014 could be a very tough year for Tim DeRuyter in Fresno. The Bulldogs open with an ambitious schedule before the meat of the Mountain West slate kicks in. The defense remains nearly intact but the loss of Carr’s gaudy passing numbers (over 5,000 yards and 50 TD’s), and the three graduated receivers who combined for 33 TD catches, cannot be easily replaced. After a 10-0 start last season, Fresno saw a BCS bowl slip through its fingers, then suffered a throttling by USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. All things considered, the Bulldogs will be hard pressed to win a third straight MWC title.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Six of the eight returning starters on defense played in all 13 contests last season.

HAWAII (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 6/2)

TEAM THEME: YAP-A-LAKALAKA
Norm Chow heads into his third season as HC on the island of Oahu coming off a dismal 1-11 record. But the Rainbow Warriors weren't as bad as their record might indicate. In fact, we might even say they were the best 1-11 squad to come down the pike in a long time. You just couldn’t tell it in the win column. Consider: In Norm Chow’s first year at the helm with Hawaii in 2013, their 9 losses were by 31.1 PPG. Last year’s 11 defeats were by 13.0 PPG. With RB’s Joey Iosefa, Diocemy Saint Juste, and bruiser Steven Lakalaka – plus star DL Beau Yap – leading the charges, this team is certainly not lacking in name power.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Chow is 0-15 SU vs. greater-than .333 opponents, but 6-1 ATS vs. non-conferences foes.

NEVADA (Offense - *7/3 Defense - 10/4)

TEAM THEME: AULT HEIMER’S DISEASE
It’s not surprising that the Wolfpack regressed big time following the second retirement of Chris Ault. The inventor of the pistol offense reached a zenith in 2010 (Colin Kaepernick’s senior year) when Nevada went 13-1. But in their first season under Brian Polian last year, the Pack went 0-8 against teams with a winning record. Polian’s team got ‘rappykacked’ by UCLA and Florida State early in the year on the road, and finished with an 0-6 road mark. They’ll once again turn to SR QB Cody Fajardo, who threw for 2,633 yards and rushed for 762 more last year. His .678 career completion percentage ranks third nationally and is tops in Nevada school history.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wolf Pack was the only one of 42 FBS teams last season to finish with a positive TO margin and a losing record.

SAN DIEGO STATE (Offense - *6/3 Defense - 4/2)

TEAM THEME: SUNNY IN SAN DIEGO
For a football team that won 35 games between 2001-09, 34 wins over the last four years is especially notable. And after appearing in four bowls from 1969-2009, the Aztecs’ four bowls the past four seasons is downright inspiring. More impressively, they kept their bowl streak alive despite ranking dead last nationally in red zone defense – and fielding the 118th-ranked red zone offense. HC Rocky Long’s reliance on former head coach Bob Toledo (OC) and ex-NFL QB Brian Sipe (QB coach) speaks for itself. Quarterback Quinn Kaehler completed 232 of 389 passes for 19 TD's and 3,007 yards in 2013 and looks to have a breakout season this year.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aztecs were the only team in the nation to participate in four overtime games last season.

SAN JOSE STATE (Offense - 5/2 Defense - 8/4)


TEAM THEME: WITHOUT FALE(S)
After taking the program from 1-12 to 11-2 in three years, Mike McIntyre left San Jose and handed the keys to Rod Caragher, who slipped to 5-7 last season. Safe to say the injury bug bit the Spartans hard in 2013 when their leading rusher, wide receiver and linebacker played in a combined three games all year! Caragher faces a stiffer test in 2014 – namely life without star QB David Fales. The good news is Tyler Winston, the MWC Freshman of the Year, is back after snaring 58 receptions for 858 yards last season. In addition, RB Jarrod Lawson was the team’s leading rusher (788 yards) as a freshman in 2013. A deep front seven will anchor the defense.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Former Syracuse head coach and Michigan and Texas Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson takes over as DC for the Spartans in 2014.

UNLV (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 6/2)

TEAM THEME: NOT MAKING THE GRADE
With the team’s average APR score (925) falling 5 points short of minimum NCAA requirements, the Rebs were given sanctions: no postseason competition, replace four hours of practice time with four hours of academics weekly and have five days of football-related activities a week instead of six. Not what the program needed after finally crawling out from under a 6-32 rock by reaching the Heart Of Dallas Bowl last season. Biggest losses on the field this year include QB Caleb Herring (2,718 yards with 24 TD’s and 5 INT’s), and RB Tim Cornett (1,284 rushing yards with 15 TD’s). HC Bobby Hauck’s mission will be to somehow keep this squad glued together.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The offensive line returns 136 career starts among six players with starting experience.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 Pac-12 Conference Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Draft Lodgers

Behind talent level arguably at its best since expanding from eight teams to 12, a total of nine Pac-12 teams went bowling last season, up one from the 2012 season.

In the end, 34 players were selected in this year’s NFL draft, the 3rd most of all college football conferences. It brings the two-year tally to 62 players, also 3rd best of all conferences.

UCLA led the way this season with five players having their named called in New York City in April.

Count On Me

While returning starters is generally a good gauge for measuring a team’s potential each new season, an arguably more precise indicator is the condition of its offensive line.

Digging deeper, the amount of returning starts by the OL is perhaps the best barometer. Here is a look into the offensive line returning starts by each team in the PAC-12 this season…

North Division:
California – 51
Oregon – 107
Oregon State – 42
Stanford – 15
Washington – 124
Washington State - 33

South Division:
Arizona – 104
Arizona State – 60
Colorado – 59
UCLA – 88
USC – 53
Utah - 43

$ummer Recruiting Camp

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez calls them a shuttle service for recruits.

According to a report by CBSSports.com, virtually every major program hosts a summer camps as they are loophole for bringing in and impressing recruits while also a way for a program’s assistant coaches to earn a little extra money.

And because there is no NCAA limit on what a football program can pay an on-field guest coach at a summer camp it’s open to plenty of eyebrow raising. “Essentially what (schools) are doing is paying to bring prospects to their camps,” says Rodriguez.

Washington, under Steve Sarkisian, paid a total of $32,588.60 to its 29-person coaching staff for its Rising Stars camp in 2013, an average of $1,123.74 per coach.

Meanwhile Florida State paid 141 camp coaches nearly $71,000; Ohio State paid 147 coaches more than $50,000 combined; Oregon paid $3,000 for 20 coaches, an average of $150 per coach.

It’s been reported that Pac-12 coaches grumbled about Washington’s aggressive approach to summer recruiting in 2013.

Just wait until they get a whiff of what Sarkisian and Pat Haden will pay to bring recruits to Southern Cal next summer. It’ll likely be "Katie Bar The Door."

Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

North Division

CALIFORNIA (Offense - *9/4 Defense - 6/1)


TEAM THEME: LOADED FOR BEAR
On the heels of a 1-11 effort last season, Air Raid gunny sergeant Sonny Dykes is counting the days toward the 2014 campaign. On the offensive front, the Bears return a wealth of talent, including QB Jared Goff – who broke four Cal passing and offense records in his 12 starts as a freshman last year. The offensive line is loaded with eight players who shared starts last season. WR’s Chris Harper and Kenny Lawler, along with RB Khalfani Muhammad (led the team in rushing as a freshman), lead the attack. Dykes needs to pay closer attention to the defensive side of the ball, though, as his stop troops – that’s an exaggeration – surrendered 45.9 PPG, 2nd worst only to Idaho.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bears feature 33 experienced players totaling 193 starts.

OREGON (Offense - *9/5 Defense - 5/1)

TEAM THEME: CATCH US IF YOU CAN
Life isn't fair. Consider the crestfallen faces of the Pac-12 coaches outside of Eugene when they realized Oregon is bringing back nine starters from last year’s high-powered offense. Among those departed will be speedster De'Anthony Thomas and WR Josh Huff, both off to the NFL. QB Marcus Mariotta and his 4,380 total yards of offense will be back, along with 1,000-yard rusher Byron Marshall and 900-yard WR Bralon Addison – plus five starters on the O-line. Yikes. The defense, which has gotten little ink, limited opponents to 16 points or less in seven of Oregon’s 13 games, which was usually enough for the Ducks to win by 4 TD’s or more. Here we go again!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Ducks ranked 2nd-to-last in the nation in Time Of Possession last season.

OREGON STATE (Offense - *7/2 Defense - 7/1)

TEAM THEME: GNAWING BACK
After being stunned in last year's season opener, and then winning six games in a row, OSU HC Mike Riley was left with a gnawing feeling in his gut when his Beavers proceeded to drop five straight games to conclude the season. The up-and-down year culminated in a win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. The longest-tenured coach in the Pac-12 will look to senior signal-caller Sean Mannion, who should become the all-time passing yardage leader in conference history by mid-season. The loss of Biletnikoff Award-winning WR Brandin Cooks, who left early for the NFL draft, leaves a large hole, but Riley’s eight bowl appearances with OSU since 2003 can’t be understated.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Beavers have returned a total of 53, 60, 54, 51, 58 and 55 lettermen in each of the last six years.

STANFORD (Offense - *5/1 Defense - 7/2)

TEAM THEME: SHAW SHANK EXEMPTION
After replacing Jim Harbaugh, HC David Shaw has gone 34-7 (25-4 in the Pac-12) since being promoted from OC, gone to the Rose Bowl twice and finished in the AP Coaches Poll’s Top 10 at the conclusion of all three of his seasons. While the offensive line returns just one starter, Keith Hogan is back for his third season as starting QB, along with most of the receiving corps. RB Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the former Lions great – looks to replace Tyler Gaffney. On the other side of the ball, 5th-year senior LB A.J. Tarpley, who has played in all 41 games under Shaw, will be back to lead a defense that returns seven starters. And when it comes to winning big games Shaw takes a back seat to no coach in this loop with the Cardinal 5-0 in games against Oregon and UCLA the past two seasons.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Cardinal defense held seven foes to season low – or 2nd low – yardage in 2013.

WASHINGTON (Offense - 7/5 Defense - 7/4)

TEAM THEME: BUILDING A FOUNDATION
The Chris Petersen era begins at UW after the former Boise State HC landed the job he's always coveted. His 8-year career at Boise concluded with a 92-12 record and his teams never finished worst than 2nd in the WAC and Mountain West conferences. There are lots of question marks regarding this year’s Husky squad – the primary ones being who will replace Keith Price at QB, Bishop Sankey at RB and Austin Seferian-Jenkins at TE? Is he worried? Maybe Petersen himself said it best: “Talent can even sometimes be overrated. But unity and chemistry… never. We can’t take anything for granted. We’ve got to re-coach every, single thing.” And coach he will.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Huskies offensive line is the most experienced in the PAC 12, while the defense held six foes to season low – or 2nd low – yardage in 2013.

WASHINGTON STATE (Offense - *8/2 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: WELL-HEELED CATS
While owning the No. 4 passing offense (368.0) in the land last season, the Cougars were also the 2nd worst team in the country in turnovers lost (35). As a result, despite going bowling, Wazzu has now gone 10 straight years without a winning season. They will look to turn the corner this campaign, though, as Mike Leach is loaded, folks… and we don’t mean spiked alcohol-levels. Senior QB Connor Halliday, who lit up the stat sheet with 4,597 yards passing and 34 TD’s, welcomes back his top EIGHT receivers while a Cougars’ stop unit that forced 30 turnovers, the most for the program since 2006, is largely back on the prowl.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Leach is 22-4 SU and 21-3-2 ATS at home in lined games when his team owns a .600 or less win percentage.

South Division

ARIZONA (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 6/1)


TEAM THEME: KA’ BOOM!
After consecutive 8-5 seasons in his first two years at Arizona, Rich Rodriguez was hoping to get one more season out of his star RB Ka’Deem Carey. It wasn’t to be, however, as the junior declared for the NFL Draft after ending his Wildcat career with 16 straight games rushing for over 100 yards. Rich Rod must also deal with the graduation of QB B.J. Denker. The latter will be the more difficult chore, with both of Denker’s backups having departed as well. Most of the offensive line returns intact, but much of the defense will need to be re-tooled. And boom, just like that, Rich Rod is once again behind the 8-ball.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wildcats are 1-16 ATS as favorites during the regular season from Game Ten out.

ARIZONA STATE (Offense - *6/3 Defense - 2/1)

TEAM THEME: #UNFINISHED BUSINESS
Last season was outstanding for the Sun Devils… until December. After getting slapped around by Stanford in the Pac-12 Title game, Todd Graham’s team settled for an appearance in the Holiday Bowl, where they lost 37-23 to Texas Tech – as 17-point favorites! Obviously, Graham will focus on the 10-2 start rather than the latter pair of defeats. QB Taylor Kelly will be back to run Graham’s high-octane attack after consecutive 3,000-yards passing seasons. His favorite target, WR Jaelen Strong, returns after a debut season that earned him All-Pac-12 Second Team honors. Along with dual threat RB D.J. Foster, the offense appears potent. The defense? Now that’s another story.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Sun Devils ranked No. 123 (worst) in the nation in net punting (32.25) last season.

COLORADO (Offense - *7/3 Defense - 8/3)

TEAM THEME: FLOOD PANTS
Mike MacIntyre got off to a great start in his first season with the Buffs, winning his first two games, including the opener against in-state rival Colorado State. After flooding caused massive devastation to the community, Colorado incurred three idle weeks in between contests. Suddenly, football didn’t seem quite as important and the Buffaloes won just two games the rest of the way. In 2014, former Air Force starting QB Jaleel Awini transferred to Colorado and will battle incumbent Sefo Liufau and JUCO transfer Jordan Gehrke for the starting spot. Until they improve a defense that allowed 53 scores (3rd worst) in the red zone last season, little else matters.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Buffaloes have not been ranked in the Top 25 since November of 2005.

UCLA (Offense - *8/3 Defense - 8/2)

TEAM THEME: JACK UP THE ATTACK
After starting six freshmen in a road win at Arizona late last year, the Bruins are loaded for bear – pun intended – in 2014. JR QB Brett Hundley threw for 24 TD’s last year and rushed for 11 more. The top two RB’s also return, along with two of the top three receivers. On defense, LB Myles Jack impressed football fans around the country last year as he played both ways in several games and ran for 4 TD’s against Washington. In addition, LB Eric Kendricks is also back after leading the Bruins in tackles the last two seasons – plus four starters in the secondary who combined for 51 starts in 2013. Yes, this is one well-heeled group.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: QB Hundley has accounted for at least one TD in all 27 games of his UCLA career.

USC (Offense - *8/3 Defense - 7/3)

TEAM THEME: CHINESE WATER TORTURE
To infer the Trojans endured a turbulent season in 2013 would be like saying the U.S. owes China a few bucks. The Lane Kiffin to Ed Orgeron shift looked masterful until it was decided the program would be in better hands with former assistant Steve Sarkisian, who had previously bolted from USC for Washington in 2009. The decision did not sit well with Orgeron who stormed-out an angry man. If all this sounds like a So Cal reality show, it is. All will likely be forgotten, though, should Sarkisian’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense mirror a Trojan defense that last year was ranked in the Top 25 across the nation in eight defensive categories – including the No. 1 red zone defense.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Sarkisian was 22-3 as an offensive coordinator with the Trojans.

UTAH (Offense - *6/3 Defense - 5/2)

TEAM THEME: AT WHITT’S END
HC Kyle Whittingham, the 2008 National Coach of the Year, has participated in more Utah victories than any football coach in school history. But after joining the Pac-12 in 2011 and notching an 8-5 season, the Utes have suffered through consecutive 5-win campaigns. In 2014, they must play all seven Pac-12 squads that defeated them last year, plus road tilts against the two opponents they vanquished. Meanwhile, QB Travis Wilson, who started the first nine games last season before being lost for the year with a concussion, will try to return to renew his prolific connections with senior WR Dres Anderson (son of Flipper Anderson).

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Two former head coaches, Dennis Erickson and Dave Christensen, are members of the Utes’ offensive staff.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 SEC Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Here We Go Again

According to Scout.com’s top 100 prospects of the 2014 recruiting class, 37 of the nation’s top players committed to SEC schools.

The Big Ten and the ACC secured 17 prospects each, the Pac-12 snagged 16 and the Big 12 landed only seven.

The SEC brought in 21 five-star athletes. The Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 combined to bring in 21 five-star athletes.

And therein lies the primary reason for success in the SEC.

No Argument Here

If ever an argument of who the best football conference in the country is begins to get out of hand, the case quickly closes shut with this staggering fact: At least one SEC player has been selected in each of the past 153 rounds of the NFL draft, dating back to 1993, with a whopping 55 picks chosen in the first three rounds of the last two drafts.

When C.J. Mosley went to the Ravens with the 17th pick, Alabama’s skein of having a player selected in the top 10 ended at five years – tying Southern California for the longest streak ever.

LSU had nine players drafted this year - the same number as last year.

The Cincinnati Bengals picked three SEC players this year, extending to 17 the consecutive drafts in which they've selected an SEC player. It's the longest current streak for any NFL team.

And finally, when the Houston Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the South Carolina defensive end became the 18th SEC player to be the No. 1 choice, thus cementing the SEC’s case as the most fertile football breeding ground in the land.

If that’s not evidence enough after winning 7 of the last eight national titles, and 8 of the last eleven, the SEC is finished the BCS era 9-1 in title games.

When projecting a national champion this year, keep this sobering thought in mind: Ten of the last 12 BCS champions have owned a Top 10 ranked defense.

Thus, as we’ve come to learn, the SEC builds elite defenses with waves of athletic defensive linemen.

Ante Up

It’s also no coincidence the SEC produced 6 of the nation’s 12 highest-paid assistant coaches last season, including two - Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU John Chavis – who earn more than a $1M per season.

What’s more stunning is that the average assistant payroll of 13 SEC teams last year - Vanderbilt is a private school and did not disclose its coaches salaries - was $3.8M, with LSU and Alabama writing the largest checks at $4.57M and $4.46M respectively.

Indeed, this is the SEC’s world. We just live in it.

Parting Ways… Get ‘Em While they’re Down

Last year the SEC placed 5 quarterbacks in the season ending national Top 12 passer ratings.

All five are gone, with only half of the teams in the conference featuring returning starting QB’s in 2014.

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

East Division

FLORIDA (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 7/4)


TEAM THEME: GATOR AID
How bad was the Florida offense last year, you ask? Aside from suffering their first losing campaign at the school in 34 years, the Gators ended the season ranked No. 119 in red zone offense. The question is how do the Gators ignite an offense that had no fuse last season? For openers, a 3rd new OC in as many years - Kurt Roper (Duke) - welcomes the return of 6’4 235 QB Jeff Driskel (broke his clavicle in Game Three against Tennessee last year). Driskel is fast and always a threat to run from Roper’s spread offense. First and foremost, though, they will need to stretch defenses with a passing game. Look for a bounce-back season in Gainesville from the red-faced Gators.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last Florida receiver to surpass 570 receiving yards in a season was TE Aaron Hernandez (850) in 2009.

GEORGIA (Offense – 6/2 Defense – 8/2)

TEAM THEME: A KNEE-DEEP FEAT
Mark Richt survived a terrible run of injury bad luck to his skill position guys last season, but still took the Bulldogs to a bowl as he has done every year in his career at Georgia. WR Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his ACL in the opener, was one of three starting receivers to go down the first half of the season, forcing three walk-ons into the starting lineup. RB Keith Marshall – who with Todd Gurley formed the ‘Gurshall’ tandem – blew out his knee and played in only five games. The crowning blow was star QB Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury. QB Hutson Mason, a shining star in his two starts, steps into Murray’s big shoes. On the defensive front, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (Florida State DC last season) welcomes back 8 starters, including the entire linebacker corps. Beware of the Dawgs.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: 28 of the Bulldogs 45 losses under Richt have been by 7 points or less, including 10 of the last 15.

KENTUCKY (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 8/2)

TEAM THEME: OUR DAY WILL COME
Hopes were high for the Wildcats last season after the arrival of HC Mark Stoops, but fell woefully short in a 2-10 campaign, no thanks to facing nine foes that produced winning records in 2012, including all five away games. Sixteen returning starters – the most in the program since 2000 – would be cause for optimism, except that their stats from 2013 are pedestrian, to put it nicely, and the two wins they managed came against the likes of Alabama State and Miami Ohio. Still, Stoops exceeded expectations by having the 2nd-ranked recruiting class in the SEC this off-season, snatching 4-star 340-lb lineman Matt Elam from the grasp of Nick Saban.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wildcats have lost 17 straight road games, going 4-13 ATS in those games.

MISSOURI (Offense – 4/3 Defense – 4/3)

TEAM THEME: WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN
It was an incredible year for Gary Pinkel’s squad as they came within a play or two from meeting the Seminoles in the national title game. Nobody predicted anything close to that for the Tigers after a 5-7 season in 2012. Nobody that is, except for us… here’s the quote from last year’s preview: “After facing the toughest schedule in the nation last year, look for the rejuvenated Tigers to put a serious bite on the SEC this season.” Personnel losses are heavy this year, though: QB James Franklin, top rusher Henry Josey, leading receiver L’Damian Washington, top tackler Andrew Wilson and sackmaster Michael Sam have all departed. Welcome back, Maty Mauk.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers held every foe, other than Auburn, under its season rushing average last year.

SOUTH CAROLINA (Offense – 8/4 Defense – 6/2)

TEAM THEME: NOT QUITE COCK SURE
Three consecutive 11-2 seasons – not bad for the ‘Ol’ Ball Coach’, although Steve Spurrier himself prefers to be called the ‘Head Ball Coach’. OBC, HBC… potato, po-tah-toe… if the OBC hopes to do that again, he will need to overcome the loss of not one, but two All-American defensive linemen in Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcey Quarles – and the departure of QB Connor Shaw (28-5 as a starter). New starting QB Dylan Thompson was Shaw’s backup over the last 2 1/2 seasons but saw plenty of playing time, going 3-0 as a starter. Speaking of experience, the ‘Cocks bring back the highest percentage of returning lettermen of any team in the land. That’s likely to perpetuate the fact that Spurrier has suffered only one losing season against the spread (2007, 5-6 ATS) in his tenure with Carolina.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Gamecocks are 15-0 SU and 8-4 ATS in their last fifteen non-conference games.

TENNESSEE (Offense – *5/0 Defense – 5/0)

TEAM THEME: ROCKY FLOP
Butch Jones’ inaugural season in Knoxville was disappointing, for sure. The Vols did beat South Carolina last year, their first victory over a ranked team since 2009, but that was really the only highlight of an unsatisfactory 5-7 campaign. The Tennessee program has lapsed into mediocrity since the departure of Phil Fulmer – the fact that the Vols’ 2-6 record last year in the SEC was their best since 2010 is all you need to know. Three straight 5-7 seasons is just not going to cut it in Rocky Top. Behind a green team with nary a returning starting lineman in sight on either side of the ball, look for their woes to continue.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vols are 1-22 SU in their last 23 games versus ranked opponents.

VANDERBILT (Offense – 6/4 Defense – 4/2)

TEAM THEME: NOT SO VANDY
With James Franklin moving on to Penn State, Derrick Mason takes over in Nashville. Mason spent the last four seasons as the DC at Stanford, and brought in former UCLA HC Karl Dorrell as his OC and QB coach. Top rusher Jerron Seymour returns for his junior season after scoring 14 TD’s last year, but the entire starting defensive secondary will need to be retooled. The rejuvenated Commodore program has now gone to a bowl game in three consecutive seasons, winning nine games the last two years, and proving to get better with each passing season. The consequence of that success is a plethora of avenging foes waiting in the wings.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Commodores are 0-13 SU and 2-11 ATS in Game Six of the season

West Division

ALABAMA (Offense – 7/2 Defense – 5/1)


TEAM THEME: CRIMSON SLIDE
Mystery is a constant when trying to predict the plans of Nick Saban, as apparently there are six candidates to replace QB AJ McCarron, including Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Whatever the final decision may be, there is some margin for error as the running game will again be prolific with the return of T.J. Yeldon and several other experienced backs. Through it all, Bama comes off back-to-back nightmare losses to end last season. Surprisingly, there was a precedent to last year’s finish: the last time the Tide finished a season with a pair of losses, Alabama rolled to Saban’s first of three national titles at the school with a 14-0 mark. College football had better beware!

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last time Alabama was an underdog was in the 2009 SEC title game versus Florida – 55 games ago.

ARKANSAS (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 7/1)

TEAM THEME: A KICK IN THE ASS
After winning three consecutive Big 10 titles and playing in three straight Rose Bowls with Wisconsin, new HC Bret Bielema was literally knocked on his keister when, following a 3-0 start with the Razorbacks last season, Arkansas failed to win a game the rest of the way. An 0-8 record in the SEC was distressing, but five Freshmen All-Americans should provide relief. In fact, underclassmen made 98 starts and accounted for 90% of the Hogs' total offense. Hopefully that experience, along with star RB's Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, will provide the impetus needed to resurrect an offense and a defense that have both gone south each of the last three seasons.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Razorbacks tied with Notre Dame for 2nd fewest sacks allowed (8) last season.

AUBURN (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 6/2)

TEAM THEME: HOP ON THE BUS, GUS
The Tigers’ quick turnaround under Gus Malzahn last season was truly amazing. After the 2010 national championship season under Gene Chizik with Cam Newton as his QB and Malzahn as his OC, the Tigers bottomed out at 3-9 in 2012, resulting in Chizik’s firing. Malzahn – and his hurry-up attack – was hired in 2013 and he immediately led Auburn to the BCS title game where a Jameis Winston TD pass with 13 seconds to play put an end to the Tigers’ fairy-tale season. QB Nick Marshall returns with a slew of talented players, sans All-American RB Tre Mason and OT Greg Robinson. Notice has been served: Gus’ bus is revved up and ready to roll on.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Gus Malzahn is 15-0 ATS as a head coach after facing a conference opponent.

LSU (Offense – 6/4 Defense – 7/2)

TEAM THEME: NEXT MAN UP
Outside of the season opener in Houston against Wisconsin, LSU's non-conference schedule is cushiony-soft, a far cry from the SEC gauntlet that Les Miles runs every season. Regardless, the bar is set high once again in Baton Rouge despite heavy personnel losses. Gone are All-SEC performers like QB Zach Mettenberg, receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, plus RB Jeremy Hill on offense, along with defensive stalwarts such as LB Lamin Barrow and DT Anthony Johnson. That would be enough to wipe out most teams. Still, Tiger fans are excited to welcome talented FR RB Leonard Fournette (another Michael Jordan claims Miles) and will expect nothing less than a 15th straight bowl appearance and another 10-win season, just like the previous four campaigns.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers had 9 players drafted each of the last two years (most of all FBS teams).

MISSISSIPPI (Offense – *6/2 Defense – 9/3)

TEAM THEME: DEEP FREEZE
Hugh Freeze enters his 3rd season at Ole Miss with a dependable field general leading his offense in SR QB Bo Wallace, who has compiled over 7,000 yards of total offense in his career (a school-record 3,701 last season). Wallace’s favorite target will be Laquon Treadwell, who caught 72 passes while garnering SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. Meanwhile, the defense brings back all but two starters, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt (71 tackles plus 6 interceptions) and the Nkemdiche brothers – Denzel and Robert – who combined for another 69 stops. Sixty returning lettermen in 2014, and 59 last year, speak to the depth of this dangerous squad.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freeze is 20-2 SU and 16-3 ATS in games versus .500 or less opponents.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 8/3)

TEAM THEME: MULLEN IT OVER
After manhandling Rice in the Liberty Bowl to record a 4th straight winning season, the Bulldogs will benefit in 2014 from a soft early-season schedule that should have them rolling as they shift into their SEC campaign. Dan Mullen heads into his 6th season at the helm in Starkville and welcomes back sixteen returning starters, including dynamic QB Dak Prescott and his entire receiving corps. Prescott threw for nearly 2,000 yards and rushed for over 800 more in a breakout sophomore season – and overcame a shoulder injury in the Egg Bowl to engineer the game-winning drive in OT against archrival Ole Miss. Beware of the Bulldog.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bulldog offense set 7 school records last season, including total yards, passing yards, yards per game and passing yards per game.

TEXAS A&M (Offense – 5/4 Defense – 9/4)

TEAM THEME: JOHNNY BE GONE
The Johnny Football era at A&M has concluded with plenty of fanfare and excitement. Truth be known, Kevin Sumlin must be breathing a sigh of relief at some point. But not for long… there are many stars to be replaced, including a trio of NFL 1st round selections. Senior QB Matt Joeckel was right in the mix to replace Manziel, but he transferred in the spring to TCU. It’s the defense, though, that needs drastic improvement and while the return of nine starters on that unit is hopeful, ranking in the bottom 30 in many defensive categories just won't cut it, especially in the SEC. We’ll certainly learn a lot about Sumlin’s coaching ability this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies played 20 first-time players, including 15 true freshmen, in their season opener last year.

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Re: College Football Conference Previews

2014 Sun Belt Football Preview
By Marc Lawrence
VegasInsider.com

Trips To Win

Owners of three consecutive seasons with no less than nine victories - including three straight New Orleans Bowl wins in three years by Mark Hudspeth – Louisiana Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns has become the one constant in the ever-changing Sun Belt Conference.

A spicy attack, led by senior dual-threat quarterback Terrance Broadway, the league preseason offensive player of the year and a Davey O’Brien watch list candidate, finds Louisiana as the team to beat in 2014.

And with it a grand slam certainly looks to be in the offing.

Take A Look At Me Now

After losing Western Kentucky and gaining Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State, the new-look Sun Belt Conference

And this year the Sun Belt champion is eligible for a New Year’s Day bowl bid. In addition the conference has tie-ins with up to four bowls this season with the New Orleans, GoDaddy and Camellia bowls the other three. The league adds the Cure Bowl in 2015 and the Miami Beach and Bahamas bowls in 2016.

In addition, the ‘Fun in the Sun’ guys currently owns a winning bowl record in games played since 2007, going 10-7 SU (2-0 SUATS last year), including 5-0-1 ATS as dogs.

A recently signed contract with ESPN guarantees the Sun Belt new radiant exposure on the programming giant through the 2019 season.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Sun Belt was among the top-mid-major conferences in 2013, going 8-1 against the Conference USA, the Mountain West and the MAC.

Major non-conference clashes this season include Louisiana at Ole Miss and at Boise State, Arkansas State at Tennessee and at Miami Florida, and South Alabama home versus Mississippi State and away at South Carolina.

Two particular disturbing stats, however: 1) Sun Belt teams are 14-137 in game against former BCS AQ (Automatic Qualifier) teams the last seven years, and 2) in total, six Sun Belt teams were either in the Football Championship Subdivision or participating as an independent within the past three seasons.

Show Me The Money

According to USA Today database of salaries for NCAA FBS head coaches, former Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino led the SBC in total pay last season at $855,000.

Bothe Petrino and the Hilltoppers have departed, moving Louisiana-Lafayette boss Mark Hudspeth to the top of the earning ladder.

Coach Hud’s pat as it stands now averages $1.075 million over six years, making the six-year total $6.45 million, not including supplements, incentives or retention annuities.

Here is the list of who earns what in the Sun Belt:

Mark Hudspeth, ULL, $950,000
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State, $700,000
Larry Blakeney, Troy, $480.000
Trent Miles, Georgia State, $450,000
Joey Jones, South Alabama, $435,000
Dennis Franchione, Texas State, $400,000
Paul Petrino, Idaho, $390,000
Doug Martin, New Mexico State, $363,000
Todd Berry, ULM, $306,000
Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern, $300,000
Scott Saterfield, Appalachian State, $225,000

Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.

APPALACHIAN STATE (Offense - *9/5 Defense - 7/2)

TEAM THEME: MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS
The Mountaineers have a storied history in the FCS, becoming the first team to win national titles in three consecutive seasons (2005-07) since Division-1 Army in 1944-46. But the glory years at ASU under 24-year HC Jerry Moore are now history as Scott Satterfield stepped in last season to guide the transition to the FBS. Satterfield, a former walk-on QB at the school in the early 90’s, posted a 4-8 record in his inaugural campaign, the Mountaineers’ first losing season since 1993. This season opens with a trip to Ann Arbor, where Michigan will be ready for revenge from the monumental upset in 2007 that put Appalachian State on the cover of SI. Gulp. Nonetheless, ASU is picked to finish 7th in the loop this season. We wouldn’t disagree.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Mountaineers are not eligible for a bowl appearance until next season.

ARKANSAS STATE (Offense - 4/2 Defense - 8/1)

TEAM THEME: HERE WE GO AGAIN
Forget Oxford. Jonesboro has become the Cradle of Coaches after seeing five coaches in five years do a great job, then move on to a higher profile school for fame and fortune. Bryan Harsin is the latest HC to follow in the footsteps of Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze, and leave the Red Wolves high and dry after a 7-5 campaign to go back for the top job at his alma mater, Boise State. Blake Anderson steps in as HC No. 6 since 2008 after coming over from North Carolina, where he served as Larry Fedora’s OC. With a non-conference schedule that features Tennessee, Utah State and Miami (FL), we’re betting Anderson fails to make it 6-for-6.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Red Wolves are 20-3 SU and 17-6 ATS from Game Six out the last three years.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN Off – *8/3 Defense – 7/1)

TEAM THEME: PUTTIN’ ON THE FRITZ
The Eagles finished off the year strong in their final FCS season, winning their last three games to go 7-4. However, it was the win over Florida in the Swamp to close the year that put the cherry on top of the sundae. Willie Fritz takes over this season, coming from offensive powerhouse Sam Houston State. SHSU was the only FCS school to average over 40 points in each of the last two seasons with a rushing offense that ran for 5.7 yards per play and scored 79 TD's last season. It fits like a glove with the Eagles’ powerful overland game. Look for GSU to shine in its initial foray in the Sun Belt this season.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Eagles rushed for 360 YPG last season, the highest in the nation among FCS or FBS teams.

GEORGIA STATE (Offense - *5/3 Defense - 5/1)

TEAM THEME: THAT WHICH IS MEASURED, IMPROVES
When the Panthers hired 'Coach Whisperer' Trent Miles to revitalize a downtrodden team, they knew the deal. The fledgling program had gone from 6-5, to 3-8, to 1-10 in three seasons… and it was time to enter the FBS waters to boot. Enter Miles who, after going 1-22 his first two years at Indiana State, led ISU to three winning seasons in a row before his hire at GSU. His first season with the Panthers mirrored his first year with the Sycamores, 0-12. If success is measured in increments by past performance, a 1-win effort this year would fit the profile. With the new Cure Bowl an eventual goal, it’s time to get the measuring stick out.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Georgia State was one of three Sun Belt teams since 2002 to go winless, joining Western Kentucky in 2009 and Florida International in 2006.

IDAHO (Offense - 8/4 Defense - 7/2)

TEAM THEME: JUCO VISION
After being outscored 46.8 to 18.2, and out yarded by 157 YPG, en route to a 1-11 mark in his first season with the Vandals, HC Paul Petrino went out and immediately signed 16 JUCO transfers for his 2014 recruiting class in hopes of making quick progress in a tough undertaking. The offensive line returns four starters and 100 career starts, while exciting WR Dezmon Epps (980 receiving yards last year) is back for his senior season. The bad news is the annual Idaho athletic budget ($4M) pales next to Alabama’s athletic resources ($123M), and is less than 60% of what Nick Saban earns. It’s the cost of doing business in Moscow as opposed to Tuscaloosa.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Minus two winning seasons under Rob Akey in 2009-10, Idaho has gone 22-108 since 2001.

LA-LAFAYETTE (Offense - *8/4 Defense - 8/2)

TEAM THEME: CHANGIN’ CAJUNS
Louisiana or La-Lafayette. Take your choice. Whatever, you call them, just don’t call them late for a bowl game, as Mark Hudspeth has recorded three straight 9-4 seasons and three straight New Orleans Bowl victories. FYI: ULL is one of only twelve FBS programs to own at least nine wins each of the past three seasons. QB Terrance Broadway, who suffered a broken wrist and missed the last two regular season games before returning for the bowl win over Tulane, is one of sixteen returning starters including running back Alonzo Harris, a Doak Walker watch list candidate. The athleticism, the experience and the depth will pay dividends on the field, and Hudspeth’s expertise on the sidelines may complete the picture. Should they hold up their end in Sun Belt play, a spot in the Cotton Bowl may not be so farfetched. Call them whatever you may. We call them dangerous.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Hudspeth is 7-0 ATS as a dog versus winning opponents.

LA-MONROE (Offense - 6/3 Defense - 9/3)

TEAM THEME: FOR PETE’S SAKE
Many have no idea what to expect from ULM in 2014 as a spring battle was being waged between several non-descript QB candidates to replace Kolton Browning. Then, in early May came the announcement that Pete Thomas was transferring to ULM from NC State. Thomas has basically washed out at two schools (Colorado State was the first) despite throwing for nearly 6,000 career yards. The flip side is 30 interceptions in 30 games versus just 22 TD passes. The defense suffered very few losses and should show much-needed improvement. Todd Berry, the former HC at Army, is instilling a new aggressive attitude in Monroe and it’s beginning to show.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: ULM was the nation’s 2nd-worst ranked team in red zone offense last season.

NEW MEXICO STATE (Offense - 7/4 Defense - 4/1)

TEAM THEME: WHERE THE SUN DOESN’T SHINE
The Aggies will play for the first time in the Sun Belt Conference in Doug Martin’s second season at the helm. Martin’s first season in Las Cruces did not go well as the Aggies lost their first seven games before finishing the campaign 2-3, with wins over Abilene Christian and a 1-11 Idaho program. Martin is considered a quarterback mentor, and he will need to summon all of his talents in finding a suitable replacement for Andrew McDonald, who threw for nearly 2,500 yards in his senior season. The defense has nowhere to go but up after allowing 44.6 PPG and 549.5 YPG – the worst of all FBS squads.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies allowed seven foes season-high yardage last season.

SOUTH ALABAMA (Offense - 8/4 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: ON THE PROWL
HC Joey Jones, the former Alabama WR who played under the great Bear Bryant, enters his seventh season after a solid 6-6 campaign. Jones will have plenty of experience returning in 2014, including his entire defensive secondary and four offensive linemen who started last season, plus a 3-year starter in OL Melvyn Meggs, who sat out last year after an offseason injury. JJ also brings back two receivers that set a school record with 50 receptions last season: WR Shavarez Smith and TE Wes Saxton. Saxton’s 50 catches for 635 yards ranked him in the Top 5 among the nation’s tight ends. The Jaguars look to be bowling in 2014.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After committing 18 turnovers in conference play in 2012, the Jaguars committed 6 turnovers in 7 conference games last season.

TEXAS STATE (Offense - *8/4 Defense - 4/0)

TEAM THEME: 9-1-1 MAKEOVER
The Bobcats begin their 4th year in Dennis Franchione’s second stint at the school, and their third season since moving up to FBS play. Texas State earned bowl eligibility in 2013, but thanks to a 2-5 Sun Belt record – and the loss of three straight games to end the season – the Bobcats stayed home for the holidays. However, this year’s schedule is conducive to landing a post-season spot, especially if dual-threat QB Tyler Jones can stay healthy after missing four games last season as a freshman. The defense must be rebuilt, especially the DL, which must start from scratch – causing Franchione to feverishly dial up the 9-1-1 JUCO hotline.

STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Franchione’s 203 career wins ranks him among the Top 5 of active FBS head coaches.

TROY (Offense - 6/3 Defense - 6/1)

TEAM THEME: BY THE BOOK
When a team loses a 4-year starting QB (Corey Robinson) who was one of only four quarterbacks in college history to finish with four seasons of 3,000 yards passing, it generally becomes panic-time. Not for HC Larry Blakeney, the 2nd-winningest active coach in career victories at his current school. Instead, he’ll simply retool behind a deep, experienced offensive line. The defensive line suffered serious attrition (due in part to the tragic death of DE Jadarius Garner in the offseason), but Blakeney signed four JUCO linemen in a pinch, and the secondary is deep. A 3-year bowl absence will end if the defense comes around. Book it.

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